One of the first major tests of the Cold War, the Berlin Airlift overcame ideological and logistical obstacles. The 1948-49 Allied mission was an extremely significant and impressive peacetime supply effort in an early standoff with the Soviet Union.
Following World War II, Germany was occupied by the four major Allies from the war in Europe—the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Germany’s capital, Berlin, had been split into four sectors as well, but lay deep inside the Russian zone. After a currency dispute in the summer of 1948, the Soviets blocked land and water access to the city, leaving only narrow air corridors for Allied access. The Soviet goal was not so much to starve the people of Berlin as it was to make them depend on Soviet resources. Rather than resorting to armed conflict or conceding altogether, Allied forces united to airlift food and fuel to the blockaded city. The mission—also known as Operation Vittles—proved a huge success. The airlifted goods supplied Berliners for more than a year, ultimately forcing the blockade’s removal.
The logistics of the operation were difficult, to say the least. Yet the Allied effort was remarkably persistent—and consistent—in meeting the challenge. Planes commonly arrived in Berlin at three-minute intervals around the clock. Every single day of the airlift, at least one transport delivered supplies—regardless of weather, maintenance difficulties, or threatening maneuvers by Soviet aircraft. During the operation, the airlift delivered a total of nearly 2.5 million tons of goods. Led by Major General William H. Turner, the airlift spanned the 11 tense months of the blockade and continued for four more as surface transportation was restored.
“The Berlin Airlift was definitely capable of either breaking the blockade,” Turner said of the mission’s objectives, “or of maintaining life in Berlin while negotiations were going on.”
In May 1949, the Soviets finally lifted the blockade, proving the success of the peaceful, humanitarian mission as the dust settled in Germany.