The Berlin Airlift: A Race to Save the City

The Berlin Airlift of 1948 saved the city from starvation...but just barely. Unknown History delves into the astonishing ingenuity of American military alongside the hard work of German citizens that kept the city from collapse. 

Giles Milton
5-minute read
Episode #103

William “Bill” Tunner—“Tonnage Tunner” to his comrades—had a track record unlike any other. From autumn 1944 until the winter of 1945, he had commanded one of the most exhilarating aerial operations of World War II. His task had been to fly in guns and explosives to Kunming, in China, where the beleaguered forces of Chiang Kai-shek were fighting a rearguard battle against the occupying Japanese.

The route necessitated flying over the eastern Himalayas, traversing some of the most desolate mountain ranges in the world. Now Tunner was to apply his talents to the German capital, accepting with alacrity the offer of running the Berlin Airlift. Shortly after, he headed directly to Wiesbaden, in the American zone of Germany.

Tunner was appalled by the amateurishness of the existing airlift, describing it as “a real cowboy operation.” There were no schedules, no discipline, no sense of purpose. “Everything was temporary,” he said. “Confusion everywhere.” This confusion reached a breaking point on Friday, August 13, 1948, “Black Friday,” when Tunner flew into Berlin in the company of Red Forman and Sterling Bettinger. It was the day on which the airlift would be forever transformed.

The weather was atrocious, with scudding black clouds and driving rain. Visibility over the Harz Mountains was down to zero. Tunner recalled the words of the comedian Bob Hope: “Soup I can take, but this stuff’s got noodles in it.”

The chaos on the ground forced the control tower to stack planes in the skies above Berlin, with scores of aircraft circling blindly in a 9,000-foot soup of cloud.

The chaos on the ground forced the control tower to stack planes in the skies above Berlin, with scores of aircraft circling blindly in a 9,000-foot soup of cloud. As they bucked and shuddered, the pilots could be heard on the airwaves in a state of high alarm.

The principal problem with the existing airlift was a lack of discipline. No sooner was Tunner on the ground in Berlin than he instigated two cardinal rules that were to govern the airlift from that point on. Rule one was a standard practice that governed all flights. Henceforth, all planes were to fly an unchanging flight pattern determined solely by instrument. Technology was to govern everything, a risky strategy at a time when radio compasses were often faulty.

Rule two was no less controversial. To avoid the hazard of stacking planes in the congested skies over Berlin, any pilot who missed his landing slot was to return immediately to base. “It caused a great deal of comment,” Tunner noted, “particularly among air traffic experts.” But his rigid application of Reginald Waite’s blueprint for the airlift was a stroke of genius, for it enabled an unbroken succession of planes to land and take off. Aircraft flew into Berlin at five different altitudes and at intervals of 500 feet, with planes taking off and landing every 90 seconds. This enabled planes to land each day at Tempelhof, the principal American airfield. Tunner’s shake-up of the airlift soon reaped dividends, with his fleet delivering increasingly large quantities of supplies to the city.

Tunner had always been confident about supplying Berlin by air during the summer months, but he knew it would be a far greater challenge during the long Berlin winter. One of his biggest problems was that Berlin had just two airfields, Tempelhof and Gatow.

If he was to keep the city supplied with enough fuel to generate power throughout the colder months, he urgently needed a third landing strip. As autumn approached, he drove around the city’s Western districts in search of a suitable site amid the bombed-out ruins. He soon found what he needed at Tegel, in the French sector: an area of undeveloped wasteland used for anti-aircraft training during the war. He immediately summoned Kenny Swallwell, a veteran of his gun-running operation in China, and set him to work on the greatest challenge of his life: to build a major airport during one of the tightest blockades in history.

Swallwell stepped up to the mark, displaying an alchemist’s ability to transform base metal into gold. Rubble was crushed into hard core, bricks recycled as underlay, and paving used instead of tarmac. “Problems continually arose which would have stumped just about anyone else,” said Tunner.

Swallwell even managed to conjure a fleet of Caterpillar tractors—no one knew from where—and restore a couple of vintage steamrollers.

Swallwell even managed to conjure a fleet of Caterpillar tractors—no one knew from where—and restore a couple of vintage steamrollers. One of his greatest masterstrokes was to fire the enthusiasm of 17,000 German civilians, who worked in eight-hour shifts carting much-needed rubble to the Tegel construction site. “The work began early in September[,] when the weather was still hot,” Tunner wrote, “and you could see women in bikinis and men in swimming shorts toiling away.”

Within seven weeks, the airfield was nearing completion. Even Tunner admitted that Swallwell had pulled off an astonishing feat, although he helped himself to a slice of the credit. “Once again I patted myself on the back for having brought him along.”

But even with increased supplies, everyday life became a constant struggle for Berliners in these desperate times. The daily ration was barely enough to keep people alive: one ounce each of fat and sugar, two ounces of powdered egg, two ounces of cereal, and 17.5 ounces of bread. But supplies were often so short that traders were unable to honor the ration coupons. Fuel and power were in equally short supply. The fortunate few with hand-operated generators put them to good use. One Berlin dentist got his wife to pedal hard on a bicycle generator so he could continue to use his drill.

The Western allies reckoned they could allot just 20 pounds of winter coal supplies to each household. It worked out at a little more than a teaspoon a day. Candles fetched exorbitant prices. Soap was a rarity, and baths were always cold. In some districts of the city, customers lined up outside butchers’ shops in the predawn chill in order to get a bowl of broth made from boiled bones. Onions, once a staple, were no longer available. Everything was powdered. In such lean times, housewives became grimly creative. One engineer’s wife, Herga Jungtow, made pancakes from potato peel, flour, and powdered egg, frying the mixture in engine oil supplied by her husband. There was little employment, for the economy had virtually collapsed.

But the greatest fear of all – for Berliners, as well as for the Americans and British in the German capital – was what would happen in winter. General Tunner had been more or less able to keep the city in food during the summer months, but this was going to be infinitely more difficult when dealing with the full force of a Berlin winter.

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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.