Soviet Harassment During the Berlin Airlift

 The Airlift was the first battle in the Cold War and it largely established the rules of engagement.  Most importantly, both parties avoided direct military confrontation, preferring proxies and indirect means of fighting. Thus, although the Soviets could easily have stopped the Airlift by shooting down Allied aircraft, they instead sought to interfere using tactics that fell short of outright hostilities.

 

One obvious Soviet harassment tactic was to try to interfere with Airlift aircraft navigation. Many British and American pilots reported the jamming of the radio frequencies used for the vital ground-to-air communications, either by blasting a monotone sound over the airwaves that blocked out other transmissions or by filling the air with ceaseless Russian chatter. Fortunately there were many frequencies that could be used and pilots knew how to switch rapidly. Less frequent was the Soviet use of devices that confused radio compasses. These were particularly dangerous according to some Airlift pilots but apparently not well developed because the use of the tactic was sporadic and inconsistent.

A more common Soviet tactic was an attempt to distract aircraft with flares, particularly at night. Another frequent tactic were efforts to blind Airlift pilots with search-lights. These were often turned on just as an aircraft turned onto final approach. Gatow was particularly susceptible to this kind of harassment since the Soviets controlled the territory immediately surrounding it. The British considered the tactic “amateurish” since all their pilots could fly on instruments, and one could simply pull down the blinds and ignore the outside lights altogether.

More serious were the frequent incidents of Soviet “manoeuvres” held in the vicinity of the corridors. These resulted in both ground-to-ground and ground-to-air weapons being fired within the corridors themselves, often directly in front of Airlift aircraft. No less than 55 Airlift aircraft recorded hits by Soviet ground fire. In addition, “manoeuvres” gave the Red Air Force an excuse to fly through and over the air corridors as well. A favourite practice was for pairs of Soviet fighters to circle high over the corridor and then dive down toward their firing range or “targets” through the stream of transport aircraft on their “conveyor” belt in the air. General Tunner sympathized with his pilots: “It’s a helpless feeling when, as you’re grinding along in a cargo plane, a MIG suddenly screams down out of nowhere to miss you by a few feet, but there was nothing we could do but sit there and feel helpless.”[i]

Of course, some Soviet fighters took the game a little farther. With or without orders they either formatted on the transport aircraft, or more commonly, made mock attacks on them, often from head on. This entailed speeding down the air corridors in the opposite direction at the stream of transport aircraft and then pulling up at the very last minute. Given the fact that an over-confident Soviet fighter engaged in such antics had caused the crash of a BEA airliner in early April, it was clear that such “games” – even if not intended to bring down aircraft and possibly not sanctioned by the Soviet authorities – were dangerous.

These manoeuvres required a high degree of skill on the part of the Soviet fighter pilots and as such added an extra thrill to their exercises and flying, which they undoubtedly enjoyed. Their pleasure was likely enhanced by the thought of discomfiting the “warmongering capitalists” in their insidious effort to undermine Soviet peace efforts. In the latter regard, however, they would have been disappointed. To former bomber crews, used to flying in formation and holding course and speed on a bomb run while being targeted by flak and fighters, the Soviet harassment was not all that intimidating. As one former RAF pilot, flying with a civilian carrier during the Airlift, put it:

We were aware of the possible dangers and most of us experienced in various degrees the harassing tactics of the Soviet aircraft which, contrary to corridor rules, formatted on Airlift aircraft or manoeuvred in the corridor. [But] for the most part I think we were hardened to losses by our wartime experiences which had instilled us with a ‘it will not happen to me’ attitude.[ii]

In any case, as Tunner had said, the Airlift pilots had no choice but to take it – and so again they often pulled down the blinds on the cockpit windows and flew by instrument.

The British do not appear to have kept records of these incidents – perhaps because there was no central office to report them to, given the large number of civil companies involved. The Americans, however, recorded the following incidents of Soviet harassment between August 1948 and August 1949[iii]:

  • Search lights: 103;   
  • Close flying: 96; 
  • Radio interference: 82; 
  • Buzzing: 77; 
  • Flares: 59;  
  • Ground fire hits: 55; 
  • Flak: 54;  
  • Chemicals/smoke: 54;  
  • Air to ground firing: 42;  
  • Ground explosions: 39;  
  • Bombing: 36;  
  • Air to air firing: 14;
  • Balloons: 11;  
  • Rockets: 4

To be fair, the Western Allies did not always fly by the book themselves. Due to navigation problems, a fair number of USAF aircraft did stray out of the corridors and fly in Soviet-Zone air space. In poor conditions in the congested air over Berlin, RAF pilots even encountered C-54s flying the wrong way in the middle of their own approach pattern. There are also legends of pilots enjoying a detour at low level over the Unter den Linden, and “many a crew cheered itself up on a dreary return journey at night by picking on a Russian barracks, throttling down and dropping to 300 feet or less, then opening up the engines hard to climb again and make sure everyone was woken up….”[iv]


[i] William Tunner, Over the Hump, Office of Air Force History, 1964, p. 185.

[ii] Captain Roy Day, letter to the author, Sept. 10, 2005.

[iii] Arthur Pearcy, Berlin Airlift, Airlife, 1997, p.104.

[iv] Ann and John Tusa, The Berlin Airlift, Sarpedon, 1998, p. 180.

 

NOTE: The content of this blog post is based on Helena P. Schrader. The Blockade Breakers. Pen & Sword, 2008 

The Berlin Airlift is the subject of Bridge to Tomorrow, a trilogy of novels starting with Cold Peace, winner of Silver in the 2023 Readers' Favorites Book Awards.



Berlin 1948

In the ruins of Hitler’s capital, former RAF officers, a              woman pilot, and the victim of Russian brutality form an air ambulance company. But the West is on a collision course with Stalin’s aggression and Berlin is about to become a flashpoint. World War Three is only a misstep away.

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