By Lee Burcham, Colonel, USAF (ret.); volunteer, U.S. Army Military History InstituteJune 22, 2010
At the conclusion of the Second World War with the Third Reich, the leaders of the victorious powers convened at Potsdam to negotiate the necessary protocols, territorial occupancy agreements, rights of passage, and myriad other details as to how Germany was to be governed. Generally, it was agreed that the defeated nation would be treated as an entity and not as a partitioned state. As time passed, however, it became abundantly apparent that the occupation of Germany was not only costly to the victors but also was increasingly deleterious to the prospects for a recovered, democratic state as a member of the European community once again. Currency reform became the focus of the western Allied nations' concerns with respect to recovery. The Soviets were unalterably opposed to a revitalization of the economy because such recovery would render the German and western European populations less vulnerable to the expansion of communism, which fed vigorously on poverty.
As Allied plans progressed toward currency reform, the Soviets became more adamantly opposed to cooperation on any of the Potsdam-sponsored, four-power coordinating committees. As the currency reform was instituted (but not in the Soviet zone of occupation), the Soviets manufactured a plethora of reasons as to why continued access to the Berlin exclave was to be denied. Rail and highway connections between West Germany and Berlin were either severed or rendered unusable. Such interruptions were clear violations of the accords reached earlier.The challenge, in the early summer of 1948, was what to do about them. All three options were demanding and dangerous: go to war against the Soviets, evacuate our Army forces from Berlin, or attempt to feed the 2.3 million persons in the western part of Berlin and to provide fuel for its limited industries by means of an air lift.
By that point in time, the United States had created a new Armed Service, the U.S. Air force, separate from the U.S. Army. Unfortunately, the nation had almost destroyed its entire wartime aircraft inventory and was left with scant resources to conduct any air operations--particularly air lift. However, through a prudent, accelerated reallocation of transport aircraft to the European area of operations and the recall from civilian status of reserve officers and airmen with scarce personnel skills, a task force, previously unequalled, was assembled and made operational while the world looked on-- in disbelief.
On June 27, Army General Lucius D. Clay, Commander of the United States Occupation Zone in Germany, informed Army leaders in Washington that Aca,!A"I have already arranged for our maximum airlft to start on Monday [June 28].Aca,!A? Subsequently, in a twelve-month period the Berliners were fed, their industry maintained, and an armed confrontation averted. Throughout the campaign of aerial supply of food and fuel to Berlin, the Armies of the U.S. and Britain controlled and maintained the indigenous labor forces which performed the myriad logistic tasks attendant to the operation. This labor force comprised the displaced persons (DP) and Polish workers (PW), who numbered into the thousands. They were housed and fed by the American and British Army.. The labor force also included thousands of West Berliners and West Germans. Although the Soviets did not participate in the currency reform and sustained a poverty-ridden East German Republic, the lessons of regional economic interdependence were learned, as was the short-term futility of their policies and the possible consequences of continued obstructionism. The Soviets suddenly removed their alleged reasons for the blockade, and the airlift was successfully concluded in May of 1949. The entire operation took place in an area no larger than Pennsylvania. The operation was conducted with a fleet of about 250 C-54 aircraft plus British contributions on an around-the-clock basis involving thousands of crew members and ground crew personnel. [Today just seventeen of our newest cargo carrier, the C-17, could have conducted the operation].
Participants in the Berlin Air Lift operation were faced with disappointments, fatigue, exhilaration, and surprise. The latter was exemplified by the experience of seeing for the first time on a daylight flight into Templehof that the final approach was between apartment buildings. The previous 35 flights had terminated in a completely darkened urban center. A scarring surprise and accolades for the ground control approach radar teams. The success of the Berlin Air Lift was an early salvo in the Cold War, which lasted for over forty years.