Launching the Berlin Airlift

The Berlin Airlift saved the city from starvation during the Russian blockade of 1948. But supplying over two million people for over a year via airplane was a Herculean feat that almost didn't happen. Unknown History delves deeper into the American solution. 

Giles Milton
5-minute read
Episode #102

Within minutes of Lucius Clay’s green-lighting the full-scale airlift, urgent messages began clattering out of Teletype machines at air bases across the globe. Capt. Clifford “Ted” Harris was based on Johnston Atoll, a speck of steaming lushness in the Pacific Ocean. It was midnight when he saw a Jeep’s carbide headlights cutting through the darkness. “Ted,” came the voice of his navigator, “you’ve got to get yourself all together in 30 minutes. We’re going to Berlin!”

Six hundred miles to the east, on Honolulu, Pvt. William “Greek” Glatiotis was sitting in a bar sluicing ice-cold beer. He choked with surprise when a sergeant greeted him with the words, “Hey, Greek, you’re shipping out in two hours’ time.” It was the very last thing he was expecting.

British airmen received similarly curt summonses. Flight Lt. Dick Arscott was about to set off on a weekend’s leave with his wife when his trip was abruptly canceled. “I’ve got news for you,” his squadron commander said. “You’re going to Germany.”

Within hours, Arscott and his comrades were heading for Berlin. They were to work a 16-hour day, seven days a week, with as many as three return trips to Berlin each day. They worked in revolving shifts: breakfast was served at 8 a.m. on day one, 4 a.m. on day two, and midnight on day three. This played havoc with Arscott’s body clock, for there were days when he would eat breakfast in the evening and lunch in the middle of the night.

Pilots faced the additional menace of Soviet harassment, with Yak fighters swooping down on the lumbering allied cargo planes in 370-mph dives.  “Like a swarm of wasps,” thought Ens. Bernald Smith as he counted 22 Yaks performing acrobatics in the sky around him. When flight engineer Albert Carotenuto made his final approach into Berlin, the Yaks came so close that their piston-driven engines sent his plane into a violent shudder. “One micro-second on either side and it would be mincemeat.”

At Gatow, General Kotikov encouraged Soviet artillery to fire incendiary bullets between incoming planes; he also had powerful searchlights carefully positioned so as to blind incoming flights at night. Airman Gerry Munn was about to land when the sky seemed to explode into a million fragments of light. “A blinding, blinding flash of bright white light.” Munn’s eyes went into a spin. “I couldn’t see from here to the windshield, let alone 10 miles ahead.” It was a miracle the control tower was able to talk him down to the ground.

Once on the ground, pilots had just seconds to get their planes off the landing strip before the next plane came in to land. Airman John Curtiss overheard an American pilot harassing the pilot of a Halifax already on the ground. The American shouted down the radio that if the other pilot didn’t get “his ass off the runway pronto, he’s going to get 80,000 lbs of pulsating aluminium up his backside.”

Frank Howley watched the blockade-busting planes with a mixture of awe and pride. “The airlift was a reality by the first week in July,” he said, “acquiring strength with every succeeding day.” By the end of that month, some 50,000 tons of food had been delivered to besieged Berliners. It was less than half the daily minimum—and meant that over a million people faced starvation—but Howley and General Lucius Clay were already hoping for a massive increase in capacity.

On the 28th day of the siege, July 22, General Clay was summoned from Berlin to Washington for emergency discussions with President Truman and his National Security Council. The meeting was scheduled to take place at 11 a.m. in the Cabinet Room of the White House, and there was only one subject on the agenda: Berlin.

All the most important figures were in attendance, including the three Joint Chiefs of Staff, with Gen. Hoyt Vandenberg representing the Air Force. Everyone present had previously expressed opposition to any expansion of the airlift, believing it to be an unachievable operation that would end in humiliation for America. Clay found himself in combat with the most experienced commanders in the American armed forces.

Matters were not helped by the fact that he was suffering from the onset of lumbago and experiencing such excruciating back pain that he could scarcely turn his head. Yet he valiantly took on the big guns of Washington, single-handedly fighting for a massive expansion of the airlift. His opening words reminded everyone of what was at stake.

“Mr. President and gentlemen,” he began, “the abandonment of Berlin would be a serious if not disastrous blow to the maintenance of freedom in Europe.” He warned that Stalin’s troops would swiftly overrun any territories vacated by the Americans and pointed out that the airlift was already achieving miracles, with 80 C-47s and 52 C-54s flying 250 round trips each day. These were bringing in some 2,500 tons of food, a little more than half of what was needed.

“Two months ago, the Russians were cocky and arrogant,” said Clay. Now they were going “out of their way to avoid incidents.” The airlift, along with Howley’s fiery radio broadcasts, was having an effect.

Having finished with the preliminaries, Clay launched an “impassioned plea” for more planes. And this was the point at which he ran into difficulties. He told the assembled generals that he needed to expand his fleet to 207 aircraft, which would require an immediate addition of 75 C-54s if he were to save Berlin from starvation.

There was an audible gasp in the room as everyone digested his words. Then, with the cautious conservatism of a senior commander, the Air Force chief of staff, General Vandenberg, refused Clay’s request point-blank. “That’s more than half our fleet.” The general warned that these planes could easily be destroyed on the ground in the event of war with the Soviet Union and added that the diversion of so many aircraft to Berlin would “seriously impair America’s ability to wage strategic warfare.”

Clay sidestepped Vandenberg’s concern and reminded everyone of what was at stake. “If we move out of Berlin, we have lost everything we’ve been fighting for. The airlift has increased our prestige immeasurably.” He said it was not only a question of saving lives. The German capital had become “a symbol of American intent.”

Truman now rose from his seat and announced that he had another appointment scheduled in his diary. The Berlin meeting was to continue with Secretary of State Marshall in the chair. Clay felt the battle was lost, for “the Joint Chiefs and everybody else were opposed.”

The only person in the room who might possibly have championed his cause, the president himself, was leaving. As Truman swept out of the Cabinet Room, he turned to Clay and said, “Drop in by my office before you leave, General.”

Clay returned to the White House the following morning, shortly before catching his flight back to Berlin. It was a sparkling summer’s day, and sunlight was tilting through the windows of Truman’s office. But Clay’s mood was downcast, and not just because of his lumbago.

“You look like you feel badly, General,” Truman said.

“Mr. President, I’m very disappointed. Without those planes, I just don’t think we’re going to make it in Berlin.”

Truman looked up from his desk and smiled broadly. “Oh, you’re going to get them,” he said. “I’ve just overruled the Joint Chiefs.”

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About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.