A brief look inside Wiesbaden’s role in the Berlin Airlift

A brief look inside Wiesbaden’s role in the Berlin Airlift

by Karen Bradbury
Stripes Europe

Following the euphoria of the celebrations for V-E day and the end of World War II in May of 1945, the hard work of rebuilding Germany and other war-ravaged areas of Europe loomed large. 

At the Yalta Conference in February of 1945, the heads of government U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, the U.K.’s Prime Minister Winston Churchill and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had determined that an ultimately defeated Germany would be divided into sections, and a plan for each of the four main allies in Europe to jointly occupy the German state began to take shape.

Following the end of the war, the British Zone of Occupation was established in the northwest, the French Zone of Occupation in the southwest, the American Zone of Occupation in the south and southeast, and the Soviet Zone of Occupation in the northeast. The Allied Powers also agreed to share responsibility for administering Germany’s capital city, Berlin.   

The territory of the American Zone of Occupation consisted of Bavaria and its capital city Munich and Hesse with its new capital in Wiesbaden, along with parts of what makes up the present-day state of Baden-Württemberg. American military government headquarters were established in Frankfurt am Main.

A divided and defeated Germany was weak and reliant upon its occupiers. In an effort to garner some form of repayment for wartime remittances, the Soviet Union stripped its sector of manufacturing equipment, whereas U.S. military leaders, fearing the economic costs of a dependent Germany, began investing in German industries. By 1948, the Western Allies had pulled their occupation zones together into a single entity – the Federal Republic of Germany –    and created a new currency, the Deutsche Mark, with the goal of rebuilding the nation.

Although the Allies had come forward with various proposals for reunifying Germany, the Soviet Union had found none of these remotely palatable, and their response to this latest arrangement was dramatic. In June of 1948, the Soviet Union began to block off all road access between West Germany and West Berlin, effectively cutting the British, French, and American forces off from their areas of responsibility in the capital. While no agreement with the Soviet Union existed to expressly state that the Allies had the right of access to Berlin by land, by an agreement on air access was already in place. On November 30, 1945, it had been agreed to in writing that three 20-mile wide air corridors would give the Allies access to the city.

With all road and rail travel to and from West Berlin blocked, the administration of President Harry S. Truman’s administration was eager to act but feared triggering another world war. On June 26, 1948, the first planes from bases in Western Germany and England began flying in food and other essentials to over two million desperate and fearful citizens of Berlin.  For roughly a year, over 200,000 planes landed around the clock, carrying in more than one and a half million tons of food, clothing, water, medicine, fuel and other necessities of life. The Soviets lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949; however, the Allies continued the airlift into September with the aim of stockpiling supplies in the event the blockade was reinstated.

The extraordinary accomplishments of the Berlin Airlift were seen as an early propaganda success for the West.  Soviet threats of starvation to a civilian population made them appear the most brutal of bullies, while the success of the airlift highlighted the technological superiority of the U.S. By the time the Soviets ended the blockade, West Germany had become a separate and independent nation, and the Allied response had not only saved a population but launched a friendship between the U.S. and Germany which endures to date.

The Wiesbaden Army Airfield’s role in this historically unprecedented endeavor is not to be underestimated. According to a EUCOM briefing, pilots flying C-47 Skytrains, C-54 Skymasters, C-82 Packets and C-74 Globemasters, often harassed by Soviet Yak fighter jets, made two-hour jumps to Berlin's Tempelhof airport to deliver the aid. A total of 28,299 airlift sorties were launched from W.A.A.F. during the 15-month operation, delivering 326,137 tons of food, medicine and coal.

Two great names are associated with the part Wiesbaden played in the success of the airlift. General Lucius Clay, Deputy Governor of Germany at the time, served as director of the operation. On June 14, 2012, the Wiesbaden Army Airfield was renamed "Lucius D. Clay Kaserne" in his honor. Serving as Task Force Commander to the endeavor was Brigadier General Joseph Smith, Commander of the Wiesbaden Military Post. General Smith is credited with dubbing the mission by one of its best-known nicknames, "Operation Vittles," because, as he said, “We're haulin' grub.”  

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