After World War II Europe was rapidly becoming the front line for two competing visions for the future — a free and democratic world order led by the United States or a communist dictatorship under the control of the Soviet Union. Nowhere was this more evident than in the divided city of Berlin.
Germany was divided into occupation zones, with the Soviets controlling the eastern half and the U.S., Great Britain, and France controlling the western half. The former German capital of Berlin was similarly divided, but Berlin was 100 miles within the Soviet sector. This meant that the U.S., British, and French had to rely on the Soviets for open access to land and water routes to the city.
Soviet leader Josef Stalin counted on the allies growing tired of their occupation of West Berlin and leaving it to the communists. When the allies dug in to support free elections and create democratic governments in West Germany and across Europe, it became evident that they didn’t plan on going anywhere. Stalin decided to give them a push.
In March 1948, the Soviets began restricting Western military and civilian access to Berlin. The U.S. responded on June 3 with the Marshall Plan, a $13 billion aid program to prop up the countries of Europe and keep them from slipping under Soviet control. The Soviets tightened the screws, further interrupting Allied civilian and military traffic into and out of Berlin. When the Allies introduced the German Deutschmark on June 18, the Soviets decided a more forceful message was needed. So, on June 24 they cut off all access to the city.
The blockade of Berlin meant that all land and water routes to the Allied sectors of the city were cut off. The existing food and coal supplies would only sustain the 22,000 Allied troops and the city’s 2 million residents for about a month. Soviet troop strength vastly outnumbered the Allies, and Stalin figured they would have no choice but to leave Berlin.
President Harry Truman vowed that America would not abandon Berlin. Taking advantage of three 20-mile wide air corridors to the city that were in place since the occupation began in 1945, U.S. and British air forces devised a plan to supply the city by air. They correctly surmised that the Soviets wouldn’t dare shoot down unarmed cargo planes flying into Berlin over previously agreed-upon air routes.
The logistics seemed insurmountable. Berlin’s minimal daily food ration included over 600 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee (a vital commodity anywhere in the civilized world), 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk, and 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables. There was also coal and fuel to keep the citizens warm during the winter months, which in the late 1940s were particularly harsh in Europe.
Would it be possible to keep West Berlin supplied by air? When he was asked, commander of American air forces in Europe General Curtis LeMay said in his usual puffed-chest style, “We can haul anything.” He ordered the shipping of supplies to commence immediately. On June 26, 1948, the Berlin Airlift, also known to Americans as Operation Vittles, began. The British component of the airlift was called Operation Plane Fare.
LeMay boasted of America’s ability to supply West Berlin for as long as it took, but privately he knew that the existing U.S cargo planes in Europe could not do the job. Bigger planes were needed, and a tactical genius was required to plan the thousands of flights necessary without pilots crashing into each other left and right.
LeMay recruited Maj. General William Tunner to run the operation. He called Tunner “the transportation expert to end all transportation experts.” Tunner was skilled at large-scale transport operations and settled in to manage the Berlin Airlift. He assumed command on July 28.
Tunner quickly determined that it would be possible to have a plane land and take off from Berlin’s Templehof Airport virtually every 90 seconds. This meant that everything had to run on a very regimented schedule. All the planes had to have ground and air crews that were on constant alert, ready to address any mechanical issues at a moment’s notice. Spare parts and maintenance procedures became standardized. Planes in need of repair could not be allowed to clog up the runways.
Likewise, the air corridors had to run smoothly. If a plane missed the runway in Berlin, or was otherwise held up by bad weather or ground traffic, it was to fly back to its destination runway in West Germany even if it contained a full load. No planes were allowed to hover over Berlin. This would create too much air traffic and risk collisions. Instead, planes flew a continuous circular route from west to east and back again.
As the airlift stretched on into weeks and months, the pilots became heroes to West Berliners. People, especially children, would gather near the airport daily to catch a glimpse of them. Lt. Gail Halvorsen made a special connection with German children, offering to drop candy for them if they if they promised not to fight over it. When asked how they would know it was him in the air, Halvorsen said that he would wiggle the wings of his plane.
Halvorsen’s candy drops became a big success, and he was referred to as Uncle Wiggly Wings and the Chocolate Uncle. His special candy drops for kids expanded to other pilots dropping sweets as well as toys and books.
The longer the airlift lasted, the more smoothly the operation went. While the Soviets had hoped to squeeze the city into submission, West Berlin's citizens began to live more comfortably as the daily food ration rose to 1,880 calories per day. In fact, many Berliners actually started gaining weight during the blockade.
On May 12, 1949, the Soviets recognized they had nothing to gain by maintaining their siege on the city, and the blockade came to an end. Over the course of 11 months, U.S. and British pilots conducted over 278,000 flights that delivered 2.3 million tons of food, fuel, and other supplies to the citizens of West Berlin. Accidents cost the lives of 31 American fliers who lost their lives in collisions and accidents.
Berlin would remain a crisis point for the remainder of the Cold War, but the Soviets never again doubted America’s commitment to the people of the city.