This year and in recent years we have witnessed several major disasters like hurricanes, typhoons, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes, tsunamis. And there were also man-made disasters, caused by neglect, like 9/11, wars, genocide, explosions, oil spills, etc. Disasters by their definition cause great harm to lots of people and great damage to property. And often the consequences of disasters can be mitigated by forewarnings and decisive and immediate human disaster response.
This story is about a disaster in the making in Berlin in 1948. The Dritte Reich had been defeated three years earlier and there was hope that things would
normalize and people lives would improve. Individual as well as collective punishments had been doled out by the victors to German criminals and also the German people who had helped or at least not decisively resisted these criminals responsible for the disaster of World War II that had killed some 55 million people and caused uncountable property damage. In the post-war years, some fifteen million Germans had been driven from their homelands in the East to make room for Stalin’s march to the West and millions had died while fleeing or while being expelled from their homelands. Now Stalin reached out for an annoying remnant of western presence deep in the East German Soviet zone of influence, a thorn in the Soviet flesh, West-Berlin.
June 24, 1948, 6:00 a.m., Stalin ordered traffic halted on the autobahn to Berlin allegedly because of “technical defects.” On the evening of June 23, the Soviets had already cut electricity to the western sectors of Berlin, and the next day, beside the autobahn, all roads and railroads between Berlin and the West were shut down. Also all shipping canals were closed. The plan was to starve West-Berlin with its two million people into submission. Probably the Soviets thought that the Berliners at the time were not far from that point anyway. Not much was left of Berlin at the end of the war but huge piles of rubble. Such an additional disturbance might cause uprisings whereupon order would be restored by Soviet tanks and troops.
But in this case the Stalin-triggered disaster ran into an immediate and decisive response from the West. The Soviets had come too close for comfort. There was a man on the scene who immediately took action. General Lucius D. Clay, military governor in Germany, under code name “Operation Vittles” immediately organized the air lift. Captain Jack O. Bennett of Ebensburg, Pennsylvania, was asked in the evening of June 23 if he could fly coal to Berlin with a DC-4. At first he thought he had not heard right, but then he understood and so he became the first air lift pilot. His flight was the litmus test for the air lift that officially began on June 26. On its fourth day, already 384 tons of cargo were transported into Berlin, and within a few weeks 224 Skymasters (DC-4s or C-54s) had been pulled together in Frankfurt to be retrofitted for mass transport. Unnecessary separation walls, toilets and fuel tanks were taken out to make room for meat, coal and flour. The DC-4s were faster than the DC-3s and a smooth schedule required a time table in the flight corridor: for one hour at a time only DC-3s flew, then for 45 minutes only DC-4s. The endless stream of Rosinenbombers (raisin bombers, as they were called by the people), became bigger every day. They were also known as candy
bombers when pilot Gail Halvorsen started fashioning little parachutes from handkerchiefs with a candy bar attached to them, wiggled the wings of his plane and dropped them through the flare chute to waiting youngsters at the end of the runway. It quickly became a routine followed by many others. If a pilot missed a landing, he had to return to Frankfurt as there was no time or space for correction. On the radar screen on the ground the planes appeared as a steady stream of green dots moving continually toward Berlin. Almost a year later, on April 16, 1949, in one day 12,940 tons of cargo were flown into Berlin. The planes were relatively small and one landed every 63 seconds at one of the three Berlin airports that had been quickly fixed up to handle this kind of traffic. Tempelhof only had a provisory steel landing strip. At Berlin-Tegel airport, 19,000 Berliners, mostly women, were recruited to work in day and night shifts for 85 days to build a 2400 m landing strip from scratch that was then the longest air strip in Europe.
On May 12, 1949, Stalin lifted the blockade. The flights continued until August 27, 1949. Between June 26 of the previous year and August 27, 1949, 277,278 flights had taken place and 2,326,2005 tons of cargo had been flown into Berlin, especially food and coal. A complete power plant had been flown to Berlin in parts. Two-hundred thousand CARE packets were flown in by private charters.
By the time it was all over 78 people had lost their lives: 31 Americans, 39 Englishmen, and 8 Germans. The air lift monument in front of Berlin-Tempelhof airport commemorates this extraordinary response to a Cold War challenge that could have turned into a disaster for 2 million people (from Amerika Woche, 7. and 14. July 2008, p. 22). WOW.
Berlin Airlift Monument in Berlin-Tempelhof, displaying the names of the 39 British and 31 American pilots who lost their lives during the operation. Similar monuments can be found at the military airfield Wietzenbruch near the former RAF Celle and at Rhein-Main Air Base.