I was back from school for Christmas when my father knocked on my bedroom door, thrust a book into my hands and declared with soldierly gruffness: “I think you should read this.” Expecting it to be a manual explaining the facts of life — it was the 1960s — I was taken aback when it turned out to be Know Your Enemy, a volume full of useful stuff about the East German military and the Red Army and their massed tank divisions pointing their barrels at us. More interesting in many ways than a how-to-do-it sex book.
It certainly made for intriguing family conversations. As a teenager my father had grown up with the idea that Britain was standing shoulder to shoulder with the Russian people against the Nazis. So one of the first questions he had to address as a young adult was when does your ally become your enemy? The issue hasn’t disappeared. It still informs the way we think about shifting geopolitical loyalties and alignments.
The sharp-eyed narrative historian Giles Milton charts this transition from the Yalta conference in February 1945 to the breaking of the Soviet blockade of West Berlin in May 1949.
When in Crimea
At Yalta, the American and British delegations were impressed by, even a little bit in awe of, Stalin. President Roosevelt, waxen and distracted, tried to impress the Soviet leader by showing him how to make a martini, adding that he would normally have added a twist of lemon. The next day Stalin had a huge lemon tree with 200 ripe lemons flown in from Georgia. Stalin was the leader who made things happen. (A sozzled Churchill brought with him several hundred bottles of Rhineland wine, a case of 1928 Château Margaux and 1,000 bottles of gin and whisky — “Good for typhus, deadly on lice”.)
At the end of the eight-day summit, Stalin won everything he wanted: territorial gains at Japan’s expense, a foothold in northeast China, no serious challenge to his control of eastern Europe including Poland and unconditional German surrender, trial of war criminals, disarmament and reparations. Churchill drank to Stalin’s health: “We feel we have a friend whom we can trust, and I hope he will continue to feel the same about us.”
Fat chance. One of Yalta’s decisions was to carve up Berlin. The Russians would get the historical core, Berlin’s whole government complex. The Americans and the British got airports (the Americans the huge Tempelhof airfield) but chiefly the leafy suburbs and the plushest villas. The Russians arrived first of course, took Hitler’s bunker and in the seven weeks they had before the US and British (and eventually the French) set up shop, looted the city.
“Take everything from the western sector of Berlin,” ordered one senior Soviet official. “If you can’t take it, destroy it. Don’t leave anything to the Allies. No machinery, not a bed to sleep on, not even a pot to pee in!” Milton calls it the greatest looting spree in history. Gigantic canvases by Caravaggio and Cranach, Byzantine altars, 7,000 Greek vases, 1,800 statues — many of course plundered by the Germans in the first place — were crated for transport to Moscow, only for some of the trains to stop with their load because the rail tracks too had been ripped up by the Soviet army.
Milton, whose works include Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare and (my favorite) Wolfram: The Boy Who Went to War, tells this story through the eyes of the chiefs of the Kommandatura — the heads of the four Berlin zones of occupation. All were logistics experts, rough and ready problem solvers. The most completely realized is Frank “Howlin’ Mad” Howley, an American colonel who had run the smashed port of Cherbourg after the D-Day landings in June 1944 and had gone on to organize the feeding of five million Parisians after its liberation.
Howley had been an American footballer until he broke his pelvis in a bike crash. He had taught himself five languages, studied fine art at the Sorbonne and built up an advertising company in the Great Depression. For him, Berlin was to be the greatest challenge. The city’s gas, sewerage, water and electricity networks did not correspond to the sectors drawn up by the great powers. The farmland that fed Berlin was already in the hands of the Russians.
Gigantic canvases by Caravaggio and Cranach, Byzantine altars, 7,000 Greek vases, 1,800 statues — many plundered by the Germans in the first place — were crated for transport to Moscow.
Howley’s British counterpart was Brigadier Robert “Looney” Hinde, a cavalryman who played polo with such skill in Rawalpindi that he was selected to represent Britain at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. On the Normandy battlefields he had snapped up rare butterflies in a matchbox. Hinde and Howley did not get on at first but bonded over wild boar hunting as they geared up for their Berlin mission.
In the rubble of the defeated German capital they found a city that, in Hinde’s words, “was on the brink of the worst scourge of disease and pestilence since the Middle Ages”. They brought in tons of DDT to kill the lice, five million units of insulin, a huge tank of diphtheria anti-toxin. The bombed-out houses were cleared. And a new kind of normality returned. Nightclubs sprang up for the soldiers. Fraternization with German women was forbidden (the watchwords were: copulation without conversation doesn’t count as fraternization).
The British and American soldiers found themselves with immense, if temporary, power. “A night with a German girl cost five cigarettes,” Milton writes, “25 packets purchased a state-of-the-art Leica.” The British ration was 50 cigarettes a week. It is imperative, ruled Hinde, “that the conscience of all British personnel must be clear”.
Howley drove around town in a requisitioned black open-topped Horch, a superb car, and began to feel that he was the master of his chunk of the city. But he soon found himself in conflict with the Russians and with his own superiors who insisted that the relationship with the Soviet officers had to be one of cordial co-management. Instead, he found that the Russians were trying to lever out the Western allies. “I had come to Berlin with the idea that the Germans were the enemies,” he wrote. “But it was becoming more evident by the day that it was the Russians who really were our enemies.” Should he follow Washington’s instructions or his own instincts?
Fraternization with German women was forbidden (the watchwords were: copulation without conversation doesn’t count as fraternization).
“It’s got to work,” said his superior General Lucius Clay of the four-nation Allied Control Commission. “If the four of us cannot get together in running Germany, how are we going to get together in an international organisation to secure the peace of the world?” It was the right question, but it was plain to those involved in the everyday running of Berlin that the eastern sector was being turned into a Communist preserve — and that the western parts were becoming an island in a sea of red. Churchill’s powerful Fulton speech of 1946 identifying the iron curtain running through Europe, the discovery of a network of Communist agents spying on the western efforts to develop a nuclear bomb, the rigging of Berlin elections: all this pointed to a systematic challenge.
The Soviet blockade of Berlin between 1948 and 1949 is expertly told by Milton, as is his account of the air bridge built by some extraordinary Allied pilots who had to dodge Russian fighters. It needed 1,800 flights a day to keep the Berliners alive, with a plane landing every 96 seconds at each of the two western airports.
This is a book full of heroes. Due credit is given to Ernie Bevin, Dean Acheson and the like, but Howley takes the starring role. Milton dug long and deep in Howley’s private papers at the US Army War College’s archives in Pennsylvania and has spun a good yarn about a gifted man who followed his gut. More than that, he has demonstrated to military historians everywhere that wars, hot, cold and hybrid, are won and lost by logistics. Wherever a big war breaks out next — a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, perhaps, or yet another Russian misadventure — the lessons learned in Berlin won’t have lost their relevance.