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When occupiers became friends: 70 years on from the Berlin airlift

When Josef Stalin ordered the blockade of West Berlin on 24th June 1948, it signalled the first major crisis of the Cold War and the beginning of a friendship between Germany and the USA, which has remained strong over the years, but is arguably wavering today.

All access into West Berlin had been blocked off by the Soviets and the power shut off in retaliation to the introduction of the D-Mark. Under these circumstances there was a threat that West Berlin would literally starve to death. This left only one way into the city, the sky.

For almost a whole year – 322 days to be exact – western forces provided the more than two million residents of blockaded West Berlin with all necessary items to survive via an airlift.

The planes would fly in from West German bases and land at one of West Berlins airports: Tempelhof in the American sector and Gatow in the British sector, in order to deliver the needed supplies each day.

The time became characterised by the thunder of aeroplanes, and then countless small parachutes with sweets floating down from the sky.

General Lucius D. Clay, the American military governor in Germany, made the decision of enacting a gigantic airlift operation, after a suggestion from the British air commandant Rex Waite. Ernst Reuter, the then West Berlin municipal leader, promised Clay the perseverance of the Berlin residents – even if the Berliners could only receive 1879 calories per resident per day. He told Clay: “You take care of the airlift, and Ill take care of the Berliners”.

“Operation Vittles”, to provide the residents of West Berlin with food supplies, was only initially meant to last 45 days, but soon assumed unimaginable proportions. 300 aeroplanes were permanently in use; every 90 seconds an aeroplane took off and landed in the city.

After just 85 days a third airport, Tegel, emerged. In total the food transporters covered 175 million kilometres – that is equivalent to a distance 4,400 times around the earth.

Special fame was garnered by the US-airlift pilot Gail Halvorsen, who became known as “Uncle Wiggly Wings”. Now 97-years-old, Halvorsen would throw home-made towel-parachutes filled with chocolate and chewing gum out to the children below when approaching landing. His trade mark sign was to wiggle the wings of his C-54 before dispensing his goodies. Many colleagues followed his example.

The photos of children waiting at Tempelhof Airport became a symbol of the Berlin airlift. Photo:DPA

Residents remember with fondness these “Raisin Bombers”, which not only provided the shut-off area with the necessary food supplies and coal, but also with small gifts for the children, which were dropped from the planes on landing. Such solidarity between Germany and the USA could not have been imagined just a few years earlier.

Vera Hemmerling, now 84, remembers going to see the planes coming into West Berlin, “I went along a few times, but I never managed to catch anything. The boys were always much quicker,” she says.

Vera was just 14 at the time, but the silver-haired lady still flashes a small smile at the memory of the kindness of the American pilots.

“We children were at first scared of the noises of the planes”, she says, as it was a reminder of the bomb-filled nights during the war. “But soon we were scared not to hear the planes, like when it was foggy or there was bad weather. That meant no sugar, no flour, no coal. That meant hunger.”

Clay and Reuter are, to this very day, Hemmerlings heroes: “Without them we wouldnt have survived. Without them the German reunification would never have happened,” she says.

“Three years after the end of the war the airlift was a turning point in the relationship with the Western powers: Out of occupiers became friends”, said the director of the Berlin Allied Museum, Jürgen Lillteicher, and stressed, perhaps in light of the current strained relationship with the USA: “These examples of solidarity can still remind us today that we all are bound by the same values.”

On 12th May 1949 the Soviet Union removed the blockade on West Berlin. The supply flights continued as a precaution until the end of September.

In total at least 78 people died during the action – 39 Brits, 31 Americans and 8 or more Germans. In 1951 a memorial was erected in front of Tempelhof Airport, which has since become an abandoned airfield, and to this day is a reminder of the victims of the Cold War.

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