When the Second World War ended in 1945, the world celebrated the victory over the Axis powers. But the aftermath of the war left several cities in ruins, their infrastructures destroyed, and their economies collapsed. Among these was Berlin, the capital of Germany, which was partitioned into four sectors, each controlled by one of the Allies—the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union.
This post-war arrangement would eventually lead to a confrontation that threatened to ignite another conflict but was instead resolved through a feat of logistics and humanitarian efforts. This was the Berlin Airlift.
Setting the Stage
The Allied Powers agreed at the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences in 1945 that Berlin would be divided into four sectors.
The western part of the city fell under the control of the US, UK, and France, while the eastern part was controlled by the Soviet Union.
However, the city of Berlin itself was located deep within Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany, creating a complicated geopolitical arrangement.
In 1948, tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union escalated over differing visions for post-war Germany.
The West wanted to rebuild Germany and integrate it into the capitalist world, while the Soviets sought to keep it weak and under communist influence.
A key point of contention was the introduction of a new currency—the Deutsche Mark—in the Western sectors, which the Soviets saw as a threat to their control over Germany.
In response to the currency reform, on June 24, 1948, the Soviets initiated the Berlin Blockade, cutting off all ground routes to West Berlin in an attempt to gain full control over the city.
This left the roughly 2.5 million people in West Berlin without a supply of food, fuel, and other essential goods.
This was one of the first major international crises of the Cold War.
It was a dramatic standoff that highlighted the escalating tensions between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, setting the tone for much of the subsequent East-West rivalry during the Cold War period.
Situated over 100 miles inside Soviet-controlled Eastern Germany, the western sectors of Berlin—American, British, and French—suddenly found themselves completely isolated.
Food, medicine, coal for heating and power generation—everything was now inaccessible by traditional means.
The Western Allies, however, were not ready to cede control over their sectors.
Retreat could potentially have encouraged the Soviets to employ similar tactics in other parts of Europe.
But the alternative—forcing their way into Berlin—could potentially trigger another war.
A novel solution was conceived: If supplies could not be transported by land, they would be flown in.
Thus, the Berlin Airlift was initiated, a massive operation to supply the beleaguered city by air, something that had never been attempted before on such a scale.
The success of the airlift would depend on the capacity to continuously transport thousands of tons of supplies daily—an unprecedented logistical challenge.
Just two days after the blockade began on June 24, 1948, the United States launched Operation Vittles. The operation involved using military transport planes to deliver essential supplies to the people of West Berlin.
Concurrently, the British initiated “Operation Plainfare,” and later the French also joined the airlift operations.
The operation initially used C-47 Skytrains, also known as “Gooney Birds”, each capable of carrying about three tons of cargo.
However, the airlift soon required larger aircraft, and C-54 Skymasters, which could carry ten tons, were employed to meet the increasing demand.
The logistical challenges of Operation Vittles were immense.
The Allies had to maintain a constant stream of flights into the city, often under adverse weather conditions. In the early stages, the operation was barely able to meet the minimum daily requirements of the city.
However, a system was put in place to increase efficiency. Lieutenant General William H. Tunner, a renowned logistician with previous experience in the Himalayan airlift during World War II (dubbed “The Hump”), was placed in charge of the operation.
Under his leadership, a remarkable system of air traffic control was implemented.
Planes approached Berlin on three established air corridors and returned on separate routes. Each plane was given a precise schedule for landing, unloading, and take-off again, with strict orders not to deviate.
At the height of Operation Vittles, planes were landing in West Berlin every three minutes.
The amount of goods transported into the city was staggering. In total, over two million tons of goods were delivered, including food, fuel, and medicine, maintaining the sustenance and spirit of the people of West Berlin.
Operation Vittles demonstrated not just logistical triumph but also the potential for peaceful resolution in the face of escalating tensions.
Perhaps one of the most iconic moments of the operation was when pilot Gail Halvorsen began dropping candy for children in Berlin, a move that inspired “Operation Little Vittles” and boosted morale in the city.
One of the key aircraft involved in the early days of the airlift was the Douglas C-47 Skytrain (also known as the Dakota in British service).
The C-47 was a military adaptation of the civilian DC-3 airliner and had proven its worth during World War II, playing key roles in operations like the D-Day landings.
Equipped to carry approximately three tons of cargo, the C-47 was reliable and robust. However, as the blockade continued and the demand for supplies grew, it became clear that larger aircraft were needed to deliver more cargo per flight.
The Douglas C-54 Skymaster quickly became the workhorse of the Berlin Airlift.
A military version of the DC-4 commercial airliner, the C-54 could carry approximately ten tons of cargo, over three times the capacity of the C-47.
The C-54 was a four-engine transport aircraft and had a larger, longer-range capacity. It was capable of carrying everything from coal for heating and power generation to food and medical supplies.
By the end of the operation, the C-54s were making more than 1,000 flights per day.
The British contribution to the airlift involved various aircraft, including the Avro York, a British transport aircraft that was a development of the famed Avro Lancaster bomber. The York was used extensively throughout the Berlin Airlift, alongside the American C-47s and C-54s.
The Avro York had a payload capacity of around ten tons, similar to the C-54. It served as a critical part of the airlift operation, particularly for the delivery of bulkier items.
Another aircraft used by the British was the Handley Page Hastings, a robust transport aircraft that came into service just in time to participate in the airlift.
With a payload capacity similar to that of the Avro York, the Hastings was a welcome addition to the fleet and made significant contributions to the operation.
Several other aircraft types were involved in the Berlin Airlift, including the Short Sunderland and the Consolidated B-24 Liberator, which were adapted to carry cargo.
These were used especially in the early stages of the airlift when there was an urgent need for available aircraft.
While the various aircraft used in the Berlin Airlift had different capabilities and came from different origins, they all shared a common purpose: to ensure the survival of West Berlin during one of the first major crises of the Cold War.
Their success in achieving this purpose is a testament to the determination and resourcefulness of the pilots and crews who operated them and the ground crews who supported them.
End of the Blockade and the Legacy of the Airlift
After 11 months, the Soviet Union lifted the blockade on May 12, 1949. However, the airlift continued until September 30, creating a supply surplus in case the Soviets reinstituted the blockade.
The Berlin Airlift was a major turning point in the early stages of the Cold War.
It marked a victory for the Western Allies without resorting to war, and it underscored their commitment to defend freedom against the expansion of communism.
It also paved the way for the formation of West Germany as a separate state and set the stage for the city’s future division by the Berlin Wall.
The operation remains a symbol of resilience, cooperation, and the power of humanitarian efforts in the face of geopolitical crises. It stands as a testament to the human spirit and the lengths nations can go to preserve freedom and save lives in times of dire need.