At the end of the Second World War, sectors of Germany had been allocated to the three main Allied armies of occupation, with a fourth, French, sector formed out of the British and US areas in the West. Berlin, deep inside the Russian sector, was similarly divided into four.
Post-war relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union deteriorated rapidly to the extent that, on 24th June 1948, the Russians blocked all road, rail and water access to Berlin from the West. Some wondered whether Berlin would be abandoned to the Soviets. Instead, the UK and US decided to airlift supplies to West Berlin with the support of the French, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African air-forces. Operating from airbases in western Germany, the Allied effort resulted in some 278,000 flights in the course of the following year, delivering almost 400,00 tons of supplies (up to 8,893 tons per day).
The crisis would end on 12th May 1949, nearly a year later. But in that time, the combined efforts of the British and US Air Forces kept West Berlin supplied, using the three, 20-mile wide air-corridors that had previously been agreed with the Soviet Union in 1945. To begin with, there was concern that, even if the corridors were used, the Soviets would respond with force. However, the US assumed that they would be reluctant to risk another conflict so soon after the end of the war by committing an act of aggression against a humanitarian mission. They were correct and the flights were never threatened.
The RAF contribution to the airlift started just two days after the blockade was imposed. The British had more aircraft than the US in western Germany at the time so were initially able to provide greater capacity than their Allied partners. To begin with, RAF Dakotas flew from Wunstorf to Gatow – which was in the British sector of Berlin. By July 1948, Avro Yorks joined the British effort, each carrying nearly 10 tons of payload, compared with the Dakota’s 3.
On 4th July, the RAF added two squadrons of Short Sutherland flying boats to the operation. Their crews were based in the old Blohm and Voss works on the Elbe, near Hamburg. The Sunderlands were loaded up with supplies taken out to them in small boats, with each aircraft doing up to three round-trips a day. They continued until December, at which point ice on the Havel in Berlin became a problem and the flights ceased.
After all the available UK military aircraft had been assigned to the operation, the British government turned to civilian airlines for extra capacity. One major requirement in Berlin was for liquid fuels such as petrol. This was initially transported in 55-gallon drums which was not only wasteful in terms of space and payload, but also extremely dangerous. Commercial aviation pioneer Sir Alan Cobham, for example, had already addressed this problem and his Flight Refuelling Ltd fleet of 12 aircraft flew sorties throughout the airlift. Together with 24 other civil contractors, they delivered almost seven million gallons by the end of the operation.
With the growing numbers of civilian and military planes involved, and the international scope of the operation, it became very apparent that a proper system of management was needed. In August 1948, a single coordinating authority was formed called ‘Combined Airlift Task Force (CALTF); by October it had assumed control of all humanitarian flights in and out of Berlin. One of CALTF’s first tasks was to improve safety by re-reorganising the corridors used by each nation. The British were assigned the northern air corridor to fly into Berlin, the US would use the southern corridor and both would fly back out using the central corridor.
The Soviet Union lifted the blockade on 12th May 1949, but tensions between the former WWII partners remained. The Western Allies soon set up NATO and declared their area of occupied territory to be the new Federal Republic of Germany – or West Germany as it became known. The Soviets replied in kind, declaring the establishment of the German Democratic Republic – or DDR. And so the stage was set for the start of the Cold War which would last for some three decades and which still dogs international relations to this day.
Some facts and figures of the Berlin lift – courtesy of the Royal Airforce Museum
- Normal daily food requirements for Berlin was 2000 tons (2032 tonnes)
- Coal represented two -thirds of all tonnage; giving each family 11.3 – 11.6 kg (25-30lb) per month
- The airlift required 850,00 multi-layer paper sacks per month
- 394,509 tons (400,821 tonnes) of foodstuffs, coal and supplies carried by 689 military and civil aircraft – 441 US, 147 RAF and 101 British civil.
- The pilots and aircrew also came from Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand
- 83,405 tons (84373 tonnes) of cargo and 68,000 people were flown OUT of Berlin
- 39 British, 31 American and 13 German civilians lost their lives in the Berlin Airlift. They are remembered on the Berlin Airlift monument at Tempelhof
- 200,230,415 km (124,420,813 miles) were flown during the airlift. A total of 277,804 flights
- The Russian blockade lasted from 24 June 1948 to 11 May 1949, but the airlift continued for several more months
- The airlift cost the United States $350 million; the UK £17 million and Western Germany 150 million Deutschmarks
- Berliners received an average of 2,300 calories a day which was higher than the UK food rationing system provided at the time
- At the height of the operation, on April 16 1949, an allied aircraft landed in Berlin every minute
- The major Berlin airfields involved were Tempelhof in the American sector, Gatow on the Havel river in the British sector and Tegel which was built by army engineers and Berlin volunteers in 49 days inside the French sector
- Each aircraft was unloaded by German crews in 20-30 minutes
- British aircraft involved included C47 Dakotas and Avro Yorks