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Q&A | Berlin Airlift

Humanitarian efforts thwarted Soviet move

West Berlin children perch on the fence at Tempelhof airport and watch a U.S. airplane as it brings in supplies to circumvent the Soviet blockade of the area.

Associated Press (1948)

West Berlin children perch on the fence at Tempelhof airport and watch a U.S. airplane as it brings in supplies to circumvent the Soviet blockade of the area.

Thursday marks the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift — an effort by the Allies to supply West Berlin entirely by air during a Soviet blockade. It was the largest humanitarian air relief effort the world had ever seen. It was also the major battle in the Cold War between the Soviets and their former allies.

Why Berlin?

At the end of World War II the occupying victors — the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and France — divided Germany into four zones, with the Soviet Union controlling the east. The capital of Berlin, deep inside the Russian zone, also was divided into four sectors. After the Allies decided to unite their occupation zones by creating a single currency in West Germany, Josef Stalin wanted the Allies out. By June 24, 1948, Soviet forces closed highway, rail and river supply routes through East Germany to West Berlin. Then the Soviet Union stopped food supplies. The west had 35 days' worth of food.

How did the Allies respond?

On June 26, the airlift began with 32 American C-47 flights bringing 80 tons of supplies — mainly powdered milk, flour and medicine — into Tempelhof airport. In more than 277,000 flights over 15 months, American and British planes flew in roughly 2.3-million tons of food, coal and vital supplies to the west's 2-million civilians and 20,000 Allied troops.

How often did the planes land?

Flights were round the clock and at their height, a plane landed every few minutes. Pilots flew precise routes in 20-mile-wide air corridors from western Germany across the Soviet zone, into three airports in the French, British and American sectors of Berlin. Unlike ground routes, these had been previously negotiated with the Soviets.

Why not use force or withdraw?

The Allied troops were outnumbered by the Soviets 62 to 1. After five years of war, and the advent of nuclear weapons, armed conflict seemed a perilous road. Political and humanitarian needs meshed. The airlift showed the West's determination to oppose the spread of communism. "We stay in Berlin, period," declared President Harry Truman. More than 77 Allied and German personnel, including 32 U.S. service members, were killed during the airlift.

Who were the "candy bombers?"

U.S. Air Force Lt. Gail Halvorsen decided to bring chocolate and chewing gum to the children who came out to meet the planes. Soon, he and others were making daily drops of candy in handkerchief parachutes. Later, American children sent their own candy and U.S. manufacturers began donating. Halvorsen once said, "The kids in Berlin called me 'Uncle Wiggly Wings.' That's because I wiggled the wings of the airplane when I came in over Berlin."

How did it end?

The Soviet Union ended its blockade in May 1949. The airlift continued until September. The blockade marked the formal division of the city into eastern and western sectors. Twelve years later, in 1961, the Soviets sealed off East Berlin with the construction of the Berlin Wall.

Sources: World Book, CNN, Voice of America, McClatchey-Tribune,

Humanitarian efforts thwarted Soviet move 06/23/08 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 25, 2008 5:20pm]
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