The Berlin Airlift

After the Second World War ended on the 8th of May 1945, the victorious Allied powers gathered for a conference in Potsdam (17 July to 2 August 1945) whereupon they agreed to take joint responsibility for defeated Germany.  Germany was divided into four sections, the responsibility of the USA, UK, France and the Soviet Union respectively.  The German capital city of Berlin was also partitioned into four areas, even though it lay approximately 100 miles within the Soviet section of the country.  It was almost inevitable that this would cause difficulties as cracks began to emerge in the relationship between the Soviets and the other Allied powers.

The Soviet area of Germany produced most of the country’s food supplies whilst the British and American zones had to rely heavily upon imports.  In 1946 the Soviets stopped delivering agricultural products from their zone in eastern Germany.  It was under this premise that the Soviets, in an effort to force the other Allied powers to cede control of their sections of Berlin (and eventually Germany as a whole) decided to blockade all road and rail links into West Berlin.  The Berlin Blockade of June 24th 1948 to May 11th 1949 was one of the first major international Cold War crises. 

The Soviets under the leadership of Stalin attempted to gain overall control of a weakened Germany by blocking the western forces access to Berlin.  Stalin’s goal was to force the western powers to rely upon the Soviet section of Germany to supply Berlin with food and fuel, thereby giving the Soviets eventual control over the entire city.

The Western Allies would never allow this situation to materialize and in response they started the Berlin Airlift, which would supply the citizens of western Berlin with the food and fuel that they required.  Over the course of almost a full year, the United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force flew in excess of 200,000 flights into Berlin that provided roughly 13,000 tons of food supplies on a daily basis. 

By the spring of 1949 the airlift was succeeding and delivering more cargo into Berlin than had previously been supplied via rail.  The success of the Airlift dealt a significant blow to Soviets who had repeatedly and vociferously claimed that such an operation was impossible to sustain.  Eventually, the Soviets were left with little option but to lift the blockade, which they did at one minute past midnight on May 12th 1949.    

The tensions had begun when Stalin and the Soviet Union found opposition to the US funded Marshall Plan designed to rebuild shattered post-war Germany.  The Soviets desired that Germany should become an economically weak and pastoral, socialist state within their sphere of control.  The Western powers, and especially the USA who wished to extend their influence throughout Europe, had other ideas. 

This fissure resulted in a number of disagreements.  The Western powers decided to merge their zones of control and establish a new German currency.  As detailed in an announcement on the 7th of March 1948, the Western governments officially approved the extension of the Marshall Plan to Germany, finalized the economic merger of Germany and agreed upon the establishment of a federal system of government for Western Germany.  West Germany was born and the Deutschmark became the standard operating currency of Berlin. 

This angered the Soviets as the idea of an economically stable and prosperous island within their area of Germany was potentially dangerous to their aims.  The day after the June 18th launch of the Deutschmark the Soviets began to halt and search trains and vehicles headed towards destinations within their sector.  They delayed Allied and German goods shipments and demanded that all forms of water transportation obtain special Soviet permission. The day that the Deutschmark was officially introduced, June 21st, the Soviets turned back trains towards West Germany and disrupted all means of transportation into the city.  On June 24th, the Soviets severed all land and water communications between the non-Soviet zones and Berlin.  They halted all rail and barge traffic in and out of Berlin. 

Then on June the 25th, the Soviets ceased to supply food to the civilian population in the non-Soviet sectors of Berlin.  Although motor traffic to Soviet sectors was still allowed, it was severely restricted.  The Soviets also cut-off electricity delivered from generators in Soviet zones which the city of Berlin depended upon. 

The problem was exasperated by the fact that no official agreement had ever been ratified regarding rail and road access to Berlin through the Soviet zone.  The Western powers had simply relied upon Soviet goodwill and assumed that this would continue indefinitely.   When the war ended the Soviets had allowed only one rail line for cargo transportation into their zone, limited to ten trains per day and they also only granted three small air corridors of access to the city of Berlin. 

There was only one means of transportation that the Soviets could not halt, that of air transportation.  So the Allied forces resolved to utilize this and supply West Berlin by air.  The odds were stacked heavily against the Western powers.  Berlin had approximately only enough food for thirty-five days and enough fuel for forty-five days.  The US and the British were also massively outnumbered militarily so any kind of confrontation with the Soviets was unthinkable. 

The issue then of remaining in Berlin was about more than a power struggle with the Soviets, it was about prestige, solidarity with Berliners, the ideals of freedom and a lasting commitment to post-war Europe.  The Soviets believed that the Western powers had no choice but to give-in and they celebrated the blockade heartily.  However, US General Clay felt that the Soviets were ‘bluffing’. 

He knew that Stalin did not want another war and that the Soviets could not afford to be seen as the instigators of any such military confrontation.  The Soviet actions were targeted at exerting political pressure on the West to obtain concessions, and they relied upon the West's unwillingness to provoke a war. 

Despite the lack of any formal negotiation regarding ground routes, there was a written agreement in place that meant that Berlin could be supplied by air.  On 30 November 1945, it had been decided that there would be three twenty-mile-wide air corridors providing uninhibited access to Berlin.  It was also impossible for the Soviets to claim that cargo aircraft posed a military threat. 

The only way to prevent an unarmed aircraft from entering the city would have been to shoot it down.  The airlift forced the Soviets into a position where they could either take unjustifiable and morally contemptible military action, which would have broken a number of their agreements, or simply accept the planes right to fly into the city.  When the American military consulted their British counterparts regarding a possible airlift they received significant support.  The British had already been running a small airlift operation of their own supplying the British forces in Berlin. 

In addition, General Clay's counterpart, General Sir Brian Robertson, of the Royal Air Force was ready with some figures.  The British Air Commodore Reginald Waite had calculated the resources required to support the entire city of Berlin.  However, carrying the required amount of goods into Berlin would be a massive challenge.  The US forces had only two squadrons of C-47 Skytrain aircraft station in Europe due to the post-war demobilization.  These could each carry roughly 3.5 tons of cargo.  The entire squadron being able to haul in around 300 tons of supplies a day. 

The RAF was better prepared at the time as they had more aircraft stationed in Germany, they could supply approximately 400 tons a day.  This was nowhere near the 5,000 tons a day that would be required.  However, these numbers would increase as new aircraft was supplied from England, the USA, France, Canada and other Allied nations.  The RAF was also able to increase its numbers rapidly as it could fly in extra aircraft from England. 

In the short-term the UK contribution would rise to 750 tons per day. The US would need to add additional aircraft with immediate effect and these would have to be as large as possible whilst still being able to land safely at Berlin airports.  There was only one such plane which was suitable, the brand new, four-engine C-54 Skymaster.

The airlift seemed to be the only feasible option of supplying Berlin.  Yet it would be arduous, risky and would require the support of the Berlin populace.  US General Clay consulted the elected Mayor of Berlin, Ernst Reuter and his advisor Willy Brandt.  Clay stated: "Look, I am ready to try an airlift. I can't guarantee it will work. I am sure that even at its best, people are going to be cold and people are going to be hungry.

And if the people of Berlin won't stand that, it will fail. And I don't want to go into this unless I have your assurance that the people will be heavily in approval." Although he was concerned, Mayor Reuter guaranteed that Berlin would make any sacrifices necessary and that the Berliners would support his actions.  Therefore, the British and Americans agreed to start a joint operation immediately.  The U.S. action had the name "Operation Vittles," while the British one was called "Operation Plainfare”.

On June 24th 1948, Brigadier General Joseph Smith was appointed as the Task Force Commander of the Berlin Airlift.  Then operation Vittles was launched by General Clay on June 25th.  The very next day thirty-two C-47 planes set off for Berlin, each hauling 80 tons of cargo that comprised of milk, flour and medical supplies.

The British operation commenced on the 28th of June. It was believed that the airlift would last for a maximum of three weeks.  By the start of July, the system was really starting to come into force.  Further C-54 planes were arriving in number and the American aircraft flew east-northeast into Tempelhof Airport along one of the three air corridors, then returned due west flying out on another of the corridors.  After the planes reached the British Zone, they turned south to return to their bases.

The British operated a similar system, flying roughly south-southeast from a variety of airports in the Hamburg area, into RAF Gatow within the British Sector of Germany, and then returning out along the same air corridor as the US, before heading for home or landing at Hanover. Alongside the British and U.S. personnel were aircrews from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa.

A complex flight schedule system was devised in order to manage the large number of flights into Berlin.  Schedules regarding maintenance and cargo loading were also developed. The aircraft were due to take off every three minutes, and would fly at 500 feet higher altitude than the previous flight.

During the initial week the airlift averaged just 90 tons a day, but by the second week this reached 1000 tons.  This would have been fine had the effort lasted only a few weeks, as originally believed.  The Communist press in East Berlin ridiculed the Allied efforts.

As it became clear that the Soviets would not lift their blockade anytime soon, the Allies applied more severe measures. On July 27th 1948, the entire airlift operations were handed over to Lt. General William Tunner. He promptly created the Combined Airlift Task Force at Tempelhof Air Base. The arrival of Tunner unfortunately also brought the airlifts first major casualties. Tunner decided to fly into Berlin on July 30th to present an award to Lt. Paul O. Lykins, a pilot who had at that point made the most flights into Berlin. 

However, visibility was very poor due to adverse weather conditions.  A C-54 plane crashed at the end of the runway, and a second plane landing behind it burnt out its tyres in an attempt to avoid hitting it.  A third aircraft also got into difficulty. The whole airport was shut down and all flights were cancelled with immediate effect.  This was known as ‘Black Friday’.

Black Friday resulted in a number of new measures being introduced which meant that if a plane missed its chance to land, it had to return to base.  The number of accidents and delays immediately dropped.  It was also discovered that unloading a 10 ton capacity C-54 plane took the same amount of time as unloading a 3.5 ton capacity C-47, due to the difficulty in unloading the C-47 planes caused by its sloping floor. 

The C-54 had a level floor and the truck could back-up next to it and unload cargo rapidly.  All C-47 planes were eventually removed from the airlift operation. Tunner also forbade any flight crews from leaving their planes whilst on operations in Berlin, as they normally had to return to the terminal to take refreshments and this took too long.  Tunner set up trucks as mobile snack bars that handed out food and drink to the pilots.  The snack-bar trucks were operated by beautiful, friendly German women, in order to keep the pilots happy.

The Berliners also significantly aided the development of the airlift by taking on the responsibilities of crews for unloading planes and making repairs to the airfield in exchange for extra rations.  As these crews improved, unloading times continued to fall.  A twelve-man crew set a record unloading a ten-ton load in five minutes and 45 seconds.  At the end of July, it was clear that the Airlift was succeeding.

The daily operations flew more than 1,500 flights and delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo, enough to keep West Berlin supplied.  By the end of September, all of the C-47s were withdrawn, and 225 C-54s were devoted to the lift.  The supplies improved to 5,000 tons a day.

A significant side project of the Berlin Airlift was operation ‘Little Vittles’ whereby US pilot Gail Halvorsen dispensed chocolates for the children of Berlin attached to little parachutes.  This novel project generated enormous support for the operation both within the city and in the US, where candy manufacturers got on board and US children donated chocolates for their German counterparts.  The aircraft became known as ‘Raisin Bombers’ in Germany and ‘Candy Bombers’ in the USA.

The Soviet responses to the airlift operation included propaganda, political intimidation, obstruction, violence and shooting in the vicinity of the aircraft.  One such ‘buzzing’ incident resulted in an aircraft crashing and 35 people dying. 

The winter of 1948-1949 meant that the Airlift would require more planes and have to supply excess fuel.  An additional 6,000 tons of coal were required per day.  Ex-Luftwaffe ground crews were hired to help with the extra unloading and the British supplied additional aircraft.  Between July and September 1948 a 6,000 foot-long asphalt runway had been constructed at Tempelhof. Although not ideal, the runway was a major upgrade.  With this in place, the auxiliary runway was upgraded.

The French also came on board at this point, although the French Air Force could not supply planes as they were engaged in the First Indochina War. Instead, France agreed to build a completely new and larger, airport within its sector. 

This was situated on the shores of Lake Tegel. French military engineers managing German construction crews were able to complete the construction of Tegel Airport in less than 90 days. The airport was largely built by hand, by thousands of female laborers who worked round the clock.

Air traffic control measures were improved by the development of Ground Controlled Approach Radar system (GCA).  This was installed at Tempelhof and all weather airlift operations were now possible.  However, the winter of 1948 saw an unprecedented and widespread fog all over Europe that seriously hindered operations.  At one stage Berlin had just one-weeks fuel supply.  When weather improved, more than 171,000 tons of coal was delivered in January 1949.  Then in March, the tonnage finally rose to 196,223 tons.

By the month of April 1949, it was apparent that airlift operations were running smoothly.  Tunner decided to have a big event that would give everyone a morale boost.  On Easter Sunday the airlift would break all records and maximum efficiency was required.  The only cargo would be coal, and stockpiles were amassed for the effort.  Maintenance schedules were altered in order to allow the maximum number of aircraft to be involved.  From 12:00PM April 15, to 12:00PM April 16, 1949, the crews worked flat-out. 

At the end of this, 12,941 tons of coal had been delivered as a consequence of 1,383 flights, and without a single incident.  General operations improved, and daily tonnage increased from 6,729 tons per day, up to 8,893 tons per day.  In total, the airlift delivered 234,476 tons during April.  Then finally on April 21, a point was reached whereby the amount of supplies flown into the city exceeded that previously brought by rail.  The Berlin Airlift had succeeded, and now appeared able to operate indefinitely.

The success of the Allied Airlift was a huge humiliation for the Soviets.  The operations over Easter were the final straw.  On the 15th of April 1949, a Russian news agency reported that the Soviets were to lift the blockade.  Then the next day, the U.S. State Department stated that the "way appears clear" for the blockade to end.  Shortly after, the four powers undertook serious negotiations, and a settlement was made on Allied terms.  Finally, on the 4th of May 1949, the Allies announced that an agreement to end the blockade had been reached.

The Soviet blockade of Berlin was lifted at one minute after midnight, on the 12th May 1949. Later that day, massive jubilant crowds celebrated in West Berlin. The flights continued for a time, in order to build up a fuel and food surplus.  Then by the 24th of July 1949, a three month surplus had been amassed meaning that any future air lift operation could be started-up with ease.

The 30th of September 1949 saw the official end of the Berlin Air Lift.  In a total of 15 months, the US Air Force delivered 1,783,573 tons of supplies, whilst 541,937 tons were delivered by the UK’s R.A.F.  In total there were 2,326,406 tons of food and supplies on 278,228 total flights to Berlin. The C-47 and C-54 planes together flew in excess of 92 million miles, roughly the same distance as the earth is from the sun.  Whilst at the height of the airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds.

A total of 101 fatalities were recorded as a result of the Air Lift operations, which included 40 Britons and 31 Americans. Seventeen American and eight British aircraft crashed during the operation causing most of the deaths.

The cost of the Airlift operations was approximately $224 million, which is roughly $2 billion in inflation-adjusted 2008.

Above all the airlift convinced the Western powers of the need to support West Germany and put aside all of their differences in the face of Soviet danger.  The Western Allies began to truly understand their shared ideals and values. The Berlin Airlift still resonates with Berliners today and they will forever be thankful for the support of the brave British and Americans who helped them in their hour of need. 

Every year a wreath is laid at the Berlin Air Lift memorial at Tempelhof Airport. This year will mark the 60th anniversary of the lift and the Candy Bombers will be back in Berlin. The city is sure to welcome them with open arms and the Amerika Haus is currently a very special place to be.


Mathew Noblett