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»We had no guns, only flour.«

For 11 months from 1948 to 1949, the Soviet and Allied forces battled it out on the logistics front. After shutting off road and rail access to the Allied half of Berlin, American, British and French pilots risked their lives to enable survival through this massive logistical undertaking.

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By Ronny Träger & Sabine Devins & Anja Rieckert
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After World War II, Germany was divided into four zones and Berlin into four sectors.

West Berlin, made up of the British, French and American sectors, was enclosed by Soviet territory.

June 24, 1945


Three days after the Western powers introduced a new currency, the Deutschmark, as an economic reform in their three sectors, the Soviet Union reacted by blocking access into its sector by ground as well as water. West Berlin was completely isolated from West Germany.

As we feared, the Soviets are retaliating against the new Deutschmark. We estimate that food supplies in West Berlin will last for 36 days and coal stocks for 45 days.

There are 2 million people in West Berlin. We have to get them supplies!

If we forcibly open the border, it’s an act of war.

We have to negotiate with the Soviets.

Or the alternative is that we give up West Berlin.

If we give up West Berlin, we have lost our own victory. We’re staying!

Without knowing how long the blockade would last, the western powers decided to conduct an airlift.

As if predicting tensions to come, the victorious powers agreed after the end of the war to set up three 20-mile-wide air corridors to ensure smooth movement between Berlin and the western occupation zones.

The southern and northern corridors were used to fly in 4,500 tons of food and coal per day to the airports of Tempelhof and Gatow. A stretch of canal was reserved for water planes.

By early 1949, the western powers were exceeding their daily tonnage remarkably.

The middle corridor was used as a return route to resupplying stations.

By the end of the airlift in September 1949, more than 277,000 flights from the US and the UK had delivered goods to West Berlin.

To guarantee supplies to West Berlin, planes flew continuously at record pace. New radar systems helped navigate even in poor visibility and pilots reported their times and positions to other planes via a checkpoint with radio beacon. With this system, pilots were able to keep to precise scheduling and avoid collision.

Once inside the Soviet Zone, pilots had no beacon or radio contact for exactly 40 minutes. Flying by compass, the pilot took care not to leave the corridor until reaching transmission range for the ground control station at Tempelhof.

It was a grueling mission for the airlift pilots. The machines followed one after the other, and they soon showed wear and tear. They were constantly having technical problems. And besides, the Soviet planes were pursuing us with disruptive maneuvers at breakneck speeds. We rested for short periods in a makeshift barn, accompanied by the uninterrupted droning of planes landing and taking off.

On the airlift cycle, pilots maintained a permanent three-minute rhythm from take-off to touch-down.

In addition to tight timing, the pilots also had to avoid disruptive maneuvers by the Soviets as they nipped at the edges of the open corridors, just to make life difficult.

Disruptive maneuvers, which ranged from firing rocks and flares to causing radio interference and light disruption, were ongoing. Americans recorded 788 incidents during the airlift.

Although initial flights were made by small Douglas C-47 aircraft, eventually a team of larger C-54s joined the cause.

The British Avro Yorks and Hastings, a brand new plane, joined the Douglas aircraft to form the core workhorses of the airlift.

In total, more than 700 aircraft from around the world were assembled to facilitate the Berlin airlift.

The airlift supplied 2.1 million tons of essential goods to West Berliners, with coal and food making up the vast majority.

Through the same airlift, 74,145 tons of goods produced in Berlin were exported to the west via the airlift. They carried the label »Made in Blockaded Berlin.«

In addition to the transport of goods, a total of 227,655 passengers were flown out of Berlin via the airlift. They included military personnel, ill patients and malnourished children.

When visibility was poor, pilots needed to land using the Ground Controlled Approach (GCA), in which the GCA station directed pilots to the runway on a radar screen. Twenty percent of all landings were controlled this way.

Turn 270 degrees, you’re slightly left of the azimuth. Now bring your course 270 back to the azimuth, correct left to 265 degrees, and you are now six miles east of the runway. Approaching the glide path, sink rate 550 feet per minute. Azimuth is good. Correct right to 264 degrees. You’re flying over the glide path. Now 50 feet too high. Increase your sink rate. Azimuth is good.

Three miles from touchdown. You’re continuing, closer to the glide path, falling at 550 feet per minute. Your azimuth is good. You’re on the glide path, two miles from touchdown. Cleared for landing by the tower. One and a half miles from touchdown. Your azimuth is good. Flying slightly under the glide path, you’re 25 feet too high, adjust your sink rate.

You’ve reached the runway. Azimuth is good. You’re 50 feet over the runway. Take over and land the plane.

To ensure safety in the Berlin skies, each airport had fixed routes for landing and takeoff. In addition to the standard routes to the west, there were alternative routes to the east of each airfield.

Altitudes, directions and times were clearly set for each section of the routes.

Each pilot had only one landing attempt. If they failed, the machine had to fly directly back with the payload. This was more efficient than disrupting the clock.

All planes returned to West Germany via the middle corridor. To ensure the safety of airplanes of different speeds flying in the same confined space, aircraft were assigned five different heights on their return journey.

»Every three minutes a plane landed at Tempelhof airport and several planes were always in the sky overhead.«

Traute Gier, eyewitness

Every other minute, planes would land at Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, forming a queue along the ramp. Ready and waiting, operatives would unload the plane’s cargo onto trucks within 21 minutes.

Operatives reported the volume of goods to headquarters, and the goods were recorded at the counting station. Trucks and trains then transported the goods into the city.

Despite the effective routine at West Berlin’s major airport, Tempelhof’s capacity was far from sufficient.

Gatow, in the British sector, made use of a special water runway.

Desperate to increase capacity, Tegel was built in the French sector. Its construction was completed in only 90 days.

After a relentless 14 months, compounded by problems in their own economy, the Soviet Union lifted the total blockade on May 12, 1949. The western allies continued delivering supplies by air.

On September 30, 1949, the airlift officially ended. The western powers had demonstrated their will to stay in West Berlin, but the Cold War was just beginning.

Sources

U.S. Department of DefenseUlrich Kubisch (1998): Fliegende Güterzüge. In: Kultur & Technik 4/1998United States Air Forces in Europe (1949): Berlin Airlift. A USAFE Summary • Wolfgang J. Huschke (1999): Die Rosinenbomber, Metropol Verlag • Corine Defrance, Bettina Greiner, Ulrich Pfeil (2018): Die Berliner Luftbrücke. Erinnerungsort des Kalten Krieges, Ch. Links Verlag • Jan Behrendt, Head of Collection, The Military History Museum Berlin-Gatow • Bernd von Kostka, Curator and Conservateur, Allied Museum, Berlin

Credits

Design:
Ronny Träger, Taisia Tikhnovetskaya, Daniela Scharffenberg
Research:
Anja Rieckert, Ronny Träger, Sabine Devins
Text:
Hilary Bown, Emily Manthei

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