A cartoonish look at how an epic airlift prevented WWIII

Everyone knew in the closing days of World War II that the Soviet Union was destined to clash with the rest of the Allies. But when he attempted a blockade of West Berlin that amounted to a siege in 1948, he still took the world by surprise and threatened World War III. Fortunately, President Harry S. Truman was able to call on the Western Air Force to resupply Berlin by air for over a year.

Berlin Airlift: The Cold War Begins – Additional Story

The Berlin blockade, as it was called, was a reaction to attempts by the Western powers to re-stabilize the German economy and currency after World War II. The Soviet Union and the West both wanted Germany to lean towards them in the postwar world because it would act as a buffer state for the winning side.

But, beyond that, Russia wanted to make sure that Germany would never again be strong enough to invade the Soviet Union. Remember that the German army under the Kaiser had invaded Russia only 30 years before the Germans under the Führer invaded the Soviet Union. The Soviets didn’t want to go through this anymore.

Thus, Soviet Premier Josef Stalin sabotaged the first attempt at reforming the German economy, and when the Western powers attempted to introduce the new German Deutsche Mark behind his back, Stalin instituted a total blockade of West Berlin. .

Germany had been divided after the war, with America, Britain, France and the Soviet Union all taking control of part of the country. But each Allied power also gained control of part of the German capital, Berlin, even though Berlin was entirely within the Soviet sector of the country.

So the Soviets could stifle the ability of France, America, and Britain to resupply their troops simply by shutting down the roads and railroads that fed the city, and they did.

This has left these countries with a serious problem and only shitty choices. Do nothing, and the troops are starving. Withdraw the troops and the Soviets take control of the entire capital. Try to resupply them in force, and you will start a war, that’s for sure.

So Truman’s senior advisers suggested that he simply give in and withdraw the troops. Better to lose the city than wage another war, and leaving the troops to starve was not an option at all.

A C-54 flies at Berlin Tempelhof Airport in 1948 as part of the Berlin Airlift. (US Air Force Henry Ries)

But Truman, a frontline veteran of World War I, and the man who decided to drop the atomic bombs was not one to fear a confrontation. He ordered the city to be held and demanded that his generals find a way to stock up.

Their best plan was a daring airlift called Operation Vittles. British experts have estimated that 4,000 tonnes of supplies would be needed per day to keep the city going. Airlifting so many supplies would be difficult in any situation, but the task was made worse by the limited amount of infrastructure in Berlin to receive the supplies.

Berlin only had two major airports capable of receiving sufficiently large transport: Tempelhof Airport and the Royal Air Force Station Gatow. These stations would have to receive well over 1,000 flights per day if the mission were to be accomplished with readily available aircraft, mostly older C-47s.

But in the early days of the airlift, the air force would be well below 4,000 tonnes per day. Instead, they would hit over 70 and 90 tonnes per day, slowly increasing to 1,000 tonnes per day. But, after a few weeks, when it became clear that the airlift would have to go on indefinitely, the US Air Force brought in an airlift expert to increase the throughput.

Major-General William H. Tunner was a senior operations officer with Military Air Transport Command, and he took over to make the operation much more professional and precise. Under Tunner, the military brought in new planes that would maximize the reception capacity of Tempelhof and Gatow.

The C-54s could carry more supplies, but they also overloaded the landing surfaces. Workers rushed between landings to spread sand to lessen damage to the landing surface. And, as winter approached, a brand new airstrip was built at Tempelhof.

A cartoonish look at how an epic airlift prevented WWIII
Almost 1.8 million tonnes of supplies were delivered at the end of the operation. (US Air Force)

And the miracle worked. Tunner got the daily total at over 4,000 tonnes, then set record days at 4,500 tonnes, 5,000 tonnes and beyond.

Eventually, the Soviet Union had to admit that the blockade had failed. The German people had rallied to the Western powers, and the West was in a better position after a 15-month airlift than it was before departure. The western sections of Berlin and Germany became decidedly pro-American and British, and the Soviet Union had to use force of arms to retain control of the Soviet sections.

It should have been predictable. After all, there are few sites that could make a government more popular than its planes that fly over, drop candy, and deliver food and fuel, for more than a year, because you’re barely able to avoid starvation.

The Cold War was on, but Western logistics had won the first major victory without violence. But, around 101 deaths were suffered in the operation.

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