Celebrating the strategic use of airpower: the 75th Anniversary of the Berlin Airlift

When people speak about the strategic use of airpower, it is easy to think of long-range bombers dropping high-explosives on enemy targets.  But 75 years ago today an operation began that became one of the most successful strategic uses of military airpower — and there were no bombs involved.  Yes, I’m talking about the Berlin Airlift of 1948-49.


In the aftermath of World War II, defeated Germany was divided into occupation zones with the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union each controlling portions of the country.  Although Berlin was located deep in the Soviet zone, the city itself had zones for each of the occupying powers.  Yet issues grew as the Cold War descended. A U.S. Department of State history about the Airlift describes the situation:

As the wartime alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union ended and friendly relations turned hostile, the question of whether the western occupation zones in Berlin would remain under Western Allied control or whether the city would be absorbed into Soviet-controlled eastern Germany led to the first Berlin crisis of the Cold War.

Some additional background is found in a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) article by Katie Lange, The Berlin Airlift: What It Was, Its Importance in the Cold War,

Russia met regularly with Britain, the U.S. and France after the war to coordinate occupation policy between the varying zones, but it stopped in early 1948 when it found out the other three nations were secretly planning to create a new German state out of their zones.

In June 1948, the U.S. and U.K. introduced a new currency, the Deutschmark, to their zones, which included West Berlin. They kept it from the Soviets because they wanted to regain economic control from Russia and quell the black market that was running rampant, as well as bring in aid under the Marshall Plan, a U.S. strategy to rebuild Europe.

In response, Lange explains, the Soviets took advantage of Berlin’s isolated location to pressure the Allies:

On June 24, 1948, Soviet forces blockaded all road, rail and water routes into Berlin’s Allied-controlled areas, stifling the vital flow of food, coal and other supplies. Soviet troop numbers dwarfed those of the Allies, which had drawn down after the war, so there was little the Allies could do about it militarily.

But there was an option.  As a journalist explained:

The Western Allies did have an ironclad guarantee of air access to Berlin, however, stemming from the 1945 Allied Control Council agreement. The air safety accord set aside a “Berlin Control Zone” extending 20 miles from the city center. It laid out three 20-mile-wide air corridors linking Berlin with the occupied western sectors of Germany. The Allies could fly into Berlin at any altitude below 10,000 feet without advance notice.

Consequently, the only option short of a ground war to relieve the city was to supply it by air.  In Supplying a City by Air: The Berlin Airlift, author Bob van der Linden explains that to keep more than two million Berliners alive, the military governor of the American zone, Gen. Lucius D. Clay asked  Lt. Gen. Curtis E. LeMay, the commander of the US Air Force (USAF) in Europe “if the USAF could deliver the coal, which was vital for Berlin’s survival”   LeMay responded, ‘We can deliver anything.’  He promptly arranged for additional aircraft and established the complex organization that made the airlift work.”

Scope of the operation

Designated “Operation Vittles,” the airlift began on June 26, 1948 and quickly became a massive logistical effort (a NATO video about this truly unprecedented airlift can be found here).

According to DoD, during the 18-month operation “the U.S. and U.K. delivered more than 2.3 million tons of food, fuel and supplies to West Berlin via more than 278,000 airdrops.  American aircrews made more than 189,000 flights, totaling nearly 600,000 flying hours and exceeding 92 million miles.”  The Royal Air Force points out that hundreds of aircraft were involved, and at “the height of the operation, on April 16 1949, an allied aircraft landed in Berlin every minute.” 

The Soviets made the flying as difficult and as dangerous as possible. The Air Force relates that Airmen “faced harassment by the Russians, including 103 cases where searchlights were used to blind pilots, 173 incidents in which Russian airplanes either buzzed transports or flew too close, and 123 cases in which transports were subjected to flak, air-to-air fire, or ground artillery fire — but the Airmen persisted.”

Eventually, however, the Russians realized that their blockade was futile, and they ended it on May 12, 1949.  However, the airlift went on until September in order to build a reserve in case the blockade was reimposed.

Tragically, there was a human cost:

Typically bad weather on northern Europe struck frequently. Rain and snow hindered operations as well as Soviet harassment by intercepting fighters. Bad weather contributed to accidents as did the stress and strain of around-the-clock flying. All told, some 65 pilots, crewmembers and civilian workers perished during the Airlift. 

During a recent visit to Berlin I was able to tour the Allied Museum which had a special exhibit honoring the Berlin Airlift.  Located in what had been a U.S. military compound in the American sector, the former post theater and library had been turn into museum venues with fascinating exhibits about the Airlift and the Cold War era.  

The strategic use of airpower

In his superb 1997 essay, Keeping the Strategic Flame Alive, the late Carl Builder reminded us that the strategic use of airpower did not necessarily include the use of force, and that humanitarian aid can have strategic benefits.  To him, the Berlin airlift was the classic example.

While it may have been conceived as a tactical alternative at the time, the Berlin airlift of 1948 was a strategic masterpiece.  It not only fulfilled its tactical objective of feeding and fueling the populace of Berlin (that is, dealing with the matter at hand); it transformed the game on the strategic level.  The Soviets blockaded land routes to Berlin, believing that the West would have to choose between initiating hostilities (perhaps precipitating World War III) or abandoning Berlin.

Supplying Berlin by air was inconceivable to the Soviets based on their own limited experience with airlift and the failed German effort at Stalingrad.  What no one on either side seemed to recognize then or now is that an airlift would turn the tables and oblige the Soviets to initiate hostilities.  That was check. When the sufficiency and sustainability of the airlift became apparent, it was checkmate. Thereafter, if the blockade was to be continued the West could only gain international admiration at the expense of the Soviets.

Concluding thoughts

Writing in USA Today, Gen. James B. Hecker noted the story of the late Gail Halvorsen, the U.S pilot who became famous during the Airlift as the “Candy Bomber.”  Halvorsen saw the suffering of Berlin children and began handing out gum and candy from his ration pack” to them.  Later, he “began attaching handkerchief parachutes to chocolate bars and dropping them from his aircraft to the children below.”  As the Air Force has said: “Soon, Halvorsen had the support of his fellow pilots, and then his entire squadron and base, upping the tempo of an operation that eventually dropped 23 tons of candy to welcoming arms.”  Thier effort is immortalized in “Operation Chocolate Drop” a painting by C.C. Beall.

Hecker also spoke about the strategic value of the Berlin Airlift:

In response to this story of struggle, unity and rebirth, instead of being asked to pack up and go home, the United States was invited to stay, to live and to work alongside our Allies and partners. It’s no exaggeration to say many generations are alive and thriving as a result of the Berlin airlift’s humanitarian mission.

He also added this observation:

Among the many things the Berlin airlift reminds us of is the importance of taking a good look at one of the critical core functions of the Air Force – to respond to humanitarian crises and relieve human suffering with a speed, scope and certainty that no other nation can match.

America built its unequaled airlift capacity in order to be able to project power when and where needed (the U.S. is responsible for defending about a quarter of humanity)Yet, as discussed here, I believe there are opportunities today to use our airpower advantage to accomplish strategic objectives while at the same time serving worthy humanitarian causes.  Airlift is an asymmetric advantage that America uniquely enjoys, and we ought to think creatively about how we might use it to benefit not just our interests, but those of the world.

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