As World War II was ending, the US, Britain and the Soviet Union agreed that each should occupy part of the divided Germany. This occupation would be coordinated and administered from one location, Berlin, which itself would be segmented into occupied zones. The Soviet Red Army was the first to arrive in Berlin in April 1945, prompting Hitler’s suicide and the surrender of the German high command. Russian generals refused to allow Allied troops into the capital for two months. During this time, Soviet soldiers engaged in an orgy of murder, looting and sexual violence (as many as 400,000 Berlin girls and women were subjected to rape). American and British military personnel were permitted to enter the German capital in July, when they began setting up their discrete zones in Berlin’s west and south-west. Weeks later they were joined by the French, who occupied a small quadrant in the north-west. The Soviets controlled almost all of Berlin’s eastern half.
The Allied occupation forces were shocked by the devastation in Berlin. The city had almost no means of sustaining itself. Berlin produced only two per cent of its food requirements; the rest had to be shipped in from rural areas. Food supplies were exhausted and thousands of Berliners were starving. Months of heavy bombing had destroyed buildings, factories, homes and critical infrastructure. All of Berlin’s 87 sewage networks had been destroyed, spoiling drinking water supplies and spreading diseases like typhus and dysentery. Hospitals, railways and roads had been decimated by bombing and artillery. Many had long since fled the city, fearing the advancing Soviet troops, causing Berlin’s population to drop from 4.6 million in 1944 to 2.8 million in mid-1945.
Roger R. Miller, historian
The Allied-controlled sections of Berlin were enclaves, located in the heart of the Soviet occupation zone of greater Germany. The Americans, British or French could not move men and supplies in or out of Berlin without crossing Soviet-occupied territory or airspace. This was not a concern initially, while there was considerable goodwill in Soviet-Allied relations. In 1945 Red Army commander Marshal Zhukov granted the Allies permission to use one road, one rail and one aerial route across the Soviet zone. In later negotiations the Allies were granted three twenty-mile corridors into Berlin. But these agreements were intended to be temporary. When relations began to deteriorate, the Allied presence in Berlin became irksome for the Soviet leader, who had wrongly predicted the Americans would withdraw from Berlin after a year or two.
‘Perhaps we can kick them out’
In 1948 Stalin met with Wilhelm Pieck, his German henchman in the Soviet zone and the future president of East Germany. Pieck complained to Stalin that the presence of the Americans, British and French in Berlin threatened to disrupt elections scheduled for 1949. “Let’s make a joint effort then,” Stalin told him, “and perhaps we can kick them out”. On Stalin’s orders, the Soviet regime in Germany began measures to frustrate the Allies out of Berlin. Soviet troops began stopping Allied trains to check passengers and cargo, while Russian planes began entering Allied airspace over Berlin to menace planes flying in or out of the city. In April 1948 relations worsened after a Soviet fighter ‘buzzed’ and collided with a British commercial passenger plane, killing all fourteen people onboard. In June the Allies issued a new currency, the deutschmark, while the Soviets – preferring to prevent economic recovery in Germany – gave orders that the deutschmark not be accepted within its zone. A day later, Soviet forces began implementing a full-scale blockade of Allied zones in west Berlin. The Russians closed the land corridors, halting Allied road and rail shipments then sending them back to their originating zones. They shut down thoroughfares and services into west Berlin, closing roads, cutting telephone lines and blocking water supplies. Power lines into west Berlin from electrical stations in the Soviet zone were disconnected. By late June, the Allied sectors of Berlin were almost completely blockaded; only the air routes remained open.
Many in the American government now considered that remaining in Berlin was untenable. The Americans had only 9,000 troops stationed in Berlin and another 110,000 in Bizonia, compared to more than one million Russians in the Soviet zone, so military options were ruled out. Berlin’s allied zones had only five weeks’ of food stores and six weeks’ of coal remaining as of the end of June. Given that the USSR had signed an agreement guaranteeing three flight paths into Berlin from Bizonia, an airlift of food, coal, gasoline and machinery was the only means of re-supply. But an airlift to keep Berlin fed and fuelled would be a monumental task, given that it would need to move 5,000 tons of cargo per day – and the largest American plane carried barely four tons. It would require thousands of flights each week and cost millions of dollars. There was also the risk that the Soviets would breach their agreement of 1945 and attack cargo planes. Yet despite these difficulties, the Berlin airlift was authorised and began in the final week of June. Some significant facts about the airlift include:
‘Flights to freedom’
Some significant facts about the airlift include:
- The Berlin airlift was code-named Operation Vittles and was overseen by US Air Force General Curtis Le May. The operation would use almost 700 planes and 12,000 personnel from the US, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.
- A study by the Allied command determined that the minimum daily ration needed for the two million people of west Berlin required 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, five tons of real milk for children, 144 tons of vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese – a total of around 1,540 tons.
- In addition to food, the airlift shifted more than 1.5 million tons of coal and four million litres of gasoline. Among the more unusual items carried in the airlift: gigantic rolls of newsprint for Allied Berlin’s newspapers and two million seedlings to replace trees destroyed during the war.
- There were more than 550,000 separate flights, the first on June 26th. In total Allied planes flew more than 92 million miles – almost the distance required to travel to Mars and back. Allied commanders routinely shortened launch timings, safety and inspection procedures in order to fly more cargo runs. One general aimed to achieve 1,440 Berlin landings per day – one for each minute of the day – a figure that was finally achieved in August 1948.
- The airlift was a challenge for pilots and aircrew. Not only were crews required to battle fatigue by flying several sorties each day, conditions were often extremely difficult. Berlin’s airports were prone to fog and low cloud, while the approach to Templehof airport in the US zone required pilots to fly between high-rise apartment buildings. Planes were often loaded to or just over their cargo limit, which made them notoriously difficult to take off and handle. Twenty-five Allied planes crashed during the airlift, killing 70 pilots and crew.
- The airlift began slowly, averaging just 90 tons of supplies a day in its first week. Following the arrival of new planes, these figures rose to 1000 tons per day in the second week. The record single-day tonnage was set in a 24-hour period during Easter 1949, when Allied planes transported just under 13,000 tons of supplies.
- The citizens of west Berlin offered to assist with the unloading of landed planes, in return for extra food rations. As the airlift progressed, these volunteer crews became very fast (at one point, twelve men unloaded a ten-ton cargo of coal in under six minutes). This allowed for fast turnarounds, as some Allied planes spent barely fifteen minutes on the tarmac in Berlin before returning to Bizonia for another cargo run.
The pro-Soviet press in eastern Berlin mocked the Allied airlift as a futile exercise, suggesting that it would fail within days or weeks. This prediction proved wrong: in fact the Berlin airlift, much like the Marshall Plan, was an important propaganda victory for the US. One poster produced by a participating aircraft company hailed milk as the “new weapon of democracy”, declaring that 2.5 million Germans were enjoying a better life due to air transport alone. The success of the airlift proved embarrassing for the Soviet Union, which in April 1949 proposed negotiations to end the blockade of Berlin. The Soviets agreed to reopen land access to the city, and at 12.01am on May 13th the first Allied train in 11 months rolled into Soviet-occupied East Germany, reaching Berlin shortly before dawn. The airlifts continued for another nine weeks, in order to build up a surplus of supplies, before they finally ceased in late July.
1. After 1945 the German capital Berlin was divided into zones, occupied by the US, Britain, France and the USSR.
2. In 1948 Stalin and the East German government resolved to force the Allies out of Berlin by denying access.
3. As Stalin tried to starve them out of Berlin, the West held firm and decided to supply its sectors by air.
4. The Berlin airlift was the largest air supply campaign ever attempted, with more than 550,000 different flights.
5. The airlift proved embarrassing for the USSR, which in April 1949 agreed to negotiations for the re-opening of Berlin. Rail access was eventually granted in May 1949 and supply flights continued until late July 1949.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn, Jim Southey and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn et al, “The Berlin blockade”, Alpha History, accessed [today's date], http://alphahistory.com/coldwar/berlin-blockade/.