The Berlin Airlift

Personal account by Mr. William H. Gross

In 1945 the victorious Allies decided to divide Germany into three zones, British, Russian, and American. Berlin was to be divided in the same fashion. The Americans and British thought the French should also have a portion which the Russians firmly said they can have one but take it out of your territory. This was one of the first hints of troubles among the victors. As time passed, with the many problems caused by various allied agreements, the split of the allies was sure to happen.

The western allies decided in 1948 that for Germany to become a viable nation again, would require that currency reform was vital. After a lot of bickering the allies informed the Russians that currency reform was imminent and they had to choose if they were going to go with the other allies or be on their own. The Russians chose the latter and made a commitment to force the western allies to leave Berlin.

They thought this would be pretty easy to do since Berlin was in the Russian Zone of Germany, and the Russians ruled this territory with an Iron fist. They thought that by blocking all roads, blocking all water routs and cutting off all rail traffic that the allies would be forced into evacuating the city of Berlin and letting them have it to themselves.

General Lucius Clay, the military governor of Germany, pondered over this momentous decision. He placed a call to General Curtis LeMay and asked him whether the fledgling Air Force would be capable of delivering goods to the blockaded city. LeMay found that he had 102 C-47 type aircraft and 1 C-54 aircraft that were capable of carring cargo. But he determined that it could be done if additional C-54 type aircraft were brought to Germany. Planners determined that 4500 tons of material would be required to feed the 2 1/2 million people a minimum of 1000 calories per person. These calculations quickly made it apparent that equipment available in Germany would not be able to meet the minimum forecasted requirements.

An urgent call was made to all commands that had C-54 type aircraft and each command ordered crews and aircraft to depart their home bases as quickly as possible. Flying the C-47 aircraft which has a capacity of 4 tons of cargo approximately 6700 tons could be pressed into service within hours and daily tonnage figures climbed steadily.

General William H. Tunner, a person dedicated to airlift operations, was appointed the Joint Airlift Commander. General Tunner found that many problems existed. In the beginning we had two bases in the American Zone, the RAF had two bases and each had one base in Berlin. The most troublesome was Templehof in Berlin. The final approach comming in was between two rows of 7 story apartment houses. The 6000 ft Runway was PSP. Soon the landing area was beat up so bad by the hard use that it required a crew of workers to make necessary repairs after each plane landed. It is said that the PSP had as many miles as the aircraft because it moved a little every time a plane landed. Remember, a plan was landing every 3 minutes and a plane was taking off every 3 minutes. This meant the repair crew had to be very agile and fast. Rhein-Main AFB became known as Rhein-Mud for obvious logical reasons.

Another major accomplishment of the airlift was the building of Tegel Airport. The plan for building the airfield was to hire 17,000 German people who would work with shovels, hoes and other hand tools to make a 6000 ft runway. Some large type equipment was cut up with a torch to fit in the aircraft and then welded back togeather in Berlin. People worked on this 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the first plane landed at Tegel in 87 days. There was one minor problem that had to be solved. There was a 500 ft. tall radio tower that belonged to Russian radio right in the path of the final approach. The French commandant called the Russians and asked them to remove the tower, they said NYET. The French commandant then called a staff meeting of the British and American commandants the next morning. As they were meeting behind closed doors, a loud bang was heard. Upon investigation they found the radio tower had collapsed, bad material, I suppose.

On Easter Sunday, 1949, General Tunner ordered a maximum effort. The goal was 1440 sorties in 24 hours, one for each minute of the day. The goal was not achieved as only 1398 sorties delivered 12,941 tons of food, coal and other supplies and flew 78,954,500 miles with no accidents or injuries. One person estimated that 600 rail cars of coal were hauled that day.


( To the Nearest Ton )

FOOD: 537,000 tons

Coal: 1,586,000 tons

Other Goods: 202,775 tons

Total Tonnage: 2,325,775 tons

Sorties flown: 277,569

U.S. Fatalities: 32

In closing, this morning I was in the commissary and a lady say my Berlin Airlift Verterans Association shirt. She stopped me and said, ' You are the first person I have ever met who participated in the Berlin Airlift and I would like to thank you for giving me life'. We had a little talk and she explained to me that she was a four year old when the blocade started. She got her first taste of chocolate from a candy bar dropped by the 'Candy Bomber' . We, the members of BAVA, firmly believe that the Berlin Airlift put the first big chink in the defeat of communism.

William Gross is the current Secretary / Treasurer of the Berlin Airlift Veterans association.