The Berlin Airlift Begins – Part Two

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

Avro York Aircraft lined up in West Germany, Destination Berlin

While the road and rail routes into Berlin from the West had never been negotiated, the air routes had specified in writing, that there would be three times twenty-five mile wide air corridors providing free and unhindered access into Berlin. The unarmed aircraft could not legally be intercepted and the only way to force them to turn round was to shoot them down, which would have been a clear act of war. But any attempt to supply the city by air required an air bridge to have a massive scale and efficiency. General Clay the US commander in Berlin asked the commander of US Air Forces in Europe, General Curtiss LeMay if an airlift was possible. LeMay replied “We can haul anything.”

The Americans also approached the British who were already supplying their garrison and essential services in Berlin by air. General Clay’s counterpart, General Sir Brian Robertson, was ready with some concrete numbers. During the Little Lift in April 1948, British Air Commodore Reginald Waite had calculated the resources required to support the entire city, saving much planning time. Based on a daily ration of 1,990 calories, the daily supply needed to be 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 the children, 3 tons of fresh baking yeast, 144 tons of dehydrated vegatables, 38 tons of salt and 10 tons of cheese. That was a daily lift of 1,534 tons to sustain over two million people in Berlin. Additionally, the city required 3,475 tons of coal, diesel and petrol for power.

Once the numbers had been crunched, the scale of the undertaking became apparent given the finite resources of the British and American air transport capability. The US had only two groups of C-47 Skytrains in Europe, the aircraft the British called the Dakota. The US capability totalled 96 aircraft that could move 3.5 tons of cargo per sortie. LeMay believed that the US could supply the city with around 300 tons per day. The RAF was in a higher state of preparedness as the British had moved more aircraft into Germany and calculated that the RAF could move 400 tons per day. Clearly this was insufficient to move the daily requirement of 5,000 tons and the RAF would be required to bear the initial brunt and would have to increase numbers quickly, by moving aircraft from the UK into Germany, going to Berlin in a single, initial lift from the UK. The RAF fleet was brought up to 150 Dakotas and 40 of the much larger Avro Yorks with a 10-ton payload.

The British contribution would rise to 750 tons per day in the short term of up to a month while the US added additional aircraft from the states and the Pacific theatre. The Aircraft needed to be able to fly into the relatively small Berlin airfields, so bombers couldn’t be used routinely until Tegel Airport was completed. The US had the four-engined C-45 Skymaster and its USN equivalent, the R5D. Planners calculated that this would give the air lift 447 of these aircraft. The British asked the Royal Canadian Air Force to provide aircraft and pilots, but the Canadians refused on the grounds that the Airlift risked war with the Soviet Union and they had not been consulted in advance.

General Clay also consulted with the German authorities, Ernst Reuter the Mayor elect and his aid Willy Brant and told them: “Look, I am ready to try an airlift. I can’t guarantee it will work. I am sure that even at its best, people are going to be cold and people are going to be hungry. And if the people of Berlin won’t stand that, it will fail. And I don’t want to go into this unless I have your assurance that the people will be heavily in approval.” Reuter, although sceptical, assured Clay that Berlin would make all the necessary sacrifices and that the Berliners would support his actions, which was rather good of them.

The American and British decided to start the airlift without delay. The American effort was given the operational title of Vittles while the British contribution was known as Plainfare. Unlike the Canadians the Royal Australian Air Force also contributed to the airlift under the title of Operation Pelican.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

The Air Corridors into Berlin.

General Clay gave the go-ahead for the Berlin Airlift on 25th June 1948 and the following day 32 C-47s took off with supplies of 80 tons of milk, flour and medicines. The RAF started operations on 28th June with the Australians. By 1st July the system had been well established. The Rhein-Main Air Base was the C-54 hub, while Wiesbaden operated a mix of C-54s and C-47s. The US aircraft flew northeast through the American Air Corridor into Tempelhof, returning due west out of Berlin on the British Air Corridor. The British flew in southeast from airfields in the Hamburg area, then returning out of the central corridor to land in Hanover. On 6th July the Dakotas and Yorks were joined by Sunderland flying boats. These aircraft flew from Finkenwerde on the River Elbe and landed on the River Harvel next to Gatow. Because the flying boats had corrosion resistant hulls, they were ideally suited for flying in baking powder and salt.

The logistical handling and coordination of so many aircraft with different operating parameters can be imagined. A complex timetable was developed for flights known as “The Block System. The C-54s operated on three eight-hour shifts followed by a C-47 run. Aircraft were scheduled to take off every four minutes, each following aircraft flying 1,000 feet higher than the one in front. The pattern began at 5,000 feet and was repeated in multiples of five aircraft. This stacking of the flights into the city became known as “The Ladder.” Later in the lift the Americans experimented with dropping coal sacks without landing, but the time wasted picking up pieces of coal from the burst sacks resulted in this being counterproductive and even coal dust was precious.

Additionally, aircraft needed to spend as little time on the Ground in Berlin as possible, for the lifts to be cost effective and to free up pan space as quickly as possible. Take a bow the RAF Movers, the Royal Corps of Transport and the women of Berlin who humped sacks of coal off the aircraft and onto Lorries. The aircrews were in admiration of their stoicism, but after having to service the rapacious sexual requirements of Russian Infantry Battalions after the fall of Berlin in 1945, dragging sacks off aircraft for extra rations must have seemed like a walk in the park.

As the airlift dragged on into late summer, it became apparent that pro-rata the RAF aircraft were moving more freight than the US and their aircraft were really “sweating the metal.” Many of the navigators on the RAF Dakotas were ex-Bomber Command aircrews who had decided to stay in after the war for a flying career. Flying on regular corridors to fixed beacons proved much easier than navigating a bomber over night-time Germany, with irregular doglegs and course changes. Additionally, the RAF was well-versed in the use of radio navigation devices.

The US Air Force in Europe was a tactical organisation without any sustained airlift experience. Maintenance and servicing schedules were slipping with the heavy workload and the best use was not been made of aircrews and airframes, which often stood idle. Record keeping was poor due to the ad-hoc throwing together of air and ground crews, unused to such a daily grind of operations. Aircraft were flying round the clock and poor servicing soon became apparent. What was thought to be an enterprise that would last for three weeks to a month was to last well into the following year.

Following a meeting of the US National Security Council on 22nd July 1948, it was clear that a sustained airlift would be necessary. Major General William H Tunner, the then head of the Military Air Transport Service (MATS) was recommended to take command of the operation. Tunner had been the head of the India-China Division of the US Air Transport Command and he had been instrumental in reorganising the Hump Airlift into China across the Himalayas. Tunner arrived in Wiesbaden on 28th July to revamp the entire operation. He formed the Combined Air Lift Task Force, which brought RAF and other lift operations under a single, centralised command. A further 72 C-54s were flown into Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main to augment the existing forces and each aircraft was allocated thee crews.

On 13th August Tunner flew into Berlin fact-finding and to award a citation to Lieutenant Lykins who had made the most flights into Berlin. Cloud cover over the city was down to zero feet and heavy rain was affecting the radar. While Tunner circled over the city, a C-54 crashed and caught fire on the end of Tempelhof’s runway. A second aircraft burst its tyres trying to avoid it and a third ground looped after landing on the wrong runway that was still under construction. The aircraft stacked up at the rate of one every three minutes and unloaded aircraft were refused permission to take off. Tunner was furious that the control tower had lost control of the situation and ordered all aircraft in the air to return to base.

The incident was known as “Black Friday” and as a result, Tunner instituted a number of new rules.
• All aircraft would fly under instrument flight rules regardless of actual visibility.
• Each sortie would have only one chance to land in Berlin and if it missed its approach, the aircraft would have to return to base.
• The approaches would be straight in, with no joining the circuit for final approach. This speeded up the unloading of the aircraft significantly.
• The separation in the stack was reduced to 500 feet.

Tunner would eventually replace all US C47s with C-54s, because they were more cost effective and easier to unload being tricycle undercarriage aircraft made a level cargo deck and the platform between aircraft and truck was at the same level. An impoverished Britain and RAF didn’t have that luxury.

On his first inspection trip to Berlin on 31st July, Tunner noted that aircrews were being delayed in taking off after unloading, because they were loafing in the air terminal waiting for refreshments. He ordered that mobile snack bars should visit the unloading aircraft and that manifests and clearance paperwork should be handled on the flight lines. Because of these initiatives, engine shutdown to start-up at Tempelhof was reduced to thirty minutes. The Berliners solved the problem of shortages of manpower to unload the aircraft by being given extra rations to do the job. These measures drastically improved the turn-round times for aircraft on the ground and the average time for unloading a C-54 of 10 tons of coal was ten minutes.

By the end of August, over 1,500 flights a day were going into Berlin, delivering 4,500 tons of cargo. The Berlin Airlift was now achieving optimum performance and the city was being supplied. However, the winter was approaching and the Soviets were yet to react fully to the scale of the airlift. The crucial question was whether this scale of air operations could be sustained through the winter and into the following year, or whether the Soviets would allow it to.

Blown Periphery, Going Postal

201 Squadron Sunderland unloading supplies of the River Havel.


© Blown Periphery 2018

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