The Berlin Airlift 1948-49

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Dancing with Bears-The Berlin Airlift – Set during the Berlin airlift this scene captures the harassment of the Soviet planes as Allied cargo comes in on a constant schedule. By Brian Bateman

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The joint occupation of Berlin had made sense when the Allies were expected to co-operate in administering Germany. In June 1948, over strenuous Soviet objections, the western occupying powers decided to create a separate west German state. This left the western presence in Berlin as an anomaly. Stalin certainly wanted to get the west out of Berlin. Like the west, he intended to create a government that would claim sovereignty over all of Germany. This would be far more convincing if it completely controlled the national capital. Berlin voters and politicians in the western sector could not be intimidated into giving the Communists control of the city government. Also the western presence allowed them to disseminate propaganda and conduct espionage. Finally a divided Berlin gave east Germans an escape route to the west. Some effort to drive the west from Berlin was predictable. Truman, by restricting reparation shipments to the Soviet zone had even suggested the way. During 1947 western communications to Berlin were increasingly harassed and on 24 June 1948 they were cut.

The correct western response was far from clear. Militarily their presence in Berlin was valueless and appeared scarcely tenable if the Soviet Union were determined to drive them out. Trying to cling on to their own sectors of Berlin would cause suffering among the city’s citizens, which seemed hard to justify, especially as it might drive them into the arms of the Communists. Forcing armed convoys of supplies through by road was an option. Stalin was unlikely to risk a war over the issue, but it was a form of brinkmanship that western governments preferred to avoid. Besides, all the Red Army would need to do was destroy bridges in front and behind a convoy to isolate it without firing a shot. In western capitals there was considerable uncertainty on this subject.

It was the American military governor of the western zones, General Clay, who decided the western response. Without waiting for instructions, he had already decided that American non-combatants would not be withdrawn from Berlin. Such a step, he argued, would be politically disastrous. It would signal to all Germans, not just Berliners, that America had no real commitment to them. They might well race to the Communists, seeking whatever protection they could find. The impact could spread across Europe. Communism could triumph over the entire continent.

The west did have one option left which might allow them to cling to their sectors of Berlin without seriously risking war. While land and water transport was closed, the air routes were still open. Britain and America had between them over a hundred C47 Dakota transport aircraft and more could perhaps be found. But it was far from clear whether it would be possible to airlift sufficient supplies to support 2 million people. Clay consulted with the mayor of Berlin (whom the USSR refused to recognise), Ernst Reuter. When asked if Berliners would bear possibly considerable privations for several months, Reuter assured Clay that they would stand firm. Clay therefore resolved to make the attempt.

In Berlin the first cargo of food was delivered by C47 within 24 hours of the blockade commencing. But assembling the aircraft and organising an airlift on such a scale took time. It was also dependent upon the weather, and winter, when fog is common in Berlin, would cause extreme problems. Western Berlin needed 4000 tons of supplies every day simply to survive. To sustain its economy would require twice that amount. At the beginning the west was delivering about 300 tons per day. Initially, therefore, Berliners had to put up with considerable shortages. A collapse of civilian morale, with Berliners abandoning the city to seek food, would have been disastrous for the west. But civilian morale proved extremely resilient. Berliners who had survived the horrors of the Soviet siege in 1945 would suffer much to avoid the return of Soviet rule.

The Soviet Union could have cut the airlift. Even a few strategically placed barrage balloons would have sufficed. But they never attempted it – initially they did not think it could possibly work, later the threat of war was too serious. By March 1949 the airlift was delivering 8000 tons per day and the blockade was broken. In fact a counter blockade was in place preventing goods from western Berlin being shipped to the Soviet zone. The USSR was suffering more than the west from this. The west felt no need to make concessions and established a separate government for a distinct West Berlin. When, in May 1949, after 328 days, Stalin lifted the blockade, the west could celebrate its first Cold War victory.

But the blockade did have a profound impact in the west, which would permanently shape the Cold War. Firstly it persuaded western politicians that the USSR did indeed have enormous ambitions in the west. Swallowing half of Europe did not satisfy Stalin. But also it suggested that a firm stand against aggression would succeed. They must not appease Stalin, as Hitler had been appeased. The west must therefore unite and show resolve and a willingness to defend their territory. In April 1949 NATO was formed – a development seen as very threatening in Moscow. Massive forces were permanently assembled along both sides of the frontier dividing east and west, and any conflict across it could only be on a massive scale.

Berlin Airlift

The victorious Allies of World War II divided Germany into occupation zones: the American, French, and British zones in the west and a Soviet zone in the east. Within the Soviet zone lay Berlin, formerly Hitler’s capital, also divided into four sectors, each administered by one of the wartime allies. The only guaranteed means of access to isolated Berlin was by air. The Soviet Union had granted each of the three Western Allies a 20-mile-wide air corridor leading from their respective occupation zones to the city; but no such arrangement governed travel by road or rail–that depended upon the continuing cooperation of Soviet authorities.

Scarcely had the war ended when relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. Eastern Europe came under Soviet domination. As early as 1946, Britain’s wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, in a speech in Fulton, Missouri, warned: “From Stettin on the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” Behind that curtain, Soviet control tightened; a sphere of influence became a ring of satellite states, as happened to Czechoslovakia in February 1948 when a Communist faction seized control of the government. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union began exerting pressure on the overland routes leading into Berlin, imposing arbitrary restrictions on access, such as temporarily halting coal shipments and, on 24 June, establishing a blockade. Lacking the ground forces to punch through the blockade, the Western Allies had no choice but to rely on airlift if their sectors in Berlin, with a combined populace of some two million, were to survive. Never before had any nation mounted so ambitious an aerial resupply operation. The Soviet leadership, conditioned by failure of the German airlift at Stalingrad during the war, could hardly have taken seriously the Allies’ prospects for success.

The task of supplying Berlin by air devolved upon the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, commanded by Major General Curtis E. LeMay, who had at his disposal 102 C-47s, each with a cargo capacity of 3 tons, and 2 of the larger C-54s that could carry 10 tons apiece. He called for reinforcements and entrusted the operation to Brigadier General Joseph Smith, who called it Operation Vittles because, “We’re hauling grub.” The first deliveries took place on 26 June 1948, when C-47s made 32 flights into Berlin with 80 tons of cargo, mainly powdered milk, flour, and medicine. As the days passed, General Smith increased the use of his C-47s and newly arriving C-54s by dispatching aircraft according to a block system that grouped them according to type, allowing radar controllers on the ground to deal more easily with strings of aircraft having the same flight characteristics.

Within a month, American officials realized a massive airlift of indefinite duration afforded the only alternative to war or withdrawal. The transports would have to deliver not only food for the populace but also coal to heat their homes during the winter, and bulky bags of coal would cut deeply into the available space within the aircraft. The airlift would continue after the good flying weather of summer had ended and winter fog, clouds, rain, and ice commenced. Because so extensive an operation exceeded the capacity of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Operation Vittles became the responsibility of the Military Air Transport Service, created on 1 June 1948 by the merger of Air Force and Navy transport units and directed by the Air Force as the executive agent of the Secretary of Defense. Chosen to command the Berlin Airlift was Major General William H. Tunner, a veteran of the aerial supply line across the Himalayas, from India to China, during World War II.

General Tunner arrived in Germany late in July 1948 and promptly set about speeding up the delivery of cargo, an effort that earned him the nickname “Willie the Whip.” He established a truly impossible goal of a landing every minute, day or night if the ceiling at the destination was 400 feet or more. At times the aircrews participating in the operation came close to achieving this goal, touching down 3 minutes apart. The transport aircraft entered the air corridor at a prescribed time and altitude, followed the beams from radio ranges to keep on course, and obeyed instructions from ground radar controllers who regulated speed and interval within the aircraft stream. Each pilot in this endless procession had one chance to land. If the weather or some other reason prevented a landing, he would return to his home station and re-enter the cycle later. On Easter Sunday, 17 April 1949, this system delivered 13,000 tons of cargo, including the equivalent of 600 railroad cars of coal. This so-called Easter Parade set a record for a day’s tonnage during the operation.

The Easter Parade required near perfect teamwork. Fuel and bulk cargo were first loaded onto ships in the United States, sent across the Atlantic, and unloaded in Germany. Once there, the fuel and cargo were shipped to one of our U.S. Air Force airfields: two were in the American Zone and two in the British Zone. Freight from the American Zone went to Templehof Airfield and cargo from the British Zone went to Gatow Airport. The transports themselves were flown by crews from the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Navy, and the Royal Air Force. Initially, the Royal Air Force mounted its own airlift, called ‘Plane Fare’. After mid-October 1948, however, a combined airlift task force headquarters melded the British and American efforts.

Soviet forces harassed but did not attack the cargo aircraft of the Anglo-American alliance, although fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners occasionally opened fire near the corridors, and searchlights that might temporarily blind a pilot sometimes played upon the aircraft by night. By the spring of 1949, it was obvious these tactics of harassment had failed to deter the American and British airmen involved in the airlift of supplies to Berlin.

Consequently, the Soviet Union entered into negotiations which culminated in an agreement, signed on 5 May 1949, that resulted in the lifting of the blockade, but it did not settle the basic issue of freedom of access. Despite the resumption of surface traffic into the city, the airlift continued until 30 September to mass a reserve of food, fuel, and other supplies in the event the Soviets reimposed the blockade.

Between 26 June 1948 and 30 September 1949, the airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of cargo, approximately 75 percent of it in American aircraft. American aircrews made more than 189,000 flights, totalling nearly 600,000 flying hours and exceeding 92 million miles. To keep the aircraft going, military and civilian mechanics worked around the clock to support airlift operations. Maintenance technicians would perform periodic checks of aircraft components and systems after every 20 hours of flying time to ensure proper operation. After 200 hours, the aircraft received a major inspection, and after 1,000 hours, the transports were flown to depots in the United States for a major overhaul. The operations sustained over the 15-month period were surprisingly safe despite crowded airways and bad winter weather; the accident rate of the airlift forces averaged less than half that of the entire Air Force. Nevertheless, breaking the blockade cost the lives of 30 American servicemen and one civilian in 12 crashes.

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Aircraft Types

This included such types as American Douglas C-54 Skytrains and French Air Force Junkers Ju 52 tri-motor transports [1] built in France during the War. Alongside these Allied types were the RAF Yorks, Lancastrians, Halifaxes, Hastings, Dakotas, and Sunderlands, which were joined by aircraft from the fledgling post-war airlines as part of the British effort. One of the Hastings aircraft, TG502, became the gate guardian at RAF Gatow.

The French had most of their limited amount of transport planes tied up in operations in Indo-China, but the British did their part. On June 27, the RAF dispatched 16 C-47s, (which the British called Dakotas) to Wunsdorf Airfield near Hannover. These were soon joined by 42 more C-47s and 40 British Avro Yorks. However, the most dramatic aircraft to fly into Berlin proved to be the Sunderland flying boats of the British Coastal Command. Taking off from Finkenwerder on the Elbe River near Hamburg they landed on the Havel See in Berlin with nine tons of cargo to be met by Berliners paddling out in boats with flowers like some scene from a South Pacific travelogue film. Crews for the British planes came not only from the United Kingdom, but also from India, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.

[1]The FAF flew the Toucans (Ju 52s) of GT 2/61 “Maine”, one C-47 of GT 1/61 “Touraine” and “the” C-54 of GLAM. Specific corridors had to been opened for these slow-flying aircraft and French pilots were requested not to mix-up with the US fleet on taxiing!

They nevertheless carried out 424 rotations, carrying 10,367 passengers and 856 tons of goods.

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