By Louise A. Arnold-Friend, U. S. Army Military History InstituteJune 6, 2008
Aca,!A"At first the noise of the planes kept us awake at night. But now we sleep through it all. ItAca,!a,,cs only when itAca,!a,,cs quiet that we wake upAca,!"afraid the LuftbrAfA1/4cke has stopped. Every bite of food we get is flown in by those planes,Aca,!A? Charlotte Werner told a New York Times Magazine reporter in 1949. No stranger to the sound of planes during the recent war, she had survived a direct hit to her Berlin apartment by taking her two children to a shelter. Now, three years later, Charlotte, her Wehrmacht veteran husband, and three children would hear overhead engines as sounds of hope.
A crisis in the spring of 1948 led to the gradual disintegration of the four-power division of control in Berlin. The Soviet Union withdrew from the four-power governing Allied Control Council and Allied Kommandatura, the sole legal authority for over two million residents of the city. In June, following a disagreement about eastern and western sector currencies, the Soviet Union gradually closed vehicular traffic, then barge movement, then rail access to Berlin from the west. There was no standing agreement granting the Allies access through the Soviet-controlled territory, and for all practical purposes, the city of Berlin was blockaded from the rest of the world. Ground routes were cut off, but the same was not true for air corridors. A November 1945 agreement provided for three twenty-mile wide corridors to provide access to the city, which had two servicing airports, with a combined total of three functional runways.
General Lucius D. Clay, commander of the U.S. Occupation Zone in Germany, who had in March started an airlift to supply food and ammunition to the U.S. garrison in Berlin (Operation LITTLE LIFT), proposed similar large-scale operations in cooperation with the British, who were comparably supplying their troops in the city. Initially throughout the summer, this Anglo-American operation flew into Tempelhof and Gatow airports. By September-October, the French joined the effort, and their engineers were able to complete a third airport (Tegel) within three months, using many female laborers, working by hand around the clock.
The first supply planes landed in Berlin on June 26, 1948. Within four days of activating Operation VITTLES (Operation PLAINFAIRE in British), a supply plane was landing at Tempelhof Air Base every eight minutes, and by mid-July 2,000 tons of cargo reached Berlin every day. LTG William H. Tunner took control of the operation on July 27, and began to improve its efficiency. Each of the three air corridors presented its own unique flying challenges, such as large apartment buildings in the approach path and inclement weather conditions. TunnerAca,!a,,cs Aca,!A"reformsAca,!A? made it possible keep Berlin supplied with food. Fuel was, however, a unique problem, as coal dust would sift from their sacks and seep into the inner fuselage of the aircraft. Initially, coal was sacked in Army duffle bags, but later cloth and paper bags were developed to carry this most precious commodity without endangering the air crews.
During the long winter, as she struggled against shortages of almost every commodity, Charlotte Werner told an American reporter, Aca,!A"The Western Allies must not leave. I will not give up my hope that everything will work out. After all, that is all I have.Aca,!A? The Airlift carried more than two million tons of supplies to Charlotte and her fellow Berliners before the Soviets lifted the blockade. The supply flights ended on May 12, 1949. This unprecedented humanitarian relief expedition provided uncounted thousands of Berliners with physical and spiritual nourishment -- and with the knowledge that they were not standing alone against the vice of tyranny.