The Berlin Airlift-Operation "Vittles"
As World War II came to a close, Germany was divided into four zones--The United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France. The Soviet Union took control of the Eastern zone. The Western portion was divided amongst the US, Great Britain, and France. Like the rest of the country, the capital city of Berlin, was also divided into four parts, called sectors. In Berlin, a four-power provisional government (the Allied Control Council) was installed in order to maintain order in the city, as well as to rebuild (the government, infrastructure, and so forth).
While the Allies initially worked together in an effort to rebuild Berlin, a difference of direction in the future for Germany began to emerge among the Allied nations. By early 1948, tensions between western allies and the Soviet Union were mounting. Their relations deteriorated due to numerous disagreements over the types of governments to be established in postwar Europe (i.e., currency, ideology, German unification plan, etc.). By April 1948, allied trains were being stopped en-route to western-controlled zones. On June 18, the United States, Great Britain and France announced plans to create a unified West Germany currency, excluding Berlin in an attempt to revive the country's economy. Six days later, the Soviets blocked all land routes connecting the noncommunist sectors of western Berlin claiming "technical difficulties" on the railroad and Autobahn.
This was the beginning of a broader blockade of West Berlin, which ultimately cut off over 2 million West Berliners, already suffering from the life-threatening effects of a bombed-out city, from the basic supplies (food, water, fuel, and so forth) needed for survival. With no supply access via land or boat to West Berlin, a global crisis emerged, with many fearing the ever increasing tensions would lead to a variety of adverse scenarios including further loss of life, a reemergence of combat, or even a third World War.
As the Allies considered a variety of options to break the blockade, a novel and innovative option was offered: supply the city with supplies by air. From the beginning, this plan seemed an impossibility. In a time where air transport was just emerging, this task seemed by many to be doomed for failure from the start for a variety of reasons. First, the sheer number of people needing supplies was overwhelming. While supplying the occupying forces (about 23, 000) was possible, this was only a fraction of the number that would need to be served by the air transport. Second, the only aircraft the Americans had available for the task were some five year-old Douglas C-47 Skytrains, which would only hold 3.5 tons each. Given the limited capacity (as well as the weakened state of the air fleet following the challenges of the war), this would prove to be a great challenge. Finally, West Berlin only had two airports, which only months before had been primary targets of the allied forces in order to overcome the enemy. The runways were in disrepair and were rather treacherous to approach given the fog, bombed out buildings near the runway, and reliance on instruments. Despite these obstacles the challenge of the airlift was undertaken. On November 30, 1945, an agreement had been made in writing, that there would be three 20-mile wide air corridors providing access to the city.
When the blockade began, the Soviets rejoiced, because they believed the Western powers had only one option--leave Berlin. But they underestimated the capability of the West to provide needed supplies by air. General Clay called upon General Curtis E. LeMay, commander of USAFE and asked him if he could haul supplies to Berlin. LeMay responded, "We can haul anything, anytime, anywhere". Two days later General LeMay called upon Brig. General Joseph Smith, Commander of the Wiesbaden Military Post, and appointed him Task Force Commander of an airlift operation estimated to last a few weeks. The only US aircraft initially available were 102 C-47's and two C-54 Skymasters. On June 26, the first C-47's landed at Tempelhof Airfield, foreshadowing the great operation that was to come. Smith dubbed the mission "Operation Vittles", because he said "We're haulin' grub." The British called their part "Operation Plane Fare".
It was determined that the city's daily food ration would be 646 tons of flour and wheat; 125 tons of cereal; 64 tons of fat; 109 tons of meat and fish; 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes; 180 tons of sugar; 11 tons of coffee; 19 tons of powdered milk; 5 tons of whole milk for children; 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking; 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables; 38 tons of salt; and 10 tons of cheese. In total, 1,534 tons were needed daily to keep the over 2 million people alive. That number did not include other necessities like coal and fuel. In fact, the largest quantity of anything required was coal. It wasn't needed to heat homes as much as it was necessary for industry. In addition, there was limited electricity, because the city's power plant was located in the Soviet sector, so that was cut off too. It was determined that in total supplies, 4,500 tons would be needed daily. C-47 can haul 3.5 tons. In order to supply the people of Berliners, C-47's would have to make 1000 flights each day. Impossible.
Initially, General Clay determined that, with the limited number of airplanes available to him, he could haul about 300 tons of supplies a day. The British effort was estimated to be capable of 750 tons a day. This would leave a 2,425-ton deficit daily. Realizing that this kind of tonnage could not be achieved using C-47's, General Clay and General LeMay made requests for more C-54's, for they could carry about three times the cargo of the C-47's. On June 27, an additional 52 Skymasters were ordered to Berlin.
On June 28, 1948, President Truman made a statement that abandoning Berlin was out of the question. He then ordered US B-29 Superfortresses to be stationed at British airfields to show the Soviets that the Western powers were not taking this lightly. We would not abandon these people!
By July 1, C-54's began taking over airlift flights, which were operating 24 hours a day. Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt was made the C-54 base, and Wiesbaden was a mix of C-54's and C-47's. To accommodate these two different aircraft, General Smith established a “block system”, giving the bigger, faster C-54's priority. They were also given radio codes to identify each type and the direction it was going. C-47's going East to Berlin were called "Easy", returning C-47's traveling West, were called "Willie". C-54's had the names 'Big Easy' and "Big Willie". Aircraft were also given a spacing of three minutes apart.
The size of the operation had to be increased in order to sufficiently supply Berlin. It needed to be commanded by someone who had expertise in air transport. That man was of Maj. General William H. Tunner. He was revered as an air transport expert. General Tunner had previously established the Ferrying Command in WWII, and successfully organized and commanded the "Hump" operation into China near the end of the war. This experience made General Tunner the world expert on air cargo transport. Tunner had a unique approach to airlifts which involved establishing a "rythmic cadence" that allowed for no excess or unplanned action. His philosophy was that the airlift should become like a conveyor belt, with each aircraft operating at equal speeds executing preplanned actions at specific locations (and never deviating from that method of operation).
Tunner assumed command of airlift operations on July 28, 1948. The airlift had been operating for just over a month. One of the first major changes (as manifest in his approach to the airlift) he made came as a result of "Black Friday". On Friday, August 13, Tunner flew into Berlin to grant an award to Lt. Paul O. Lykins, an airlift pilot who had made the most flights into Berlin up until that time. Weather that day was awful, and conditions in Berlin were impossible. Clouds had lowered to the tops of buildings and heavy rain had disrupted radar. One C-54 had crashed and burned at the end of the runway. Aircraft were being stacked 3,000 to 12,000 feet over Tempelhof in the clouds. These conditions caused Tunner to change procedures. He called the tower. "Tunner here, send everyone back to their base and let me know when it's safe to come down". To avoid this stacking problem, a new policy was created. Any aircraft that missed its approach was to continue back to its station via the outgoing center corridor. This created a continuous loop of planes to and from Berlin. If a pilot missed his approach, he would immediately become a departure and head back to his base. The loaded aircraft would get a fresh crew and be sent back as a regular flight. In addition, all aircraft, even under visual fight rules, were required to fly by instrument rules to maintain the proper speed, interval and altitude. This almost eliminated accidents and became one of the keys to the success of the operation.
Another essential decision was to standardize aircraft, parts, and procedures based around the C-54 aircraft. In addition, no pilot was to be away from his aircraft. General Tunner had seen many aircraft sitting idle, loaded and waiting for their crews to return from inside the terminal. He thought this to be a great waste of resources, therefore the order was sent that no pilot should be away from his aircraft from the time it landed until the time it took off from Berlin. Weather and clearance information was brought out to the aircraft while they were being unloaded, so the crews didn't need to go inside the terminal. Also, several trucks were outfitted as mobile snack bars and staffed by some of the prettiest Berlin girls. This enabled the crews to get coffee, a snack or other goods without having to leave the airplane. This also reduced the average turn around time from landing to departure to about 25 minutes.
LIFE FOR THE BERLINERS
Life for the Berliners was hard. In the beginning, there was about a month's worth of supplies, but stockpiles were dwindling. In addition, in the winter of 1948-49, there was little fuel to run the remaining industry, let alone heat the homes. Berliners began chopping down trees in the city for fuel. People rummaged through garbage cans for food. The situation was critical, but still they knew that their suffering in this manner would be better than succumbing to Soviet control. When it was decided that an airlift would be attempted, Berlin's Lord Mayor Ernst Reuter held a public rally in support of the effort. Germans would suffer and sacrifice greatly to make it work. The German resolve was strong, even in such a desperate situation.
One of the biggest problems during the airlift was the lack of manpower. The Berliners, a large percentage of them women, were eager to help and worked overtime. It also gave the people a great sense of pride that they were helping the effort. The German volunteers assisted in unloading supplies at Tempelhof, repairing runways that were almost constantly falling apart, and providing critical man-power wherever and whenever needed.
Another large problem was the lack of skilled mechanics. There just weren't enough mechanics to keep a fleet of C-54's maintained. The airlift needed people to perform inspections, repairs, engine replacements, cleaning and servicing these aircraft. General Tunner had a solution to that problem, too. There were skilled former Luftwaffe mechanics available right in Berlin. These mechanics were integrated with the Allied aircraft mechanics to provide the required service.
FLYING THE CORRIDORS
Pilots flying in the corridors encountered numerous problems. Weather conditions changed so often that it was not uncommon to leave a base in West Germany under ideal conditions, only to find it most difficult to land in Berlin. What made it even more treacherous was the approach to Tempelhof. In order to land there, a pilot had to literally fly between the high-rise apartment buildings at the end of the runway.
Unfortunately, that wasn't all the pilots had to deal with. The Soviets harassed the pilots during the operation. Between 10 August 1948 and 15 August 1949, there were 733 incidents of harassment of airlift planes in the corridors. These incidents included Soviet pilots buzzing the transport aircraft, air-bourne obstacles such as tethered balloons, radio interference and searchlights in the pilots' eyes, etc.. Despite of these acts of harassment, no aircraft was shot down during the operation, which could have started a war that the Soviets did not want. As an added deterrent, the loaded and ready B-29's on the runways in England provided a formidable threat, even though they were not atomic bomb capable.
American C-54's were stationed at Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden in the American zone, and Celle and Fassberg in the British zone. The British flew many different aircraft out of their zone, such as Lancasters, Yorks, and Hastings aircraft. They even used Sunderland Flying Boats to deliver salt, using Lake Havel in the middle of Berlin. Every month the tonnage increased and soon exceeded the daily requirements. Every day, tonnage records were being set, and the constant drone of airplanes overhead was music to the Berliner’s ears. Eventually, rations were increased and life in West Berlin was improving.
Berlin had only 2 airports at the outset of the airlift, Tempelhof and Gatow. Soon, it became obvious that a third was needed. Heavy equipment was needed to build the third airport, but there were no aircraft large enough to carry bulky items like that. So, the machinery was cut into smaller pieces, loaded onto C-82 Fairchild Packet aircraft, flown into Berlin and welded back together. Other large construction projects in Berlin (such as a new power plant) were similarly transported and erected, again demonstrating the innovation and determination of the allied forces.
Later, a site in the French zone was chosen to become Tegel Airfield. American, French, and German volunteers broke ground on August 5th, 1948. Through dedication, hard work and extreme organization, the first C-54 landed with its 10-ton cargo only a mere three months later.
There was an obstacle on the approach to Tegel. A Soviet controlled radio tower caused problems with its proximity to the airfield. Protests to the Soviets to remove it went unheard. Finally, on November 20, 1948 French General Jean Ganeval made a decision. If they would not take it down, he would simply blow it up. So, on December 16, the dynamite was used. The tower fell, and the obstacle was gone. The Soviet General asked General Ganeval, “How could you do such a thing?” The rely was, “Mit Dynamite, monsieur!”
In the end, the airlift overcome each obstacle it faced. On May 12, 1949 the Soviet Union officially ended the blockade allowing other mechanisms for transportation of goods into West Berlin. Though the blockade of Berlin handed ended, the allies continued the airlift until Sept. 30. This was to ensure that the people of Berlin had three-month surplus of supplies and food.
The Berlin Airlift proved that a sustained airlift could be maintained for long periods, and that joint operations are successful when there was a common goal and it confirmed that the Allied Forces could stand up against an oppressive force employing peaceful methods. The Berlin Airlift set the standard for modern day airlift and humanitarian operations, proving that precision airlift can be accomplished anywhere in the world in an effective and efficient manner.
This most important aspect of this operation was that it created a long and bonding friendship between the German people and the countries of the west that has endured for more than six decades.
(Source: www.spiritoffreedom.org, with edits by Gail S. Halvorsen Aug. 2013)