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Supplying a City by Air: The Berlin Airlift

Posted on Fri, September 14, 2018
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  • Seventy years ago, “Operation Vittles,” better known as the Berlin Airlift, began when the Soviet Union blockaded the western zone of Berlin.
  • For 18 months, Allied forces flew round-the-clock, bringing 2.3 million tons of supplies to Berlin by air.  

Over the course of the Berlin Airlift, the Allies safely delivered an astonishing 2.3 million tons of supplies, solely by air – an accomplishment unprecedented in history.

Seventy years ago, on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union closed all surface routes into the western zone of Berlin. Citing "technical difficulties," the Soviets blockaded the city, hoping to force the United States, Great Britain, and France to abandon Berlin and thus sabotage currency reforms and the unification of the western zone of Germany. The Allied response was neither retreat nor war, but a unique reply made possible only by aviation - an airlift. Two days after West Berlin was sealed off, the first transport plane of "Operation Vittles" landed with vital supplies. For 18 months, American and British aircrews literally flew around-the-clock bringing coal, food, medicine, and all of the other necessities of life to the 2 million inhabitants of war-ravaged West Berlin. Despite impossible odds, the Berlin Airlift succeeded in winning this, the first battle of the Cold War.

By prior arrangement before the blockade, the US, Britain, and France had secured air rights to three narrow 20-mile-wide corridors over east Germany into Berlin. The shortest was 110 miles long. Aircraft were flown into Berlin along the northern and southern corridors. All planes leaving the city used the central corridor.

Operation Vittles, Berlin Airlift, Douglas C-47, Tempelhof Airport, Berlin

Seven U.S. Air Force Douglas C-47 airplanes unloading cargo at Tempelhof Airport, Berlin, Germany during Operation Vittles (Berlin Airlift), 1948-1949.  C-47 at lower right corner is s/n 43-15872.

With the total support of President Harry S. Truman, the military governor of the American zone in Germany, Gen. Lucius D. Clay, organized the airlift. Although pressured by countless calls to abandon Berlin, Clay stood firm. His resolve and ability became the driving force behind this massive task.

Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the commander of the US Air Force (USAF) in Europe, responded immediately to General Clay's request to supply Berlin by air. When asked by Clay if the USAF could deliver the coal, which was vital for Berlin's survival, LeMay responded, "We can deliver anything." He promptly arranged for additional aircraft and established the complex organization that made the airlift work. Wisely, he found the best person to run it.

In August 1948, General LeMay ordered Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner to assume command of the Combined Airlift Task Force. Tunner was experienced in the job, having organized the "Hump" operations over the Himalayas to China in World War II with great success supplying the Nationalist Chinese armies and the US 14th Air Force in their fight against Japan. He rapidly coordinated American and British efforts into an efficient unit.

For 18 months, American and British aircrews literally flew around-the-clock bringing coal, food, medicine, and all of the other necessities of life to the 2 million inhabitants of war-ravaged West Berlin.

Douglas C-47s flew the first Airlift loads into Berlin three days after the blockade began, though they were phased out by the USAF in favor of the Douglas C-54 Skymaster. These large four-engine transports could carry up to 10 tons of supplies - four times the capacity of a C-47. Standardizing on one aircraft type also simplified the coordination of the operation as the aircraft all had the same performance characteristics. The C-54, military version of the DC-4 airliner, greatly increased the ability of the Air Force to maintain the minimum of 4,500 tons needed daily to feed the 2.5 million isolated Berliners. Because of its large capacity, the C-54 carried most of the city's coal shipments. The US Navy provided two squadrons of their R5D version of the C-54 as well. The British flew a variety of types including Avro Lancastrians and Yorks, Handley-Page Hastings, and even Shorts Sunderlands, that alighted on the Havel See (a large Berlin lake) while carrying loads of much needed salt.

Tempelhof was the principal Berlin airfield used by Operation Vittles during the Airlift. Built in 1923, this former parade ground in the heart of the city originally was a grass field. By November 1948, the US had built three modern concrete runways to withstand the constant pounding of the stream of transport planes. Royal Air Force aircraft landed at Gatow in the British sector.

Operation Vittles

Operation Vittles.

To keep turnaround time to a remarkably low average of 49 minutes, crew members were not allowed to leave the immediate vicinity of their airplane when unloading the aircraft. Three vehicles met them: a mobile canteen for refreshments, a weather and operations car for briefing, and a maintenance truck for service.

Moved by the plight of the children of Berlin, one of the pilots, 1st Lt. Gail Halvorsen, cheered them up by dropping small bundles of candy tied to handkerchief parachutes as he approached Tempelhof. His gesture sparked an enthusiastic response from the Air Force and the American people as "Operation Little Vittles" became an overwhelming humanitarian and public relations success.

Operation Little Vittles, Berlin Airlift

An "Operation Vittles" (Berlin Airlift) Douglas C-54 on approach to Tempelhof Air Base, Berlin, Germany, as a group of children watch below.  The children are hoping for candy bars tied to handkerchief parachutes to be dropped from the aircraft as part of "Operation Little Vittles", initiated by Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen, USAF.

Typically bad weather on northern Europe struck frequently. Rain and snow hindered operations as well as Soviet harassment by intercepting fighters. Bad weather contributed to accidents as did the stress and strain of around-the-clock flying. All told, some 65 pilots, crewmembers and civilian workers perished during the Airlift. For several months in late 1948, Berlin was just barely surviving.

The key to the eventual success was not only General Tunner’s strict discipline and superb organization, but also the use of a sophisticated radio, radar, and Ground Controlled Approach system that enabled flights to continue around the clock in all but the worst weather. Air traffic controllers guided each aircraft on a straight approach at three-minute intervals. Aircraft were not stacked as this wasted much time and fuel. Planes were flown at 15-minute intervals at each 500-foot level between the altitudes of 5000 and 7000 feet.

When asked by Clay if the USAF could deliver the coal, which was vital for Berlin's survival, LeMay responded, "We can deliver anything."

Despite these difficulties, by the Spring of 1949 it was clear that the Airlift could supply Berlin from the air. To prove the point, General Tunner ordered a maximum effort on Easter 1949. Flying around the clock with every aircraft available, the US and Britain flew in 12,941 tons of supplies in 1383 flights during the “Easter Parade,” three times the daily requirement that was necessary for Berlin to survive. By the end of April, daily deliveries grew from 6,729 to 8893 tons per day, more than enough to keep the city alive.

Faced with increasing international condemnation and the fact that the airlift succeeded despite months of bad weather and Soviet harassment, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin called off the blockade and reopened the ground routes to Berlin on May 12, 1949. General Clay continued the Airlift until September to ensure that Berlin would survive the winter if the Soviets resumed the blockade. The Allies won. In the course of the Airlift, they had safely delivered an astonishing 2.3 million tons of supplies, solely by air – an accomplishment unprecedented in history.

And they did so without firing a shot.

Join us as we commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift with a fly-in on September 17 at our Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Virginia.  

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