August 8, 2016

1949. Tensions Grow as the Berlin Blockade Continues

A Decisive Spring Approaches
Edward R. Murrow (left) and Bill Downs (center) with an unidentified man in Berlin in 1953 (source)
Bill Downs

CBS Berlin

February 12, 1949

The Russian military government has taken another step in the Berlin Blockade that promises to stir up more indignation among Western sector Germans than any single event in the Berlin crisis thus far.

It is revealed this morning that the Swedish Red Cross has been refused access to stores of food in Russian-controlled East Berlin with which the Swedish relief agency has been providing supplementary meals daily for about 30,000 children living in the blockaded parts of the city. The ban was imposed on the first of this month.

The Swedish Red Cross, which concentrates its aid to children between three and six years old, has been feeding Berlin children in all four sectors of the city.

However, American authorities state today that the Russians have refused the Swedes passage across the city borders even for food for the three to six-year-olds in the American, British, and French sectors. Presumably the meals are still being distributed to the children of the Russian sector.

The American military government is making arrangements to transport the Swedish Red Cross food over the airlift. The irony of the situation is that the project entails only about one ton of food a day, which is no serious hardship to the airlift.

However effective the Soviet blockade has been against Swedish Red Cross food for small children, it most certainly is not one hundred percent effective.

I was stopped in the street the other day by two suspicious looking men who spotted me for an American. They had two diamond rings they wanted to sell: a one carat diamond, the other weighting a carat and a half. The price was about what it would be in New York, around $800 for the smaller one.

The smugglers said the rings were from the once-wealthy families in the Russian zone of Germany now down to the last of their family jewels which they must sell in order to live.

When I refused, they said they thought they could get me a mink coat—a very fine one—but the price was 22,000 West Marks, which breaks down to more than $7,000. No thanks.

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

CBS Berlin

February 16, 1949

We are approaching the season here in Central Europe when international rumors begin to bud and unconfirmed reports start to sprout and stir under the agitation of the struggle between the East and the West.

The first of this springtime crop of rumor came the other day in the American licensed newspaper Neue Zeitung. The Zeitung reports Soviet troop movements along the Baltic coast of Germany towards the border of the British zone. The newspaper, quoting refugees and fishermen, says that approximately 5,000 Russian Marines are in the northern German province of Mecklenburg; that new military bases are being established in the Baltic countries; and that submarine maneuvers are being conducted by the Russians in the Baltic sea.

It is impossible to check these reports, and Western intelligence authorities refused to comment.

But the rumors are worth noting. Officials here agree that this spring, now only a month away, will be a decisive season for the peace of Europe.

A C-54 cracked near Celle last night, but no one was badly injured. The Anglo-American airlift has been plagued by bad weather this week, but despite sleet and rain and fog, the planes have managed to average more than 5,000 tons a day into Berlin.

But it isn't east. The other day I tried to get on an airlift plane to Frankfurt. The weather cleared for about an hour. I rushed to Tempelhof, was shoved onto a plane, and we waited in line to take off for more than an hour. The crew had not had any sleep for more than twenty-six hours. They had missed a blind landing at the Rhine Maine airport and been sent back; been shunted to the Celle airport; loaded again for Berlin; and were trying to get back to their billets in Frankfurt for rest and clean clothing.

We were just preparing to take off when the Tempelhof control tower closed down the field. The bad weather had moved in again.

The pilot heaved a sigh of relief. "We can't sleep here," he said. "I didn't want to try another soupy approach."

It is not particularly dramatic, but it happens every day on the airlift—an operation which even we here in Berlin are beginning to take for granted.

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