Berlin Airlift

Berlin Airlift


Following World War II, Germany was partitioned into various zones under the control of Allied nations. Berlin, the nation's key city, was also divided into different occupation areas, despite its location deep into the Soviet sector. Tensions escalated between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union, prompting the Soviets to attempt to take over control of all of Berlin. When France, Britain, and the United States agreed to introduce a new currency into their sectors in West Germany and Berlin, the Soviets declared the new currency void in the eastern partition under their control. Days later, the Soviet government closed supply lines to West Berlin. The United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force organized a massive effort to deliver needed food, coal, and medical supplies into Berlin to thwart the Soviet blockade. The round-the-clock operation, which became known as the Berlin Airlift, sustained the residents of West Berlin for over a year, and secured the freedom of West Berlin from Soviet control.

The Soviet blockade. Berlin lay more than 100 miles (160 kilometers) inside of the Soviet-controlled eastern sector. The western sectors of the divided city relied on railroads and the Autobahn, the nation's main roadway, for the free transport of goods and supplies into the city. Berlin's eastern sector was controlled by a Soviet installed communist dictatorship, and was already experiencing shortages of essential goods and a fragile economy. West Berlin flourished under the control of the Western Allies,

Berlin children cheer as United States armed forces airlift supplies to West Berlin in 1948 after the Communists sealed off the borders. ©BETTMANN/CORBIS.
Berlin children cheer as United States armed forces airlift supplies to West Berlin in 1948 after the Communists sealed off the borders. ©

who intended to establish a democratic government and market economy, aid Germany in overcoming the legacy of the Nazis, and relinquish control of their sectors. In order to gain full control of Berlin, Soviet and East German forces acted on government decrees to occupy and shutdown essential transport services, effectively laying West Berlin under siege.

On June 15, 1948, the Soviets declared the Autobahn closed, and established roadblocks to prevent Berliners from fleeing the city. Within a week, all traffic between the various sectors of the city was halted. On Jun 21, river barge traffic was outlawed. Two days later, all railroads into and out of West Berlin were closed. Berliners were then at the mercy of the Soviet government to provide food and supplies. On June 24, 1948, the Soviets announced that they would not supply food to residents outside of the Soviet controlled sector. With all other means of transport cut-off, Britain and the United States, with the help of France, organized a massive airlift to feed and supply the sectors of West Berlin under their control.

Military airlift operations. Airlift operations began immediately. On June 26, two days after the Soviet announcement of the blockade, the United States Air Force airlifted the first cargo into Berlin. The American nicknamed the effort, "Operation Vittles," while British pilots dubbed the operation "Plain Fare." In July 1948, the operation was renamed the Combined Airlift Taskforce.

In the first months of the operation, the airlift gained international fame for delivering food and coal to blockaded Berliners. C-54 pilot, Lt. Gail Halverson added bundles of gum and candy to his payload for the crowds of children he noticed near the airfield. Halverson's "candy bombs" gained renown, and soon donations of candy and gum flooded his mailbox. In anticipation of winter, clothing donations were also collected from U.S. citizens and businesses for transport to Berlin. Red Cross medical supplies were shipped in the airlift, and passengers were permitted to travel between West Germany and Berlin on a limited basis.

Airlift operations were conducted daily, often in inclement weather. Squadrons of American C-54s and British Dakotas, Yorks, Sunderland "Flying Boats," and Hastings aircraft delivered tons of goods per day to West Berlin. The sorties flew in tight patterns, landing sometimes as frequently as four planes a minute into one of three Berlin airfields. At the height of the airlift, as preparatory efforts for the winter of 1949 were underway, British forces drafted commercial airliners into service. The maximum effort launched by the Combined Airlift Task Force occurred on April 16, 1949. Known as the "Easter Parade," the airlift delivered 12,940 short tons of cargo, in 1,398 individual sorties, in one day.

Sustained airlift operations required a large-scale military effort not only in the air, but on the ground as well. Since Britain and France were still coping with post-war shortages at home, most supplies were shipped from the United States across the Atlantic in C-82 "Flying Boxcars." Cargo was shipped to American, British, and French bases in West Germany for final transport to Berlin. Once in Berlin, cargo from American C-54s required hand loading and unloading because the modified aircraft could not support palate loads. Sacks of flour, coal, and other goods then were transported to locations established for distribution.

Major General William H. Tunner commanded the operation with the assistance of a deputy officer, RAF Air Commodore, J. F. Merer. Under their direction, the airlift employed increasingly complicated flying maneuvers and sophisticated technology to maximize the amount of cargo delivered to Berlin. The command team was primarily concerned with operational safety, since planes were required to fly at full tonnage, for long flights, in tight flying and landing patterns. Constant revision of safety standards and operational procedures, the instillation of sophisticated ground radar, as well as increased pilot training, aided the success of the Berlin Airlift while minimizing casualties and accidents.

The Soviets made no effort to stop the airlift. Soviet intelligence reported regularly on airlift operations and the condition and moral of West Berlin residents, but Soviet officials believed that the international coalition would fail or eventually abandon their efforts. Also, they were afraid that military intervention to prevent the airlift might result in another war.

On May 12, 1949, the Soviets finally lifted the blockade on Berlin. Train and auto transport was resumed into the city, but were limited at first. West Berliners regained their freedom to travel to West Germany several months later. Airlift operations continued through September of 1949 until supplies regularly reached Berlin via train and truck. In all, the Berlin Airlift delivered 2.4 million tons of food and supplies in nearly 300,000 missions. Seventy-nine people lost their lives in the international effort to end the Soviet blockade.

Legacy of the Berlin airlift. The Berlin Airlift was the first large-scale, modern humanitarian effort that utilized airplanes as a primary means of delivery. The political effort was the first international humanitarian coalition that used military vehicles, instillations, resources, personnel, and aircraft, instead of relying on civilian aid organizations. Setting the precedent for future aid operations, the success of the Berlin Airlift added a new role to peace and wartime military forces. Modern wartime humanitarian relief operations, as well as nation building policies were forged after World War II.

After the success of airlift operations and the formal end of the Soviet blockade, there was no easing of political tensions between the Soviet Union and the other Allies. The Western Allies united their occupation zones and created a self-sufficient, democratic government in West Germany. The Soviet Union established a communist satellite state. East Germany became the most tightly controlled Soviet satellite nation, aiding Soviet espionage and intelligence operations throughout the Cold War. Berlin remained partitioned between East and West. Soviet and East German troops used increasing force to control the border between East and West Berlin, cutting off the East from Western visitors and influences.

The Berlin Wall was constructed in the early 1960s to permanently partition the city. The wall became a Cold War symbol of the division between East and West, democratic and communist. In 1989, the failing East German government passed a law limitedly opening the border between East and West Berlin. When East German citizens heard of the law, they stormed the Berlin Wall and its guarded gates, demanding their immediate, and full, opening. East Germany, and the Berlin Wall, fell within months. The subsequent reunification of Germany brought the full end to the crisis which began with the Berlin Airlift forty years prior.



Haydock, Michael D. City under Siege: The Berlin Blockade and Airlift, 1948–1949. Washington, D.C.: Brasseys, 2000.

Miller, Roger G. To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948–1949. Seattle, WA: University Press of the Pacific, 2002.


Cold War (1945–1950), The Start of the Atomic Age
Cold War (1950–1972)
Cold War (1972–1989): The Collapse of the Soviet Union
Germany, Intelligence and Security
United Kingdom, Intelligence and Security
United States, Intelligence and Security
World War II

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