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Berlin Airlift: Logistics, Humanitarian
Aid, and Strategic Success

The Berlin Airlift is remembered as a symbol of American resolve in the early years of the Cold War, but it also demonstrated the power of logistics in attaining a strategic objective.

With those words, General Lucius D. Clay, the U.S. Commander in Chief, European Command (CINCEUR), and Military Governor of Germany, set the resolve of the military to meet the tide of communism in 1948 Europe in a unique way. The resulting Berlin Airlift, or Operation Vittles, revolutionized U.S. strategic doctrine and demonstrated how logistics can win wars. Without firing a shot, Allied interests were secured in Europe. [“Operation Vittles” was the U.S. name for the airlift. The British called their operation “Plain Fare.”]

Former Allies Divide Over Berlin

Post-World War II Germany was an occupied nation divided into four zones, each controlled by one of the victorious Allies. Berlin, the capital of Germany, similarly was divided into Soviet, British, French, and American sectors. The Soviet Union had wasted no time in expanding communism and its sphere of influence in Eastern European countries. It was anxiously eyeing Germany to also fall within that group. To that end, it would do anything to prevent the creation of a unified, democratic, capitalist Germany. A divided Berlin, however, sat like a cancer in the heart of the Soviet sector.

Making Germany an ally through economic aid was imperative to the United States. Germany’s importance rested in its location and large population. Geographically, Germany is near the center of Europe. It twice rose to world power within the first half of the 20th century, and the potential existed for its people to do so again. In their book, Airbridge to Berlin: The Berlin Crisis of 1948, its Origins and Aftermath, D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin point out that Germany was so important to the United States that Secretary of State George C. Marshall tied the whole recovery of war-ravaged Europe to the restoration of the German economy. The Soviets agreed with this view of the importance of Germany. Vyacheslav M. Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, noted, “What happens to Berlin, happens to Germany; what happens to Germany, happens to Europe.”

In December 1947, diplomatic meetings between the four occupying powers were suspended indefinitely because they could not reach a consensus on unifying Germany. Great Britain, France, and the United States went forward with plans for forming a West German state. By the end of March 1948, the Soviets were inspecting all trains entering their sector of Berlin for proper permits. A short, 10-day airlift of supplies to the West Berlin military garrison made the Soviets ease their restrictions, but harassment of access continued until June. No thought was given to the needs of Berlin’s civilian population during this abbreviated airlift.

Soviet Blockade Leads to Airlift

One of the first steps by Great Britain, France, and the United States toward establishing an independent West Germany was a reform of the German currency. This currency reform would include the Allied sectors in Berlin. The Soviets regarded the establishment of a German currency in Berlin as a provocation and responded by immediately suspending rail and highway passenger traffic into and out of Berlin.

Four days after the new deutsche mark (the new West German currency) was implemented in Berlin on 20 June 1948, the Soviets blockaded all ground transportation routes to the city. Giangrenco and Griffin point out that their goal was “. . . starving out the population and cutting off their business.” The Soviets believed that, by isolating Berlin, the city would fall under their control. They also believed that the United States and Great Britain eventually would pull out of Germany altogether, and Germany then would be ripe to fall under Soviet influence.

The Allied logistics juggernaut wasted no time in leaping into action to support the people of Berlin. Plans for using an airlift had been discussed already. The task was daunting: the U.S. Air Force, just 9 months old at the time, had only two troop carrier squadrons in Europe, and Berlin had a population of approximately two million to support. Nevertheless, the first aircraft landed within 2 days with supplies for the Berliners and the garrison.

Like many military operations conducted without the benefit of lessons learned, there was a steep learning curve at the beginning. The Allies had to operate within three 20-mile-wide air corridors. Berlin started with two airfields but had two more built and operating within 5 months. Command and control also was difficult. Doctrine on emergency airlift operations was lacking, cargo was not prioritized, and loading and unloading operations were not organized.

It did not take long before the airlift became a multinational and joint logistics marvel. The U.S. Army procured supplies and moved them by ground (aided by German railroads), the U.S. and British navies transported bulk fuel and supplies to continental Europe, and the U.S and British air forces flew the supplies thus assembled into Berlin.

The minimum supply tonnage in June 1948 was computed initially at 4,500 tons daily. Because of continued operational success, this level was increased to 5,620 tons daily by the fall of 1948. By January 1949, the city of Berlin was able to stockpile supplies and increase the daily food ration from 1,600 calories to 1,880 calories per person. In April 1949, Operation Vittles staged a 1-day demonstration. In a 24-hour period, 1,398 flights delivered over 13,000 tons of coal without accident or injury. Many private donations, such as toys, clothes, and candy, also were flown in throughout the operation.

When supply flights actually increased despite the German winter and continued to grow as the better weather of spring arrived, the Soviets realized the airlift could not be stopped. On 12 May 1949, the blockade was lifted and ground transportation flowed east to Berlin. The airlift continued, however, until West Germany was formally declared a nation (the Federal Republic of Germany) in September 1949. By the time the operation ended, 278,228 flights had delivered 2,326,406 tons of supplies. The United States conducted 189,963 of those flights carrying 1,783,573 tons of supplies, of which 1,421,119 tons were coal.

Response Sets Precedent for Logistics Influence

The Berlin Airlift changed the way modern war is waged. It showed that, by logistically supporting a beleaguered population, political and military interests can be secured. Projection of humanitarian aid and logistics accomplished this. The Berliners had to endure reductions in services from public transportation and public utilities (gas, electric, heat), unemployment resulting from businesses closing because of reduced power, food rationing, and a lack of fresh groceries such as milk, meat, and vegetables. Had the Western powers let the Berliners suffer under the Soviet siege, Berlin would have surrendered to the Soviet blockade and Soviet influence would have been strengthened in Germany. Many credit the Marshall Plan with stemming the tide of communism in Europe, but without the Berliners’ resolve to stand up to Soviet tyranny and the logistics support of Operation Vittles, communism could be alive and well in Germany today.

Current U.S. Army operational doctrine recognizes the need to assist civilians as demonstrated in the Berlin Airlift. Field Manual 3–0, Operations, states—


The Berlin Airlift was the first time the United States linked a support operation to a strategic and political objective. It set the precedent for, and demonstrated the success that can result from, aiding a civilian population. To put the airlift in perspective, the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Web site makes this observation—

Even today, in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the United States is applying the lessons learned from the Berlin Airlift. Not only does the United States operate a logistics pipeline using air transportation assets, but it also is trying to win the hearts and minds of the local populations by helping them meet their daily needs. The prominence of civil affairs units on today’s battlefields reflects this goal. U.S. citizens also continually funnel private donations through service members.

Like the servicemen involved in Operation Vittles, U.S. servicemen helping civilians in current operations represent America’s spirit and generosity as much as U.S. diplomacy does. Americans have realized that, to effect real change in a country, its people have to embrace that change. As a first step toward change, Americans are extending their generosity—just as they did in Berlin 67 years ago.

Major Gregory C. Tine, MDARNG, is an Active Guard/Reserve officer serving as the Support Operations Officer in the 29th Infantry Division (Light) Division Support Command. He has a B.S. degree from Northern Michigan University and is a graduate of the Armor Officer Basic Course, the Signal Officer Transition Course, the Quartermaster Officer Advanced Course, and the Combined Arms and Services Staff School. This article is adapted from a paper he prepared for the Command and General Staff Officers Course.