1949 - The 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 reenter 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, totaling 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.

See the AFHSO publication:
To Save A City: the Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949.

Read General Tunner's report:
A Report on the Airlift - Berlin Mission....

For more information on the Berlin Airlift, visit the National Museum of the U. S. Air Force web site.