The Berlin Air Lift: Allied Effort

Figure 1.--The photo was taken on August 19, 1948 at Gatow airfield, in southwestern Berlin. A group of children and a woman with her little child are looking on as flour bags from the States are lowered from a U.S. Air Force C-74. Scenes like this help to explain the powerful affect of the Air Lift on German attitudes. Only one of the large capacity C-74 was used in the Air Lift because it was still in its trial phase. While only one was used, it had a significant impact on airlift operations. The C-74 reached Rhein-Main Air Base for service tests (August 14). On its first trip to Berlin it delivered 20 tons of flour (August 18). Notice the efficent cargo bay unloading ssystem. Before returning to the United States (September 21), the C-74 had delivered 445.6 tons of cargo in 25 trips for an average of 17.8 tons per trip, proving itself as superior to the C-54 as the C-54 was to the C-47. Above all, its great size also gave it the capability of delivering bulky industrial and construction equipment. It has one disadvantage. With its 22-ton payload, the plane broke up the runways at Tempelhof. Most of the children here are barefoot, as it was common after the War during the summertime. Source: National Archives and Records Administration.

The Berlin Airlift was an Allied effort, but the American role was central to the success of the effort. This was because it was the Americans who had the air lift capability. The Airlift was primarily conducted by the U.S. Air Force (USAF) supported by the British Royal Air Force (RAF). The French participated, but their capability was limited. What was needed was planes and pilots. The Berliners themselves played an important part in Air Lift, providing the labor needed on the ground. This was a profound shift, not fully appreciated at the time. It would prove to be the first German action in the developing Cold War. Stalin assumed that supplying an entire city by air was impossible. The Luftwaffe failure at Stalingrad no doubt played into his thinking. Here he did not fully appreciate the industrial capacity of the United States and the capabilities of the U.S. Air Force. This was, however, a mammoth undertaking even for the United States and its allies.

United States

After attempts to diplomatically resolve the situation with the Soviet authorities failed, an irlift seemed the only option available short of war. It was not at all clear the United States had the capacity to keep Berlin supplied. President Truman was not about to initiate a war, but he was determined not to acced to Stalin's pressures. The National Security Council (NSC) in Washington began planning for a major airlift (July 1948). The NSC ordered the the transfer of 75 of the new large-capacity Skymaster transport planes to expand the airlift fleet. The HSC also ordered the construction of a third airport at Tegel. Berlin workets had Tegel in the French sector operating in only 3 months. The USAF was ordered to make the airlift a major priority. Air Force commanders ordered its C-54s (four-engine military equivalent to a DC-4) from Alaska, Hawaii, and the Caribbean to Germany to reinforce the airlift. US Air Force Chief General Vandenberg, put his most competent air-transport officer in charge of the effort--General William H. Tunner. This was the commander who had overseen the World War II effort to supply China by air across the Himalayas from India--which became known as flying "the Hump". Turner arrived in Berlin (July 28). The airlift at the time was still opperating at a level below what Berlin required. c Abd more than planes were needed. Large numbers of pilots were required to fly them. Here America because if the War had a ready supply of trained pilots. World War II veterans whjo had bombed Berlin into rubble were called up to save the city and its residents. .


British Foreign Secretary Ernst Bevin strong believed the Allies should remain in Berlin. He informed the Americans that Parliament would both support the basing of B-29s in England (which of course meant the threat of nuclear weapons) and advocated the Airlift as a sollution to the Soviet blockade. He wanted a massive Airlift to supply 2,000 tons a day. The RAF like the USAF made a massive commitment to the airlift. The RAF deployed its Dakotas on June 25 from the U.K. to Germany and flew their its first missions into Berlin, 6.5 t for U.K. garrison.


The French Air Force played only a minor role, flying less than 1 percent of the Airlift flights. Presumably this was becaue they had a smaller air force. The Airlift occurred only 3 years after the War and France was still recovering from the German occupation, Allied bombing, and fighting in 1944. Even so the French participation seems unusually limited. In 1948 The French Air force in 1948 did not have the capacity to support the airlift. Planes with large capacity were required and these were not being manufactured in France during 1948 so soon after World War II. In addition, France was becoming increasingly involved in Indochina against the Communist Viet Minh. French military forces were limited and were being largely deployed in Indochina. France did support the airlift by helping with the construction of Tepel. This work was urgent and very difficult because limited earthmoving machinery was available. A French reader writes, "The principal planes in the French air force during 1948 were foreign built C-47s, Ju-52s, and NC 701s. France was rapidly building a new aircraft industy. France was moving toward an independent military with a important military programm. They were developing transport planes: Nord 2501, Transall C 160, and Airbus CN 235. The American Hercules C-130 wasbuilt under contract. France was preparing for the construction of bombers: Ouragan and Vautour (employed in the 6 days war and Yom Kippur wars). Fighter included: Mirage III, IV, and the French-British Jaguar. Today , one of the best fight aircraft of the world is the Rafale, but is very expensive."


The Berliners themselves played an important part in Air Lift, providing the labor needed on the ground. This was a profound shift, not fully appreciated at the time. It would prove to be the first German action in the developing Cold War. World War II had been a joint effort between the Western Allies and Soviet Union, at least after the Soviets were forced to fight the NAZIS by the Germanninvasion. Not only did the Soviets see the Germans as their primary enemy after the War, so did the Western Allies. And most in the West were still not aware that Stalin had launched the Cold war. And the Germans for their part did bot feel liberated by the Allies. Rather they looked upon both the Soviets and Western Allies with suspision as conquerors. Thus this joint effort was the beginning of a fundamental change in additudes. Americans began seeing the Soviet Uniin as a dangerous adversary and theGermans as potential ally. The Germans also began seeing the Americans as a critical ally in preventing Soviet domination. Throughout the War, Stalin had been suspious of the Western Allies, fearing they were purposly allowing the Soviet Union fight the bulk of the War or even make a deal wih Hitler, probably because this was just what he did in 1939. Now Stalin's policies briught about just what he feared most--the Germans joining the Western allies. Andcthe Germans would prove to be the key element in the American Cold War victory.

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Created: 2:18 PM 7/27/2013
Last updated: 2:18 PM 7/27/2013