Berlin Crisis 1948: Capacity Shortfalls

 No one involved at the start of the Airlift ever contemplated or imagined the dimensions that the Airlift would eventually assume. All that they knew was that they needed “a lot” of everything. Or as Clay had put it, all they could haul. RAF instructions were equally vague. The political leadership told the RAF – who it knew perfectly well was under-funded, under-staffed and short of aircraft – “to do their best.” As one of the RAF staff officers charged with organising the operation remarked: “‘something at once’ and ‘do your best’ hardly appeared the most well considered instructions issued at the start of a military operation.”[i]

But one thing was glaringly obvious: the men tasked with carrying out the airlift lacked just about everything.  


The most glaring deficiency at the start of the Airlift was in aircraft. The French were fully engaged in Indochina and sent their regrets from the start. The American transport fleet in Europe consisted on paper of 102 of the twin-engine C-47s, affectionately know to USAF aircrew as “Gooney Birds,” with three ton cargo capacity. In all of Europe, the USAFE had only two of the larger C-54s, which could carry ten tons. In fact, however, the number of transport aircraft available for the lift was even smaller than the paper strength. One of the two Carrier Groups allegedly assigned to USAFE, the 60th, was in fact deployed in support of American commitments in the Mediterranean and Near East. When the Airlift started, aircraft and crews were scattered all over the Middle East. They had to be returned to Europe before they could join the lift. This meant that as on June 24, the USAFE could in fact commit only 37 Dakotas. All of these were at least five years old and had a minimum of 2,000 flying hours already clocked. The prospect of keeping them flying around the clock was a maintenance nightmare and it was predictable from the start that there was going to be a high rate of unserviceability in the fleet.

The situation for the RAF was similar. Defence expenditure in Britain had been capped months prior to the start of the Airlift and RAF Transport Command (never a glamour item in the Defence Budget) was undergoing severe contraction. When the Blockade started, the RAF had only a single squadron of Dakotas in Germany. On the evening of June 24th a second squadron of Dakotas was sent to Germany to reinforce it. Thereafter, the transport fleet in theatre was reinforced with virtually everything Transport Command could spare from around the world. In a comparatively short period of time a large and diverse fleet of aircraft of different types from Dakotas to Sunderland Flying Boats was collected in Germany. Some of these aircraft were very old, some required American spare parts (which had to be bought with U.S. dollars which Britain could ill afford), and almost all were poorly designed for carrying cargo. Problems ranged from small doors, and the lack of internal loading lifts and hoists, to tail-wheels, that meant that while on the ground the floor sloped, making it very difficult to stack cargo. But as we will see this motley fleet was do a magnificent job.

Notably, however, neither the USAF nor the RAF possessed any tanker aircraft whatsoever. This fact probably more than any other induced the British government to decide to charter aircraft from civil companies. Roughly one month into the Airlift, the British started contracting civil airfreight companies to carry cargoes to Berlin. This brought in the vitally needed tanker aircraft – and a wild mixture of other aircraft (and aircrew) as well. The charter airlines ranged from established and highly organised public airlines such as the British Overseas Airways Corporation (BOAC) to tiny operations run by wartime pilots with a couple of aging, converted bombers. In fact, nothing whatsoever was standardized about this hodgepodge fleet of aircraft. All that these companies had in common was that they were not authorised to carry the same loads and were not outfitted with the same landing and navigation aids or radio frequencies as the RAF. Some of them were even operating with only a single crew and flew to Germany without any maintenance or administrative personnel. Few could afford navigators, and the training, skills and dedication of the pilots was very uneven. On the other hand, one thing must be said to their credit: the civil fleet provided some of the most colourful characters of the Airlift.

But they could not make up for all the shortfalls. To keep the RAF’s own fleet flying, the RAF needed more trained aircrew than they had. This had a negative impact on utilization rates, despite the fact that RAF ground crews were suburb, highly rated and preformed by all accounts magnificently under very difficult circumstances. For the USAF the situation was reversed. They could draw on a huge reserve of pilots, but suffered from an acute shortage of properly trained ground crews. Lack of experienced mechanics caused serious maintenance delays even for routine checks, which could take up to three times as long as when a properly trained ground crew did the work. But the shortage of trained personnel did not stop with air and ground crews. There was also a shortage of meteorological staff and so inadequate weather data, and perhaps most serious of all both the USAF and the RAF had a shortage of trained air traffic controllers. The situation was so bad that one USAF general claimed military air traffic control had become “a lost art” by 1948.[ii] What controllers there were worked to their very limits - and sometimes beyond.

Among all these sundry shortfalls one stood out above all others the minute planners got serious about the Airlift: Airfield capacity. It did no good to collect mountains of food and coal and assemble a huge fleet of aircraft with their air- and ground crews, if there were no suitable airfields from which to fly to Berlin or if the airfields in West Berlin could not receive the incoming traffic.

At the start of the Lift, the USAFE operated from two airfields: Rhein-Main (near Frankfurt am Main) and Wiesbaden. The main RAF airfield was located at Wunstorf, near Hannover, near the end of the shortest of the three air corridors. The air corridors were the routes which, according to an agreement reached in the Allied Control Commission on Nov. 30, 1945, the Western Allies had to use when flying in and out of Berlin. (Note: the agreement applied only to Allied aircraft which excluded, for example, aid from other interested parties such as Holland – which, very much to its credit, had offered aircraft for the Airlift.) The agreement had been reached in response to Soviet complaints about risks to air traffic safety caused by the fact that Allied pilots had up ‘til then simply flown where and when they liked. Since there were no navigational aids in the Soviet Zone, Allied pilots got lost readily and it had indeed been dangerous flying under these conditions. The Western Allies had consequently welcomed the Soviet initiative for regulation of air traffic in the interests of air safety. The agreement provided three corridors, each twenty miles wide and 10,000 feet high, running to Berlin from roughly Frankfurt/M, Hanover and Hamburg.

Frankfurt/M lay in the American Zone and the corridor connecting it to Berlin could be served by the two USAF bases, Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden. Rhein-Main had been rebuilt after the war into the USAF hub for all of Europe and it boasted a 6,000 ft concrete runway and most of the “trimmings” necessary for air transport operations. A proper loading dock, however, was not built until nearly the end of the Airlift. Wiesbaden was a former Luftwaffe fighter base, but it too had been modernized by the USAF, including construction of a 5,500 ft. concrete runway, and a loading dock. Furthermore, it had mechanical loading equipment such as fork-loaders. Of course, neither of these airfields had been conceived or re-modelled with the scale of operations which would develop in the Airlift in mind. More important, they were more than half-again as far away from Berlin as airfields in the British Zone. Furthermore, the corridor originating in the Frankfut/M area crossed hilly countryside with a correspondingly higher risk of accidents than the routes to Hanover and Hamburg over flatlands.

The RAF began the Airlift by pouring all available transport aircraft into Wunstorf, the airfield closest to Berlin. Unfortunately, the arrival of large numbers of aircraft and crew coincided with several days of heavy rain “which highlighted…the need for extensive development work including hardstandings, to fit West German airfields for intensive air transport operations.”[iii] Even after a massive expansion programme including the clearance of five acres of forest, the laying down 180,000 square yards of PSP hardstandings and the building five miles of railway sidings, Wunstorf was clearly not going to be able to bear the burden of the British airlift alone.

In short, the Allies needed more departure airfields if they were going to fly enough supplies into Berlin to sustain the city, and they needed to locate these airfields near to the shorter and safer northern corridors ending at Hanover and Hamburg respectively. The advantages of the northern corridor can be illustrated by a simple example: the distance from Fassberg to Berlin was just 145 miles compared to 280 miles from Rhein-Main to Berlin. This meant that two planes based at Fassberg could do the work of three based at Rhein-Main or that planes based in Fassberg could make five round trips a day as opposed to just three and a half from Rhein-Main. The use of Fassberg therefore offered a savings not only in terms of aircraft but also with regard to aviation fuel. Fortunately, in addition to Fassberg there were a large number of other “embryo” airfields left behind by the Luftwaffe scattered across the British Zone which could, with good planning and hard work, be turned into efficient departure airfields for the Airlift.

 The situation in Berlin was considerably more critical, given that it was a built up city, but things could have been much worse. There were in fact two fully operational airfields in West Berlin at the start of the Airlift, one in the British Sector (Gatow) and one in the American Sector (Tempelhof). Both had their advantages and disadvantages.

Gatow was located on the very outer Southwest fringe of Berlin, surrounded on three sides by rural landscape making approaches to the field easy and safe – except that all those fields were in the Soviet Zone and occupied by Soviet troops. The nearby Soviet military airfield at Stakow could easily mislead a partially lost pilot into landing in “enemy” territory and, equally unpleasant, the Soviets could use the field for harassment. It was from this field that the Soviet fighter which collided with the BEA airliner had flown.

 Furthermore, when the British took control of the airfield it had no runways at all; it was a grass field. The British put down a PSP runway almost at once and added a concrete runway shortly afterwards, so that at the start of the Airlift there were two runways at Gatow, the concrete and the PSP one. Neither, however, was constructed for the volume or kind of traffic that the Airlift would bring. Furthermore, there were no perimeter tracks and the aprons at Gatow were of concrete blocks which also soon proved inadequate for the demands made of them in the Airlift. Clearly at least one more runway and a better perimeter track, aprons and hardstandings were needed at Gatow. Likewise, facilities for off-loading liquid fuel was required if Gatow was to be used for receiving tankers.

The situation at Tempelhof was worse. The airport was located in the middle of the city and the field was surrounded by five-story buildings, the upper stories of which were residential. Just what this meant for flying is well described by Pilot Bill Martin of the USAF who described his first landing at Templehof as follows:

When I broke out [of the cloud] it seemed like I was in a crab and I was looking into somebody’s window. There were lights on in there, and I could see these people sitting around a table, eating their dinner. I had heard about how narrow that corridor was…but that was my first experience. To eyeball it that close – those people eating dinner while I’m flying an airplane right by them!”[iv]

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers required airfields to be built so that approaching aircraft could come in on a “glide path” with a slope of 1:40, i.e. an aircraft was supposed to travel forward 40 feet for every foot of altitude it gave up. At Tempelhof the glide angle on the principle runway was 1:16 and on the shorter, secondary runway 1:10. An aircraft on approach to Templehof came within less than 100 feet of the roofs of the surrounding buildings, and this proved a serious psychological handicap to many Airlift pilots. Controllers had to “coax” pilots down against their instincts, and no less than three aircraft crashed because they put down too late, but none ever wrecked because they put down too soon!  In short, aircraft swooped down at steep angles to land on improvised runways of PSP – because Tempelhof didn’t have even one concrete runway at the start of the Airlift.

These runways started to disintegrate almost at once and teams of roughly a hundred men, equipped with shovels, landing mats, sand and asphalt, were stationed beside the runways. Their job was to do repairs by lifting (or replacing) a steel plank, pouring in a mixture of asphalt and sand from the wheelbarrows they had with them, and then re-welding the steel plates together – between landings. “As soon as a plane roared by, they’d jump out and make what repairs they could, then jump back out of the way when the next plane came by.”[v] The experts concluded they needed two new runways at Tempelhof.

But even if there were new concrete runways in place at both Gatow and Templehof, the Allies calculated they would not together have sufficient capacity to receive the number of aircraft that would be needed to supply Berlin. This was because there was the ever present possibility of an accident closing down either Gatow or Templehof completely for an indefinite period. Everyone agreed that what was needed was a whole new airfield.

Fortunately, there was a suitable field, formerly a manoeuvre and training area for the Luftwaffe’s anti-aircraft (Flak) divisions, in Tegel in the French Sector. The area was large and relatively flat and far enough away from the other fields to enable comparatively safe air traffic control. The problem was that in all of Berlin there were only six bulldozers and a single scraper. More were clearly needed – particularly since all this construction (additions at Gatow and Templehof, new construction at Tegel) had to take place more or less simultaneously. The construction of runways would also require cement mixers, steam-rollers, graders, tractors and dump trucks - the bulk of which did not exist in the Western Sectors of Berlin because they had already been “removed as reparations” by the Soviets.

The airfields, whether in Berlin or the Western Zones, all lacked adequate de-icing and snow-removal equipment, as the winter would prove, and more immediately had insufficient lighting and air traffic control for night and blind flying. Berlin had only one set for Ground Controlled Approach (GCA) and one radio set for corridor control.  While Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden were better equipped, they were by no means adequately prepared for the envisaged volume of traffic. Furthermore, there were no navigational aids in the Soviet Zone, so control at both ends of the corridors had to be especially good. But the real challenge lay in the fact the airfields in Berlin were close together and the approach and landing patterns intersected so that very competent and disciplined air traffic control would be necessary to avoid collisions the minute traffic increased. General Tunner, former Commander of the airlift across the “Hump” and soon to be appointed Joint Airlift Task Force Commander felt at the time that “the Berlin airspace present[ed] the trickiest traffic problem that aviation ha[d] yet produced.”[vi]

Group Captain Noel Hyde, appointed Officer Commanding at Wunstorf June 29, 1948 kept a diary which provides a glimpse into the chaotic situation facing the Airlift commanders. He recorded for example: “P[etrol] and F[uel] section completed overworked and in a muddle….” “Yorks going to be difficult to handle with present congestion on airfield.” “Insufficient oil and petrol bowsers.” “It appears that night flying under present conditions costs us more than we gain because of difficulties loading, servicing etc.” “Army cannot cope with both Yorks and Daks.” “Wing-Commander Tech[nical] says we cannot with present manpower cope with 10-minute intervals between take-offs. Marshalling and refuelling are the difficulties.” Etc. etc. etc.

Yet perhaps the greatest shortfall of all was the lack of a unified command and control structure. Although in close consultation with one another, the British and Americans each launched their own operation. The British had initially activated an existing plan, code-named “Knicker” to support the British garrison in Berlin, and then officially expanded it to include support of the civilian population of Berlin two days later, changing the name of the operation first to “Carter-Paterson” and then, for optical reasons,* to “Plainfare” on July 19, 1948. Meanwhile, the USAF officially launched its Airlift under the codename “Vittels” on June 26th. Despite close co-operation at the political level, the two air forces were in effect running their own independent operations.

What was worse, even within the separate air forces there was considerable confusion about who was in charge. The USAFE, headed by General Curtis LeMay thought it was their show, but the officers at USAFE were all combat fliers, not transport specialists. There was not one American air force officer in the European theatre, who had airlift expertise. All the air transport experts of the USAF were stationed in the U.S. In the RAF the situation was similar. The British Air Forces of Occupation believed the Airlift was their operation because it was in their theatre, while RAF Transport Command (which was providing the aircraft, the aircrews and the expertise) felt that they ought to have overall control of the Airlift even if their HQ was in the UK.

So the largest and most ambitious Airlift in history grew out of a combination of military improvisation at the local level and political determination at the highest level. It was launched not knowing how much of what the Berliners needed in order to survive - much less how much these supplies weighed. It was launched without knowing how many aircraft and aircrews were needed to get that tonnage of freight to Berlin, or how those aircraft were to be maintained and by whom. It was launched despite an almost complete absence of aircraft and aircrew resources in theatre and despite the serious inadequacies in airfields and air traffic control. It was launched without airlift expertise in theatre and without a unified command structure. But once it was took wing, it flew and turned into something that not even its originators and advocators had ever imagined or expected.

* Carter Patterson was the name of a British removals company and Soviet propaganda immediately picked up on this fact and started suggesting that the real purpose of all those flights into Berlin was to “remove” the British garrison, their family and things in preparation of abandoning the Berliners to their fate.

[i] Sebastian Cox, “Britain and the Berlin Airlift,” 28

 [ii] William H. Tunner, Over the Hump, Office of the Air Force, 1985, 223.

[iii] Paul Wood, Royal Air Force Historical Society Proceedings.

[iv] Thomas Parrish, Berlin in the Balance, Perseus Books, 1998, 290.

[v] Tunner,  170.

[vi] Tunner quoted in Parrish, 223.



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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