Originally known as Operation Vittles, the Airlift was a stopgap mission to circumvent the Soviet Blockade imposed on West Berlin in June 1948. For eleven months, the Western Allies flew 2.3 tonnes of food, coal and emergency supplies to sustain the lives of some two million Berliners, who lived in the American, British and French occupied zones.
“You have to imagine,” said Berlin Mayor Klaus Woweriet in a speech, “the Airlift happened just a few years after the war, a terrible war, which began in Berlin and shackled the whole world.”
“And then the Western Allies came to Berlin and with the Airlift, created a sign of hope. Without their quick, unflinching hands, West Berlin would not have survived the critical situation.”
The reception for the mayor was vastly different than last Saturday, when around 50 demonstrators whistled Wowereit’s speech at the opening of a new park on the former Tempelhof airfield.
The demonstrators also attempted to disrupt the mayor’s speech with repeated chants and demanded that the fence around the 300-hectare space be removed.
But on Wednesday, things remained solemn and respectful. At the close of the ceremony, a DC-3 cargo plane, the same type of aircraft used during the Airlift, circled over Tempelhof, while a German military band played the American national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The US Ambassador to Germany, Philip D. Murphy, was also on hand for the service. He told The Local that the Airlift was “an incredible chapter in this city’s history and in the alliance generally.” The Airlift, Murphy continued, was “one of those of those moments in history that has grown in significance over time and not diminished and today was a good reminder of that.”
The Berlin Airlift, known to Germans as the Lüftbrucke or “air bridge,” was the brainchild of General Lucius D. Clay, a military governor of the American Zone in Germany.
As legend goes, in late June 1948, Clay called General Curtis LeMay in Frankfurt and asked if the US Airforce could carry coal to West Berlin. Although taken aback by the unusual request, LeMay responded, “The Airforce can deliver anything.”
The Soviet blockade, which included all train and motor traffic, began on June 24th, 1948. Although the Soviets initially claimed rail traffic was halted due to technical problems, the blockade was a political response to the recent introduction of the Deutsche mark in West Germany.
With planes landing at Tempelhof Airport every two minutes, Clay’s plan to sustain the city by air-transport was not only a technical feat, but also one of the first tense moments of the Cold War. But on May 12th, 1949, the Soviets lifted their blockade and thousands of Berliners celebrated in the streets beside Tempelhof.
Ambassador Murphy said “General Clay was a giant in our post-war history and in this city’s history.” Murphy mentioned the plaque, which sits beside Clay’s grave at West Point Cemetery in New York. Donated by the citizens of Berlin, the plaque reads, “We thank the Sustainer of our Freedom.”