June 26, 2010

Above and beyond

Growing up with an East and West Germany and an East and West Berlin and why there was a West Berlin in East Germany…it was as confusing as a John Le Carre novel.  Only by looking at a map can you see what an island Berlin was in the middle of an ocean of Soviet-occupied territory.

East and West Germany with air routes to Berlin.

The Soviets clearly found it a major irritant because in the spring of 1948 they began harrassing the Allies, disrupting access to the city in both major and minor ways in an effort to dislodge them

The Autobahn was closed on June 15, ostensibly for repairs, and a week later shipping was halted.  On June 26,  the British and Americans were forced to fly in supplies for troops and nationals.  The next day the Soviets shut down all surface traffic and West Berliners were essentially facing starvation unless something was done.

It was the British who thought of it, a combined UK-USA relief effort from the air.  General Lucius Clay took the idea to President Truman who, in spite of his advisors’ misgivings, agreed to try it.

Thus began the Berlin Airlift.  It has been called the start of the Cold War, but beyond its political impact, it was a signal humanitarian accomplishment.  It was also a logistical triumph – the challenge of getting tons of food and fuel into the two-runway Tempelhof Airport around the clock for ten months is the core of an amazing story.

The success of the airlift depended on good planning and the Douglas C-54.  The USAF was using C-57s, but they weren’t big enough and gradually over the next few weeks the DC54 Skymasters were brought in.

Douglas C54 Skymaster

As for planning, a month into the operation Maj.General William H. Tunner was put in charge. It was Tunner who speeded everything up with his first rule – if a plane couldnt land on its first approach, it had to turn around and go home.  No second try.  No stacking up over the runway.

In a week, the airlift went from bringing in 90 tons a day to a thousand.  By the end of August, 1,500 flights a day were bringing 4,500 tons of food, medicine and fuel to the two million West Berliners who had no other means of survival.

It got such good press for the Allies, that in May of 1949 the Soviets gave up, reopening surface and shipping access.

The technical details are fascinating and lots of them are available at  A great source for original CIA and State Department documents is the  There is a lot more story there.

C-54 landing at Templelhof. Photo, Wikimedia Commons.


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