From the Stars and Stripes archives

Airlift marks first anniversary

Watching Berlin Airlift flights arrive at a West German airfield for reloading provides local residents with a close-up look at history in the making in June, 1949.


The 'impossible' now is daily task

By ALBERT S. BURCHARD | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 27, 1949

THE BERLIN AIR LIFT, greatest air supply operation in history, is one year old. Pioneered by 32 flights in war-weary "gooney birds," which delivered 82 tons of food to Tempelhof Air Force Base June 26, 1948, "Operation Vittles" has developed to a daily average of 8,360 tons during the last month, delivered in about 980 flights a day in C54s, C82s, and British Yorks, Hastings, Haltons and other four-engine aircraft.

Gone are the days when it was a near miracle to land 1,000 tons at the other end of the air corridors. Gone now are the days when 4,500 tons — estimated necessary daily minimum — looked almost impossible, yet had to get "up there" because the lives of 2,500,000 West Berliners depended on it.

The Berlin air lift, ordered by the man who told the Russians, "We will not be bluffed," stands as lasting proof that Gen Lucius D. Clay meant every word when he said:

"We have a right to stay In Berlin, and we are going to stay."

"Operation Vittles" grew from those words and the determination of that man, then EUCOM commander, not to be buffaloed.

THE SOVIETS SERVED NOTICE June 25, 1948 — just a week after currency reform in Western Berlin — that they no longer would supply food outside the East sector. Next day the lift began, following talks between Clay and Lt Gen Curtis E. LeMay, then USAFE commander.

Within two days reinforcements for the lift were on the way. C54s were taking off from halfway around the world to show the Soviets the West meant what it said and would not leave Berlin. Next day Brig Gen Joseph E. Smith, then commanding general, Wiesbaden Military Post, was put in command of "Operation Vittles," and the day after that, Wiesbaden Air Force Base got into the act, bringing to two the bases jumping off lift craft.

THUS IT STARTED. Britain came in July 5, loading great Sunderland flying boats, to be set down on the Havel River where it widens into a lake in the British Sector.

Daily tonnage figures started to climb. And they kept going up, when everybody said it was impossible, throughout the worst summer flying weather in modern European history and all during the blind fogs of last fall. Only one month did the figures slip off, and that was November, when everybody said the lift would have to stop altogether — and the Combined Air Lift Task Force still put 113,387.9 tons down in Berlin.

ALMOST FROM THE LIFT'S first day, the eyes of the world were focused on those three tubes feeding into the blockaded city.

In the States, people first asked themselves why it was necessary to stay in Berlin anyway. They sat in their Rotary Club meetings or in the Grange Halls or in university clubs, and when they had decided among themselves that Berlin was where the West's stand ought to be made, they read what there was about the lift in the papers and said: "Maybe."

They said: "This is all right for summer, but wait until winter sets in."

They said: "Wait until the planes stack up in the corridors and start crashing."

They said: "You can't help but admire these men, these fliers, but what they're trying isn't possible." But in Germany, the drone of engines was in people's ears when they went to sleep and was still there when they woke.

On good days they could look up and see them passing overhead. When the clouds came down and the engines sounded louder, and there were no glimpses of the aircraft, people shook their heads and wondered how it could go on.

SOME DAYS, EVEN THE PILOTS must have wondered, a little. On the days when the fog cut off the wingtips and even the outboard engines were barely visible, only the eye of radar could see, and only GCA could bring them in.

Those days the lives of the crew and several hundred thousand dollars in airplanes and needed cargo hung on the anonymous voice of someone watching a radar screen and speaking into a microphone, lining the ship up with the runway, bring it down the normal glide path, telling the pilot when to let the wheels down, and the flaps, and how fast he should go.

And when the wheels touched down and the crew relaxed a little, knowing they were safe, the voice from the GCA shack calmly addressed the next plane. So the supplies kept on coming in.

Once a C54 was brought into Tegel Air Force Base under conditions so bad it took half an hour for the "follow me" jeep to find it and lead it over to the unloading ramp.

BUT THERE HAVE BEEN accidents, too. Eighteen lift aircraft have crashed, and 58 persons have lost their lives. Of these, 28 were Americans, including one civilian. Twenty-three Britons have been killed and seven Germans died in the crash of a British plane.

The first crash occurred when the lift was only two weeks old. A C47 piled into a hill northeast of Wiesbaden, killing pilot, copilot, and a Department of the Army civilian passenger.

But the safety record is impressive, particularly when all the factors of the lift are considered.

For instance, the three corridors to Berlin over the Soviet Zone are 20 miles wide to a walking man, but to a flier, they are only six minutes across. That means all the aircraft involved in the operation — U.S. Air Force and Navy, and Royal Air Force — must make their round trips without ever straying from course, all of them going and coming, in these three alleys.

Despite casualties and weather and difficulties of maintenance, the lift has carried on.

On July 20, Clay conferred with President Truman in Washington. At that time, 54 C54s and 105 C47s were flying from U.S. Zone bases, and the RAF was using 40 Yorks and 50 Dakotas (C47s). The daily tonnage record was only 2,250 by combined effort.

MAJ GEN WILLIAM H. TUNNER arrived in Wiesbaden July 28 and took command of "Vittles," renamed Air Lift Task Force (Provisional). By Aug. 12, U.S. and RAF airmen reached the "daily minimum" mark for the first time, delivering 4,742 tons. Total deliveries passed 100,000 tons the day the lift was two months old, and five days later the four military governors met in Berlin to discuss lifting the blockade. The talks failed, and the lift went on.

U.S. and British lift forces were combined Oct. 14, with Tanner as commander, and Air Commodore J. W. E. Merer, RAF, deputy commander of CALTF. A few days later, Lt Gen John K. Cannon took over command of USAFE, replacing LeMay.

By now, the lift was so big, facilities in Berlin were being strained to the breaking point. A new field, Tegel, was started in the French Sector after heavy construction equipment had been flown to Berlin.

The road-building machines, bulldozers and scrapers had been cut apart at Rhine-Main to fit into planes, and then rewelded in Berlin. Asphalt for runways had to be flown in, too, but there was plenty of rubble in Berlin for runway foundations.

Navy C54s began arriving Nov. 9, and soon two Navy squadrons were flying out of Rhine-Main.

The lift beat November weather and the worst fog in the memory of Europeans, which sometimes grounded all aircraft for as much as 18 hours at a time, From November on, the lift tonnage figures kept on climbing.

The crescendo lasted until April 16, Good Friday, the day the air lift "shot the works," as Clay said. That was the day a plane landed every minute in Berlin for 24 hours, and when it was ended, 12,940 tons of food, coal, newsprint and other supplies were stacked up on the three airfields of the Western sectors.

The Berlin blockade ended May 12, but the lift went on. Clay ordered it to continue at least until stockpiles in Berlin were at the same level as when the Soviets first sealed off the ground and water routes to the city. During May a new monthly high was reached.

Today the lift has dropped off slightly, averaging around 7,000 tons daily, according to Maj Gen George P. Hays, deputy military governor.

Watching Berlin Airlift flights arrive at a West German airfield for reloading provides local residents with a close-up look at history in the making in June, 1949.