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In early 1948, Stalin ordered a blockade of all land routes to Berlin, spurring the greatest airborne relief operation in history.

No city of 2.5 million people had ever been supplied wholly by air, until the 1948-49 Berlin Airlift. Food. Clothing. Bedding. Coal. Gasoline. Medicine. Even candy and toys. Everything that had previously been carried by long, clattering freight trains, by streams of trucks on the Autobahn, by big barges on the Elbe, had to be flown into Berlin. Yet a C-47, despite its twin engines, 1,800 horsepower and substantial ground crew, was only able to carry about 3 tons—roughly the load of a single local delivery truck.

The Soviet blockade of Berlin was a serious Cold War confrontation. The Soviets sought a weakened and divided postwar Germany, with the Allies out of Berlin, which lay deep within the Soviet Zone. Stalin saw the Allied proposals to unite their three zones into a single state, to be reconstructed under the U.S. Marshall Plan, as a direct challenge to the Soviet Union. When the Allies established a distinct West German currency and encouraged its use in the Soviet Zone of Berlin, the Soviets struck back.

On the night of March 31, 1948, the blockade began. Soviet troops stopped trains at the border, turning them back. Just one was allowed to continue, and only then under the humiliating control of a Soviet crew. The Autobahn was sealed off, as was the Elbe. After much haggling between the Allies and the Soviets, traffic resumed, but by June the Soviets completely shut off Berlin to the rest of the world.

General Lucius Clay, an old-fashioned firebrand who was military governor of Germany’s U.S. Zone, wanted to bugle up the cavalry—push through to Berlin with an armored column, guns blazing if necessary, and stick it to the Soviets come what may. Washington praised it as “a clear, firm and courageous decision,” but seriously dumb.

The airlift would prove anything but dumb.

It began slowly, with what would later come to be condescendingly called “the Little Lift.” In April and May 1948, thirty U.S. Air Force C-47s, some still bearing black-and-white D-Day stripes, plus two British Royal Air Force Dakotas and a little Avro Anson hauled food and supplies for the Allied garrisons—soldiers, staffers and diplomats. Nobody dreamed we’d be supplying the city itself; the Little Lift was simply a stopgap to relieve the temporarily trapped Yanks and Brits.

And what about the French? They had a Berlin zone and briefly flew a few captured Junkers Ju-52s to supply their own troops, but the “Iron Annies” were so slow, they risked getting rear-ended even by lumbering C-47s. Anyway, the French loathed the Germans almost as much as the Russians did. All they wanted was payback—reparations—for the damage they’d suffered during the war. They took no part in the actual airlift, except for one salient act.

In December 1948, with the airlift well under way, there was heavy and constant traffic into Tegel, a British-controlled airport. Nearby, just inside the French Zone, were two soaring transmission towers that beamed Radio Berlin’s Soviet propaganda throughout the city. These towers posed a constant threat to airplanes on approach to Tegel, and the French asked several times that they be taken down. The Russians ignored their request.

So, on the morning of December 16, French sappers collapsed the towers into twisted piles of metal. The enraged Soviet Zone commandant reportedly asked General Jean Ganeval, his French counterpart, “How could you do such a thing?”

“With dynamite,” Ganeval replied.

It was during the Little Lift that an unfortunate but precedential incident occurred: A British Vickers VC.1 Viking transport was about to land at Gatow, the main airport in the British Zone, when a Yak 9 single-seat fighter suddenly swooped beneath the Viking and pulled up sharply, shearing off the larger plane’s right wing.

The Russian pilot, who had been practicing aerobatics nearby, probably intended to do a roll around the British airliner but misjudged his pull-up. The rash “Watch this!” maneuver killed the Russian, as well as two British crewmen and 12 passengers aboard the Viking, including two Americans.

What made the crash precedential was the decisive U.S. reaction: General Clay ordered fighter escorts for future missions. The Russians ordered the cessation of night flying and specified various traffic reroutings and what might be termed “new rules,” all of which the Americans pointedly ignored. But never again would they seriously challenge the airlift. Why?

The Soviets were often outstanding pilots, and some had amassed enormous kill totals, but by war’s end they were invariably notched against ponderous Luftwaffe bombers and Stukas on the Eastern Front, often flown by last-gasp German neophytes. How the Soviets would have fared against equally battle-hardened USAF dogfighters in superior late-model Mustangs presumably gave them pause. Furthermore, Soviet pilots followed visual flight rules and had no idea how to fly on instruments, so in lousy weather, airlift pilots could count on cloudy but Russian-free skies.

Nor did it hurt that a fighter group of Lockheed P-80 straight-wing jets was put on standby in the United States. Sixty Boeing B-29s had already arrived in England, and some were reportedly flying patrols high above the airlift corridors. The Soviets may have assumed the Superfortresses were equipped with nukes, though in fact they weren’t.

By the end of May, it had become increasingly obvious Berlin would starve and run out of coal before the Soviets budged. Clay called fellow General Curtis LeMay, who commanded the USAF in Europe, and asked him to put every cargo plane and transport pilot he had on “the Berlin run,” as it was then called.

This put into play some 70 operational C-47s, but there were only two C-54s— the larger four-engined Douglas Skymasters known in the civilian world as DC-4s—in all of Europe. As Berliners required a minimum of 2,000 tons of food a day, to say nothing of coal, this would mean 800 C-47 trips a day, or one every minute and 48 seconds around the clock 24/7. Clearly impossible.

Despite the odds, on June 26, 1948, the Berlin Airlift officially began. LeMay assumed correctly that Clay intended the operation to be a temporary measure. Indeed, Clay never even asked Washington for permission to institute the airlift. Since it didn’t involve actual combat, Clay figured there was no need for authorization. Never before or since has so far-reaching and globally meaningful a military operation been initiated and directed entirely from the field.

The airlift went by several names. Air Force PR termed it “Operation Vittles.” The English called their end of the campaign Plainfare. Berliners called it the Luftbrücke (“Air Bridge”), while the Soviets termed it the Bluffbrücke, since they were sure the air bridge would soon collapse. To participating aircrews it was simply the airlift.

The Army Air Forces had attempted one prior large- scale airlift during World War II—supplying China with 650,000 tons of war materiel via an aerial conveyor of largely Curtiss C-46 Commandos. The planes flew from India via “the Hump,” as pilots called the Himalayas. General William Tunner, who ramrodded that operation, was put in charge of the Berlin Airlift.

Tunner was a hard-ass. He famously vowed to bust to copilot any left-seater who missed an approach when the weather at Tempelhof (the main USAF terminus in Berlin) was “400 and one” or better—meaning a cloud ceiling at least 400 feet above the ground and forward visibility of a mile or more. If conditions were worse, Tunner threatened to “court-martial any pilot who did land,” though the general himself was among 10 C-54 pilots to make it into Tempelhof during a particularly foggy day, reportedly breaking out of the fog just 100 feet above ground level.

The RAF single-piloted their Dakotas, the right seat occupied by a radioman who also put the gear up and down. And there was one fondly remembered single-piloted C-54 mission. Colonel Jack Coulter, commander of the U.S. base at Fassberg, was married to film star Constance Bennett, whom his airmen adored. Coulter and his wife were on the flight line in August 1948, when another pilot grounded his C-54 due to inop warning lights. Coulter boarded and decided the hell with it, there was nothing wrong with the plane. With a flight engineer at the board behind him and Connie by his side to handle the landing gear, the old man near single-handedly flew 10 tons of coal to Berlin.

Tempelhof had high landing minimums by today’s standards, but it was a tough port in a storm—like Chicago Midway, it was right in the middle of the city and ringed by buildings. Final approach was between two long rows of seven-story apartment buildings. This was before the days of precision instrument approaches. Aircraft made ground-controlled approaches and were “talked down” in bad weather. A controller would watch separate radar screens indicating an airplane’s height above the ground and deviation from the runway centerline, guiding the pilot through the necessary course and altitude corrections until he had the runway lights in sight. This took substantial controller talent and experience. A dearth of skilled controllers was a bigger initial concern for the airlift than a lack of pilots or maintenance personnel.

Tempelhof was originally a huge grass field, a parade ground for cavalry horses. Relatively low-speed prewar airliners and even the Messerschmitt Bf-109s that used it during the war had ample room to maneuver. There were no runways; a pilot simply took off or landed directly into the wind.

But this wouldn’t do for C-54s, the eventual workhorses of the airlift. To accommodate the larger planes, crews laid down perforated steel planking, or Marsden matting, atop the sod. The planking was very hard on tires—like a sheet of enormous sandpaper—and constantly “worked,” rippling and shifting as airplanes landed on it. During the few minutes between flights, ground crews often raced out onto the runway to make quick adjustments and repairs.

Perhaps the single most reported detail about the airlift is that if a pilot missed his approach in bad weather or had to go around because of traffic ahead, he didn’t get a second chance but instead was forced to carry his cargo back to the starting point—typically Wiesbaden or Rhein-Main, near Frankfurt. This was certainly true during high-density traffic periods, but if there were no planes behind them, some pilots did shoot second approaches or simply refly the pattern.

In one possibly apocryphal account, a Royal Canadian Air Force pilot flying an Avro York, a four-engined, triple-tail transport, supposedly found himself high, fast and too close to the preceding airplane on approach to Gatow. With his landing gear still retracted, he closed the throttles, which immediately set off a piercing gear-warning horn. He then put his microphone up beside the horn and transmitted the blare into the other plane’s cockpit. Its pilot, believing something was amiss with his own landing gear, veered off, leaving the way clear for the York.

During the summer of 1948, the British operated some of the most impressive, albeit un- usual, aircraft in the airlift: six huge Short Sunderland flying boats that landed on the Havelsee, a large Berlin lake. The Sunderlands flew in 5,000 tons of precious salt, which would quickly have eaten away at aluminum landplanes but didn’t affect the corrosion-proof flying boats.

The Sunderlands, so noticeable and spectacular, did as much for Berliners’ morale as they did for their food-preparation and preservation capabilities. Everybody loved the big four-engined Shorts, which looked something like pigs with wings. One Sunderland pilot en route to the Havelsee recalls watching a Russian biplane doing aerobatics in front of him, and when the Russian pilot suddenly noticed that approaching monstrosity, he was evidently so shocked that he cross-controlled his airplane and spun—much to the amusement of the Sunderland’s crew.

When the weather allowed, opposing pilots played games in the air corridors. The Soviets specialized in buzz jobs, aerobatics, towing targets amid the Allies’ transports, bombing practice and even broadcasting false nav beacons to lure pilots off course. The Americans responded by flying C-54s at treetop level down the Unter den Linden, the broad central avenue through the Soviet Zone. Late at night, U.S. pilots would glide their Douglases quietly down over the Soviet barracks, then open all four throttles to max power, shattering windows, rattling chimneys and rudely awakening the groggy Russians.

And when they got bored, the Americans and Brits played tricks on each other. One pilot for the British Overseas Airways Corporation, one of several British civil operations participating in the airlift, caught up to a homeward bound Ameri can C-54 and decided to have some fun. Approaching from behind in his four-engined Avro Tudor, the BOAC pilot went into a slight dive to pick up speed, then streaked past while feathering the two props visible to the C-54 pilot.

Bluffbrücke or not, by midwinter 1948– 49 the Soviets had become baffled by the ceaseless beat of Pratts, Wrights and Merlins over Berlin. They’d been sure the airlift would collapse, particularly with the arrival of bitter cold and snow— after all, winter had beaten Napoléon and broken the siege of Stalingrad.

But this winter was the mildest Berlin had seen in 30 years, and the airlift now had nine airports at its disposal, after starting out with three—Tempelhof, Tegel and Gatow. Gatow alone had become by far the world’s busiest airport, handing three times the traffic of New York’s LaGuardia, the previous champ. Pilots included Americans and Englishmen, as well as Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders and South Africans.

In January 1949, the Soviets themselves resorted to a bluff, announcing they would “force down” any airplane operating below 3,000 feet over East Germany. The U.S. told the Russians to back off or suffer the .50-caliber consequences, which they quickly did.

Still the planes were taking a drubbing. Maintenance of the C-54s—the C-47s had by then been retired—became an increasing problem. Douglas pilots were cleared to make three-engine takeoffs from Tempelhof if need be to return to a maintenance base; in some cases, the copilot was able to start the dead engine as its prop windmilled during takeoff. Maintenance increasingly reverted to fixing whatever was absolutely required for flight and the hell with everything else.

The British had it even harder. Their Rolls-Royce Merlin and Griffon engines —four-valve, overhead-cam, liquid-cooled V-12s—were fine Rolexes compared with the Americans’ Timex radials, which kept spinning even after blowing a cylinder. The Brits’ engines required experienced technicians, not just American kids in baseball caps. The Brits also demanded perfection, while our mantra was the old “good enough for government work.”

Regardless of the collective maintenance woes, on April 16, 1949, General Tunner rolled out a serious PR play: “the Easter Parade”—one flight a minute around the clock for 24 hours, a total of 1,440 flights. He didn’t quite make it, but the 1,398 flights that did land in Berlin that day and night stunned the Soviets.

On May 12, 1949, the Russians officially dropped the blockade, permitting a British train to leave Helmstedt, Germany, for Berlin. Yet the airlift wasn’t over. For several months it remained the single biggest conveyor of freight into Berlin, as the Soviets continued to make life difficult for ground transportation in every way they could. In fact, July 1949 was the airlift’s single biggest month, with 253,090 tons flown. By then the airlift had proven the viability of safe, efficient, all-weather flight operations on a global scale.

There was no single moment when the Berlin Airlift ended. Instead, it slowly wound down through the summer of 1949. By the end of September, the skies over Berlin were mercifully silent, but for the few scheduled airline and diplomatic flights.

Politically, the most important effect of the airlift was that it enabled West Germany to become a free, democratic state and the powerhouse of Europe’s recovery, an industrial giant that helped bring about the collapse of the Berlin Wall and, ultimately, the fall of Soviet-style communism. Militarily, it’s a wonder the airlift went off without a shot being fired, as for more than a year America and the Soviet Union skirted the edge of Armageddon. Most important, from the U. S. Air Force’s point of view, it was the first time aviation had effectively broken a siege and forced a diplomatic solution— powers until then the province of armies and navies.


For further reading, Stephan Wilkinson recommends: The Berlin Airlift, by Ann and John Tusa, and The Unheralded: Men and Women of the Berlin Blockade and Airlift, by Edwin Gere.

Originally published in the December 2007 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here