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US planned East Berlin's 'systematic destruction'

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US Air Force B-52 strategic bombers pictured in 1957. Image: USAF/Wikimedia Commons
12:04 CET+01:00
The US Air Force planned to drop 91 atomic bombs in and around East Berlin in the event of the Cold War turning hot, documents released on Wednesday showed.

A 1956 list naming thousands of priority targets compiled by the US Strategic Air Command (SAC) showed that the USAF would drop nuclear weapons on military targets around the East German capital, as well as explicitly targeting the population for "systematic destruction".

That was in direct contravention of the international norms that had been established following the Second World War, which prohibited attacks directed mainly at civilians.

The highest-priority targets on the list, released by the National Security Archive at George Washington University, were airbases from which the Soviets and their allies could launch strikes against the West.

"The priority given to Air Power targets dictated the surface bursting of high-yield nuclear weapons... including airbases in Eastern Europe," George Washington University nuclear history expert William Burr wrote.

"This tactic would produce large amounts of radioactive fallout compared to bursting weapons in the air."

Soviet airbases around Berlin included Briesen, Welzow, Werneuchen and Gross Dolln (Templin) – all among the top 150 targets on the USAF list.

"Presumably those bases would have been targeted with nuclear weapons which could have subjected the Berlin area to tremendous danger, including radiation hazards," Dr Burr wrote.

'Systematic destruction'

SAC wanted to cause maximum havoc on the ground with its bombs so as to destroy the Soviets' hope of striking back with their own air forces in the early stages of conflict.

But, should the battle between the two nuclear superpowers have continued beyond that first stage, the Americans planned a second phase of "systematic destruction".

The idea was to destroy basic industries and economic activities in the enemy heartland – "consistent with Air Force ideas dating back to World War II and earlier that the destruction of key nodes in a society's industrial fabric could cause its collapse."

Planners identified 91 "Designated Ground Zeros" (DGZs) in and around the East German capital, including industry and infrastructure – from electricity generation to railyards to radio stations – as well as "population" targets.

That was in the same league as the number of DGZs in Moscow (179) or Leningrad (St. Petersburg) (145).

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As well as central Berlin, SAC planned to hit nearby Bernau, Hennigsdorf, Oranienburg, Postdam, Schönwalde and Velten, according to a list of targets around East Berlin provided by the National Security Archive.

"The atomic bombing of East Berlin and its suburbs would likely have produced fire storms, among other effects, with disastrous implications for West Berlin," Burr explained.

"Whether SAC conducted studies on the vulnerability of West Berlin to the effects of nuclear attacks on East Berlin or other East German targets is unknown."

What the document does confirm is that "their target priorities and nuclear bombing tactics would expose nearby civilians and 'friendly forces and people' to high levels of deadly radioactive fallout".

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