Understanding the Berlin Airlift

Understanding the Berlin Airlift

by Will Morris
Stripes Europe

The Berlin Airlift is remembered today as one of the greatest feats in the history of military aviation, accomplished in the face of overwhelming odds. The humanitarian operation became the United States’ first major victory in the contest between East and West during the Cold War that would last for the next 50 years.

In the wake of World War II, Germany was a divided country and Berlin a divided city. In line with terms laid out in the Potsdam Agreement by the Allies, the U.K., U.S. and France took possession of the western half of Germany and the Soviet Union claimed the eastern half. Berlin, situated square in the middle of the eastern half of Germany, was divided in much the same fashion. The U.K., U.S. and the French wanted an independent, unified Germany based on a Western democratic model. But the Soviets seemed bent on punishing the Germans for the War and on creating a unified Germany to act as a puppet and buffer state against the West.

Three years after the end of the war, the German post-war economy was in shambles. People were unable to get adequate food and many still lived in the basements of bombed out buildings. The currency, the Reichsmark, placed into circulation during the war, was in free fall and people bartered with cigarettes instead.

On June 21, 1948, the Allies introduced the Deutsche Mark, over Soviet objections, to shore up the German economy. Despite the fact the Soviet military had introduced a currency into their sector and outlawed using other notes, the Deutsche Mark became the defacto currency in all four sectors of Berlin. Stalin, who had lost in his efforts to get Berliners to back a communist ticket in municipal elections two years prior, now faced the possibility of a Western orientated, economically viable Berlin that would always be in Eastern Germany. He decided it was time to break the backs of the Allies and force them out of the city. On June 24, the Soviets stopped all rail and barge traffic coming in and out of Berlin. Road traffic would soon follow. On June 25, the Soviets stopped all shipments of food from the Soviet to Western sectors.

At the time, West Berlin, a city of almost two-and-a-half-million people, had only 36 days' worth of food, and 45 days' worth of coal. People would start starving soon if the Allies didn’t act quickly. From the beginning, the mission was daunting. On June 26, 1948, 32 C-47s, some still with markings left over from D-Day, took off for Berlin with 80 tons of cargo, food, milk and medicine. For weeks, the Allies struggled to deliver 1,000 tons of supplies a day. But that was a far cry from the 5,000 tons that the West Berliners needed. But after a wide series of innovations instituted by Maj. Gen. William Tunner, who took command of the operation on July 28, 1948, the airlift was transporting more than 4,500 tons of cargo a day.

Fight operations during the Airlift were thoroughly choreographed affairs conducted by pilots highly skilled in technical flying. A plane took off every three minutes from Wiesbaden and starting at 4,000 feet, took a slot in a “ladder” formation with other planes.

In addition to the hazards created by the nature and tempo of the operations, crews faced constant harassment in the air by the Soviets who were bent on seeing the alliance and the U.S. Air Force fail. The Soviets sent in Yak-3 fighters to buzz the cargo planes, when they weren’t doing that, they were releasing weather balloons into plane formations or jamming communications. At night, Soviet ground crews would shine floodlights at the planes, temporarily blinding their pilots.

By April, as many as 8,800 tons of supplies were being delivered daily to Berlin, outstripping the freight capacity previously brought in by rail. Eventually the Soviets, knew they had been beaten, and decided to end the blockade on May 12, 1949. The Airlift officially ended months later on Sept. 30. In all, the Allies delivered 2,326,406 tons of supplies to Berlin. But the supplies came with a cost, 101 lives lost, 31 of them American.


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