What it was, its importance during the Cold War > U.S. Department of Defense > History

June 26 marks the 74th anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift, the first major test of US resolve during the Cold War and one of the largest humanitarian aid missions in history.

Never heard of it? Well, you’re in luck – we’ve summarized the story for you here.

Division of Germany after World War II

After the end of the Second World War, Germany was in ruins and the situation in its capital, Berlin, was dire. About 2.5 million Berliners still lived in the war-torn city, but food was scarce and shelter hard to find amid the rubble. The economy was mostly made up of black market goods at that time.

To begin reconstruction, the Allies divided Germany into the United States, Britain, and Russia. Berlin was also divided into occupation zones; the Soviets controlled the eastern part while the west moved towards the United States, United Kingdom and France.

Unfortunately, the Soviet-Allied alliance quickly soured and tensions erupted in full swing in 1948.

The Breaking Point

Russia met regularly with Britain, the United States and France after the war to coordinate occupation policy between the different areas, but stopped in early 1948 when it discovered that the other three nations were secretly planning to create a new German state from their areas.

In June 1948, the United States and the United Kingdom introduced a new currency, the Deutschmark, in their areas, which included West Berlin. They hid it from the Soviets because they wanted to regain economic control of Russia and clamp down on the rampant black market, as well as provide aid under the Marshall Plan, an American strategy to rebuild Europe. .

But the problem was this: Berlin was located deep inside Russian East Germany, so the Soviets took advantage of this, leading to the first Berlin crisis of the Cold War.

The Berlin Airlift begins

On June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blocked all roads, railroads, and waterways in Allied-controlled areas of Berlin, choking off the vital flow of food, coal, and other supplies. The number of Soviet troops dwarfed that of the Allies, who had withdrawn after the war, so the Allies could do nothing about it militarily.

But the Soviets could not blockade Allied airspace, so American and British forces took to the skies to resupply Allied sectors. On June 26, the United States launched Operation Vittles, which the United Kingdom later joined. It was the largest aerial resupply mission ever undertaken. The Allies also imposed their own counter-blockade, restricting trade with East Germany and East Berlin.

A massive mission

The airlift was a daunting task at first. More than 2 million Berliners were counting on the aid, which included much-needed food, fuel and medicine. Over time, however, it became more efficient and the number of airdrops increased. At one time, Air Force and Navy planes landed at Tempelhof Airport every 45 seconds.

On Easter Sunday, April 17, 1949, the incessant procession of planes managed to deliver 13,000 tonnes of freight, including the equivalent of 600 wagonloads of coal, all in one day!

Things were not going well for the Soviets. The airlift had been going on for 10 months and the Allies had proven they could sustain it indefinitely. The Russians had acquired a reputation as bullies because of their blockade. Additionally, an Allied counter-blockade was causing severe shortages in the Russian sectors, raising fears of an uprising.

The Soviet Union gives in and lifts the blockade on May 11, 1949; however, the airlift itself did not end until September 30, just in case the Soviets decided to change their minds.

During the entire airlift, the United States and the United Kingdom delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and supplies to West Berlin via more than 278,000 airdrops. American crews have completed more than 189,000 flights, logging nearly 600,000 flight hours and exceeding 92 million miles.

The airlift demonstrated America’s spirit of innovation, efficiency, perseverance and leadership. He also underscored the value of cooperation and the need for allies to accomplish tasks that one country simply cannot accomplish alone.

While this crisis ended peacefully, the ideological division of Europe was just beginning. When the blockade ended, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization had been created, partly in response to Soviet aggression. A few weeks later, East Berlin and West Berlin officially separated, each becoming the symbol of their respective political views – democracy and freedom in the West versus communism in the East.

(Editor’s note: This article has been updated. The original was published on June 25, 2018.)

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