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The Berlin Airlift

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                                        The Berlin Airlift

    Postwar division of Germany:

    That the advent of World War II brought about a phenomenal change in the entire universe is no longer news. However, what is relatively unknown to all is the aftermath of the war, which saw the universe through an era often described as the cold war. As soon as the World War II ended in Europe in 1945, on 8 May to be precise, the Soviet, the Western and even the French armies all lingered around Germany. The French army was in the southwest part, while the Soviet and Western were in different parts, but much concentrated along the Elbe. (Beschloss, 2003).

    Between 17th of  July to 2 August 1945, the victorious “United Allies”, consisting of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union, realized the need  to share power at the Potsdam Conference. This was simply because the two dominant superpowers which were United States and Soviet Union both wanted to maintain their influence on the world by dividing territorial claim across the globe. They partitioned Europe and the Far East off. Again, they divided Germany among the four allies, with each Ally running its unit with a military government, before each unit could form ad-hoc national government to put the country back together. Germany was thus divided directly under the supervision of the “Council of Foreign Ministers” (Allied Control Council or ACC) and the “Kommandatura, was to become the first battleground of the emerging Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union”. (Beschloss, 2003). Perhaps, the reason for this was because Berlin was only 100 miles away from Soviet’s zone.

    The Marshall Plan:

    As a means of rebuilding after war, the United State zone embarked on the total revival of Germany industry most especially the coal industry. In January 1947, President Harry Truman appointed General George Marshall as Secretary of State and the move for Germany to be economically self-sufficient began. JCS 1067 was scrapped and JCS 1779 was enacted, (Beschloss, 2003). However, meetings with the Soviet Foreign Minister, Vyacheslav Molotov and others came to a stand still, when after precisely six weeks of dialogue, Molotov refused the comply with the plan . General Marshall was utmostly displeased with this development of apparent lack of interest in solving Germany’s economic problems. (Beschloss,2003). Again, Soviet zone leader, Joseph Stalin also opposed the Marshall Plan simply because he had easily built up a formidable belt of nations controlled by the Soviet, both on the Western border and the Eastern bloc, which included Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary.

    Soviet did not want to lose their power and influence over their zone. Soviet felt that a strengthened Germany will threaten their control. Stalin knew that the US aid would only lead to a pro-US inclination of the new Europe. He was quoted thus “This is a ploy by Truman. It is nothing like Lend-Lease — a different situation. They don’t want to help us. What they want is to infiltrate European countries.” (Cherny A. 2008). Initially, Molotov was quite interested in the scheme for he played along with the early meetings, but suddenly he lost interest and described it as “dollar imperialism”. It was said that he dreaded the US political, cultural and economic penetration. Stalin simply gave an order to all the newly formed Soviet Eastern bloc countries (“Cominform”) to refuse the aid. This led to the Czechoslovak coup d’état of 1948, which vigorously jolted Western powers and they realized that war could occur, this swept away the entire traces of opposition to the Marshall Plan in the United States Congress. (Cherny A. 2008).

    April Crisis

    Yet again, the Soviets issued a decree on March 25, 1948 banning the “Western military and passenger traffic between the American, British and French occupation zones and Berlin sectors”. (Cherny A. 2008). This development started on1st of April. No cargo was allowed to leave Berlin by rail without undergoing the scrutiny of the Soviet commander and all trains were also searched by Soviet authorities. On the 2nd of Apri, the US reacted by yet another banning, for General Lucius D. Clay, in charge of  United States’s  zone ordered all military trains to stop venturing into this zones and hitherto supplies to  be to delivered by airplane military garrison.(Cherny A. 2008).

    Little Lift

    This airplane supply was referred to as the Little Lift. It lasted for 75 day precisely. However as the Little Lift enfolded, on the 10th of April 1948, the Soviets reduced the restrictions on Allied military trains, but did not cease from intercepting both  rail and road traffic for the whole period of 75 days which the United States used in  supplying the military forces with cargo aircraft. Although, this restriction affected the United States for it was quite an expensive venture supplying food via air cargo, the US achieved a success of the scheme. The success of the American Airlift became humiliating to the Soviets, who kept insisting that it would never work. By the spring of 1949, it was vividly obvious that effort was working, for the airlift was delivering more cargo than had ever been recorded to flow into the city even when the rail was been used, hence, this humiliation led to the ban being totally lifted in May. “The airlift to supply the German 6th Army at the battle of Stalingrad required 300 tons of food per day and rarely came even close to delivering this; the Berlin effort would require at least 4,000 tons a day, well over ten times as much. The United States and the British Royal Air Force flew over 200,000 flights that provided 13,000 tons of food daily, for the next year” (Miller,2000,pg28) . The aircrafts used in lifting these supplies were as follows; Avro Lancaster, Avro York, Avro Tudor, Avro Lancastrian, Boeing C-97 Stratofreighter, Bristol Type 170, Freighter, B-24 Liberator, PBY Catalina, Douglas C-54 Skymaster, Douglas DC-4, Douglas C-74 Globemaster, Short Sunderland, vickers VC.1 etc.

     However, a report from the Soviet Union in April affirmed that the venture was quite difficult, stating thus “Our control and restrictive measures have dealt a strong blow at the prestige of the Americans and British in Germany and even the Americans allegedly confirmed that the venture they embarked on was be too expensive.”(Miller,2000,pg 23).

     Furthermore, the personnel of American military, overseeing the communication equipment in the Eastern zone was asked to leave on April 9 by the Soviet officials. This stalled the use of navigation beacons to mark aircraft routes.  As if that was not enough, on April 20, the Soviets went further in frustrating the Americans by demanding that all barges must secure clearance before entering the Soviet zone. (Miller,2000,pg 26).

    The Berlin Airlift, June 27, 1948 to May 12, 1949(Truman library)

    The Currency Crisis

     For Germany to be economically-stable, a reformation of the unstable Reichsmark, a German currency introduced immediately after the war, was paramount. Soviet simply had devalued the currency by printing it excessively, which led to the Germans using cigarettes as a kind of ad-hoc currency and as a medium of barter. Again, the Soviet opposed this reform. Both the Americans and British proposed to the ACC that a new currency should be created to replace the de-valued Reichsmark, but The Soviets out-rightly refused this proposal, maintaining their stand of a German economic recession which was in accordance with their policy of a weak Germany. (Cherny A. 2008). In May 1948, the Soviet Union introduced its own new currency through its military as a preemption of the introduction of new currency by the other countries in the non-Soviet zones. Furthermore, they insisted that only the Soviet occupied currency should be used in the Greater Berlin area, if any other currency was introduced by other countries. On June 18, the United States, Britain and France announced that hence from June 21, the Deutsche Mark would become the legal tender, but the Soviets again refused to permit its use in Berlin.

    Berlin Airlift start

    Immediately after the June 18 introduction of the new Deutsche Mark, the Soviet guards stopped both passenger trains and traffic on the autobahn, they also intentionally delayed all Western and German freight ship and ordered that all ship movement must secure special permission from the Soviet. Yet again, the Soviets halted a train of United States on course to supply the military in Berlin, it was turned back to Western Germany, on June 21, the day the Deutsche Mark was announced. The next day, the Soviets also declared a new currency in their zone, which was promptly named the “Ostmark” (Miller,2000). Yet the same day, “The Soviets launched a massive propaganda campaign condemning Britain, the United States and France by radio, newspaper and loudspeaker. The Soviets conducted well-advertised military maneuvers just outside the city, rumors of the potential occupation using Mongolian troops spread quickly and German communists in the Soviet sector of Berlin demonstrated, rioted and attacked pro-Western German leaders”. (Miller,2000pg 46). They threatened to apply both economic and administrative sanctions that will lead to circulation in Berlin exclusively of the currency of the Soviet occupation zone.” June 24, was a continuation of the frustration scheme, for the Soviets broke land and water interactions between the non-Soviet zones and Berlin. They also stopped all rail and barge traffic inside and outside of Berlin. (Miller,2000). The next day, they stopped all food supplying to the non-military population in the non-Soviet zone of Berlin. Although, car movement from Berlin to the non-Soviet zones was allowed, but was only possible via a diversion of about 23 kilometer to a ferry crossing, they explained the diversion as necessary, having orchestrated a bridge repairs. (Miller,2000). Electricity was also cut off from Berlin. All traffic from zone other than the Soviet to Berlin was blockaded, but for the air corridors.

     “The Soviets rejected arguments that the occupation rights in the non-Soviet sectors of Berlin, and the use of the supply routes during the previous three years, had given Britain, France and the United States a legal claim to use of the highways, tunnels, railroads, and canals. Relying on Soviet good will after the war, Britain, France and the United States had never negotiated a pact with the Soviets guaranteeing these ground passage rights to Berlin through the Soviet zone”.

    The Deutsche marks was dis-honoured by the Soviets even in Berlin, but due to the fact that the Allies had brought in  250,000,000 Deutsche marks into the city, it became inevitable to stop  it from becoming the standard currency in all zones. The stay of the new currency, together with the supporting Marshall Plan apparently strengthened Germany which was entirely contrary to the wishes of the Soviets. This aggravated Stalin, he was aware that the new currency was likely to resurge the economy within the Soviet zone and decided on chasing the West completely out of Berlin. The West was not ready for a third World War thus a concession was made.

    Operation Vittles:

    On 24 June 1948, Brigadier General Joseph Smith was appointed as the Task Force Commander of the airlift. The next day, Operation Vittles commenced and thirty-two C-47s were deployed to Berlin to haul 80 tons of cargo which include milk, flour, and medicine, but the first British aircraft did not fly till 28 June. Soon, July came and all operations were fully functional. Both the American’s and British’s ship were flying to their various prescribed destinations. A complex schedule and pattern for arranging flights became necessary due to the large number of flights. “Aircraft were scheduled to take off every three minutes, flying 500 feet altitude higher than the previous flight. This pattern began at 5,000 feet and was repeated five times”. (Nelson,.1978). The first week, the airlift lifted about ninety tons a day, but the operation grew into the second week, it reached 1000 tons. This probably would have been adequate if the effort lasted only a few weeks, as originally planned.

    Black Friday

    On July 30 1948, A C-54 crashed. This became known as “Black Friday”. It had

    burnt the end of the runway, so when another plane wanted to land behind it blew, it got it tires busted while trying to avoid hitting it the first. A third aircraft ground looped on the auxiliary runway, closing the entire airport. All aircraft was ordered to return to their base immediately. These led to making of several new Airline rules. Some planes were only allowed one chance to land in Berlin and must return to its air base if it missed its chance. Soon accident rates and delays reduced remarkably. Again, all the C-47s was removed from the Airlift due to the fact that it takes too much time to load. With adaptation of several law, towards the end of July, the Airlift became a success. Operations daily became over 1,500 flights and delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo, which was enough supply for West Berlin. (Nelson,1978)

    The Easter Parade

     April 1949 when all had become stable, a boost of morale was required to break the monotony the operation. On Easter Sunday, the operation decided to break all records by increasing the supply. That Easter, the only cargo was coal and the entire crew worked tirelessly to achieve a total of “12,941 tons of coal which was delivered by a total number of 1,383 flights, without a single accident” (Nelson,1978). This improved general performance as daily tonnage increased from 6,729 tons a day, to 8,893 tons per day thereafter and in April, a total of 234,476 tons was delivered. Alas, the Airlift finally succeeded.

    The End

    This success humiliated the Soviets, the Easter Parade being the last straw. The Soviet willingly accepted a negotiation of the four powers. Finally, a settlement was made on Allied terms. The blockade was to end in eight days. On 12 May 1949, the blockade of Berlin was lifted and a “British convoy immediately drove through to Berlin, and the first train from West Germany reached Berlin at 5:32 A.M.. Later that day, an enormous crowd celebrated the end of the blockade” (Nelson,1978).


    The airlift proved that the Western powers were capable of doing virtually the impossible. For many thought it humanly impossible to supply an entire city via air for such duration of time. In responses to this, from August, the Soviets decided to offer food freely to everybody that would come over to East Berlin and sign over their ration cards. The Western part of Berlin unanimously refused the food offers.(Nelson,1978).

    During the airlift, Soviet and German communists inflicted psychological trauma on West Berliners. Soon it was impossible for the non-Communist majority in Berlin city-wide to attend sessions within the Soviet sector. The Communist would invade the city hall to interrupt these sessions. The Kremlin organized an attempted putsch for control of all of Berlin through a September 6 takeover of the city hall by SED operatives. “The elected city government was routed, with its democratic members being replaced by communists”. (Nelson,1978).

    The Democratic Party amassed a crowd of 500,000 people protesting this development. Never before was such a crowd of Berlin citizens gathered to protect their right. This brought about a global feeling of solidarity with Berliners. The US further reinforced their resolve not to allow the Soviet to oppress the Berlin.


                Beschloss, Michael R, The Conquerors: Roosevelt, Truman and the Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1941-1945, Simon and Schuster. 2003

      Cherny A. The Candy Bombers: The Untold Story of the Berlin Airlift and America’s Finest Hour. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. 2008

    Miller, Roger Gene (2000), To Save a City: The Berlin Airlift, 1948-1949, Texas A&M University Press

    Nelson, Daniel J. Wartime Origins of the Berlin Dilemma. Alabama: University of Alabama Press. 1978.


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