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Berlin Airlift begins

This Day in World History

26 June 1948

Berlin Airlift begins


On 26 June 1948, after three months of Communist rulers blocking the delivery of supplies to the American, British, and French zones of West Berlin, the western powers struck back with a bold response. American and British planes stepped up their process of flying supplies to West Berlin to an around the clock operation and the Berlin Airlift was on.

At the end of World War II, Berlin was divided among the three western powers and the Soviet Union. The American, British, and French zones were in a difficult position, however, as Berlin sat deep within Communist East Germany. As a result, its people depended on long train lines and highways for supplies.

Relations between the three western powers and the Soviet Union soured in March of 1948 when the Americans, British, and French agreed to unite their three zones. The Soviets were angered by the move. It began to block access to West Berlin by road. On 24 June, it went further and announced that all railroad and highway traffic would cease. It also cut off electricity to the western areas of the city.

Berliners watching a C-54 land at Berlin Tempelhof Airport, 1948. Source: United States Air Force Historical Research Agency.

The Airlift was a bold response to the Soviet blockade. American and British planes had to bring 2,000 tons of food and supplies every day. In the winter, the need to cart coal into the city increased the demand to 5,000 tons a day. The mission dubbed “Operation Vittles” by American pilots had planes landing every three minutes to keep West Berlin’s two million fed.

The western powers also put pressure on the Soviets and their East German allies by blocking exports from leaving Eastern Europe. In 12 May 1949, the Soviets finally lifted the blockade. With land transportation once again permitted, the Airlift could end, having delivered more than 2.3 million tons of supplies in nearly a year of flights.

Operation Vittles had succeeded.

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