Moments and Milestones: The Hungry City

Moments and Milestones: The Hungry City

Operation Vittles was a military miracle: The Allies delivered 2.3 million tons of supplies to Berlin. NASM (SI-84-3724-A)

Before there were railroads, cities were built on rivers; when the railroads came, cities sprang up along them. The reason for these patterns is that the life's blood of cities—the goods that feed, clothe, and house the citizens—enter via ships, trains, and now trucks. And the daily diet of a city is measured in thousands of tons of freight per day.

After World War II, the city of Berlin, the capital of a defeated Germany, was divided for administrative purposes among Germany's conquerors: Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States. As it happened, the Soviet zone encircled the entire city of Berlin. When the Soviets took umbrage at a decision to introduce a new currency into Germany, they decided to blockade Berlin by barring all surface traffic to and from the city. Soviet leader Josef Stalin thought the blockade would strangle Berlin and force the other three Allied powers to abandon it.

However, part of the postwar partitioning agreement had delineated three 20-mile-wide air routes connecting Berlin to Rhein-Main and other airports in western Germany, well beyond Soviet influence, so the other Allies decided to attempt to replace the blocked surface routes with an airlift. It began as a British idea, and it started small. It fell to the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, a militarized DC-3 rated for a combat load of less than four tons, to haul the freight for two million Berliners. Had Stalin done the math, he'd have undoubtedly figured the airlift would fail: The city needed a daily total input of food, coal, and sundries requiring a thousand sorties a day—one C-47 flight every 90 seconds, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Enter the four-engine Douglas C-54 Skymaster, capable of hauling 10 tons with ease. The daily tonnage numbers rose dramatically, but the Skymaster, designed for long-legged missions, suffered mightily from the brutal regimen of short hops at maximum weight. And it took a while to get a maintenance support infrastructure, including spare parts, emplaced in Europe to keep the big airplanes in repair. British aircraft contributed enormously to the effort, and soon the whole fleet was carrying enough tonnage to meet the city's needs. On one mid-April day in 1949, the aircraft hauled 13,000 tons, setting a standing record for the airlift.

When winter came, the need for coal to heat homes and buildings added to the airlifters' burden. Europe's typical bad weather brought low visibility, but an approach system using precision radar, called ground control approach, or GCA, provided landing guidance. With airplanes arriving every few minutes, controllers literally talked each one in along a path aligned with the runway's centerline and a vertical approach slope. In pitch-dark radar shacks, controllers murmured corrections: "Drifting left…correcting…slightly above glide path…," on some occasions bringing in an aircraft in zero visibility. Pilots flew a compass heading and the rate-of-descent indicator. When the airplane was within seconds of landing, the controller advised the pilot to "acknowledge no further transmissions" and stepped up the tempo of corrections until the aircraft was safely on the ground.

Sixty years ago this year, the Soviets finally gave in. All the blockade had accomplished was to showcase Western resolve and airpower. And you can't blame Stalin for failing to anticipate the Berlin Airlift. No air freight operation on such a scale had ever been attempted before. In the end, the Allies had delivered 2.3 million tons to Berlin on more than 278,000 flights.

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