It was the Cuban missile crisis of its day. The building of the Berlin Wall may be more famous, but few Berlin events brought about as much world tension as the Berlin Blockade of 1948-1949. The Allied reponse to that Russian attempt to take over all of Berlin was one of the key events of the Cold War.
The Soviet Union’s occupation zone included the eastern section of Berlin as well as the East German territory surrounding the city. West Berlin, occupied by Britain, France and the United States, was a land island completely surrounded by what was known in German as die Ostzone (the East Zone).
In 1948 there had been ongoing tensions over Allied moves to create a single economic zone out of the British, French and American zones. Following the introduction of the new Deutsche Mark currency for the western zones in June, Josef Stalin thought he could squeeze the Allies out of Berlin completely by declaring the governing four-power Kommandantur invalid and blocking all land and water routes between West Germany and West Berlin. On June 24, 1948 the Russians officially blockaded all rail, road and waterway traffic into Berlin. It was Stalin’s intention to strangle the city into submission.
Also see the Berlin Blockade Timeline below.
What Stalin had failed to anticipate was US President Harry Truman’s stubborn “the-buck-stops-here” determination to thwart any communist takeover. Nor were the West Berliners prepared to give in to the Russians. Two days after Stalin’s blockade began, Allied aircraft began flying supplies into the city. On June 26, 1948 the Berlin Airlift – die Luftbrücke (air bridge) in German – began operation. Everything the Berliners needed to survive — from groceries to gasoline – would come to them only by air until the end of September 1949. The airlift lasted over 15 months and cost more than $224 million.
The Airlift Memorial
Near Tempelhof Airport there is a large concrete memorial in the shape of an arched fork reaching into the sky. Its three “prongs” represent the three air corridors used by Allied planes. (See photo above.) A counterpart memorial stands at the former Rhein-Main Air Base in Frankfurt (closed in 2005, now part of Frankfurt International Airport). Below is a photo showing some of the names of the pilots who died in crashes during the effort to keep Berlin supplied by air.
Tempelhof Airport’s Key Role
Tempelhof closed down as a working airport in October 2008, but during the many months of the Berlin Airlift the airport was ground zero. An American or British plane landed there every few minutes (and later also at another airfield that had been built just for the airlift, today’s Tegel, Berlin’s main airport). There were no giant Galaxy transports in those days. Most of the supply flights were made by tiny C-47s (DC-3s). The “big” planes were four-prop C-54s (DC-4s). But over two million tons of goods were flown into Berlin in a huge logistical operation under the command of the American General Lucius D. Clay. A veteran C-54 aircraft stands at the edge of Tempelhof Airport today as a silent witness to the events of 1948-49. This classic four-engine “Rosinenbomber” (“Raisin Bomber” or “Candy Bomber”) is its own small memorial to the Airlift. See more below about Gail Halverson and how he began parachuting candy to Berlin children during the Airlift.
Tempelhof Airport Today
Today there is a struggle going on over the fate of the historic Tempelhof airport grounds and the terminal (the third largest building in the world), designed by the Nazi architect Ernst Sagebiel and built from 1934 to 1936. With the planned opening of Berlin’s new Berlin Brandenburg (BER) airport in 2014, the German capital will have a world-class airport worthy of a major European city. It will also close Tegel, but the city was being crushed by the millions of euros it took to keep Tempelhof operating as an inner-city commuter airport. Long before it closed, the terminal looked abandoned — with few flights and its huge passenger hall virtually deserted. The airport’s former runways are now part of a large park, Berlin’s largest. But now there is an ongoing debate about constructing buildings around the airfield’s perimeter.
Back in 1999 Tempelhof was made part of the architectural project “Europa der Lüfte, drei Flughäfen der 30er Jahre”—which commemorated three European airfields of the 1930s: Berlin’s Tempelhof, Paris’ Le Bourget and Liverpool’s Speke. More recently, the Tempelhof terminal has also been proposed for listing as a UNESCO World Heritage Site (see link below), but its future status is very much up in the air. Berliners have been debating Tempelhof’s fate for over a decade without any agreement. The building is under landmark protection, but how it and its extensive grounds may be used in coming years is the big question. – Guided tours of the Tempelhof building complex are available by prior arrangement for a modest charge.
Next | Berlin Wall Timeline
BERLIN BLOCKADE TIMELINE (1945-1949)
- 30 November 1945 | The US, the Soviets and the other Western Allies sign an agreement that calls for three 20-mile-wide air corridors providing free access to Berlin. Unfortunately, they see no need for a similar agreement for land or water access.
- 5 June 1947 | US Secretary of State (and former General) George Marshall announces a comprehensive program of American assistance to all European countries wanting to participate, including the Soviet Union and those of Eastern Europe. Named the European Recovery Program, it soon becomes better known as the Marshall Plan.
- June-July 1947 | Stalin and Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov feel the US plan will undermine their efforts to bring the Eastern bloc under Soviet control. Molotov calls the US plan “dollar imperialism.”
- January 1948 | In response to the announcement of the first London 6-Power Conference to discuss the future of Germany, the Soviets begin stopping British and American trains to Berlin to check passenger identities.
- 21-25 February 1948 | A Soviet-backed coup installs a communist government in Czechoslovakia, making Stalin’s Eastern bloc intentions clear, and removing any lingering US doubts about the Marshall Plan.
- 20 March 1948 | The Allied Control Council meets for the last time when Vasily Sokolovsky demands to know the outcome of the London Conference. On being told by negotiators that they had not yet heard the final results from their governments, he adjourns the meeting and walks out with the entire Soviet delegation.
- 25 March 1948 | The Soviets issue orders restricting Western military and passenger traffic between the American, British and French occupation zones and Berlin.
- 1 April 1948 | The Soviets announce that no cargo can leave Berlin by rail without the permission of the Soviet commander. Each train and truck is to be searched by the Soviet authorities. The next day the American commander, General Lucius D. Clay orders a halt to all military trains and requires that military supplies be transported by air. This was later dubbed the “Little Lift.”
- 5 April 1948 | A Soviet Air Force fighter collides with a British European Airways Vickers Viking 1B airliner near the RAF Gatow airfield in the British sector, killing all aboard both aircraft. Soviet military aircraft have been “buzzing” and harassing Allied flights in and out of West Berlin.
- 9 April 1948 | Soviet officials demand the withdrawal of US military personnel maintaining communication equipment in the Eastern zone, including the navigation beacons to mark air routes.
- 10 April 1948 | The Soviets ease their restrictions on Allied military trains, but continue periodic interruptions of rail and road traffic over the next 75 days, while the US continues to supply its military forces by air.
- 20 April 1948 | The Soviets demand that all barges obtain clearance before entering the Soviet zone.
- 18 June 1948 | The United States, Britain and France announce that on 21 June a new German currency (the Deutsche Mark) will be introduced. The Allies have already transported 250 million Deutsche marks into the city and it quickly becomes the standard currency in all four sectors of Berlin.
- 21 June 1948 | Stalin considers the new currency a provocation. Soviet guards halt all passenger trains and traffic on the autobahn to Berlin, delay Western and German freight shipments and require that all water transport secure special Soviet permission
- 22 June 1948 | The Soviets announce that they will introduce a new currency in their zone. It will be known as the Ostmark (“east mark”).
- 24 June 1948 | The Soviets block all rail, road, and water access from the Western zones to Berlin. The next day, the Soviets declare they will not send any supplies to West Berlin, which has only enough food for 36 days and coal for 45 days. They also cut off electricity to West Berlin from the eastern zone. In response, the Western Allies impose a counter-blockade on Soviet areas.
Gail Halverson, the “Candy Bomber”
Born in Salt Lake City on October 10, 1920, Gail Halverson is a retired command pilot in the United States Air Force. As a pilot during the Berlin Airlift, Halverson and his crew dropped candy attached to parachutes to children below. Because he wiggled the wings of his aircraft to identify himself, the children gave him the nickname “Onkel Wackelflügel” (“Uncle Wiggly Wings”). His efforts drew much attention on both sides of the Atlantic, and he became a hero in Berlin and Germany. In 1974 he was awarded the Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz, one of Germany’s highest medals. During the Feb. 8 opening ceremonies at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Halvorsen carried the German team’s national placard into the stadium. Now in his nineties, Halverson still returns to Germany periodically for various Airlift commemorations. (See photo below.)
- 26 June 1948 | The Berlin Airlift begins with 32 flights by American C-47 aircraft in West Germany to Tempelhof Airport in Berlin. Eighty tons of provisions are delivered that first day. The American effort to supply West Berlin’s 2.5 million people is dubbed “Operation Vittles,” while the British project becomes known as “Operation Plainfare.” The Germans call it die Luftbrücke, the “Air Bridge.”
- 7 July 1948 | The first air cargo coal shipment arrives at Gatow airport in the British sector. Gatow and Tempelhof are the only two airports in West Berlin.
- 9 July 1948 | The first fatal crash of the Airlift claims three lives in West Germany. By the end of the operation, a total of 101 men, including 40 Britons and 31 Americans, would die, mostly due to crashes. Seventeen American and eight British aircraft crash during the operation.
- 28 July 1948 | Major General William H. (“Tonnage”) Tunner, the former deputy commander of operations for the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), arrives in Wiesbaden to take over the airlift operation. Tunner declares that he wants the airlift to operate in “rhythm, on a beat as constant as a jungle drum.”
- 12 July 1948 | Construction begins on a new runway at Tempelhof. The old runway is suffering from the increased Airlift traffic.
- 17 July 1948 | Construction is completed on a concrete runway at Gatow.
- 5 August 1948 | The French begin constructing a new Berlin airport, Tegel, in the French sector. The heavy equipment needed for its construction is dismantled and flown into the city in sections.
- 12 August 1948 | American and British aircraft conduct 707 flights into Berlin and deliver 4,742 tons of supplies, the first time the Airlift has exceeded the 4,500-ton daily threshold deemed necessary to keep Berlin alive. By September US planes are delivering nearly 7,000 tons of supplies a day to Berlin.
- 13 August 1948 | On what comes to be known as “Black Friday,” the Airlift’s 50th day, a series of non-fatal crashes at Tempelhof, while Major General Tunner is flying overhead in cloudy skies, lead the airlift commander to alter flight patterns and request civilian air traffic controllers from the US.
- 26 August 1948 | US planes have now delivered 100,000 tons of supplies.
- 31 August 1948 | Talks in Berlin among the four military governors fail to resolve the situation.
- 9 September 1948 | At the Brandenburg Gate near a Reichstag building still in ruins, 500,000 Berliners protest an earlier attack on the Berlin city hall in the eastern sector by a communist SED-party mob. Addressing the Western Allies, Berlin Mayor Ernst Reuter pleads, “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!”
- 30 September 1948 | American C-47s are phased out of the Airlift, replaced by higher capacity C-54s.
- 14 October 1948 | The British and American airlifts are combined under a single operational headquarters, with Tunner in charge.
- 26 October 1948 | The Soviet Union rejects the UN Security Council resolution to end the blockade.
- 5 November 1948 | The new Tegel airfield opens for business in the French sector. Today Tegel is still Berlin’s main passenger airport, following delays in opening the new Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport (BER).
- 30 November 1948 | The Soviets set up their own Berlin city government in the East.
- 5 December 1948 | Ernst Reuter is again elected mayor of West Berlin.
- 16 December 1948 | After the Soviets fail to respond to pleas to remove them, French engineers use dynamite to remove Soviet radio transmission towers that block Tegel’s flight path – much to the pleasure of West Berliners.
- 24 December 1948 | Bob Hope does a Christmas tour of airlift bases, performing for American soldiers in Berlin.
- 31 March 1949 | A new monthly record of nearly 200,000 tons is set.
- 25 April 1949 | The Russian news agency TASS reports a willingness by the Soviets to lift the blockade.
- 4 May 1948 | Delegates from the original four Allied powers announce an agreement to end the blockade in eight days.
- 12 May 1949 | At one minute after midnight, the Soviets restore land access from West Germany to Berlin. A British convoy immediately drives through, and the first train from the West reaches Berlin at 5:32 that morning.
- 23 May 1949 | The Federal Republic of Germany is established in the country’s Western zones.
- 30 September 1949 | The final flight of the Airlift arrives in West Berlin.
- 7 October 1949 | The Soviets respond to the creation of the Federal Republic of Germany by announcing their own German Democratic Republic in the East.
Next | Berlin Wall Timeline
AIRLIFT BOOK AND DVD
- BOOK: The Berlin Candy Bomber by Gail Halverson.
Halverson’s own account of his Berlin Airlift experiences.
- DVD: The Big Lift (1950) Directed by George Seaton.
Starring: Montgomery Clift, Paul Douglas. An interesting film shot on location in Germany shortly after the Berlin Airlift.
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Berlin City Guide – What to see in the German capital
- Auf Wiedersehen, Tempelhof! – Tempelhof shut down its airport operations in 2008. Today it’s a protected landmark and the grounds are a park. (GW Expat Blog)
- Berlin Wall Timeline (1945-1989)
- Berlin Photo Gallery – Historic and more recent Berlin Wall and other photos by the author of the German Way.
- East Side Gallery – An artistic section of the Berlin Wall that’s still standing – with photos.
- Living in Germany offers important information and advice for those now living in, or planning to live in the German-speaking world.
ON THE WEB
- Alliierten Museum – The Allied Museum in Berlin. Appropriately, this useful, interesting Web site is available in English, French or German.
- The Berlin Candy Bomber and the Berlin Airlift from wigglywings.weebly.com
- Berlin Airlift – Background – From the Truman Electronic Whistle Stop. Maps help clarify the story.
- Berlin Airlift Veterans Association
- The Berlin Airlift Historical Foundation
“A Mission of History and Education”
- Berlin Airports Online – The website for Berlin’s three airports: Tegel, Schönefeld – and soon BER.
- Europa der Lüfte “Drei Flughäfen der 30er Jahre.” This 1999 architectural project commemorated three European airfields of the 1930s: Berlin’s Tempelhof, Paris’ Le Bourget and Liverpool’s Speke. What do these historic airfields mean for the future? (Sadly, this site is no longer online.)
- Rescue Tempelhof – Interesting Web site about the attempt to protect the airport terminal by adding Tempelhof to UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. In English and German.
- Airlift Memorial Replica in Ohio (germany.info)
- USAFE: Wiesbaden Celebrates Berlin Airlift Anniversary – 2008 article from the U.S. Air Forces in Europe site.
- Story of Berlin – A museum and Web site devoted to Berlin’s 800-year history. “Eine Zeitreise durch Berlin…” and great graphics! In German.
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Next | Berlin Wall Timeline