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Berlin Airlift Primer


The Berlin Airlift is in its 70th year anniversary. From June 26 2018 to September 2019. The Berlin Airlift Veterans still has 140 participants in our membership of 350. Our annual reunion this year will be in Omaha NE September 26 thru 29th.

Eddie Ide, Berlin Airlift Public Relations Officers
Newton NC cell 828-238-6297 e-mail;

The following will help you understand the complexities of the Berlin Airlift by defining places, aircraft, abbreviations and people during the time of the airlift in 1948 & 1949. The Berlin Airlift was a complex military, political and social operation. It was the largest non-combat military operation of the 20th century. And it stopped the spread of communism in Europe.

ALLIES – British, French, Americans and Russians. With the defeat of the German army in May 1945 ending World War two in Europe, Germany the leaders of these nations met in Yalta to decide how to deal with peace. Germany was divided into four parts with each of the allies gaining control of a part called Zones. The city of Berlin was located in the Soviet Zone and it was also divided into 4 portions called Sectors. Each was responsible for the governing of their respective Zone and Sector.
With the collapse of the Nazi’s no governments existed. Each city, state and a central government had to be built from the ground up with de-Nazified Germans.

RUSSIANS SHIFT THE BORDERS At Yalta Russian leader Stalin tells President Roosevelt and England’s Winston Churchill that he is going to shift the Polish borders 200 miles to the west. Russia will take 200 miles from eastern Poland and Poland will take 200 miles of eastern Germany. This will displace over 12 million ethnic Germans with over 300 years of residence. This will but a severe burden on the allies in Berlin and West Germany after the war.

ALLIED CONTROL COUNCIL (ACC) was made up of military and civilian representatives of the four powers. It was intended for the control of the Zones by mutual consent with monthly meetings. With little positive results it was a political tool for each power during 1947 and 1948.

There was only one written agreement with the Soviets in this ACC. It established three air corridors allowing air access from the western zones into Berlin. Each was 20 miles wide to an altitude of 10,000 feet. The Berlin Control Zone was 20 miles around Berlin for aircraft use.

KOMMANDATURA – The council of military leaders of each Sector of Berlin met monthly to make a smooth transition to normalcy for the citizens. Meetings were lengthy and dealt mostly with the actions of the Soviets regarding reparations, kidnappings and disruptions of efforts to establish a working Berlin Government. The allies supported democracy while the Russians constantly disrupted while pushing socialism.

REASONS FOR THE AIRLIFT – Although the four powers were Allies during the war the spirit of cooperation began to fade in late 1945. In 1946 and 47 the communist sphere expanded in Europe and influence was strong in Italy, France, Spain, Denmark and Norway. Other places in the world were in communist inspired turmoil. Germany and specifically Berlin stood as a bright light of free government and was blocking the Soviet political domination of Europe.

(1) February 1948 because of constant turmoil in Berlin the western powers, France, England and the United States agreed to consolidate their Berlin Sectors and call it West Berlin. At the meetings they consolidated their zones and established West Germany. Both of these actions happened in London and the meetings excluded the Soviets. West Berlin and West Germany governments were established by Germans for Germans without Allied military participation.

(2) In April 1948 the first delivery of good from the European Recover Plan to revitalize Europe’s economy began to arrive with 16 nations accepting goods from the United States. Called the “Marshall Plan” it was named after American Secretary of State General George C. Marshall.

(3) On June 18th new money was released in West Berlin and West Germany. This replaced the “Reichsmark” in use for over 40 years which had become useless because of overprinting. The new money “Deutschmark” was not accepted for use in the Soviet sections.
These three reasons are cited by the Russians for closing all ground access to the city of West Berlin. Railroad tracks were ripped up, roads and canals were closed. Their true intent was to use starvation for political gain, causing the West Berliners to hold food riots. They would then bring in army troops and take over the city claiming the allies (French, British and Americans) couldn’t control the city. The blockade was complete on June 26th 1948. It was lifted on May 12th 1949 when the Russians admitted defeat.

BERLIN AIRLIFT – The successful 15 month humanitarian supply of life’s necessities (except water) began on June 26th as an effort by General Clay to buy time for diplomacy to work. He accepted a plan drafted by British Air Commodore Reginal Waite to feed the entire city. Clay then ordered all air force aircraft in Europe to begin the airlift. Only five leaders felt the airlift would work; England’s Prime Minister Anthony Eden, and Foreign Secretary Anthony Bevin, President Truman, General Clay and Air Commodore Waite. Our Pentagon and State Depart. recommended letting Berlin go to the Communists. England said it would go it alone if needed.

In Berlin 1948, there were only two airfields; Tempelhof was in the American Sector in the heart of Berlin surrounded by tall buildings. Gatow was in the British Sector. Each had been built by the Nazis with grass runways. These were updated to asphalt during the airlift.
In August 1948 construction of a third airfield began. Tegel was built in the French Sector with the brick ruble from buildings bombed during the war. The labor force of over 17,000 was made up of 40% women. The work was around the clock in 8 hrs. shifts and everyone got the same wages, plus a hot meal. It landed the first airplane in less than 90 days. Today this is Berlins major airport handling 50,000 passengers a day.

The British had six major bases in their zone; Celle, Fassberg, Wunsdorf, Fuhlsbuttel at (Hamburg), Lubeck, and Schleswigland near Bremerhaven. In August the Americans took over Celle and Fassberg because it was closer to Ruhr coal mines and shorter flights to Berlin.

The Americans had two major bases. In the American zone two bases were used, Rhein-Main at Frankfort (now Frankfort International) and Wiesbaden. The flight into Berlin was 190 miles each way. Each were former Nazi airfields with paved runways.

THE AIRCRAFT – The U.S.A.F began with the Douglas C-47, “Dakota”, this small two engine propeller aircraft with a two man crew could carry 2.5 tons of cargo (5,000 pounds) and land on short fields. Many still had invasion stripes painted as they were used for the Normandy invasion in1944. They were used until the end of August when more C-54’s became available.

The C-54 “Skymaster” was a larger 4 engine aircraft in quantity for the Navy and Air Force. It had a three man minimum crew and a10 ton capacity. They became the airlift workhorse. Of all 441 C-54s in the air force inventory 312 were committed to the Berlin Airlift. Only about 150 were generally available to fly the corridors because of maintenance demands. This was build for passenger use, meaning lighter loads flying longer distance. Now they were heavy loaded, flying short distances, thus parts and engines wore out fast. Flying up to 16 hours a day parts engines were rebuild at 1000 hours, tires and parts wore out fast, taking them out of service.

The navy had 5 squadrons of R5D aircraft (same as the C-54) committed to the airlift. VR-6 and VR-8 flew from Rhein-Main and the others backed up their needs in the states. The Navy transported over 7 million gallons of aviation fuel each month.

The C-82 “Flying Boxcar” had a twin boom tail and a large door in the rear of the fuselage allowing movement of outsize cargo. Only five of these were used. They moved heavy construction equipment used to make the runway and air field at Tegel.

ROYAL AIR FORCE. The RAF also used the C-47. As the airlift grew they added the Avro York, a 4 engine cargo plane a 3 man crew with a 20,500 pound load. In November 1948 they added the 4 engine “Hastings” that could carry 15 tons and had a three man crew. Ten seaplanes called “Sunderland’s” were used. Each carried 8 tons of salt as they had built in corrosion protection. When the lakes in Berlin froze their use was suspended.

The British carried other commodities needed to live on, the list is endless. Because their aircraft were cleaner they began a reverse airlift taking over 120,000 elderly, hospitalized and children to West Germany facilities and foster homes until life in Berlin became normal.
Commonwealth crews came from South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Canada. Twenty five civilian charter aircraft contractors were hired to further support the RAF flying with many former bombers converted to carry cargo.

THE AIRCRAFT CARGO. The Americans’ primarily (66%) carried coal and flour. Coal was needed in Berlin for the sewer, water, gas and power plants. It was also used for the large warming rooms used at night, these were bomb shelters left from the war. Because of coal and flour dust the crews and the inside of the aircraft were either white or black. As most of Berlin was still in ruins not many homes had fireplaces. The “ruin dwellers” found many ways to survive. The feather blankets and heavy coats became prize possessions.

All aircraft were loaded and unloaded by mostly displaced persons. Everything going into Berlin was hand carried by someone. Potatoes, carrots and other root vegetables were de-hydrated food to reduce weight. Everything going into Berlin was measured. If a bakery was allotted x amount of flour, it was expected to produce x amount of bread. CARE packages were distributed throughout West Berlin. During the airlift the calorie diet increased.

Flight operations continued 24 hours a day for 11 months of the blockade and then diminished until September 30th of 49. An aircraft landed every 3 minutes. Over the winter fog was a problem until ground approach control was used. Only two days in November of 48 were without aircraft over Berlin. Total flights of British and Americans were 277,569 delivering 2.3 million tons.

BERLIN GOVERNMENT Governing the four sectors in Berlin was complex until the British, French and Americans Sectors joined to form West Berlin in February 1948. Up to that point there was no separation from the Soviet sector. With the formation of West Berlin a separation line was painted in the streets. The Russians conducting searches for food and anything they could claim as contraband with searches also on the subways that ran in both East and West.

During the airlift there were two major demonstrations supporting the airlift and one election where the communists were badly defeated. When the new West Berlin government was elected the Soviet “goon squads” beat up the woman Mayor and arrested West Berlin police. The allies position did not interfere and let Berliners establish their own government without interference. This same policy applied in West German with Bonn set up as the capital city.

FREEDOM IS NOT FREE 32 Americans and 40 British airmen were killed in a variety of aircraft or related accidents. In 1951 Berlin dedicated the Airbridge Memorial at Tempelhof Airport. In 1958 the Berlin Airlift Gratitude foundation was created by Mayor Willy Brandt and continues to look after the widows and descendants of those that were killed.

Berlin Government – Dr. Ernst Reuter leader of the German Social Democratic Party and member of the Berlin Magistrate was elected Mayor in 1947. The Russians refused to accept him. Frau Louise Schroeder became acting Oberbuergermeister (Mayor) of Berlin until July 1948. Following riots against the Soviets Reuter accepted the reign of new West Berlin.

General Clay was probably one of the best politicians that ever wore a uniform. His father was a Senator and he was a page in the senate. His grasp of how to get things done in Washington was used to Germany’s advantage. He understood democracy and left the Germans form their own government, write the laws of the land and settle their own problems. After his retirement he went back to Berlin twice, in 1961 representing President Kennedy with a free hand. He also raised the money to pay the ransom to Cuba for the prisoners of the Bay of Pigs at the request of Kennedy..

United States – President Harry Truman
Secretary of State George C. Marshall
American Military Governor in Germany, General Lucius Clay
Combined Airlift Task Force Commander; General William Tunner
Military Director of American Sector in Berlin, Colonel Frank Howley.

United Kingdom – England – King George VI

Prime Minister Clement Atlee
Foreign Secretary Earnest Bevin
British Military Governor in Germany General Sir Brian Robertson
Deputy Military Governor Major General Brownjohn
Military Director of British Sector in Berlin – Major Gen. George E. O. Herbert
Aviation Administer in the British Sector; Air Commodore Reginal Waite.
Soviets Premier Joseph Stalin
Generalissimo Joseph Stalin, Minister Dictator of the Soviet Union in Moscow.

Chief of Soviet Forces Administration in East Germany
General Vasily Danilovich Sokolovsky

Military Commander of East Berlin General Alexandar Kotikov

FRENCH President Vincent Auriol
French Military Governor in Germany – General Marie-Pierre Kœnig,
French Ministry for Foreign Affairs, Jacques de Bourbon-Busset,
Bernard Clappier, Director of the Cabinet, French Ministry for Foreign Affairs
Military Commander French Sector in Berlin Brigadier General Jean Ganeval.


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