The Berlin Airlift
The RAF Airlift June to December 1948
The Berlin airlift was preceded by nearly three years of constant tension and sniping by the Russians against the Western Allies in an attempt to drive them out of West Berlin and Western Germany by a variety of tactics, including searches, blocking transportation of even basic supplies to West Berlin and intimidating West German Civilians.
At midnight on 23rd June, the Russians cut the electrical power to the western sectors of Berlin, and at six o'clock on the 24th June, they severed all road and barge traffic to and from the city, and at the same time they stopped the transfer of all supplies from the Soviet sector. On 24th June, the western Sectors of Berlin were under siege.
The only route remaining open to the Western Allies were the three air corridors leading from the western sectors of Germany to the Western controlled Berlin sectors. Each corridor was twenty statute miles wide, extending vertically from ground level to 10,000ft. Two terminated in the British zone and one in the American zone. The two British corridors ran over relatively flat country, but the American corridor crossed over ground rising to 3,000ft over much of its length. To supply West Berlin, the Americans had only 100 C-47 transport aircraft in Europe, and the RAF could add 150, mostly Dakotas with a few Avro Yorks. This meant that against the daily requirement of 13,500 tons of food for Berlin, the USAF and RAF between them could probably airlift in 700 tons at the outside.
Some American military advisors cautioned a less aggressive stand over Berlin, while they flew to Britain to find out the British attitude toward the Soviet move. They were surprised when the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Ernest Bevin, informed them that the Cabinet had voted not to sanction a withdrawal from Berlin, and that RAF transport aircraft were already flying in supplies. The British government's viewpoint was that the situation would be back to normal in a few days, once the Russians had made their gesture. The British attitude did much to strengthen American resolve, although President Truman's resolve needed no strengthening. He was adamant that the Western Allies should maintain their presence in West Berlin. On 25th June, Truman ordered that all resources were to be channelled into forming a viable airlift organization.
While at British HQ Air Force of Occupation, the RAF deployed sixteen Supermarine Spitfires of 80 Squadron to Gatow, to provide protection if the Russians decided to interfere with the air bridge. There were withdrawn on 14th July when it became apparent that the Russians would not interfere with the airlift.
When the Russians severed all road and rail links to Western Berlin on 24th June, RAF Transport Command had a single squadron of Dakotas in Germany. No. 30 Squadron, which left for Cambridgeshire on 25th June.
By mid-June 1948, the RAF had two squadrons on standby to supply the British garrison in Berlin should it prove necessary. Supply plans had also been drawn up under the codename of Operation 'Knicker'. The evening of 24th June saw further orders received at RAF Waterbeach to deploy one Dakota squadron to Wunstorf and to be ready to commence operations within 48 hours. At midnight on 27/28 June the second squadron was ordered to Wunstorf as soon as possible.
The original requirement of 'Knicker' was to supply 130,000lbs daily to support the British garrison in Berlin, which required 24 Dakota sorties daily and was expected to continue for at least a month. Within 48 hours, however, it became apparent that two squadrons of Dakotas would not be enough to sustain what was fast becoming a major effort. No.46 Group, brought in Nos.38 and 47 Groups to help, and the enlarged operation was codenamed 'Carter Paterson', which changed in early July to become Operation 'Plainfare'.
The 38 additional aircraft needed for the enlarged airlift flew into Oakington on the morning of 29th June and positioned at Wunstorf the next day. At the same time, Group Captain Noel Hyde was sent to Germany to co-ordinate the air Lift. Although the chain of command was confused to begin with, the administration was eventually sorted out, and the task eventually fell to No.46 Group.
Wunstorf was not a big airfield, and by the beginning of July it was already heavily congested. When the airlift began the airfield possessed two concrete runways, perimeter tracks and ladder-type hardstanding and the aprons in front of the hangers. Every other surface was grass.
The original airlift requirement from Wunstorf was for 161 Dakota sorties per day, lifting 400 tons, plus six sorties per day by scheduled RAF Dakota services to Berlin, lasting until 3rd July. This was to be followed by 84 Dakota sorties lifting 210 tons daily, together with the six sorties required by the personnel services in Berlin, to run from 4th July until further notice. At the same time, No.47 Group was to provide forty Avro York aircraft to fly 120 sorties during this period. The first Yorks arrived at Wunstorf on the evening of 12th July. It was decided that due to the condition of the airfield only twenty Yorks could be accommodated until temporary steel planking was laid to expand the usable area. The first two days caused many congestion problems, but work on the new surfaces proceeded rapidly, and the next Yorks arrived on 4th and 5th July.
The RAF created strict air traffic control procedures for the aircraft. They would take off on the primary -09- runway and climb straight ahead for two minutes at 145 knots keeping below 1,000 feet before turning to port for Walsrode. A takeoff on the other runway required a climb straight ahead for two minutes, and then a turn the shortest way for Walsrode. The flight en route was at 3,500ft and airspeed of 160 knots. The outbound route was then from the base to Walsrode, Walsrode to Egestorf, Egestorf to Restorf and finally Restorf to Frohnau. On arrival at the Frohanu beacon, aircraft made their initial call to Gatow Airfield, passing call-sign height, ETA Frohanau and type of load carried. Gatow then provided altimeter setting above sea level, airfield elevation, runway in use, surface wind speed and direction, and also cleared the aircraft to descend to its allocated height at the Frohnau beacon. On reaching the beacon, the captain changed his altimeter setting above sea level and called Gatow approach for his clearance.
A western approach to Gatow required a heading of 180 degrees magnetic and homing on the Grunewald beacon, descending to 1,500ft. At Grunewald beacon, they turned to 260 degrees magnetic, and changed frequency to the final controller for his approach. Immediately upon making visual contact with the field, the pilot changed frequency again to Gatow Tower for completion of the landing.
An easterly approach entailed turning to a heading of 210 degrees magnetic and homing in on the Huston beacon, maintaining a height of not less than 2,500ft. At Huston, the aircraft altered course to 260 degrees magnetic, which was to be held until six miles downwind of Runway 08 descending to 1,500ft in the meantime. At this point, the aircraft turned port onto a heading of 090 degrees magnetic and changed frequency to the final controller.
The daily sortie rate was increased to 125 sorties on 16th July. Operation 'Knicker' exceeded its planned lift by 30,000 lbs without any increase in the planned number of sorties. This was achieved by the removal of unnecessary equipment such as dinghies.
The first stage of Operation 'Plainfare', 30th June to 3rd July, failed to meet its target of 160 sorties per day due to bad weather, mainly low cloud cover and rain. Minor unsearchability compounded the problem and lack of manpower was responsible for occasional hold-ups.
The second phase, 4th to 19th July, rapidly increased the daily lift with the arrival of the No.47 Group York aircraft. The lift rose from 474 tons on 6th July to 995 tons on 18th July.
5th July the transport force was augmented by ten Short Sunderland flying boats from No.201 and 230 squadrons, which operated a shuttle service from a temporary base at Finkenwerder, on the River Elbe west of Hamburg, to the Havel See (Lake Havel) adjoining Gatow airfield. Each aircraft carried 4 1/2 tons into Berlin and brought out manufactured goods and undernourished refugees on each trip. The Sunderlands made over 1,000 sorties until ice-flows on the Havel See brought flying boat operations to a halt on 15th December. The Sunderlands together with two civilian Short Hythe flying boats, due to their ability to withstand salt corrosion, were detailed to carry urgently needed bulk salt, which the other aircraft could not carry.
On 29th July, the RAF Dakotas moved to Fassberg, while the four-engine types remained at Wunstorf. Fessberg had to undergo a complete renovation for 'Plainfare' but the hardstanding was complete in just seven days. The RAF remained at Fassberg until 22nd August when USAF aircraft arrived to take over, and the RAF aircraft transferred to Lübeck, another airfield that required extensive renovation, including an extension to the existing concrete runway.
Operating from Lübeck required even greater care, as the boundary of the Soviet Zone was only two miles from the eastern boundary of the airfield. On 5th October, the civilian Dakotas that had accompanied the RAF aircraft since Wunstorf, left for Fühlsbüttel to alleviate congestion. At this time the RAF Dakota force in Germany was comprised of elements of seven squadrons, which were further augmented by another twelve Dakotas crews from Commonwealth Air Forces squadrons. Further crews arrived in November and December.
The high intensity of operation during the first three months of Operation 'Plainfare' produced their crop of accidents, but only one, which was fatal. On 19th September, York MW288 crashed at Wunstorf after suffering engine failure during a night takeoff. All five crew (Flight Lieutenants H.W. Thomson and G. Kell, Navigator L.E.H. Gilbert, Signaller 2 S.M.L. Towersey and Engineer 2 E.W. Watson) were killed.
RAF Transport Command found itself with a major problem in August, as the 'Plainfare' operations had skeletonized the availability of aircrew and aircraft on other routes. Ten Yorks and twenty Dakotas, with 36 instructor aircrews, were withdrawn from 'Plainfare' for the training of new aircrews. The drop in daily tonnage was significant and was not made good until the arrival of the first Handley Page Hastings transport at Schleswigalnd in November.
On 22nd September, No.46 Group detached an advanced operational headquarters to take over control of the 'Plainfare' operation in Berlin, and had a skeleton air staff. The entire staff numbered thirteen officers and eight airmen. The headquarters was located in the Scholls Bückeburg, and absorbed the transport operation room already operating there.
On 15th October 1948 the BAFO and USAFE established a Combined Airlift Task Force (CALTF) at Wiesbaden. Commanded by Major-General William H. Tunner, USAF, who had been charged during World War 2 with commanding the airlift from India to China.
The RAF's contribution to the Berlin Airlift received a considerable boost on 1st November 1948 with the arrival of the first Hasting C. Mk 1 aircraft from No.47 Squadron. 15th December saw Tegel, a new airfield situated in the French Sector, opened and had been built solely to accommodate the overload of traffic burdening Tempelhof and Gatow. It had taken just four months to build from the first breaking of ground in August.
On 19th November, Dakota KN223 piloted by I. Trezona, crashed in the Soviet Zone. Two others had died in the crash and the navigator died in hospital in Schöneberg a fortnight later. 1st December the administrative responsibility for the five RAF airlift stations in the British Zone was transferred to the AOC No.46 group. Prior to this, HQ BAFO had administered while HQ No.46 group had operational control.
On 17th December 1948, Avro York MW232 piloted by Flight Lieutenant Beeson airlifted a cargo of canned meat into Gatow. It was the 100,000th ton of provisions brought in by Operation 'Plainfare'. On 20th December, a Christmas concert was given for German employees at Gatow, and during the next two days special parties were organized at which over 1,000 children were fed and entertained.
On 23rd December the 50,000th 'Plainfare' landing was made at Gatow. The same month, the British rescinded the order preventing wives and children from joining the British servicemen in Berlin, the first families arriving in time for Christmas as part of Operation 'Union'.
Meanwhile at Tegel the French had given the Allied pilots their own Christmas present by blowing up a Soviet-controlled Berlin radio transmitter that presented a hazard to the landings. It was reported to be gone on 16th December. The destruction of the transmitter cost the French the Stolpe district of Berlin, which had been allocated to them as an airfield, which they no longer needed because Tegel was in operation.
The beginning of 1949 saw the tonnage of supplies flown into Berlin surpass all previous records, and the Russians began to realize that they had involved themselves in a dilemma from which there was no graceful retreat. They could do nothing about the airlift, short of shooting down the aircraft in their legally allowed access routes, and that would have constituted an act of war. They did however try to harass and intimidate the Allied pilots by running firing practices around and below the air corridors. They even buzzed the Allied transports. Sometimes the transports were also greeted by carefully placed barrages of anti-aircraft fire. The Russians also tried jamming the Allied radio frequencies, firing flares, using searchlights and laying chemicals.
Another RAF Dakota crashed on 24th January, with 22 passengers onboard, into a Forest in the Russian controlled East Germany. Five German civilians and the RAF wireless operator had died in the crash. Three others died from injuries later, and the survivors were permitted to cross into the city of Lübeck once they had recovered from their injuries. The Russians used this terrible incident for propaganda.
The second fatal crash of 1949 was on March 22nd, when Dakota KJ970 was approaching to land at Lübeck during bad weather. Two of the three crew died outright and the third died later of his injuries.
The last crash for the RAF was an RAF Hastings TG611 that suffered engine failure shortly after taking off from Tegel and plunged into the ground killing all five crew.
Early in January 1949, BAFO Headquarters had issued a directive to consider that Operation 'Plainfare' was liable to continue for two or three years and planning must be made accordingly. This required a number of solutions to different problems, including rotation of personnel. RAF Squadrons would eventually have a rotation of three months engaged in airlift operations followed by two months in the United Kingdom for a rest.
By February 1949 the airlift was averaging a daily lift of 5,500 short tons. However, bad weather, would have driven the daily tonnage below the minimum required to maintain Berlin, but there was very little in the early months of 1949.
15th Mach 1949 saw No.46 Group Headquarters moved from Bückeburg to Luneberg, where facilities were better and Luneberg was more central to the airbases. April 1st saw No.46 Group HQ placed under the command of the AOC-in-C BAFO for all purposes and on 1st May the personnel were posted from Transport Command to BAFO. BAFO was now totally responsible for the Berlin Airlift operations. The aircraft, which belonged to Transport Command, were returned to the United Kingdom periodically for servicing, although the crews were attached to BAFO for their three-month tour in Germany.
On 1st April, the civilian airlift companies formed the Civil Airlift Division (British European Airways). The Division joined No.46 Headquarters at Luneberg on 1st May. 16th April saw a big boost for morale when in a 24-hour period ending on noon that day, the combined airlift task force, in the course of 1,398 flights, lifted 12,940 tons of goods, coal and machinery into Berlin. The pervious daily tonnage record had been 8,246 set on 11th April.
On 4th April 1949, the West put the final nail in the Soviet Union's 'divide and conquer' policy. The articles plainly stating that an attack on any one nation, or its representatives would be considered an attack against them all. Article 6 of the Treaty stated:
...An armed attack on one or more of the parties is deemed to include an armed attack ... on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, when in or over these territories (i.e. territories under the jurisdiction of any of the parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer) or any area of Europe in which occupation of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the treaty entered into force...'
This prevented the Russians from taking West Berlin by force, as it would have involved a war with all the Western Allies. The Russian blockade of Berlin had failed lamentably, and left the Russians in a dubious position. With the fall of China to Communism, the Russians could afford to lose the Battle for Berlin, and on 4th May the four powers (Russia, Britain, France and the United States) reached an agreement. All restrictions imposed on traffic to and from Berlin by all parties were to be removed on 12th May 1949. On 8th May, the Parliamentary Council in Bonn adopted a constitution for the new Federal Republic of Germany. It was four years to the day since the end of World War Two. Twelfth May 1949 was a holiday in Berlin as power returned, refugees trapped in Western Germany came home and the land supply routes were reopened.
The members of the City Assembly at Schöneberg held a special meeting to mark the occasion and voted to rename the square outside Tempelhof Airport 'Air Bridge Square' in memory of the 54 Allied airmen who had lost their lives in the airlift up to that time.
However, within a matter of hours the Russians began imposing new restrictions and a strike on the railways meant that the Allies decided to continue the airlift until the land routes were fully restored and a reserve of supplies had been built up in the city against such an occurrence in the future. The airlift continued until 1st August 1949, and from then a gradual rundown began, culminating in the withdrawal of all aircraft by 1st October. Throughout the airlift, the RAF had lifted nearly 400,000 tons into Berlin. Such a record demanded a high level of competence and skill, not to mention dedication, and all this during a period of transition for RAF Transport Command from two engines to four engine aircraft.
|Headquarters, CALTF||Headquarters, No.46 Group|
|RAF Wunstorf||RAF Gatow|
|RAF Lübeck||RAF Schleswigland|
|RAF Fassberg||RAF Celle|
Traffic Control Centre
Force Approach Control
|No.10, Dakota C IV||No.18, Dakota C IV|
York C I and
(one) Lancastrian II
|No.27, Dakota C IV|
|No.30, Dakota C IV||No.40, York C I|
|No.46, Dakota C IV||No.47, Hastings C I|
|No.51, York C I||No.53,
Dakota C IV
Hastings CI from August 1949
|No.59, York C I||No.62, Dakota C IV|
|No.77, Dakota C IV||No.99, Yorkc C I|
|No.201, Sunderland GR V||No.206, York C I|
|No.230, Sunderland GR V||No.242, York C I|
|No.297, Hastings C I||No.511,
Yorkc C I
Hasting C I from September 1949
|No.240 OCU, Dakota C IV||No.241 OCU, York C I|
|RAAF Detachment||RNZAF Detachment|
|SAAF Detachment||Nos 4,5 and 11 GCA Units|