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The Berlin Airlift

26th June, 1948- 12th May, 1949

Amid all the political uncertainty of the first few years after WWII, tension began to grow between the three western allies (USA, UK & France) and the Soviet Union. With the communists beginning to notice the stark contrast between the two ways of life in Berlin, it became evident that some sort of control over their sector would have to be asserted. The Soviets started to increase their grip on movement (especially military) around the city to the stage where the poor Americans were experiencing increasing difficulties in spreading propoganda and carrying out their intelligence manouevres. The Soviets intimated several times that the whole of Berlin should be under their control and several vain attempts were made in that direction. With pride and democracy at stake, the USA knew that any withdrawal from Berlin would be read as a sign of their weakness on their part and one which would end up in rather an embarrassing press conference.

On June 15th, 1948 the Soviets made their move in an attempt to force the hand of the Western Allies. The Autobahn entering Berlin from West Berlin was declared "closed for repairs". Three days later, all road traffic was stopped crossing the sector boundaries and by the 21st, no barge traffic was allowed to enter the city. "Technical difficulties" were blamed in an announcement on June 24th that no more rail traffic from West Germany would reach Berlin. It was confirmed the next day that no supplies would be crossing from the Russian sector into the Western ones. Their motives were thinly veiled behind the argument of sole East german currency use in Berlin.

The Western Allies, and especially the Americans, knew that it was make or break. The Allies didn't have the military strength to stand up to the East but the Soviets knew that, if things went too far, America always had the option of the Bomb.

Three possible options lay before them: an airlift of supplies into West Berlin, an armed convoy of supplies on truck driven through Soviet controlled Germany into Berlin, or complete western withdrawal from Berlin - the latter being the outcome the communists were looking for. According to an agreement drawn up by the four powers shortly after the war, three permitted air corridors were still in place between the west and Berlin: Frankfurt/Main-Berlin, Hannover/Bueckeburg-Berlin, and Hamburg-Berlin, each 20 miles wide.

It was decided, after a relatively short period of pondering, not to give in to Soviet pressures and so a temporary airlift was put into action on 26th June, 1948. With the British actually starting their effort the previous day and the French doing their appathetic best (their transport planes were, to be fair, quite tied up in Indo-China), the scheme was only intended to be a short term measure and officials didn't believe the action could support the whole of Berlin for any length of time. Supplies were flown into the American sector to Templehof Airport, Gatow (in the British sector) and later into the newly built airstrip at Tegel in the French sector. The British even landed sea planes on the Havel River.

As the weeks went by it became apparent that no resolution was in sight. The Airlift fleets grew and grew until April 1949, when 7845 tons were being flown in every day. At this level of performance the blockade did not affect the city's ability to survive but the Allies knew that if the airlift became a permanent arrangement and no satisfactory solution to the situation was reached, they would lose some face. It was, therefore, decided to attempt to bring the affair to an end.

With the plans for NATO and a new West German government near completion, the Soviets realised that they needed a opportunity to discuss the future of Germany, its currency and other matters. After some deliberation, they agreed to end the blockade in return for a meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers, perhaps believing that they could have some influence on the western allies' proposed plans for the future.

On 12th May, 1949 the Berlin Blockade was finally lifted. This, however, did not mark the end of the airlift which continued on at the same rate into October so as to safeguard against any Soviet turnaround. The last American plane flew to Berlin (with accompanying overhead formation) on 30th September, 1949 with the British not removing their flying goggles until the 6th October.

And so ended one of the most significant periods in world and aviation history. A great victory was won and pride could be restored to the free world.

For more information see:'s Berlin Airlift Resource site.

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