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Shot at by Soviets as we broke Berlin blockade

By Black Country Bugle  |  Posted: June 20, 2014

  • RAF cadets at the British Berlin Airlift Memorial recently

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THE COLD War. Everyone alive today who was born before 1991, when the Soviet Union was broken up, lived through that threatening, uneasy and yet largely conflict-free period.

Everyone who lived through the fifties, sixties, seventies or eighties will remember the vague, but very real fear of World War Three, the nuclear armageddon which promised to be a briefer, but much more final conflict than any before it, if the powder keg of East-West relations was ever ignited by a stray spark.

Mercifully it never happened, the two super powers never came to blows, and perhaps for that reason the military history of that long, tense period can often be overlooked. There were after all two World Wars fought in that same century.

But the RAF Museum at Cosford has in recent years made a world-class attraction out its Cold War collection, highlighting the fact that some of the most astounding leaps in aircraft technology were made in that era.

It's not just the military hardware though that Cosford are keen to show to the public, impressive though they undoubtedly are. Every serviceman and woman who served post-Second World War has their own stories to tell of that long, nervous stand-off, and the museum is now facilitating the telling of those stories first hand to the schoolchildren of the 21st century.

Local schools are invited into the museum, just outside Wolverhampton, near Albrighton in Shropshire, and have the Cold War brought vividly to life by former RAF personnel who share their experiences. As part of the school curriculum it's something they all need to know, and it's all made much more real when you can chat to someone who has dodged Russian bullets.

That man is Brian Conway, now in his eighties, a Wolverhampton lad who joined the RAF the year after the Second World War was won, and found himself at the sharp end of the Western-Russian tensions when he was posted to Berlin in 1948.

With Britain, the US, France and the Soviet Union dividing Germany up between them in 1945 to keep the peace, there was much mistrust between the Allies and the Soviets. Though the German capital Berlin was equally divided into four, one for each country, it was right out in the middle of the Eastern part of Germany, an island in Soviet territory. On June 24, 1948, with the aim of gaining complete control of the Berlin, the Soviet powers blocked off all land access to the Allied powers, effectively blockading the city and cutting off all supplies bar their own.

The Allied response was swift and pragmatic. With road, rail and canal links severed, they would fly supplies in to Berlin; a move which the Soviets had gambled would be too expensive and too impractical to sustain. No one was sure if it would work, and there were no guarantees that the Russians wouldn't shoot the planes down, but within two days of the blockade beginning, British and American planes were carrying supplies into Berlin, and young Brian Conway, Aircraftsman 1st Class, was up there in one on June 26.

"I was involved on the first day," Brian told The Bugle, "loading, unloading, making sure things were in the right place. We were mostly carrying flour, coal, and occasionally medical supplies.

"I was in Transport Command, 252 Squadron, based at Abingdon. But when we went out to Germany I was at RAF Wunstorf, on Avro Yorks, and the occasional Dakota. The York was based on the Lancaster bomber, converted to a transporter, with a much wider body.

"We all knew the siege could happen, but no one knew when. We'd had a bit of a chance to get some planes together, but nothing like what we needed.

"The first day we flew there was rain and low cloud. But then it became hot and dry, and we were so busy that we slept out in the open, under the wings. It wasn't too bad, apart from being disturbed by fitters and maintenance crew.

"We were going all day and all through the night – unlike the Americans, who hadn't had the training for night flights."

Despite transporters such as the York having a capacity of ten tons, there was a very real danger that the Soviets would be proved right; the airlift may well be a hopeless enterprise, a mere gesture of defiance. Berlin would require something like 5,000 tons a day in food and fuel combined, and in the first week of the airlift the British and Americans combined were managing only about 90 tons, up to about 1,000 by the second week.

But with determination, streamlining of the system, a few lessons quickly learned from experience and the help of German civilians on the runways of Berlin, 1,500 flights each day were dropping 5,000 tons of coal, petrol, and food into the sieged city each day after just a month.

"It was non-stop," recalls Brian. "We needed 150 ground staff, and we had thirty. We barely had time to eat, so we were given sandwiches to take with us. But you can imagine what they looked like when you were loading and unloading a plane full of coal. It got everywhere. There's a York here at Cosford, and I'm told when they took the floor out they found coal underneath."

At the end of the war, the Allies and Russians had agreed a deal to keep three air corridors open across Soviet-controlled East Germany to allow access to the British, US and French sectors. Now, with the airlift put into action, the Western forces just had to hope the Russians would stick to the letter of the agreement.

"They did shoot at us some of the time," says Brian. "The odd one was shot down. I remember one of my colleagues came back with a cannon shell in his radio set. But mostly they just buzzed us.

"Everyone thinks the air corridors we had to use were twenty miles wide, but they were actually nowhere near that. If you stayed within them you'd be all right, but if you strayed out of them they'd shoot at you. And it was very difficult to stay on course, with winds and low cloud.

Despite the difficulties, the Berlin Airlift, once it was up to speed, had proved to the Soviets that the Allies could defy the blockade, and effectively render it pointless. Even when winter set in and the tonnage in terms of fuel had to be increased dramatically, the combined air forces of the UK, US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa were up to the job, eventually bringing in more supplies than had ever been taken in over land.

The Soviets acknowledged the siege had failed, and lifted the blockade on May 12 1949.

"I was in Brandenburg Square the night the barriers were lifted," Brian recalled. "The German population had got wind of it, and were all out celebrating, with the square floodlit.

"We could see the Russian side from where we were, in total darkness. There was just a single sentry, picked out by a spotlight."

The museum has only two Cold War veterans giving regular talks on their experiences to local schoolchildren – Brian Conway and Ian Mayne, who will be sharing his tales with the Bugle next week. But Cosford would dearly love to make this a regular, monthly occurrence, and are appealing to any other local Cold War veterans who would like to be involved to make themselves known.

"We're in a position to be able to bring the Cold War to life for local students," said Philip Clayton, the museum's Education Manager. "It brings that time within touching distance if they can ask questions of someone who was there."

If you'd like to get involved with the Cold War project, you can reach Philip at RAF Museum Cosford on 01902 376241.

The RAF are also archiving written and spoken memories of Cold War veterans. If you'd like to add yours, call Ross Mahoney at RAF Hendon, on 020 8358 4991. And of course, the Bugle is always interested too! Call us, write in, or email gjones@black countrybugle.co.uk.

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