When Germany surrendered in 1945, the victorious Allies divided the country into four occupation zones according to the terms of the Potsdam Agreement. The Soviet Union occupied the eastern portion of Germany and the eastern sector of Berlin, while Britain, France, and the United States took control of the western zones of Germany and the rest of Berlin. The non-Soviet sectors of Berlin lay 110 miles within the Soviet zone, connected to the Anglo-American-French zones of occupied Germany by highway, railroad, and three air corridors.
On June 18, 1948, the United States, Britain, and France announced plans to create a unified West German currency. Objecting to the unified West German state implied by the currency as well as the circulation of the currency in western Berlin, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin cut land routes between western Germany and Berlin on June 24. The blockade separated two million west Berliners from their normal sources of supply.
The Western powers had four options: they could abandon Berlin, cancel the currency reform, force an armored column through the Soviet zone and risk war, or airlift supplies to Berlin until the crisis could be solved diplomatically. They chose the last option. Both the U.S. Air Force and the Royal Air Force (RAF) participated, with the Americans calling the operation “Vittles” and the British calling it “Plain Fare.” Rarely in history had airlift alone saved a large encircled population. Western economic experts estimated that western Berlin would need at least 4,500 tons of coal and food per day to survive the Soviet blockade. Gen. Lucius D. Clay, the military governor of the U.S. zone of Germany, asked the commander of the United States Air Forces in Europe (USAFE), Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, to prepare an airlift. LeMay appointed Brig. Gen. Joseph Smith at Wiesbaden to command a temporary airlift task force.
The airlift began on June 26, 1948. At first, Smith used USAFE C–47s from the 60th and 61st Troop Carrier Groups at Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden to transport food and fuel to Tempelhof Airport in western Berlin. He developed flight patterns to avoid collisions and facilitate loading and unloading at regular intervals and initiated one-way operations through the three air corridors. Since the small C–47s could not deliver enough tonnage to sustain the city for a long period of time, Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg, transferred C–54s from other commands to USAFE for Operation Vittles. He also directed deployment of 90 B–29 bombers to the United Kingdom to signal Allied resolve to sustain the airlift as tensions with the Soviet Union grew.
In late July, a month after the Berlin Airlift began, Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS), a veteran of the World War II “Hump” airlift from India to China, replaced Smith as task force commander. Working with USAFE’s Lt. Gen. John K. Cannon, who replaced LeMay, Tunner increased the daily tonnage to Berlin until it exceeded the 4,500-ton minimum daily requirement. A master of efficiency, Tunner managed the airlift as if the three air corridors were conveyor belts constantly moving to and from Berlin. The northern and southern corridors carried planes from Rhein-Main, Wiesbaden, Fassberg, and Celle in the western zones of Germany to Tempelhof, Gatow, and Tegel Airports in western Berlin, while the middle air corridor carried planes from Berlin back to western Germany. Tunner’s organization evolved into a combined airlift task force which coordinated aircraft from several commands, the U.S. Navy, and the Royal Air Force.
The Berlin airlifters faced several obstacles, natural and artificial, during the massive operation. Storms and fog frequently threatened the flights. Abundant clouds and strict course, altitude, and scheduling prescriptions required pilots to use instruments constantly. Planes failing to land in Berlin as planned had to return to their base of origin to avoid pileups. The Soviet Union harassed the flights with fighter aircraft, anti-aircraft artillery, and searchlights. Between August 1948 and August 1949, there were more than 700 such incidents, but none serious enough to interrupt the airlift. The Soviets did not jam radio communications, which might have seriously threatened the flights.
Operation Vittles exceeded expectations. On April 16, 1949, U.S. and British aircraft delivered a record 12,941 tons of coal and food to Berlin. First Lieutenant Gail S. Halvorsen supplemented the regular airlift by dropping candy attached to handkerchief parachutes to the children of Berlin, a practice which was dubbed “Operation Little Vittles.” Such success stories reinforced Western support for the airlift and eventually reached beyond the Iron Curtain.
Finally convinced that the Berlin blockade was not achieving its goals, the Soviets reopened land routes between western Germany and Berlin on May 12, 1949. The Allies continued the Berlin Airlift through September to stockpile fuel, food, and medicine in Berlin in case Stalin changed his mind. Operation Vittles transported more than 2.3 million tons of supplies and 227,655 passengers. U.S. aircraft carried more than 1.7 million tons and 62,749 passengers. Contributing 108 C–47s, 225 C–54s, five C–82s, one C–74, and one YC–97, the U.S. Air Force provided most of the aircraft for Operation Vittles. Air Force flights during the 15- month operation totaled 189,963, with only 126 accidents, 70 of them major. The USAF lost 28 airmen in the operation.
The Berlin Airlift, the largest humanitarian airlift operation in history, was militarily and diplomatically significant. Operation Vittles proved above all that airlift could sustain a large population surrounded by hostile forces. The non-Soviet sectors of Berlin escaped absorption by the communist zone, while the western zones of Germany continued moving toward unified democratic statehood. Demonstrating the commitment of the United States to contain Soviet expansion, the Berlin Airlift saved the city without war. It exemplified the ability of the western Allies to work together against a common enemy, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was born during the airlift.
For the Air Force, Operation Vittles provided abundant lessons about airlift. In addition to yielding a wealth of information about scheduling, loading, air traffic control, and flight patterns, it exposed the need for larger transport aircraft, stimulating development of a new generation of cargo aircraft, including the C–124.