Berlin Crisis 1948: The Requirements

After the Soviet imposition of a blockade on the Western Sectors of Berlin, the political leadership in London and Washington refused to consider either pulling out or fighting. Within days, a de facto airlift had started and this -- more by default than intent --  became the Allied strategy. Admittedly, not a long-term strategy, but an ad hoc strategy for weathering the immediate crisis until a diplomatic solution could be attained that would re-open the surface access routes. 

The problem was that since no one had ever contemplated an airlift on this scale, nobody had the faintest idea of what was needed.


The very first task, therefore, was an accurate assessment of what the population needed to survive. The second step would then be to calculate the resources necessary to meet those requirements. And lastly the resources to meet those requirements would have to be found – if possible.

The Allies knew that prior to the blockade 15,500 tons of supplies had been imported into the city every day simply to sustain a meagre standard of living and an anaemic level of industrial production. There was clearly very little “fat” in the supply chain. Furthermore, prior to the blockade, electricity – and the coal to power the electric power plants – came from the East, along with other vital goods such as fresh milk, fruit and vegetables. Thus, even though some of the 15,000 daily tons previously imported from the West might have been superfluous, other things such as coal, fresh vegetables and milk, which had previously been provided by the surrounding Eastern Zone, would now have to come from the West and that meant they would have to be flown in by air. In short, to calculate minimum requirements, the West had to work from the bottom up, deciding how much of what materials were absolutely necessary for the city to survive for an indefinite period.

Just how much grain, butter, salt, meat, and milk did the city need to keep from starving? How much coal and petrol were necessary to keep the electricity turned on and public transport operating? How much coal was needed to keep people from freezing in the winter? How much detergent, soap, toilet paper and toothpaste, and how many sanitary tampons and babies’ nappies were indispensable to keep the population healthy? Could hospitals keep functioning without medicine, bandages and disinfectant? For how long and what might be the consequences? What about raw materials to keep Berlin’s factories working? And if factories closed, how would the unemployed workers respond? Would they riot or start supporting the SED? What about clothes and shoes? Or newspapers to keep people informed of events? What was “absolutely essential” and what were luxuries?

Calculating food needs was probably the easiest (as well as the most urgent) task facing the Allied governments. They now had long experience in working out caloric requirements for various categories of workers in order to establish rations both at home and in Occupied Germany. All that needed to be done was to convert calories into units of weight and multiply by the number of mouths to be fed. Within a relatively short period of time, it was decided that the most essential food requirements in short tons per day were [i]:

·                Potatoes                                          900

·                Flour                                                641

·                Vegetables                                      165

·                Meat/fish                                        106

·                Other cereals                                 105

·                Sugar                                                  51

·                Salt                                                     38

·                Fat                                                      32

·                Milk                                                    20

·                Coffee                                                10

·                Cheese                                              10

·                Yeast                                                   3


Altogether these daily requirements amounted to roughly 2,000 short tons of food which needed to be airlifted into the city each day.

These early calculations did not yet take into account the fact that it was more efficient to carry dried goods than goods with water content (for example dehydrated potatoes would later save the lift 780 tons a day). By boning meat before transport, the weight could be reduced by a quarter. Despite the costs of heating baking ovens (in terms of coal that needed to be flown in), it was later calculated that it made more sense to fly in wheat rather than bread etc. These savings evolved over time.

Meanwhile, the other commodity that was relatively easy to calculate and was of equal importance was coal – as was demonstrated by Clay’s first telephone call. The thing about coal was that it was needed not just for itself, but to fuel the electric power plants. Electricity powered public transport, public lighting, water and sewage systems and industry. Without electricity the city could not function. The initial British estimate of coal requirements for their sector alone was 1,200 tons of coal per day – or 400 Dakota loads. This exceeded the freight capacity of the RAF even if it flew nothing else.

Since the latter was impossible, the British decided that they needed to reduce coal consumption by improving the efficiency of the power plant capacity in their sector. In addition to flying in as many generators as they could lay their hands on, they revived plans which had existed before the Blockade to rebuild the major power plant which had once served the Western Sectors of Berlin but had been dismantled by the Russians prior to the arrival of the Western Allies. Because the new-built plant would be as modern as possible, it would save coal. Catch 22 was that to rebuild this power plant during the Blockade meant that virtually all the component parts – most notably the turbines and boilers and the eleven meter long steel girders, not to mention concrete and construction equipment – would have to be flown in by aircraft. Another unexpected side-effect was that the more efficient burning of coal, would mean that there would be less coke as a by-product. But many of Berlin’s central heating plants, particularly in administrative and public buildings, were coke-fired, so these would have to be converted to oil burning plants. Of course, the oil too would have to be flown in via the airlift and so on.

But getting back to coal, until the new power plant was built, the existing power plants had to be fed with coal, and there had to be coal for at least some domestic heating, and coal to fire bake-ovens for bread, and coal to keep factory furnaces working and more. All in all, the Allies came up with a minimum daily requirement of between 2,500 and 3,000 short tons. At the end of the airlift, it was possible to look back and see that two out of every three aircraft flying the Airlift would be “hauling coal.”

Not that the Allies didn’t try to be creative about delivering the coal. An attempt was made to “air drop” coal from low-flying bombers. Unfortunately, the coal pulverized on impact and was of no further use to anyone. So there was nothing for it but to pack it sacks and load it onto aircraft which dutifully landed and were off-loaded at the other end.

But where were all those coal sacks supposed to come from? The traditional coal sack, made of Jute, lasted only three trips. The U.S. Air Force discovered that duffel bags lasted more than three times as long, namely ten trips, but these were more expensive. Furthermore, even they wore out at a rate of 850,000 duffel bags a month. It was soon costing the U.S. government $250,000 per month just for the sacks in which the coal was transported.

And coal sacks were only one of hundreds of items required to deliver the cargoes needed to sustain the city. Once it had been determined that the city would need between 4,000 and 5,000 tons of goods delivered each day, the Allies had to calculate just how many aircraft would be required in order to haul that much cargo. The number of aircraft, naturally, depended on the cargo capacity of the respective aircraft to be employed and these varied widely. The aging but still common C-47/“Dakota” (known to the civil airline industry as the DC-3) could carry just 3 tons, while America’s largest transport in operation, C-74 “Globemaster” had a capacity of 25 tons. Between these extremes were the principle work-horses of the Airlift fleet, the C-54 “Skymaster” (civil designation: DC-4) with a capacity of between 9 and 10 tons, and the RAF freighters the Avro York (9 tons), the Handley Page Hastings (8.5 tons), the Handley Page Halton (6 tons) and the Avro Lancastrians and Tudors (both 5.5 tons). In addition, for the transport of some awkward cargoes (bulldozers and turbines etc.) aircraft with special loading features or cargo room configuration were needed, while for the transport of liquid fuels tankers were required. Notably, the aircraft that was to carry the greatest amount of cargo on the Airlift, the Skymaster, had never been designed as a freighter. It had been designed as a long-distance passenger aircraft. On the Airlift it was to prove its value in a role exactly the opposite of that for which it had been designed: rather than carrying light loads long distances it was to carry heavy loads, short distances with remarkable success.

Which brings us to another type of requirement: to keep a fleet of aircraft flying around the clock, aviation fuel was needed. That fuel had to be transported across the Atlantic by tanker and transported by rail to the Airlift departure airfields in West Germany. Twenty five tankers were needed to maintain the airlift, and at the start of the Blockade tankers had to be diverted at sea from their scheduled destinations. Later U.S. Navy tankers were used. As an example of the quantities of petrol required, Rhein-Main airfield alone required 820,000 liters of aviation fuel per day when the Airlift was at its peak. The demand for fuel was to increase throughout the airlift from the 82,000 barrels a month of July 1948 to 291,000 barrels a month on year later. Altogether the airlift would consume 100 million gallons of aviation fuel.

Aircraft do not run on fuel alone. They have many parts that wear out and need to be replaced at regular intervals. In the normal course of events, those intervals are dictated by the number of hours flown. But the aircraft on the Airlift had been designed and used as long-distance transport planes. Nobody knew what the impact of frequent short-hauls (with a correspondingly higher number of take-offs and landings per hour of flying) would have on the requirements for spare parts – or on engine serviceability or metal fatigue. The fact that the aircraft were initially operating from grass fields or Pierced Steel Plate (PSP) runways complicated matters further. Tires and brakes wore out at astronomical rates. Mechanics were soon reconditioning 60,000 spark plugs each month. Six months’ supply of windshield wipers was consumed in just 12 days. The list is endless. Likewise the fleet of vehicles needed to load and unload the aircraft were provided by the army and, for the most part war-weary and rundown to start with, they too broke-down and required maintenance and spare parts.

Nor do aircraft fly themselves. Both aircrew and ground crew were needed to fly the aircraft and keep them flying. Since the aircraft were expected to fly round the clock, more than one crew was needed per machine and maintenance facilities had to be in operation 24 hours every day with successive shifts of maintenance personnel. The motor pools doing the loading and unloading likewise had to work 24 hours a day, and again there was a need for trained personnel to maintain the motor pool. To support the air- and ground crews, there had to be messes and canteens, laundries, barber-shops, and post exchanges, not to mention air traffic control and meteorological support. And these services also had to work 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to support the men working both the day and night shifts. Last but not least, people were also needed to load and off load the aircraft and maintain the runways and motor transport and run all aspects of cargo handling operations. The Airlift manpower requirements were estimated by one U.S. source[ii] at:

·                45,000 German cargo loaders and airfield workers

·                 3,000 Displaced (mostly Baltic) cargo loaders and workers

·                12,000 USAF staff

·                 2,000 U.S. Army Airfield Support staff

·                 800 U.S. Navy staff

·                 8,000 RAF and Commonwealth Staff

This list, however, appears to ignore entirely the role played by the Royal Corps of Engineers and the Royal Army Support Corps. Furthermore, German sources put the number of permanent German workers a good 5,000 higher, while the list appears to overlook the construction workers at the airfields, notably Tegel. So this list must be viewed as conservative at best. Even so, it gives a manpower requirement of 70,000 men, 20,000 of which needed to be highly skilled and trained.

Last but not least, bringing all these various factors together, calculating the needs, converting raw needs into concrete orders, getting the orders placed, the goods purchased, packed and transported to the departure airfields, and then ensuring that cargoes got loaded according to both priority of need and optimal safe use of aircraft capacity required planning and organization. Likewise keeping aircraft flying around the clock, with fresh crews and proper maintenance, ensuring that spare parts were where they were needed and that crews got enough sleep and enough food but not too much alcohol, required effective command structures. As one German observer wrote: “More than a miracle, the Airlift was the result of hard, extremely detailed work.”[iii]

[i] Ann and John Tusa, The Berlin Airlift, Sarpedon, 1988, 144; Michael Haydock, City under Siege, Brasseys, 1999, 148, Peter Auer, Ihr Voelker der Welt: Ernst Reuter und die Blockade von Berlin, Jaron, 1998, 244. Although the individual numbers for the component factors differ slightly, the sum is always the same: 2,000 short tons.

[ii] Arthur Pearcy, Berlin Airlift, Airlife, 1997, 101.

[iii] Klaus Scherff, Luftbr├╝cke Berlin, Motorbuch Verlag, 1998, p. 12



NOTE: The content of this blog post is based on Helena P. Schrader. The Blockade Breakers. Pen & Sword, 2008 

The Berlin Airlift is also the subject of Bridge to Tomorrow, a trilogy of novels starting with Cold Peace.

Berlin 1948

In the ruins of Hitler’s capital, former RAF officers, a woman pilot, and the victim of Russian brutality form an air ambulance company. But the West is on a collision course with Stalin’s aggression and Berlin is about to become a flashpoint. World War Three is only a misstep away.

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Riding the icy, moonlit sky,

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Their average age was 21.

This is the story of just one bomber pilot, his crew and the woman he loved. 

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