years ago, a massive airlift into
The morning of June 25, 1948, in
Berlin was unseasonably warm, and a low ceiling of dark clouds hung
ominously over the divided city. During the night, news editors in West
Berlin had been busy remaking the front pages of their morning papers
because of a flash from the Soviet-sponsored ADN news agency in East
Berlin: "The transport division of the Soviet military
administration is compelled to halt all passenger and freight traffic to
and from Berlin tomorrow at 0600 hours because of technical
difficulties. West Berlin will receive electricity only between 11 p.m.
and 1 a.m...."
West Berliners quickly learned what
the "technical difficulties" would mean. For weeks, the
Soviets had been harassing the French, British and American authorities
to try to force them to withdraw from the city. To this end, various
restrictions, controls and slowdowns had been imposed on military and
civilian traffic between West Germany and Berlin, and there had been
many frustrating discussions during which neither side would give in.
The Western Allies had had to resort
to airlifting military supplies to the city for 11 days, beginning on
April 1, 1948, when U.S. authorities had refused to submit to Soviet
inspection of military rail shipments. Land traffic resumed after much
haggling, but on June 15 the Communists closed the autobahn "for
repairs." Six days later, they halted all barge traffic into the
city. At this impasse, Douglas C-47 Skytrains from the 60th and 61st
Troop Carrier Groups at Kaufbeuren and Rhein Main made an average of 38
trips daily for five days to West Berlin with needed military supplies.
British Royal Air Force (RAF) aircraft also flew in supplies for British
nationals in the city. It was on June 26 that the so-called Berlin
Airlift officially began and the first scheduled airlift brought
supplies to the three Allied sectors of West Berlin.
Deep inside Soviet-held East Germany,
West Berlin was an island of democracy in an ocean of communism. At the
end of World War II, the Allied powers had agreed upon free access by
military traffic to the occupied zones of Berlin within the Soviet
sector of Germany. The Soviets later decided that this was no longer
acceptable and that they would force the British, French and American
military out in order to rid the city of democracy's influence. They
hoped to starve, freeze and scare the West Berliners into accepting
communism by the simple expedient of cutting off all resupply of life's
essentials. The three 20-mile-wide air corridors remained open, however.
The Allied occupation forces had been reduced drastically over the
previous two years, and the Soviets didn't believe there was a
sufficient cargo force left in West Germany to mount a successful
The blockade of the sprawling city
began promptly at 6 a.m. on June 26, 1948. All land, river and rail
traffic was halted between the three Allied sectors of West Germany and
West Berlin. The ultimatum was clear: The Western powers must withdraw
their military occupation forces from the city. The Soviets believed
they would soon win their point by leaving West Berlin without food,
fuel and other necessities.
As soon as word of the Soviet action
reached General Lucius D. Clay, the
One of the first flights into Berlin
after the land embargo began was a Douglas DC-4 piloted by Captain Jack
Bennett of American Overseas Airlines. Within hours, a small fleet of
battered, war-weary, twin-engine Douglas C-47s--the Air Force's famous
"Gooney Birds"--began to arrive from various West German bases
with priority cargo at Tempelhof Air Force Base in the American zone of
West Berlin. By nightfall, 80 tons of flour, milk and medicines had been
delivered to the blacked-out western half of the city.
General LeMay put his logistics staff
to work to figure out what it would take to build an air bridge to the
city with the aircraft available in the theater. Logistics experts
quickly calculated that it would require 2,000 tons of coal and 1,439
tons of food per day to meet the minimum basic needs of the 2 million
inhabitants. The normal total tonnage requirement for the city was
13,500 tons daily. But even 3,439 tons flown in each day with the few
available C-47s appeared an impossible task.
In spite of the heroic efforts of a
few hastily rounded-up pilots and ground personnel, the Western three
sectors of the city seemed doomed to capitulate. Berlin's Lord
Mayor-Elect Ernst Reuter told Clay that his people were grateful for the
efforts being made for them, but that they knew the city did not have a
chance with the entire armed might of the Soviet Union backing up the
There was also understandable
pessimism among the Allied nations. No city had ever been kept alive
solely by airlift. The tonnage requirements were simply too great,
especially in winter. Why try to hold Berlin anyway? Why not withdraw
all Allied claims to Berlin and let the Soviets have it?
The world's press debated these
questions while the U.S. Air Force went to work in concert with the
British. The French were eliminated from participating in any airlift
because of language difficulties. By prior agreement, the Americans and
British would fulfill the French military requirements. As an interim
measure to continue the flow of critical supplies before larger aircraft
could be assigned, the C-47s, capable of hauling 3 tons each, were
ordered to report from all over Europe to Wiesbaden and Frankfurt, site
of the two large American bases closest to the East German border.
Meanwhile, four-engine Douglas C-54
transports that could carry 10 tons each were ordered from Panama, Guam,
Hawaii, Alaska, Japan and the United States. While they were winging
their way to Central Europe with flight crews and ground personnel, the
faithful Gooney Birds flew round-the-clock missions from the two U.S.
bases to Berlin and back. Ground crews, mostly German civilians, were
hurriedly hired at both ends of the airlift to load and unload the vital
supplies. The RAF marshaled some of its Douglas C-47 Dakota, Handley
Page Hastings and Avro York aircraft and also began to fly the air
corridors to Gatow, an airfield in the British sector of Berlin. During
the summer months, the British also occasionally used amphibious
aircraft that landed on the waterways in the city.
Within four days, a C-47 was landing
at Tempelhof every eight minutes to discharge 2 1/2 tons of cargo--well
over 150 planeloads a day. The supplies were immediately trucked to
warehouses strategically located throughout the western sectors of the
city. However, this was only about one-thirtieth of the food, fuel and
medicines that would be required.
The Communist press in East Berlin
ridiculed the efforts being made to counter Soviet demands. It
derisively referred to "the futile attempts of the Americans to
save face and to maintain their untenable position in Berlin."
Those first few days were brutal for
the pilots and ground crews. The aircrews flew eight hours, did eight
hours of ground duty, then, if they were lucky, could sleep six or seven
hours. The weather did not cooperate, although it was midsummer. They
sometimes ran into rain, fog, hail and even snow flurries, all on one
The daily tonnage increased. Within
the first 10 days, more than 1,000 tons of cargo had been carried to
Berlin, including the first shipment of coal loaded in GI duffel bags.
By mid-July, 1,500 tons a day were being flown in by American planes,
while the British were flying in 500 tons daily with smaller transports
from their bases at Celle and Fassberg. By this time, the world news
media had focused on the effort. The press delighted in describing how
pilots formerly assigned to desks were now flying around the clock to
keep the city alive in what was quickly dubbed Operation Vittles.
More airlift capability was needed,
and larger Douglas C-54s began to arrive on June 30 to replace the
C-47s, all of which were relieved by October 1. Tonnage figures rose,
and within 28 days the planes were flying 3,028 tons of food, clothing,
coal, medicine and petroleum products into the city each day.
The Allied planes carried nearly
121,000 tons in August, and the West Berliners were gradually getting
enough supplies for a bare subsistence. In September, seeing that the
two airfields could not handle the rising demand for coal shipments,
Clay ordered several large steamrollers to build a new airfield, Tegel,
in the French sector. Too big to be carried by C-54s, the steamrollers
were cut into sections with acetylene torches, flown to Berlin and
welded together again. A Douglas C-74 Globemaster and a Boeing YC-97A
Stratofreighter were each flown experimentally for a short period, as
were five Fairchild C-82 Flying Boxcars.
The Air Force had a few Republic P-47
Thunderbolt fighters in West Germany in case the Soviets started a
shooting war. To back them up, the 36th Fighter Group pilots and
mechanics, with P-80 Shooting Star jet fighters, were ordered from the
Panama Canal Zone. Arriving in Scotland on a U.S. Navy carrier, they
were flown to Furstenfeldbruck, near Munich, to patrol the border with
The approach of fall brought freezing
conditions that caused delays. To get rid of ice that formed on aircraft
wings while planes were on the ground, a de-icing unit using a jet
engine was constructed. Master Sgt. Paul G. LeBeau conceived the idea of
mounting an engine from a P-80 on a truck and maneuvering it into
position in front of a plane so that the hot air blast would melt the
ice. It not only melted ice but also blew the wing dry. Six similar de-icers
were ordered for the airlift.
It appeared that the operation would
continue indefinitely. So the Air Force called on Maj. Gen. William H.
Tunner, a World War II veteran who had led transport operations from
India across the Himalayan "Hump" to China. With British
assent, he was named commander of the Combined Airlift Task Force. He
brought experienced members of his staff from the Military Air Transport
Service (MATS) with him. Their first major concern was aircraft
maintenance. All planes had to be inspected after 25 hours of flight,
then taken out of service after 200 hours for a more thorough check.
Those inspections were conducted at Oberpfaffenhofen, near Munich.
Later, a base at Burtonwood, England, handled this requirement.
Aircraft were returned to the United
States for 1,000-hour checks. Engines were overhauled by the Navy
machine shops at Alameda Naval Air Station, Calif. Two Navy squadrons
furnished 24 Douglas R5Ds, the Navy equivalent of the C-54s, which also
participated in the airlift effort. The British furnished 58 Dakotas at
first, then 40 Yorks for the effort. DC-4s from various civilian air
carriers participated in the auxiliary transatlantic lift in support of
It soon became obvious that the sod
runway with pierced steel mats at Tempelhof would be unsafe after much
usage by the heavier four-engine aircraft. The runway was strengthened
while construction of two cement runways began next to the steel strip.
Other needed bases were obtained by Tunner with the British at Celle and
Much coal would be required in the
bitter Berlin winter, and Air Force Colonel William Wuest spent hours
flying over Berlin looking for a suitable place to drop it in burlap
bags from low-flying bombers. A military firing range seemed
appropriate. Its abutments could be used to stop the rolling lumps. But
the experiment was discontinued when the coal was consistently smashed
"What I found was badly needed
was better timing of the flying operation," Tunner said in an
interview at his Virginia home in 1969. "Valuable time was wasted
in Berlin as crews landed, parked, shut off engines, took off for the
snack bar and then strolled over to Operations to make out their return
clearances. I laid down an order: No crew member was to leave the side
of his aircraft while the Germans unloaded it. Each plane would be met
by an operations officer who would hand the pilot his return clearance
all filled out, and a weather officer would give him the latest weather
back at his home base. Mobile snack bars tended by some of the most
beautiful girls in Berlin would move to the side of each plane.
Turn-around time was cut in half to 30 minutes."
General Tunner had an experience on
his first trip to Berlin in a C-54, soon after he arrived, that led to a
new rule. It was August 13, 1948, a day he referred to as "Black
Friday." The weather was fair when he departed from Wiesbaden, but
the plane was soon in the clouds as it entered the corridor. "We
were not alone in the sky," he said. "As the pilot followed
the prescribed flight path to Tempelhof, radioing the exact moment he
passed over the Fulda low-frequency beacon and turning to the heading of
057 degrees, we knew there were C-54s behind and ahead of us, each
precisely three minutes apart, and each flying at a speed of 180 miles
per hour. I felt that the operation was going smoothly."
But when they arrived over Berlin,
there was a heavy rainstorm and visibility was zero. The rain also
impaired the radar screen returns, and the situation became serious when
two C-54s had landing accidents that tied up the Tempelhof runway. Air
traffic controllers began to stack the C-54s at different altitudes as
they continued to arrive steadily. "And here I was, flying around
in circles over their heads," Tunner said in his memoirs. "It
was damned embarrassing. The commander of the Berlin Airlift couldn't
even get himself into Berlin."
Tunner grabbed the mike, identified
himself and called the Tempelhof tower. "Tell everyone in the stack
above and below me to go back home," he ordered. "Then tell me
when it's OK to land." They returned to their bases, and he landed.
"I believe the real success of
the Airlift stems from that day," Tunner recalled. "It was
that day that the rule book for instrument flying was rewritten."
He ordered that all flights, regardless of the weather, would follow
instrument flight rules (IFR), and any pilot who missed an approach for
any reason would immediately bring his load back to his base. No one
would be given another chance to try an approach and hold up other
Once this rule was put into effect,
the tonnage to Berlin rose steadily in good weather or bad as Air Force
crews flew the 120 miles in and out, round-the-clock through the three
air corridors. The flights became a steady routine. Each pilot was given
a precise takeoff time. At that exact moment, he would push the throttle
forward and climb out on the prescribed flight path to the first beacon
at Darmstadt and level off at his assigned altitude. The next beacon
would be tuned in and followed on the radio compass to others along the
corridor until the final one near Tempelhof. At that point, a ground
controlled approach (GCA) radar operator would take over and give
precise heading and altitude instructions until touchdown.
The operational questions resolved,
Tunner turned to "people problems." Most of the men assigned
to the airlift were on temporary duty away from their bases and thought
they would be returning home after 30 to 60 days in the theater. But
their orders were extended when the Soviets showed no indication of
lifting the blockade. Housing was in short supply, so tents were erected
and old Quonset huts were unboarded and outfitted with the bare
essentials. Meal hours at the dining halls were lengthened so that crews
could eat at almost any hour. Still, morale began to sag.
"Things like poor mail service,
no curtains on the windows so crews could sleep in the daytime, and poor
washing facilities took on huge proportions," Tunner said. He
decided that a spirit of competition and accomplishment had to be
established in each unit. He initiated the Task Force Times, an airlift
newspaper that contained the airlift's statistics "for all to see,
compare, and try to beat." It also contained cartoons by Sergeant
John H. "Jake" Schuffert, who drew humorous scenes of the
airlift, reminiscent of famous World War II cartoonist Bill Mauldin's
The Times worked its communications
magic. The tonnage increased, and even the German workers loading and
unloading the planes caught the fever of competition. A C-54 loading
record was established that was never beaten: 20,000 pounds by one
12-man crew in five minutes and 45 seconds.
Another serious problem was a shortage
of mechanics. Nonfraternization with the Germans was still the rule, and
they could be given only menial jobs with little responsibility. To
solve this dilemma, Tunner received permission from Clay to find a
former German Luftwaffe aircraft maintenance officer who could speak
excellent English. He located Maj. Gen. Hans Detlev von Rohden, who
translated aircraft maintenance manuals into German, recruited top
German mechanics and started a mechanics school to train them on the
Concurrently, an aircrew replacement
center was opened at Great Falls Air Force Base in Montana, where 29
pilots were turned out weekly to replace those flying the lift. The air
corridors, the approach to Tempelhof, the instrument letdown and GCA
procedures were duplicated down to the last detail. The C-54s were
loaded with sand to a gross weight of 64,000 pounds during practice
flights, although at least three landings were required at 70,000 pounds
gross weight before a pilot was considered qualified.
All of the C-47s were withdrawn by the
end of September, and 225 C-54s were devoted to the lift. Five thousand
tons a day were now being unloaded. An East German spy, stationed in an
apartment house and noting the unloading of every plane at Tempelhof,
was reportedly fired by his supervisor for reporting what the supervisor
thought were exaggerated totals.
November and December 1948 proved to
be the worst months of the airlift operation. One of the longest-lasting
fogs ever experienced blanketed the entire Continent for weeks.
Temperatures dropped below freezing, yet the planes flew whenever there
was the slightest chance of getting through. Too often, however, they
would make the entire flight and then be unable to land in Berlin. The
weather seemed to put a death grip on the city as deliveries dropped
off. On November 20, 42 planes departed for Berlin but only one landed
there. At one point, the whole city had only a week's supply of coal.
As if the weather was not enough to
discourage the Allies, Soviet fighters continually harassed the unarmed
cargo planes by making diving passes at them as they lumbered through
the corridors. Barrage balloons were cut loose in their flight paths,
and gunnery targets were towed in front of the airlift planes. A Soviet
anti-aircraft artillery unit moved in front of the RAF field at Gatow
and fired incendiary bullets between planes as they flew their traffic
patterns just inside the border of the British zone.
Soviet-built Yakovlev fighters loosed
rockets near one C-54, narrowly missing it. Three Soviet bombers dropped
a string of bombs and almost hit an airlift plane flying in the corridor
below. One Soviet fighter buzzed a British passenger plane too closely,
and both planes crashed to earth in flames, with a loss of 35 lives.
A statistical summary revealed a total
of 733 recorded harassment incidents, including air-to-air and
ground-to-air fire, radio interference, flares, ground explosions, use
of chemicals, flak, and strong searchlights aimed at the cockpits.
In spite of the hazards, the
Luftbrucke (air bridge) continued. The weather improved with the turn of
the year, and the rate of deliveries resumed an upward trend. But
success led to another problem. Neither Tempelhof nor Gatow airfields
could be expanded, and they were being saturated with air traffic. A
third Berlin airport was needed at Tegel in the French zone, where
construction had already begun on a large tract of land where Hermann Göring's
anti-aircraft artillery had trained. But there was a 200-foot radio
tower sticking up at the edge of the field that was actually owned by
the Soviets. Tunner asked the Germans to take it down, but possibly
fearing retaliation, they did nothing. General Jean Ganeval, the
commandant of the French contingent, solved the problem. There was a
"mysterious" explosion one day, and the tower disappeared.
"Tonnage for Tunner" became
the watchword. More than 171,000 tons were delivered in January, but the
figure fell to 152,000 tons in February. In March, the tonnage leaped to
196,223 and in April rose to 234,476.
"I thought things were going too
well at this time," Tunner confided, "so I decided the command
should have a little shaking up. They needed some kind of all-out goal
that was attainable, yet still required the utmost effort from every
Tunner and his staff decided to shoot
for a one-day grand total of 10,000 tons--3,000 more than had been
hauled previously. The cargo would be coal, which was stockpiled in
advance at the airports. Maintenance schedules were arranged so the
maximum number of aircraft would be on hand, plus spares. The day
decided upon was Easter Sunday, April 16, 1949.
"I flew back and forth to Berlin
several times that day," Tunner said, "so I was able to touch
down at all of our bases to see what was going on. I could see that the
spirit of competition was running high but I thought it could be raised
even more. At Fassberg, the base commander Colonel Jack Coulter told me
that he was 10 percent ahead of his quota. I said, 'That's nice, but the
guys at Celle are running 12 percent above theirs.' Coulter quickly
disappeared to spread the word to his units."
On the appointed day, a record 1,398
flights carrying 12,940 tons were made by the U.S. Air Force and RAF
combined. That was the equivalent of 600 cars of coal delivered on an
average of one round trip for each of the 1,440 minutes in the 24-hour
period. And the record was set without a single accident or incident.
"The worldwide headlines the next day made me the happiest
commander that ever wore a uniform," Tunner said.
Perhaps that day made the Soviet
authorities realize that the Allies were determined to stay in Berlin
and that a further blockade was useless. The four powers began serious
negotiations, and a settlement was made on Allied terms. On May 12,
1949, at one minute past midnight, the barricades were lifted. An
American military train left for Berlin, the first truck departed Berlin
for Hannover, a private automobile headed for Berlin from Helmstedt, and
soon the first freighter arrived in Berlin's West Harbor.
The airlift didn't stop until
September 30, as supplies continued to be stockpiled just in case. The
last airlift flight--the 276,926th--was made by Captain Perry Immel. The
tallies for 321 days of operation were a total of 227,655 passengers
flown either in or out of Berlin; 2,323,067 tons of mostly food and coal
delivered at a cost of $345 million to Americans, 17 million pounds to
the English, and 150 million Deutschmarks to the Germans. There was a
greater price, however. Seventy-five American and British lives were
lost in the operation.
The Berlin Airlift was costly, but
valuable lessons were learned. It was a proving ground for air
transport, showing the feasibility of sustained, round-the-clock mass
movement of cargo by air. It gave aircrews and ground personnel
invaluable experience in bad weather flying, air traffic control,
aircraft maintenance, overhaul methods and operational techniques. It
also showed that the United States and the rest of the Free World had a
potent enemy to face in the years ahead. Only nine months later,
hundreds of miles east of Berlin, Korea would become another
battleground. Again, America's airlift capability would be tested.
Contributing editor C.V. Glines served with the 36th Fighter Group at Furstenfeldbruck during the Berlin Airlift and flew several support missions in C-47s. For further reading, he recommends: Over the Hump, by William H. Tunner; and Bridge in the Sky: The Story of the Berlin Airlift, by Frank Donovan.