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Berlin Airlift begins

Berlin Airlift begins

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In response to the Soviet blockade of land routes into West Berlin, the United States begins a massive airlift of food, water, and medicine to the citizens of the besieged city. For nearly a year, supplies from American planes sustained the over 2 million people in West Berlin.

On June 24, 1948, the Soviet Union blocked all road and rail travel to and from West Berlin, which was located within the Soviet zone of occupation in Germany. The Soviet action was in response to the refusal of American and British officials to allow Russia more say in the economic future of Germany. The U.S. government was shocked by the provocative Soviet move, and some in President Harry S. Truman’s administration called for a direct military response. Truman, however, did not want to cause World War III. Instead, he ordered a massive airlift of supplies into West Berlin. On June 26, 1948, the first planes took off from bases in England and western Germany and landed in West Berlin. It was a daunting logistical task to provide food, clothing, water, medicine, and other necessities of life for the over 2 million fearful citizens of the city. For nearly a year, American planes landed around the clock. Over 200,000 planes carried in more than one-and-a-half million tons of supplies.

The Soviets persisted with the blockade until May 1949. By then, however, it was apparent to everyone concerned that the blockade had been a diplomatic fiasco for the Russians. Around the world, the Soviets were portrayed as international bullies, holding men, women, and children hostage in West Berlin and threatening them with starvation. The unbelievably successful American airlift also backfired against the Russians by highlighting the technological superiority of the United States. By the time the Soviets ended the blockade, West Germany had become a separate and independent nation and the Russian failure was complete.

Lesson 3: The Formation of the Western Alliance, 1948–1949

Map of Europe showing NATO (blue) and the Warsaw Pact (red) ca. 1982.

In the spring of 1948 Stalin provoked the first serious international crisis of the Cold War by announcing a blockade of West Berlin. When U.S. aircraft began flying in supplies to the citizens of West Berlin, Truman gave a clear signal that the United States had no intention of withdrawing from European affairs. In the midst of the Berlin crisis European leaders began calling upon the United States to join in a formal alliance with the states of Western Europe, and the resulting North Atlantic Treaty (which created NATO) was signed in April 1949. In the following month Stalin called off the blockade, and almost immediately the Federal Republic of Germany—more commonly known as West Germany—came into existence.

This lesson will trace the Berlin blockade and airlift of 1948–49 and the establishment of NATO. Students will read original documents and view photographs of the period to learn why the Soviets sparked this crisis, how the United States responded, and why the NATO alliance was formed.

From the BBC History series on the Cold War, the above video focuses on Post-war Berlin, 1945-1949, including images and commentary on the Berlin Blockade and Airlift.

By the end of 1947 the United States had implemented a strategy of containing the Soviet Union, and part of this strategy involved moving forward with the creation of an independent Germany. Ever since the end of World War II negotiations had been ongoing regarding the fate of Germany, with the Soviet Union refusing to consider any plan that would involve a restored Germany aligned with the West. From the perspective of the United States and its Allies, however, the continuing division of Germany into four zones of occupation was standing in the way of Europe's economic recovery. Therefore, in February 1948 the United States and Britain announced that they were merging their zones and issuing a common currency for both.

Stalin perceived this act as an attempt to restore Germany without Soviet consent, and he sought to retaliate. In April, Red Army troops in the Soviet occupation zone began interfering with traffic between the British and American zones in Germany and their corresponding sectors of Berlin, which were entirely within the Soviet zone. Two months later, when France announced that it was merging its zone with that of the British and Americans, Stalin ordered the complete stoppage of all traffic between West Berlin and Western Germany. This left a civilian population of two million, as well as substantial numbers of British, French, and American troops, cut off from any source of food or fuel.

Truman considered several options for meeting the challenge. Some advocated withdrawing from Berlin, while others suggested sending an armored train to force its way through the blockade. Truman, however, was unwilling either to surrender the city or to risk starting a war, so he ordered U.S. aircraft to start carrying the necessary supplies into Berlin by air. Over the next eleven months thousands of tons of food, coal, and clothing were brought into the city in what became known as the Berlin Airlift. Stalin, essentially faced with a decision either to back down or to order Soviet aircraft to shoot down these planes (and thus risk war), opted for the former, and the blockade was lifted in May 1949.

The Berlin blockade and airlift had a dramatic effect in most of Western Europe. Even before the start of the blockade, European nations had discussed some sort of mutual security arrangement to resist possible future German aggression, and the result of this was the Brussels Pact of March 1948. In this treaty Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg agreed to military and economic cooperation. However, in the wake of the Berlin blockade the Soviet Union seemed far more menacing than Germany, and the signers of the Brussels Pact knew full well that even their combined armed forces would be no match for the military might of the Red Army, which at the time was the largest in the world. They therefore sought some guarantee that the United States would intervene to defend them against a Soviet invasion, and the Truman administration provided this by signing on to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in April 1949. Truman then followed up on this in July by asking Congress for $1.45 billion in military aid for Western Europe. For the first time in its history, the United States had formally committed itself during peacetime to the defense of other nations (the Truman Doctrine [see Lesson 2], it should be pointed out, was merely a rhetorical commitment).

Teachers interested in more background on the Berlin Airlift or the NATO alliance are encouraged to visit the EDSITEment-reviewed site of the Truman Presidential Library. In addition to being an invaluable source for documents and photographs, the site includes an online narrative entitled "Airbridge to Berlin," and a chronology of events related to NATO.

NCSS.D1.2.9-12. Explain points of agreement and disagreement experts have about interpretations and applications of disciplinary concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question.

NCSS.D2.His.1.9-12. Evaluate how historical events and developments were shaped by unique circumstances of time and place as well as broader historical contexts.

NCSS.D2.His.2.9-12. Analyze change and continuity in historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.3.9-12. Use questions generated about individuals and groups to assess how the significance of their actions changes over time and is shaped by the historical context.

NCSS.D2.His.4.9-12. Analyze complex and interacting factors that influenced the perspectives of people during different historical eras.

NCSS.D2.His.5.9-12. Analyze how historical contexts shaped and continue to shape people’s perspectives.

NCSS.D2.His.12.9-12. Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.

NCSS.D2.His.14.9-12. Analyze multiple and complex causes and effects of events in the past.

NCSS.D2.His.15.9-12. Distinguish between long-term causes and triggering events in developing a historical argument.

NCSS.D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.

Review the lesson plan. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and links from EDSITEment-reviewed websites used in this lesson. Download and print out selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing. Alternatively, excerpted versions of these documents are available as part of the downloadable PDF.

Download the Text Document for this lesson, available here as a PDF. This file contains excerpted versions of the documents used in the various activities, as well as questions for students to answer. Print out and make an appropriate number of copies of the handouts you plan to use in class.

You should also become familiar with the interactive map which accompanies this lesson. This shows the sequence of events in Europe during the early years of the Cold War, as well as their geographic locations. By clicking on the numbered locations pop-ups will appear with more information.

Award-winning streaming service of full-length docs for the likes of history buffs, royal watchers, cinema aficionados & train enthusiasts. Visit britishpathe.tv British Pathé now represents the Reuters historical collection, which includes more than 136,000 items from 1910 to 1984. Start exploring!

Berlin Airlift begins - HISTORY

Today in 1948, the Berlin Airlift began. This effort to feed more than two million people in the city of Berlin was unprecedented in the history of aviation, for never before had so many people in one location been supplied by air. The Airlift also showed that nonlethal forms of airpower could directly achieve national objectives.

At the end of the Second World War in Europe, the Allies divided Germany into occupation zones: the American, French, and British zones in the west and a Soviet zone in the east. Within the Soviet zone lay Berlin, also divided into four sectors, each administered by one of the wartime allies. The only guaranteed means of access to Berlin was by air. The Soviet Union had granted each of the three Western Allies a 20-mile-wide air corridor leading from their respective occupation zones to the city, but no such arrangement governed travel by road or rail--those avenues of access depended upon the continuing cooperation of Soviet authorities.

The Second World War had scarcely ended when relations between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union began to deteriorate. Eastern Europe quickly fell under Soviet domination. By 1946, the reunification of Germany was out of question to the Soviets unless the re-joined nation became a satellite communist state. In March, 1948, the three Western Allies agreed to merge their areas of responsibility and institute a free, democratic government. Shortly afterward, the Soviet Union began exerting pressure on the overland routes leading into Berlin, imposing arbitrary restrictions on access, such as temporarily halting coal shipments and, on 24 June, establishing a blockade. Lacking the ground forces to punch through the blockade, the Western Allies had no choice but to rely on airlift if their sectors in Berlin, with a combined populace of over two million people, were to survive. Never before had any nation mounted so ambitious an aerial resupply operation. The Soviet leadership, conditioned by the failure of the German airlift at Stalingrad during the war, assumed that the attempt would fail.

The task of supplying Berlin by air fell upon the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, commanded by Major General Curtis E. LeMay, who had at his disposal 102 C-47s, each with a cargo capacity of 3 tons, and 2 of the larger C-54s that could carry 10 tons apiece. He called for reinforcements and entrusted the operation to Brigadier General Joseph Smith, who called it Operation Vittles because, "We’re hauling grub." The first deliveries took place on June 26, 1948, when C-47s made 32 flights into Berlin with 80 tons of cargo, mainly powdered milk, flour, and medicine.

Within a month, American officials realized a massive airlift of indefinite duration afforded the only alternative to war or withdrawal. The transports would have to deliver not only food for the populace but also coal to heat their homes during the winter, and bulky bags of coal would cut deeply into the available space within the aircraft. The airlift would continue after the good flying weather of summer had ended and winter fog, clouds, rain, and ice commenced. Because so extensive an operation exceeded the capacity of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe, Operation Vittles became the responsibility of the Military Air Transport Service directed by the newly-formed Air Force. Chosen to command the Berlin Airlift was Major General William H. Tunner, a veteran of the aerial supply line across the Himalayas, from India to China, during World War II, that was known as "The Hump".

General Tunner arrived in Germany in late July 1948 and promptly set about speeding up the delivery of cargo, an effort that earned him the nickname "Willie the Whip." He established a truly impossible goal of a landing every minute, day or night if the ceiling at the destination was 400 feet or more. At times the aircrews participating in the operation came close to achieving this goal, touching down 3 minutes apart. The transport aircraft entered the air corridor at a prescribed time and altitude and obeyed instructions from ground radar controllers who regulated speed and the interval between each aircraft . Each pilot in this endless procession had one chance to land. If the weather or some other reason prevented a landing, he would return to his home station and reenter the cycle later. On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949, this system delivered 13,000 tons of cargo, including the equivalent of 600 railroad cars of coal. This so-called Easter Parade set a record for a day’s tonnage during the operation.

Soviet forces harassed but did not attack the cargo aircraft of the Anglo-American alliance, although fighter pilots and antiaircraft gunners occasionally opened fire near the corridors, and searchlights that could destroy a pilot's night vision sometimes played upon the aircraft in the dark. By the spring of 1949, it was obvious these tactics of harassment had failed to deter the American and British airmen. Consequently, the Soviet Union entered into negotiations which culminated in an agreement, signed on May 5, 1949, that resulted in the lifting of the blockade, but it did not settle the basic issue of freedom of access. Despite the resumption of surface traffic into the city, the airlift continued until September 30 to mass a reserve of food, fuel, and other supplies in the event the Soviets reimposed the blockade.

Between June 26, 1948 and September 30, 1949, the airlift delivered more than 2.3 million tons of cargo. To keep the aircraft going, military and civilian mechanics worked around the clock to support airlift operations. Maintenance technicians would perform periodic checks of aircraft components and systems after every 20 hours of flying time to ensure proper operation. After 200 hours, the aircraft received a major inspection, and after 1,000 hours, the transports were flown to their home bases for a major overhaul. The operations sustained over the 15-month period were surprisingly safe despite crowded airways and bad winter weather the accident rate of the airlift forces averaged less than half that of the entire US Air Force during that period. Nevertheless, breaking the blockade cost the lives of 30 servicemen and one civilian in the 12 crashes.

Weighty Decisions

While the world waited in silence leaders on both sides weighed their options. In what would become one of the defining moments of early Cold War brinksmanship both the East and West tested their resolve and sought answers to questions that would shape the future of post-war Germany and the world:

Would the Western Allies honor their committment to the people of West Berlin?

Would the Soviet leaders risk a major military confrontation?

How would future relationships between the East and West be affected?

How would the German people react?

This is the story of the West's committment to the people of Berlin and to freedom.

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The Division of Germany

After the Second World War, former allies the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France differed on the governance of Germany. The United States and the Soviet Union sought to spread the economic ideologies of communism and capitalism in Germany but the Second World War had left Germany in ruins and the capital, Berlin, in a dire state. The citizens of the city were staring at starvation, shelter was hard to find, and black market goods dominated the economy. The four allies divided Berlin into two France, the UK, and the US control the western portion while the Soviet Union took charge of the eastern part.

The Berlin Airlift

On June 24, 1948, the Cold War began in the war-torn, divided city of Berlin. The Soviets, who controlled all of East Germany and the eastern half of Berlin, blocked all access to the American and British-controlled West Berlin, choking commerce and starving the people. The Soviet goal was to expel the Allied forces, who had long been a thorn in Stalin's side. But Western forces refused to abandon the city. President Harry Truman proclaimed, "We stay in Berlin. Period." To do so would mean attempting the impossible: supplying two million civilians and twenty thousand Allied soldiers with food and fuel -- entirely from the air.

American Experience presents The Berlin Airlift from filmmakers Peter Adler, Alexander Berkel, and Stefan Mausbach. This one-hour documentary offers a striking look at the first battle of the Cold War. Featuring interviews with pilots who flew the mission as well as civilians who were supplied by the airlift, the film combines historical and contemporary footage to tell a story of courage and humanity set against the backdrop of the early days of the Cold War.

Previously, the roar of American and British planes overhead heralded death and destruction to the people of Berlin. Now, Allied troops were seen as angels of mercy, delivering powdered eggs and milk, flour, coffee, and coal to the beleaguered city -- more than four thousand tons of life-saving supplies daily. The operation was masterminded by U.S. General William Turner, who during World War II had developed a daring scheme to supply anti-Communist forces in China.

One of the heroes of the airlift, U.S. pilot Gail Halverson, dropped thousands of tons of chocolate and sweets into the thankful hands of German children, earning himself the title of Candy Bomber. Acts of bravery came from both sides. After his plane crashed, U.S. Army pilot Ken Slaker was taken in by German soldier Rudolph Schnabel and his wife, Magdalena. Slaker later returned the favor by helping the couple escape to the west. The airlift also brought people together in unexpected ways. Sam Young of the US Army met his future wife, Berliner Sybille Griese in that chaotic time. "It was a nice time, but it was also an uncertain time," says Griese in the film. "Sam could have gone back to America at any time."

After eleven months, the success of the mission was a continuing embarrassment to the Soviets and an overwhelming triumph for the Allied forces. President Truman, elected for a second term, emerged as the strong man of the Cold War. All told, the airlift delivered 1.7 million tons of essential food and fuel to the people of West Berlin.

"What could have been the start of World War III turned out to be one of history's greatest acts of kindness," says American Experience executive producer Mark Samels. "And while Berlin remained divided for four decades, the airlift remains an uplifting chapter in the city's tumultuous past."


Narrator: March 1948. A British military train left Berlin and stopped in the Soviet zone of occupied Germany. Red Army guards performed what should have been a routine check.

Three years earlier, these allies together had destroyed Berlin to defeat the Nazis. America and Britain from the air, the Soviets in a final ground assault against desperate German resistance.

Now, the alliance that had won the war was breaking down. The Soviets were increasingly obstructing movement through their zone and wanted to check every passenger. Allied military officials objected to the Soviet restrictions. They ordered the train return to Berlin.

Since 1945, Berlin had been surrounded by the Soviet controlled zone of occupied Germany. A road and a railway line were all that connected it with the rest of Europe.

The four powers -- the U.S., Britain, France and Russia -- each controlled their own sector of the city, home to more than two million people.

Now Berlin was in limbo. The four powers could not agree what to do with it. The Western allies wanted to revive the German economy and get business going. The Soviets wanted communist planning throughout their zone. The economic stalemate created a black market for goods. Security concerns along the border between East and West Berlin increased. Sam Young was part of an American military unit charged with policing the city.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: You saw nothing but destruction. Wherever you looked, all around. It was terrible. And for an 18 year old kid that was really apprehensive. You know, I have never seen anything like that before.

Narrator: Whole sections of Berlin were reduced to rubble. Clearing it became residents' main occupation.

But for young Sybille Griese, newly arrived from the German countryside, the capital still had its attractions.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): It was hard to get a room. There was a lot of destruction. It really looked very sad. But not as sad as my home town. For me, Berlin was the big city. Everything I saw was new.

Narrator: Three years after the war, the city showed signs of returning to normal, but food remained in short supply. Three Western powers had taken on the responsibility of feeding Berlin.

Mercedes Wild, Berliner (subtitles): The best thing was the biscuit soup the Americans gave us. You had a little food container. Maybe it had a lid, maybe it didn't. You filled it with food and you took it home for your family. Sometimes it was the only hot meal of the day.

Narrator: But the city could not be kept on a breadline forever. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin wanted full control of his half of Germany. The presence of the Western allies in Berlin was a thorn in his side. Along with the Soviet Union, the three Western powers governed Berlin through a joint council called the Allied Kommandantura. As long as the Western powers were in the city, it was difficult for the Soviets to create a communist economy in their zone. And they were convinced the Western Allies were plotting to push them out of Berlin.

On June 16, 1948, the Soviets pulled out of the Kommandantura. Just days later the Allies issued a new currency for Western Germany -- the Deutschmark. Then, the Soviets announced that they would do the same for their zone -- and throughout Berlin.

But the Allies had already smuggled two hundred and fifty million Deutschmarks into the city. The Soviets prepared a counter move. On June 23 Soviet forces in Berlin sent a secret order to cut the city off from the West. The next day highways and railway lines were closed. No coal, no food could get through to the city.

Mercedes Wild: My mother was very upset. She said: now we'll have nothing to eat. We've been blockaded. I didn't know what 'blockade' meant. But they used that word, right from the start. And I'll never forget my grandmother's words:'Just as long as we don't end up Russian.'

Narrator: Berlin's power station was in the city's Eastern sector.

Gerhard Bürger, Berliner (subtitles): It was like an eclipse of the sun. Nobody knew what was going on. We asked the Americans, what's up? They said, 'we've packed our bags.'

Narrator: There were twenty thousand American, British and French troops in Berlin. It was enough to police the Allied sectors, but totally inadequate to defend them in the event of a Soviet attack. In the U.S. President Harry Truman was in the midst of an election campaign he was expected to lose. Truman issued a forceful response to the Soviet blockade.

President Truman (archival): What the world needs in order to regain a sense of security, is an end to Soviet obstruction and aggression.

Narrator: Then Truman's advisors gave him sobering news. Berlin had just 36 days worth of food and 45 days worth of coal. The president could not defend the city. But to withdraw would be disastrous for America's image -- and for his own hopes of re-election.

Truman's military governor in Germany, General Lucius Clay, suggested the U.S. call Stalin's bluff. Clay proposed sending armed troops along the road to Berlin. Truman knew this might spark a war neither side could afford. Yet, he decided not to abandon the city. "We stay in Berlin," he declared. "Period."

Truman considered another option: flying supplies into the Western sectors of Berlin. If the Soviets wanted to stop Allied planes they would have to shoot them down. And that put the pressure on the Russians.

But no one knew if it was even possible to supply two million people with food and fuel by air. American officials turned to their British allies for answers. Britain had endured nearly ten years of rationing during the War.

According to the British calculations, it would take seventeen hundred calories a day per person. That meant fifteen hundred tons of food, plus another twenty-five hundred tons of coal and gasoline -- a total of four thousand tons per day.

The Allies' C-47 plane was capable of carrying just three tons. Many doubted an airlift would work. Nevertheless, the Berlin Airlift began on June 26, 1948. The first flights were reported live to the city by RIAS, Radio in the American sector.

Original Radio recording:
In diesem Augenblick kommt die die grosse Lockheed Sunderland Maschine. .

Narrator: Berliners came out by the thousands to watch flying boats land on the city's lakes. The planes carried salt. No other aircraft could transport the precious cargo because it would corrode their fuselage.

Even though Berlin's elected mayor, Ernst Reuter, was a former Communist, the Soviets had kept him from taking office. Now, Reuter called a rally to reassure bewildered citizens and boost their morale.

Ernst Reuter (archival, subtitles): Berlin will not be next on the Soviet list! We'll used every means at our disposal to resist the forces of oppression who want to make us slaves of a single party system!

Narrator: Following the rally, General Clay summoned Reuter.

Robert Lochner, Interpreter (subtitles): He explained to Reuter the hardships for the population and said he couldn't guarantee it was even possible. No one had ever tried to supply a city by air. Would the Berliners stick it out, so soon after the War? And Reuter simply answered: 'You take care of the airlift, I'll take care of the Berliners.'

Narrator: American and British transport planes were dispatched to Germany from all over the world. Powdered eggs and milk, flour and coal began to make their way to Berlin.

A world away, in Mobile, Alabama, Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen was enjoying post-war life.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: So I had a four-door, brand new Chevrolet car. This was just before the Airlift started. This was in early '48. So then I was doing big-time. I called a girl for a date. I'd take her in the car. She said 'Wow, this is pretty neat. New car. Very few new cars then. That was the car when I got the telephone call about the Airlift, I didn't have time to do anything with it. I just drove it under the pine trees on the air base at Brookley, took the keys, and left the car there. I never saw it again.

Narrator: Halverson flew to Germany that same day.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: My feelings for the Germans were not very good. I mean, Hitler started this thing, he caused all this chaos, he caused one of my buddies to get shot down, I don't know where he is yet.They never did find his body. So I didn't have good feelings about the Germans.

Narrator: For Berliners, the sound of Allied planes overhead brought back terrible memories.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): I sat through so many air raids in our apartment, and suddenly there was that sound again. The sound of planes flying over the building, and with that the fear came back that the bombs would fall again.

Narrator: Halverson made his first landing at Berlin's Tempelhof airport.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I had 20,000 pounds of flour on the airplane, 20,000 pounds of flour. Landed at Tempelhof, and I wondered what these supermen were going to look like you know, all this propaganda built up through the years, coming face to face with them. The back doors of my airplane opened and about eight Germans came piling in to the back of the airplane. And that first man, the first three or four came up, straight up to me and put out their hand, and their eyes were moist, and I couldn't understand what they said but I could understand their feeling immediately. They looked at the flour and looked back at me like I was an angel from heaven.

Narrator: In Moscow, Stalin was confident that Britain and the United States would not be able to keep Berlin fed from the air. As a show of force, Truman sent sixty B29 bombers to England. For the Airlift pilots, the pressure mounted. Two weeks into the Airlift supplies reaching Berlin were increasing, but not enough. At first the Allies transported just ninety tons a day. Now, they managed a thousand tons. But it was just a quarter of the daily minimum required. And Airlift operations were still chaotic.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I came in over Tempelhof and the weather was very bad. And suddenly, coming the other direction, into the homing beacon, was another C-54, right at my altitude. We just almost hit propellers. I could see the pilot's eyes, coming the other way.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): At first I heard the usual engine sound. Then the pitch went up. Then there was a crash. And then complete silence. It was the first accident of many. The skies were too crowded, the men and the machines overworked.

Narrator: In July General William Tunner arrived in Berlin. During the war his transport planes had flown over the Himalayas to supply anti-Communist forces in China. Now, Tunner was charged with organizing the Berlin Airlift. His plan was to make each of the three Allied air corridors a one-way route -- two going in, one coming out. Planes would fly three minutes apart, at five levels simultaneously. On a clear day pilots would see the aircraft flying above and below them. 'I want rhythm', Tunner said, on a beat 'as constant as jungle drums.' Soon pilots met Tunner's targets, then exceeded them. They flew more than fifteen hundred flights a day and delivered more than forty-five hundred tons.

Planes now took just minutes to unload. They remained on the ground for no longer than thirty minutes. And the pilots only had one chance to land. Otherwise, they had to return their planes fully loaded. Tunner insisted that pilots stay close to their planes while on the ground. He made sure that coffee and hot food were waiting for them on the runway.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: It wasn't just the coffee, it wasn't just the hamburgers. In my case, I drank hot chocolate. That was a good thing . but he put some beautiful German Frauleins in that snackbar. They knew we couldn't date them, we had no time. So they were very friendly. The first thing we'd do is we'd get a big smile, and then worry about the hamburger and the hot chocolate later.

Narrator: The Soviets did not interfere directly with the flights. Instead, they launched a propaganda campaign against them.

East Newsreel (Original soundtrack, subtitles): Haven't we heard that before? Think back. How was it again? Once upon a time our benefactors came with bombs and phosphor.

Narrator: The British responded with a campaign of their own.

British Film (Original soundtrack): No longer night, and not yet day. And as the sun rises, bombers are readied. Bombers, once the heralds of death, today, in the summer 1948, in the service of Life and Freedom.

Narrator: The Americans used a different public relations tool -- the RIAS radio station. RIAS played American music the Nazis had banned -- country tunes, popular songs, and especially, jazz. The broadcasts helped spark a West German love affair with American music that would last a generation. The Soviets tried to counter, but dancing Cossacks could not erase the horrors of the Soviet takeover in 1945. Berliners would never see Stalin as 'Germany's best friend.'

On the ground the Cold War was heating up. On September 6, East German Communists occupied the city's civilian council house to block new elections. Three days later RIAS Radio urged West Berliners to protest the East German actions. A crowd gathered at the Brandenburg Gate, next to the Reichstag, the ruined German Parliament. The Airlift was working so far, but many West Berliners feared the Allies would eventually abandon them to the Russians. Addressing half a million people -- a quarter of the population -- Ernst Reuter delivered an impassioned plea.

Ernst Reuter (Archive, subtitles): You peoples of the world. You people of America, of England, of France,

look on this city, and recognize that this city, this people

must not be abandoned -- cannot be abandoned!

Narrator: Lifted by Reuter's words, the crowd surged towards the city's Eastern sector, a few hundred yards beyond the Brandenburg Gate. Someone ripped down the Red Flag, the symbol of Soviet victory. Soviet police responded, killing one young demonstrator. Three months of fear, anger and mistrust were taking their toll.

In the Western sector, however, the airlift had already become an inspiration for young children.

'. die Berliner warten auf mir.'

Narrator: It was a sign that the Allies were winning over the next generation. At Tempelhof airport, the real Airlift drew children like a magnet, groups of boys gathered at the perimeter, waiting for a plane with a special delivery.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I wiggled the wings of the airplane, and they went crazy. I can still see their arms and hands up to the sky -- and, er, just went mad.

Narrator: Halvorsen had started dropping candy to the waiting children. It became the biggest public relations coup of the airlift. And Gail Halvorson its biggest hero.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: Before I got donations from big candy companies, the children of America were sending me donations, and sending me money so we could go to the base exchange and buy the things to drop to the children of Berlin.

Narrator: But one little girl wanted something special.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): So I wrote to him: 'Dear Chocolate -- Uncle, you fly over Friedenau every day. Please drop a parachute over the garden with the white chickens. They've stopped laying.'

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: They think you're a chicken-hawk, and the eggs aren't coming any more, and their feathers are falling out. And then the last letter, the last part of the letter she said, 'when you see the white chickens, drop it there'.

Mercedes Wild (subtitles): If you drop a parachute, I don't mind if you hit them. Your Mercedes.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: I told my buddies who were dropping them. I said, 'When you're coming in to Tempelhof, drop on the approach, at apartment houses wherever you see them. We gotta hit Mercedes. We didn't hit Mercedes. Took a big pack of government candy in Berlin, mailed it to Mercedes.

Mercedes Wild: The chocolate was okay. But the important thing was the letter. He had written back. I had written to him, so I was waiting for an answer. And I still have that letter. It was wonderful.

Narrator: Dear Mercedes: If I did a couple of circuits over Friedenau, I'm sure I'd find the garden with the white chickens. But I'm afraid I haven't got the time. I hope that you will enjoy the enclosed. Your chocolate uncle, Gail Halvorsen.

Mercedes Wild (Subtitles): My father had gone missing as a pilot during the war. Now I saw this Chocolate Uncle as my father who was showing me that he was there for me.

Narrator: Throughout October 1948, flights continued day and night. As winter approached more food and fuel were needed, but American commanders would not be deterred.

General Lucius Clay (archival): We are not going to be forced out of Berlin.

Journalist (archival): Will you be able to continue the present air supply indefinitely?

General Clay (archival): We will increase it, and we can continue it indefinitely.

Narrator: To build a new airport, the Allies employed eighteen thousand Berliners -- half of them women. They completed the job in two months. But an extra airport was not enough. The airlift needed more pilots.

Former bomber pilot Ken Slaker was called out of civilian life in the U.S. and pressed into emergency service on night flights.

Ken Slaker, U.S. Air Force: We'd just been 20 minutes into Eastern Germany when we lost both engines simultaneously. And went through emergency procedures. We couldn't get them started again. So I just bailed out. I said to myself, this is it. When I got my memory back and it was daylight. And then I heard a noise. And there was the sound of a airlift aircraft overhead. So I knew where I was. Let's say that I was right on the route to Berlin. I realized I was in a real, real trouble.

I ran face-to-face with a German. And I told him, where's Fulda. He said, 'Fulda nein good.' I said, Fulda's good for me. I told him I'm an American pilot on the airlift. And when I said that he had immediate respect for me. He opened his coat and pulled out some papers. And they were his discharge papers from the American prisoner for two years and so we were able to communicate.

Narrator: Risking his freedom, Rudolph Schnabel took Slaker back to his own home.

Magdalena Schnabel (subtitles): I made something to eat and said, 'Come on, you eat too.' At first he said: 'No, you haven't got enough.' So I said: What feeds two will also feed three.' He was a very good looking man, neat as a pin, tip-top, with the uniform and all . Ken said goodbye very nicely and so did my husband and we hugged, and said: "Let's hope it'll be okay. And I said:'Say a quick Our Father and it'll be all right.' And he said, 'You say one too. Then it will be all right.' Schnabel made contact with agents willing to help Slaker escape.

Ken Slaker, U.S. Air Force: They told us what we had to do to get through the border. That they'd buy -- and I gave them some West marks, they bought off the East German policeman who was on the bridge on the river from 8:00 to 8:30 when the Soviet guard changed.

Well, my heart was in my mouth when we started crossing the bridge because that German policeman was coming straight towards us. And about two meters from us he stopped, turned around and ignored us. So he'd been paid off.

Narrator: Just before the border, they met up with others hoping to escape.

Ken Slaker, U.S. Air Force: And so we started up the incline. My back was killing me. I got halfway up the ridge. My back gave out and I fell and rolled back down to the bottom. And the girl said, "The captain has fallen. " And they stopped. They came back down there and they pulled me up that incline. If they had not have done that, I would not be here.

Narrator: Schnabel was not so lucky. On the return journey he was captured and interrogated for weeks by the Communist authorities, but gave nothing away. Eventually, Slaker was able to help the Schnabels leave their homeland and escape to the West.

As the airlift entered its fifth month, temperatures dropped and flying conditions worsened. There were days when no planes could fly. With the airlift periodically grounded, Berliners had to find fuel wherever they could. Electricity delivery was unreliable, but many found ingenuous ways to keep the power going. And finding fresh meat was even more of a challenge.

Mercedes Wild, Berliner (subtitles): My grandmother caught a sparrow flying around our apartment. And that lunchtime I had a portion of meat -- tiny piece of meat and bones. And I knew it was the sparrow. I didn't eat it.

Narrator: As shortages grew, Soviet authorities offered to provide West Berliners with food imported from Eastern Europe. But only if West Berliners transferred their ration cards to the Soviets.

East Newsreel Narration (Subtitles): Since 1 August every Berlin housewife -- in any sector -- can register her ration card in the Soviet sector. Supplies to Berlin's millions are guaranteed by the deliveries from the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

Narrator: Sensing a trick, only a small percentage took up the offer.

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): Somehow my mother somehow got hold of a card. And she sent me over to East Berlin to Alexanderplatz. There was a big market hall -- I can still see it now -- and I bought some bread. And each time, my mother begged me -- almost on her knees -- not to eat any of it. But to my shame, I never managed to get home, without taking one or two bites, I was so hungry.

Narrator: In December 1948, Berliners prepared for new municipal elections. East Berlin authorities once more organized demonstrations against them.

Banner (subtitle): 'The divisive vote on 5th December means war!'

Narrator: The Communists boycotted the elections and appointed their own mayor for the Soviet sector. Friedrich Ebert would rule East Berlin for 19 years. In the Western sectors the vote went ahead. The political division of Berlin was now complete. Ernst Reuter was reelected mayor of the Western zone.

Ernst Reuter (archival): The people of Berlin wants nothing else than to be a free people. No dictatorship will stop our free election.

Narrator: With husbands and fathers still in Soviet prison camps, many families in Berlin were barely scraping by. In between power cuts they turned to the radio for news of their loved ones.

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): My mother suffered greatly from her husband's absence, and of course it was vital for her to have a source of information to tell her how he was. And every night on RIAS, about half past nine after the news -- there came:

Original Radio Sound (subtitle): 'This is the Task Force against Inhumanity.'

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): And they passed on news from the different camps. And one evening, when I was eight, my mother was washing me in the bathtub. I'll never forget it. She was listening to the radio and the Task Force against Inhumanity came on and the voice said: 'Railway engineer Günther Richardi has died in the Neubrandenburg Concentration Camp. My mother had no idea it was coming. She let out a single cry. It was a disaster for her.

Original Radio Sound(subtitles): 'We'll keep you informed!'

Narrator: But even amidst the bleak Berlin winter, the airlift continued to bring people together in unexpected ways.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): Meeting an American was something special. They were supposed to have money. They were good looking, they had uniforms, and they were attractive young men.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: I was just as I am. I mean I didn't do anything to impress her, I don't think, because that's why she called me the obnoxious American. As a matter of fact . that was my real first date, too.

Narrator: But conditions for romance were far from ideal.

Sam Young, U.S. Army:They were bad. Cold. You didn't have to worry about taking your coat off because it was too cold when you went to visit. Oh, we would sit close together and stuff like that. But we didn't have much room. I mean it, had, her bed, her bed couldn't have been more than, smaller than a rollaway bed.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): He never had much money, but there were benefits. We went out to eat and there was coffee and candy. We didn't get much of that. Yes, there were benefits.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: They said, 'Well, you can buy care packages down at the quartermaster for $12,' and if she didn't eat a lot that would last her for probably a couple, three weeks. But if I took candy down there, I took candy once, one time in particular. And . hid it in the closet. Yea. Went back the next day and it was all gone. She ate it all at once, the whole package of chocolate because we didn't get that too often.

Sybille Griese, Berliner (subtitles): Yes, it was a nice time, really. It was a nice time, but it was also an uncertain time, because Sam could have gone back to America at any time.

Narrator: Young talked over the options with his best friend.

Sam Young, U.S. Army: 'John, what are we going to do about these ladies? They're awfully nice ladies.' Said, 'we can't just take off and go back to the states and say adios or auf Wiedersehen or whatever.' And he said, 'yeah, you're right.' He said, 'we better be talking seriously about it while we can.' I said, 'well right now's a good time.' 'I said, let's talk about it.' So we did. We sat down there in a doorway of a business place at about 10:30 or 11:00 o'clock at night. And we, we decided well, we'll ask them. So we did and they said 'yes.' So that's how the romance really got started.

Narrator: In January 1949, British authorities added a new twist to the airlift. They began using their empty planes to transport German families who wanted to leave Berlin. Royal Air Force pilot John Irvin Eddy prepared for a night flight to Lübeck in West Germany. One of his twenty-two passengers was ten-year-old Peter Zimmermann.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): There were hours of waiting. They kept saying the plane wasn't ready or it had to be repaired. I don't think we were afraid, at least, I wasn't, and my sister didn't really know what was happening.

Narrator: It was pilot Eddy's third round trip flight of the day. Weather conditions were not ideal. For the passengers, it was the first flight of their lives.

John Irvin Eddy, Royal Air Force: Coming back from Berlin as far as the flight was concerned, the take off and everything was normal. There was no, no . it wasn't until we got towards Lübeck itself that they told us that there was this full cloud cover and, and how far it was from the ground, from the airfield surface.

And they said, well, the instruction was to descend and do a visual circuit. And when we broke cloud it was inky black. There was not a sign of a light or anything.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): There was a slight scraping sound and a moment later there was a louder scraping sound, and then another.

John Irvin Eddy: But unfortunately the trees stretched up to 200, 300 feet. And we hit them. And as far as I know, I pushed the throttles forward but we didn't get away.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): All I can remember

is that last loud bang, and then the fuel exploding.

John Irvin Eddy: And the next thing I knew I was lying on my back on the ground, looking up at the sky and seeing all the stars, which was ridiculous because it was full cloud cover. But I could see every star in the sky.

Narrator: Peter Zimmermann was pulled from the wreckage by fellow passengers.

Peter Zimmerman, Berliner (subtitles): You can't imagine how bad it was -- utter chaos, utter helplessness. Pieces of the plane were lying around. The plane was on fire. There was a terrible smell,and the most terrible thing of all was a smell of grilled meat. It was roasted human flesh.

Narrator: Later, Zimmerman learned that his mother and sister were killed in the crash.

But such accidents were rare and as the spring of 1949 approached, the airlift entered a new phase. The Allies began employing their former enemies, including German Air Force technicians.

Walter Riggers: I still don't understand it. How, so soon after the war, they could just say to us, come on, work for us . I don't understand where they got the idea that it might work . I just don't know.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: That guy up there's a German! He used to work on a Luftwaffe airplane. And now he's working on my airplane? Here is this man, who supported the fighters against us, or the transports or whatever else, is now working on our plane. Wow, it's a crazy world, you know .

Walter Riggers: They had real confidence in us and we proved ourselves. They said: 'Do something.' And we did it.

Gail Halvorsen, U.S. Air Force: These guys were good! And they learned the American system very quickly, and it was a good partnership. Ein gutes Mannschaft. Ja.

Narrator: Increasingly, the the Allies began using a fleet of much bigger aircraft. Giants like the C-74 'Globemaster carried twenty-five tons. As did the new C-97 'Stratofreighter,' eight times the capacity of a C-47. With the new planes, General Tunner's operation set an airlift record on Easter Sunday 1949. Nearly 1400 flights and 13,000 tons of supplies delivered in a single day. May 12th, 1949 -- the Soviets relented and lifted their blockade of Berlin.

Newsreel Sequence: The hottest spot in the Cold War is eliminated. Allied vehicles await the removal of the barriers and the signal for the dash to Berlin. With the opening of the gates a new chapter in postwar history begins to unroll down German highways. Just 10 months and 23 days after the capital was sealed off from the ground, traffic is rolling toward Europe's number one trouble spot. Its a day of [unintelligible] for band of men in the airlift who kept Berliners eating while they were held in an iron ring.

Narrator: Lucius Clay returned home and was greeted with a ticker tape parade in New York. At Tempelhof airport children got their chance to thank some of the departing airlift pilots.

Hans-Günther Richardi, Berliner (subtitles): And now trucks were coming in from the West -- and interestingly, the first thing they brought was masses of oranges. And I said to my friend, "let's go down to the end of the Autobahn where they arrive and maybe we'll be lucky.

And they were throwing oranges to the crowd -- still nicely wrapped back then -- and some kids were lucky and they caught some. But I didn't get any, and neither did my friend, and we went home really downhearted. Just like kids are, because they would have been my very first oranges. So I came home, went into the kitchen and I couldn't believe my eyes. There on the table were two oranges, cut open like a water lily.

Narrator: The Berlin Airlift officially ended on September 30, 1949. By October, Germany was split into communist and capitalist halves. The divided city of Berlin was where the Cold War began, and this was where it would end, forty years later. The airlift had lasted 15 months and delivered more than 2.4 million tons of supplies to Berlin. Seventy-nine people lost their lives in the effort, including thirty-one Americans.


Written and Directed by
Peter Adler
Alexander Berkel
Stefan Mausbach

Historical Consultant
Prof. Gerhard Keiderling

Thanks to:
Allied Museum, Berlin
British Berlin Airlift Association
Bundesarchiv Transit
Joseph Cresto
Deutsche Wochenschau GmbH
Gail Halvorsen
Heinrich Riethmüller

Pavel Figurski

Set Dresser
Markus Bendler

Production Supervisor Poland
Jacek Gaczowski, Tempus-Film

Udo Jordan
Evelyn Kremer

Original Music

Sound Mixer
Oliver Engelhardt

Bernhard Sehne

Anthony R Miller
Jan Prillwitz
Peter Ruppert

Executive Producer
Guido Knopp

A ZDF production
in association with
ZDF Enterprises

American Experience

Post Production
Greg Shea
Glenn Fukushima

Series Designer
Alison Kennedy

On-line Editor
Spencer Gentry

Sound Mix
John Jenkins

Series Theme
Mark Adler

Business Manager
Nancy Sherman

Jay Fialkov
Maureen Jordan

Project Administration
Susana Fernandes
Pamela Gaudiano
Sherene Ing
Vanessa Ruiz

Nancy Farrell
Ravi Jain
Stewart Smith
Li Wei

Victims of airlift and remembrance

On 8th July 1948, the first casualty of airlift took place during a crash near Wiesbaden. Up to the end of the air program, 77 people - 41 British, 31 Americans and 5 Berliners had met with an accident. A monument should be erected in the memory of the victims of the blockade was already being discussed in West Berlin before the end of the airlift. A day before the cancellation of Soviet restrictions, on 11th May 1949, the senate and district committee meeting decided to name the place in front of the main entrance of the airport as “Platz der Luftbrücke” (place of airlift).

The airlift monument of Eduard Ludwig (1906-1960) was handed over to the public on 10 July 1950.

St. Endlich, M. Geyler-von Bernus, B. Rossié

Berlin Airlift begins - HISTORY

Please note: The audio information from the video is included in the text below.

The Berlin Airlift could be called the first battle of the Cold War. It was when western countries delivered much needed food and supplies to the city of Berlin through the air because all other routes were blocked by the Soviet Union.

A C-54 landing at Berlin Tempelhof Airport
Source: United States Air Force

At the end of World War II the country of Germany was divided by the Allies into four zones. Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union each controlled a different zone. The capital of Germany, Berlin, was located in the Soviet Union zone, but control of this city was also split into four zones between the four countries.

Tensions Between the East and West

With the war over, tensions began to mount between the democratic countries of the west and the communist countries controlled by the Soviet Union of the east. The west was determined to stop the spread of communism and the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine made this clear.

The west also wanted the country of Germany to be united under one democratic government. The Soviet Union didn't want this. Soon the two sides were at odds over the future of Germany. The west introduced a new currency called the Deutsche Mark, but the Soviets refused to use it in their zone.

The city of Berlin was an island in the middle of the Soviet controlled zone. The west sent supplies there via railroads and roads. However, the Soviets wanted total control of Berlin. They figured if they cut off Berlin from their external supplies and food, then it would fall under their control.

On June 24, 1948 the Soviets blocked all rail and road traffic to Berlin. They cut off the electricity coming from the Soviet part of the city. They halted all traffic going in and out of the city. The only way in was to fly.

When the blockade first started, the city of Berlin had around 36 days worth of food. They also needed tons of coal for energy and other items such as medical supplies.

Without going to war or giving up the city of Berlin, the only option the western countries had was to try and fly in all the supplies. This was a huge task. There were over two million people living in the city at the time. The army estimated that it would take over 1500 tons of food each day to keep them alive.

The Soviets did not believe that an airlift would work. They felt that the people of Berlin would eventually give up.

Over the next ten months the United States and Great Britain flew around 277,000 flights into Berlin. They carried over 2.3 million tons of supplies into the city. On May 12, 1949 the Soviet Union stopped the blockade and the airlift was over.

From The History Channel

On this day in 1948, U.S. and British pilots begin delivering food and supplies by airplane to Berlin after the city is isolated by a Soviet Union blockade.

When World War II ended in 1945, defeated Germany was divided into Soviet, American, British and French zones of occupation. The city of Berlin, though located within the Soviet zone of occupation, was also split into four sectors, with the Allies taking the western part of the city and the Soviets the eastern. In June 1948, Josef Stalin’s government attempted to consolidate control of the city by cutting off all land and sea routes to West Berlin in order to pressure the Allies to evacuate. As a result, beginning on June 24 the western section of Berlin and its 2 million people were deprived of food, heating fuel and other crucial supplies.

Though some in U.S. President Harry S. Truman’s administration called for a direct military response to this aggressive Soviet move, Truman worried such a response would trigger another world war. Instead, he authorized a massive airlift operation under the control of General Lucius D. Clay, the American-appointed military governor of Germany. The first planes took off from England and western Germany on June 26, loaded with food, clothing, water, medicine and fuel.

By July 15, an average of 2,500 tons of supplies was being flown into the city every day. The massive scale of the airlift made it a huge logistical challenge and at times a great risk. With planes landing at Tempelhof Airport every four minutes, round the clock, pilots were being asked to fly two or more round-trip flights every day, in World War II planes that were sometimes in need of repair.

The Soviets lifted the blockade in May 1949, having earned the scorn of the international community for subjecting innocent men, women and children to hardship and starvation. The airlift–called die Luftbrucke or “the air bridge” in German–continued until September 1949, for a total delivery of more than 1.5 million tons of supplies and a total cost of over $224 million. When it ended, the eastern section of Berlin was absorbed into Soviet East Germany, while West Berlin remained a separate territory with its own government and close ties to West Germany. The Berlin Wall, built in 1961, formed a dividing line between East and West Berlin. Its destruction in 1989 presaged the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union and marked the end of an era and the reemergence of Berlin as the capital of a new, unified German nation.

Watch the video: Berlin Airlift: The Cold War Begins - Extra History (May 2022).