Berlin Airlift

A few years before, airplanes overhead caused Berliners to fear for their lives. Things were quite different with the “Candy Bombers” or “Raisin Bombers” as they were locally known that flew over the western zones of the city from June 1948 to September 1949. “That was the difference: that we didn’t need to be afraid of them. On the other hand, if they didn’t fly, something was missing,” eyewitness Margot Sharma recalls in a video from the international aid organization CARE.

About 2.1 million tons of airfreight were flown every minute to West Berlin by US, British, and French, but also by Australian, New Zealand, Canadian, and South African pilots in the blockade of Berlin by the Soviet Union. Including around 1.44 million tons of coal, 160,000 tons of building materials, and 490,000 tons of food. Also on board were the 200,000 CARE packages that Americans donated to the destitute Berlin population during the Berlin Airlift. An ambitious plan and an incredible campaign whose feasibility was initially not at all sure.

The main cause of the Berlin blockade, which cut off the three western occupation zones of the city from the rest of Germany, was the currency reform. The Western powers announced it on June 18, 1948 and introduced it two days later into the western occupation zones. In response, on June 19 the Soviet military administration interrupted passenger traffic to and from Berlin in order to protect itself from inflation by the Reichsmark, which had become worthless in the West. On June 23, it also issued a currency reform for its sector and announced that it would involve Germany in this reform. The Western powers didn’t recognize this “eastern currency” and in turn introduced the Deutschmark from West Germany into West Berlin. Berlin was now divided into two currency zones. The Soviet military administration responded with an indefinite blockade of the western sectors of the city. 

In the night of June 23-24, 1948, the power supply in Berlin was interrupted and all land and waterways were cut off until June 29. The approximately 2.2 million people in the Western occupation zones, who had just survived the war, were once again in an emergency situation. The food stored in the western zones alone would have been enough for a maximum of 36 days and the coal for heating and cooking for about 35 days. The first major conflict of the Cold War was just around the corner.

The Berlin Airlift brought immediate rescue. The help from above was already started on June 24. The fact that the Airlift could be set up so quickly was due, firstly, to a treaty in 1945, which assured the Western city commanders three air corridors between the American and British occupation zones and Berlin, and, secondly, the efficient cooperation of the Western Allies. Two of the air corridors were systematically used for the approach of goods and one as a return lane. “Only 48 hours after being cut off, the Allies flew the first airlift to Berlin to provide the city with the essentials. It would go on to last more than a year. Despite all the threats from the Soviets, the Americans and British did not abandon us, stood by democracy and freedom, and provided us with food and coal via the three air corridors on a permanent basis,” a Berliner told the news magazine Der Spiegel.

Contents of a CARE package starting in March 1947

1 pound beef in broth

1 pound steaks and kidneys

0.5 pounds liver

0.5 pounds corned beef

0.75 pounds “Prem” (lunch meat)

0.5 pounds bacon

2 pounds margarine

1 pound lard

1 pound canned apricots

1 pound honey

1 pound raisins

1 pound chocolate

2 pounds sugar

0.5 pounds powdered eggs

2 pounds whole milk powder

2 pounds coffee

At the start the Airlift was a bit chaotic, but it was logistically perfected under Lieutenant-General William H. Tunner, whom the military governor of the American occupation zone, General Lucius D. Clay, appointed as head of the Airlift. The planes were soon landing at Tempelhof at three-minute intervals. The airport in Gatow and Tegel Airport, which had been upgraded by the French within three months, were also in use. If a pilot missed the runway, he had to fly back immediately, so as not to endanger the overall timing. Pilots were provided with coffee and snacks during the 25-minute unloading, so it goes, by the prettiest girls in Berlin. Then they started off again. Mechanics sometimes frantically jumped off the planes while they were still rolling up.  

Not only were supplies such as coal and food transported via the Berlin Airlift, but also 227,655 passengers, as well as products manufactured in Berlin bearing the label “Made in Blocked Berlin.” The Airlift culminated with the “Easter Parade,” which William H. Tunner started in April 1949 in order to motivate the pilots and break the previous flight record. The crazy venture was a success: From April 16-17, a total of 11,739 tons of relief aid was flown to Berlin at minute intervals by 1,398 planes. A comparison shows how incredible this achievement was: Just 7,120 tons were distributed over the rest of the month.  

You people of the world! You people in America and England, France and Italy! Look at this city and realize that you mustn’t abandon this city and this people, can’t abandon them!
Ernst Reuter, Mayor of Berlin, September 9, 1948

The Airlift pilots were particularly happy to hear from the children of Berlin, as many of them dropped off chocolate, chewing gum, and other sweets on small parachutes as they approached. What was initially a single pilot’s idea quickly became the “Candy Bomber” campaign. A total of 22 tons of donated candy were dropped by the pilots throughout the duration of the Berlin Airlift above the expectantly waiting children. And many a small recipient was able to enjoy real American spearmint gum for the first time. The very little ones, however, sometimes had a hard time catching the coveted treats, such as Ulrich Kirschbaum: “Everyone wanted the chocolate strips and I was too small and too shy and didn’t get any,” he regretted decades later in an interview with Der Spiegel.

There were several reasons for the Americans’ tremendous readiness to provide relief and make donations. “It is suspected, on the one hand, that the American soldiers stationed in Germany were so shocked by the extent of the destruction in Germany that they decided to help the people here and, on the other hand, that the then US President Harry S. Truman also played a special role with his own personal willingness to help. At the time, Truman used his personal resources to finance some CARE packages and thus provided important assistance to the people of Germany,” said CARE Germany’s Secretary General Karl-Otto Zentel. The British, however, also made sacrifices. In the United Kingdom, for example, during the Berlin blockade, there were once again grain rations, as certain supplies of aid for the country were forwarded on to Berlin.  

On May 12, 1949, the Soviet Union finally gave in. The Berlin Blockade was ended after eleven months. The number of flights of the Airlift were gradually reduced. On September 30, 1949 the last supply plane of the US Air Force landed in Tempelhof. 31 Americans, 41 Britons, and 13 Germans lost their lives in the campaign for Berlin’s freedom. Their names are immortalized on a monument in front of Tempelhof Airport. Because of its three struts, which are intended to be reminiscent of the air corridors, the Berliners lovingly christened the Airlift monument, erected in 1951, the “Hunger Rake.”

At the same time, the monument reminds us that the Airlift created a new, strong connection between the Western Allies and the people of Berlin. Just like the CARE packages, which still exist to this day. But while the brown boxes were a sign of humanitarian aid from person to person, the charitable contributions of the donation organization have become much broader in scope today. “CARE is committed to overcoming hardship, poverty, and marginalization worldwide with predominantly local forces, and in particular involves women and girls,” says Karl-Otto Zentel, adding: “Nonetheless, the CARE package is still a symbol of global solidarity in helping people in need, regardless of their political or religious affiliations.”

A letter in the #FreiheitBerlin installation on Washingtonplatz in front of Berlin Central Station reminds us that the CARE package has also stood for freedom since the Berlin Airlift: It bears the imprint of the aid packages, which brought countless Berliners food and delight in the post-war period.  

Freedom, for me, is the opportunity to decide about one’s own life and express one’s opinion freely.
Karl-Otto Zentel, Secretary General CARE Germany

Photos

Historical photos: CARE Germany, www.care.de
Tempelhof Airport: Tempelhof Projekt GmbH, www.thf-berlin.de
Commemorative stamp: Solodov Aleksei /Shutterstock.com
Poster designs: be.berlin

Starting on June 25, 2018, we remember the beginning of the Berlin Airlift 70 years ago with these two poster designs at the Platz der Luftbrücke U-Bahn Station.