A Sixty Year Old Easter Story

by LiamBean

It is now almost exactly sixty four years now. The war in Europe had been won, tensions between Soviet Russia, the United States, England and France were building day by day.

Plans by the west were to create a democratic Germany with free trade and free elections. Soviet Russia had other ideas.

In the process meetings were held in London twice in early 1948 in an attempt to determine how to rescue Germany's economy and, in turn, it's people.

The Marshall plan was still being hotly debated in congress with eventual approval in April 1948. Of course, approval does not mean implementation.

The Soviets were threatening to roundly reject any decision the Allied powers came up with in regard to Germany, sight unseen. They also clearly felt Berlin belonged to East Germany, a state they were about to form. Perhaps the soviets saw this area as the appropriate spoils of war.

Prelude to Blockade

On March 7, 1948 an outline for aid to Germany was formalized which included extending the Marshall Plan to Germany. On March 9, 1948 Joseph Stalin sent a memorandum to Vyacheslav Molotov outlining ways to force the allies to accede to Soviet demands. Essentially the memo ordered that access to Berlin be regulated by the Soviets.

On March 20, 1948 the Allied Council met and Vasily Sokolovsky insisted on knowing the outcome of the meeting of March 7th. When Sokolovsky was told no determination had yet been made he and the entire Soviet delegation rose and left.

"I see no sense in continuing this meeting, and I declare it adjourned." - Vasily Sokolovsky
Yak 3 Soviet Fighter
Yak 3 Soviet Fighter
Vickers Viking 1B
Vickers Viking 1B

The Blockaid Begins

On March 25, 1948 the soviets announced that travel restrictions would be enforced starting on April 1. These restrictions would limit access to Berlin by American, British, and French both military and civilian. Additionally all trucking and rail transport leaving or traveling into Berlin were to be stopped and searched. On April 2 General Clay ordered an end to all rail and truck transport with all supplies henceforth to be transported by air. The "Little Lift" began.

On April 5 a Yak-3 fighter collided with a Vickers Viking 1B airliner near Gatow field. The collision killed all aboard both aircraft.

On April 9 the soviets demanded that all communication equipment in the eastern zone be dismantled. This shut down navigation beacons used to mark air routes.

On April 20 the soviets demanded that all water transport into Berlin submit to inspections.

On June 18, 1948 the western allies announced the release of the new Deutschmark was to begin on June 21, 1948. On the 21st the soviets halted all train traffic into Berlin and sent it back to western Germany. On the 22nd the soviets announced the release of a new currency called the Ostmark (EastMark). The new currency was the only currency to be recognized in the soviet held sector of Germany and Berlin. By that time the western allied countries had already transported two-hundred fifty million Deutschmarks (250,000,000) into Berlin and it was widely recognized as valid tender even in all four occupation zones.

Joseph Stalin saw this as a direct threat to soviet dominance in the area. With the soviet army of five hundred thousand troops (500,000) to America's nine (9,000) thousand, England's eight (8,000) thousand, and France's six (6,000) thousand Stalin felt he had the upper hand.

On June 24, the soviets halted all surface and water borne traffic into and out of Berlin. The next day food shipments into Berlin were halted and that night electric service from soviet operated power plants into Berlin was disrupted. The blockade had begun.

One day later Curtis LeMay assigned General Joseph Smith commander of United States Air Force Europe (USAFE) to oversee an airlift operation into Berlin. General Lucius D. Clay gave the order to start "Operation Vittles" into Berlin and the initial cargo of eighty tons of milk, flour and medicine was flown into Tempelhof airport on June 26th. The British followed suit on June 28th. Both powers expected the operation to last three weeks at most.

By July 1st "Operation Vittles" was transporting ninety tons of food and medicine a day rising to a thousand tons a day by the second week. However, it was estimated that the two million inhabitants of Berlin would require at least two thousand tons of food a day. This did not account for winter requirements of coal which raised that estimate to seven and a half thousand tons of both food and fuel per day.

C47 Skytrain (Military designation of Douglas DC3)
C47 Skytrain (Military designation of...
C54 Skymaster
C54 Skymaster

Transport Problems and Organization

Black Friday
On August 13th Berlin was socked in with cloud cover down to building tops with heavy rain interfering with RADAR. That day Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner flew into Berlin to present Lt. Paul O. Lykins with an award for conducting the most flights into Berlin up to that time.

Unfortunately, a C-54 had crashed on the runway, another had burst its tires trying to avoid the the first crash and a third aircraft had cart-wheeled into the grassy area next to the runway trying to avoid the other two aircraft. This shut down the entire airport.

Tunner, with his experience in air-transport in China immediately sent back all orbiting aircraft and affected some changes. From that day on all aircraft were to use instrument flight rules regardless of weather conditions. Also, any aircraft that missed its landing was to return to the home airport and get back into the queue. These two changes had an immediate impact on the number of crashes and delays.

Tunner also noticed that the C-47, having a "tail-dragger" landing gear, was difficult to unload as the cargo floor was at an angle to the beds of the trucks used to unload.

From that point on Tunner insisted that all transport aircraft used be the C-54 which had a tricycle landing gear making the cargo floor parallel to the tarmac. This made unloading the C-54 considerably easier than the C-47. It didn't hurt that the C-54 could haul ten tons of supplies to the C-47's three and a half tons.

Note the C-47 is the military equivalent to the Douglas DC-3. The C-54 was an improved DC-4. (see pictures above).

Finally, Tunner set up a pattern of air traffic into Berlin with two corridors devoted strictly to incoming flights and one strictly for return flights. This effectively allowed for one flight per minute into The Tempelhof airport.

Changing Goals
As the blockade dragged on it became obvious that the two thousand ton a day train of food would not work in winter. An additional six thousand tons of coal would also have to be transported to keep Berliners from freezing to death.

To keep up with demand the airlift would have to be expanded and maintenance crews were not up to the task. Tunner solved this problem by hiring ex-Luftwaffe ground crews. The airport was also expanded by adding a second runway made of asphalt.

And improved ground RADAR system was also brought in which greatly improved using the now mandatory instrument flight rules. However, weather continued to be a problem with the worst months being November and December 1948.

Easter Parade
By April 1949 "Operation Vittles" was a resounding success, much to the consternation of the Soviets who had predicted a complete failure.

In April 1949 General Tunner decided to break the monotony and give his crews a moral boost. To do this he planned a big event which would also bolster stock-piles of material in Berlin. He decided to create an "Easter Airlift" starting on April 15th. The cargo was to be coal only and stockpiles were created for the effort. Air-crew maintenance routines were also altered to keep the maximum number of aircraft in the air.

Between April 15 and 16th, a period of twenty-four hours from noon to noon, flights and crews worked around the clock bringing in twelve thousand tons (12,941) of coal. Not a single accident occured in that twenty-four hour period. This was nearly double the projected capacity of the system for a single day.

This morale booster had an additional beneficial effect. From April 16, 1949 until the Berlin Airlift officially ended, more material was processed at Tempelhof per day than any day previous to the Easter Parade.

Blockade Ends
Operation Vittles was such a success that the soviets announced on April 15, 1949 an end the blockade.

Lasting Benefits
General Tunner's organizational skills remain today with commercial airports using Tunner's flight patterns and loading schedules to keep civilian air passengers and cargo moving.

Cost of the Airlift

A total of seventy-one airmen lost their lives in the effort. Thirty-one U.S. aircrew and forty British aircrew were killed in crashes in the early months of the effort.

Dollar Cost
The total cost of the operation was two hundred twenty four ($224,000,000) million dollars or two point six billion ($2,600,000,000) 2010 dollars.

The Candy Bombers

As a diplomatic effort "Operation Vittles" was a success.

But it was also due to the efforts of pilot Gail Halvorsen who had visited with the children he saw at the end of the runway on one of his first flights. He was curious about them and in his halting German and their halting English determined that they had never had chocolate or any type of candy for that matter.

On his next flight into Templehof he decided to drop candy-bars to the children surrounding the airport. He initially bought a box of candy-bars at the Rhein-Main air strip, tied handkerchiefs and string to those bars and dropped them to children as he flew over the abandoned apartment complex at the end of the airstrip.

Initially this was completely against the rules and Halvorsen was concerned about discovery; certain that he would face court-martial for deviating from the tightly regimented routine.

However when Gen. Tunner heard of the effort he commended Halvorsen and named the effort "Operation Little Vittles." Halvorsen is credited with cementing cordial relations between Americans and Germans. He was even awarded the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1974.


I have always found this time in history fascinating. Not only did we not punish the people we defeated, we insured that they would survive a brutal attempt at territorial control.

In all wars up to this time to the victor truly went the spoils. The Marshall Plan, instead of meting out crushing punishment, helped the defeated stay alive, recover, and grow economically strong.

Updated: 03/29/2013, LiamBean
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