The Berlin Airlift: 1948-1949

After WWII, Germany was divided in half, the west controlled by the United States, England and France, the east controlled by the Soviet Union.  Berlin, the German capital, located in Russian controlled East Germany would also be divided.  East Berlin was controlled by the Soviet Union and West Berlin controlled by the Allies.

On June 24, 1948, the Cold War began in war-torn Berlin.  Soviet premier Josef Stalin initiated the first act of post WWII aggression by blockading West Berlin.  The free part of Berlin was essentially an island in the middle of East Germany.

There were three autobahns and railway lines connecting West Berlin to the free world and Stalin cut all of them off.  All water and food supplies to the 2.5 million citizens of West Berlin were halted.  In a matter of days, thousands of Berliners would perish if the United Sates did not intervene.  The days that followed were filled with tension around the world.  Would this be the beginning of WWIII between the two new super powers, the USA and the Soviet Union?  American President Harry Truman was faced with a decision; should he counter aggression with aggression and possibly spark WWIII, or should he forsake Berlin and let Stalin have the entire city? After all, what loyalties did the United States and Great Britain owe to Germany?  Four years earlier the Allies had leveled the city of Berlin with devastating bombing raids. Truman said with resolve, "We stay in Berlin. Period." 

Against the counsel of many of his military advisors, but with the support of Great Britain, Truman devised a plan to sustain West Berlin through an airlift that would feed 2.5 million Berliners for almost an entire year.   The mission would require an unheard of 1,500 tons of food delivered to Berlin every day!  Since Stalin had cut off electricity in West Berlin, almost 2,000 tons of coal would need to be delivered daily to keep industry going in the city.  In total, nearly 3,500 tons of food and supplies would have to be delivered every day to sustain the city.  The Berlin AirLift would require an unprecedented 1,000 flights of C-47's daily!

On June 25, 1948, the first United States military aircraft took off for Berlin.  The airlift had begun and it was affectionately referred to by the American military as "Operation Vittles."  The grateful German people gave it their own name, "Roisenbomber" ("raisin bombers").  The military operation delivered "vittles" and other essentials including water and coal.  With a sensitive heart for the surviving remnant of Jewish people in the city, the airlift even delivered kosher matzo for Passover.

American pilot Gail Halvorsen conceived the idea to drop tiny parachutes containing boxes of chocolate for the children in the city.  The project, called Operation Little Vittles, delivered 23 tons of treats to children all over West Berlin.  Colonel Halvorsen soon became the face of the airlift, and a hero to the German children.  They affectionately called him, “Uncle Chocolate.”

The Allies' cargo planes landed an average of every 62 seconds for 322 consecutive days.  A total of 277,000 missions were flown into the besieged city.  The Berlin Airlift was and still is the largest humanitarian campaign the world has ever seen.

The mission did not come without a cost.  Although the Soviets never fired artillery at the cargo planes, they continually harassed the pilots and forced many crashes.  Soviet fighter planes "buzzed" the C 47's, often shooting near them.  Searchlights were often shown into the eyes of the American pilots during night flights.  One hundred and one military personnel and civilians lost their lives during the airlift.  Thirty-seven of the casualties were Americans.

On May 18, 1949, the will of the Soviet Union was broken and Stalin lifted the blockade.  Berlin became an international symbol of the United States resolve to stand up to the Soviet threat without being forced into a military conflict.  The first battle of the Cold War was a resounding victory for the United States.

Most importantly, though, the Berlin Airlift began to repair the psychological wounds of World War II between the USA, England and Germany.  Less than four years earlier, many of the airlift pilots had been dropping bombs on Berlin, with the intent of destroying the city.  Some of the pilots found it hard to accept that they were now trying to save the lives of their former enemies. But they adjusted quickly because, as one airman said, "Somehow that faceless mass of two million suddenly became individuals just like my mother and sister." Many, who felt guilt from dropping bombs on civilians found redemption in helping these same people, survive.