The Allied Powers met at Potsdam to discuss Germany’s future after their defeat. Their decision was to divide Germany into four zones; for Britain, France, USSR (Russia) and the US. Berlin was located inside Soviet-controlled East Germany.
Within this eastern zone, Soviet authorities forcibly unified Germany’s Communist Party and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) into the “Socialist Unity Party” (SED), who then called for an “anti-fascist, democratic regime, a parliamentary democratic republic”. At the same time, the Soviet Military suppressed all other political activities, and removed equipment, technicians and skilled personnel to the Soviet Union.
In June 1945, Stalin told German communist leaders that he expected to slowly undermine the British position in his zone, and that the US would withdraw within a year. He thought a united Germany under communist control would take little effort. Stalin decided in early 1946 that Germany must also come under Soviet control.
The Soviets also allowed limited access to their zone; there was no formal agreement concerning rail and road access to Berlin through the Soviet zone and western allies had to rely on Soviet goodwill. At the time, western allies assumed the Soviet’s refusal to allow more than ten trains per day, on one rail line was temporary, but the Soviets continued to agree to any further expansion.
Only three air corridors were given to the western allies, and in 1946, the Soviets stopped delivering agricultural goods from their zone, and in retaliation, American commander Lucius Clay stopped shipments of dismantled industries from western Germany. The Soviets then started a campaign against American policy, and began to obstruct administrative work of all four zones.
US zone of Berlin
Berlin was quickly becoming a central point for US and Soviet attempts to gain influence in Europe. A Soviet Foreign Minister noted, “What happens to Berlin happens to Germany, and what happens to Germany happens to Europe.
Soviet treatment of the eastern German population, political repression and a harsh winter, conditions were hostile in the Soviet zone. Local elections in 1946 resulted in mass anti-communist protest vote, especially in Berlin.
Meanwhile, Britain and USA were working to combine their economies into an area known as “Bizone”, which was later renamed “Trizone” when France joined. Representatives from the three governments met in London twice in 1948 to discuss Germany, despite Soviet resistance.
In late January, 1948 the Soviets began stopping British and American trains into Berlin to check passenger identities. The western government approved the decision to extend economic aid (The Marshall Plan) to Germany, and finalised the merge of western zones. A federal government system was agreed for them.
Following a meeting in March, Stalin decided to send a secret document to Molotov outlining a plan to force Western allies into the Soviet government’s ideas, by “regulating” access to Berlin. The Allied Council Control met for the last time in late March 1948, when Vasily Sokolovsky demanded information from the London Conference, and upon denial of this, he adjourned the meeting, and left with the entire Soviet delegation.
On March 25th, 1948, the Soviets began to restrict Western military and passenger traffic into Berlin from the other zones of occupation. This was brought into action on 1st April. Alongside an announcement that all cargo leaving Berlin by rail had to be permitted by the Soviet commander. On 2nd April, General Clay ordered a halt to all military trains, and that all supplies to the military were to be transported by air, dubbed the “Little Lift”.
The restrictions were eased on 10th April, but continued to be disruptive to rail and road traffic for the next few months, whilst the US continued to supply its military using cargo aircraft. The flights continued through June to build up stocks of food in case of further Soviet restrictions.
At the same time, Soviet aircraft began to disrupt West Berlin airspace and harass flights in and out. A Soviet Air Force Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter crashed with a British aircraft near RAF Gatow, killing all aboard both aircraft. This aggravated tensions between Western allies and the Soviets further.
On 9th April, Soviet officials demanded American military personnel keeping communication equipment in the Eastern zone must withdraw, preventing navigation beacons to mark air routes. On 20th April, the Soviets demanded all barges attain clearance before entering the Soviet zone.
Soviets had effectively devalued the Reich mark (German currency) by excessive printing, with Germans ending up using cigarettes as da facto currency. The Western allies planned a reform for the Reich mark, to help stabilise the economy, which the Soviets opposed, and believed the only currency that should circulate should be the one they issue themselves. The Soviets were hoping that a continued German recession would weaken Germany further, making it easier for communism to take over.
The Soviet Union ordered its military to introduce its own new currency, and only permit the use of that in their sector of Berlin in May 1948. On 18th June, the US, Britain and France announced that on 21st June the Deutsche Mark would be introduced, but the Soviets refused to acknowledge it as acceptable currency in Berlin. 250,000,000 Deutsche marks into the city, and it quickly became the standard currency, and alongside the Marshall Plan, Germany seemed to be on the path to recovery. This new hope for Berlin provoked Stalin, who now wanted the West out of Berlin completely.
On the day after the announcement of the new currency, Soviet guards began halting all passenger trains and traffic on the autobahn to Berlin, disrupting Western freight shipments and demanded all water transport secured Soviet permission. On the day the Deutsche Mark was introduced, the Soviets stopped a US military supply train and sent it back to West Germany. The next day, the Soviets announced their plans for a new currency in their zones, known as the “Ostmark”. At the same time, a Soviet representative told the Western powers; “We are warning both you and the population of Berlin that we shall apply economic and administrative sanctions that will lead to the circulation in Berlin exclusively of the currency of the Soviet occupation zone”. A huge propaganda campaign emerged, condemning Britain, the US and France. Rumours of an invasion spread like wildfire, and German communists rioted and attacked pro-west German leaders.
Land and water connections between non Soviet zones and Berlin were cut off on 24th June, and all rail and barge traffic was halted in and out of Berlin. The following day, the Soviets stopped supplying food to the civilian population in the Western areas of Berlin. Motor traffic from Berlin to the western zones was permitted, but this required a 14.3 mile detour to a ferry crossing because of “repairs” to a bridge. Surface traffic from Western zones to Berlin was blockaded, only leaving the air corridors, and rejected any argument that the Western allies were entitled to these supply routes.
By this time, West Berlin had 36 days’ of food, and 45 days’ worth of coal. Due to post-war reductions in Britain and American armies, they were far outnumbered by the Soviet Union’s military. Due to the American military inferiority, any of their plans for war would involve hundreds of atomic bombs, but there were only 50 bombs in existence at this point, and the aircraft & personnel capable of handling these weapons were even more limited. Three B-29 groups were sent to Europe in July and August 1948, and though the Soviets knew these were not able to carry atomic bombs, the first Silver-plate atomic bombers arrived in April 1949.
The Soviet military forces in the Soviet sector numbered 1.5 million, and the US regiments in Berlin would have put up little fight in a confrontation. General Clay, in charge of the US zone of occupation refused to retreat to Washington D.C, instead stating “There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis…. We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent.”
Assuming the Western zones had been forced into complying, the Soviet Military Administration in Germany celebrated the beginning of the blockade. Clay thought the Stalin was afraid of a Third World War, and was therefore bluffing about Berlin, and relying on the West’s unwillingness to provoke a war.
On 30th November, 1945, it was agreed that there would be three, twenty mile wide air corridors providing free access to Berlin, which was secured in writing. The Soviets were also unable to claim that cargo aircraft were any military threat, and so the only way of stopping the airlift would be to shoot the aircraft down; which would be considered an act of aggression, thus breaking their own agreements. There only other option was to back down.
The airlift itself would have to be perfect; too slow and Soviet intervention would be required to prevent starvation. General Clay consulted General LeMay on the possibility of the airlift, asking “Can you haul coal”, baffled, LeMay replied “We can haul anything”. When American forces consulted Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF), about a joint airlift, they found out the RAF already had an airlift in place to support British troops in Berlin.
After careful calculation by British and American generals, based on a daily minimum ration of 1,900 calories, 1,534 tonnes would have to be flown in daily to sustain the population of Berlin, with an additional 3,475 tonnes of coal and gasoline a day for power.
Post war demobilisation left the US forces in Europe with few aircraft, and only the potential of hauling around 300 tonnes of supplies a day, the RAF estimated they could haul 400 tonnes a day.
It was hoped that the RAF would be able to quickly increase these numbers, as Britain was so close to Europe, and was expected to contribute an extra 750 tonnes a day in the short term, but this was at the cost of suspending all air traffic to Berlin aside from these flights. The US would have to contribute quickly, the most ideal candidate for these flights was the C-54 Skymaster, and the US Navy equivalent, the R5D.
This was not nearly enough to move the 5,000 tons a day that would be needed, but these numbers could be increased as new aircraft arrived from the United Kingdom, the United States, and France. The RAF would be relied on to increase its numbers quickly. It could fly additional aircraft in from Britain in a single hop, bringing the RAF fleet to about 150 Dakotas and 40 of the larger Avro Yorks with a 10-ton payload.
After careful calculations, an airlift emerged as the best course of action. Clay spoke to the mayor of Berlin, and told him “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.” The mayor assured him Berliners would support his actions, and would make all the necessary sacrifices.
The US action was known as “Operation Vittles”, the British’ dubbed “Operation Plainfare”, and after the Australian contribution to the airlift began in September 1948, it was nicknamed “Operation Pelican”.
Brigadier General Joseph Smith was appointed as the Provisional Task Force Commander of the airlift on 24th June. He had previously been Chief of Staff in LeMay’s B-29 command in World War Two, in India, but had no airlift experience. The following day, Clay gave the order to launch Operation Vittles, and the next day, 32 airships took off, carrying 80 tonnes of cargo, the first British aircraft flying on 28th June. At this point, the airlift was anticipated to last around three weeks.
On 27th June, Clay talked with William draper about the situation;
“I have already arranged for our maximum airlift to start on Monday [June 28]. For a sustained effort, we can use seventy Dakotas [C-47s]. The number which the British can make available is not yet known, although General Robertson is somewhat doubtful of their ability to make this number available. Our two Berlin airports can handle in the neighbourhood of fifty additional airplanes per day. These would have to be C-47s, C-54s or planes with similar landing characteristics, as our airports cannot take larger planes. LeMay is urging two C-54 groups. With this airlift, we should be able to bring in 600 or 700 tons a day. While 2,000 tons a day is required in normal foods, 600 tons a day (utilizing dried foods to the maximum extent) will substantially increase the morale of the German people and will unquestionably seriously disturb the Soviet blockade. To accomplish this, it is urgent that we be given approximately 50 additional transport planes to arrive in Germany at the earliest practicable date, and each day’s delay will of course decrease our ability to sustain our position in Berlin. Crews would be needed to permit maximum operation of these planes.”
By 1st July, the operation was getting underway; C-54 were arriving in large numbers, Rheinmain Air Base became a C-54 hub, and Wiesbaden kept a mix of C-54s and C-47s. American and Britain used each other’s air corridors to fly to and from Berlin.
Accommodating the huge numbers of flights, made by hugely varied aircraft required a high level of precision and co-ordination. Smith, with help from his staff, developed a complex timetable for flights called the “block system”. Aircraft were scheduled to take off every four minutes, flying 1000 feet higher than the flight in front. The pattern began at 5,000 feet and was repeated five times.
During its first week, the airlift only managed 90 tonnes a day, but this shot to 1000 tonnes in the second week. This was an acceptable level had the effort only had to last a few week. Communist propaganda ridiculed the effort in East Berlin, marking it weak and unsustainable.
Regardless of the excitement and praise surrounding the work of the crews and daily tonnage levels, the airlift reached nowhere near its capacity because the operation had little airlift expertise; maintenance was inadequate, crews were inefficiently used, record keeping was limited and many desk personnel were publicity seeking and disrupting an efficient business like atmosphere.
Once it had become clear that a long term airlift was necessary, these issues were recognised by the United States National Security Council at a meeting with Clay in July 1948. Wedemeyer recommended that Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner command the operation. USAFE Chief of Staff endorsed the recommendation- Tunner had reorganised the Hump airlift between India and China, doubling the daily tonnage and hours flown.
On 28th July, 1948, Tunner arrived in Wiesbaden to take over. He began revamping the entire operation, agreeing with LeMay to form the Combined Air Lift Task Force (CALTF) to control both USAFE and RAF lift operations from a central location. MATS immediately deployed eight squadrons of C-54s- 72 aircraft in total to Wiesbaden and Rheinmain Air Base to reinforce the 54 already in operation.
Cloud cover over Berlin had dropped to building height, and torrential rain had made visibility poor; a C-54 crashed and burned at the end of a runway, another bursting its tires to try to avoid it. The schedule that had been put in place, was increasing the risk of mid-air collisions. Freshly unloaded planes were denied permission to take off to avoid this, which created a backup on the ground. Despite the fact no one was killed, Tunner was embarrassed that the control tower had in fact lost control, while the commander of the airlift was circling overhead. Tunner demanded all stacked aircraft return home immediately, except his. This was dubbed “Black Friday”, and Tunner noted that it was from this date that the success of the airlift curtailed.
As a result of this, Tunner introduced some new rules that would be in effect at all times, regardless of actual visibility, and each manoeuvre would only have one chance to land, and if it missed its window, it would return to its airbase, where it would be slotted back into the flow. Stacking was eliminated, and planners found that in the time it took before to land and unstack nine aircraft, 30 could be landed. Delays and accident rated dropped immediately, and Tunner decided to replace all C-47s in the air lift with larger aircraft.
Tunner also realised that long delays were caused by crews returning to their aircraft after going to get refreshments, Tunner banned aircrew leaving their aircraft, and instead equipped jeeps with mobile snack bars, so crews could eat while their aircraft were being unloaded. All of this reduced the take-off time to thirty minutes.
To maximise the limited number of aircraft, Tunner altered the stacking method to three minutes and 500 feet of separation, stacked from 4,000 to 6,000 feet. Maintenance became the highest priority, which maximised the limited aircraft further. Tunner also shortened block times to six hours to squeeze in another shift, making 1440 (the number of minutes in a day) landings in Berlin a daily goal. His ambition was to create a conveyor belt style system that could be sped up for slowed down as situations changed.
The Berliners played a huge role in the airlift; unloading crews and airfield repairers were almost entirely locals, who were given additional rations in return. As the crews improved, the operation became even more efficient, until a record was set by a twelve man crew, who unloaded an entire 10 tonne shipment of coal in five minutes and 45 seconds. By the end of August, the airlift was becoming a huge success, with supplies improving to 5,000 tonnes a day.
One particular pilot, Gail Halvorsen used his time off to fly into Berlin and make movies with his camera. He landed at Tempelhof on 17th July, and walked over to a crowd of children, who had gathered at the end of the runway to watch the aircraft. After talking with the children about the aircraft and the flights, he handed them two sticks of gum, and told them if they didn’t fight over it, then he would drop off more. The children divided up the gum as fairly as they could, and before he left asked how they would they know it was him flying. He replied “I’ll wiggle my wings”.
True to his word, on his approach to Berlin the next day, he rocked the aircraft and dropped chocolate bars attached to a handkerchief to the children below. The number of children increased every day, and soon enough there was a stack of letters in the Base Ops addressed to “Uncle Wiggly Wings”, and other such names. Though Halvorsen’s commanding officer was angry that this made it into the news, Tunner immediately expanded it to “Operation Little Vittles”. Other pilots began to drop sweets, children sent in their own candy from the US to help out, and soon even major manufacturers joined in. By the end of it all, over twenty three tonnes of sweets were dropped on Berlin- the “operation” had become a huge propaganda success for the US.
Operation Little Vittles
Although the early estimates were that about 4,000 to 5,000 tons per day would be needed to supply the city, this was during summer weather, when the Airlift was only expected to last a few weeks. As the operation dragged on into the autumn, the situation altered drastically. The food requirements would remain the same (around 1,500 tons), but the need for additional coal to heat the city dramatically increased the total amount of cargo to be transported by an additional 6,000 tons a day.
To sustain the Airlift under these conditions, the current system would have to be greatly expanded. Aircraft were available, and the British started adding their larger Handley Page Hastings in November, but maintaining the fleet proved to be a serious problem. Tunner looked to the Germans once again, hiring ex-Luftwaffe ground crews.
Another problem was the lack of runways in Berlin to land on: two at Tempelhof and one at Gatow — neither of which was designed to support the loads the C-54s were putting on them. All of the existing runways required hundreds of labourers, who ran onto them between landings and dumped sand into the runway’s Marsden Matting (pierced steel planking) to soften the surface and help the planking survive. Since this system could not endure through the winter, between July and September 1948 a 6,000 ft. long asphalt runway was constructed at Tempelhof.
Though not ideal, with the approach being over Berlin’s apartment blocks, the runway was, nevertheless, a major upgrade to the airport’s capabilities. With it in place, the secondary runway was upgraded from Marsden Matting to asphalt between September and October 1948. A similar upgrade program was carried out by the British at Gatow during the same period, also adding a second runway, using concrete.
The French Air Force, meanwhile, had become involved in the First Indochina War, so it could only bring up some old Junkers Ju 52s to support its own troops. They were too small and slow to be of much help. However, France agreed to build a complete, new and larger, airport in its sector, on the shores of Lake Tegel. French military engineers, managing German construction crews, were able to complete the construction in under 90 days. The airport was mostly built by hand, by thousands of mostly female labourers, who worked day and night.
Heavy equipment was needed to level the ground, equipment that was too large and heavy to fly in on any existing cargo aircraft. The solution was to dismantle large machines and then re-assemble them. Using the five largest American C-82 Packet transports, it was possible to fly the machinery into West Berlin. This not only helped to build the airfield, but also demonstrated that the Soviet blockade could not keep anything out of Berlin. The Tegel airfield later evolved into Berlin-Tegel Airport.
To improve air traffic control, which would be critical as the number of flights grew, the newly developed Ground Controlled Approach radar system (GCA) was flown to Europe for installation at Tempelhof, with a second set installed at Fassberg in the British Zone in West Germany.
None of these efforts could fix the weather, though, which would be the biggest problem. November and December 1948 proved to be the worst months of the airlift operation. One of the longest-lasting fogs ever experienced there blanketed the entire European continent for weeks. All too often, aircraft would make the entire flight and then be unable to land in Berlin. On 20 November 42 aircraft departed for Berlin, but only one landed there. At one point, the city had only a week’s supply of coal left. The weather improved, however. More than 171,000 tons were delivered in January 1949, 152,000 tons in February, and 196,223 tons in March.
By April 1949 airlift operations were running smoothly and Tunner wanted to shake up his command to avoid complacency. He believed in the spirit of competition between units, and coupled with the idea of a big event, that units would go to whatever extent was necessary to outdo each other. He decided that on Easter Sunday the airlift would break all records. To do this, maximum efficiency was needed. To simplify handling, the only cargo would be coal, and stockpiles were built up for the effort. Maintenance schedules were altered so that the maximum number of aircraft were available.
From noon on 15 April to noon on 16 April 1949, crews worked around the clock. When it was over, 12,941 tons of coal had been delivered in 1,383 flights, without a single accident. A welcome side effect of the effort was that operations in general were boosted, and tonnage increased from 6,729 tons to 8,893 tons per day thereafter. In total, the airlift delivered 234,476 tons in April. On 21 April the tonnage of supplies flown into the city exceeded that previously brought by rail.
On 15 April 1949 the Russian news agency TASS reported a willingness by the Soviets to lift the blockade. The next day the US State Department stated the “way appears clear” for the blockade to end. Soon afterwards, the four powers began serious negotiations, and a settlement was reached, on Western terms. On 4 May 1949 the Allies announced an agreement to end the blockade in eight days’ time.
The Soviet blockade of Berlin was lifted at one minute after midnight on 12 May 1949. A British convoy immediately drove through to Berlin, and the first train from West Germany reached Berlin at 5:32 A.M. Later that day an enormous crowd celebrated the end of the blockade. General Clay, whose retirement had been announced by US President Truman on 3 May, was saluted by 11,000 US soldiers and dozens of aircraft. Once home, Clay received a ticker-tape parade in New York City, was invited to address the US Congress, and was honoured with a medal from President Truman.
Nevertheless, flights continued for some time, to build up a comfortable surplus, though night flying and then weekend flights could be eliminated once the surplus was large enough. By 24 July 1949 three months’ worth of supplies had been amassed, ensuring that there was ample time to restart the Airlift if needed. The Berlin Airlift officially ended on 30 September 1949, after fifteen months. In total the USA delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 tons, totalling 2,326,406 tons, nearly two-thirds of which was coal, on 278,228 flights to Berlin. The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight and 6,964 passengers during 2,062 sorties. The C-47s and C-54s together flew over 92 million miles in the process, almost the distance from Earth to the Sun. At the height of the Airlift, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds.