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The Berlin Airlift could be called the first battle of the Cold War. It was when western countries delivered much needed food and supplies to the city of Berlin through the air because all other routes were blocked by the Soviet Union.
A C-54 landing at Berlin Tempelhof Airport Source: United States Air Force
After World War II
At the end of World War II the country of Germany was divided by the Allies into four zones. Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union each controlled a different zone. The capital of Germany, Berlin, was located in the Soviet Union zone, but control of this city was also split into four zones between the four countries.
Tensions Between the East and West
With the war over, tensions began to mount between the democratic countries of the west and the communist countries controlled by the Soviet Union of the east. The west was determined to stop the spread of communism and the Marshall Plan and the Truman Doctrine made this clear.
The west also wanted the country of Germany to be united under one democratic government. The Soviet Union didn't want this. Soon the two sides were at odds over the future of Germany. The west introduced a new currency called the Deutsche Mark, but the Soviets refused to use it in their zone.
The city of Berlin was an island in the middle of the Soviet controlled zone. The west sent supplies there via railroads and roads. However, the Soviets wanted total control of Berlin. They figured if they cut off Berlin from their external supplies and food, then it would fall under their control.
On June 24, 1948 the Soviets blocked all rail and road traffic to Berlin. They cut off the electricity coming from the Soviet part of the city. They halted all traffic going in and out of the city. The only way in was to fly.
Running Out of Food
When the blockade first started, the city of Berlin had around 36 days worth of food. They also needed tons of coal for energy and other items such as medical supplies.
Without going to war or giving up the city of Berlin, the only option the western countries had was to try and fly in all the supplies. This was a huge task. There were over two million people living in the city at the time. The army estimated that it would take over 1500 tons of food each day to keep them alive.
The Soviets did not believe that an airlift would work. They felt that the people of Berlin would eventually give up.
Over the next ten months the United States and Great Britain flew around 277,000 flights into Berlin. They carried over 2.3 million tons of supplies into the city. On May 12, 1949 the Soviet Union stopped the blockade and the airlift was over.
Interesting Facts About the Berlin Airlift
After the airlift Germany was split into two separate countries, the German Democratic Republic in the east (controlled by the Soviet Union) and the Federal Republic of Germany in the west.
The city of Berlin was also divided in half, with East Germany eventually building the Berlin Wall to keep people from defecting.
The Soviets introduced their own currency into Germany called the Ostmark.
Around 65% of the cargo was coal. Coal was tough to airlift because of all the dust. After hauling coal for 1,000 hours, planes would weigh 100 pounds more just from all the dust.
To make the turnaround in Berlin more efficient, flight crews were not allowed to leave their planes when they landed. Jeeps would drive out to the planes and bring them snacks.
To help with moral in the city, pilots would drop candy attached to little parachutes over Berlin. This was called "operation little vittles". Over three tons of candy was dropped by the end of the airlift.