February 23, 2017

1949. The "Little Blockade" of Berlin

Showdown at the Helmstedt-Marienborn Checkpoint
A crowd gathers at Stuttgarter Platz in the Charlottenburg locality of Berlin to celebrate the lifting of the blockade as buses prepare to leave for Hanover. The sign reads "Hurrah we still live," May 12, 1949 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

July 10, 1949

Russian orders for strict control of all truck traffic through the Soviet zone to West Berlin today has this city talking about another blockade.

The main autobahn from Hamburg to Berlin has been closed to trucking since Friday night, and to the south, crossings from Frankfurt and the Munich areas also have been banned. It isn't a blockade, strictly speaking, since the Helmstedt crossing point directly west of Berlin is allowing traffic through.

Immediately outside the city, the East German police again are erecting roadblocks to control truck shipments from the East. No fresh vegetables are being allowed there to the West Berlin sectors.

The only explanation of this increased regulation of shipments into the western parts of the city is that the Russian military government wants to stop the circulation of West Marks in their zone, and the present economic "cold war" between the competing zones to increase as far as possible the difficulties now facing the Western German industry and economy.

On the propaganda side of the East-West economic struggle, the so-called "free shops" in the Soviet zone—those uncontrolled stores where food, clothing, and scarce household goods are legally sold at black market prices—have announced that they are cutting prices forty to fifty percent. As the Communist press tells it: "This is a tremendous step forward, as compared with the Western zones where every fourth worker is unemployed or doing part-time labor . . . where bankruptcies are increasing."

In Munich yesterday, US High Commissioner John J. McCloy said that he would make a full investigation into reports that a number of former Nazis have infiltrated the West German administrations we have set up under military government. The investigation will center in Bavaria, where nationalism is most overt.

And a final note of political frustration: a group of politicians who have fled their jobs in the Soviet zone of Germany because of their trouble with the Communists are forming an organization. They met in Frankfurt yesterday, and one of the questions discussed was the formation of an exile government for the Soviet zone. It would be a German exile government of a government within a government within a government. You figure it out.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

July 11, 1949

Berlin has another "Little Blockade" on its hands today. Over the weekend, Russian authorities closed down truck traffic on eight of the nine main highways connecting this city with the West, and today they have put drastic restrictions on the only remaining route, limiting trucking to four vehicles per hour through the Soviet checkpoint at Helmstedt.

British authorities already have made the official protests. The Russians announce that an answer explaining their reasons for the new transport limitations is on its way to British headquarters today. The reply has not yet been received.

But whatever the Russian explanation, American authorities charge that the transportation restrictions are a clear violation of the New York agreement to lift the Berlin Blockade and normalize life in this city.

German truck drivers report that Soviet soldiers are inspecting every bit of cargo; that these inspections are so slow that only one truck can clear the Helmstedt checkpoint every fifteen minutes.

In one case this morning, a driver had to unload his entire freight for inspection by the Russian soldiers. This held up traffic for more than an hour. Normally, about sixty trucks can clear the border crossing an hour.

The deputy military commanders for the three Western Powers are expected to make further protests today, and if the matter is not cleared up satisfactorily, the problem probably will be turned over to the four governments involved.

The railroad traffic into the city is normal, as is barge traffic. The airlift continues to operate at full capacity. The trucks bring about one quarter of Berlin's supplies.

American, British, and French authorities are taking a very serious view of this latest Soviet move.

The modus vivendi era of good feelings appears to have lasted about one week. The pressure on Berlin has not been lifted. The pressure, it would appear, has only shifted.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

July 12, 1949

We are now awaiting word as to the fate of three airlift fliers, the crew of a Vittles plane that crashed and burned at 3:00 AM this morning in the Russian zone.

An American rescue party is in the vicinity fifty miles west of Berlin but has not yet located the wreckage. It is not known whether the crew succeeded in bailing out.

The C-54 plane was flying from the Celle Air Base in the British zone of Berlin. It was carrying ten tons of coal. Other airlift pilots said the ship burst into flames when it hit the ground.

Berlin's blockade troubles—the reason, incidentally, that American and British fliers are risking their necks here—well, the Little Blockade of Berlin is in its third day.

The Russian border guards are allowing only one truck through every fifteen minutes and giving each cargo a thorough inspection. However, the Soviet officers are under strict orders to slow down traffic and are operating strictly by the clock to allow only four trucks an hour to proceed to Berlin. More than three hundred trucks were lined up this morning waiting to get through.

The letter explaining the restriction of traffic which the Russian military government promised to deliver yesterday still has not shown up. However, the Communist newspaper Tägliche Rundschau carries a story this morning which will probably be the Soviet excuse for imposing the Little Blockade.

The paper said that Russian authorities were forced to shut down all but one border crossing point because truck drivers are wandering throughout the Soviet zone and carrying on black market trade. The drivers are charged with speculating with illegal West Marks to do this, thus endangering the economy of East Germany.

In a half hour from now, the four Berlin commandants will hold their first meeting under the Paris modus vivendi agreement. The purpose is to discuss normalizing the Berlin situation. The Little Blockade probably will be brought up, but it is considered unlikely that the situation will be settled on the Berlin level.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

July 13, 1949

Western authorities today are considering countermeasures against the Russian-imposed Little Blockade of Berlin as Soviet border guards continue to restrict truck traffic to this city to an average of four vehicles an hour.

American transportation officials would not confirm that the countermeasures under discussion meant a re-imposition of the Western counter-blockade. But both British and American officials regard the arbitrary Russian action as a serious violation of the Paris and New York agreements to return Berlin to normal.

A showdown may come tomorrow when a convoy of sixty US Army trucks carrying food supplies to the Berlin garrison will appear at the Helmstedt crossing point under orders to proceed to this city. The army truck convoy is described as a transport training maneuver and the first of a series of "weekly exercises." It is under military police guard, however neither the MPs nor the GI drivers will be armed if and when they drive through the Russian zone tomorrow.

Army truck-borne supplies to the Berlin military post would take considerable pressure off the airlift deliveries and leave more space on the planes for West Berlin stockpiles. The Russians are not being officially informed of the approach of the military convoy. They are traveling under US Army military orders.

This morning 320 German freight vehicles were lined up awaiting permission to pass through the checkpoint. From midnight to nine o'clock this morning, thirty-nine trucks were allowed through—this is slightly more than four an hour—however, this morning the Russian guards cut the average to three an hour, presumably to make up the difference.

In a reply to the British protest yesterday, the Soviet authorities said they had no knowledge of truck transport difficulties at the Helmstedt crossing point. Closing all but one crossing point en route to Berlin was merely following specifications of a Four Power agreement for this type of traffic. Western officials said they know of no such agreement.

As one German truck driver observed: "The whole thing smells fishy to me." His truck has been standing in line for two days with a load of fresh herring from Hamburg.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.

Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

July 14, 1949

Hundreds of freight trucks are roaring into Berlin from the West today as the unpredictable Russians suddenly lifted their Helmstedt traffic restrictions last night rather than face a possible showdown caused by the arrival of an American military convoy.

I just returned from Helmstedt a few hours ago and I saw sixty 10-ton US Army vehicles pass across the Soviet zonal border after being held up less than a minute while Army officers presented military orders to proceed to Berlin. The convoy is carrying supplies for the Berlin garrison, but technically officials say it is only a transport training exercise which the Army intends to practice every week by a convoy to the Berlin military post.

The Russian authorities, who since Saturday have been restricting German freight traffic to one truck every fifteen minutes, suddenly ended their Little Blockade at Helmstedt at about 6:30 last night. It was a half hour before the American convoy arrived a mile away to bivouac for the night. More than two hundred German trucks were lined up at the time. Then the German trucks began to be allowed through as fast as possible—about one every three minutes.

At six o'clock this morning only some fifty trucks were left in the line and the big 10-wheeled American trucks moved.

It was like the war days of the Red Ball Express that started in Normandy. The trucks were driven by Negro GIs of the crack 595th Transport Corps. Sure, the trucks were spick-and-span and washed and polished, but as they roared down the autobahn on this mission to Berlin it made my memory jump.

That's what every smart man did when you saw a Red Ball convoy rolling toward you, and that's what the Russians did this morning.

However, the Soviet military government has not climbed completely down from its arbitrary position of hindering truck traffic into this city. Helmstedt is still the only Western border point where truck traffic is allowed to cross. The half-dozen other Western crossings are still closed. And there is no guarantee that the Russians will not re-impose their slowdown traffic restrictions at any moment.

We will have to see just how permanent is this partial lifting of the Little Blockade.

This is Bill Downs in Berlin. Now back to CBS in New York.