On June 12, 1948 the Soviet Union declared that the Autobahn leading into Berlin from West Germany was "closed for repairs." Three days later road traffic between the sectors was halted, and on June 21 all barge traffic into the city was stopped. Finally, on June 24 the Soviets announced that due to "technical difficulties" there would be no more rail traffic to and from Berlin. The following day they announced that the Soviet sector would not supply food to the sectors of the city that were under Western administration. The Western powers had never negotiated a pact with the Soviets guaranteeing these passage rights. The Soviets rejected arguments that occupation rights in Berlin and the use of the routes during the previous three years had given the West legal claim to unimpeded use of the highways, tunnels, and railroads. At the time, Berlin had thirty-five days worth of food and forty-five days worth of coal. Militarily the U.S. and British were greatly outnumbered due to the demobilization of their armies with the end of the war, something the Soviets had not matched due to a variety of factors. If a war started, the city would be lost. General Lucius D. Clay, in charge of the U.S. occupation zone in Germany, summed up the reasons for staying in a cable to Washington on June 13, 1948, "There is no practicability in maintaining our position in Berlin and it must not be evaluated on that basis... We are convinced that our remaining in Berlin is essential to our prestige in Germany and in Europe. Whether for good or bad, it has become a symbol of the American intent." Clay felt that the Soviets were bluffing, and would not start a war over Berlin. He proposed sending a large armored column driving peacefully, as a moral right, down the Autobahn from West Germany to West Berlin, but with instructions to fire if it were stopped or attacked. President Truman, however, following the consensus in Congress, stated, "It is too risky to engage in this due to the consequence of war."
LUCIUS D. CLAY
The Airlift begins
On June 25, 1948, Clay gave the order to launch Operation Vittles. The next day thirty-two C-47 cargo planes lifted off for Berlin hauling 80 tons of cargo including milk, flour, and medicine. The first British aircraft flew on June 28. At that time, the airlift was expected to last three weeks. By April 1949, airlift operations were running smoothly, and Tunner wanted to break up the monotony. He liked the idea of a big event that would give everyone a morale boost. He decided that on Easter Sunday the airlift would break all records. To do this, maximum efficiency was needed. To simplify handling, the only cargo would be coal, and stockpiles were built up for the effort. Maintenance schedules were altered so that the maximum number of planes was available. From 12:00PM April 15, to 12:00PM April 16, 1949, crews worked around the clock. When it was over, 12,941 tons of coal had been delivered as a result of 1,383 flights without a single accident. A welcome side effect of the effort was that operations in general improved, and daily tonnage increased from 6,729 tons a day before the Easter Parade, to 8,893 tons per day after. In total, the airlift delivered 234,476 tons in April.
The Blockade Ends
Berlin Airlift Monument in Berlin-Tempelhof, displaying the names of the 39 British and 31 U.S.-American pilots who lost their lives during the operation. Similar monuments can be found at the military airfield Wietzenbruch near the former RAF Celle and at Rhein-Main Air Base.
Berlin Airlift Monument in Berlin-Tempelhof with inscription "They lost their lives for the freedom of Berlin in service for the Berlin Airlift 1948/49" The Easter Parade humiliated the Soviets. Every day of the Airlift's success was one of failure for the Soviets. The four powers began serious negotiations, and a settlement was made on Allied terms. Stalin lifted the blockade at midnight, on May 11, 1949. Flights continued for some time, in order to build up a comfortable surplus. The Airlift officially ended on September 30, 1949, after eleven months. In total, the U.S. delivered 1,783,573 tons, while 541,937 tons were delivered by the RAF, totaling 2,326,406 tons of food and supplies on 278,228 total flights to Berlin. The C-47's and C-54's together flew over 92 million miles in the process, nearly the same distance as the earth is from the sun. A total of 101 fatalities were recorded as a result of the operation, including 39 British and 31 Americans, mostly due to crashes. Seventeen American and eight British aircraft crashed during the operation.
Here you can watch a small British movie file about the Airlift.