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The Berlin Airlift
June 1948 - September 1949
by David Harrisville
left: the Big Three: Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin; the men who shaped postwar Europe
The plan for Germany’s postwar future was confirmed and expanded throughout 1944 as Allied armies continued to advance on all fronts. During this time, the Western Allies (chiefly America, Britain and France) made an oversight that would later come back to haunt them. In the agreements for postwar Germany, they failed to acquire an official guarantee of free access from their Zones through the Soviet Zone to Berlin. This would allow the Soviets to later argue that they didn’t technically have to allow such access. [ii] However, the Western Allies did obtain a 1945 guarantee in writing from the USSR to unimpeded use of three air corridors to the city, from Frankfurt, Bueckeburg, and Hamburg. [iii]
Germany surrendered in the spring of 1945 and, as agreed, Allied forces occupied their respective Zones, as well as their designated Sectors of Berlin. Even at this early date, things did not go smoothly between the USSR and the Western Allies. When American troops crossed the Soviet Zone to reach their Sector of Berlin, they were met with delaying tactics and frequent obstructions. When they did arrive, they discovered that the Soviets had dismantled much of West Berlin’s manufacturing, technical, utilities, and other installations. Despite friction, the administration of Berlin was set up as planned, and few foresaw that a crisis was coming. [iv]
Just after the war in Europe ended, the Four Victorious Powers’ representatives met at Potsdam, outside Berlin. At the conference, the Allies decided to postpone a political decision for Germany but to establish economic unity in the meantime, as the State Department’s “Berlin Background” memorandum describes. They also worked out reparations agreements. Unfortunately, things did not go according to plan, especially economically. No unified economic policy emerged in the work of the Allied Control Council, and trade between the Soviet and Western Zones declined. [v]
Talks between the Western Allies and the USSR regarding Germany’s future continued. In 1946 and ‘47 a definitive settlement was still not forthcoming. For instance, a Foreign Minister’s conference took place in Moscow between the four Powers. The representatives, U.S. secretary of state General George Marshall, British foreign minister Ernest Bevin, French foreign minister Georges Bidault, and Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov presented their opposing ideas for Germany. Molotov advocated the formation of a strong central government, insisted on heavy reparations payments, and was content to postpone the country’s economic recovery. The Western Allies feared that such an agreement would be too conducive for a communist takeover, especially in that a weak economy would incline German citizens toward a communist system, and large reparations would give the USSR a strong degree of control over the country’s future. In contrast, the US and its allies pushed for economic reunification and rehabilitation first, to be followed by the formation of a unified government to be determined by the German people. Unsurprisingly, the conference did little except to solidify the Soviet and Western blocks and convince the Americans and British in particular to work for Germany’s economic revival without Soviet cooperation. [vi]
In fact, the Soviets had begun already in 1945 to implement their own plans for their Zone of Germany. They ensured that the German Communist Party (KPD) had a disproportionate influence, and in 1946 forced the merger of the KPD with the German Socialist Party (SPD) into an organization called the SED, which became powerful in Berlin as well as eastern Germany. [vii]
For their part, the Western Allies decided to act without the Soviets and put their energies into the economic and political rebuilding of their former enemy. The crowning achievement of this policy was the implementation of the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan, announced on June 5, 1947, was an unprecedented program through which participating European countries would receive American aid in the form of goods given freely by the United States that each recipient country would then sell to provide funding for postwar investment and recovery. The idea was the brainchild of William Clayton, a government official who had worked on supply and procurement during the war, and was further developed by Midwest-born diplomat George Kennan. Secretary of state Marshall worked tirelessly to see it enacted. [viii] America, Britain, and France also made plans to introduce a new currency to their Zones of occupation in order to stabilize a financial system which was running only on cigarettes and chocolate. [ix] French, American, and British representatives gathered in London in February 1948 to solidify their own policies for Germany. Their long-term plan, developed in consultation with the Benelux countries (Belgium, Luxemburg, and the Netherlands) was to unite their Zones into a sovereign West German state, just as the Soviets appeared to be on their way to forming an East German one. [x]
right: 8 April 1948. the Marshall Plan becomes a reality as President Truman signs the Economic Cooperation Act
America had several reasons for wanting to rehabilitate both Germany and Europe, especially the west. For one, an economically strong Western Europe would be better able to resist communist encroachment both from within and without. Second, the Marshall program was a way for the United States to encourage freer trade and prop up some of its greatest trading partners. [xi] Also, it was realized that Germany’s recovery was especially important for the economic stability of other European nations, who relied on German coal and manufactured goods. Even France itself, whose political leaders were extremely wary of another German resurgence, had to face the fact that its economy was heavily dependent upon German goods, and came to agree with its allies that Germany had to be included in European recovery. [xii]
left: unloading Marshall Plan aid boxes in Europe
The Soviets were not happy with American plans, viewing a rehabilitated and sovereign West Germany as a threat to their security (after all, they had just suffered a German invasion) and a breach of previous agreements guaranteeing multilateral action, though the USSR itself had been shaping Eastern Europe without consulting the West, and was refusing to cooperate on joint measures for Germany. In response to the West’s moves, the Soviets began in the spring of 1948 to increasingly disrupt traffic to Berlin. [xiii]
In March 1948 General Lucius Clay, the American commander in Berlin, expressed “concern” to Washington “that a clear change in Soviet behaviour was noticeable,” alluding to the increasing obstructionism. In correspondence with his government, Clay argued that the Americans in Berlin should not show any sign of weakness in the face of Soviet pressure. Later that month, the Soviets walked out of the Allied Control Council, marking the end of the organization which was supposed to foster cooperation on Germany. On 1 April the Soviets tightened their grip on the city by severing railroad traffic, soon followed by water traffic. [xiv]
Stalin’s purpose was probably twofold. He hoped to cause the Allies to leave Berlin, but more importantly he wished to disrupt or prevent the formation of West Germany. [xv] As a result of the blockade, the Western Allied troops in Berlin were soon lacking supplies. The American leadership in Washington was uncertain what course to take. While his superiors were debating a course of action, General Clay, acting on his own authority, ordered what has been known as the “Baby Airlift,” an attempt to provide supplies for the garrison of West Berlin by air. It lasted only 3 days and involved only 24 planes, but it kept the American contingent supplied until the Soviets lifted the travel restrictions. Fortunately, there was no direct confrontation, and the situation normalized. [xvi]
Washington’s hesitancy regarding whether to stand firmly behind the West Berliners or tell its troops to pack their bags was a product of a contemporary debate over how to deal with the Soviet Union. The arguments which eventually prevailed were based on the ideas of George Kennan, who argued that communism’s territorial ambitions should be opposed everywhere around the globe, a policy dubbed “containment,” which would become the staple of American policy toward the USSR up to its disintegration in 1991. According to Kennan and others, America’s best policy was to stay in Berlin and thereby prevent the further spread of communism. [xvii] However, there were those who disagreed, [xviii] and in the case of the Berlin question some worried that remaining in the city might trigger a general war with the USSR, [xix] which was often perceived, albeit incorrectly, as the stronger power due to the size of its land army. At the time before the Berlin crisis, the U.S. and its Allies did not have a definite policy in place. [xx]
With currency disagreements becoming more and more central, economic experts of the USSR and the Western Allies met on 22 June to discuss the issue, two days after the Western Allies introduced their currency, the Deutsche Mark, into their Zones. Unfortunately, no agreement was forthcoming. The Soviets insisted that the currency in all Berlin be the same as that of the Eastern Zone of Germany and rejected the American appeal for Four-Power currency control for Berlin. The next day, the Soviets introduced their new currency to both the Eastern Zone and Berlin, and the day after the Western Allies introduced the Western currency into their sectors of Berlin. [xxi]
Though the roads were reopened after the successful “Baby Airlift,” the danger to the city had not yet passed. Stalin remained heavily opposed to a united West Germany, especially one with a reformed currency which would make it very difficult for the eastern section to compete economically. In fact, when the Western Allies introduced the new currency into their Zones (including in their sectors of Berlin, where these bills were marked with a “B”), the old Reichsmarks were now useless in these parts and most ended up in Eastern Germany, flooding the market and causing massive inflation until the Soviets introduced their own currency a few days later. Stalin reacted boldly to the announcement of the new currency by commencing what has come to be known as the Berlin Blockade. He was gambling, but he said later that he knew the U.S. was unwilling to respond with nuclear weapons, and he himself would have backed down if a full-scale war seemed imminent. So he made his move, and then watched to see what concessions he might obtain from the West. On the night of the 23rd, the Soviets cut the supply of electricity to the Western sectors and at 6 a.m. on the 24th, every road and railroad from the western Zones to Berlin was closed, soon followed by waterways as well. West Berlin was cut off from the world. [xxii]
The American government immediately protested the Soviet action, Secretary Marshall writing that “The United States Government regards these measures of blockade as a clear violation of existing agreements.” [xxiii] Unsurprisingly, the Soviets responded by declaring that their blockade was legal, and accused the Western Allies of violating their treaty obligations. [xxiv] Diplomacy seemed to be getting nowhere, and meanwhile time was running out for the population of West Berlin.
a Berlin newspaper the day after the start of the Blockade; the front page article title reads “Berlin Appeals to the World”
The Truman administration was not willing to risk war, so the use of military force was not a possibility. With time running out for the West Berliners, General Clay once again organized an airlift, beginning 25 June, to supply not only troops but the city’s inhabitants as well. [xxv] No one was sure whether this method would work, since after all the city required a minimum of 4-5 thousand tons of supplies per day simply to maintain itself, far higher than the mere 700 daily tons which the airlift could move in its infant stages. Great Britain committed itself to the airlift effort and its Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin helped ensure America’s own commitment. About two weeks later President Truman voiced his support for General Clay’s decision, writing in his diary “We’ll stay in Berlin—come what may.” [xxvi] The Berlin Airlift was up and running, under the appropriate codename “Operation Vittles” for the American effort. [xxvii]
airlift planes at Tempelhof Airport
The most pressing problem at the start of the Airlift was the scarcity of transport planes. West Berlin required enormous amounts of supplies, around 5,000 tons a day at minimum. The early Airlift was hauling a daily 700 tons, far less than what was needed. At the request of General Clay, aircraft from all over the world were requisitioned to increase the Airlift's capacity. Planes were brought in from every part of Europe, and then from Alaska, Hawaii, Texas, the Bermudas, even as far as Tokyo. The Airlift effort would eventually utilize about 300 planes. The models used toward the start of the Airlift were 2-engined C-47s, nicknamed “Dakotas,” which carried about 3 tons. These were gradually replaced by the larger 4-engined C-54s, hauling up to 14 tons. [xxviii] As the prior agreement between the USSR and the Western Allies dictated, the planes were able to operate within three corridors connecting Berlin to the Western Zones of Germany. Berlin itself had only two airports at the Airlift's start, Templehof and Gatow, and the Allies made plans to construct a third. Planes flew into the city from 10 different airports in the various Western Zones. [xxix] In addition to airfields, waterways were also used as a landing ground. The British began to use Short Sunderland flying boats, which could land on lakes near Berlin. They proved especially useful in transporting much-needed salt, because their cargo holds were resistant to salt’s corrosive effects which would have been damaging to other aircraft. [xxx]
Sunderland flying boats supported the Berlin Airlift
West Berlin was hard-hit by food and electricity shortages throughout the Airlift. A rationing system was put in place, and both gas and electricity were only available a few hours a day. Berlin’s mayor, Ernst Reuter, contributed greatly to buoying the morale of the city’s population, and though its industrial output was greatly diminished, Berlin still managed to export goods in boxes marked “Made in Blockaded Berlin.” [xxxi]
The Airlift’s capacity rose steadily as more planes became available, but Berlin’s minimum daily requirements weren’t yet being met in the summer of 1948. The military leaders, such as General Joseph Smith, the American Airlift commander, and General LeMay, in charge of American Air Forces in Europe, tried various methods to improve efficiency, such as filling the planes with less fuel so they could carry more weight in supplies. They also designated each air corridor for only 1-way traffic, retaining the southern and northern corridors for flights to Berlin, and allowing only return flights in the middle corridor. [xxxii]
C-54's at Tempelhof Airport in Berlin during the Airlift
In spite of improvements, the Berlin Airlift remained for the first months very much a makeshift operation. This was partly because few initially believed the Blockade would last long and also because the commanders involved had no experience in such an operation. There were a handful of U.S. Air Force personnel, however, who had operated a successful airlift during the war (the so-called Hump Airlift over the Himalayas [xxxiii]), and now Air Force commander Hoyt S. Vandenberg worked to place General Tunner, who had led that effort, into position as commander of the American Airlift effort. The move was not popular with the generals who had managed the Airlift up to that point, but when Tunner was installed he immediately made changes that significantly improved the Airlift’s efficiency, including ordering planes which had missed their first landing to continue their return flight rather than circling back to attempt a second landing and thereby holding up the planes behind. Tunner also ordered that crews who had landed in Berlin stay with their planes until taking off again so they were immediately ready to go when the order came. The crews were unhappy about this until a mobile snack bar was devised, which brought them refreshments as they waited. Tunner quickly won the respect of all involved in the Airlift, and contributed greatly to its efficiency. On Tunner’s recommendation, the British and Americans set up a Combined Airlift Task Force to coordinate their efforts. [xxxiv]
the air corridors and airports of the Airlift, with Berlin forming the rightmost point, with American Zone in Green with one corridor, and the British in blue with two; French in yellow
Tunner’s goal was to maximize the number of flights to Berlin, and his work paid off. With the introduction of further measures such as requiring all pilots to fly by instrument flight rules, the addition of more air traffic control experts from the U.S., and the withdrawal of all C-47’s after September once enough larger planes were available. With these and other changes, the number of daily flights increased from 436 per day in July to 578 in August and 658 in September, which meant that by September a plane was landing in Berlin roughly every four minutes. Another major factor was the completion of the third airport at Tegel in the French sector of the city. Built by 19,000 German workers, it was ready for air traffic in October 1948. [xxxv]
Throughout the Airlift, the American public was for the most part supportive. A State Department memo dated July 1948 reported that “The overwhelming majority of press and radio commentators remain united in support of the official U.S. position". Many Americans were not quite willing to risk war over a foreign city, but it was commonly believed that "surrender in Berlin would only result in future aggression elsewhere.” The memo emphasized that Americans would be supportive of any attempt to reach a peaceful settlement to end the Blockade. [xxxvi]
In fact, diplomatic negotiations did continue throughout the Airlift. After the initial exchange of notes between the U.S. and USSR, a Foreign Minister’s conference was held in Moscow. The Western governments insisted on their right to remain in Berlin but they were willing to compromise by accepting the East German currency as the sole currency there as long as it was under quadripartite control. The Soviets, however, insisted that they have full control over the currency, and thus control over Berlin’s economy. More fundamentally, the USSR was unwilling to acknowledge the right of the British, French, and Americans to be in Berlin and offered no true guarantee that a blockade would not be repeated. Further, they asked for a halt to plans for a West German government, something the Western Allies were not willing to discuss. In fact, the Western Powers and the Soviets were able to compromise on many of these issues, but unfortunately no comprehensive settlement was reached in the summer of 1948, and the blockade remained in place. [xxxvii] The U.S.’s attempt to settle the matter in the UN was thwarted by a Soviet veto. Meanwhile, plans for a West German government went forward as a Parliamentary Council convened to draft a constitution. In addition, the Western Allies initiated a counter-blockade to interrupt supplies from their zones to the Soviet one.[xxxviii]
The Airlift went on. Flights dropped in the winter due to bad weather, but they picked up again in the spring of 1949. [xxxix] Indeed, the winter was a difficult time for the Airlifters. An article in a 1949 issue of Naval Aviation News magazine described “bitter cold” that “numbed fingers after 10 minutes” and “sweeping ice and snow from wings with brooms dipped in alcohol” to keep the planes flyable. In spite of the weather, the Airlift did not let up, and the Soviets began to realize that their goals of forcing the Allies from Berlin and/or preventing the formation of a sovereign West Germany were proving unattainable in the face of Western determination. In fact, Stalin announced in January 1949 he would end the Blockade if the Western Allies would delay plans for West Germany. The proposition was, of course, not accepted. [xli]
The climax of the Airlift came in the spring of 1949. General Tunner decided to send a message to the Soviets and to the people of Berlin by transporting more freight in 24 hours than the Airlift ever had before. The day chosen was Easter Sunday. After considerable preparation, the operation was launched that came to be known as the “Easter Parade.” Within 24 hours, crews made 1,398 flights and brought an incredible 12,941 tons of supplies to Berlin with an interval of only 62 seconds between planes (compare this to the required minimum of 4,500 tons). The Easter Parade showed the Soviets just how effective the Airlift was, and negotiations followed soon after. On 12 May the Soviet Union agreed to end the Blockade. [xlii] As a precaution, the Airlift was continued through September, but the crisis was over and the population of West Berlin celebrated. [xliii]
the last flight to Berlin: the number on the plane is the total tonnage of the Berlin Airlift
The Berlin crisis brought to a head the differences between the Soviet bloc and the West and marked the end of the cooperative wartime relationship between the US and Russia. America would no longer hold any trust for its former wartime ally, and the two powers spent the next half-century facing off in the Cold War. The Berlin Airlift was a moral victory for the Western Allies. Instead of backing out or being unable to agree on a response to the Blockade, the Americans, British and French demonstrated their solidarity in defense of democracy. The Airlift demonstrated also America's political and economic commitment to Europe and especially Germany, leading the West Germans to increasingly align themselves with the Western Powers, eventually joining NATO. In addition, the Airlift showed that the containment policy put forth by George Kennan could work, perhaps even without armed conflict. [xliv]
The freedom of West Berlin, however, had come at a sacrifice. No fewer than 78 men lost their lives in the Airlift, from pilots to radio operators. The population of Berlin created an Airlift Gratitude Foundation to support surviving family members. [xlv]
Stalin did not achieve any of his goals, in fact the opposite. The Blockade accelerated Western plans for a West German government, which was formed soon after its end, and the Soviets errected a communist East German state in response. Following the crisis, this seemed acceptable, if not ideal, to both sides, as well as the Germans themselves, since a joint solution for a unified Germany appeared impossible. Stalin's hostile actions also lead to the formation of the NATO alliance and greater US involvement in European military security. [xlvi]
Though it ushered in an era of hostility and distrust, there was at least one sign of hope during the Berlin crisis. Despite high tensions, neither side resorted to war, and though agreements were not easy, they were reached through diplomatic means.
For the Airlift's impact on Midwestern lives, visit
Contains a very large number of primary documents related to the Airlift such as State Department memos. An indispensable research aid.
Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation (American):
Dedicated to the memory of the Airlift, this organization operates several educational “flying museums” which travel throughout the world.
Berlin Gratitude Foundation (“Stiftung Luftbrueckendank”):
Website of the German organization formed to support dependents of those who died in the Airlift, and to foster deeper connections between Germans and citizens of the Airlift countries. (in German and English)
British Berlin Airlift Association:
Berlin Airlift Veterans Association:
[i] Blockade and Airlift: Legend or Lesson? The Berlin Crisis of 1948-1949, ed. Heinz-Gerd Reese and Michael Schroeder (Benedict Press: 1988), 16.
[ii] Wolfgang Huschke, The Candy Bombers: The Berlin Airlift 1948/49: A History of the People and Planes (Berlin: Metropol Verlag, 1999), 77.
[iii] Blockade and Airlift, 23.
[iv] Huschke, 78.
[v] “Berlin Background,” Information Memorandum No. 28. Department of State, Truman Papers, Truman Library (Washington: January 7, 1949), 2-3, and Greg Behrman, The Most Noble Adventure: The Marshall Plan and the Time When America Helped Save Europe (NY: Free Press, 2007), 30-44.
[vi] “Berlin Background,” 3-4.
[vii] Blockade, 18 and 24.
[viii] Behrman, 45-70, Judt, 93 and Kissinger, 453. The offer was theoretically available to all European countries, but only the western ones actually accepted, many of the eastern states being cajoled by the USSR into declining.
[ix] Blockade, 21 and 28.
[x] Blockade, 21 and Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 (NY: Penguin Press, 2005), 125-6.
[xi] Judt, 93-4.
[xii] Judt, 116-17.
[xiii] Huschke, 83 and Blockade, 26.
[xiv] Huschke, 80-1.
[xv] Judt, 146.
[xvi] Huschke, 81-2 and Blockade, 27.
[xvii] Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 447-9, 454-6, 471-2.
[xviii] Kissinger, 463-470.
[xix] Huschke, 82, and Blockade, 31-2.
[xx] Blockade, 31-2.
[xxi] “Berlin Background ,” 4-5 and Blockade, 28.
[xxii] Huschke, 77, Blockade, 29 and Kissinger, 436.
[xxiii] Note from Secretary Marshall to Ambassador Panyushkin, July 6, 1948, in H.L. Trefousse, The Cold War: A Book of Documents (Capricorn Books, 1966), 112.
[xxiv] Note of the Soviet Government to the Government of the United States of July 14, 1948 in Trefousse, 115-19.
[xxv] Blockade, 32-3.
[xxvi] Huschke, 84 and Judt, 147. Quote taken from “Diary, July 19, 1948” in Off the Record: The Private Papers of Harry S. Truman, ed. Robert H. Ferrell (NY: Harper & Row Publishers, 1980), 145. Truman had always hoped to avoid confrontation, but he was not prepared to make unilateral concessions to the Soviets. (131-2) Part of the reason the US stayed in Berlin was to send a message to democratic European nations that it would not abandon its position in Europe, as the “Berlin Background” memorandum states: “"The abandonment of Berlin would be interpreted throughout Germany and Europe as evidence of our lack of determination both to defend our rights and to support democratic peoples in their effort to resist totalitarian threats and pressures. Psychologically and politically such a step would have profound consequences, leading to a hasty effort on the part of many European people[s] to reinsure themselves with the Communists, to whom it would be felt that central Europe had been abandoned." (“Berlin Background,” 5.)
[xxvii] Huschke, 85.
[xxviii] Blockade, 37 and Huschke 85-90.
[xxix] Blockade, 38.
[xxx] Huschke, 86-7.
[xxxi] Blockade, 45-51.
[xxxii] Huschke 85-91.
[xxxiii] For more information on the Hump Airlift, see Huschke, 13.
[xxxiv] Huschke, 92-103.
[xxxv] Blockade, 38.
[xxxvi] "Report on U.S. Public Opinion on the Berlin Situation," Department of State, Truman Papers, Truman Library (Washington: July 30, 1948).
[xxxvii] “The Berlin Crisis: A Report on the Moscow Discussions,” Department of State, Truman Papers, Truman Library (Washington, 1948), 23-61.
[xxxviii] Blockade, 59.
[xxxix] Huschke, 100-108.
[xl] “Berlin Rugged,” in Naval Aviation News, June, 1949.
[xli] Blockade, 59, and Judt, 146.
[xlii] Huschke, 249-256 and Judt, 146-7.
[xliii] Blockade, 59.
[xliv] Judt, 146-8.
[xlv] Blockade, 67-9.
[xlvi] Judt, 146-8.
Images (in order of presentation):
"The Berlin Airlift - a memoir" MACDAC West Retirees.ed. Jim Burton.7/29/09.
Henry Kissinger, Diplomacy (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1994), 394.
Berliner Blockade und Luftbruecke 1948/49 (Landeszentrale, Germany, 1998), 41.
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