• U.S.

Berlin: Test of Nerve

3 minute read

Moscow last week seemed strangely quiet, becalmed by a news and diplomatic lull unparalleled in recent years. Virtually all the top Kremlin leaders were away from the capital, most of them probably down on the Black Sea coast talking business at Nikita Khrushchev’s winter vacation spot. Hence the West’s surprise when Moscow abruptly decided to heat up the Berlin crisis again with an ominous threat to the Allies’ three air corridors that lead over Communist territory to the surrounded city.

It began with a bland request by the Soviet officer on duty at the four-power Berlin Air Safety Center: because Russian planes would need exclusive use of the entire Berlin-Frankfurt airlane below 7,500 ft. for 3½ hours that day, would U.S., British and French aircraft kindly stay completely out of this zone? In all the years since World War II, no one has tried to reserve specific air space by “block booking.” So the Western allies promptly replied to the Russians with a unanimous no. Next day, the Soviet officer made his request again, this time requesting chunks of the Berlin-Hamburg and Berlin-Hanover air corridors; again the answer was no, and the West sent military patrol planes up and down the routes, and passed on to Soviet headquarters the warning that the Russians would be held responsible for their safety.

By way of reply, MIG jets soared up to play tag with the Western planes, just as they had done several times before in Berlin’s war of nerves. Most kept their distance, but not all. One U.S. Air Force Globemaster pilot reported that a “stranger” zoomed to within 20 ft. of his wingtip, and a plane carrying Sir Christopher Steel, the British ambassador in Bonn, was buzzed by high-diving Communist pilots.

Moscow was possibly building up a case against four-power control of the Berlin airlanes; after a sufficient number of Western rejections of Moscow’s “reasonable” requests, the Russians might try to walk out of the Air Safety Center, and hand their role over to Communist satellite East Germany, which desperately wants to assert its own sovereignty. But by week’s end, the whole air corridor flap seemed more a test of nerve than anything else. When the U.S., Britain and France fired off blunt, angry notes warning Moscow that it was “running the gravest risk,” the Russian nuisance flights abruptly ended and a Soviet official in Berlin announced that all requests for exclusive air space in the Berlin corridors had been canceled.

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