The Berlin Air Lift: The Air Lift / Luftbrücke -- Chronology (June 1948-September 1949)

Berlin Air Lift
Figure 1.--Here we see an American C-54 arriving at Templehof airport in 1948. Watching the planes was a great favorite for the kids after school (notice the book satchel), especially after the pilots began dropping candy. The weather was still warm here which you can tell from the short sleeve shirts, but it was no longer summer because you also see jasckets and seweaters. We would guess the photohraph was taken in late-September or early-October 1948. The real test for the airlift was when the weather turned cold and the flying conditions deteriorated during the fall and winter.

The Berlin Air Lift was conducted during 1948-49 it occurred as part of the final split between the victorious World War II coalitioin of the Soviet Union and Western Allies. The first U.S. and British cargos for civilian Berliners arrived June 28. Bringing in food was one thing, but for Berlin to survive it needed coal to fire the city power plants and for home fuel during the winter. This meant very sunstantial quantiities of a heavy commodity would have to be air lifted into the city. The USAF delivered the first coal shipments on C-54s (July 7) First fatal U.S. crash occurred. A USAF C-47 crashed near Wiesbaden, killing all three American airmen aboard (July 8). The first fatal RAF crash occurred a few monyhs later. A York crashed near Wunstorf killing 5 British airmen (September 19). The Combined Airlift Task Force (CALTF) merging the USAF and RAF operations was created October 15 at Wiesbaden. The level of supplies needed required a secind airport. CALTF flew the first supplies into the new Tegel Airfield on November 5. The U.S. Navy committed two R-5D (C-54 equivalent) squadrons to the airlift. The USAF effort reached its peak strength of 225 C-54s on January 10, 1949. The fact that this was achieved during the peak of winter clearly demonstrated that the city could be supplied by air.

March 1948

The Soviet representative at the Allied Control Council (ACC) demanded details on the any decesions reached at a secret meeting of the Western Allies held in London (March 20). Because of difficulties working with the Soviets, the Western Allies (America, Britain, and France) were planning a new West German state to be composed of the territory in their three occupation zones. We do not have details on Soviet planning cessins, but details on the actions taken are available. The Soviets took the first stepps towared a blocaked about 10 days later. Soviet demanded inspection rights for Western military trains going to and coming from Berlin (March 31). American Military Govenor in Berlin, General Lucius Clay refuses to comply because thst would have recognized Soviet authority over the Wesrern zones of Berlin. Clay orders train shipments halted. He orders a limited airlift to re-supply the 6,000 Western troops in Berlin by air. This limited air lift lasted 10 days.

April 1948

Soviet fighter pilots were order to menace, but not fire on the Allied aircraft in the narrow air corridors. The incident heightened concern on both sides about a possible shooting incident with unforseen concequences. During one such action, a Soviet fighter actually collides with a British plane (April 5). The planes crashed killing several people on both aircraft. The Soviets at the ACC meetings stopped demanding inspection rights (April 10). Soviet authorities on the ground continue to harass and disruptb road and rail traffic.

May 1948

June 1948

The Soviets blocked rail access to Berlin (June 11), but lift it after 2 days. They fail to appear for a Kommandatura meeting. Such orders could have only come from Stalin. Presumably thid was his way of warning the Western Allies what would happen if they continued with plans to set up a West German government. The Western Allies announced the Currency Reform: plans for a new deutschmark to replace the former German currency which was now worthless (June 18). The Soviets saw it as one more step toward establishing West Germany. They refuse to acceot the Wrestern action and announces their own German currency plans (June 22). Germans in the three Western occupation zones exchnged their Reichsmarks for Deutsche Marks. The new Western deutschmark appeared in Berlin (June 23). Just before midnight on the same day, Soviet authorities cut electrical power to West Berlin and began a blockade of rail, barge, and road lines. Apparently the currency reform was the decisive step by the Allies. Stalin had already signaled what he could do. Apparently he was sure that the Allies would not launch a ground attack to open the rail lines. Here Stalin calculated correctly. Not only was he probably correct that the public in the Allied countries would not accept another massive war to keep Berlin free, but the Soviets had a clear supperority in conventional fotrces. He calculated that as soon as food ran out, the Allies would concede. Here he calculated incorrectly. It never occurred to Stalin and his advisers that a city of 2.5 million people could be supplied by air. And if they even thought of it, what would have been foremost in their minds was the Luftwaffe's failed World War II attempt to supply Stalingrad. As a result of the blockade, trains and barges began to build up, unable to move. At the time both rail and barge traffic was more important than road transport for moving cargo. The Soviets tighten the blockade by announcing that they will not allow any cargo from their occupation zone, which surrounds the city, to reach West Berlin (June 25). Berlin at the time had food for 36 days and coal for 45 days. The Western Allies impose a counter-blockade on Soviet areas. The impact is limited, but at least no food can be sent from the dwindling stockpiles to East Berlin. The Allies begin airlifting supplies almost immediately. The Berlin airlift began with 32 flights by American C-47 aircraft in West Germany to the Tempelhof airport in Berlin (June 26). These were the World war II twin-engine Allied cargo workhorse. The first U.S. and British cargos for civilian Berliners arrived (June 28). It was clearly insufficent for Berlin's needs and the Soiviets were not impressed. Only 80 tons of supplies, mostly food, were delivered that first day. And the minimum requirement for the city was 4,500 tond daily. The Americans name the effort to supply Berlin as "Operation Vittles". The British call it "Operation Plainfare".

July 1948

The Soviets announce that they will no longer participate in the Kommandatura (July 1). Bringing in food was one thing, but for Berlin to survive it needed coal to fire the city power plants and for home fuel during the winter. This meant very substantial quantiities of a heavy commodity would have to be air lifted into the city. The USAF delivered the first coal shipments on C-54s (July 7) The first coal shipment were lsanded at Gatow airport in the British sector. It and Tempelhof were the only two airports in West Berlin. Gatow was, however, a small facility with very limited facilities. Berlin was not an easy place to fly into and the level of trafiic escalated the problems. Even before the winter weather set in, the high aparments near the runways at Tempelhof were a problem. The first fatal crash occurred early on. A USAF C-47 crashed near Wiesbaden, killing all three American airmen aboard (July 8). It was clear from the start of the airlift that the air port facilities in West Berlin swould have to be expanded. Construction began on a new runway at Tempelhof (July 12). Construction is finished on a concrete runway at Gatow, sinificantly increasung the cargo handling capacity (July 17). The Allied pilots would have a brief respite while their planes were being unloaded. They were soon enchanted by the Berlin children who came to see the planes landing. Gail Halvorsen while chatting with some of the children noted what a hit the chewing gum he passed out was. In fact, German children at the time were starved from candy which had become very rare during the War. As a result of the difficult conditions following the War, few kids got candy. Many German children did not even know what chocolate was. Halvorsen promised to drop them more from his aircraft on his flight the followingday. He made parachusters out of handkerchiefs. Other plots did the same. Berlin children found the airlift interesting before, when candy started coming out of the planes, it became a sensation. The Soviets labeled it an evil Ameican plot. That was a tough sell even fopr Soviet propagandists when some of the candy parachustes began wafting over to East Berlin. Halvorsen named the candy effort "Operation Little Vittles". The children called him the Chocolate Uncle and Candy Bomber. General Clay flew to Washington to meet with President Truman (July 20). Major General William Tunner is appointed operational commander of the American airlift (July 23). Much of the airlift developed duing July as a series of make shift arrangements as the Air Force did its best to get pilots to Germany. Turner arrived in Berlin (July 28). He sets out to reguklarize the operation. He explains the airlift is going to to operate in "rhythm, on a beat as constant as a jungle drum". An American C-47 crashed into an apartment near the Tempelhof runway (July 25). two people die. The Soviets notice that the quantities being delivered were steadily rising. They threaten to fly into the three Allied air corridors (July 27).

August 1948

Western diplomatic representatives met with Stalin in Moscow in an attempt to defuse the Berlin crisis (August 2). Stalin offered no concessions. The British begin using some of their civilian aircraft (August 4). The Berlin city government begins contructing the new Tegel Airfield in the Frenh sector (August 5). The Berliners make it a major effort. At the peak of the construction project, about 18,000 Berliners are involved. The U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force achieve what the Soviets thought was impossible (August 12). They flew 707 flights into Berlin, delivering 4,742 tons of supplies. This was the first day that they exceeded Berlin's minimum need of 4,500 tons. Controling the huge and growing traffic into Berlin was becoming a serious problem, This was something the Air Force was not equipped to deal with. S series of near disasters occurred around Tempelhof which received the bulk of the flights became known as Black Friday"--it was the 50th day of the airlift (August 13). General Tunner altered flight patterns and requested civilian air traffic controllers from the United States. Four Americans died in a midair collision (August 24). The U.S. Air Force reaches the 100,000 ton mark (August 26). The four military governors meet in Berlin, but make no progress (August 31). The Allies to the astonishment of the Soviets had demonstrated that they could supply Berlin by air. The Soviets were not, however, to accept defeat. They had a range of political options and the Allies still had notv demonstated the aility to maintain flight schedules at high levels, especially when the winter weather set in.

September 1948

The Soviets began to apply political pressure on the Berlin city government in early September. The Soviets organized Communist mobs to attack city hall (September 6). These were the kind of tactics that theyhad used throughtout Eastern Europe. The only problem was that in Berlin, the western secor of the city was a sanctuary where real elections would determine the composition of the city government. Berlin officials fled City Hall in the Soviet sector and after repeated disruptions of city council meetings, set up offices in the Western sector. Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter addressed a hugec crowd of about 300,000 Berliners assembkling outside the Reichstag (September 9). The Reichstag was still a burned out shell, but to many Germans it remained the symbol of reprepresentative government. They protest Soviet/Communist efforts to disrupt city goverment and take over the city. Reuter declared to the Western Allies, "You cannot abandon this city and its people." The U.S. Air Force continues increasing deliveries, reaching nearly 7,000 tons (September 18). The British RAF suffers its first casualties (September 19). Five men were killed. The U.S. Air Force is finally able to retire the last of old World war II C-47s (September 30). There are now enough of the larger, four-engine C-54s. This is important because it significantly decreased pilot demands.

October 1948

The United Nations Security Council takes up the Berlin issue (October 4). Some issues in the Cold war are difficult to understand. The Soviets could manage the news in Eastern Europe. And the issues in the developing world were clouded by anti-colonialism. The Soviet Berlin blockade was fairly easy to understand and it occured in the full blare of the Werstern press. The Soviets found it difficult to explain, both in the United Nations and throughout Westen Europe where Communist parties had to explain Soviet actions. The Allies in October put the final touches on the operation of the airlift. The British and Americans combine their airlifts under a single command structure with General Tunner in charge (October 14). The Combined Airlift Task Force (CALTF) merged the USAF and RAF operations at Wiesbaden. Three more Americans are killed in the first C-54 crash (October 18). General Turner provided details to the Pentagon as to just what will be needed go put the air lift on a permanent basis. The U.S. Air Force recall the needed men to active duty (10,000 former pilots, flight engineers, and radio operators) (October 18). General Clay meets with President Truman to brief him on the airlift. The President is in the middle of a heated election campaign that everyone expected him to lose. The President orders more aircraft to Germany expand the airlift (October 21). The U.N. Security Council orders the Soviets to end the blockade. The Soviets rejrect the the Security Council resolution (October 26).

November 1948

The Berliners rush the new Tengel airport into operation. They have to blow up a Soviet radio tower which was obstructing the flight path. The first flights land (November 5). On the same day, the Allies reach 300,000 tons of supplies. An RAF plane crashes into Soviet-controlled East Berlin (November 18). Four British fliers are killed. Readers may wonder why so many crashes occurred. At first there was great pressure on the crews, but as the airlift became more regularized this became less of a poroblem. The basic problem was the volume of the cargo that had to be delivered. This meant that the three Berlin aitports had to be operated at a much greater intensity than any civilian airport. The airlift at its peak would land alane every 3 minutes. And there was little room for error. If ailot had to abort a landing, he could not go around for a second try, he would have to return to his base with the cargo. The Soviets having failed to take over the Berlin city givernmrnt, set up their own Berlin city administration (November 20).

December 1948

The people of West Berlin elect Reuter again in a free abd open elrction (December 5). French engineers destroy the transmitting towers a communist-run radio station near Tegel was using (December 16). "Operation Santa Claus" brings in Christmas presents fot 10,000 Berlin children (December 20). The presents come from Project Sleighbells and are donating by the families of airlift flyers and other sources. Bob Hope conducts a Christmas tour of airlift bases, performing for American soldiers in the western zone of Germany. He puts on a show in Berlin of course on Christmas Eve (December 24). The airlift reaches the 100,000 flight mark (Janusry 31). By the end if the year the Soviets have used up their polituical options and it is clear that Berlin can be supplied by air, even during the winter.

January 1949

The airlift has proven so sucessful that the U.S. Air Force was able to start rotating pilots back to their state-suid bases. The British begin evacuating Berlin children and their mothers to the western occupation zones. This is done on a volunyary basis for Berliners wishing to move in with family. The U.S. Navy committed two R-5D (C-54 equivalent) squadrons to the airlift. The USAF effort reached its peak strength of 225 C-54s on (January 10). The Allies reach the 250,000th ton mark for coal (January 24). The airlift sets a new monthly record--170,000 tons (January 31). Not only did the Allies maintain deliveries during the winter, but they actually increased delivdrires. Tragically more than 20 airlift personnel were killed during the month.

February 1949

The Soviets by now understand thy have failed. They had not yet, however, decided to reverse course. Ambassador Philip C. Jessup. American U.N. ambassador, began talks with his Soviet U.N. Ambassador Jacob Malik (February 15). The Allies cross the 1 million tons of supplies to Berlin (Fenruary 18). Another record day is reported (February 28). The Allies delivered more than 8,000 tons on 902 flights.

March 1949

To add to the Soviet embarassment, food by the Spring of 1949 was more available in blocl]kaded West Berlin than in the Soviet sector. The Soviets had begun by preventing West Berliners from brining food baxk from the East Berlin. What was ocuuring was that East Berliners were buying food in West Berlin if they could obtain the currency needed to do so. A break in the crisis finally came at the United Nations. Ambassador Malik tells Ambassador Jessup that the blockade can be resolved soon (March 21). This of course was a decesiom thsat only Stalin could have made. It is unclear just why he decided to end the vlockade. The Allies had clearly demonstrated they could supply Berlin, but at considerable cost. Stalin could have decided o continue it. We suspect that the principal reason for Stalin's decesion was the impact on Communist prties in Western Europe. There were important Communist parties in several Western European countries (especually France and Italy) as well as in Western Germany. It was difgicult for those countries to compete in elections with the Soviets demonstrating what a Communist victory would mean. The Allies achieved a new monthly record--nearly 200,000 tons is set (March 31).

April 1949

The primary concern of Americans after VE Day was to bring Ameruican soldiers back home as quickly as pssible. Only a small occupation force remained in Germany by 1948. The United States had no formal alliance treaty swith any European country and had not had one since the Revolutinary War. Stalin's policies of installing Communidt duictatorships throughout Eastern Europe changed American attitudes. Anf here the Berlin blockade help crystalize the new emerging consensus on a dramatic change in American fireign policy. The U.S. and Western European governments signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington (April 4). . The Treaty established the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) which continues as the cornerstone of European and American defense today. NATO committed ts members to mutual defense in the event of a Soviet attack. Templehof achieved another recoird. Controllers there in a 6 1/2 hour period landed more than 100 planes, a one plane every 4 minutes (April 7). General Tunner's "Easter Parade" operation set a 24-hour-delivery record--13,000 tons (April 16). The airlift celebrated its 300th day of operations (April 22). It was now delivering the same amount that had been arriving by rail before the blockade. It was clear that the Allies could continue the auirlift indefinitely if necessary. The Soviet news agency TASS reported that the Soviet Government was willing to lift the blockade (April 25). the U.S. State Department conformed that the "way appears clear" for the blockade to be ended (April 26).

May 1949

Representatives from the four Allied powers announced an agreement to end the blockade in 8 days (May 4). Gerneral Clay who is about to retire is saluted by 11,000 U.S. soldiers and dozens of airplanes. He received a ticker-tape parade in New York. After addressing Congress, President Truman awards him a medal. Soviet soldiers at precisely 1 minute after midnight, lift the barricades (May 12). They proceed to restore access from West Germany to Berlin. A British convoy is the first to drive through. The first train from the West Germany reaches Berlin at 5:32 AM that morning. An enormous crowd gathers later at Berlin's City Hall to pay tribute to General Clay and the Allied flyers that saved their city. The Federal Republic of Germany is createdcby combining the three occupation zones of the Western Allies (May 23).

June 1949

The Wstern Allies do not immediately end the blockade. The Allies celebrate the first anniversary of the airlift (June 26). The Allies continue flights into Berlin to stockpile supplies incase the Soviets decide to resume the blockade.

July 1949

The Berlin City Government reports that it has nearly three months of food reserves (July 24).

September 1949

The airlift is finally ended. A C-54 from the Rhein-Main airbase at Frankfurt is the last flight. It was the 276,926th flight (September 30). Almost 700 Allied aircraft logged over 124 million miles and delivered roughly 2.3 million tons of supplies. Tragically this was at a cost of 65 lives.


The Soviets respond to the Allied creation of the Federal Republic of Germany in the west by announcing the creation of the German Democratic Republic in the east (Cotober 7, 1948). The new West Berlin constitution went into effect (October 1, 1950). It defined the city as an integral part of the Federal Republic of Germany. The capital of West Germany, however, cintinyed to be Bonn because Berlin was still surrounded by Soviet-controlled territory.


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Created: 10:50 PM 6/29/2008
Last updated: 9:07 PM 1/5/2011