On June 28, 1948 the first American and British aircraft landed at Tempelhof and Gatow airfields with goods for the people of Berlin. Many other flights followed, but nobody could predict how long the blockade would last. For that reason, the Western powers initially planned to supply the city into the winter. The aim in the first weeks of the Airlift was to fly 4,500 tons of goods into the city every day. This was raised to 5,000 tons a day in the autumn of 1948. Coal to meet the city’s energy needs made up a large proportion of this tonnage.
In October U.S. General William H. Tunner was appointed to head the Combined Airlift Taskforce (CALTF), which had its headquarters in Wiesbaden. He perfected the Airlift. The American military governor of Germany, General Lucius D. Clay, ensured the necessary political support of U.S. President Harry S. Truman. Clay continually requested more and larger aircraft to use in the Airlift, and Truman approved them.
In the first months of the Airlift, the French occupying power participated with six airplanes. The urgently needed third airport in Tegel in the French sector was completed in November 1948. Some 19,000 workers built it in record time, taking just three months. The British mobilized their Royal Air Force and contracted with an additional 25 charter companies to fly mainly oil and gasoline into the city. Aside from their circa 23 percent share of the total Airlift tonnage for freight, the British were also responsible for the lion’s share of passenger transport during the blockade. With their C-54-transport planes, the U.S. forces provided the largest air fleet for “Operation Vittles,” as the Americans called the mission. In spring 1949 the operation to supply Berlin was working so well that on some days more goods were flown into the city than had arrived before the blockade by road, water, and rail.
The Western powers used the media very effectively to publicize this outstanding efficiency. The continuing positive reporting on Allied tonnage and the growing reputation of the Western powers were certainly part of the reason for the lifting of the Soviet blockade on May 12, 1949. Despite the end of the blockade, the Airlift continued for another four months into late summer 1949. The historical events known as the “Berlin Blockade” and the “Berlin Airlift” are thus chronologically not wholly identical.
The lifting of the blockade and the end of the Airlift solved the first crisis of the Cold War by logistical means – without military force. This does not, however, mean that there were no casualties of the Airlift. At least 78 people died in airplane accidents. Their names are engraved on the base of the Airlift Memorial in the Berlin district of Tempelhof.
Occupiers become protectors
The Berlin Airlift palpably changed the relationship between the Western powers and West Berlin. Just a few years after World War II, the one-time enemies had mastered a severe political crisis by intensive cooperation. The population of Berlin now experienced the occupying powers as protecting powers.