Friday, June 26, 2015

The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949


On this day, 26 June 1948, the Berlin Airlift began. The Berlin Airlift is one of American Armed Forces’ great humanitarian achievements. It was successfully executed on short notice by a military that was gutted from post-World War II hasty downsizing.

It was agreed at the Potsdam Conference that at the end of World War II Germany would be divided into 5 occupying zones: France, Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was assigned the Eastern Zone, which they had conquered and occupied by May of 1945. Berlin fell within the Soviet Zone and it was determined jointly that Berlin would be a “free city” divided into two sectors (East Berlin and West Berlin). The civil governance of the Western Zone was shared by the French, British, and Americans; East Berlin was governed by the Soviet Union.

The Soviets allowed access to West Berlin by one autobahn, one railroad, and two air corridors. West Berlin, the largest post-war German city with a population of a bit over 2 million, received all of its coal, oil, petrol, medicines, and food through those Soviet-controlled corridors.

After President Roosevelt died in April 1945, the US stopped all pretense of diplomatic “friendship” with the Soviet Union. The Potsdam Conference (July-August 1945) was the last Allied Conference of World War II. It was attended by Joseph Stalin, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman. The Conference quickly revealed the deep tensions between the British and Americans, on one side, and the Soviet Union on the other. The Soviet Union had resisted the joint occupation of Berlin and had pressured the Allies to withdraw from Berlin entirely. Stalin increased the diplomatic pressure in June 1948 by closing all air and ground access to West Berlin from the west.

Rather than giving in to the Soviet demands or letting 2 million people starve, the United States organized, with British assistance, an airlift to supply West Berlin with needed fuel, water, medicines, and food among many other items.

Under the command of General Curtis Lemay, United States Air Force, and General Lucius D. Clay, United States Army, the United States launched a massive operation to supply West Berlin by air. Using virtually every transport plane and pilot the new United States Air Force organized a round-the-clock 7-days-a-week “air bridge” (die Luftbrucke). There were numerous complications and obstacles, not the least of which was inclement weather. Because of Soviet hostility the transport planes had to be escorted by US fighters, which restricted the already limited air space in the air corridor into Berlin. Moreover, there was only one large airfield in Berlin, the former Luftwaffe air base, Tempelhofer Feld (rendered Templehof in English). As the airlift continued, smaller fields were built in Berlin but they only slightly mitigated the space problem on the ground and in the air.

Planes landed and took-off at Tempelhofer Feld every four minutes. Crews were flying 2 to 3 missions a day. One of the two major fields in West Germany was Rhein Main, AFB, Frankfurt am Main. Rhein Main was closed in 2005, but I had the good fortune to lay over at Rhein Main returning from ODS in 1991. The second major base in West Germany was Wiesbaden AFB. Wiesbaden had been the World War II headquarters for the Luftwaffe. When the Americans arrived in 1945 Wiesbaden became the US Army Headquarters Europe. By 1948 Wiesbaden was a major Air Force Base and the headquarters of United States Air Force Europe. When we were stationed in England I can remember at least two vacations in Wiesbaden and Frankfurt am Main.

The coordination for the Berlin Airlift was difficult and exacting. On the ground the planes were lined up nose-to-tail and loaded several at a time. The start and completion of loading each plane had to be timed so the plane could lift off on schedule. With a take-off and landing every four minutes one can appreciate the demanding choreography of the ground operation. Planes requiring maintenance were pulled out of the line and replaced with repaired ones. The “air bridge system” in many ways resembled a linear assembly line rather than a “bridge”.

According to my father, one interesting consequence of this demanding system was that pilots were assigned planes as they were parked in the loading line rather than by their squadron assignments. For example, my father was assigned to the 332nd Troop Carrier Squadron, 513th Troop Carrier Group, Rhein Main AFB. The 332nd flew the new the Fairchild C-119, “The Flying Box”. It had just entered service with the USAF in November 1947. It was the first post-war cargo plane specifically designed for paratroop operations, airborne cargo drops, and with a short runway capability. Like most of the other troop carrier pilots during the Berlin Airlift, my father flew whatever came up next, whether it was a C-47, C-46, or a C-54. At that time there were only two classifications of Air Force pilots: single engine or multi-engine. It was expected that the multi-engine pilots could fly a plane with two engines or four (or one or three when an engine feathered). As aviation technology became more complex, pilot training and ratings changed accordingly.

The Soviet Union was caught off guard by America’s ability to supply Berlin by air. By September 1949 the Soviet Union backed down and settled for a negotiated status quo ante: Berlin would remain divided and the West would be re-guaranteed access. The Berlin Air Lift delivered and amazing 2.3 million tons of cargo; flew over 189,000 flights; logged over 600,000 flying hours; and flew 92 million miles. During the 15 month operation the accident rate was lower than the entire Air Force for the same period of time. There were only 12 air plane accidents during the Air Lift. Unfortunately, 31 Americans were killed, mostly from ground accidents.

The Berlin Airlift defined the American strategic spirit for the remainder of the Cold War. It was eloquently summarized by President John F. Kennedy in his 1961 Inaugural Address:

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty” .