Remembering Operation Vittles
Sixty years ago, this month, West Berlin was facing starvation and eventual capitulation to Soviet forces.
Less than three weeks earlier, on 12 June, the Russians announced that the autobahn leading to the city from western sectors was closed "for repairs." Over the days that followed, rail and barge traffic were also cut off, a blatant violation of the "right of passage" guarantees that had existed since the end of World War II. The strategy to force the allies from Berlin culminated with a final statement, revealing that the Soviet sector would not supply food to the western-occupied sections of the city.
The allies could hardly afford to "surrender" West Berlin and give Moscow a tremendous geopolitical and psychological victory. But there was legitimate debate as to "how far" the west would go in defending the city. Despite the deployment of nuclear-capable B-29s to western Europe, the military defense of Berlin was considered a near-impossibility.
With Soviet forces surrounding the city's western sectors, allied forces in Berlin would be quickly overwhelmed, with the prospect of staggering civilian casualties. Were the western allies willing to risk World War III to defend the city?
The commander of the U.S. occupation zones, General Luicius Clay, believed that conflict would not be necessary. In his estimation, the Soviets were bluffing--they did not want a war over Berlin. He initially proposed sending an armored column down the autobahn toward Berlin, with instructions to fire if it were stopped or attacked. While President Truman rejected that proposal as too risky, he agreed with Clay's assessment that Berlin could not be abandoned.
With surface traffic to Berlin cut off, the Allies began contemplating an airlift. The prospect of resupplying West Berlin by air seemed daunting, but previous events suggested the operation had an outside shot at success. First, the western powers were guaranteed air access to the city, thanks to a 1945 agreement with the Soviets which granted three air corridors into Berlin.
Secondly, a limited airlift to the western sectors was already underway. For several months, the RAF transports had been resupplying the British garrison in Berlin by air. As part of the planning process, the Brits calculated airflift requirements to sustain the entire city. The RAF estimate, based on a 1700-calorie daily diet for Berliners, suggested that an airlift was feasible.
On June 25, 1948, the airlift began, with 32 U.S. C-47 transports hauling food, milk and medicine to the city. The British effort began three days later. By the second week, aircrews were hauling 1,000 tons of supplies a day into Berlin's three major airports. But is was clear that an expanded airlift would be required, to sustain the city during a sustained blockade.
Organizing that effort fell on the shoulders of Lieutenant General William Tunner, one of the legendary "captains" of airpower who forged the Army Air Corps during World War II, and the independent U.S. Air Force that followed in 1947.
But Tunner was something of a rarity; unlike Curtis LeMay, Carl Spaatz and Jimmy Doolittle, who gained fame as bomber commanders, General Tunner was best known as a transport pilot. He organized the "Hump" airlift between India and China during World War II, providing the aerial lifeline that kept Allied forces in the fight, despite the physical barrier of the Himalayan Mountains.
Colleagues describe Tunner as a man who could instantly "bring order out of chaos." That skill was instrumental to the success of the "Hump" operation, which existed at the end of the supply and maintenance chain. Tunner had more resources to work with in the Berlin Airlift, but the geopolitical stakes were infinitely higher.
General Tunner took command of the operation on 27 July 1948, and faced an immediate crisis. Flying to Berlin, he learned that a C-54 had crashed on landing in the city; a second transport blew out its tires trying to avoid the wreck, and a third aircraft ground-looped on an adjacent runway, shutting down the airport.
To prevent a greater calamity, Tunner radioed all aircraft to return to base. In a matter of days, he implemented changes that improved operational efficiency and safety. All missions were flown under instrument flying rules, regardless of actual weather conditions. Pilots got one shot at landing in Berlin; if they botched their approach, the plane and its cargo returned to base.
He also discovered that it took as long to unload a two-engine C-47 as it did the larger C-54. The smaller aircraft were quickly phased out of the airlift. Tunner enlisted German civilians to unload the aircraft, and hired attractive young frauleins to drive the snack trucks that carried refreshments to the crews. That eliminated ground delays, caused by air crews strolling to the terminal for a drink and a sandwich. With crews restricted to their aircraft in Berlin, offloading proceeded much more quickly, allowing more missions to be flown each day.
General Tunner also understood the importance of public relations on a global stage. He liked "Operation Vittles," the nickname given to the operation, and looked for other ways to highlight the airlift's success. When he heard that a young pilot named Gail Halvorsen was dropping candy to children in Berlin, he dubbed the effort "Operation Little Vittles," and made it a part of his publicity effort. Eventually, thousands of American children and candy companies donated more than three tons of sweets to the effort. It was a powerful rebuke to communist claims that the airlift wasn't working.
The winter of 1948-49 posed special challenges. Weather conditions were often bad, and the requirements for more coal pushed daily cargo requirements past 6,000 tons. But Tunner, his staff and the airlift crews met those demands. They hired former Luftwaffe ground crews to service the aircraft and repair the operating surfaces at Templehof and Gatow, the primary airfields in West Berlin. Newly-developed ground approach radar allowed aircraft to operate in weather that would have prevented landings in the past.
By the spring of 1949, the airlift was in high gear. Not even harassment by Soviet fighters and anti-aircraft guns could stop the steady flow of food, coal and medical supplies to Berlin. Over Easter weekend, Tunner pulled out all the stops, delivering over 12,000 tons of coal in a 24-hour period, without a single accident. By the end of that month, the operation was providing more supplies than the city had received by ground before the airlift began.
With the allies able to meet the city's needs by air, the Soviets had a change of heart. Not long after Tunner's Easter spectacular, Moscow signaled that it was willing to end the blockade. An agreement was concluded in only eight days, and road and rail traffic began moving to Berlin once more in mid-May. The U.S. and its partners had won an important, early victory in the Cold War, thanks (in large part) to an air commander who brought order out of chaos.
ADDENDUM: General Tunner was later instrumental in organizing airlift operations in Korea, allowing U.N. forces to sustain their resistance during the dark summer of 1950. But, in typical Air Force fashion, Tunner never received his fourth star, and retired in 1960. He died in 1983, secure in his reputation as the father of American airlift, and forces that evolved into the Military Air Transport Service, Military Airlift Command and Air Mobility Command.