Madness and Morale on the Berlin Airlift

 The Berlin Airlift was unprecedented. 

Never before or since have air forces been called upon to undertake such a massive humanitarian operation. Yet significantly, the Airlift was not a response to a natural disaster but rather to hostile provocation. The risk of war was always present and the duration was indefinite. Morale on the Airlift was critical to its success and on the whole surprisingly high.

The early days of the airlift were characterized not just by improvisation and a “total lack of organisation” but by a sense of excitement as well. Responding to orders that said “at once” conveyed urgency – and importance. Arriving at surprised bases to find that the words “Operation Plainfare” or “Vittles” could cut through normal red-tape and bureaucracy only heightened that sense of being part of something “big.”

This attitude was reinforced in theatre by the commanders. At RAF Luebeck if they ran short of aircrew, “promptly every man available from off-duty controllers to Ops Room clerks, formed into a scratch crew and took off in any plane available.”[i] General LeMay, the senior U.S. Air Force Officer in theatre, was also calling on all his fliers, regardless of official duties, to fly “whenever they could.” Nobody seemed to care what unit one belonged to. Aircrews were thrown together from available personnel and told to fly the next plane that was ready. If loaded aircraft were waiting and there didn’t appear to be any aircrew assigned, staff-officers or visitors would jump into the breach – just for a chance to be part of it all. The only thing that mattered was keeping things flowing into Berlin. So pilots flew when they could and slept when they could, snatching snacks of coffee and doughnuts “on the fly.”

Non-flying staff officers were also infected with the spirit of urgency and importance. An RAF electrician remembers:

One night I was presented with a group of non-technical Officers….They wanted to help so I couldn’t very well turn them away, after all, they were Officers and I didn’t know who had sent them. It was such short notice that I didn’t know exactly what to do with them at first. I decided the safest thing to do was to keep them as far away from the aircraft as possible, under the circumstances, so I spent the whole night teaching them how to Marshall an aeroplane. … [A]lthough working with us was not really suitable for them, at least they took it upon themselves to volunteer to help and were prepared to work through the night, which they did, even after doing their own work through the day.[ii]

And the ground crews were no better:

Fired by the belief that within a few days this glorious adventure would have ended, scores of RAF fitters and mechanics, armed with no more than a tool kit and a change of underwear, thumbed a ride out of England on the first Wunstorf-bound plane – without checking out of their parent stations or even booking in on arrival. It took…weeks to locate who had ended up where.[iii]

The pervasive sense of urgency led now and then to mistakes, of course. One party of VIPs bound for Berlin in a DC-3 passenger aircraft (aka C-47 cargo aircraft) stopped in Wiesbaden for lunch. When they returned to their Dakota to continue the journey, they found it filled to the gills with flour.[iv] Getting cargoes to Berlin had priority over VIPs – particularly those who had time to stop for lunch! On another occasion, the crew of a C-54 aircraft returning from their snack and stretch in Berlin saw the main compartment was empty, the off-loading apparently complete, and so they closed the hatch and took off immediately, completely forgetting there was a second compartment below the cockpit.  When they landed in Wiesbaden, they discovered they had taken a (one imagines rather distressed) Berliner along with them. He was returned by the next flight – and finally finished the off-loading the aircraft in Berlin four hours after he had started.[v]

Looking back on the atmosphere of these early days of the airlift after nearly 60 years, a former RAF fitter reflected:

I wonder how we coped. Youth, of course, was on our side. Plenty of work, but much humour. The Allied aircrew, although hollow-eyed with fatigue could still crack a joke with ground staff, who endeavoured to turn their aircraft around speedily… [so] the crew could return to their bases for a few hours rest.”[vi]

Joking between aircrew and ground crew was a feature remembered by many British participants. One RAF airman remembers:

A Dakota arrived with a technical fault. This RAF aircraft was filthy, oil streaked and coal-dust covered. The poor thing looked sad and dishevelled. We opened the side door and fitted the alighting steps. What appeared in the doorway was an equally dishevelled pilot with coal-dust streaked face and coal-dust swirling around him.

Inevitably someone amongst our dismayed group spoke up: ‘Twenty bags of your best coal, coalman, and you’re a day late with the order.’ An angry look appeared on the pilot’s face which then turned to a white-toothed grin. ‘By God,’ he said ‘I thought I had landed in England being greeted with that request.’

We all dissolved into laughter and one of the ground staff jumped into our land rover and drove the crew up to the Mess for a well-earned meal and bath.[vii]

In retrospect, of course, all this excitement was the stuff of adventure, and airlift veterans tend to look back on the airlift nostalgically:

My memory will always retain the sounds and sights of rain, snow, C-54 engines, red hot exhaust and the labour and strain of lifting heavy loads into the air.[viii]

An RAF airman, working on the “refuelling gang” remembers:

I loved the work, the bustle and the excitement of the continuous aircraft movement. I remember…the roar of aircraft engines making music in my ears, always the possibility of seeing a previously unknown type of aircraft, combined with the feeling of doing something really worthwhile.[ix]

This was a critical component of morale: the Airlift was not a controversial cause. The “Russkies” had cut off food and fuel to more than two million civilians. They had stopped the deliveries of milk to babies and cut off supplies of medicine to the sick. One didn’t have to support one particular political party or be a rabid anti-communist to be in favour of this operation. One did not even have to comfort oneself with assurances that those “in power” must know more than one knew oneself. This was a very straight-forward humanitarian mission and history has shown repeatedly that men are happier and more ready to sacrifice themselves for a “good” cause than a questionable one. As one USAF pilot put it:

It wasn’t any party. The hours were long, the food was bad, and there were so many takeoffs and landings that it became tiresome. [But] we were helping people survive, and everyone realised that much.[x]

Even if RAF and USAF aircrew had been completely convinced of the necessity of bombing Berlin just three years earlier, they nevertheless preferred the prospect of bringing food and supplies now. A former B-17 pilot who had lost aircrew in combat over Germany summarized the feelings of many: “I don’t like to see people bullied, when defenceless women and children are involved, it cancels out a lot of the past… I didn’t feel good about dropping the bombs. Now maybe I can do something about the food.”[xi]

But even the most motivated of men eventually start to get tired, and for the Airlift crews that was bound to happen sooner rather than latter because their orders were “indefinite.” There were no replacements for RAF crews, so they could not be rotated out. USAF replacements were too far away or not yet re-activated, so that men sent out to Berlin on 30 days “temporary duty” found that their duty extended, thirty days by thirty days, again and again, into apparent infinity. Airlift jokes started to circulate about men still being on “temporary Airlift duty” when retired decades in the future.

The civilian pilots posed a slightly different problem. No one could hold them to any particular schedule, and since they weren’t under “urgent” orders the sense of urgency was also lacking. Yes, undoubtedly it was a good cause, but most of these fliers were a bit cynical by now – having fought in a good cause for a long time not all that long ago. They were – in a non-pejorative sense – mercenaries.

They were ex-RAF crews who had been released from the Service and had gone back to jobs as clerks or labourers or whatever it was. Suddenly, they had been presented with the chance to get their hands on a four-engined aeroplane and draw about £ 1,000 a year. This was really too good to be true, and they were out to make the most of it while it lasted.[xii]

In short, they were flying the Airlift for the money not the glory, and if they worked hard they also played hard. The fliers with the civilian charter companies became notorious for being very heavy drinkers – and for engaging in many very wild activities when drunk.

For example, as Flight Refuelling grew from a company with just four flight crews and thirty-five maintenance men to a company with a thousand ground crew, they had to employ 150 aircrew just to assure that on any one day 32 of them would be sober enough to fly.

The RAF seemed better able to cope with the stress than either the civilians or the USAF. This was undoubtedly in part the result of the accessibility of England. Aircrews not only got home on a regular basis, (one week every month) they also flew aircraft due for routine or emergency maintenance back to Maintenance Units in the UK. Furthermore, in a pinch or some personal emergency, they could easily hitch a ride home and be in England in a couple of hours.

Admittedly, there were those who found the proximity to England a disadvantage. The worst of it, according to one pilot, was that one’s “wife or girlfriend, who probably worked at [the home airfield], got to know all about it before [one] had recovered from the hang-over.”[xiii] But, on the whole, the proximity to England was beneficial for morale.

Another positive morale factor mentioned by RAF veterans was the presence of British women in theatre. An RAF airman remembers:

In early July 1948 the wives of officers…rallied round and helped serving refreshments and tea breaks…At the time, to a nineteen-year-old, they seemed ‘elderly.’ On reflection I suppose they were five or ten years our senior and had in all probability been in the services themselves during the war and knew how much their support meant.[xiv]

There were also a significant number of WAAF stationed in Germany and in Berlin itself. They worked in a variety of trades including Air Traffic Control and aircraft maintenance. Perhaps it was the presence of British women – or the traditions of the Colonies - that encouraged the men stationed in Germany to form bands that preformed at the NAAFI, Malcolm Club, and various messes and Service clubs. Whatever the reason, there is ample evidence that the personnel at RAF stations were very good at entertaining themselves.

Another morale building factor for the RAF was the retention of Squadron cohesion and identification. An RAF pilot stresses that:

throughout the lift we flew as crews, in squadrons. This built up a wonderful esprit de corps because we always knew who was in front of and behind us at the same height. It also meant we had time off as a squadron, with the inevitable end-of-shift parties.[xv]

Yet the biggest positive morale factor for the RAF may simply have been the fact that not only did they have an important job to do, but they were getting it done with a minimum of red tape. Norman Hurst put it this way:

There was no administrative ‘fat’ in the British contingent. At airfield level there was a tremendous esprit. RAF and Army personnel working as one. For once the complete success of an operation was not due to high command but to the airmen and private soldiers working long hours under difficult conditions whose grit and determination to sustain their counterparts in Berlin won the day.[xvi]

The USAF pilots in contrast were stuck far away from home without their women-folk or any prospects of rotating out. Aside from homesickness, Tunner suggests that the Soviets intentionally spread rumours or sent “poison pen” letters to airmen, suggesting that wives were unfaithful or hinting at other trouble at home. Short-term the USAF Airlift fliers were also confronted by quite unjust discrepancies in their own accommodations and food compared to their comrades in the Occupation forces. All these factors undoubtedly and gradually undermined morale. But that was still in the future.

In the early days, weeks and even months, the Airlift was, as General Tunner worded it, “a real cowboy operation.” It was an adrenaline driven operation with lots of leeway for individualism and room for wild antics between the heroic testing of one’s limits all in the service of a good cause. It was wonderfully romantic, but as the professionals soon realised it was also unsustainable. 

[i] Richard Collier, Bridge Across the Sky, MacMillan, 1978, p.127.

[ii] Reg Denny, Letter to Frank Stillwell, June 3, 1998.

[iii] Collier, p. 70.

[iv] William Tunner, Over the Hump, Office of Air Force History, 1964, p. 201.

[v] Hans G√ľnther, letter to the author, Dec. 21, 2005.

[vi] T. Crawley, letter to the author, Jan. 8, 2006.

[vii] T. Crawley, letter to the author, Jan. 8, 2006.

[viii] Albert Lowe, on the Berlin Airlift Veteran Association Website.

[ix] Peter Day, letter to the author, Jan 2006.

[x] 1st Lt. Donald Measley, quoted in Edwin Gere, The Unheralded, Trafford, 2003, p. 121.

[xi] Halvorsen, quoting an unnamed colleague, p. 46.

[xii] Robert Rodrigo, Berlin Airlift, Cassell, 1960, p. 125.

[xiii] Rodrigo, p. 156.

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

[xv] W/C Manning, "The Early Days of the Berlin Airlift," Through Eyes of Blue, Airlife, 2002, p. 196.

[xvi] Ibid.

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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