Written by Todd DePastino
The Berlin Airlift, which began 75 years ago on June 25, was one of the United States Armed Forces’ finest hours.
For almost one year, the US Air Force, with the British Royal Air Force, supplied the blockaded city of West Berlin with all the food, fuel, medicine, and other supplies it needed to survive. Experts had declared such an airlift impossible. President Harry S Truman’s own military advisors had warned against the folly of attempting it. In succeeding against the odds, the Airlift established the United States’ moral authority as a postwar superpower. Not incidentally, it also put Truman over the top in his comeback election victory of 1948.
An inspiring story, the Airlift was also a grim watershed. If the Cold War was a three-act play, the Berlin Airlift was the opening act’s final scene. After it ended in 1949, the Soviet Union, a key ally in the war against Nazi Germany, would break irrevocably with the United States and cleave its Eastern European satellite countries from relations with the West. After the Airlift, the Cold War turned serious… and deadly.
The crisis that sparked the Airlift grew out of the United States’ decision to abandon its original plan for postwar Germany. That plan, named for its chief advocate, Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, imposed harsh measures on the defeated enemy to prevent Germany from ever menacing Europe again. The Morgenthau Plan called for Germany to be partitioned into two states, North and South, its heavy industry dismantled, and its most valuable lands internationalized or annexed by neighboring countries. The goal was to turn back the clock 200 years and restore the country to its pre-modern status as a pastoral and agricultural land.
The Soviets liked the Morgenthau Plan, as did France. But several US and British officials worried about its humanitarian cost. Secretary of State Cordell Hull, Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden couldn’t see how an agrarian economy could possibly support Germany’s population of 65 million. Crops and livestock couldn’t even keep half that number alive, they said.
Another cold reality was Germany’s historic role as the engine of European prosperity. The continent’s recovery from war would need a strong Germany as a trading partner. That truth dawned on France as early as 1946. The French realized they would never get their economic footing without a complementary powerhouse to the East.
The budding Cold War with the Soviet Union provided a third reason to reconsider the future of Germany. In February 1946, George F. Kennan, the US chargés d’affaires in Moscow, warned his bosses back in Washington, D.C., that Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was not the amiable “Uncle Joe” of wartime propaganda. The Soviets, he said, were fearful of US influence in Europe and would counter any American attempt to build a free and cooperative postwar order out of the ashes of World War II. Stalin would be happy to keep Europeans cold and hungry until they turned in desperation to Soviet care.
Kennan recommended that the Truman administration resist Soviet expansionism by promising a better future for Western Europe, one crafted under free trade and institutions with American leadership.
A prosperous Germany would have to be part of that promise, its keystone, even. By 1947, the Truman administration was convinced that keeping Germany down-and-out would never work. Indeed, Morgenthau Plan would end up delivering the wartorn German people into the hands of the Soviet Union, with its honeyed promises of food, shelter, and safety… bought, of course, with their freedom.
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Rebuilding Germany would be hard because the US didn’t have full control over the defeated country. In 1945, the victorious Allies had agreed to divide Germany into four zones of occupation.
The Soviets occupied the largely agricultural East, while the US, Britain, and France (along with Belgium and Luxembourg) each held zones in the largely industrial West. These were intended to be administrative divisions only, not permanent state boundaries. German citizens roamed among them and used a single currency—old Nazi coins and bills—in all the zones. Everyone expected the zones eventually to dissolve into one unified Germany.
The capital city of Berlin was a special case. Though located 110 miles within the Soviet sphere, Berlin itself was divided into four zones, each administered by a different Allied country.
This odd subdivision came as something of an afterthought at a postwar planning conference when the US traded some territory in its Western zone for a slice of Berlin. It was all last minute and not well-considered by the Soviets. The US, it turned out, wanted a foothold in Berlin for gathering intelligence against the Soviets and perhaps capturing a few at-large Nazi scientists before the Soviets could grab them.
Stalin was surprisingly easy-going about the US presence in Berlin and West Germany as a whole. He figured, with excellent reason, that the US wouldn’t have a stomach for a long-term occupation in Europe. In 1918, the Americans had sent over 2 million soldiers to fight in World War I, and they were all home within one year of the armistice. President Franklin Roosevelt had committed US troops to a two-year occupation in Europe, no more.
Most Americans would have preferred no occupation at all. World War II was barely over before the American people began demanding that Washington “bring the boys home.” By 1948, the year of the Airlift, Congress had stripped all but 100,000 US soldiers out of Germany, including 10,000 or fewer stationed in West Berlin. The Soviets, by contrast, had over ten times that number on the ground in Germany, plus another 2 million troops nearby in Eastern Europe. Stalin was nothing if not patient. All he had to do was wait for the US to pull its remaining troops, and the Soviets would install a friendly puppet government in all of Germany.
But by 1948, the American calculus had changed. Getting Germany back on its feet was now a priority, even if the American people didn’t quite agree.
One major drag on the German economy was its currency, which the Soviets had purposely inflated by overprinting the old Reichsmark. The bills lost much of their value through early 1948, igniting fears of the infamous hyperinflation of Weimar Germany in 1923.
To counter Soviet monetary maneuvers, the US announced it would introduce a new currency, the Deutschmark, and back it with American dollars. Soviet officials declared they would forbid the new banknotes in their zones of occupation and set up inspection stations around Berlin to prevent US-made Deutschmarks from entering the capital city.
It was too late. American soldiers had already snuck $250 million worth of the new bills and distributed them to banks throughout Berlin. On June 21, 1948, Berliners awoke to find the solution to their woeful purchasing power at their neighborhood banks. Within days, the good money had driven out the bad throughout the city. It looked like the start of Germany’s revitalization.
In retaliation, the Soviets announced on June 24, 1948 it was blockading West Berlin. No road, rail, or barge traffic from the Western Zone was permitted. Taking advantage of their control over the city’s power plants, mostly in the East, the Soviets also cut electricity to the West.
A half-city of two million people was now effectively under siege and stranded. Food and fuel shipments had been halted. West Berlin had a little better than a month before it began to starve. Any West Berliners not driven to hunger in the summer would no doubt freeze in winter.
Even before the Blockade, 1948 Berlin was a wreck, a lawless wasteland where people stole, scavenged, and prostituted themselves for survival. Hardly a building has been left untouched by the war, and almost none had been rebuilt since Germany’s surrender. Berliners still lived in bombed-out basements with no sanitation, no running water. Even before the American arrived, the Soviets had dismantled and trucked away everything of value, including factories and the engineers who ran them. The city’s luckiest survivors managed somehow to consume close to the 2,000 calories per day recommended for life.
The Berlin Blockade was therefore a humanitarian crisis, in addition to a diplomatic one. President Truman understood the stakes when he gathered his military Chiefs and asked what his options were.
He didn’t like what he heard:
Option 1: The US could go to war. The Soviets’ 10-to-1 ground troop advantage made that a frightful prospect.
Option 2: The US could try to negotiate a resolution. But what bargaining chips did the US possess? The US didn’t have much leverage in Germany.
Option 3: The US could cede West Berlin to the Soviets and look for better ground to challenge Stalin’s expansionism.
This last was, by far, the best option, and the one strongly recommended by Truman’s advisors. Turning all of Berlin over to the Soviets would save a population of two million from starvation in exchange for a little loss of face. It was, after all, merely half a city the US would be sacrificing. The western section of Berlin had no military value. It wasn’t strategically important even to any possible future West German state. The Chiefs put it starkly: West Berlin wasn’t close to being worth the cost of keeping it in US hands.
Harry Truman would have none of it. “We’ll stay in Berlin—come what may,” he wrote in his diary.
The President’s stubborn dissent was seconded by one official only, and not one within the White House. General Lucius D. Clay was Military Governor of the United States Zone, Germany. During the war, he had served as Eisenhower’s deputy, keeping food, equipment, and ammunition flowing from the ports of France to battlelines further east. As commander of postwar Germany, Clay strongly advocated the country’s economic reconstruction to counter Soviet influence.
After the Soviets imposed the Berlin Blockade on June 24, he sent a message to Truman urging resistance. “There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin,” Clay conceded. That is, the Chiefs were right in saying that Berlin held no value as a military objective. But, he said, “it must not be evaluated on that basis.” Instead, Clay argued, West Berlin had a powerful symbolic significance. “Our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent.”
The US’s response to the Berlin Blockade, explained Clay, would signal the seriousness of our nation’s commitment to a non-Soviet future for Europe.
While, in retrospect, Clay’s strategic position was sound, the operation he had in mind to break the Blockade was little better than crackpot. He advocated having one of the few US Army divisions in Germany launch an armed convoy loaded with supplies to blow through Soviet roadblocks to West Berlin. Truman had the good sense to dismiss this part of Clay’s recommendation which, at best, would leave an Army division stranded within West Berlin, unable to return. At worst, it would trigger World War III.
An Airlift wasn’t even considered by anyone in Truman’s immediate orbit. Rather, it was the British who suggested that relieving West Berlin by air was possible. They pointed out that their agreement with the Soviets had explicitly guaranteed the air rights to West Berlin through the Soviet Zone of Occupation. Air supply was less confrontational than truck convoys and less likely to spark war. The Russians wouldn’t dare shoot down unarmed planes on a humanitarian mission, they reasoned. The only question was: could airplanes alone deliver all the cargo needed?
The Brits did the math. They concluded it would take 4,500 tons of supplies per day to keep a city of two million alive consuming 1,990 calories per day.
Truman faced a different question: even if it were possible to supply West Berlin by air, could a severely downsized US Air Force pull it off?
In 1945, the US had about 70,000 aircraft in operation. By 1948, that number had been reduced to 20,000 scattered over the world. In Europe, the US had only 102 transport airplanes, all of them C-47 “Gooney Birds,” with a 3.5-ton capacities.
Even if the US flew all these planes round the clock, seven days a week, they still wouldn’t come close to meeting West Berlin’s supply needs. And where would the US get the pilots to fly these round trips all day and night?
It’s stunning, in retrospect, that Truman with the British launched the Berlin Airlift on June 25, 1948, before he had answers to these questions.
The first flights into Tempelhof Airport in West Berlin took off the next day: 32 C-47s, larded with 80 tons milk, flour, medicine.
If this small airlift was to be sustained and scaled, Lucius Clay knew he needed bigger planes, specifically, C-54 Skymasters with 14-ton capacities. With no C-54s in Europe, Clay appealed to the Air Force to send some from Asia. Air Force officials flatly declined. It took a public order from the President himself to get a hundred 4-engine Skymasters diverted to West Germany for the Airlift.
Overruling military commanders put Truman on a limb. Republicans pounced, declaring, with reason, that the operation would both cost a lot of money and fail. Harry Truman now owned the Airlift. The President’s fortunes would rise or fall according to its outcome.
By July, the Allies had established regular routes into and out of Tempelhof and RAF Gatow, a British air base on the southwestern edge of the city. Two air corridors, each 20 miles wide, funneled British and American cargo flights into West Berlin. A third middle corridor handled return flights.
At first, all sorts of planes were commandeered for use in the Airlift, including British Sunderland Flying Boats, which arrived in West Berlin via Lake Wannsee. As an airplane designed for ocean-going operations, the Sunderland proved essential for hauling salt, which otherwise corroded the hulls or C-47s and C-54s.
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Under the leadership of Chief of Staff General Hoyt Vandenberg, the Air Force overcame its initial resistance to the Berlin Airlift and tapped one of its own to command the growing operation. Lieutenant General William Tunner was the only person in high command who had experience running an airlift. During World War II, he had commanded the operation to supply the Chinese from bases in India to help them fight their war against Japan. American pilots flew over the Himalayas—”The Hump,” as they called it—to deliver weapons, ammunition, and other cargo.
Tunner used techniques he’d honed in the China-Burma-India Theatre to bring efficiencies to the Berlin operation. Within a week of his arrival, cargo planes were landing at Tempelhof every three minutes, round-the-clock.
Then came Black Friday. On August 13, 1948, low cloud cover made landings particularly hazardous on Tempelhof’s narrow approaches. Tunner himself was in a C-54 circling the airport when a C-54 crashed on the runway below. A second plane crashed trying to avoid the first. A third diverted to the wrong runway. As the control tower and ground crews tried to sort the problems out, planes kept taking off, every three minutes, and entering Tempelhof’s airspace. Soon, dozens of planes, Tunner’s among them, were stacked from 3,000 feet to 12,000 feet, all awaiting a chance to land.
As the situation grew more dangerous, Tunner came over the radio and quieted the air traffic controllers. From his spiraling perch above Tempelhof, he began dismissing planes from the stack one-by-one, sending them back to their original bases.
By the time the general himself had landed back at Wiesbaden Air Base, near Frankfurt, he had decided that the Airlift required not efficiency tweaks or gradual improvements, but a top-down reorganization to increase tonnage, keep pilots safe, and make the whole operation sustainable over time.
The new rules were dramatic and far-reaching. “All flights in good weather or bad, day or night, will be by instrument flight rules,” Tunner announced. “And any pilot who misses an approach at Berlin will bring his load back home. He will not be given another chance to try an approach and foul up the traffic!”
Tunner forbid stacking and banned air crews from leaving their cockpits upon landing. Planes would take off off every three minutes and maintain a 500-foot distance from planes above and below. There would be four planes per formation, with precisely 15 minutes between the nose of the lead plane and the tail of the rear plane. This way, planes could land at Tempelhof every one minute round-the-clock, 1,440 landings a day.
Tunner assigned the unloading of planes to former Luftwaffe ground crews, who also took over airplane maintenance operations. The Airlift was punishing on aircraft. Coal especially wreaked havoc on planes not designed to handle copious amounts of loose dust. Each C-54 required some maintenance every 25 flight hours, serious maintenance every 200 hours, and major overhauls 1,000 hours.
These changes weren’t popular among US air crews, demanding as they were, but by August 31, the Airlift was sustaining the delivery of 4,500 tons of cargo via 1,500 flights per day. Tunner had proven that West Berlin could be kept alive by air.
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Shaking off his disbelief at the Airlift, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin did what he could to hinder it, short of war. Soviet fighters buzzed Allied cargo planes. Paratroopers jumped in front of them, and anti-aircraft shells exploded close enough to frighten air crews, but too far to strike the planes. Soviet searchlights aimed for cockpits, hoping to disorient pilots.
Stalin also targeted the recipients of the cargo. He cajoled, intimidated, and bribed Berliners not to support the Airlift. He offered West Berliners ration cards so they could eat, but very few accepted. He tried to pack the Berlin City Council with Communist Party members, but citizens resisted.
On September 9, 1948, Lord Mayor Ernst Reuter declared Freedom Day and spoke to a half-million Berliners rallying at Brandenburg Gate. The spectacle was as much for the US public as for Stalin. Reuter pleaded with Americans to maintain the Airlift. “You cannot abandon this city and its people,” he said, as British and Soviet soldiers stood watch, a hair trigger away from violence. Any hint that the United States might retreat back to isolationism after World War II disappeared on Freedom Day.
But winning the Airlift meant surviving the tough winter of 1948-1949. A heavy fog descended upon all of Europe in November and stayed there for weeks. The Allies routinely missed their daily delivery quotas. On November 20, the fog was so thick that only one flight landed in Berlin. The city’s coal reserves dwindled to a week’s supply. Accidents and pilot deaths spiked, as did the stress levels of everyone on the Airlift.
But General Tunner set an example of stubborn persistence, working hard to keep the morale of his men up until the weather broke.
In January, the fog lifted and tonnage rates rose. By the time violet crocuses began poking through the city’s weed patches, Tunner had decided upon a celebratory publicity stunt to showcase the Airlift’s endurance and increased capacity.
He chose Easter Sunday for a record-setting 24-hour operation that would deliver twice the amount normally flown into the city. The only cargo would be coal, whose uniformity would increase efficiency in loading and unloading. On April 15-16, 1949, the Allies landed 1,383 flights carrying more than 13,000 tons of coal—almost three times the tonnage required to sustain life in West Berlin. More cargo came by air that day than rail traffic normally delivered before the Blockade.
The stunt worked. Western Europe cheered, and Stalin was forced to acknowledge that the Allies would persist in their irrational Airlift. In fact, the US would probably only improve the operation further as time went on. There was no sense, the Soviets concluded, in maintaining the Berlin Blockade.
All rail, barge, and road routes through the Soviet Eastern Zone into the city reopened on May 12. Jubilant crowds of Berliners turned out to greet arriving trains and trucks. Truman ordered the Airlift to continue through September, just in case Stalin had a change of heart. But by mid-summer, it was obvious that Berlin and the West had passed through a world-changing crisis. General Lucius Clay retired in July and came home to a tickertape parade.
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The Berlin Airlift was that rare thing in the Cold War: an unambiguous victory for the West. Blockading the city had won Stalin nothing. The United States, on the other hand, had gained immense global prestige, as well as the enduring gratitude of Berliners. The West as a whole had also preserved a little piece of real estate within the Soviet Bloc.
But there were costs. Seventy British and American aviators lost their lives in 25 airplane crashes. Delivering 2.5 million tons of cargo via 280,000 roundtrip flights covering 92 million miles (the distance of the earth to the sun) was also expensive. The total cost for the United States was $224 million (about $2.8 billion in today’s money). Britain and West Germany each shouldered an equal amount.
President Harry Truman’s critics howled about the spending, but even before it was half-over, the Airlift turned out to be a winning issue for the President. On November 2, 1948, Truman surprised opponents and supporters alike by handily beating the heavily-favored Republican Thomas E. Dewey, as well as third-party Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond, in the first Presidential election since the end of World War II.
Most important, the Berlin Airlift represented a hard turn in the standoff between the United States and its erstwhile ally, the Soviet Union. No longer could either side pretend that they were cooperating in the rebuilding of Germany and Europe.
Only eleven days after the end of the Airlift, Germany’s temporary occupation zones ossified into permanent national boundaries. On May 23, the West German Parliamentary Council declared the Federal Republic of Germany in all but the Soviet zone. The German Democratic Republic—East Germany—would follow in October.
This separation of West from East was mirrored in Europe as a whole, as US-aligned countries in Western Europe coalesced in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and Soviet satellites countries came together in the Warsaw Treaty Organization (Warsaw Pact).
The Berlin Airlift’s end was actually just the first in a string of Cold War headlines that would blaze across the world over the following year. On August 29, 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic bomb. A little more than one month later, Mao Zedong’s Communist Red Army triumphed over Chiang Kai-Shek’s Nationalist forces, supported by the US. Finally, on June 25, 1950—two years to the day after the start of the Airlift—Communist troops of North Korea launched a massive invasion of the non-Communist South, sparking the Korean War.
The Berlin Airlift lives on in our memory as a moment of high American nobility, ingeniously engineered and bravely executed to inspire the exhausted and defeated peoples of Europe after World War II.