The Berlin Airlift

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The Berlin Airlift

The Berlin Airlift, also known as the Berlin Blockade, is considered to be the moment when the Cold War truly began. The Cold War describes the 40-year period of tension and proxy wars between the United States and Soviet Union.

After Germany’s surrender in World War 2, the Allied nations of America, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union divided and occupied the defeated Germany along with its capital, Berlin.

The US occupied southeastern Germany, Great Britain the northwest, France the southwest, and the Soviet Union the northeast. The capital city of Berlin was also divided. The Soviet Union occupied East Berlin, while the other three nations controlled the western half of the city. 

Tensions were growing between the democratic Western countries (US, Great Britain, and France) and the communist Soviet Union. The US prioritized providing economic aid to rebuild Germany. However, the Soviet Union wanted Germany to pay for postwar Soviet recovery.

The Western countries also wanted to stop the spread of communism. In early 1948, the Western democracies met secretly to plan the unification of their occupied zones into “Bizonia,” which would be a single West German state with its own currency, the Deutschmark.

When the Soviet Union found out about these plans, they began issuing their own currency, the Ostmark, into their occupation zones and blocked access to West Berlin.

Berlin Airlift Blockade Map

The Soviet Union blocked all rail and road travel to West Berlin to cripple the city and force the Allies to give up on their plan of creating a unified West German state.

The other Allies desperately did not want to go to war with the Soviet Union so soon after the end of World War 2. They also did not want to give in and allow their zone to be taken over and forced into communism.

However, their zone of Berlin was entirely surrounded by Soviet forces with no way for much-need resources to get in or out on the ground. It was considered by the democracies to be an important "island of freedom".

To avoid giving up West Berlin or going to war with the Soviet Union, the US and Great Britain delivered supplies, such as food and coal, into West Berlin by air.

Berlin Airlift plane flies over the blockade

Beginning in June 1948, American and British air forces began daily flights from West Germany to West Belin. To save time many flights didn't land in Berlin, instead air dropping parachuted materials onto the airfields.

West Berlin had a large population, so the plan was to drop 3,475 tons of supplies each day. 

The Soviet Union believed that there was no way this plan would work and expected to control the entire city within weeks.

The flights were incredibly effective, however. American and British air forces eventually made over 250,000 trips to Berlin. By the spring of 1949, flights were taking off every few minutes and delivering an average of over 12,000 tons of supplies each day. 

After months of daily flights, it became apparent that the Western powers were pulling off the impossible: indefinitely supplying an entire city by air alone.

Finally, on May 12, 1949, 11 months after instituting their blockade of West Berlin, the Soviet Union lifted it, realizing that their plan wasn’t working.

Nervous that the Soviets could resume the blockade, the US and Great Britain continued to supply the city by air until September. The Berlin Airlift officially ended on September 30, 1949 after 15 months.

The British RAF and US Air Force delivered over 2 million tons of food, fuel, and supplies to West Berlin during the airlift. Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African air crews also assisted the during the airlift.

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