At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided into four zones under the administration of Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Big Four also occupied Berlin, dividing the city into sectors, despite its location deep in the heart of Soviet occupied Germany.
Although relations between the four powers was at times strained in the immediate post-war era, co-operation began to break down in 1947. Early 1948, the three Western powers decided to amalgamate their zones and introduce a new currency – the Deutschmark.
In attempts to dissuade the West, Soviet forces deliberately escalated harassment of Western traffic to and from the city. This led to the Berlin blockade imposed on 24 June 1948. By impeding all road, rail and river approaches, Berlin was a city under siege – accessible only by air.
An ‘airbridge’ consisting of hundreds of reconditioned World War II bombers (nick-named Rosinenbomber, or ‘raisin bombers’), supplied over two million West Berliners with food, fuel and other supplies. At its height one plane reached West Berlin every 30 seconds.
The Airlift officially ended on 30 September 1949, 15 months after its protracted beginnings in June 1948. In total, the United States and Britain delivered 1,783,573 and 541,937 tons respectively, from 277,569 flights to Berlin.
Operation ‘Plain Fare’, the British code word for the airlift, came at a human cost though. In total 101 fatalities were recorded as a result of the airlift, including 39 British (17 Royal Air Force, 1 British Army, 21 civilians).
The attempted strangulation of Berlin by the Soviet Union to force the Western Allies out of the city failed. Nevertheless, the Berlin blockade, and subsequent Airlift, went on to symbolise the uneasy peace of the Cold War.
This is a story of the Berlin Air Lift, the operation carried out by the Royal-Air Force and U.S. Air Force to supply two and a quarter million people of Berlin with food, coal, and other necessities of life. In June 1948 all road and rail communications between the Allied Zones and the Western Sectors of Berlin were closed by the Russians. By 28th June, the only way into Berlin was by air and the first R.A.F. aircraft started this colossal undertaking according to many predictions, an impossible one to maintain especially during Winter.
Aircraft began their ceaseless drone into blockaded Berlin, using all available airfields in the Western Zone. In the first three days, 500 landings were achieved, but with the aid of the U.S. Air Force the number of flights rose by October to 600 per day. Sunderland Flying Boats of Coastal Command were ordered in to supplement the land-based planes. These took off from the Elbe at Hamburg and came down on one of Berlin´s Lakes. Food, still more food and raw materials had to be poured across the aerial bridge into the blockaded city.
Only one narrow corridor led from the base on the Elbe, near Hamburg, to the unloading base at Havel Lake in the British Sector of Berlin. Within four days of the decision to use them, the first giant boats, each carrying 5 tons of vital material, were on air transport service. They were soon winging their way daily over the port of Hamburg, destination, Berlin; past the Olympic Stadium and presently over the only power station left working in the Western Sector.
Immediately on landing, unloading commences and the machines are prepared for the return journey.
On the return trip exportable freight was carried and the opportunity taken to remove some of Berlin´s sick children for convalescence.
Only the very worst weather kept Allied aircraft out of the sky. Even through-storms and mists the hazardous chain of supply went on. As dusk falls, Sunderlands tie-up for the night.
Although doing valuable service, the Sunderlands´part was small compared to the land-based planes. These indefatigable blockade-runners carried on throughout the night and into the dawn. Night and day, week after week, it was a case of more planes, more food, more raw materials. Shipped without pause from eight different air fields in the Western Zone.
Month after month the tempo of flights was stepped up, and by Christmas, American and British planes had made 100,000 trips and carried a total of 730,000 tons into Berlin. Even cars were transported, but coal, equally as vital to Berlin as bread, was the greatest load of all. Over one million tons have now been flown in.
Hundreds of planes of all types and sizes, military and civil, were pressed into service. The R.A.F. York, load 9 tons-the Halifax, over 6 tons – the Viking, over 3 tons – the R.A.F. Dakota, 3 tons – the Civil Tudor, 8 tons – and what the Berliners call the ´Grosse´ Tudor, 10 tons.
As an additional boost to the Airlift, the R.A.F, introduced its Hastings, each carrying over nine tons. At the three airports in Berlin, Gatow, Templehof and Tegel – aircraft were landing or taking off every 90 seconds.
Many notabilities visited Berlin to see the workings of this magnificent achievement, and to praise the great work of the British and American ground and air personnel. Chief of Air Staff, Lord Tedder and the Foreign Secretary, Mr Bevin, whose diplomacy was much aided by the success of the Airlift. He added his tribute when he visited Berlin on the eve of the lifting of the blockade, in May 1949.
For ten whole months a ceaseless stream of Allied aircraft landed in Berlin where Germans, supervised by British Army personnel, eagerly unloaded the vital supplies. Aircrews of the R.A.F., and Commonwealth crews from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, together with their British Charter colleagues all played their part with the U.S. Air Force in maintaining this non-stop operation. A combined operation which on one day landed in Berlin a record load of nearly 13,000 tons. That is equivalent to the nominal tonnage moved daily by surface transport before the blockade. Newsprint for Berlin´s democratic press comes in. Mail for the outside world goes out.
Yes, the life of Berlin has been maintained, but not without the loss of forty-three airmen who gave their lives in this vital operation, the most outstanding transport achievement in the history of aviation.
The airlift carries on.