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Berlin Airlift - "Operation Vittles"

Under the terms of the Potsdam Agreement of 2 August 1945, Berlin was divided into four Zones of Occupation. The city was to be treated as a single economic entity with the Russian Zone providing most of the electrical power required by the English, French, and American Zones.

On 25 June 1948, the Soviets served notice that they would no longer supply the three Western Zones with food or electricity. In addition, land access to the respective zones was denied, thereby blockading the entire western portion of the city. Only three air corridors remained open.

 

map of divided Berlin
Life for the Berliners was Hard
 
When the winter of 1948-1949 came, Berliners found their stockpiles of food and coal gone. They chopped down all the trees in the city for fuel and scavenged garbage cans for food.

In a matter of 15 months, history was changed by this incredible humanitarian event - the Berlin Airlift.

 

poster about Berlin Airlift
The Berlin Airlift Begins -
26 June 1948

An airlift was agreed upon by the Western Allies, and on 26 June 1948, 32 sorties by C-47 transport aircraft airlifted 80 tons of goods from Wiesbaden AFB to Tempelhof AFB in Berlin.

Designated "Operation Vittles" by the Americans, the daily tonnage quickly escalated from the levels of June 26th to an average of 8,000 tons daily, a record of 13,000 tons set on April 16th, 1949.

During the course of the 15 months, Air Transport command, using mostly C-54 cargo planes, flew 189,963 sorties to deliver some 1,783,000 tons of coal, food and supplies.

C-54 planes at Templehof in Berlin
Ground Movements of Supplies
 
The Air Force was only part of the operation. U.S. Army transportation companies hauled the cargo from railheads to airports of departure. They also provided movement for distribution.

Six of the Army's heavy truck companies transported a total of 3, 466,000 tons.

Top right, at a railhead in Zepplinheim, West Germany, 5-ton 4 x 2 M426 trailers are loaded with supplies for the Airlift. Manufactured by International, Kenworth and Marmon-Herrington, all had 124 bhp engines driving 5-speed gearboxes and double reduction axles.

Bottom right A C-47 being unloaded at Tempelhof airport, 1948.

 

trucks moving supplies to Berlin

C-47 unloading at Templehof, Berlin

U.S. Supply Points

The U.S. loaded supplies at Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden, and delivered to Tempelhof airfield in Berlin. Allies built a third airfield, Tegel, in the French sector of Berlin, that is now Berlin's main airport.

At the height of the Airlift, two groups of aircraft few in 4-hour blocks around the clock, a plane taking off and landing every 90 seconds.

unloading aircraft at Templehof

Unloading aircraft at Tempelhof.

aircraft awaiting supplies at Rhein-Main airport

At Rhein-Main Air Base, Military and civilian supplies from Giessen Quartermaster Depot arrive in trucks of the 67th Transportation Company for transfer to waiting aircraft.

The Chocolate Flier

USAF 1st Lt. Gail S. Halvorsen talked with some of the children in Berlin while awaiting a lift. He offered them his last two sticks of Wrigley's Doublemint Gum, and remarked that if they didn't fight over it, he would drop some candy to them if they were there the next day. A child asked how they would know it was his plane, and he told them he would tip the wings on approach.  By tipping the wings of his aircraft, signaling the children of a candy drop. Causing some to call him "Uncle Wiggly Wings."

Below right,  1st Lt. Halvorsen made parachutes out of hankies, ripped shirts and sheets and filled them with chocolate bars, candy and gum. These were dropped daily to the children of Berlin.

LT Halvorsen dropping candy to children in Berlin

photo of LT Halvorsen

German Volunteers
 
One of the biggest problems during the airlift was the lack of manpower. It was decided to use those who benefited from the airlift.

German volunteers were used for unloading crews at Berlin's two airports - Tempelhof and Gatow; with incentives such as an extra ration or a pack of cigarettes, they did an especially good job. Because of these incentives, the record for unloading 10-tons of coal was set at 10 minutes.

 

German children volunteers unload aircraft at Gatow in Berlin

School children volunteer to help unload a C-47 aircraft of supplies at Gatow airfield, Berlin, 1948.

End of the Blockade
 

The western Allies reached an agreement with the Soviets on 4 May 1949, and by 12 May, the blockade was lifted. All communication, trade, and transportation services were restored.

It was decided to continue supplying Berlin by air in order to build up a sufficient supply of goods. The Airlift officially ended on 30 September 1949, fifteen months after its meager beginnings.

Statistics
Cargo (short tons)

  Flights Total Food Coal Other
USA 189,963 1,783,573 296,319 1,421,119 66,135
UK 87,841 541,937 240,386 164,911 136,640
France 424 896 unk unk unk
Total 278,228 2,326,406      

This battle, one of the greatest humanitarian aviation events in history, saved over 2.5 million people without firing a single shot.

 

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