Unsung Heroes of the Berlin Airlift - Loading and Off-Loading Teams

 One aspect of the Airlift was almost entirely in German hands: the on- and off-loading of cargoes. While Allied military personnel supervised loading the trailers and the aircraft and both provided and drove the motor transport, the actual work of loading cargoes was done by civilian work gangs.

 

The bulk of those employed to do loading in the Western Zones were Germans (predominantly released POWs) and Displaced Persons (DPs). In Berlin, the workers were almost exclusively German. Preferred were former soldiers of the Wehrmacht, who had served in technical trades of one kind or another. These men tended to be better educated but still possessed a high-degree of military discipline, making them particularly easy to control. However, the recruiting was not done directly by the Allies, but rather by the Berlin Employment Office (Arbeitsamt) that sent able-bodied, unemployed men to report to the various airfields. A total of 20,000 Berliners, predominantly workers laid off by the closed factories, eventually found employment at the airfields, primarily as loaders.

Loaders worked twelve-hour (latter eight hour) shifts on rations of 2,900 calories per day, and almost every first-hand account stresses that the “hot meal” at Allied installations was by far the greater incentive than the pay of DM 1,20 per hour.

What could one buy in a ruined, bombed out and now blockaded post-war Berlin? But that good hot meal of meat, vegetables and chocolate for desert was simply priceless at a time when most people were living on the verge of starvation.[i]

In consequence, the greatest possible punishment was dismissal. Rather than miss a day, men were known to send brothers or sons to take their place. The loading crews also developed strong team spirit.

Among our group there was a special kind of team spirit and the common need somehow achieved a congruency among people which could never be established in peaceful, normal times.[ii]

Nevertheless, German loaders remember that the early days of the airlift were “pretty chaotic” and that as many as 20 men would be assigned to off-load on C-47 – merely getting in each other’s way. The lasting image for most observers was simply one of hectic activity. One USAF pilot wrote:

The place was swarming with people and machines of all descriptions. Semi-trailer trucks loaded, unloaded and in the process were everywhere. Some snuggled up to the silver bellies of the big birds like piglets suckling the sow.[iii]

Things did not look different from the RAF perspective, a Squadron Leader taking part in the Airlift remembered:

On reaching Berlin we raced for the end of the runway…putting our wheels down at maximum undercarriage speed, there was no time to be lost. On arrival the aircraft was besieged by German workers with the unloader’s sacks over their heads as they passed to and from, each with a hundred pounds of supplies on his back like a flow of ants.[iv]

German sources reported:

A landing aircraft had not yet finished its landing run and already the lorries of the off-loading teams had attached themselves to its wake. The off-loading began at exactly the same minute as the aircraft came to a halt.

Finally General Tunner himself concluded:

I’d seen [the] planes being unloaded swiftly and efficiently by sweat-drenched German civilians and I knew that that phase of the turn-around activity was being well taken care of. The Germans were personally involved; they had their own well-being and freedom at stake, and they were working like beavers.[v]

Not only altruism motivated the labourers. The off-loading times were carefully and officially recorded. Each month the crew with the best overall record at each airfield was announced and rewarded with cigarettes and chocolate. These items, although highly valued in themselves, had the added value that they also served as currency on the black-market. Such rewards were, therefore, far from nominal incentives. Sometimes the Germans had a little unexpected – and unpaid – help too. The son of the Chief of Transportation in Tempelhof, then a teenager, remembers helping unload planes there in his “spare time” – just to be part of it all.[vi]

Despite Tunner’s praise for the German workers, the temptation for pilfering was too great for some. The methods were ingenious, reminding modern readers of the ingenuity of RAF POWs at German prison camps made famous by the book and film, “The Great Escape.” 

One favourite trick was to conceal flour and sugar in little bags suspended inside the trousers. When caught, the men would pull a string which emptied the bags and little piles of food would appear all over the tarmac.[vii]

The objects stolen were not predominantly the “currencies” of the black market, cigarettes and chocolate, but rather the things wanted at home by wives and children: sugar, flour and butter. Furthermore, for a shift composed of 3,000 workers, the quantities are not alarming. One historian characterized the pilfering as “pitiable rather than criminal.”[viii]

Nor should it be forgotten that the work these labourers did for a hot-meal and a minimum wage was both strenuous and dangerous. Workers were involved in accidents with both motor vehicles and aircraft. A total of seven German labourers lost their lives in work related accidents while working on the Airlift.  It is fair to say, that given the situation they were in, the Berliners working the Airlift showed far greater honesty than did many of the Occupation troops who never faced the same hardships yet were not above engaging in both minor and even major dealings on the black market.

 


[i] Hans Günther, letter to the author, Dec. 21, 2005.

[ii] Hans Günther, letter to the author, Dec. 21, 2005.

[iii] Halvorsen, p. 39.

[iv] Eric Robinson, letter to the author, Sept. 2005.

[v] Tunner, p. 171.

[vi] Daniel Bunting, BAVA website.

[vii] Rodrigo, p. 83.

[viii] Tusa, p. 262.

[ix] Anita Scholl, letter to the author, Sept. 30, 2005.

[x] Pearcy, p. 50.

[xi] Bob Needham, The Friends Quarterly, April 2001, p. 277.

[xii] Pearcy. p. 50.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.



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