Assembling Aircraft and Aircrew for the Berlin Airlift

 When the British and American Military Governors in Germany decided to try to keep Berlin alive and free by flying in supplies, neither the USAF nor the Royal Air Force had any dedicated cargo planes in Germany. For the RAF the problem was less severe because the RAF's Transport Command was based less than 500 miles away in the UK. The RAF could and did rapidly deploy aircraft to "the front", i.e. the Berlin Airlift. The USAF's assets on the other hand were dispersed around the globe. Yet the call was made and soon aircraft and aircrew began to pour into Germany by the hundred.


The USAF 60th Carrier Group, scattered across Europe and the Middle East was the first to start re-calling its aircraft to Wiesbaden. In addition, C-47s from other bases in Europe were concentrated at Wiesbaden and Rhein-Main, bringing together a fleet of 102 of these small cargo aircraft for the short term. More important, however, President Truman personally mandated the redeployment of the larger C-54s from the four corners of the earth, and already on June 28 orders went out to squadrons in Alaska and Hawaii, Texas and Panama. The commanders were given orders to report to Germany “at once.”

Instances of just 30 minutes notice to pilots were not uncommon. Pilots rarely had time to fill out pay-allotment forms for dependents left behind. So wives were left without pay for weeks until all the paper-work could be sorted out. Meanwhile their husbands flew the heavy four-engine transport aircraft halfway around the world with stops only for refuelling and weather briefings. They arrived in Germany still in the kit they had been given for their point of departure, whether that was Alaska or Hawaii.

Individuals, not just units, were caught up in the frenzy to provide the necessary men and machines for the Airlift. A USAF pilot with thirty-five missions over Europe in a B-17 was on his way to an assignment in the Pacific when the clerk at a stop-over base in San Francisco asked him how many hours he had in four-engine aircraft. The following dialogue ensued:

‘At least 1,700 hours,’ [the pilot] answered without even looking at his log book.

‘Good. You’re going to the Berlin Airlift.’

‘No, I’m not. I’ve got orders for the Pacific.’

‘That’s what you think,’ said the clerk, rubber-stamping [his] orders with a large, black ‘CANCELLED.’[i]

And so he went to Berlin instead.

The situation for the RAF was similar. Although the distances involved were comparatively short, the sense of urgency was the same. No. 30 Squadron took off from Schleswigland airfield in Northern Germany on June 25, flew a salute sweep over their favourite R&R location, the Island of Sylt, and then headed home for England at the end of their routine tour of duty. Two hours later they put down at Oakington and before they had even cleared the run-way Flying Control was calling the Squadron Leader to report to the Station Commander. “Good heavens,” S/L Johnston thought, “what have I done now?” But what awaited him wasn’t (as the good Squadron Leader expected) a rocket for some regulation he had broken but rather a question: “How soon can you go back to Germany?” 

In the early days of the airlift, the "work horse" was the military version of the DC-3 twin-engine aircraft, known to the British as the "Dakota" and the American military as the C-47.

No. 77 Squadron reported to work as usual the same day – only to be told the whole squadron including ground crew would be flying to Wunstorf in Germany that same morning. Since the whole operation would only last “a couple of days,” the ground crews were instructed to take “only their tool kits” and light clothing with them.[ii]

Another RAF pilot remembers his introduction to the Airlift as follows:

Poor Wunstorf, it hardly knew what hit it. From being a rather cosy single fighter squadron station it was suddenly descended upon by eight Dakota squadrons complete with servicing personnel, equipment and the necessary loading and movements organization. It was a permanent ex-Luftwaffe station with a fine Officers’ Mess [but]…by the time we got there all the beds had been taken. I slept on an armchair in the anteroom the first night, and I remember there being bodies all over the place, even on the billiard table.[iii]

As rapidly as possible, the RAF pulled together a transport fleet. By the end of July 1948, the RAF had dedicated a total of 48 Dakotas and 40 Yorks to the Airlift and was already meeting their cargo target of flying 3,000 tons a day into Berlin. Nor was the British build-up over yet. In addition to the Dakotas and Yorks, the British sent Sunderlands (July 5), cargo Lancastrians (July 27), Haltons, Liberators, Hythe flying boats (August 4), Tudors, (Sept. 3), Bristol Wayfarers (Sept. 18), Vikings (Sept. 23), and finally Hastings aircraft, the latter making their appearance on the Airlift routes on Nov. 1, 1948. Altogether, eight squadrons of Dakotas and eight squadrons of Yorks took part in the Airlift as well as three squadrons of Hastings and two Sunderland squadrons. With the civilian aircraft, more than 150 British aircraft were flying on the Airlift by the time it reached its peak half a year later. (Below Lancastrian tankers -- absolutely vital to the airlift!)

By then, the Americans had converted almost entirely to the larger C-54s, building up the fleet to a maximum of 312 of these four-engine work-horses. In addition, the USAF committed a single C-74 Globemaster to the Airlift, but it was too dangerous to land this large aircraft at Templehof with the steep glide-paths, and so it could only land at Gatow. Even there, where the runway was sufficient, it was too wide for the newly constructed taxiways and the edges started to break up under its weight. So only a handful of flights were made. Nevertheless the Globemaster did good service for the Airlift by flying in awkward and heavy cargoes to maintain the C-54s across the Atlantic. Last but not least, there were five C-84s assigned to the Airlift to carry particularly unwieldy cargo. These aircraft were particularly suited to Airlift operations because of their “hanger-like” cargo compartment and their clamshell rear loading doors. Unfortunately, they were not available in great numbers. (Below a Globemaster on one of its few trips to Gatow.)

However, none of these aircraft elicited quite the same popular response or affection as the flying boats of the RAF, the Sunderlands. No. 201 and 230 Squadrons were in Northern Ireland preparing for a joint manoeuvre with the Royal Navy when at 8 pm on July 2 the call to the Airlift came - in the middle of a Friday night dance. Squadron Leader Payn of No. 230 Squadron regretfully interrupted the entertainment and announced that they had just thirty minutes to load up their aircraft and return to base. At the time, they did not even know where they were heading. At a little after 9 am the following morning they had their orders to take part in the Berlin Airlift and were headed for the old Blohm and Voss shipyard basin on the River Elbe. Here they were astonished to find that the words “Operation Plainfare” worked like a magic incantation to produce anything they needed by way of equipment and supplies. And on Monday morning, No. 230 squadron set off for Berlin with its first Plainfare cargo.

Payn’s Sunderland bored down the Hamburg corridor, skimming 100 feet above the pine forests and the silver vein of the Elbe….  From Russian fields all along the route planes of every shape and description from the MIGs to R-1 spotter planes, their observers armed with cameras, rose up to focus on them. Then, as the flying boat, carrying its first token load of three and a half tons of spam, hit the Havel “like a pelican landing on a puddle,” Payn and his crew were astonished by the city’s reaction: Paddling toward them like a Hawaiian war party came scores of canoes steered by lustily singing Berliners, bearing garlands of summer flowers.[iv]

Not only were the aircraft of the Airlift fleet diverse, the “house flags” that they carried were also varied. Obviously, the two air forces bore the burden of the operation. More Airlift aircraft bore the USAF star than any other symbol, while the RAF roundel graced the second largest number of Airlift aircraft, with a total of 21 squadrons flying on the Airlift at one stage or another. What is often forgotten, however, is that from the very first day (when the USAF found out it didn’t have even one C-54 where it needed it), civilians were also involved. Various U.S. airlines played an indirect role in the Airlift by flying the Trans-Atlantic route with vitally needed supplies and spare parts for the Airlift fleet, as well as the coveted “Care Packages” for the civilian population. In addition, American Overseas Airlines, which had been operating a passenger service out of Frankfurt since mid-1946, contributed to the Airlift from start to finish. By far the biggest civil contribution, however, came from British civilian air charter companies. These played a vital role by providing not only added capacity but specialised services such as liquid fuel tankers. Altogether no less than 25 British civilian companies took part in the Airlift with 103 aircraft.

The men flying this polyglot fleet of aircraft were equally diverse. In addition to the USAF pilots from every State of the Union and British RAF pilots, the Commonwealth contributed aircrew from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. With such a diverse group, it was inevitable that levels of training – not to mention experience – varied greatly. Only RAF Transport Command had given their pilots any training in flying “in streams,” and this training had only been introduced in Sept. 1947 and consisted of a two-week course. And while RAF pilots assigned to the Airlift had to be fully categorized and instrument rated, this was by no means the case for the civilians. USAF pilots as a rule had more experience than their RAF colleagues in flying close formation but less experience than the RAF in flying at night.  USAF pilots were also used to flying long distances, much of it on auto-pilot -- although not necessarily as some RAF pilots imagined “with a big-cigar lighted, a cup of coffee in one hand and their feet on the dashboard.”[v]

Still what these crews – British and American, civilian and military - had in common was more important than what differentiated them, and that was wartime experience. Although the USAF pilots initially deployed on the Airlift came from Air Transport Command and were professional transport pilots, as the Airlift grew and the need for pilots far outstripped the supply, the USAF started deploying all active pilots and recalling reservists with multi-engine experience – and that meant the bomber boys. By the closing days of the airlift, it was predominantly former B-17 and B-24 pilots, often from the 8th Airforce, who were again flying over Germany. Tunner’s own staff included a former 8th Airforce B-17 Group Commander, who had led the most costly operation of the USAAF in the entire war, the Regensburg Raid of Aug. 17, 1943.

Likewise the RAF the pilots of the first wave were professional transport pilots – the whole resources of Transport Command were committed to the Airlift, but many of these had served in Bomber Command during the War years. In fact, Operation Plainfare found among its aircrew many men with truly distinguished wartime careers behind them. For example, flying in the peacetime rank of Fl./Lt. was a former Wing Commander of Coastal Command with DSO and bar, DFC and bar and Air Force Cross (Fl./Lt. Ensor).[vi] F/Lt. Thompson, was the recipient of the Military Cross and DFC, and had been a pathfinder pilot.[vii] There were many others.

Likewise the civilian airlines chartered to assist the RAF were manned almost exclusively of former Bomber Command aircrew. Although the skills and above all the reliability of the civilian pilots were to prove uneven, the civilian companies did not lack for stars. At Lancashire Aircraft Corporation, for example, the chief pilot was Captain Wallace Lashbrook, DFC, AFC, DFM. He was a former Halton apprentice, who had earned his wings in 1936, flown with Bomber Command throughout the war, including one incident when he was shot down and evaded capture to return to active service via Gibraltar.

Most famous at the time was the Managing Director of Flight Refuelling, Air Vice Marshal Donald Bennett (pictured above). Bennett had written the textbook on air navigation before the war, The Complete Air Navigator, a book that was still in use at the time of the Airlift. He held the world long-distance seaplane record, set in the autumn of 1938 on a flight from Scotland to South Africa. He was shot down in one of the attacks on the Tirpitz, but evaded capture and escaped via Norway. He then became a Pathfinder pilot, and on his first Airlift trip to Berlin did a sight-seeing tour for his somewhat embarrassed RASC passenger, apparently proudly pointing out all the damage he had done to the city just a few years earlier. But he had had his share of misfortune too. While serving as Managing Director of British South American Airways after the war, an Avro Tudor of the airline was lost between the Azores and Bermuda with 26 passengers and a crew of six on board. Bennett lost his job and the Tudors were grounded, no longer approved for passenger travel. Bennett used his severance pay to snap up the unwanted aircraft and then match the jinxed aircraft with the most dangerous of cargoes – liquid fuels. Not that Bennett left the flying of such a dangerous mix to others. Quite the contrary, he was the only night qualified pilot in his company and carried the burden of twice-nightly flights alone for two full months. During the days, he worked alongside the ground crews overhauling the engines of his Tudors.

Another personality of the civil airlift was Freddie Laker (shown above from later in life.) He was anything but famous at the time and without a distinguished rank, a collection of gongs, or the right accent. But he left an impression on those who met him. J.O. Bennett of American Overseas Airlines remembers:

Melodramatic was the arrival at Templehof of Freddie Laker’s old English Halifax bomber, converted to carry cargo. Courageous Freddie was flying his single, tattered war surplus airplane on contract to the Royal Air Force. The bent and ancient craft looked as though it could not survive another flight. After each landing, and just as the hurried unloading crews would spring on the airplane, Freddie, in oily coveralls, would rush to put the pieces of his flying wreck back together again.[viii]

But Freddie Laker built his fleet up to 12 second-hand bombers and soon turned a profit, so that in retrospect he viewed the Airlift as his first great piece of luck. 


[i] Michael Haydock, City under Siege, Brasseys, 1999, p. 242.

[ii] Reg Nach, rigger of No. 77 Squadron, addressed to S/L Stillwell and dated Feb. 10, 1998.

[iii] W/C J.F. Manning, AFC, “The Early Days of the Berlin Airlift,” Through Eyes of Blue: Personal Memories of the RAF from 1918, p. 195.

[iv] Richard Collier, Bridge Across the Sky, MacMillan, 1978, p. 79.

[v] Robert Rodrigo, Berlin Airlift, Cassell and Company, 1960, p. 65.

[vi] Norman Hurst, letter to the author, Dec. 5, 2005.

[vii] Norman Hurst, letter to the author, Dec. 5, 2005.

[viii] J.O. Bennett, Blockade, Reminiscences and Recollections of an Airlift Pilot, Berlin Press Information Office, 1984, p.53.

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

The Berlin Airlift is the subject of Bridge to Tomorrow, a trilogy of novels starting with Cold Peace, winner of Silver in the 2023 Readers' Favorites Book Awards.

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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