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The Berlin Air Lift

Actually, this is a continuation of our previous discussion, and covers both Germany more general, and the 1948/49 operation.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Let’s go back to the Berlin Air Lift. And Ross, can you tell us about what the logistical issues were facing the RAF resupplying their sector of Berlin by air?
ROSS MAHONEY: The challenges were complex and difficult. I mean, in one respect, the RAF only has one airfield in Berlin. There’s the American airfield at Tempelhof and eventually Tegel in the French sector will come online. The RAF are going down its corridors to Gatow. I mean, to that end, the RAF makes use of its flying boats and lands on the lakes in and around Berlin. Of course, the broader challenge is that you’re trying to resupply two million inhabitants of a major city. So there is a major challenge. And the aim is to resupply Berlin. Between the British and the Americans, about 200 tonnes a day. Eventually, they resupplied much more than that.
And in total, the RAF supplied Berlin with somewhere in the region of about 395,000 short tonnes over the period of the airlift. The other logistical problem is you’re flying aircraft up and down a corridor. They can’t fly out of that corridor, otherwise they go into Soviet airspace. So there is a huge attempt to manage the airspace through air controllers, who play a vital role in underpinning that logistical effort. And actually, it’s a lesson that the RAF and the Americans have learned from campaigns in Southeast Asia during the Second World War, especially in Burma. So they’re transposing lessons from the Second World War.
The other one is the state of airfields in West– what we now would refer to as West Germany. During this period, it was still the Allied Sectors. To the end, the British built two new airfields at Celle and Fassberg in order to resupply Berlin major staging points. The other logistical effort is simply sheer numbers of aircraft. The RAF is using aircraft such as the York, behind us, the newly introduced Hastings, but there just aren’t enough of them. So actually, the British are drafting in civilian aircraft in various roles to support the air effort into Berlin.
So these are major challenges to keep a city alive, based on a decision by the Western governments that they’re not going to evacuate West Berlin. And so therefore, they’ve got to resupply them. And the RAF and the American US Air Force do a fantastic job of doing that. And eventually, by mid-1949, the air lift is over. The Soviets break the siege, if you like, for lack of a better description.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Understood. Thank you. Now, you mentioned, in terms of the physical assets that were put in place. But with the commissioning of new aircraft like the Hastings, did that make any difference to managing the Berlin airlift?
ROSS MAHONEY: It’s difficult to say. I mean, it was helpful. The Hastings is just coming into service. It’s essentially flown straight into the battle for lack of a better description. It’s a much more capable aircraft than the Dakota, whether or not the new aircraft coming online added to the capacity. I mean, they add in the sense that they’re there. What’s their impact? You have to think of it holistically, I think. It’s the RAF’s transport fleet, from the Second World War through to the Hastings, that make that effort.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Ross. Now, can we take a step back and think about the geopolitics of the time, and how we might relate the Berlin airlift to the possibilities of nuclear-capable bombers being stationed in Britain? Were the two related?
ROSS MAHONEY: Yes, they are related. I mean, you can’t separate the Berlin airlift from its broader context. I mean, Berlin is a crisis point. A crisis point in relations between East and West. It is the ultimate example and confirmation that relationship between East and West has broken down. That negotiations are essentially over. I mean, we will see, after the Berlin airlift, the formation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The American decision to base super fortresses in the UK is related to that. There’s question marks over whether or not atomic bombs ever ended up in the UK.
But the simple fact that you were deploying an AirCrane capable of carrying nuclear weapons was part of a message being sent, that you escalate this, we have a capability that you don’t have. Of course, underpinning all of this is military planning, land– ground force planning to send columns into Berlin to raise the siege. Now, it never gets to that point. That’s part of the reason why the airlift emerges as a– the air option is much more– is a better option. But Berlin is a crisis point in the geostrategic, geopolitical, however we might want to put it, relations between the Soviet Union and the Western powers.
EMMETT SULLIVAN: Thank you very much, Ross. We’ll sign off here, and we’ll go on to the next step of the course, thinking about how some of the points Ross has raised relates to the development of the Cold War. Thank you very much.

The questions we were looking to address here were:

  1. What were the logistical issues which confronted the RAF as the Berlin Airlift went on?
  2. Did the commissioning of new aircraft, such as the Hastings, ease the problem?
  3. Was the Berlin Air Lift related to the possible basing of nuclear-capable USAF bombers in Britain?
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From World War to White Heat: the RAF in the Cold War

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