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Berlin Airlift 75 years on: When 'enemies became friends'

June 23, 2023

After the Soviet Union cut supply lines to West Berlin in 1948, Western Allies launched a historic rescue effort: an airlift for more than 2 million residents. Seventy-five years on Germany is commemorating the blockade.

A boy standing in a tree watches as a plane flies by, in this black and white photo
Allied planes dropped candy and other supplies into West BerlinImage: dpa/picture alliance

When World War II ended in Europe on May 8, 1945, Germany lay in ruins. Many cities were landscapes of rubble following the defeat of Adolf Hitler's Nazi Germany, which had started the war and perpetrated massive crimes against humanity.

The shadow of the Cold War loomed over the rebuilding of the occupied country.

The powers which united to be victorious over the Third Reich now spied on each other, full of mistrust — Western Allies US, UK, and France on one side and the Soviet Union on the other. It wasn't just Germany which was divided among them into occupied zones, but the city of Berlin as well. There, the tensions were especially palpable.

About 2 million people lived in West Berlin at the time, an island in the middle of Soviet-controlled territory.

Crisis caused by introduction of Deutschmark currency

The showdown between West and East came on June 20, 1948, when the Western Allies decided to form a monetary union — the Deutschmark, also known as the D-Mark or DM. The idea was to stabilize Germany economically with a hard currency. The Deutschmark was also implemented in West Berlin.

But Soviet dictator Josef Stalin feared the introduction of the new currency would consolidate West Berlin's special status as a bridgehead for the Western Allies in the middle of Soviet territory.

"This caused a rift between the three Western occupying powers and the Soviet side," Bernd von Kostka, the curator of the Allied Museum in Berlin, told DW in 2018. "Before this, working together on a policy for Germany was already very difficult — with the monetary union it became de facto impossible."

On the night of June 24, the Soviets blocked all access routes to the western part of Berlin. The lights soon went out because 75% of the electricity was supplied by the surrounding area. The Eastern Bloc planned to wear down the residents of West Berlin and thereby force the Allies out of the divided city.

'No alternative to the airlift'

But the US viewed West Berlin as an outpost of freedom, a bulwark against communism.

They were pressured for time because West Berliners were threatened with starvation. In consultation with the other Allies, US President Harry S. Truman decided on a spectacular rescue operation: supplying 2 million people entirely via the three air lanes guaranteed by the Soviet Union.

"There was no alternative to the airlift," said von Kostka. However, the plan seemed "unimaginable" at first.

On June 26, the first US Air Force aircraft departed the Western German airports of Frankfurt am Main and Wiesbaden for Berlin. Soon, the planes were flying around the clock. They departed and landed in 90-second intervals at Tempelhof Airport, in the US-controlled sector of Berlin, Gatow Airfield in the British sector and, from December 1948, at the new Tegel airport, which had been extended by the French.

Berlin's 'Candy Bomber' dies aged 101

Each day, West Berlin needed on average at least 5,000 to 6,000 tons of groceries and coal. In mid-April 1949, a record 13,000 tons of freight were delivered by about 1,400 flights within a 24-hour period. Often overtired, the airlift pilots risked their lives to fly to the city in all weathers. Some of the planes crashed.

Chocolate and chewing gum for the children

The propeller planes, which were nicknamed "candy bombers" by Berlin residents, flew so low over the city when coming in to land that the crew and the residents could wave at each other. Some pilots threw down homemade parachutes containing chocolate and chewing gum for children.

The Berlin Airlift changed the tense relationship between US forces and the West Germans, as the deliveries of essential supplies "turned enemies into friends," said former US pilot Gail Halvorsen, who died in 2022.

His interview can be found on the "Zeitzeugenportal" (eyewitness portal) of the Museum of German History in Bonn, which includes 8,000 eyewitness accounts from World War I until today. 

American aircraft drops food and supplies near a crowd of Berliners during the blockade of Berlin 1948-1949
The population of West Berlin was reliant on food brought in via the airliftImage: picture-alliance/United Archives/WHA

Along with the logistical masterstroke of the Allied forces, the perseverance of the blockaded West Germans played a decisive role in the campaign's success. On each day of the Berlin Airlift, the Western Allies gained favor among the international public, while the Soviets' reputation declined.

In the end, Stalin recognized that he could not win this power play. On May 12, 1949, after 322 days, Stalin lifted the blockade. Up until that point, the Allies had made about 260,000 flights to West Berlin, delivering more than 2.1 million tons of essential supplies.

Stalin's historical miscalculation

"Stalin achieved the opposite of his goal. He wanted the Allies to cease preparing a West German state. As it turned out, the state was formed even more quickly, NATO was formed and Western integration progressed. Stalin's blockade of West Berlin is one of the biggest miscalculations ever made by a politician," Walther Hofer, a now-deceased Swiss historian,  said in his interview found on the "Zeitzeugenportal."

As for the Germans, they felt like they had been accepted into the Western community of values, von Kostka from the Allied Museum explained. "They then no longer perceived the Allies primarily as an occupying force, but rather as a protective force," he said.

Von Kostka also saw the Berlin Airlift as an example of international cooperation that has relevance in today's crisis and conflict regions. "We have seen that it is perfectly possible to supply people from the air. With the transport capacity of modern freight planes, it would be possible to bring the amount supplied during the airlift to any city in the world in a fraction of the number of flights," he said.

This text is based on an earlier article from 2018, which was translated from German.

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