Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

 "Vittles" Gets Organized
 AirBridge to Berlin
 Road to Confrontation
 Who's Who During Big 4
 Political Activity Resumes
 Who's Who in New Berlin Governments
 Background on Conflict with USSR
 Eye of the Storm
 Marshall Plan
 The Airlift Begins
 Chocolate Flier
 Grateful Berliners
 Lighter Side (Cartoons)
 "Operation Vittles" Gets Organized
 Winter Campaign
 Blockade Lifted
 Aftermath 1949 -- 1959
 Photo Collection

"Operation Vittles" Gets Organized
Chapter section from:
Airbridge to Berlin ---  The Berlin Crisis of 1948,  its Origins and Aftermath 
By D.M. Giangreco and Robert E. Griffin
© 1988
(Used with permission)


    Major Jeff Warren (then a 2nd Lieutenant) was assigned to the 22nd Air Transport Squadron, Fairfield-Suisun, California, when his orders came down and he departed for Rhein-Main on July 30, 1948. Within hours after landing, he was in the air as a co-pilot in a C-54 on his first trip to Berlin. Between August 1948 and February 1949, Warren made 145 trips to Berlin and only twice was he forced to return to Rhein-Main without dropping his load in Berlin. Once, because visibility was less than 100 feet at Tempelhof and the other time because a plane was off the runway and burning. He recalls only one short layover in Berlin of a couple of hours due to weather.

  It was determined by a planning committee in Berlin that the city needed 4,500 tons per day to support the civilian and military population with the bare minimum needed to feed, heat, and furnish some electrical power. Tunner and his staff calculated they needed 225 C-54s to fulfill these tonnage requirements. They did not have that number to begin with, so the C-54s had to be supplemented by the smaller and slower C-47s plus other available aircraft types. The British used every military transport they could scrape up and contracted with every European civilian transport company willing to participate.

  Orders went out and by mid-August 81 more C-54s had been added or were en route. The planes and crews came from the 11th and 12th Air Transport Squadrons, Westover AFB, Massachusetts; the 8th and 9th Air Transport Squadrons, Kelly Field, Texas; the 22nd and 23rd Air Transport Squadrons, Fairfield, California; the 3rd Air Transport Squadron, Tokyo, Japan; and the 1st Air Squadron, Hickam Field, Hawaii. In the fall of 1948, 73 additional C-54s including all 24 available R5D's, the Navy version of the C-54, from the Navy VR-6 and VR-8 Squadrons joined the airlift.

  The need for an additional airport in Berlin was apparent. The feasibility of further expanding Tempelhof and Gatow was limited. A search for the best available site led to a tract of land in the Tegel area of the French Sector of Berlin, once used as a training area for the German Wehrmacht. The French were consulted and it was agreed the United States would construct the field and operate it, while the French would maintain it and provide manpower to unload the aircraft. Construction began on August 5, 1948 with a target completion date of January 1, 1949.

Empty asphalt barrels line the area adjacent to the 5500-foot runway at Tegel Airfield in the French Sector. The barrels pictured are part of the 10,000 barrels flown in by Vittles aircraft.

Empty asphalt barrels line the area adjacent to the 5500-foot runway at Tegel Air-field in the French Sector. The barrels pictured are part of the 10,000 barrels flown in by "Vittles" aircraft.

  The obstacles to overcome to build a modern airport in blockaded Berlin appeared insurmountable. There was little heavy equipment, no raw materials, and no skilled laborers. The only way to get the needed large construction equipment in was to cut it up with acetylene torches at Rhein-Main, load it into large C-74s and C-82s for the trip to Berlin, and then weld it together again in Berlin. The raw material problem was solved by using rock and brick rubble from the bombed out streets and buildings of Berlin. The labor problem was solved by using thousands of volunteer Berliners who pitched in with a renewed spirit to save their city. Men, women, and children, mostly unskilled, worked around the clock with US Army engineers to complete the Tegel airfield in three months, almost two months ahead of schedule. The first C-54 landed at Tegel on November 5 and the airfield went into full operation on December 15.(6)

  By the end of August 1948, the combined US-British airlift was averaging more than 4,000 tons to Berlin each day. By the end of September they were approaching the 5,000 ton mark. On September 18, 1948, US Air Force Day was celebrated by demonstrating the potential of the airlift with 900 trips to Berlin by US and British aircraft carrying almost 7,000 tons of food and supplies. On September 30, General Tunner phased out the C-47s on regular US airlift runs to Berlin because there were now sufficient C-54s in Germany to handle the lift.

  After Truman decided to commit to the airlift versus withdrawal from Berlin or the more provocative armed convoy plan, the Berlin crisis entered a phase where diplomatic negotiations took center stage. During the summer of 1948, Truman, apparently a lame duck president, turned over the day-to-day management of the Berlin problem to Secretary of State George C. Marshall as he hit the campaign trail in one of the most amazing comebacks in American political history to defeat Thomas Dewey in November.

  While initial success of the Berlin Airlift relieved some of the pressure for more overt action to break the blockade, Berlin had become a symbol of Western resolve making concessions to the Soviets or withdrawal much more difficult. The heroic actions of the pilots, air crews, ground support, and the evident resolve of the Berliners to endure was front page news in the daily newspapers across Western Europe and the United States resulting in a groundswell of support and a propaganda coup for the Western Powers.

  The diplomatic efforts of August and September 1948 to resolve the Berlin crisis included the relatively little known fact that the Western Powers were willing to withdraw the West Mark from Berlin circulation in favor of the East Mark. This depended on whether proper Four Power controls over currency and trade could be agreed upon and the Soviet Union lifted the Berlin blockade and agreed to provide for adequate transportation access to and from Berlin.

  These diplomatic maneuvers began on Monday, August 2, 1948, when the US, British, and French ambassadors to the Soviet Union met directly with Stalin in Moscow to determine if there was any solution to the Berlin crisis. Stalin proposed the simultaneous introduction of the East Mark in place of the West Mark in the western sectors of Berlin together with removal of Soviet traffic restrictions to and from Berlin. He stated that it was the "insistent wish" of the Soviet government that the London agreement (formation of a provisional West German government) be suspended.

  On August 3, Marshall conditionally accepted substitution of the West Mark with the East Mark provided there was control on issuance and credit. Marshall chose to ignore Stalin's "insistent wish" regarding the formation of a West German government.

  From 6 to 23 August, 1948, the Western ambassadors in Moscow met with Molotov and Stalin five times to see if the two proposals could be reconciled. Stalin finally agreed to make the Soviet Zone bank that printed and issued East Marks subject to Four Power control as to its authority in Berlin. He also deferred the question of a provisional West German government pending the next meeting of the Council of Foreign Ministers.

  Marshall cabled Walter Bedell Smith, US Ambassador to the Soviet Union, on August 25 that the Soviet proposal was unacceptable. Marshall advised "our basic requirements for agreement" were: insistence on co-equal rights to be in Berlin; no abandonment of our position with respect to Western Germany; unequivocal lifting of the blockade on communications, transport and commerce for goods and persons; and adequate quadripartite control of issue and continued use in Berlin of the East Mark.

  The US position was unacceptable to the Soviets and, as an alternative, the Berlin problem was referred back to the Military Governors in Berlin. They were instructed, within seven days, to work out detailed agreements for the simultaneous lifting of the blockade and the introduction of the East Mark into all of Berlin under Four-Power supervision.

Vehicle barrier being erected in Potsdamer Platz, 24 August 1948.

Vehicle barrier being erected in Potsdamer Platz, 24 August 1948.

  During the first seven days of September 1948, Clay, Robertson, Koenig, and Sokolovsky met in Berlin with the wary Berliners watching the negotiations with considerable apprehension. The hardened positions of the two opposing power blocks could not be changed and no agreement could be reached. The meetings and the negotiations broke off with each representative reporting back to his government. At the same time these meetings were going on, the Soviet-backed German Communists caused the de facto split of the Berlin city government.

  Not only did the Soviets not give any ground, but they also attempted to introduce air traffic restrictions in the Berlin air corridors. In addition, they announced periodic air maneuvers and anti-aircraft gun practices in the air corridors in an attempt to disrupt airlift traffic.

  When the Soviets were unsuccessful in stopping or delaying the start of the work of the German Constituent Assembly on September 1 in Bonn under Konrad Adenauer, they appeared to lose interest in any settlement of the Berlin crisis. During the last 20 days of September 1948, after the break off of Four Power negotiations, the threat of war again loomed. Truman was pressed by the Secretary of Defense and other senior administrators about conditions under which he would authorize the use of the atom bomb in the event of war with the Soviet Union.(7)

  In August, the Americans had approached the British again about planning for armed convoys to supply Berlin. The Americans were already working on a unilateral plan under the code name "Task Force Truculent."(8) The British replied on August 27 that they were still of the opinion that any attempt to force armed convoys into Berlin was militarily and politically unsound because the Soviets, without resorting to force, could interpose sufficient technical obstacles to obstruct such convoys.(9)

  When the Americans approached the British in September about the possibility of assembling atom bombs on English soil in the event of war and the use of English soil to launch planes carrying atom bombs, Attlee and other British leaders supported these proposals.(10) But the British still favored negotiations as long as there was any possibility of a solution. Clay had earlier approved the transfer of the B-29 group stationed in Germany to England, but requested for political reasons that one squadron remain in Germany on rotation.(11) Clay obviously desired to keep the B-29s visible to Soviet intelligence and on display as one of the few trump cards available to him.

  Faced with alternatives of withdrawal from Berlin-which was unacceptable-or war-which was undesirable unless extreme provocation occurred-the Western Powers reluctantly decided to refer the Berlin problem to the United Nations. Although they had little hope the United Nations could resolve the issue satisfactorily, referral won time without surrendering principles. Clay reported the airlift had progressed to the point that he believed Berlin could be sufficiently supplied during the winter months providing additional C-54s were allocated. The economic and political revival of Western Germany since the currency control of the previous June was exceeding all expectations.

  On September 29, 1948, the United States, Great Britain and France formally submitted a complaint to the secretary general of the United Nations charging the "illegal" blockade of Berlin made further negotiations impossible. This and other coercive measures taken by the Soviet Union constituted a threat to international peace and security.

  With the split of the Berlin police force in July and August 1948, the situation of the Berlin City Council and Magistrate to govern all four sectors of the city became more precarious with each passing day. The seat of the City Council was in the Soviet Sector and technically the City Council was still answerable to the four occupying powers.

  Almost every day City Council members and the Magistrate were called before the Soviet commander in Berlin or one of his staff officers. They were ordered to institute Soviet rules and regulations in all of Berlin. Often these orders carried the implied threat of arrest for failure to comply. These orders were routinely countermanded by the Western Powers as they pertained to the three Western Sectors of Berlin. The Berlin City officials were in a "Catch 22" situation.

  The Soviets accused the officials of collusion with the Western Powers when they failed to institute orders and regulations proclaimed by the Soviet commander. The Western commanders were sympathetic to the plight of these officials, but they could do little to protect them. Many Berlin political officials and outspoken anti-Communists disappeared. Although the Western Powers accused the Soviets of kidnapping, the Soviets denied it outright when there was no evidence or claimed the individuals arrested had committed criminal offenses when there were witnesses. Many of those who disappeared were never heard from again while others did not return for many years after serving in forced labor camps in the Soviet Union.

  It took admirable courage to be an outspoken anti-Communist in Berlin during 1948-49 and in late July, Clay addressed a long standing request from the Department of the Army to designate those Berliners who would be evacuated in the event of a Western Power withdrawal. Clay estimated a maximum of 20,000 Berliners would be so designated, but doubted seriously if that number would actually request evacuation in the event this step proved necessary.(12)

  In August 1948, after Soviet military police had continually invaded the Western Sectors to arrest Berliners and had ignored Western Power protests, the Western Powers began erecting barricades in some areas of the city to distinguish where sector boundaries ended.(13) In a city where literally hundreds of streets intersected at unmarked sector boundaries these barricades served as both warnings and advice.