What Was The Berlin Airlift?

The Berlin Airlift Memorial near the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany.  Editorial credit: cbies / Shutterstock.com
The Berlin Airlift Memorial near the former Tempelhof Airport in Berlin, Germany. Editorial credit: cbies / Shutterstock.com

The Berlin Airlift was a massive operation to airlift basic supplies to the people of West Berlin following the Berlin Blockade. The operation began on June 26, 1948, and involved aircrews from the United Kingdom, United States, France, Canada, South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand. About 9,000 tons of food, medicine, fuel, and clothes were transported to West Berlin every day. Although the Soviet Union established the blockade of West Berlin, it did not interfere with the airlift for fear of escalating the tension to full-scale war.

The Division of Germany

After the Second World War, former allies the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France differed on the governance of Germany. The United States and the Soviet Union sought to spread the economic ideologies of communism and capitalism in Germany but the Second World War had left Germany in ruins and the capital, Berlin, in a dire state. The citizens of the city were staring at starvation, shelter was hard to find, and black market goods dominated the economy. The four allies divided Berlin into two; France, the UK, and the US control the western portion while the Soviet Union took charge of the eastern part.

Breaking Point

The two sides met regularly to coordinate the occupation of the zones and ease the ever-developing tension. In 1948, the Soviet Union found out that the three allies were secretly planning to establish a new German state. The Soviets were furious and decided to cut communication. In mid-1948, the United Kingdom and the United States introduced the Deutsche Mark as the new currency for their zones in West Berlin. The pair notified the French but failed to pass the same information to the Soviet Union because they sought to regain the economic control and quell the rampant black market.

The Berlin Blockade

In response, the Soviet Union established a blockade and barricaded all roads, rails, rivers, canals, and border crossing points to West Germany. The Soviets offered to withdraw the blockade if the West withdrew the Deutsche Mark. The West rejected the offer and initiated a plan to fly goods to West Berlin. The three countries vowed to declare war against the Soviet Union if any of the planes were shot down.

The Berlin Airlift

On June 26, 1948, the United States began airlifting goods to West Germany. The United Kingdom and France soon joined in. The allies imposed a counter-blockade that restricted trade with East Berlin and East Germany. About 2 million residents of West Berlin relied on the aid particularly the medicine, fuel, and food. More countries joined the operation, and at one point, planes landed at the Tempelhof Airport every 50 minutes. The system became extremely efficient and the aircrafts were transporting more goods than the rails and roads combined. The allies managed to keep up with the demand for ten months proving to the Soviets that the airlift could continue indefinitely. The counter-blockade created a shortage of goods in Eastern Berlin such that the Soviets feared an uprising could occur. On May 11, 1949, the Soviets lifted the blockade, but the allies continued the airlift until September just in case the Soviets changed their minds.


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