Berlin Airlift

By Kevin Baker

Thousands of tiny parachutes bloomed in the Berlin night sky in December, 1948. They did not herald an invasion, or another one of the incendiary bombing raids that had ravaged the city during World War II. They were, instead, part of “Operation Santa Claus.” Each little chute held a doll or a toy or a piece of candy, floating down to Berlin children waiting eagerly below on hills of rubble.

Operation Santa Claus was the brainchild of one Lt. Carl S. Halverson, U.S. Air Force. Halverson was one of fliers keeping the city alive during the Berlin Airlift, and on his constant flights in and out of Tempelhof airfield he had begun parachuting down little bags of candy. Like all the later toys and treats dropped by his companions, they were paid for completely out of his own pocket.

The charming story was a sideshow to a larger drama of international generosity-and determination. Outthought and outmaneuvered by America’s strategic planners throughout the past year, Stalin had decided to cut Western access to Berlin on June 24, 1948. In the preceding months, the United States, Britain, France had launched the Marshall Plan in Western Europe, condemned his coup in Czechoslovakia, and rejected his plan for a Germany reunified on Soviet terms. Western Europe-including a West Germany with a new constitution and a new currency-was being reinvigorated as a bulwark against Soviet expanisonism, while the U.S.S.R. controlled only the devastated East.

Stalin decided that attention had to be paid. Soviet troops stopped all rail and auto traffic on the slender corridor from West Berlin to West Germany proper. The U.S. and its allies would have to either give up their foothold in Prussia, or beg the Soviets for new negotiations.

General Lucius Clay, military governor of West Germany, wanted to challenge the blockade with a military convoy, certain that the Russians were bluffing. President Harry Truman decided that the Allies would neither challenge it, nor negotiate, nor surrender. Instead, he ordered an airlift. West Berlin would be supplied by the air, through Tempelhof and the British sector’s Gatow fields. It would be up to the Soviets to escalate things further by cutting off air traffic.

Instead, the Soviets mostly sneered. West Berlin at the time contained 2.5 million people-more than in any American city but New York and Chicago. Even with all industry shut down and no heat, supplying West Berlin with enough materiel to keep its people fed and its lights on would require 4,000 tons a day. That meant the takeoff or landing of a C-47 cargo plane every three-minutes-and-thirty-six seconds, 24 hours a day. That also meant planes dangerously overloaded, at ten tons a flight; pilots dangerously overburdened with fatigue.

Through July of 1948, the airlift seemed to be a failure. It was averaging only 1,147 tons a day. Nonetheless, the Allies persisted. British, Canadian, and French fliers joined the effort. American pilots practiced the narrow run along Berlin’s air corridor along a mocked-up route in Montana. There they practiced blindfolded, flying four-engine transports by radar, in all kinds of weather conditions.

The lack of sleep, and the constant traffic, took its toll. Some 55 Allied pilots died, including 28 Americans. Crews washing fuselages free of coal dust developed skin diseases usually limited to miners.

Yet the lift began to work. The U.S. brought in bigger, C-54 planes before the summer was out, 224 of them in all. The Berliners themselves helped, 20,000 of them, men and women, volunteering for some measure of redemption by laying down a third airfield in the French zone. When the Soviets refused to remove a blocking radio tower, a French demolition team simply blew it up.

The cargo total soared, to 4,500 tons a day by December, 1948; 5,500 by February, 1949. By early spring the figures were up to 8,050 tons a day, and the record for a single 24-hour span reached 13,000 tons. Far from being beaten, Berlin was rapidly becoming one of the most prosperous cities in a Europe still recovering from the war.

On May 12, 1949, the Soviets acknowledged the futility of the blockade by ending it. By that time the Allies had made 277,264 flights into the besieged city, carrying 2,343,315 tons of supplies—or almost one ton for every man, woman, and child in Berlin.

American Greats Edited by Robert A. Wilson & Stanley Marcus
Public Affairs Press, a member of the Perseus Group