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Today’s entry from the RedState Department of History deals not with a military operation designed to smash an enemy, but to save a former enemy. On this date in 1948, what came to be known as “Black Friday” resulted in a record day few people expected to occur.

The record came during the Berlin Airlift, known as “Operation Vittles”, and “Black Friday” referred to the weather on this date in 1948, which was vile. But on that day in 1948, over 700 Allied aircrews delivered over 5,000 tons of supplies to the people of West Berlin — which was the record day for the airlift.

After the surrender of Nazi Germany in 1945, the former German state was divided into four zones of occupation, one for each of the four major victorious powers (France included). Berlin was also divided into four zones, with the Soviets allowing access to West Berlin across their zone of occupation. Early in 1947, the Americans and British combined their zones of occupation into a territory known as Bizonia, or the Bizone, and began negotiations with the French to add their zone as well.

That was still in the future. However, late in 1948, the Western Allies introduced new currency, the Deutschmark, into their areas of occupation as well as into West Berlin. This tactic had several purposes: to curb a growing black market in Berlin, to enable the introduction of aid under the Marshall Plan, and of course, to take economic control of the city from the Soviets, who realized the threat all too well. In reply, they blockaded all ground access to West Berlin across their occupation zone, leaving an airlift as the only way to supply hundreds of  thousands of West Berliners and occupation troops with food and supplies.

Thus, the Americans began Operation Vittles on June 26, 1948, with the Royal Air Force following two days later with their own Operation Plainfare. While American bomber aircraft and supply planes streamed toward Berlin’s giant Templehof Field with essential supplies, nuclear-capable B29 Superfortresses staged to England in their wake. British and French airplanes landed on fields in their own respective sectors.

Yet it was August 13 which became recognized as “Black Friday”. On that day, no fewer than three C-54 “Skytrain” aircraft crashed at Templehof on a particularly bad day for flying.

But after a better safety system was worked out and a plan developed among the Allies to allow a constant flow of aircraft to enter West Berlin unimpeded either by the Soviets or each other, Operation Vittles/Plainfare turned into an amazing success.

On May 11, 1949, the Soviets ended their blockade, after the Western Allies showed they could continue the airlift indefinitely. Two weeks later, all the western occupation zones were combined to form West Germany.

The operation was a triumph of logistics. According to the Royal Air Force’s National Cold War Exhibition, the Berlin Airlift accomplished these objectives:

  • Normal daily food requirements for Berlin was 2000 tons (2032 tonnes)
  • Coal represented two-thirds of all tonnage; giving each family 11.3 – 11.6 kg (25-30lb) per month
  • 394,509 tons (400,821 tonnes) of foodstuffs, coal and supplies carried by 689 military and civil aircraft – 441 US, 147 RAF and 101 British civil
  • 83,405 tons (84373 tonnes) of cargo and 68,000 people were flown OUT of Berlin
  • 39 British, 31 American and 13 German civilians lost their lives in the Berlin Airlift. They are remembered on the Berlin Airlift monument at Tempelhof
  • 200,230,415 km (124,420,813 miles) were flown during the airlift in a total of 277,804 flights
  • The Russian blockade lasted from 24 June 1948 to 11 May 1949, but the airlift continued for several more months
  • The airlift cost the United States $350 million; the UK £17 million and Western Germany 150 million Deutschmarks
  • Berliners received an average of 2,300 calories a day which was higher than the UK food rationing system provided at the time
  • At the height of the operation, on April 16 1949, an allied aircraft landed in Berlin every minute
  • The major Berlin airfields involved were Tempelhof in the American sector, Gatow on the Havel river in the British sector and Tegel which was built by army engineers and Berlin volunteers in 49 days inside the French sector
  • Each aircraft was unloaded by German crews in 20-30 minutes

The U.S. State Department’s official history of the airlift can be found here. Happy Sunday and enjoy today’s open thread!