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Book Review - Berlin Airlift (by Arthur Pearcy): AVH

Originally published by Aviation History magazine. Published Online: August 11, 2001 
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Berlin Airlift, by Arthur Pearcy, Airlife Publishing Ltd., Shrewsbury, England, 1997, $30.

June 23, 1998, was the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Berlin Airlift. It was on June 23, 1948, that the Russians stopped rail, road and barge traffic into Berlin. Just three air corridors, provided by treaties setting up the occupation zones, remained open. They could only be closed by shooting down Allied planes, an act of war. The Russian goal was to control all of Berlin by starving the American, British and French forces into leaving without resorting to direct force.

General Lucius Clay, military governor of Germany, and General Curtis Lemay, U.S. Air Force commander in Europe, immediately began using theater airlift resources to supply Berlin. There were about 100 American Douglas C-47s and a few British Royal Air Force (RAF) airlift aircraft in Europe–enough to get the operation started, but far short of what was needed to supply a city of more than 2 million people.

The U.S. Air Force immediately began sending Douglas C-54s from as far away as the Pacific. The RAF stripped its transport forces of every C-47, Avro Lancastrian and Avro York (the transport version of the famous Lancaster Bomber), moving them to Germany. The American force consisted of 16 Air Force and two Navy squadrons. The RAF used all of its own resources and also contracted with various small airlines. The RAF crews came from England, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand.

General Bill Tunner, the most experienced air transport officer in the world, assumed command of the rapidly expanding force. Airlift aircraft were stationed at nine bases outside the occupied zones. Inside the Berlin area were two airfields, Gatow (British) and Templehof (American). Tegel Airfield was built in the French zone and used by both American and British aircraft.

On May 12, 1949, the Russians abandoned their campaign, their first major loss of the Cold War. It had been an expensive 11 months. Thirty-one Americans, 28 British Commonwealth personnel and seven Germans had died in aircraft and ground accidents. More than 2.3 million tons of food, coal and other material had been flown to Berlin, 227,000 passengers had flown into or out of Berlin, and 80,000 tons of items produced in Berlin had been flown out for export. A total of 689 aircraft had been used–441 American, 147 RAF and 101 British civil aircraft. They had flown a total of 280,000 sorties, covering more than 124 million miles at a cost of $350 million. The airlift totals had built up from 14,000 sorties carrying 70,000 tons in July 1948 to 27,000 sorties carrying 250,000 tons in May 1949.

Arthur Pearcy's Berlin Airlift provides a great overview of this mammoth undertaking. It is excellent, well-researched and profusely illustrated, and–as might be expected of a book written by an Englishman and published in England–it provides a very complete account of the British part in the airlift, about 25 percent of the total carried. Pearcy, who served in both the U.S. Air Force and the RAF, presently serves as a historian with British Berlin Airlift Association.

Berlin Airlift is a welcome addition to any aviation history library.

Calvin G. Bass

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