Monday, June 22, 2015

Britain's Critical Contribution to the Berlin Airlift

by Helena P. Schrader



On June 24, 1948 the Soviet Union abruptly closed all land and water access to the Western Sectors of Berlin. Over two million civilians, dependent on the surrounding territory and the West for food, fuel, and other basic goods, were suddenly cut off from all the necessities of life.

The Western Allies had the option of either withdrawing their garrisons and allowing the Soviet Union to take control of the entire city, or of trying to supply the city by air. Never in history had two million people been supplied exclusively by air before. Furthermore, the survival of the Western Sectors of Berlin depended not just on food supplies but above all coal to fuel the power plants that kept the water and sewage systems, the public transport network and the factories running. None of the senior military commanders of the time believed it could be done.

But the political leadership in London and Washington insisted that it must be done. A withdrawal from Berlin would discredit the West at a crucial moment in history, when the Soviet Union was expanding aggressively into Europe. Worse, it would endanger the political stability and economic recovery of Europe.


So the largest and most ambitious airlift in history was set in motion. It began without the West really knowing how much the Berliners needed in order to survive — much less how much those supplies weighed. It was launched despite an almost complete absence of aircraft and aircrews in Germany, and despite serious inadequacies in airfields and air traffic control. It was launched without airlift expertise in theater or a unified command structure. But once it took wing, it flew and turned into something that not even its originators and advocators had ever imagined or expected.

And all too often today it is remembered as an American victory. Without doubt without American resources the Berlin Airlift could never have succeeded. The U.S. Air Force carried 76.7% of all cargoes flown into Berlin by weight, and 69.4% of all flights. The United States literally threw everything it had into the airlift, stripping all other theaters of transport airport, calling up all reservists with four-engine experience (both in the air and on the ground) and air traffic controllers. The costs were literally incalculable — just trying to figure out what needed to be included was almost impossible without the lost opportunity costs of investing so many resources in a single endeavor. But not only was the RAF very much carrying it’s weight — it was only about one fifth the size of the USAF at this time —  the entire airlift might never have happened had it not been for the RAF and Foreign Secretary Bevin.

When the Blockade of Berlin started, the Western Allies appeared to have just two options: retreat, i.e. give up their rights to Berlin and withdraw their garrisons, or fight back by challenging the Soviet blockade with a show of force. The political leadership in both countries refused to even consider backing down. The problem with that was that while President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee might not be willing to consider withdrawal from Berlin, that didn’t keep over two million German civilians from starving to death. So the question was: how to supply the city.

The American Military Governor, General Lucius D. Clay strongly advocated sending a heavily armed convoy up the autobahn to Berlin and started pulling together five to six thousand troops to escort that convoy — including armor and artillery. Clay was not a hothead and did not think he would actually have to fight his way across East Germany, thereby igniting World War III. He supported the plan of an armed convoy because he thought the Russians — when confronted with Western resolve — would back down. The British, however, rejected the plan because they believed Clay’s convoy could be stopped without the resort to war. They thought all the Soviets would need to do was blow up a few bridges or erect manned barricades that forced the Allies to shoot first. Furthermore, the State Department agreed with the British arguing that “the Soviets would just sit up on a hillside and laugh.” Rather than challenging the Soviets in Berlin, the State Department talked about blockading Vladivostok or closing the Panama Canal to Soviet ships.

Air Commodore Waite

It was now that the RAF came up with a solution. One participant put it like this:

We were under duress. Berlin could not wait 6 months for a plan, no one had anything else to suggest apart from Clay’s armored column, and RAF top brass flew the first lot of UK-based transport aircraft to Germany … on a philosophy variously described as ‘the British genius for improvisation’ or ‘Limey muddling through,’ according to one’s level of politeness.

(Bob Needham, “Resisting Aggression without War: Berlin 1948 – 1949,” The Friends Quarterly, April 2001, p. 276.)

But this was seen as a “stop-gap” measure. No one believed West Berlin could be sustained by an airlift indefinitely — except RAF Air Commodore Waite. This unsung hero of the Berlin Airlift sat down in his office and started working out some rough calculations of cargo requirements and priorities, aircraft load-factors and the like. He came up with a detailed proposal, and the next day he asked for just ten minutes with the British Military Governor, General Sir Brian Robertson. Robertson liked the idea enough to share it with U.S. General Clay. According to some accounts Clay was enthusiastic. Washington was not.

Both the Pentagon and the State Department opposed the idea of an airlift — and a war over Berlin. They wanted to start an orderly withdrawal. Since this would have to be conducted in coordination with the Allies (and the French had suggested it from the start), this meant convincing the British to pull-out. General Wedemeyer, Director of Plans and Operations at the Pentagon, was sent to London by General Bradley, the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, to discuss plans for evacuating the Western garrisons from Berlin “gracefully.”

Foreign Minister Bevin in Berlin

Wedemeyer, however, met first with British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin and carefully outlined in great detail all the difficulties associated with supplying Berlin from the air. His words did not have the desired effect. Bevin listened politely and then responded: “General, I am very disappointed. I never expected to hear the Head of the American Air Force explain that the American Air Force couldn’t do what the Royal Air Force is already doing.” According to Bevin’s private secretary, Sir Frank Roberts, Wedemeyer came out of the meeting “like a Labrador, you know, coming out of a pond” and said: “I suppose that means we’ve got to do it.” And so they did.


The USAF had specialized in transporting coal — absolutely essential for the survival of Berlin because it powered everything from the transportation network to the sewage and water systems — but it didn’t have the flexibility of the RAF to handle children, salt, light blubs and newspaper reels. While the USAF rapidly converted to a homogenous fleet of C-54s (civilian designation: DC-4s) and standardized everything from parts and maintenance to flying speeds and heights, the RAF flew a wide variety of aircraft including the great flying boats, the Sunderlands. As a result, in the end, although the RAF was much smaller than the USAF, it carried a disproportionately high percentage of outbound cargoes — vital to the economy of blockaded Berlin — and specialty cargoes like liquid fuel and salt. The RAF also transported 80% of the passengers in and out of Berlin, and 45% of the food flown to the city. 


In retrospect, however, I think the greatest British contribution was to morale. It was the British who pulled together an Airlift fleet in a matter of just days and weeks, while the USAF scrambled to pull its resources from around the world. In the first full month of the Airlift, the RAF accounted for 42% of the cargoes — or more than twice its proportional size. In August, RAF and British civilians together accounted for 38% of the tonnage flown into Berlin. It was not until September that the British portion of the lift fell to roughly its “natural” proportion of 21 per cent as the C-54 started to replace the USAF’s twin-engined C-47 (DC-3s). Nor should the significance of the return cargoes be underestimated. The contribution to West Berlin’s morale by keeping the factories open, keeping people employed and selling goods abroad labelled “made in blockaded Berlin” is incalculable. It was absolutely critical to maintaining Berlin’s pride and its determination to keep up the fight against oppression.

Helena Schrader has published The Blockade Breakers: The Berlin Airlift. Amazon





1 comment:

  1. A marvelous post. I have a great interest in this topic but i had no idea how the Brits spearheaded the great endeavor to save Berlin.

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