The handshake between American and Russian soldiers over the Elbe River in 1945 had grown into an arm wrestling match over the German city of West Berlin in 1948.
At the end of World War II, the country of Germany had been split. The Americans, British and French held the west; the Russians occupied the east.
In the eastern half of Germany was Berlin, the nation’s capital. The city had also been divided to create a West Berlin and an East Berlin.
The United States, Great Britain and France administered the western half; Russia controlled the eastern half.
This splintered arrangement of democratic governance and communist domination soon led the Russians to try and force the Americans and her allies out of West Berlin.
Thursday, June 24, 1948
At 6:00 am the Russians severed all land, river and rail traffic between West Germany and West Berlin.
When word of the blockade reached Major General Lucius D. Clay, the ranking American officer in West Germany, he contacted Lieutenant General Curtis E. LeMay, commander of the US Air Force in Europe, and asked to arrange the airlift of emergency supplies into West Berlin.
“Sir, the Air Force can deliver anything,” LeMay replied.
With that response, the struggle over the fate of West Berlin began 71 years ago today.
The Berlin Airlift
LeMay’s allied staff calculated that if the airlift was to be successful, the city of 2.5 million required 5,000 tons of supplies – mostly food and fuel – per day to survive.
The planners also knew that no city had ever been sustained by airlift alone and that there were not enough aircraft available to accomplish the mission.
To provide airlift to sustain the operation, LeMay ordered all C-47 Skytrains (capable of carrying three tons of supplies) stationed in Europe to rendezvous in West Germany. He also directed the newer and bigger C-54 Skymasters (capable of lifting ten tons of supplies) be pressed into service.
Four days after the blockade of West Berlin began, C-47s touched down at West Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport every eight minutes to discharge over 2.5 tons of supplies.
It was the beginning of a growing muscular American response.
Major General William Tunner
The needs of aircraft maintenance, civilian labor and more runway space began to erode morale as the allies strained to maintain a sustainable airlift pace.
To keep from being pinned to the table, command was given to Major General William H. Tunner. A gifted logistician and strong leader, he honed Operation Vittles into shape.
By the end of August, allied efforts resulted in a daily delivery pace of 4,500 tons of supplies.
The Russians Flex Their Muscles
In response the Russians harassed allied aircraft by buzzing them, shining searchlights into the cockpits, and firing flack into the air.
The Russians also knew that the onset of winter would bring more chances of aircraft accidents as the West Berliners’ needs – especially coal – would increase to 6,000 tons per day.
To meet the challenge, Tunner increased the number of maintenance crews, scheduled more flights, and upgraded Gatow and Tempelhof Airports.
Then the weather turned an ugly gray.
A Winter Fog
In November of 1948 Europe was shrouded in one of the worst fogs in recorded history. The number of flights into West Berlin dramatically decreased.
The city’s stockpiles of supplies began to run out, and at one point there were only enough supplies to last a week.
This arm-to-arm contest seemed to be turning in favor of the Russians.
Tonnage for Tunner
But as the fog finally began to lift, the rate of ton delivered to West Berlin lifted too.
In January 1949, American and British aircraft delivered more than 171,000 tons; in March the tonnage jumped to 196,223; in April it hit 234,476.
“I thought things were going too well at this time,” Tunner said, “so I decided the command should have a little shaking up.”
To accomplish this, he decided that on Easter Sunday, April 16, 1949 his team would attempt a one-day grand total of 10,000 tons delivered.
A record 1,398 flights carrying 12,940 tons were made by allied aircrews.
“The worldwide headlines the next day made me the happiest commander that ever wore a uniform,” Tunner said.
The End of the Berlin Airlift
By the end of April the Russians conceded the match, and at one minute past midnight on May 12, 1949, they lifted the blockade of West Berlin.
Today’s remembrance of this unsurpassed airlift marked the beginning of America’s resolve to stand up to despotism anywhere in the world.