The Siege: Could the Berlin Airlift Save the City?

When the Soviets cut off all supply routes to western Berlin in 1948, they didn't anticipate the ingenuity and tactical planning skills of Army Brigadier General Frank Howley. Could the Berlin Airlift really keep the entire city alive during the siege?

Giles Milton
5-minute read
Episode #101

A besieged city requires a number of essentials if the inhabitants are to be kept alive. Clean drinking water is vital, as is sufficient food, fuel, and medication. An acute shortage of food cost thousands of lives during the Siege of Leningrad (1941–44), while a lack of fuel caused extreme deprivation during the 1870 Siege of Paris. A further requirement is the maintenance of morale: If the besieged inhabitants lose faith in their leaders, the will to resist is rapidly undermined.

Western Berlin’s stockpile of supplies was meager indeed in the spring of 1948. The small British garrison had enough food for 37 days, but the population of the city’s Western sectors, some 2.4 million people, could be fed for just 27 days. There would be enough petrol for 10 weeks if it were severely rationed, and coal for perhaps half this time.

American warehouses also contained two hundred tons of condensed milk and a stockpile of powdered milk, emergency supplies that Howley had prudently imported to the city. Yet it was nowhere near enough. Grand historical parallels were uppermost in Howley’s mind in those opening days of the siege. “The cold inhuman minds of the Kremlin had reached a wicked decision, the most barbarous in history since Genghis Khan reduced conquered cities to pyramids of skulls.” Howley knew that the closing of the land routes had marked the end of the Phoney War and the beginning of a battle for survival.

The small British garrison had enough food for 37 days, but the population of the city’s Western sectors, some 2.4 million people, could be fed for just 27 days.

“June 24, 1948, is one of the most infamous dates in the history of civilization,” he wrote, adding that it was the day on which “the Russians tried to murder an entire city to gain a political advantage.” It was conquest by starvation, pure and simple. “There we were, in a land-locked city, trapped in the Bear’s paws.”

Berlin’s situation was different from all previous sieges in one important respect: only the Western half of the city was blockaded, and Berliners could still cross into the Soviet sector. True, there was a marked increase in the number of checkpoints—more than seventy on the main crossing points—and the Communist police were prone to confiscate food and goods, yet the subway lines remained open, and the besieged inhabitants of the West were enticed into the Soviet sector by the promise of extra rations.

The situation seemed hopeless to most of the city’s inhabitants as well as to the Western-allied garrisons. Howley alone harbored a ray of optimism for the showdown to follow. “Although the Reds had succeeded in cutting us off completely by land, depriving us of the autobahn, the railroad, and the canals,” he said, “the blockade had one flaw. Moscow didn’t control the skies.”

The three air corridors to the capital had been agreed upon in writing back in 1945. The Soviets had no means of stopping the allies from using these corridors, short of shooting down their planes. This was something that Howley gambled they would not dare to do. Yet supplying 2.4 million inhabitants by air was logistically impossible, as his Basic Assumption Plan had revealed. Absolutely everything needed importing: salt, milk, coal, potatoes, fat, sugar, medical supplies, and gasoline. It could not be done.

Russia’s insistence in 1945 that the Western allies feed their own districts of Berlin had given Howley a very precise idea of the city’s daily requirements: 641 tons of flour, 150 of cereal, 106 of meat and fish, 900 of potatoes, 51 of sugar, 10 of coffee, 20 of milk, 32 of fats, and three tons of yeast. He also knew exactly what he had in the city’s warehouses: 17 days’ supply of flour, 32 days’ of cereal, 26 days’ of milk. But Berlin required more than food: all fuel supplies had also been stopped by the Soviets.

Without coal, there could be no electricity. Without electricity, there could be no functioning sewage plants. No heating. No lighting. No clean water. Berlin’s drinking water had to be pumped upward from deep underground aquifers through a natural filter of sand and gravel. If the pumps failed, the water supply would falter. Disease would run rampant, and people would die.

In the weeks that preceded their blockade, the daily delivery of supplies to the capital’s Western sectors had been around 13,500 tons. Howley reckoned the minimum subsistence requirement to be 4,500 tons. The carrying capacity of a Dakota C-47 Skytrain, the workhorse of the Second World War, was two and a half tons. And therein lay the problem. It would require 1,800 flights a day to keep the city’s inhabitants alive, with a plane landing every 96 seconds at each of the two airports in the Western sectors.

The British had just six Dakotas at their airfield in Wunstorf, in western Germany, with eight more on order from RAF Waterbeach, in Cambridgeshire.

Berlin’s drinking water had to be pumped upward from deep underground aquifers through a natural filter of sand and gravel. If the pumps failed, the water supply would falter. Disease would run rampant.

The Americans were better equipped, with access to about 50 battered C-47s, or “Goony Birds,” as they were known: these had survived the battles for Sicily, Normandy, and Arnhem. Such a motley collection of aircraft could not possibly keep Berlin alive. The effect of the Soviet blockade was instantaneous, as journalist Anthony Mann noted on the very first evening. “Lights went out, machinery and pumping stations stopped, trains came to a halt.” He was astonished that an entire metropolis could so quickly be brought to a standstill. Within hours, untreated sewage was flowing into the rivers and canals.

The one glimmer of comfort came from Frank Howley, whose regular radio broadcasts assured the city’s inhabitants that the Americans would never abandon Berlin. Berliner, Ruth Andreas-Friedrich was comforted by Howley’s friendly drawl, noting his words and her thoughts. “‘We shall not let the people of Berlin starve,’ he affirms loudly and clearly . . . We are relieved . . . We hope again! Because so far, Colonel Howley has always kept his promises.”

But how was it possible to keep more than two million Berliners in food and fuel?  This was the question that had been preoccupying Air Cmdre. Reginald “Rex” Waite, a wiry 47-year-old flying boat veteran who had first displayed his genius for logistics while serving on the D-day planning staff.

Waite had spent the previous weeks overseeing the import of essential army rations: 100 tons delivered each day by plane to the Western-allied garrisons, a mission with the unlikely code name “Operation Knicker.” Now, he turned his thoughts to a far larger airlift, using his brilliant brain to come up with a mathematical solution. Waite identified eight potential airbases in western Germany that could be used to supply Berlin. The capital’s western districts had two airfields, Gatow and Tempelhof, which would require radical upgrades if they were to support the intensity of traffic that Waite was envisaging. Eight outbound airports and two inbounds offered the possibility for a huge number of flights: Waite computed that Gatow alone could handle 288 flights a day, allowing for two and a half minutes for each aircraft.

Rapid unloading would be crucial. Waite wanted lorries stationed alongside the runway, engines running, in readiness for their cargoes of food and fuel. The fuel would be driven to a barge, which would receive its cargo by means of six chutes. Waite wanted each barge to be moving forward as it passed under the chutes, so as not to waste precious seconds.

His system was to work with absolute precision and he was confident it could break the siege, just so long as enough spare planes could be gathered from across the globe.

When he explained his plan to his British commanding officer, General Herbert, he was given the cold shoulder. “It can’t possibly work,” Herbert snapped.

But when he showed the plan to the American general, Lucius Clay, he got a very different reaction. Clay read through Waite’s blueprint, thought for a moment, and then read it for a second time. Suddenly his face lit up. “Okay!” he said with a smile. “I’m with you!”

With these words, the Berlin Airlift was on.

Image use under Creative Commons License

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.