Ramble On

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Berlin's Tempelhof Airport - A Cultural History, Part 5

An iconic image of one of the "Candy Bombers" approaching Tempelhof
Airport during the Berlin Airlift.

In Europe, World War II came to an end with the capitulation of Germany in May 1945.  The city of Berlin was to be occupied by the allied forces of Great Britain, France, the USA, and the Soviet Union – my own service was part of this occupation, as a matter of fact.  Tempelhof Airport was located in the American sector of Berlin, so even though the Soviets had occupied it at first, by July 1945 it had been turned over to the American forces. 

Most of the new construction had survived the war; there is speculation that it might have been spared by some prospective plan to use it once the war was over. However, there was significant clean up that had to be done, and the runways, which were originally designed as grass, were no longer state of the art.  The American occupants worked with a German labor force to rebuild the airport, and there were special negotiations to provide air access to the city and to the rebuilt airport – these arrangements may be the subject of a future post, since they resulted in the air corridors and a special air traffic control committee.

The business of occupying the city and Germany as a whole was complex, and there were often conflicts between the national interests of the occupying forces.  As these escalated into the Cold War, eventually the Soviet Union made a show of power under the context of the implementation of a new unified German currency and established the blockade of Berlin in June 1948.  All land routes to the city from the west were shut down, and electricity shut off.

Aircraft on the tarmac at Tempelhof during the Airlift.
The blockade lasted until May 1949 – if the intention was to persuade the allies to leave Berlin to the Soviets, it was not successful, in large part because of the Berlin Airlift, the organized response to the blockade.  The airlift, coined “Operation Vittles” by the Americans and “Operation Plainfare” by the British, involved frequent flights to and from the city to provision the citizens and the occupying forces with all they needed to sustain themselves.  In all, there were nearly 280,000 flights to and from the city’s airports, as reported by Heeb in her document – and some of them actually transported “Made in Berlin” goods back for distribution to German and world markets.

Among the reasons for Tempelhof’s central role in the airlift, again referencing Heeb’s thesis, were the airport’s size and excellent connections to the city – both by highways and rail lines, as well as the large apron areas, which were partially covered.  Nevertheless, Tempelhof’s capacity was augmented by a newly built airport, Tegel, in the French occupied sector, and by seaplanes and additional transports in the British sector on the Wannsea and at Gatow airport.  During April 1949, the month before the blockade was lifted, air traffic at Templehof peaked with 1,000 daily takeoffs and landings. 

One of the "veteran aircraft" of the Berlin Airlift, at Tempelhof, 1995.
The logistics challenges of the airlift were a major victory for the Allies in Berlin.  It was certainly a cultural benchmark for me and my Air Force colleagues who lived at the airport – there was rarely a day during my nearly five years there that I wasn’t somehow reminded of this great feat, whether it was because I walked by the Platz der Luftbrucke memorial on my way to the U-bahn, or because I was out on a run near the C-54 Candy Bomber parked near the softball fields to the east of the main buildings. 

Platz der Luftbrucke, the Berlin Airlift memorial, in front of Tempelhof
Airport, approximately 1995.
Heeb closes out her discussion of the airlift with a note about how the event began to transform the German view of the Allied forces from occupiers to protectors, and not only that, but rebuilders.  My experience in Berlin reflected this goodwill, I was almost always treated with respect and friendliness everywhere I went – this may have been because I would typically begin interactions with a German greeting, quickly followed by a move to English as my ineptitude with the language soon became clear.

My next post will cover some of the major events of the ensuing days of the Cold War, including my time there in the 1980’s.  In the meantime, here’s a link again to the Heeb thesis I’ve been using for background information on this series of posts:

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