At roughly 5 pm on 24 June 1948, the day the Russians started the blockade of the Western Sectors of Berlin, the American Military Governor in Germany General Lucius D. Clay responded to a question from a reporter about whether the city could be supplied entirely from the air. Clay gave a clear an decisive answer; he said: "Absolutely not."
Yet on the next day he instituted the airlift. His change of heart can be traced back to one man, a forgotten hero if there ever was one: Air Commodore Reginald Waite.
Waite's contribution to the Berlin Airlift was decisive. Prior to his intervention, the Allies were divided over whether to withdraw their garrisons from Berlin or try to fight their way down the autobahn. Waite's calculations showing that an airlift could sufficiently replenish Berlin's stockpiles of necessary goods to buy the Allies time to negotiate were absolutely critical to the decision to launch the Airlift -- yet there are history books about the Airlift that do not even mention his name. This is largely due to the fact that Waite was the consummate staff officer -- a thinker, a planner, a man in the background rather than a charismatic leader.
Reginald "Rex" Waite was born 30 June 1901. He escaped the slaughter of the First World War by being too young for conscription, but joined the newly formed Royal Air Force in 1920. He was one of the first cadets to attend the newly established RAF college Cranwell earning his commission in 1921. In the interwar years he served in various positions with Coastal Command, rising to commander of 224 Squadron 1937-1938, then equipped with Ansons and serving in a reconnaissance role.
Just before the start of the war, however, Waite was selected to serve as the RAF officer assigned to the Admiralty's Operations Room, probably a tribute to his understanding of naval concerns, issues and operational procedures learned in service with Coastal Command. He left this position in 1942 to serve as station commander at St Eval in Cornwall, a Coastal Command station. His next posting was as commander of the Coastal Command station in Nassau, a position he held for nearly two years. In 1944, however, he was called back to the UK to assist in planning the D-Day invasion, serving at Supreme HQ, Allied Expeditionary Force 1944-1946. During this period, following Germany's unconditional surrender, he was in charge of disarming the Luftwaffe. That task complete, he was appointed Director of the Air Branch, Allied Control Commission in Berlin 1947 - 1949. At the end of the Airlift he went on to command RAF Bircham Newton and ended his long career as Assistant Chief of Staff, Allied Air Forces, Central Europe, retiring in 1953.
During his service in Germany he developed a (not always shared) sympathy for the plight of German refugees and disbanded service members. He was also one of the British officers who early recognized the Russian threat. Already in 1947 he described in correspondence with fellow officers the need to counter Soviet "machinations." [Source: biography of Waite in the British Berlin Airlift Association website] In April 1948, he was the senior British officer responsible for investigating the crash of a British civilian airliner after a collision with a Soviet Yak fighter.
Perhaps it was this work which altered Waite early to Soviet intentions. The accident had been caused by a Soviet Yak fighter conducting aerobatic maneuvers and buzzing the passenger liner while it was on landing approach to Berlin. The wreckage of the Yak was found still entangled with the wing of the British European Airline Dakota. Yet the Soviets blandly claimed their "innocent training aircraft" had been "attacked" by an aggressive passenger liner.
In any case, with the Soviets playing "cat-and-mouse" with Allied access routes into Berlin, Waite started to do some calculations on whether it would be possible to supply the 2.2 million civilians living in the Western Sectors of Berlin in addition to the Western garrisons by air. His calculations suggested it could be done and two days before the Soviets imposed their blockade on Berlin, Waite showed his calculations to the British Berlin Commandant, Lt. General Herbert. The army general dismissed his plans as impossible.
Waite went back to the proverbial drawing boards and worked all night to refine his calculations and plan. When he presented these to Herbert the next day the blockade had started and Herbert was willing to let Waite speak with the British Military Governor, Sir Brian Robertson. The latter was impressed enough to agree to show the plans to his American counterpart, General Lucius D. Clay. Waite convinced Clay that he had been wrong to dismiss an airlift as out of the question as he had in the press conference. He decided to go ahead and start flying, giving the necessary orders to the USAFE.
Nor did Waite's role in the Airlift stop there. Waite is credited with identifying the eight airfields in the Western Zones that could be used for supplying Berlin. As a former Coastal Command pilot, he suggested and reconnoitered the suitability of the Havel for receiving Flying Boats. Waite was the one to suggest these aircraft were ideal for carrying salt. In addition, he was influential in flying small kerosene stoves so Berliners could cook without electricity and also sewing machines and materials so they could repair clothes.
Waite described his job during the airlift as follows:
“Nobody could have a more interesting job than I have at the moment. As soon as the ‘Airlift’ begun General Robertson appointed the G.O.C. British Troops as the ‘dictator’ of our besieged sector and sent me over to him as a sort of Chief of Staff with a roving commission, which involves everything from the daily demanding, recording and forecasting of supplies for the city to co-ordination of the Military Government Troops and Civil organisations in the complete rearrangement of life for siege conditions. In the last six months I think I have had to work harder than for the past 28 years but it has been great fun working with the first rate team we have had in Berlin.” [Source: British Berlin Airlift Association website]
Waite was said to "bubble with enthusiasm and imagination." Another observer claimed that "ideas were always flowing from him." The Daily Telegraph journalist Edwin Tetlow described watching Waite work, saying: "His head was bowed over a tiny pocket book, and he was making drawings and calculations with the stub of a pencil." [Source: Giles Milton, Checkmate in Berlin, Henry Holt, 2021, 255-256.]
In "Cold Peace" I attempt to give Waite his due and to portray him in accordance with the historical record.
Cold Peace is Book I of the Bridge to Tomorrow Series.
Three years after WWII, Europe struggles with rationing, widespread unemployment and a growing Soviet threat. Hitler's former capital lies ruined under the joint control of wartime allies bitterly at odds. With the currency worthless, the population lives on hand-outs or turns to crime and prostitution. Deep inside the Soviet Zone of occupation, Berlin appears to be an ideal target for a communist take-over, putting the defenders of democracy on a collision course with Stalin's merciless aggression.
A Battle of Britain ace, a female air traffic controller, a concentration camp survivor and an ex-ATA woman pilot are just some of those trying to find their place in the post-war world. An air ambulance service offers a shimmer of hope, but when a Soviet fighter brings down a British passenger liner, Berlin becomes a flashpoint. The world stands poised on the brink of World War Three.
Find out more at: https://www.helenapschrader.com/bridge-to-tomorrow.html
View a video teaser at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JTuE7m5InZM&t=5s
Previous releases include:
"MORAL FIBRE," which WON THE HEMINGWAY AWARD 2022 FOR 20TH CENTURY WARTIME FICTION and a MAINCREST MEDIA AWARD FOR MILITARY FICTION as well as being A FINALIST FOR THE BOOK EXCELLENCE AWARD 2023 IN THE CATEGORY HISTORICAL FICTION.Riding the icy, moonlit sky,
they took the war to Hitler.
Their chances of survival were less than fifty percent.
Their average age was 21.
This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved.
It is intended as a tribute to them all.
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Winner of a Hemingway Award for 20th Century Wartime
Fiction, a Maincrest Media Award for Military Fiction and Silver in the Global Book Awards.
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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles