The South African
Military History Society

Die Suid-Afrikaanse Krygshistoriese Vereniging

Military History Journal
Vol 11 No 2 - December 1998


by Anthony Speir
South African National Museum of Military History


This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Berlin Airlift or Air Bridge, which operated for a period of fifteen months between June 1945 and September 1949. It was the first major trial of strength between the West and the Communist powers in Eastern Europe and it was one of the rare occasions when the Communists were forced to admit defeat.

The background to the blockade of Berlin by the Soviets and the consequent need for the airlift lay in the differing attitudes of the Occupying Powers towards their respective parts of Germany. The Soviets wanted to keep Germany weak to prevent her from ever launching another attack on the Soviet Union. The British and Americans, on the other hand, wanted to see the destitute Germany back on her feet as soon as possible, so that all of their resources could be used for the rebuilding of Britain and the ravaged countries of Europe.

Damage and looting

During the War, 70 000 tons of bombs had been dropped on Berlin. The city had also been shelled for nearly ten days by the advancing Soviet armies. Up to 45% of its houses had been totally destroyed, another 15% were severely damaged and only 5% remained totally undamaged.

Berlin had been captured by units of the Soviet Army in the last week of the war and, for the first two months after the end of the war, the entire city had been occupied by the Soviet Army. In the beginning of July 1945, the Western Powers took over their sectors of Berlin and, in return, they evacuated some parts of Germany that were to be occupied by the Soviet Army.

When the Soviets had entered Berlin at the end of April 1945, they had looted, raped and pillaged their way through the city and concentrated on removing anything of value from the areas destined to become the Allied sectors. Many eastern troops from Mongolia had moved into Berlin and had been allowed to loot and rape with little control, learning only two words of German: 'Frau, komm' (Woman, come here).

The USSR had been devastated by the German attacks on its lands and many of its factories had been totally destroyed. The Soviets therefore felt that they were fully entitled to take from Germany anything which could be used in rebuilding their own economy, especially anything that could be found in the areas of Berlin which were soon to be handed over to their erstwhile allies. Amongst other things, they removed a 225 000 kilowatt power station, leaving Berlin 75% reliant on power from plant in the Soviet Sector. In 1946, all skilled workers in Berlin were required to sign a declaration that, under certain circumstances, they would agree to work in the Soviet Union. Thus, after the Communists were defeated in local elections, 25 000 skilled workers and their families were forcibly transported to the Soviet Union from Berlin.

Inflation and the Black Market

The greatest problem facing German economic recovery was the gross inflation of the German currency - the Reichsmark - which led to the formation of a huge black market where cigarettes, coffee and chocolate were used as forms of exchange. The Reichsmark, suitably overprinted by the occupying forces, was retained as the official currency for all of Germany. By paying their troops huge bonuses in Reichmarks for service in the occupation forces, sometimes amounting to as much as six months normal pay, the Soviets flooded Reichsmarks into circulation. On the growing black market, it became possible to buy a Bechstein Grand Piano for sixteen cartons of cigarettes; for 13 000 cigarettes, a full-length mink coat. A cigarette was worth five marks (the equivalent of ten shillings sterling) and a two-ounce chocolate bar was worth 30 marks (or 3 sterling, the equivalent of an average week's wages in Britain at that time). Informal prostitution in return for a chocolate bar was rife amongst desperate people, but the Soviet soldier did not bother with chocolate bars - the phrase 'Frau, komm' sufficed.

The civilian population of Berlin at this time was about 2,5 million and two-thirds of these (about 1,67 million) lived in the area under the control of the Western powers. The daily needs of Berlin in terms of food, fuel and raw materials for her industries amounted to some 13 500 tons per day - a total of over 400 000 tons per month. Berlin, as an industrial city, normally paid for its daily needs by exporting manufactured goods to other parts of Germany and to the outside world.


There were four different means of entering Berlin from the West: by river and canal barges; road transport; the railways; and three air corridors which traversed the Soviet zone of occupation. While there was a written agreement with the Soviets regarding the use of the air corridors, nothing existed in writing about access to Berlin by any of the surface routes.

The central air control zone for Berlin covered a 20 mile (32 km) radius from the centre of the city and was under Four Power control. Most air routes into the city's existing airfields required some flying over the Soviet Sector of Berlin, as well as traversing well over 100 miles (160 km) of Soviet-occupied Germany. The North and Central Air Corridors came from the British zone of occupation and the South Air Corridor from the American zone.

First map

Air communications with Berlin 1948-9

At the start of the airlift, West Berlin had two airfields which were situated twelve kilometres apart: Tempelhof (in the American Sector) was the original aerodrome of Berlin; and Gatow (in the British Sector) was a grass airfield which had originally been used for training and had a short runway of perforated steel planking (PSP). To augment these rather inadequate facilities, a third airfield, Tegel, was built in the French Sector during the Airlift by some 19 000 Berliners using rubble from bombed buildings. The necessary heavy construction machinery was transported into Berlin in small pieces in an unusual-looking aircraft, the Bristol Wayfarer. These aeroplanes were designed to carry cars across the English Channel and had an elevated cockpit situated above large doors in the nose, through which the parts of these heavy machines were able to pass. The appearance of these ungainly-looking aircraft with their fixed undercarriages led to many jokes amongst the American airlift aircrews, who nicknamed them the 'Mayflowers'.

Currency reforms

The Western Powers, very concerned that inflation and other economic problems might recreate the conditions in Germany which had led to the rise of Adolf Hitler after the First World War (1914-18), decided to introduce a new currency to halt inflation and the continued existence of the black market. Since the Soviets would not agree to this, the Western Powers introduced the new Deutschmark into their respective zones of occupation only. This inevitably led to problems in Berlin, as the city remained under Four Power control and, at the time, the four sectors were not considered separate areas. Free trading and movement was allowed throughout the city. Disagreement regarding the currency continued for several months and, early in June 1948, the Western Powers announced at the Kommandatura (the four power governing committee) that they would institute their currency reforms. Although the Soviet representatives stormed out of the meeting, the Western Powers decided to continue with their plans.

On 11 June, the Soviets closed all surface routes into Berlin on the pretext of 'technical difficulties' and, when they were reopened, they introduced new regulations for traffic crossing the Soviet zone of Germany, including the stipulation that their locomotives and drivers replace those employed by the Western Powers.

The airlift begins

Following the introduction of the new Deutschmark by the Western powers, the Soviets again closed all the surface routes to Berlin on 24 June 1948. The next day they advised the three Western commanders in Berlin that no food would be supplied from the Soviet zone to the Western sectors. On 26 June, the United States Air Force and the Royal Air Force (RAF) began the Airlift, using a few DC3 Dakota aircraft (known in the US Air Force as the C47). These aeroplanes were capable of lifting only three tons on each flight and, on the first day of operations, only eighty tons of supplies arrived in Berlin. (The minimum amount required to sustain the city was initially calculated at 5 000 tons per day, 150 000 tons per month). Fortunately the Western powers in Berlin had begun stockpiling when the Soviets had commenced their harrassing tactics and therefore, when the blockade began, there were sufficient supplies in Berlin to last, on average, six to eight weeks.

Civilian rations were reduced to 1 000 calories per person per day, consisting of approximately:

The American airlift was called 'Operation Vittles' (after an old English word for 'food') and they provided the lion's share of the aircraft. Some 441 American aircraft were used in total and they carried over three-quarters of the entire load into Berlin. British and Commonwealth air forces supplied 147 aircraft and carried 17% of the load, whilst British civil operators provided a further 104 aircraft and lifted just over six per cent of the load. At the commencement of the Airlift, many countries of the British Commonwealth, including South Africa, offered their assistance. With the exception of the Canadians, these Commonwealth countries provided crews to fly RAF aircraft. South Africa sent ten complete Dakota crews, who flew for almost the whole period of the Airlift alongside their RAF colleagues.

Immediate steps

As an industrial city, Berlin had to export its manufactured goods and, for every 260 tons flown into Berlin during the Airlift, another 100 tons were flown out to the rest of the world. To reduce the demand on the city, over 50 000 adults (chiefly the very old and infirm) and 17 000 children were evacuated from Berlin by returning British aircraft. Apart from the financial implications, it was essential to keep in operation as many as possible of the industries in Berlin in order to provide work and income for the citizens and to forestall the adverse propaganda effects of mass unemployment. Thus, raw materials had to be brought into the city and the manufactured goods had to be flown out.

In the first month of the Airlift, a total of 70 241 tons of supplies was flown in to Berlin, just under half of the minimum needs of the city. By the end of the Airlift, the monthly total had risen to over 250 000 tons and this was probably one of the main contributing factors that convinced the Soviets that there was no future in maintaining the blockade. Compared with the amount of cargo which had to be moved, the capacity of the aircraft used in the Airlift necessitated a staggering number of flights. The Dakotas could carry only three tons, the Wayfarers five and a half tons and the Yorks, Skymasters, Hastings, Tudors and flying boats between eight and ten tons each. The aircrews themselves made a number of recommendations regarding the removal of standard fittings like oxygen equipment and dinghies, which were not considered necessary.

During the Airlift, the British and the Americans shared the three air corridors permitted under the original four-power agreement. Aircraft based in the British zone entered Berlin along the Northern Air Corridor and the American aircraft came in along the Southern Corridor. Aircraft leaving Berlin generally used the Central Corridor. However, some British aircraft that were based very far north in their zone, also left along the Northern Corridor. Since the Americans provided the largest number of the aircraft and their bases were the furthest from Berlin, the British made two of their airfields at Celle and Fassburg in the centre of Germany available for use by the Americans, thereby greatly reducing their flying time, and also allowed them to share the Northern Corridor.

Flying boats

A unique aircraft type, probably unknown to most people today, were the 'flying boats' which were also used during the Airlift. These aircraft were once a familiar sight to South Africans - operating on the air routes between the Union and Britain before and immediately after the Second World War. During the Airlift, flying boats operated from the marine base of Finkenwerder on the River Elbe on the outskirts of Hamburg to a base on the Havel See (Havel Lake) in Berlin. Apart from increasing the number of available aircraft, the flying boats were also used to carry most of the salt supplies, as their hulls had been treated against the corrosive effects of the salt water on which they normally landed. (Land-based aircraft, lacking this anti-corrosion treatment, soon showed dangerous levels of corrosion due to salt cargo spillages and seepage. Having no night landing aids the flying boats operated only in the daytime from July until December 1948, when the Havel See became covered with ice. They did not resume operation after the Spring thaw.

Original planning

When the Airlift began, the authorities did not expect it to last more than a few weeks. Thus, the initial planning was done on a very temporary basis and the British and American sides of the operation worked independently of each other. This led to a number of problems both in the air and on the ground. During the first few months of the Airlift, General William Tunner was in control of the American side. (He had previously organised the air supply line known as the 'Hump' in South Fast Asia, which had been used used to ferry supplies over the Himalayas to American and Chinese forces during their war against Japan). In October, when it became obvious that the Berlin Airlift was going to be a long-term operation, the British agreed to Tunner being in overall command.

Servicing the American aircraft became a major problem which Tunner solved in two ways. Firstly, he obtained permission to employ trained German air mechanics. Secondly, he managed to locate Major-General von Robden, a former Luftwaffe maintenance commander, whom he placed in charge of re-training the German mechanics and translating the American maintenance handbooks into German. Short-term, routine tasks continued to be carried out at the airlift bases, with 85 German mechanics working at each squadron. Longer-term maintenance (from 200 flying hours upwards) was carried out at a former American base at Burtonwood, near Liverpool in England, which Tunner had reactivated and staffed with many of the US servicemen who had worked there a few years earlier.

Operating rules

Tunner introduced a number of special rules into the operation of the Airlift:

To maintain the twenty-four hour operation, several crews were allocated to each aircraft and crews often flew continuously for periods of up to twelve hours. Fatigue was a constant enemy - the continuous noise of aircraft operations meant that even the flying crews at the bases rested poorly. Many different ways of keeping awake in the air were used, including knitting socks, playing non-stop games of bridge, and one newly-wed pilot studied a sex manual. One British crew set their auto-pilot on leaving Berlin and awoke a considerable time later flying over the English Channel!


Throughout the Airlift, the Soviets used a variety of means to harrass the air crews and to work on their fatigued nerves. For example, Soviet fighter aircraft played 'chicken' with the heavily-laden transports and carried out air-to-ground firing exercises with live ammunition very close to the corridors. The Soviet Army's anti-aircraft batteries also used live ammunition in exercises which took place as close as possible to the boundaries of the corridors and they flew barrage balloons alongside the corridors and held seeming endless conversations on the radio frequencies allocated to the Allied aircraft.

Discomfort of the crews

Apart from the fatigue caused by flying a number of operations daily under the most arduous of conditions, the crews lived in great discomfort. Their accommodation was either close to the airfields where the noise of the continuous flying operations made rest and sleep difficult, or they lived some distance away, requiring travelling between airfield and base which cut badly into their rest intervals. Furthermore, coal (the major cargo item) and flour produced prodigious quantities of dust which clogged flying controls and permeated the clothes of the air crews.

Berlin children

Conditions in occupied Germany were very severe and many people were reduced to begging. This was especially true of the children, who would follow the servicemen, calling out 'Got any gum, chum?' (probably the first words of English that they learned). A young American pilot, Lieutenant Gail Halvorsen, was sent on a familiarisation flight to Templehof and went on foot around the airfield to learn the approaches. He noticed a group of children who were standing at the fence close to the end of the runway and who were watching the aircraft coming in to land. Strangely, they did not beg when they saw him. Searching his pockets, Halvorsen found a few sticks of gum and a chocolate bar which he divided amongst some of them and promised that, if they were there the next day, he would drop some candy to them when he came in to land. When the children asked how they would know his aircraft, he told them that he would waggle his wings during his approach.

Returning to his base, Lt Halvorsen made several small parachutes out of a large supply of handkerchiefs which he had bought for a heavy cold. To each he attached a chocolate bar. On reaching Berlin the next morning he found the end of the runway crowded with children. His flight engineer dropped the little parachutes out of the flare chute and they were eagerly grabbed by the waiting children. This procedure was repeated every day and soon many Airlift crews joined in what became known as 'Operation Little Vittles'.

Der Schokoladenflieger

Halvorsen received two nicknames - 'Der Schokoladenflieger' (the chocolate pilot) and 'Uncle Wigglywings' - and German children sent him so much fan mail that his commanding officer had to provide him, a junior officer, with a German-speaking secretary to handle the replies. At Christmas Halvorsen received over 4 000 Christmas cards!

When children from the Soviet Sector of Berlin wrote and complained that they were being left out, Halvorsen and his comrades started dropping chocolates over the eastern sector as well, until the Soviet authorities ordered this to cease. The trail of little parachutes eventually became a danger to approaching aircraft and an official 'dropping zone' was established over open ground in the Tiergarten Park.

The Air Police at the US bases began to offer minor offenders the choice of a fine or a contribution of chocolate for 'Operation Little Vittles'. Halvorsen himself was sent back to the USA on a public relations tour. He received thousands of handkerchiefs in the post, some with lace edges, drenched with perfume and with the donors' telephone numbers on them.

In May 1998, the US Air Force sent one of its few surviving C54 Skymaster aircraft to Berlin to take part in the 50th anniversary celebrations. Gail Halvorsen was a member of the crew for this flight.

Reducing weight

Various measures were taken to reduce the mass of the supplies which were being flown into Berlin during the Airlift. Known for their great love of potatoes, which they served up in a large variety of ways, the Berliners did not much like the dehydrated potato powder called 'Pom', with which they were supplied. However, as this cut down some 780 tons daily, the housewives of Berlin made the best of the situation with a saying: 'Better Pom than Frau komm!' As water makes up a quarter of the weight of bread, the ingredients were flown in and the bread was baked inside Berlin, while meat was de-boned to reduce its weight by 25%. In this way, Berlin's food requirements were successfully reduced from 2 000 tons to 1 000 tons a day.


Coal, which was required both for domestic fuel and for the generation of electric power, represented two thirds of the total tonnage of the goods flown into Berlin during the Airlift. Long power cuts occurred daily and housewives rose at midnight to do their washing and ironing when power was available.

Flying Officer Beddoes of the RAF Lubeck landed in Berlin on Christmas Day 1948 with the 50th load into Gatow - 175 bags of coal. To meet him, Berlin's chimneysweeps' guild, der Schornsteinfeger, had gathered on the airfield apron, clad in their traditional garb of frock coat and top hat. They called Beddoes out of his cockpit, daubed his cheeks with soot and made him an honorary member of their guild.

On the same day, the American entertainer Bob Hope, accompanied by the actress Jinx Falkenburg and the composer Irving Berlin, gave a series of special Christmas performances at Templehof for everybody involved in the Airlift.

General Tunner's Easter Parade

In April 1949, General Tunuer decided to make a major show of strength. The meteorologists confirmed that the twenty-four hour period between noon on Easter Saturday 16 April and Easter Sunday 17 April should provide the ideal weather conditions for an all-out effort.

Tunner organised his 'Easter Parade' with special load targets for all bases and, within this twenty-four hour period, despite a bad deterioration in the weather for several hours, the Airlift flew 12 940,9 tons in 1 398 flights into Berlin. This represented three days' worth of supplies and the aircraft flew with one and a half minute gaps between them.

Although the crews had minimum operating safety levels of 200 feet of height and 400 yards forward visibility, they regularly reported that these minimums were visible even when they could not see the runways at all - such was the enthusiasm for the Easter Parade and their determination to show the Soviets for once and for all that they could not starve Berlin into submission. Amongst the cargo flown in on that day were the Band and the white billy-goat mascot of the Royal Welch Fusiliers for a ceremonial parade on Easter Sunday; a supply of frogs' legs for the French Embassy's cocktail party; and 2 000 hot water bottles as a gift for the hospitals.

Radio masts

The Soviet-controlled East Berlin radio station had two 400-foot transmitting towers, located just inside the French Sector. These presented a danger to aircraft approaching the new airfield of Tegel. Frequent requests by the French commander in Berlin to his Soviet counterpart to have these removed were rejected for a variety of reasons. On the night of 16 December 1948, the French commander decided to take matters into his own hands and ordered a small squad of engineers to blow up the offending towers and clear the approach route to Tegel.

At first light the following morning, the agitated voice of the Soviet commander was heard shouting on the telephone to his French counterpart - 'How could you do such a thing?' The French commander replied simply 'Very easy, mon ami, with a few sticks of dynamite!'

The end of the blockade

The Soviets realised that they were neither going to be able to drive the Allies out of Berlin nor stop the Airlift. Tunner's Easter Parade demonstration had coincided with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty which bound twelve countries together in a defence pact. In addition, the Allies had started turning back all trucks passing through the western zones of Germany, which were destined for the East, and so the Soviet zone was being starved of essential raw materials like coal and iron from the Ruhr.

On 12 May 1949, the blockade of Berlin was finally lifted. The Soviets tried to impose farther technical restrictions on movements from the West into Berlin but these were soon brushed aside by the Allies. In order to rebuild the stockpiles in West Berlin, the airlift continued for several months. British civil aircraft were finally withdrawn on 16 August and the RAF on 23 September, a few days after the SAAF crews had returned home.

Boy George Lea

For one young man, the end of the blockade came as an anti-climax. The seventeen-year-old musician, Trombonist George Lea, serving with the Worcestershire Regiment, had become accustomed to taking a short-cut across a few hundred yards of Soviet territory to visit his girlfriend in a nearby village in the British Sector. On 21 August 1948, he was intercepted by a Soviet patrol and interrogated for trespassing. When questioned about his unit, he refused to answer and was locked up in an underground cell for seven days in insanitary conditions with little food and no bedding. Suddenly he was moved to a new room on the ground floor from which he was able to see and hear familiar sights and sounds and he realised that he was only a few hundred yards from his old barracks. George Lea concentrated all of his efforts on finding a means of escape and made numerous attempts at loosening the bars on his windows. However, while he slept, the Soviets repaired the damage without a word to him. During his exercise periods, Lea soon noticed that the keys in the various doors were very simple and there were no tumblers in the locks. Keys were simply filed to the shape of the lock. During an exercise period, he stole a key from an unguarded office and, after weeks of rubbing the key on his stone windowsill, he was able to shape it to fit the bevels of the lock on his door perfectly. At midnight on 11 May 1949, nine months after his capture, using the noise of the airlift aircraft as cover, George Lea broke out of his cell and headed for Gatow, guided by the sight and sounds of the aircraft. He was dressed in an old Russian uniform, his own having long since disintegrated. Unshaven and with long matted hair, he could easily pass for a ragged Russian foot soldier and his appearance, along with a few words of Russian that he had learned, enabled him to pass a sentry whom he met. Upon his arrival at his old barracks, a kilted Highlander on sentry duty told this apparent Russian intruder exactly what to do in no uncertain terms Boy Lea's response of 'Drop dead, Jock' brought his nine month saga to a close just a few hours before the Soviets lifted the blockade.


The statistics of the Airlift are as follows:

Estimated cost: US$ 200 million (For a reasonable present day comparison, this figure should be multiplied by at least 100)
Total number of aircraft used: 692
Total distance flown: 124 420 813 miles (equivalent to thirteen round trips to the moon or 4 000 times around the world)
Total number of flights: 277 804
Total tonnage into Berlin: 2 352 809
Coal: 1 586 530 tons (67%)
Food: 538 016 tons (23%)
Liquid fuel: 92 282 tons (4%)
Casualties: 65 men lost their lives -

A monument representing the Air Bridge stands in the west of Berlin and is inscribed with the names of those who died. In addition, the people of Berlin raised a fund to secure the education and the futures of all the children of those who gave their lives for their city.

The last RAF flight

The last RAF flight from Lübeck landed at Gatow at 19.22 on 23 September 1949. The Dakota, appropriately carrying a load of coal, was inscribed with the following words:
'Positively the last load from Lübeck - 73 705 tons - Psalm 21 verse 11'. (In the King James version of the Bible, this verse reads: 'For they intended evil against thee, they imagined a mischevious device which they were not able to perform' - perhaps a suitable epitaph for the Berlin Airlift).


Collier, R, Bridge across the Sky (Macmillan, London, 1978)
Jackson, R, The Berlin Airlift (Patrick Stephens, Wellingborough, 1988)
Maree, B, 'The Berlin Airlift' in South African Panorama, December 1988, pp 14-18.
Morris, E, Blockade, Berlin & the Cold War (Military Book Society, London, 1973)
Personal reminiscences of Maj Gen Duncan Ralston; Col Peter MacGregor; and Capt Anthony Speir.

Return to Journal Index OR Society's Home page

South African Military History Society /