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The Berlin Airlift | Article

The Success of the Airlift

Airbridge to Berlin. Courtesy: D.M. Giangreco

At the beginning of the airlift, the conventional wisdom on both the Allied and Soviet sides was that Berlin could not be supplied indefinitely by air, that it would only be a matter of time before the city fell. But over the winter that calculation changed, and as a new year dawned it became increasingly clear it was the Russian blockade, and not the Western airlift, that would fail.

A Winter's Thaw
 In November 1948 a new airport opened in the French sector of West Berlin, greatly enhancing the airlift's capacity. And bolstered by the efforts of American General William Tunner, a man who seemed born to increase operational efficiency, tonnage totals continued to rise. Thanksgiving saw more than 6,000 tons delivered, and by the end of 1948, 100,000 flights had been completed. Aided by an exceptionally mild winter with frequent fog but few hard frosts, the Allies set new records in January, delivering more than 170,000 tons that month. Daily supplies were now running consistently above Berlin's subsistence level of 4,500 tons, and at the end of January, the Soviets began to get the message.

Avoiding the Currency Issue
 Answering press questions as to what it would take to end the blockade, Joseph Stalin conspicuously failed to mention the Western deutschmark, the very currency whose introduction had supposedly precipitated the Soviet clampdown. In February a new daily airlift record was set — 8,000 tons — and the U.S. representative to the United Nations, Philip Jessup, began informal talks with his Soviet counterpart. In March Jessup received word that the blockade could well be ended soon; that same month a new delivery record of nearly 200,000 tons was set.

The Easter Parade
 Although overall signs were certainly encouraging, Tunner hated complacency among his pilots, frequently engineering friendly competition between various units as to who could get the most tonnage to Berlin. In early spring Tunner hit on a plan to shatter past records with a 24-hour blitz that would aim to deliver 10 tons a minute. It would run between noon on April 16 and April 17, which was Easter Sunday, and would be "an Easter present for the people of Berlin." When the time came, the Allied fleet, which now numbered nearly 400 aircraft, did not disappoint; nearly 4,000 take-offs and landings occurred during that period, an average of roughly one every 36 seconds, and almost 13,000 tons were delivered.

The End
 A little more than a week later, the Soviet news agency TASS announced that the Russians were amenable to lifting their blockade, and the U.S. State Department said the "way appear[ed] clear" for it to end. Delegates from the four occupying powers in Berlin announced on May 4 that the blockade would end eight days later, and at one minute past midnight on May 12, Soviet barricades at the border with West Germany went up and the first British land convoy in nearly a year began to make its way to Berlin.

Heroes of the Airlift
 The first train from the west arrived in the city just after 5:30 a.m., and by 11 that morning hundreds of thousands of people had gathered to celebrate the victory and toast American General Lucius Clay, who told them they were as much the heroes of the airlift as the pilots. With tears streaming down his face, Clay then stood and received the crowd's cheers in silence. Operation Vittles would continue for a few more months, just to make sure enough supplies were stockpiled to forestall further Soviet threats. But on September 30, the 276,926th and final flight of the airlift touched down in Berlin. At last, the work was done.

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