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David Nightingale : The Berlin Airlift

There are at least two famous airlifts associated with World War II. In 1942, when the last route from India to China was cut off, FDR made the decision that it was imperative China receive armaments and supplies for the Army Air Force in China, which was struggling to pin down Japanese forces. Both the US and UK began the appallingly dangerous air lift over the Himalayas -- from Assam (famous for its tea) in India to Kunming in China. That airlift, over snowy peaks and through sometimes zero visibility, icing on wings, and winds that could even reach 200 mph continued for 3 years, with the loss of 600 transport planes and over 1000 airmen. Gene Autry, the 'Singing Cowboy' who died in 1998, was one of those C47 pilots, as was the then very young Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska.

This little essay is about the Berlin Airlift. What had happened was that a few months before the end of the war the Russians had advanced into Berlin, and the war-weary Berliners had surrendered. By May '45 Berliners were enduring extensive rape and pillaging, and the city was total misery – rubble, blackened masonry, no electricity and little food [p.23].

Thus, Berlin's workforce was basically old men, orphans and cripples. For two years Russia put on the squeeze, and without saying so was attempting to force out France, Britain, and the US. The eastern zone of Berlin of course was Russian; in the west, it was the allies who were trying to help alleviate the ghastly conditions of their German once-enemies.

On June 24th 1948, three years after the end of the war, the Soviets, frustrated that they couldn't get rid of the allied presence, stopped all land traffic into Berlin, and thus the blockade began. War was hardly an option: the allies had only ~6500 combat-ready troops facing 18,000 Russian troops already in the city itself – and the Russians, for their part, did not have the atomic bomb.

Now Berlin would need over 4000 tons of supplies per day, and the day after the blockade, June 25th 1948, the allies made their first delivery of food by air [p.148].

The second day, US C47s brought in 80 tons, and British Dakotas managed to bring 13 tons.

The fourth day, C47s brought 400 tons; Dakotas another 44 tons -- still nothing like enough. Berliners were still living in hunger, cold and fear [p.150].  

But the airlift went on. On September 18, a record 7000 tons was airlifted. However, things couldn't be kept at that level, despite the fact that the larger C54s were now assisting the old C47s. [p.234]

It was clear the Russians didn't initially think an airlift would work, and they were prepared to stretch out the crisis until the Western powers withdrew.

Allied aircraft were soon averaging taking off and landing every 3 minutes, night and day.

Finally, in May 1949, the Soviets, who were clearly losing world sympathy, lifted the blockade. However, a week later [p.360] they modified their decision, reducing the numbers of allowed trains and buses, and, worse, began 'exercises' of fighter planes on the three airlift lanes from the west. A state of semi-blockade ensued, although some fuels and foods were allowed in by land.

After further extensive diplomatic meetings between east and west the airlift wound down, actually ending in September.   2.3 million tons had just kept the western sectors of Berlin alive. Nevertheless, the Soviets continued to make contact between east and west difficult, putting up a wall in 1961 which remained for 30 years.

All in all, 25 aircraft crashed, and there were about 100 fatalities. Interestingly, listeners wishing to learn more about that time in history could check ArsChoralis.org, and see there will be a June concert in Kingston, NY, which will include all kinds of music from that tragic post-war period.


1. “Berlin Airlift”, by Ann Tusa & John Tusa; Atheneum, 1988.

2. “Flying the hump”, by Otha Spencer; Texas A&M Univ. Press, 1994.

3. “The Last Division; a history of Berlin”, by Ann Tusa; Addison Wesley, 1997.

Dr. David Nightingale is professor emeritus of physics at The State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.