Pilots of the Berlin Airlift
This weeks Person of the Week is a group of people, the Pilots of the Berlin Airlift.
In late June 1948 Joseph Stalin decided the deal he made to partition Berlin wasn’t good enough. Unsurprisingly for a murderer, Stalin wanted to control the fate of the 2 million West Berliners as well as those in his own eastern sector and decided that a blockade would be the quickest and most effective way to do that. The Soviets were clear in their intent to spurn the allies and take Berlin.
Unfortunately, the communist pricks didn’t account for a little something called integrity that was fashionable among the allied nations of the day.
While the Americans were planning a military breakthrough of West Germany to Berlin, a British Commander Brian Robertson came up with the plan to supply the city by air.
Interestingly in the 1945 plans for the division of Germany someone included a stipulation that created three 20 mile wide air corridors to the city. Though the Soviets didn’t/couldn’t entirely force an air blockade they had to make due with being a nuisance and 733 reports of harassment were filed in the year from August 48 t0 ’49.
On June 27, 1948 the first Allied C-47’s landed at Berlins Tempelhof airport for the Berlin Airlift, but the job was not done then.
3,475 tons of supplies would be needed daily and the 102 C-47’s with their 3.5 ton capacity simply couldn’t cover it. However the Douglas C-54 Skymaster could carry 10 tons, and many were immediately ordered to Berlin.
As the operation expanded it was put under the command of Lt. Gen. William H. Tunner, who had arranged cargo flights over the Burma hump and into China during the war.
Tunner immediately improved the traffic flow in Berlin. Flights were to be done by instruments and if a plane missed its initial approach it was to fly on a outward corridor to the West were it would be flown back in, avoiding chaos in the air control situation.
Life in Berlin was difficult enough in the postwar period but a Soviet strangulation certainly didn’t make it any easier. The Berliners themselves however knew they didn’t want to become Soviet property, they knew what that entailed. They saw the effort the Allies were putting in to save them and they pitched in to help. Lots of work was needed to be done at the airports and the Germans came ou to help often only for tips such as cigarettes. The record of removing supplies was 10 tons of coal from a C-54 in 10 minutes. Moving 1-ton per minute by hand is no job for slouches.
To solve the problem of the lack of skilled maintenance workers, Tunner again utilized the Germans by hiring many former Luftwaffe mechanics.
During the airlift the British even used Sunderland flying boats to land in Lake Havel to deliver salt to Berlin.
As the operation continued the amount of daily tonnage increased and soon surpassed the goals required. Tunner did this in part by pitting his aircrews against one another. By creating awards for which airbase in Western Germany could launch the most flights and deliver the most tonnage the pilots and crews worked ever harder in the spirit of military unit competitiveness.
Though the daily supplies were making it into the city, heavy equipment and machinery couldn’t be brought into the city. Items were cut into smaller pieces, flown in on C-82’s and welded back together. An entire power plant was actually built this way.
To make it possible to bring in the heavy loads in one piece, a new airport was built. Tegel airfield was built in what was originally the French sector. Three months later the first planes were landing at Tegel to supply Berlin. Initially a Soviet radio tower made the approach dangerous, but the Soviets wouldn’t not remove it. A French General, Jean Ganeval decided that he would do the work for the Soviets on his own and blew up the tower with dynamite.
Tegel has been the main commercial airport for flights to Berlin since 1960 but will be replaced when Berlin-Brandenburg comes online in 2013.
On Easter day 1949 General Tunner wanted to set a new record for tonnage delivered in a day. Coal was stockpiled leading up to the day and on April 15, 1949 crews delivered nearly 13,000 tons of coal in 24 hours. Nearly double the daily average.
On May 12, 1949 the Soviets realized their ploy had not worked. The Soviets tried to steal West Berlin and ran into a fury of Western capitalism and dedication. They gave up the blockade and allowed ground access to West Berlin once again. The airlift continued until September 30, when the 15-month long operation was officially ended.
Over the course of the Berlin airlift the US delivered 1,783,572.7 tons, while 541,936.9 tons were delivered by the British totaling 2.3 million tons from 277, 569 total flights to Berlin. C-47’s and C-54’s alone traveled over 92 million miles, enough to circle the earth 3,694 times. Amazingly in all this work, only 101 fatalities were reported. The $244 million dollar cost would be about $2.1 billion today.
Had the blockade not ended, the airlift would have continued as plans were already being made to replace the C-54’s with newer and bigger aircraft.
Today there are monuments to the Berlin Airlift at several of the airfields used in the operation.
For that the Pilots and Crews of the Berlin Airlift are the Person of the Week.
I own an excellent book on the events of the Berlin Airlift is Daring Young Men: The Heroism and Triumph of The Berlin Airlift-June 1948-May 1949, by Richard Reeves. For more details and personal accounts of this historical event it is a book worth reading.
Posted on December 16, 2012, in Great Person of the Week, Hope for America, The Life of Man and tagged allies, aviation, berlin, berlin airlift, blockade, c-54, candy bombers, east germany, easter parade, general tunner, lake havel, soviet union, tegel, tempelhof, west germany. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.