Welcome to DECODED, a blog site for those interested in the period of history between the end of the Second World War and the final reunification of Berlin, Germany. This site is maintained by a Cold War history enthusiast, for other Cold War history enthusiasts and will be a source of information from both sides of the Cold War for history enthusiasts, political science fans, researchers, military history collectors and military veterans alike. Please visit the site regularly for updates. This site by no means is to represent or endorse any political agenda or ideology, information contained within is strictly used for the purpose of education and preservation of history for future generations. Thank you for visiting my blog, and welcome to the brink...

Monday, August 12, 2013

Penetrating the Blockade: How Operation Vittles sustained an encircled City

The year was 1945, Berlin much like the rest of Germany lay in a state of ruin. Her streets and buildings were pockmarked with the graffiti of war. Shell craters, smashed windows and twisted figures of stone, mortar and steel littered the streets stretching towards the sky like some grotesque carcass reaching to achieve a final grasp. Adolf Hitler, the leader of the defeated nation was dead, committing suicide to escape the western Allies held bent on bringing him and his legion of cronies to justice for the crimes they had committed over the span of some twelve years. The nation was in a state of dispair facing an uncertain future as foreign forces occupied the wartorn land. As per the Yalta and Potsdam Conferences earlier in the year, Germany was carved up into zones of occupation administered by military forces of the wartime Allies. These sectors encompasses areas associated to the current positions of the Allied armies at the time and in a minature reflection of this, Berlin would reflect the division of the nation. Berlin, a once great city  had suffered catastrophic damage. Once boasting a population of 4.6 million people before the Second World War, it was now reduced to nearly 2.8 million people with only the capacity to produce 2% of the food needed to support the population. The forces of the United States, United Kingdom and France were not permitted to enter the war ravaged city until nearly two months after Germany had capitulated, during which time the local populace suffered brutal reprisals at the hands of the conquering Soviet Red Army.

The western portion of the nation would see the British taking responsibility for most of the northern part of the country, the Americans taking responsibility for the southern part of the country and both turning over two small portions of their zones of occupation that barely contacted each other along the French border over to the forces of France. The eastern portion of the nation would go to the Soviets. One area of protest came with the status of Berlin, which put forces of the United States, United Kingdom and France some 100 miles inside the Soviet zone of occupation. The areas under Soviet control, produced much of the food that fed the nation and thus the regions under American and British control largely relied on food imports from the very beginning. With the United States, United Kingdom and France largely instilling the principles of democracy to their post war areas, the Soviet Military Administration forcibly unified the Kommunistische Partei Deutschlands 'Communist Party of Germany' and the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands 'Social Democratic Party of Germany' to form the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands 'Socialist Unity Party of Germany' claiming that it would not occupy a Marxist-Leninist or Soviet stance on its body politics. Immediately after its formation, the SED Party called for the establishment of an anti-fascist, democratic regime in the form of a parliamentary democratic republic. Under this ruse, the Soviets suppressed all activities of non SED aligned political parties and expatriated many factories and equipment as well as their technicians, managers and skilled personnel to regions deep in the Soviet Union.

Soviet leader Josef Stalin made his true intentions clear before the smoke of the Battle of Berlin had even fully cleared, telling German communists that he planned to undermine the authority of the British in their zone of occupation and force the United States to withdraw within the span of two years and thus he would unify Germany as a single communist nations under Soviet control.

One of the loopholes in the agreements reached by the western Allies was that there had never been any formal agreements guaranteeing rail or road access to Berlin through Soviet occupied territory. The first signs of ensuing tensions began when the Soviets imposed a limitation on the amount of cargo that could enter its territory. The Soviets set the limitation at only ten trains per day by only one single rail line. Believing the Soviet limitations were temporary at most, the Allies shrugged it off and began proposing addition alternatives to the Soviet Union which were rejected by the Soviets. In a move to further put a squeeze on the Allies in Berlin, the Soviet Union enforced the utilization of only three air corridors into Berlin with access to Berlin being authorized only from Hamburg, Bückeburg and Frankfurt. As the situation between the former allies began to deteriorate, the Soviets halted the delivery of agricultural goods from their zone of occupation into Berlin. This was countered accordingly when the American Commander, General Lucius Clay halted shipments of dismantled industrial goods from western Germany to the Soviet Union.

Angered by the American action, the Soviets began a campaign to undermine the Allies by slandering the American mission in Germany and hinder the administrative work of all four zones of occupation inside Berlin. Having surviving harsh treatment, forced emigrations, severe political repression and a particularly rough winter of the 1945–1946 period, Germans in the Soviet zone of administration were growing extremely hostile to the Soviets and their plans. Local elections in 1946 resulted in a massive anti-communist protest vote across the city, especially in the Soviet sector of Berlin. Berlin's citizens overwhelmingly elected non-Communist members to its city council reflecting an overwhelming 86% majority. The clouds of trouble had begun building on the horizon.

In January 1948, the Soviets began stopping American and British trains bound for Berlin to confirm the identities of passengers onboard the trains, With the Marshall Plan being enforced across, western Europe the Soviets began orchaestrating a plan to force the Allies to align their interests along with the wishes of the Soviet Union through further regulating access to Berlin. To test the waters, on 25 March 1948, the Soviets issued an order that hindered the movement of traffic between the American, French and British zones of occupation and Berlin stating that no cargo could leave Berlin without the expressed approval of the Soviet Commander.Each truck or train would be searched by Soviet authorities before it would be allowed to leave the city. On 2 April 1948, General Clay halted the use of military trains and ordered that all cargo be flown in and out of the city by air. This venture would be known affectionately as the 'Little Air Lift'. On 10 April 1948, the Soviets eased their restrictions but continued to harass Allied traffic in and out of the city. The Soviets then began a campaign of violations of West Berlin's airspace with their own military aircraft which resulted in a deadly incident on 5 April 1948 when a Soviet Yakovlev Yak-3 fighter collided with a British European Airways Vickers VC.1 Viking transport near RAF Gatow resulting in the deaths of all aboard the colliding aircraft.

The final calm before the store occurred when on 9 April, the Soviets first demanded that American communication equipment in Soviet territory be withdrawn thus preventing the use of navigational beacons to designate air routes. This was followed by a Soviet declaration demanding barges from the west to obtain a special clearance before entering Soviet occupied areas. With the introduction of the new Deutsche Mark in the western part of the country, the Soviets stated that the only currency allowed into Berlin would be one that they issued in a move to keep Germany weakened and in a state of recession. By the time the Soviets began to introduce their own currency into Berlin, the western Allies had already transported 250,000,000 Deutsche Marks into the city and it quickly took over as the standard currency of all four sectors of the city. The introduction of the Deutsche Mark and the Marshall Plan which would bring upon an economic miracle to the nation was seen as a move to undermine Soviet intentions and Stalin interpreted this a provocation against him. He now wanted the Allies out of Berlin completely.

On 18 June 1948, the Deutsche Mark was announced as the new currency to be used in the allied zones of occupation. The Soviets responded by halting all passenger trains and traffic on the autobahns of Berlin. On 21 June, the Soviets refused entry to an American military supply train and sent it back to American territory in western Germany. On 22 June, the Soviets introduced their own new currency that it called the 'Ostmark' for use in it's zone of occupation as a method to undermine the integrity of the Deutsche Mark. Also on the 22nd of June a Soviet official sent a memorandum to the Americans, British and French in the city stating that both their forces and the population of Berlin would be subjected to economic and administrative sanctions that would lead to the circulation in Berlin of only the currency of the Soviet occupation zone. This was followed by a propaganda campaign in which the Soviets denounced the United Kingdom, United States and France by radio, newspaper and loudspeaker. With a large Soviet military exercise on the outskirts of the city, rumors began to circulate of an impending Soviet invasion and occupation. German communists added to this state of aggitation when they staged protests, riots and attacks against pro-West German leaders in Berlin.

The Berlin Blockade would begin on 24 June 1948, when the Soviet forces halted all communications on land and water between the western zones and Berlin. This was quickly followed by the halting of all rail and water traffic in and out of Berlin. The next day, the Soviets halted all supplies of food to the civilian population of western Berlin as well as cut the flow of electricity from power plants in eastern Berlin to the West. For the time being, road access to the city was still authorized but only after a fourteen mile detour to a ferry crossing. The official reasoning was that Soviet forces were conducting repairs to critical infrastructure. Traffic from the western zones of occupation bound for Berlin were blockaded and all arguments permitting to the occupation rights in western Berlin fell on deaf ears. Only Soviet good will towards the western Allies made access to Berlin possible, but with no formal agreement in place the Soviets could negotiate the terms of usage of transit routes in and out of its zone of authority any way that it wished.

West Berlin was now in a critical state. It had on hand only enough food for 36 days, and enough coal to last for only 45 days. Military forces in West Berlin numbered only a force of 8,973 Americans, 7,606 British and 6,100 French in contrast to a force of one and a half million Soviet troops in East Berlin and the Soviet zone of occupation which surrounded it. On 13 June 1948, General Clay sent a cable to Washington D.C. reaffirming his stance in West Berlin and declaring that their would be no withdrawal from Berlin. While, the Soviets celebrated their blockade of Berlin and anticipated the withdrawal of western forces from eastern Germany, General Clay called the Soviets bluff, believing that the Soviets would not intentionally initiate World War III, especially not having just barely recovered from World War II. With limited options at his disposal, Clay heard numerous proposals from Allied leaders including an aggressive response to the blocakde proposed by General Curtis LeMay, the Commander of United States Air Forces in Europe in which waves of Boeing B-29 Stratofortress strategic bombers and fighter escorts would engage Soviet airbases while ground troops in western Germany would attempt a breakthrough to reach encircled Berlin. This plan was ultimately rejected by Clay.

With time running, out Clay authorized the use of Berlin's airways to undermine the Soviet blockade. This was a move that the Soviets had not counted on. On 30 November 1945, the Allies had recieved in writing the approval for free access to Berlin via three twenty three mile wide air corridors. Further undermining the Soviet blockade, the usage of cargo aircraft could not justify the Soviets identifying them as posing a military threat to its forces in eastern Germany and thus put them in a very delicate position when the aircraft refused to turn back of either engaging and shooting them down or backing down. Shooting down unarmed humanitarian aircraft would put the Soviets in violation of their own agreements and cause a political uproar and backlash against the Soviet Union that it would not want. Clay initially approached LeMay with an inquiry regarding whether or not his aircraft could move amounts of coal to support the operations of the city. LeMay promptly responded that his planes could carry anything required. When they approached the British forces, it was confirmed that the British had already been conducting their own airlift in support of British forces in Berlin.

During the 'Little Air Lift' British military planner Air Commodore Reginald Waite made calculations towards the resources required for supporting the entire populace of the city. His calculations equated to a requirement of seventeen hundred calories per person per day, in the form of 646 tons of flour and wheat, 125 tons of cereal, 64 tons of fat, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of dehydrated potatoes, 180 tons of sugar, 11 tons of coffee, 19 tons of powdered milk, 5 tons of whole milk for children, 3 tons of fresh yeast for baking, 144 tons of dehydrated vegetables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese to support the population of Berlin. In conclusion nearly 1,534 tons were needed daily to keep the over two million inhabitants of the encircled city alive. Additionally beyond the food needs, West Berlin needed to be kept heated and powered, which would require another 3,475 tons of coal and gasoline to be flown in.

Initially ill prepared in comparison to the British, the Americans began organizing the positioning of planes to support the operation. The entire thing would get the final green light when General Albert Wedemeyer, US Army Chief of Plans and Operations visited Europe and endorsed the operation. Wedemeyer had overseen the largest airlift of the Second World War when American aircraft flew from bases in India, over the Hump in the Himalayas to China in the war against Japan. The ensuing operation would be dubbed 'Operation Vittles' by the Americans, 'Operation Plainfare' by the British and 'Operation Pelican' by the Australians when they committed additional airlift capailities in September 1948. On 24 June 1948 General LeMay appointed Brigadier General Joseph Smith, then the headquarters commandant for USAFE at Camp Lindsey, to serve as the Provisional Task Force Commander of the airlift operation.  On 25 June 1948 Clay gave the order to launch Operation Vittles. The next day a force of 32 Douglas C-47 Skytrains lifted off for Berlin hauling 80 tons of cargo, including milk, flour, and medicine. The first British Royal Air Force aircraft lifted off headed for Berlin on 28 June. At that time, the airlift was expected to last for only a duration of three weeks.

By 1 July, the system was set into motion with C-47s and Douglas C-54 Skymasters arriving in mass at Rhein Main Air Base. Rhein Main would serve as a solely C-54 base with Wiesbaden operating a mixture of C-47s and C-54s. The aircraft would fly northeast and enter West Berlin through southern air corridor designated the American corridor and land at Tempelhof Airport, offload their supplies then exit through the central air corridor designated the British corridor. Upon reaching the British zone of occupation, the aircraft would then turn south and return to their respective bases. The British Royal Air Force operated a similar resupply system, flying southeast from several airports in the Hamburg area through their assigned corridor into RAF Gatow in the British Sector, and then also returning out on the central corridor. They would then turn for home or land at Hanover depending on the circumstance. Unlike the Americans, the British also ran several round trip operations using their southeastern corridor. On 6 July, RAF Avro York and Douglas Dakotas (the Dakota was the British designation for the C-47 Skytrain) were joined by Short Sunderland flying boats of the Royal Navy. Flying boats operated from Finkenwerder on the Elbe River near Hamburg, flying to the Havel River adjacent to RAF Gatow. The corrosion resistant hull of the Sunderlands better suited them to the particular task of delivering baking powder and other salt products to the city.

A maintenance system was soon coordinated to accommodate the large number of flights. Crews would work three eight hour shifts rotating between C-54s and C-47s. Aircraft were scheduled to take off at an interval of every four minutes, staggered at an altitude of 1,000 feet higher than the preceding aircraft. The initial aircraft would operate at a height of 5,000 feet and each aircraft adding an additional 1,000 feet for each of five aircraft before the sixth aircraft would return to a 5,000 foot operational profile. The first week of the airlift saw an average of only 90 tons of supplies per day reaching West Berlin, this number would increase to nearly 1,000 tons per day by the end of the second week. Soviet authorities in the East ridiculed the operation declaring it a futile attempt to save face against the superior Soviet authority.

On 28 July 1948, Major General William H, Tunner arrived at Wiesbaden Airbase to take command of the airlift operation. Having also had experience with the airlift operation in the China-Burma-India campaign, he set about to reorganize the entire operation. On 13 August 1948 a C-54 crashed at Tempelhof and burst into flames at the end of the runway and a second C-54 landing behind it burst the tires of its landing gear trying to avoid the wreckage. A third Skymaster made a ground loop maneuver on an auxiliary runway and Tempelhof was closed when the control tower lost control of the situation, a move that greatly embarrassed Tunner. Although no one was killed in the crashes, the incident became known as 'Black Friday'. As a result of the Black Friday crash, Tunner ordered that Instrumental Flight Rules be in effect at all times regardless of visibility. In addition to this he instituted a policy that each aircraft would only have one chance to land at the airport, any aborted landing would result in the aircraft returning to its base in western Germany. Sighting easier convenience for loading and unloading of aircraft, Tunner soon made the decision to replace all C-47s with C-54s or larger aircraft.

Pilots were forbidden to leave their aircraft for any reason while on the ground in Berlin and military jeeps were converted into mobile snack bars often staffed with German women to distribute refreshments to the crews while they remained at their aircraft. Clearance documents and flight information were given to the pilots while they snacked. As a result of this method, the time on ground from the shutdown of engines on the ramp, unloading and turn around before heading back to Wiesbaden or Rhein Main was set at only thirty minutes. Operating profiles were later also adjusted with flights launching every three minutes instead of four with 500 foot separation rather than 1000, stacked in altitude from 4,000 to 6,000 feet operating altitude. Maintenance was strictly emphasized and given the highest priority to maximize turn around time to implement a goal of 1440 landings in West Berlin each day. This figure would mean, an aircraft would be landing in West Berlin for every minute there was in a day. The Germans countered the problem of manpower, with Berliners serving as unloaders and airfield repair crews, a task which was rewarded with additional rations. As the crews began to improve their execution of duty, unload times dropped dramatically and a record was set first when an entire 10 ton shipment of coal was offloaded from a C-54 in a span of ten minutes and then later a twelve man crew unloaded another 10 ton shipment from a C-54 in five minutes and forty five seconds.

After only a month of operations, daily flight operations flew more than 1,500 flights each day and delivered more than 4,500 tons of cargo, enough to keep West Berlin sufficiently supplied. Supply shipments improved to a rate of 5,000 tons a day.

One of the most memorable moments of the Berlin Airlift was known as 'Operation Little Vittles' this occurred when Colonel Gail Halvorsen used his off time to fly into Berlin and shot a series of home movies with a handheld camera. One day upon encountering a group of German children he introduced himself and he handed out two sticks of Wrigley's Doublemint gum and promised that if the children did not fight over the gum, he would bring more when he returned to Berlin. As he left, the German children divided up the gum as best they could and inquired as to how they would know that it was him when he returned. His reply was that he would wiggle his wings. The following day on his approach to Berlin, he put inputs into the controls which rocked the aircraft and he dropped chocolate bars attached to hankerchief parachutes to the children below. Everyday the number of children would increase and so to did his airdrops. Soon Base Ops at Tempelhof began receiving stacks of mail addressed to 'Uncle Wiggly Wings', 'The Chocolate Uncle' and the 'Chocolate Flier'. Initially Halvorsen's exploits were met with dissatisfaction from his commanding officer but ultimately the gesture was approved of by General Tunner who designated the mission as 'Operation Little Vittles' adding additional airplanes and pilots to Halvorsen's venture. When news of Operation Little Vittles reached the United States, children across th country enthusiastically donated candy of their own to be dropped to the German children. Some children even participated by attaching parachutes to the candies that would be dropped over Berlin. Soon, major manufacturers nationwide became involved. In the end, over three tons of candy were dropped on West Berlin, and the "operation" was designated as a success. The candy dropping aircraft were christened 'Raisin Bombers" or "Candy Bombers" by the German children.

In response to the mounting airlift operation, the Soviets first countered by offering free food to anyone who crossed into East Berlin and registered their ration cards with the Soviet authorities. The Soviet move was ultimately rejected by West Berliners. The Soviets then ramped up their propaganda campaign against the people of West Berlin utilizing psychological warfare and declaring that all of Berlin fell under Soviet authority. They further declared that it was only a matter of time before the Western allies abandoned the city and the populous of West Berlin. As further measures, Soviet and German communist harassed democratically elected officials from West Berlin that had to conduct its business in the city hall which was located in the Soviet sector of the city. In an effort to harass the airlift itself, the Soviets often attempted to impede on the arrival of inbound aircraft by varying means including buzzing transports with Soviet fighters, scheduling parachute jumps in the paths of the air corridors and using searchlights to disorient pilots flying at night. Try as they may, none of the Soviet measures were effective in hampering the operation.

By the onset of winter, estimates for amounts needed to sustain the population in winter were adjusted and the transportation force was enhanced when the Royal Air Force added larger Handley Page Hasting transports to their available fleet. To accommodate for winter operations, Tunner hired a force of majorily former Luftwaffe ground crews to maintain the airfields. Due to weight restrictions imposed on the airfields at RAF Gatow and Tempelhof Airport, and the stresses put upon them by the rotations of C-54s, a 6,000 foot asphalt runway was constructed at Tempelhof to better accommodate the air fleet. The French although entangled in the Indochina War supplied several aging Junkers Ju-52 transports to supply its personnel in Berlin. French aircraft flew into Tegel on the shores of Lake Tegel. There was one problem with this, the approach to Tegel Airfield was hampered by the placement of a Soviet radio tower in proximity to the airfield. After the Soviets refused to remove the tower, French General Jean Ganeval ordered that the tower be demolished and on 16 December 1948, the tower was blown up much to the delight of the Berliners. The destruction of the radio tower would spark widespread protest from the Soviets. When General Ganeval's Soviet counterpart General Alexej Kotikow, asked him angrily by phone how he could have committed such an act, Ganeval is said to have replied laconically, "With dynamite, my dear colleague."

To improve control over the air traffic entering and exiting Berlin, the newly developed Ground Controlled Approach radar system was sent to Europe and installed at both Tempelhof and  Fassberg in the British Zone in West Germany, a measure which guaranteed operations in all weather conditions. Soon the only hinderance on flight operations would prove to be the weather itself. The months of November and December 1948 were the worst of the entire operation. On many occasions aircraft would fly to Berlin only to be met with a thick layer of fog which prevented landing and they were forced to return to West Germany. On one occasion on 20 November 1948, forty two aircraft departed for West Berlin, but only one managed to there. At one point, West Berlin only had enough coal for one week of operation. The shortage was made up for ultimately when weather conditions improved and more than 171,000 tons of supplies were delivered in January 1949, followed by 152,000 tons in February, and 196,223 tons in March.

By April 1949, General Tunner declared that he wanted to do something big to boost the morale of everyone involved in the operation. On Easter Sunday, he set to break all records and he would do so by only hauling coal thus in preparation for this coal was stockpiled for the effort. By the time it was completed, 12,941 tons of coal had been delivered in 1,383 flights to West Berlin, without a single accident. A welcome side effect of the effort was that operations in general were boosted, and tonnage increased from 6,729 tons to 8,893 tons per day in the days following the Easter operation. In total, the airlift delivered 234,476 tons in April of 1949. On 21 April, it was recorded that the tonnage of supplies flown into the city exceeded amounts that were previously brought into the city by rail.

The Airlift operation proved an embarrassment to the Soviets and the Easter operation was the nail in the coffin. On 15 April 1949, the Soviets announced that they were willing to lift the blockade of Berlin. After a series of negotiations on 4 May 1949, the Allies reached an agreement which would end the Blockade in an eight day period. The Soviets relented and removed their blockade of Berlin at 12:01 on the morning of 12 May 1949. The British drove a convoy through Berlin as a symbol of the victory of the airlift and the first train from West Germany arrived in West Berlin at 5:32am. Celebrations erupted across West Berlin to commemorate the lifting of the Blockade. Flights however would continue into Berlin to build up a surplus of supplies in case the Soviets tried to blockade the city again in the future. By 24 July 1949, three months worth of supplies had been stockpiled at facilities in West Berlin, ensuring that there was ample time to restart the Airlift if it were required. The Berlin Airlift officially came to an end on 30 September 1949, after fifteen months of continued air operation. In total the United States delivered 1,783,573 tons and the United Kingdom 541,937 tons, totaling 2,326,406 tons, nearly two-thirds of which was coal, on some 278,228 flights to airfields in West Berlin.

The Royal Australian Air Force bolsted this number further with the  delivery of 7,968 tonnes of freight and 6,964 passengers while flying 2,062 sorties. The force of C-47s and C-54s together flew over 92 million miles during the operation, almost the distance from Earth to the Sun. At the height of the Berlin Airlift, one plane was landing at an airfield in West Berlin every thirty seconds. The cost of the Airlift was 101 fatalities including 40 Britons and 31 Americans, mostly due to crashes. Seventeen American and eight British aircraft crashed during the duration of the operation. Financial responsibility of the Airlift was shared between the United States, United Kingdom, and West Germany. Some 692 transport aircraft were engaged in the Berlin Airlift, of which more than 100 were operated by civilian aviation entities.

In 1974 Colonel Gail Halvorsen, the original 'Candy Bomber' was decorated with the Großes Bundesverdienstkreuz 'Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany', one of Germany's highest medals for his actions during the Berlin Airlift.

No comments:

Post a Comment