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Logistical masterstroke: 75 year anniversary of the Berlin Airlift

How do you supply a city of millions from the air alone?

Seventy-five years ago, the Soviet Union imposed the Berlin Blockade, and in an instant, millions of Berlin residents were cut off from the rest of the world. Under the leadership of the Western powers, it was quickly decided to supply the metropolis from the air. This marked the start of a logistical masterstroke that defied belief. The residents were supplied not only with food and medicine but also with tons of heating fuel over the winter. Learn more about the so-called “air bridge,” 1,398 flights in 24 hours, “raisin bombers”, camels and seaplanes filled with salt that landed on Berlin’s lakes.

The Berlin Airlift was carried out by the Western allies to supply the western part of the city of Berlin by aircraft after the Soviet occupying power cut off land and water routes to internationally administrated West Berlin from June 24, 1948 to May 12, 1949. But how did this even come about?

The start of the Cold War

After the end of World War II, Germany was divided into four occupation zones and administered by the victorious Allies. The former capital city, Berlin (also divided into four occupation zones), was then situated as an enclave in the middle of the Soviet-occupied region. Immediately after the joint victory over the Third Reich, the relationship between the West and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate, giving rise to the “Cold War.” The struggle for influence and power played out particularly intensely in Germany. A currency reform carried out in June 1948 by the Western Allies in the three Western zones was taken by the Soviet occupation as justification for an open-ended blockade.

The Berlin Blockade

At first, the Western sectors of Berlin were cut off from the power supply from the Soviet-occupied zone in the night of June 24. Not long after, this was followed by an interruption of all freight and passenger traffic on roads and rails. In announcing the blockade, the Soviets emphasized that “West Berlin” could not be supplied from the Soviet zone or from East Berlin.

The Western powers had, in fact, expected a reaction to the currency reform, but they were caught entirely unprepared by this total blockade. Nevertheless, they quickly got down to the business of supplying the war-torn city—an important symbol—from the air.

Millions of people need food and coal

At the time, there were about 2.2 million people living in the West Berlin. Added to this were thousands of Allied soldiers and their families. As a city of millions, Berlin had to be supplied almost entirely from the surrounding region, and imports from the West made up about 75% of this. Not only that, but Berlin only had minimal stocks at the start of the blockade: food for just 36 days, medications for six months, fuel for a few weeks. The situation was particularly critical when it came to stocks of coal, which was used both for heating and for generating electricity. The harsh winters of the previous two years had already given rise to a rather desperate situation. Strict rationing and extreme privation were expected...

The airlift begins

It now proved advantageous that the British had already given thought to an airlift following a number of previous incidents. These considerations indicated that supplying the entrapped people of West Berlin by airlift was essentially feasible, but it was believed this would only be possible during the warm part of the year. In other words, it was necessary to adapt and expand the plans.

On June 26 two days after the start of the blockade, the first aircraft of the US Air Force flew into Berlin via one of the three official corridors. The British RAF began its flights on June 28. From the start of July until the first frost in December 1948, the British also used flying boats to transport salt, which were able to resist corrosion and not sensitive to it. These landed in Berlin on the Havel River and on the Greater Wannsee Lake.

An air bridge with five levels

It was assumed at the start that at best 750 tons of air cargo per day would be possible. This makes it understandable that the residents of Berlin still feared they would not make it through the winter even despite the airlift and would have to capitulate to the Soviet powers.
To achieve the required transport volumes, it was necessary to stock up on both aircraft and personnel. Thanks to continuous improvements, the volume could be increased to over 2,000 tons a day by the end of July 1948.

The massive increases in the quantities flown in were due above all to an optimization of the aircraft types, the landing strips, the aircraft maintenance, the unloading procedures and the flight routes. In the latter case, a clever system came to the rescue: The three air corridors were used as one-way streets, with the “outer” ones used for inbound flights while the middle corridor was dedicated to westbound return flights. Within the corridors, the aircraft flew on five “levels” with an altitude difference of just 150 meters!

To avoid dangerous traffic jams and confusing situations on the airfields, it was ordered that aircraft unable to land on the first try had to fly back to their departure airport and from there get back into the stream of aircraft headed to Berlin. This “multi-level conveyor belt” made it possible to land one aircraft every three minutes. A logistical masterstroke that was hardly thought possible at first.

What an achievement

“Skytrains in the sky”

At the start, the American armed forces made use of the twin-engine “C-47 Skytrain” and its civilian counterpart, the DC-3. These aircraft proved to be too small with a cargo of only three tons. They were quickly replaced by the four-engine “C-54 Skymaster” (or DC-4), which could carry nine tons of cargo and was also faster. From today’s perspective, the cargo capacity was laughably small given that an An-124 can transport 150 tons today. But this only makes the accomplishments of the Berlin Airlift all the more remarkable.

During the airlift, a total of 330 Skytrains were in use (225 of them from the United States alone), which made up the greater part of the airlift fleet. Other American aircraft, such as the “C-97 Stratofreighter” and the “C-74 Globemaster,” which could carry 20 tons—a huge cargo back then—were only sparsely used.

Everything thoroughly optimized

The fact that the United States kept largely to a single aircraft type simplified and optimized the entire logistics. Because the aircraft had the same travel speed and flight characteristics, they were able to fly closer together, increasing the frequency of take-offs and landings. This also made maintenance and replacement parts procurement simpler and more efficient. The crews could easily switch to other craft of the same type, and the loading and unloading could be completed more quickly as well. Thanks to streamlining of the technical maintenance work, the time required was reduced from 75 to 30 minutes per aircraft.

In Berlin, the flights landed at the airports of Gatow, Tempelhof and Tegel. Initially, only unpaved grass fields were available at Gatow and Tempelhof, and it was necessary to quickly put in proper landing strips that were winter-proof and capable of handling the strain of so many take-offs and landings. At Tegel, up to 19,000 workers (roughly half of which were women) worked around the clock on the former training grounds to build the most urgently needed airport buildings in a record time of just 90 days as well as what was the longest landing strip in Europe at the time at 2,400 meters.

Still a masterstroke to this day

The entire Berlin Airlift is an ideal example of a logistics operation optimized down to the smallest detail, even if the mild winter of 1948/1949 also proved to be a definite stroke of luck for Berlin.
In view of the commitment to protect West Berlin from Soviet annexation demonstrated by the airlift and the negative economic consequences for the recently established “Eastern bloc” (the West imposed a counter-blockade), the Berlin Blockade was lifted on 12 May 1949. After a blockade of just under a year, the situation gradually eased up, and the number of flights was reduced in stages until stocks to last roughly two months had been built up. On 30 September 1949, the airlift officially came to an end, and the last “raisin bomber” landed on this day with a cargo of ten tons of coal.

“Raisin bombers” or “candy bombers?”

The name “candy bomber” refers to the voluntary aid packages attached to small handmade parachutes thrown out of the planes by the US flight crews before landing as a treat for the children waiting below. These mini-airdrops generally contained chocolate or chewing gum. Once the media heard about the secret candy deliveries, the campaign quickly took on a life of its own, and the entire Air Force, as well as civilian initiatives, collected candy treats for the children of Berlin. The children were overjoyed and always eagerly awaited the planes flying overhead. The German locals lovingly called the aircraft “raisin bombers.”

The following story is also an entertaining one: A camel named Clarence, the mascot of a US base, was flown to Berlin as a treat for the children. Unfortunately, due to a broken leg, Clarence had to be swapped out for a camel specially acquired from North Africa. It turned out, however, that this camel was female and was therefore actually named Clarissa. Nevertheless, Clarissa was flown to Berlin under the name of Clarence in October of 1948. The children then received their gifts and candies from the filled saddlebags.

To this day, the Berlin Airlift accounts to one of the most remarkable achievements in the field of logistics and in the same way it has been a very important part of common history.

Berlin Airlift: Facts & Figures

  • In total, 2.34 million tons of air freight was transported via the “air bridge.” This included 1.44 million tons of coal, 490,000 tons of food, and 160,000 tons of construction materials.
  • The first supply flight took place on June 23: one cargo aircraft brought potatoes to Berlin.
  • It was initially thought that only 750 tons of cargo could be flown in per day. During the peak periods, however, it was actually 12,849 tons – with 1,398 flights in 24 hours.
  • This meant one plane landing every three minutes, on average.
  • A clever system with three flight corridors made it possible to bring cargo in via the north and south corridors while the planes flew back in the middle corridor.
  • The pilots flew on five levels, and each pilot had only one chance to land. If this was unsuccessful, the aircraft, including its cargo, had to turn around and head back—not unlike a conveyor belt.
  • The costs of the airlift were enormous: starting in November 1948, the Western occupation zones—later the Federal Republic—collected a special “Berlin Emergency Aid” tax. This was continued until 1958.
  • Alongside the British and Americans, pilots from Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa also participated in the airlift.
  • Poor visibility on 13 August resulted in what came to be known as “Black Friday”: The flight controllers could not keep track of all the planes, and three aircraft had accidents during landing.
  • Coal for power plants and heating purposes was the most prominent cargo and made up a full two thirds of the transport volume.
  • Organized by British European Airways (BEA), roughly 25 private air freight companies were also “chartered” to provide additional support.
  • 41 Brits, 31 Americans and 13 Germans lost their lives in accidents during the airlift.
C - Smithsonian Institute

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