Unsung Heroes of the Berlin Airlift - Engineers and Construction Workers

 At the start of the Berlin Airlift there were just two airports in Berlin and three in the Western Zones involved in the effort. At the end there were three airports in Berlin and nine airfields in the Western Zones. Yet this simple fact does not convey the immense efforts and ingenuity involved in creating that infrastructure. The engineers and construction teams that made that infrastructure are unquestionably some of the unsung heroes of the Airlift.


At the start of the Airlift, the only airfield in the American Sector of Berlin was Tempelhof. Already by the end of June, less than two weeks after the start of the Lift, the main (PSP) runway was starting to break down under the constant C-47 traffic. It was clear that the arrival of the heavier C-54s would  put it entirely out of commission — unless “something” was done immediately.

The fastest way to build a runway was with pierced steel planking, so this was laid down south of the main runway by July 8, but by early August, it was obvious that this was not enough, and so on August 20 a third, parallel runway, this one north of the original, was started. In short, capacity at Tempelhof was tripled in the first three months of the Airlift.

At Gatow, the only airfield in the British Sector of Berlin, the situation was similar. In fact, the British had recognised the need for improvements to the airfield even before the Airlift commenced. An RAF construction unit was already stationed at Gatow and working “normal hours” along with a team of highly trained German civilian draughtsmen and “an excellent German engineer” to make improvements to the airfield facilities.[i]

With the start of the Airlift, activities went into high gear. In addition to the work already planned, adjustments were made to handle a far higher volume of traffic.  Just as at Tempelhof more runways were needed. Furthermore, Gatow needed taxi-ways, extensive hard-standings, airfield lighting, and airfield drainage. This was beyond the capacity of the RAF construction unit in place and so help was brought in from the Royal Engineers in the form of Lt. Col. R.C. Graham.

After the survey and plans were finished, the actual construction started. But in blockaded Berlin this was anything but routine. There was no modern construction equipment in Berlin – and no construction materials either. Lt. Col. Graham solved the problem of construction material by opting to collect the bedding on railways from which the Soviets had long since ripped up the tracks. As for the surface, he calculated that a large part of the bitumen required could be recovered by melting down the surface paving off streets in war devastated parts of the city where traffic was sparse. Some of the bitumen was also provided clandestinely from a factory in the Russian sector located very near the Sector border. “Mysteriously” barrels of bitumen were rolled across that border into the British Sector every night.  When all was said and done, only 5% of the total tar and bitumen used on the runway surface had to be flown in from the West.

For construction equipment, Graham was forced to scratch together an odd collection of out-dated machinery. The fleet included bull-dozers to prepare the ground, obsolete boilers to melt down the bitumen, crushers to pulverize the rubble and steam-rollers to flatten it. One steam-roller arrived completely unexpectedly. It “came trundling on to the airfield” driven all the way from Leipzig by a German driver who “had simply driven through miles of Russian-controlled territory to offer his services.”[ii]

Because the assembled equipment was all very old, it frequently broke down and there were, naturally, no spares to be found in Berlin, so the RAF construction unit had to use their talent for improvisation to either make parts or otherwise effect repairs. Finally, with a team of roughly 1,500 German workers, the new runway was laid down using a large moving gantry on rails…with lorries feeding all the materials in as they crawled alongside. “The whole assembly moved majestically and relentlessly forward, [which] showed how you can really get a job done when you have to.”[iii] With the completion of this runway, Gatow possessed two parallel runways, the tarmac one for landing and a PSP one for take-off.

Yet even with new runways at both Tempelhof and Gatow, it was imperative to increase airfield capacity in Berlin if the city were ever to be sustained through the winter. Thus on Aug. 5, 1948, less than two months after the start of the blockade, construction started on a completely new airfield, Tegel, in the French Sector. The requirements here dwarfed everything undertaken at either Tempelhof or Gatow. The new airport required a 5,500 foot runway, 6,020 feet of taxiways, 4,400 feet of access roads, 2,750 feet of access railroad, and over one million square feet of apron.[iv] In addition, the airfield needed administrative, operations and support facilities including a control tower, and ground controlled approach radar sites. Since it was also designated to become the main receiving airfield for liquid fuels, huge underground fuel tanks were also planned – and had to be constructed – along with pumps and pipelines.

However, the future airfield first had to be cleared – of old flak batteries and tree stumps. It had to be levelled and drained. Only then could the construction work itself begin – in the complete absence of building materials and modern construction equipment. But there was neither cement nor mixers in Berlin. To fly it in would have siphoned off huge numbers of aircraft from the transport of food and coal. But, as one of Tunner’s staff put it, the USAF had “had the foresight” to provide all the material needed three years earlier. “There’s enough brick rubble from bombed out buildings,” he calculated, “to build a dozen runways.”[v] So the rubble from the bomb-shattered buildings of the city was collected and crushed. The surface asphalt, however, still had to be flown in – roughly 10,000 barrels of it.

Regards equipment, as in any country lacking modern equipment, manpower to a certain extent had to replace machines. Working under the supervision of 15 American officers and roughly 150 enlisted men, who ran the heavy equipment, a total of 19,000 Berliners, 40% of which were women, contributed their labour to the project. They worked in three shifts, around the clock, seven days a week for a wage of just DM 1,20 an hour – and a hot meal. It was according to one observer a;

…curiously mixed crowd that gathered at Tegel in those summer days: beside the work-accustomed mason stood a narrow-shouldered office-worker, beside former Wehrmacht officers, professors and scientists worked refugees in their tattered clothes and secretaries as often as not wearing silk dresses.[vi]

Tunner reports:

The work began early in September when the weather was still hot, and you could see women in bikinis and men in swimming shorts toiling away.[vii]

But manpower could not replace all heavy equipment and the aircraft of the time were incapable of transporting certain pieces of equipment, notably bulldozers, crushers, graders and other massive and heavy equipment. Allegedly somebody remembered a certain welder who had worked for the U.S. Army during the war, who had developed a means of de-constructing heavy construction equipment to make it suitable for air-transport in the Pacific Theatre where airfields had to be built on obscure islands lacking all such equipment. According to legend, the FBI tracked down a certain H.P. Lacomb in the Midwest and he was re-inducted into the Army and put on a priority flight to Berlin. Henceforth:

When heavy machines arrived from the United States, he proceeded to dissect them with his [blow]torch, carefully pack the pieces, and send them off to Berlin. He would then fly to meet them and patiently perform his restorative surgery, putting these priceless steel Humpty Dumpties back together again.[viii]

By disassembly or this method, a total of eighty-one pieces of essential heavy construction equipment were transported into Berlin. But as one of the men who drove one of the crushers remembers:

Maintenance was an ongoing problem because the machines were worked hard and broke down regularly under heavy and constant use. We did a lot of fixing. Working conditions were long and stressful; the Russians were always watching and the French did nothing.[ix]

Initial plans had called for the new airfield at Tegel to open in February 1949, but work progressed so rapidly that the first flight onto a runway at Tegel was in fact carried out Nov. 5. This did not signify the start of operations, however, as other facilities such as a control tower and radar, off-loading capacity, and crew facilities from meals to latrines were still lacking. Despite these conditions, it was decided to go ahead and start flying the Dakotas into Tegel while the construction of these support facilities continued around them from November 18 onwards. Thereafter, Tegel ramped up operations rapidly and before long it was carrying its share of the traffic and proved its worth.

Compared to the difficulties and drama of expanding and building airfields in a blockaded city, construction efforts in the Western Zones were pedestrian – but essential nevertheless. While Rhein-Main and Wiesbaden were both more-or-less ready for operation from the first day of the Airlift, the RAF made massive investments and improvements into its airfields at Wunstorf, Fassberg, Lubeck, Fuhlb├╝ttel Schleswigland, and Celle. 


[i] Bob George, letter to the author, Jan. 4, 2006.

[ii] Robert Rodrigo, The Berlin Airlift, Cassel, 1960, p. 34.

[iii] Bob George, letter to the author, Jan. 4, 2006.

[iv] Roger Miller, To Save a City, Univ. of Hawaii Press, 2002, p. 60.

[v] Kenny Swallwill, quoted in William Tunner, Over the Hump, USAF Press, 1964, p. 212.

[vi] Klaus Scherff, Luftbruecke Berlin, 1998,p. 115.

[vii] Tunner, p. 212.

[viii] Thomas Parrish, Berlin in the Balance, Perseus Books, 1998, p. 273.

[ix] Cpl. George M. Meyer, U.S. Army Engineer, quoted in Edwin Gere, The Unheralded, Trafford, 2003, p. 107.

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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Disfiguring injuries, class prejudice and PTSD are the focus of three heart-wrenching tales set in WWII by award-winning novelist Helena P. Schrader. Find out more at: https://crossseaspress.com/grounded-eagles



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  1. "Support" are always the "unsung heros" of any endeavor.

    It's great to have a piece like this one, to remid us.


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