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The Berlin Blockade: The Story of History’s Most Incredible Airlift

The Cold War was a war without direct military conflict between the two parties involved. However, on a handful of occasions throughout the decades-long standoff, tensions heated up to the point where it wasn’t clear that things would remain that way. The first major crisis of the Cold War took place in Berlin in the late 1940s. It was called the Berlin Blockade, and it required the most massive airlift in history to ensure that countless Berliners didn’t starve. By its end, it became a symbol of the opposing values and tactics of the world’s two superpowers. Let’s explore the Berlin Blockade.

Postwar Berlin

berlin wall map
Berlin wall map.By ChrisO, is licensed under CC-BY

At the end of World War Two, Germany and Berlin were both split in half. West Germany and West Berlin went to the USA, France, and Britain, while East Germany and East Berlin went to the USSR.

In the years following the end of World War Two, these countries’ plans for Germany were still largely undecided and uncoordinated. The triumvirate of Western powers had agreed to establish a West German government by 1949, and President Harry Truman was considering abandoning the American position in Berlin at that point. The Soviets had a better understanding of the situation. Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov said, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”5

Berlin’s location 160 km (100 miles) inside East Germany complicated matters for the Western nations. West Berlin relied on supplies from West Germany, especially for food and fuel. The western allies had access to Berlin via train, car, and plane, but the Soviets began to restrict access to one rail line and ten trains per day. This exposed a critical flaw in the naive outlook of the western countries. They had no legal agreement in place to force Stalin to keep land passageways open, instead trusting in the goodwill of the dictator and his government. Unfortunately, this goodwill evaporated the moment that the war ended.

Buildup to the Blockade

While this mini-trade restriction only lasted a few weeks, the inciting incident for the full-scale blockade was a currency agreement announced in mid-1948.

The German Reichsmark, which was introduced after the hyper-inflation of the 1920s, was massively unstable. To make matters worse, the USSR was further debasing the currency by printing it in droves. But keeping Germany unstable was Russia’s plan.

On the other hand, the US introduced the Marshall Plan, the multi-billion dollar program to rebuild Europe. Truman’s advisors had won him over to the idea that a strong Germany was essential for revitalizing the continent, so they paired the Marshall Plan with a plan to introduce a new German currency. This new money, which they announced on June 21st of 1948, would be called the Deutsch Mark, and it was distributed almost immediately through West Germany and West Berlin.

The Soviets strongly opposed this plan. They claimed total responsibility for managing Germany’s currency and decried the United States for acting unilaterally to introduce the Deutsch Mark. They demanded that the US not bring the new currency into Berlin, but, unfortunately for the Soviets, the Allies had already transported 250 million Deutsch marks into the city. Within days it became the standard currency throughout the area.

Stalin saw this as an opportunity to force the western powers out of Berlin. So, just three days after the announcement of the Deutsch Mark, the Soviets completely shut down all land and water transportation into the city from West Germany. The western nations responded by cutting off all of their exports to East Germany, including massive amounts of steel and coal, which were needed to rebuild the east. Stalin escalated one step further the following day by cutting off all food imports into West Berlin.

On the day that the blockade began, West Berlin had 36 days worth of food and 45 days worth of coal. Some western leaders believed that the embargo would only last a couple of weeks, but most agreed that a response was necessary.

The Airlift Begins

The allies began to assess their options. Open military engagement was out of the question, as the Soviets had 1.5 million troops around Berlin, and the western nations had already scaled down their militaries since the war’s end. The use of an atomic bomb was also out of the question, as the US had no planes anywhere near the region capable of delivering one.

Legal recourse was also impossible, as the allies had never negotiated ground-based passage into the city. However, the Soviets had agreed to grant three air routes to West Berlin from the three sectors of West Germany. So, the allies settled on an airlift and began planning immediately.

The first task was to estimate the needs of the people of Berlin. Based on a 2,000 calorie diet, the city would require daily shipments of 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese. In all, 1,534 tons of food were required each day to sustain Berlin’s two million people. On top of that, the city would need almost 3,500 tons of coal, diesel, and petrol for heat and power, bringing the total weight of goods to about 5,000 tons.

At the outset of the blockade, the Americans had 96 C-47 Skytrains in the region, each one capable of carrying 3.5 tons of cargo. The UK had 190 airplanes, including 150 of the C-47s, and 40 of the larger Avro Yorks, which could haul 10 tons. Altogether, this fleet could only transport about 750 tons of goods into the city each day, barely enough to keep the population from starving. However, the United States had over 450 C-54 Skymasters available throughout the world, though it would take some time to transport them to Germany. These C-54s, with their 10-ton capacity, had the potential to save the airlift.

On June 25th, 1948, the Americans launched Operation Vittles with 80 C-47s running supplies to the city. A few days later, the Brits began Operation Plainfare. 

The Operation Scales Up

The first week of the airlift was underwhelming, with planes delivering just ninety tons per day. In the second week, the total reached 1,000 tons per day. This total would’ve been plenty had the blockade ended after a few weeks, but that was not the case.

The organization that ran the American operation was called USAFE, and they had absolutely no airlift experience. Airport crews in West Germany and West Berlin were drastically overworked, maintenance was inadequate, and record-keeping was practically non-existent. Their tactics may have been effective on the small scale of 1,000 tons per day, but their lack of organization quickly became a problem as the size increased.

William Tunner at desk
William Tunner at desk

A change of leadership was needed, and the man for the job was Major General William H. Tunner. Tunner had led the “Hump” airlift earlier that decade, which supplied massive amounts of cargo to Chiang Kai-shek’s forces in China, and his experience would prove invaluable. He integrated the newly arrived C-54s into the fleet and saw the airlift increase its daily transport totals.

On August 13th of 1948, Tunner decided to hop on a flight into Berlin to conduct a ceremony for an American pilot who had flown the most airlift flights. His timing could not have been any worse. On the evening of his trip, thick rain clouds rolled over Berlin. The clouds blocked the visibility of the airstrip and made the landing area slick. 

One American plane crashed on the runway, and two others barely avoided the same fate. Meanwhile, Tunner’s airplane circled above Berlin and was never able to land for the ceremony. Not only was this an embarrassing display by Tunner, but the day had one of the lowest total deliveries since the first week. It was considered the worst day of the airlift, earning it the nickname Black Friday. But, it would also become a significant turning point.

Tunner instituted instrument flight rules at all times, standards typically reserved for flights in poor visibility. He reduced the amount of space between planes and completely eliminated all C-47s from the fleet in favor of the C-54s, after determining that the 10-ton -54 could be loaded and unloaded in the same amount of time as the 3.5 ton -47. 

Some of Tunner’s changes were comically simple. He noticed long delays after planes were unloaded in Berlin because the pilots generally got out of their aircraft to eat and smoke. So, Tunner introduced a snack cart that was reportedly always operated by beautiful German women. The snack cart would go from plane to plane, ensuring that pilots never left their cockpits and reducing the amount of time that aircraft were left sitting at Berlin airstrips.

Perhaps the most significant change, though, was that Tunner demanded control of the entire operation. Command had previously been split between the Army and Navy, two branches notorious for their inability to get along. Tunner combined them to form the Combined Air Lift Task Force (CALTF). The improved coordination meant fewer back-ups on the runways, and the results were immediate.

By the end of August 1948, two months into the airlift, daily operations flew more than 1,500 flights and delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo each day. The Soviets took no serious steps to stop the airlifts.

The Cold Winter

After the low point of Black Friday, it was smooth sailing for several months. However, as winter approached, it became clear that there had been a severe oversight in planning. While the city’s food needs remained unchanged, the winter called for greater amounts of coal fuel to heat the city’s homes. That meant that the 5,000 tons of goods that sustained Berlin through the summer months would need to double to get the city through the winter.

Another problem was the runways in West Berlin. The existing airstrips struggled to handle the massive workload of thousands of fully-loaded C-54s every week, and they were deteriorating as a result. Even if they were in ideal condition, there weren’t enough landing strips to meet the demand. Thousands of Berliners responded by working day and night to build additional runways at the American run Tempelhof airport and the British run Gatow airport.

It turned out that the biggest problem in the early winter of 1948 was one that couldn’t be fixed by any amount of effort: the weather. November and December of that year experienced the thickest and longest-lasting fog in decades, leading to some of the worst months of the entire airlift. It became all-too-common for pilots to begin their descent, only to pull up at the last moment because they couldn’t see the runway. Some planes were able to drop portions of their load without landing, but, in most cases, these planes were required to return to their West German bases to reduce any clogging of Berlin’s runways. This problem peaked on November 20th, 1948, when 42 aircraft took off from West Germany, and only one successfully landed in Berlin.

Thankfully, the fog did not last forever, though. When the weather improved, so did the airlift. In January of 1949, the allies delivered 171,000 tons of goods, averaging about 5,500 tons per day. This was followed by 152,000 tons in February and 196,223 tons in March.

Easter Airlift and Blockade End

Going into April, the weather had improved only slightly, and the city still needed vast amounts of coal to warm the homes and fuel the factories. So, Tunner decided to make a statement on Easter Sunday, April 16th, 1949. He was a big believer in the spirit of competition and hoped that the upcoming day’s achievements would be enough of a morale boost to get his team through the summer. 

From noon on April 15th to noon on April 16th, crews worked around the clock. In those 24 hours, the Americans delivered 12,941 tons of coal in 1,383 flights, without a single accident. That’s over 11-million kilograms (almost 26 million pounds) worth of coal in a single day. Following that Herculean effort, the average daily delivery increased from 6,729 tons to 8,893 tons per day. In total, the airlift delivered 234,476 tons of goods in April.

On the day of the Easter Airlift, the USSR announced a willingness to end the Berlin blockade, seemingly realizing that the Western Allies were willing to do whatever it took to keep West Berlin afloat. Negotiations immediately began between the four countries involved, and, on May 4th, 1949, it was announced that the blockade would end in eight days. Supply flights continued for the next several months as the western allies wanted to be prepared for the chance that the Soviets went back on their word. However, no blockade was reinstated, and the last flights were flown on September 30th of 1949.

Results of the Blockade

Over the 15 months of the Berlin Airlift, the US delivered 1,783,573 tons and the UK 541,937 tons, totaling 2,326,406 tons. That’s over 2-billion kilograms (4.6 billion pounds) of goods, nearly two-thirds of which was coal. The operation included 278,228 flights to Berlin. The Royal Australian Air Force even pitched in with 7,968 tons of freight. The C-47s and C-54s together flew over 148,000,000 km (92,000,000 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.

The operation’s total cost was somewhere from approximately US $224 million to over US $500 million (equivalent to roughly $2.41 billion to $5.37 billion now). The financial burden was shared by the USA, the UK, and West Germany.

Perhaps the most crucial impact of the airlift, besides the hundreds of thousands of lives saved, was the impact it had on Germany’s relations with France, America, and Britain. Tensions had been high between the countries following World War Two, but the airlift convinced Germany of these countries’ common interests, namely, capitalism and individual freedoms. 

Twelve years after the airlift ended, the Berlin Wall was built. It would stand for several more decades, but many people see the Berlin Airlift as the point where the German people’s hearts and minds turned to the west, even if the same could not be said for their government. 

What do you think? Was the Berlin Airlift the first Western victory of the Cold War? Or was it a stalemate that had little impact beyond the lives saved? Would there have ever been a Berlin Wall if not for the airlift?

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