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 You are in: Special Report: 1998: 03/98: Berlin  
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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 12 May, 1998, 18:12 GMT 19:12 UK
Blocked but not beaten, the airlift begins
Airlift map
There were three corridors into Berlin and the above formation allowed for landing at the rate of one plane every three minutes
The story of the Berlin Airlift reads like a Hollywood screenplay. It has all the ingredients of a blockbuster: courage, bravery, heroics, gritty determination in the face of adversity, and, for a Tinseltown producer at least, the good guys won.

Britain, America and France were effectively shut out of the former German capital, where each held a zone under its administration, on June 24, 1948.

After almost three months of obstructing land traffic from western Europe through communist-controlled eastern Germany, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin closed all roads and railways into the western sectors of the city. Electricity, supplied exclusively from the Soviet sector, was cut off. The blockade had begun in earnest.

Aircraft lining up to be unloaded
Aircraft lining up to be unloaded
Moscow's tactics were crude but practical. It planned to "smoke out" the western powers by starving them of food and fuel. Their only way into, and out of Berlin, was by air.

Since April, America and Britain had been flying in relatively small cargo loads. There was some debate about forcing the blockade open but the American General Lucius Clay settled on a another tactic and on June 26, the aerial supply mission was stepped up.

Operation Vittles, as the airlift was unofficially named, was always going to be a mammoth task. Supplying the two million people of west Berlin meant flying in 2,000 tons of food and fuel a day in summer, and 5,000 tons, including coal, in the winter.

It was the most ambitious aerial supply operation in history and would require non-stop, round-the-clock flying into the city's three western airfields.

A German girl presenting flowers to an airlift pilot in August 1948
A German girl presenting flowers to an airlift pilot in August 1948
Despite the inevitable hardships, Berliners were firm in their support for the western powers. In September 1948 an estimated 250,000 - one eighth of the western sector's population - demonstrated against Soviet hostility.

The symbolism was powerful. In the space of just three years, the Allied forces had switched from the enemy of the German people to their saviour.

Stalin stuck to his guns, hoping a traditionally harsh winter would bring the opposition to their knees.

But the airlift continued apace. Small, civilian aircraft joined the fleet of military workhorses, delivering flour, meat, vegetables, chocolate, petrol, blankets and medicine.

Traffic was not all one-way. Goods made in Berlin were flown out
Traffic was not all one-way. Goods made in Berlin were flown out
The Berlin sky was animated by a ceaseless procession of air traffic and life carried on against the continual background drone of aircraft engines. Planes touched down every three minutes. The schedule was so tight that each pilot had just one chance to touch down.

If the weather or some other factor prevented landing, a pilot had to return to his base and enter the cycle again later.

All flights were streamed along one of three 20-mile wide air corridors and crew frequently came up against obstruction tactics such as radio jamming, shining searchlights to temporarily blind pilots, and drifting barrage balloons.

The Soviets did not directly attack planes although the sky was sometimes peppered by a blast of anti-aircraft fire.

Celebrating the lifting of the blockade
Celebrating the lifting of the blockade
Inevitably there were casualties. In July three American crew were the first killed when their C-47 transporter crashed. In all the operation cost the lives of 65 Germans, British and Americans.

By April 1949 the airlift had been running at full throttle for several months and the western powers knew they could hang on indefinitely. The Soviets backed down, entering negotiations and agreeing to lift the blockade on May 5, 1949.

In 11 months nearly 300,000 flights had delivered more than 3 million tons of supplies.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
BBC News
British Gen Sir Brian Robertson: 'The people of Berlin will never forget this blockade' (0'40')
BBC News
BBC Correspondent Richard Sharp: 'The people of Berlin look tied but determined' (1'18')
BBC News
BBC Correspondent Patrick Smith: 'A great sense of unreality about Berlin' (3'22')
Links to more Berlin stories are at the foot of the page.


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