Berlin Airlift Dispensed Food, Delivered Blow to Communism
By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, May 15, 2008 Almost 60 years ago, the U.S. Air Force launched an operation that relieved some 2.5 million beleaguered Berlin residents and stretched the Soviet Union’s Iron Curtain at its seams.
C-47 transport aircraft, each containing 190 sacks of flour, arrive at Tempelhof Airport, July 2, 1948. A pair of B-17 weather aircraft can be seen at the far side of the airfield along with a lone C-54 at the extreme right. Photo courtesy of The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
U.S. and German officials will pay tribute to the 60th anniversary of this effort at the Joint Service Open House this weekend at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
In the largest humanitarian mission in Air Force history, “Operation Vittles,” also known as the Berlin Airlift, delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and other supplies to residents of the German capital.
This massive aerial effort, jointly carried out by U.S. and British air forces from June 1948 through September 1949, was born of post-World War II tensions between the allied powers and the Soviet Union.
At the war’s conclusion, the victors divided Germany into four occupation zones: the American, British, and French zones in the west, and a Soviet zone in the east. Within the Soviet zone lay Berlin, which also was divided into four sectors, each administered by one of the wartime allies, according to the Air Force History Web site.
Displeased with the terms of post-war restructuring, the Soviet Union, which controlled roads and railways leading into Berlin’s allied sectors, blocked the Western powers’ ground access to the western portion of the German capital on June 24, 1948. Many historians agree that Joseph Stalin, then the leader of the Soviet Union, imposed the aggressive restrictions in an attempt to extend Russia’s communist sphere in Europe and exploit the allies’ vulnerabilities.
“Despite its monopoly of atomic weapons, the United States had few options. Berlin lay deep inside Soviet-controlled Germany, and the United States maintained approximately two divisions in Europe,” said Air Force historian Maj. Harry R. Borowski in an essay on the Air and Space Power Journal Web site. “In ground strength, Joseph Stalin held the trump cards.”
Meanwhile, appeals for relief emanated from West Berlin, where residents, isolated from the outside world, faced starvation and a dearth of vital materials. In the early stages of the relief operation, West Berlin’s Mayor Ernst Reuter, before a crowd of some 300,000, delivered a now-famous speech that captured the zeitgeist of desperation.
“People of this world, look upon this city and see that you should not and cannot abandon this city and its people!” Reuter implored, the burned-out Reichstag building formerly used by Germany’s Parliament standing as a precarious backdrop. The audience heard his plea, and so did the allied powers.
With too few ground forces to breach the blockade, and the survival of the 2.5 million West Berliners in the balance, Western allies looked to the sky for an answer. Operation Vittles began June 26, 1948 -- two days after the blockade -- when C-47 Dakota military transport aircraft took off for the German capital.
On the first day of the operation, C-47s made 32 flights into West Berlin’s allied sectors carrying 80 tons of cargo, mainly powdered milk, flour and medicine, according to the Air Force History Office Web site. It became clear to American officials in the first month of the operation that a massive airlift of indefinite duration afforded the only alternative to war or withdrawal, the site noted.
In what is regarded as one of the first maneuvers in the chess-like Cold War that would define U.S.-Soviet relations for the next four decades, the humanitarian and ideological mission helped define the players involved.
“The Berlin Airlift was a watershed event in the Cold War in that it proved the determination of the United States to do whatever was necessary to support the freedom of the people of Berlin, and, by extension, the free people of Europe,” said retired Navy Adm. Charles S. “Steve” Abbot, a former deputy commander of U.S. European Command. “History has shown that we made good on that commitment.”
During the 10-month mission, more than 500 American and British airlifters conducted 277,569 flights, eventually averaging one flight per every 90 seconds. They delivered 2,325,509.6 tons of food, coal, and other commodities to Berlin. Airlifters also transported 227,655 passengers in and out of the city, according to the Air Force History Web site. On the busiest day, they delivered 13,000 tons, roughly equivalent to the amount of tonnage delivered on the ground before the blockade.
The airlift was the largest humanitarian operation ever undertaken by the U.S. Air Force, which had only been an independent military branch for nine months before the operation. By comparison, the airlift to war-torn Sarajevo between 1992 and 1997 brought in 179,910 tons -- less than the amount flown into Berlin in one month alone, American historian Pamela Feltus noted in an essay.
“For the city of Berlin, destroyed by war and occupation, it was the beginning of civic pride and integrity,” Feltus wrote on the U.S. Centennial of Flight Web site. “Having feared that the West would abandon them to starvation, their gratitude still survives.”
Abbot said the airlift cemented the U.S. relationship with Berliners, West Germans and Europe’s free and open societies.
“I think it is hard to overstate the importance of the Berlin Airlift,” he said. “It will undoubtedly retain its importance in the history of the free world.”