Page last updated at 02:14 GMT, Tuesday, 12 May 2009 03:14 UK

Bitter-sweet memories of Berlin Airlift

By Dan Bell
BBC News

Berlin Airlift
Planes flew a distance equivalent to flying to the moon and back 63 times

On 12 May 1949, the Soviet blockade, which prompted the Berlin Airlift, came to an end.

Sixty years later, veterans who took part in the frantic efforts to keep the city supplied with food have been recalling events.

For David Edwards, a veteran of the Berlin Airlift, there is one memory that sums up the contradictions faced by allied forces struggling to supply a city they had recently tried to wipe off the map.

He and his unit had saved their sweet rations and were holding a Christmas party for local Berlin children. As he lifted a young boy on to a chair, he saw the child had only one arm.

With a sickening flash he realised that only three years earlier the Allies had bombed the very people they were now trying to save.

Three years after the end of World War II, Joseph Stalin had drawn the Iron Curtain across Europe, leaving Western-occupied West Berlin isolated deep in Russian-controlled East Germany.

In an attempt to expel the Western powers from the city, Stalin shut all supply routes except for three narrow air corridors.

The Allies responded by launching a ceaseless procession of cargo planes to feed, heat and clothe the two million people of West Berlin. The operation that became known as the Berlin Airlift lasted over a year and cost 39 British lives.

BERLIN AIRLIFT
UK and US pilots flew in food supplies after West Berlin was blockaded by the Soviet army in June 1948
The first British flight of the Berlin Airlift took place on 25 June 1948
British aircraft flew more than 175,000 missions to and from Berlin
Some 65 Britons, Germans and Americans died in plane crashes during the operation
The Soviet blockade was lifted on 12 May 1949, the airlift having prevented the city starving
Flights continued until 6 November 1949 to ensure the city was well stocked in the event of further blockades

The allied forces had changed from the enemy of the German people to their saviour. "We suddenly became friends and we were on the same side. From dropping bombs on them we were bringing in supplies," says Mr Edwards.

The 79-year-old's memories of his time stationed in Berlin as a signals teleprompter dealing with encrypted messages are scattered with this confusing mix of hope and tragedy that gripped a city just released from war.

He remembers the moment when, after crowding into the air commodore's office with the other men in his unit, he was told of the plan to use the air corridors to break Stalin's blockade.

"When we were all assembled there he gave a brief view of the situation - 'We are blockaded here; negotiations had failed' - there was no movement in that direction. We didn't know if there would be an evacuation or there might be a third world war.

"I remember him saying 'What we are going to do is try to supply the western section'.

"Was it going to be possible? There was provision to supply the British garrison, but the prospect of supplying two-and-a-quarter million people seemed out of the question."

Yet despite the uncertainty and scale of the task, he was also excited. "It was going to be a challenge," he says.

Then there were the stark contrasts he found in the ruined city itself. Mr Edwards remembers the desolation of endless streets reduced to rubble and the knowledge that underneath were bodies left unrecovered.

David Edwards and Alec Chambers
David Edwards and Alec Chambers are both proud of the part they played

But he also recalls how he took the same broken streets to an opera house in the heart of Soviet-occupied East Berlin - in his hand he holds a photocopy of the elegantly-scripted opera programme he kept as a souvenir.

The memories of another veteran of the airlift, 83-year-old Alec Chambers, are equally chequered.

A former navigator on planes carrying liquid fuel supplies, he recalls the deafening roar of engines on take-off and the difficulty of steering his cargo-laden aircraft at night or in thick cloud along the narrow air corridor.

The air traffic was so heavy that a plane took off or landed every 90 seconds. If he was more than a few seconds late, the pilot would be unable to land and would simply have to turn around and fly back.

"You could see the chap in front of you and if you looked behind, you could see the chap behind you." Occasionally, in low visibility, he would feel a violent shudder as his plane passed so close to another it was rocked by the slipstream.

The Germans called us 'pearls in the sky'
Alec Chambers

It was easy to miss your mark. He remembers hearing the news that a plane had veered off course and crashed into a hill, exploding and killing all on board. "We were shattered, all of us," he says.

But the high tension of flying supply missions with his explosive cargo was also punctuated with a degree of freedom he had never experienced before.

He lets out a mischievous chuckle as he recalls the high jinks of a group of young airmen billeted together and let loose in the hedonistic post-war atmosphere.

"The nightlife in Hamburg was something else. I always remember descending into this nightclub and there was a row of bar stools, and there was a beautiful girl on every one."

Then there were his flirtations with the black market. He would bring coffee from England and meet buyers under a tree in Hamburg's zoological gardens. He says with a nudge that he did not have to touch his pay for months.

Despite their mixed experiences, both Mr Chambers and Mr Edwards are extremely proud to have been a part of an operation that saved thousands of lives.

"Towards sunset," says Mr Chambers, "the Germans called us 'pearls in the sky'" - because all the aircraft had polished fuselages and you could see them in a row on the horizon."

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