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2 June 2008

The Berlin Airlift

40 years on former RAF aircraft electrician Geoffrey W. Smith recalls his experiences while statione

By Geoffrey Smith

We travelled to Berlin by road at the end of March 1948, as the railway had already been closed by the Soviets. We were in a convoy of three coaches, plus British Army lorries. All of us had been issued a Movement Order, in Russian, bearing our respective names, ranks and service numbers.

A British soldier who had made the trip once before gave us a tip: don’t be the last one on the bus. We soon found out why. The last to board was issued a rifle and told to sit at the front and make sure that the Russians who stopped the convoy didn’t board the bus without the correct authority and documentation. How our superiors expected a lone rifleman to stop scores of Russian soldiers from boarding the bus if they so desired I do not know.

We were stopped several times along the way, the first time at the British and Russian border checkpoints at Helmstedt. From there, we made our way to Berlin along what was left of the autobahn, taking care to avoid the bomb craters left by Allied ordinance.

The Berliners were suffering quite badly at this time. Food was in short supply, and shelter was equally scarce. Any piece of land that could be cultivated was being used for growing vegetables. I visited one German family who lived in a block of flats that were severely damaged during the war. All eight of them lived in one room, which was furnished with two beds, a washbasin, and an oil stove that gave them both heat and a means of cooking their food.

Incredibly, things were about to get much worse. In late June, the Russians, who had been gradually tightening their grip on the eastern part of the city since our arrival, cut off the electricity to west Berlin. They shut down the westbound railways, blockaded roads and stopped all barge traffic on the rivers and canals. The only way in or of the city out was by air. We were effectively under siege.

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Two days later, British planes began to arrive at Gatow airfield with supplies for the thousands trapped by the Russians. We on the ground were charged with unloading and servicing the planes as quickly as possible so they could return to the British-controlled zone to pick up more supplies. Turnaround time on a large transport plane like an RAF Dakota was about 20 minutes.

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Shortly after the lift began, the Russians started to harass the aircraft on their way to Berlin by buzzing them with Yak fighter planes or by flashing searchlights in the pilots eyes’ on their approach to the runway at night. Also, as the perimeter fence of the airfield bordered the Russian-controlled zone, Soviet troops would sometimes cut the wires and set up camp in our territory, forcing British soldiers to chase them out again.

By this time the airlift had really started to pick-up, and the Dakotas had been joined by the even larger Avro Yorks and a mixture of civilian aircraft. Before long American cargo planes had begun to arrive from Fassberg and Celle, making Gatow the busiest airport in the world at that time.

Some of the statistics concerning the loads carried are quite remarkable. In July 1948, one month after the start of the airlift, a total of 13,520 flights had been carried out. By April 1949 the total had risen to 26,260. The weekend of April 16th became known as the ‘Easter Parade’ because of the record number of flights that were made. During that month we lifted 235,363 tons of supplies into the city. Besides food, we brought in medical supplies, clothing, cutlery and razors. Even a grand piano was transported for one of the Berlin orchestras.

Although the blockade was lifted in May 1949, the airlift carried on virtually as normal right through to the end of September. A gradual decrease in personnel began with the dismissal of civilian workers in May and ended four months later. The Americans, the last to withdraw, left in September.

The Berlin Airlift demonstrated to the world and to the Soviet Union in particular that we were not going to let them get away with absorbing West Berlin into their empire, although the unification of the divided country would take another forty years.