One of the most heroic efforts of World War II happened almost two years after the war ended. The Berlin airlift operated for only 11 months, but is credited with saving the lives of nearly 3 million people in a city devastated by the war.
When Germany surrendered, the country was divided into four occupation zones: British, United States, France and the Soviet Union. The Soviets got the eastern portion. The capital city of Berlin was likewise split into quarters. Again, the Soviets got the eastern half.
The problem with Berlin was, it was 100 miles deep into the center of Soviet East Germany. Soviet Premier Josef Stalin boasted that he would drive out the western forces and bring the city under communist rule.
At the end of the war, Berlin was a city in ruins. Allied bombing had leveled just about everything. The population, which was 4.3 million before the war, was reduced to 2.8 million by the end of it.
And the people needed everything. The only supply lines came from the west by air, rail, truck and river barge, and at any given time the city had no more than a month’s supply of anything.
And on June 24, 1948 the Soviets shut down all land supply lines and blockaded the city. Two days later the United States and Britain launched the Berlin Airlift.
The needs were overwhelming. To survive, the city needed a daily minimum supply of 646 tons of flour, 125 tons of cereal, 109 tons of meat and fish, 180 tons of sugar, nearly 300 tons of dehydrated potatoes and vegetables, 19 tons of powdered milk, three tons of yeast for baking, and 38 tons of salt. Added to that was nearly 3,500 tons of coal and gasoline. Altogether, some 5,000 tons of supplies had to be flown into Berlin every day.
Planes arrived every three minutes round the clock, seven days a week. Pilots and crew never left their planes. At first it took a half-hour to unload a plane and its 10 tons of cargo. That time, however, was soon reduced to 10 minutes.
The Soviets reluctantly acknowledged the airlift’s success, and lifted the blockade in May 1949. The airlift was discontinued three months later. In less than a year 270,000 flights delivered 2 million tons of goods to the city.
A sidebar to the airlift came from an American pilot named Gail Halvorsen. As he approached the airfield, he noticed German children outside the fence. To give them a treat, he started dropping chocolate to them by parachutes made from handkerchiefs. It caught on and soon all the planes were dropping candy.
An unofficial estimate added a ton of chocolate to the airlift totals.