Page last updated at 14:06 GMT, Wednesday, 25 June 2008 15:06 UK

Berlin Airflift veterans honoured

By Tom Warren
BBC News, at RAF Cosford

John Perkins
John Perkins faced Russian tanks during the 11-month airlift

Sixty years ago as the Cold War was beginning, John Perkins was part of a team ordered to stop Russian tanks blocking Allied airfields.

Mr Perkins, an RAF Cpl, served with Number 3 Armoured Car Squadron whose job was to ensure planes carrying vital supplies for the people of Berlin could land and take-off in safety.

At Gatow, one of the busiest airfields, the squadron had a fleet of cars to monitor the landing strip and nearby village.

"The one on the airfield was to stop the Russians blocking the runway.

"But they told us we musn't manhandle a Russian, because if you did it would cause an international situation," he said.

Without this taking place the whole city would have been starved out - there's no doubt about that
Peter Beswick, RAF navigator

The 81-year-old, from Peterborough, was one of 40 members of the British Berlin Airlift Association honoured on Wednesday at the Royal Air Force Museum, RAF Cosford in Shropshire.

In 1948 west Berlin was cut off by Soviet troops.

British and US aircraft flew in food, diesel and coal on nearly 300,000 flights over 11 months.

Sixty-five British, German and American aircrew died in crashes.

The Soviet leader Stalin had hoped to force the city's citizens to accept Communist government.

But the operation continued until the blockade was lifted almost a year later.

Members of the public met the former servicemen at Cosford to mark the 60th anniversary of the start of the airlift.

People watching the planes coming in
Food, diesel and coal arrived during the operation

Mr Perkins, and many of his fellow servicemen, were at the forefront of the stand-off with the Russians.

"Each car at night had a patrol search light so we could sweep across the airfield.

"Over the road was a forest full of Russian T34 tanks. Every night round about 6.30pm they would start all these tanks up just to scare us," Mr Perkins said.

One night the Cpl was on guard duty when he heard a loud crash and saw that a young German couple had driven a car through a barrier into the Allied sector, trying to escape from the Russian zone.

"Because the car was so badly damaged they couldn't get any further. The Russians came in and took them back and left the car."

Russian air threat

During the airflift aircrews were faced with a number of obstruction tactics such as radio jamming, shining searchlights designed to temporarily blind pilots and drifting barrage balloons.

Peter Beswick was an RAF navigator in 47 Squadron tasked with safely guiding British aircraft through the skies above Berlin.

"We mainly took coal and food, but we carried everything really," he said.

Peter Beswick
Peter Beswick was an RAF navigator during the Berlin Airlift.

"We had to fly down corridors and there were three - two in and one out. It was like driving down the M1 today.

"Providing you stuck to the proper lanes (in the corridors) you were reasonably secure. If you went out you would get buzzed by the Russian aircraft and they would come in pretty close."

The 84-year-old, from Oundle, Northamptonshire, flew 78 separate drops during the airlift.

"It was just a job you got on with, that was all.

"Without this taking place the whole city would have been starved out - there's no doubt about that."

After the war, Berlin was split into four different zones run by Russia, America, France and Britain.

In 1948 the Western Allies merged their sectors, effectively splitting the city in two.

Later that year, the Soviet military government in east Berlin began a blockade of the Allied areas of the city, barring access along railway lines, roads and canals.

The Berlin blockade ended on 11 May 1949 with the Soviets allowing ground access to the city.

Veterans of Berlin Airlift gather
24 Jun 08 |  Shropshire
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14 May 98 |  Europe
Veterans remember Berlin airlift
11 May 98 |  UK News

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