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The U.S. Navy's Participation in the Berlin Airlift

The Soviet blockade of Berlin became complete on 24 June 1948. That same day, General Lucius Clay, Commander of U.S. Occupation Forces and Military Governor of the U.S. Zone of Germany, directed his air commander, Major General Curtis LeMay, to employ all available transport aircraft to supply the city by air. On 26 June, President Truman directed that Clay's improvised aerial resupply plan be put on a regular basis and that all available transport aircraft in the European Command be pressed into service.

On 22 July 1948, General Clay reported to the National Security Council (NSC) that he could meet the summertime needs of Berlin with an airlift of 3,500 tons a day, but that coal shipments required for winter heating would increase this figure to 4,500 tons once cold weather began. Clay told the NSC that he could meet the figure of 3,500 tons a day if he were given an additional 75 four-engined C-54 Skymaster transport aircraft to augment his existing fleet of 52 C-54s and 80 twin-engined C-47 Dakotas. Despite the concerns of Air Force Chief of Staff Hoyt Vandenberg that such an increase would disrupt worldwide Military Air Transport Service (MATS) operations, the NSC and President Truman approved assigning the additional C-54s to the airlift. Accordingly, on 23 July, General Vandenberg ordered nine MATS squadrons (81 C-54 aircraft) to Germany and directed the establishment of a special task force to direct the airlift under the Commander in Chief, U.S. Air Forces in Europe. On 29 July, Major General William Tunner assumed command of Airlift Task Force (Provisional).

On 10 September, General Clay requested 116 additional C-54s—69 to be made available by 1 October and the remaining 47 by 1 December 1948—so that he could build up a stockpile of supplies for the winter months and could raise the daily tonnage total for Berlin up to an average of 4,500 tons. In response to this request, Washington decided to augment the Berlin airlift by 50 additional C-54s. On 24 September, Clay strongly restated his appeal for the full 116 aircraft. After conducting a thorough reappraisal of U.S. objectives in Berlin, the NSC finally approved the recommendations of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for an immediate reenforcement of the airlift, and, on 22 October, President Truman approved the expansion of the airlift by the additional 66 C-54s that Clay wanted.

This is when the Navy became fully involved in the Berlin airlift. Although Navy tankers had been delivering huge quantities of aviation gas to Bremerhaven, Germany, to furnish fuel for the airlift since the beginning of the blockade, its planes heretofore had not been involved in the aerial supply effort. The new increase called for, however, would bring the use of C-54s in the airlift up to approximately 52% of the total number of such aircraft in the country's operational inventory—thus seriously reducing MATS support for implementing the military's emergency war plans. Because of his concerns over this situation, Air Force Secretary Stuart Symington asked Navy Secretary John Sullivan to provide the Navy's three MATS squadrons to the Airlift Task Force as part of the latest augmentation. The Navy readily agreed to this request.

On 27 October 1948, the Commander, Military Air Transport Service, with the concurrence of Chief of Naval Operations Louis Denfeld, ordered Navy MATS units Transport Squadrons (VRs) 6 and 8 to 180 days temporary additional duty (TAD) with the Airlift Task Force for participation in Operation Vittles (as the airlift was designated). At the time, both squadrons were assigned to MATS routes in the Pacific, VR-6 stationed at Guam and VR-8 based in Honolulu. Transport Squadron 8 got the word that same day, and on 29 October its first group of six R5D (C-54) aircraft took off for California. Transport Squadron 6 on Guam received its orders on 30 October, and on 1 November its first contingent of four aircraft left for the West Coast.

The planes of both squadrons assembled at Moffett Field, California, for pre-employment work-ups. At Moffett, high-engine-time R5Ds were exchanged or were reconditioned and inspected, and all planes were winterized. In addition, VR-6, which had a shortage of four aircraft, was provided with the additional planes to bring it up to its authorized strength of twelve aircraft. Once they were readied, the aircraft of the two squadrons took off for NAS Jacksonville, where APS-4 radars were installed. From Jacksonville they flew to Westover Air Force Base, Massachusetts, for movement to Germany. VR-8's last plane flew into Rhein-Main Air Base on 15 November, and VR-6's final aircraft arrived a week later, on 22 November.

In addition to the two Navy MATS squadrons stationed in Germany as part of the Airlift Task Force, the third Navy MATS squadron, the fifteen-plane-strong VR-3, provided transatlantic support to Operation Vittles, flying from the U.S. East Coast. Also, VR-44, a Navy transport training squadron that was not part of MATS, provided pilot training for replacement crews destined for the Navy MATS squadrons in Germany and training for personnel needed to man the expanded overhaul facility. In the meantime, Marine Transport Squadron 352 had been ordered by the Chief of Naval Operations to report to the commander of the Military Air Transport Service's Pacific Division to take over, within its fifteen-plane capability, the Pacific airlift duties that VR-6 and VR-8 had been handling.

The two Navy squadrons in Germany quickly made themselves known to their Air Force counterparts. The winter weather in Germany proved extremely trying for all of the squadrons engaged in the airlift, with cold fogs often blanketing Berlin. It was routine during these months for the aircraft to fly east and west through the air corridor on instruments and to make ground control approaches (GCA) at both Berlin's Tempelhof Airport and Rhein-Main. Fortunately for the Navy planes, their crews had been required to make all their approaches on GCA during the years that they had been part of the Naval Air Transport Service (NATS), and so they were, on average, more skilled in instrument flying than were their Air Force counterparts.

Although their planes had been averaging six hours a day in flying time in the Pacific, VR-6 and VR-8 arrived in Germany fully manned with skilled maintenance personnel prepared to maintain a schedule of eight hours a day per aircraft. This substantial increase in flight hours, however, was soon being regularly surpassed. During the first two weeks of flying the air route from Rhein-Main to Tempelhof, the two squadrons carried a total of 6,526 tons of cargo. By the end of December 1948, VR-8 was leading all squadrons in the airlift in every measurable phase of air transport operation, including aircraft utilization, total cargo carried, payload efficiency, and tons per plane. VR-6 was not far behind, though, being engaged for several weeks in a battle for second place with the two top Air Force squadrons. By the end of February 1949, VR-6 was equalling and frequently exceeding VR-8 in operational achievements. During April 1949, the two squadrons flew a combined total of 8,234 hours (an aircraft utilization rate of 13.1 hours per plane per day) and delivered 23,550 tons of food and coal to Berlin.

After several months of on-and-off-again negotiating, the Soviet Union finally agreed to end its blockade of Berlin if the three Western powers (Great Britain, France, and the United States) agreed to terminate their restrictions on trade with East Germany and East Berlin. On 5 May 1949, the four governments issued a communique announcing that the blockade would end on 12 May. The blockade was lifted on the day agreed upon.

On 30 July, an official announcement was made that the airlift would end on 31 October 1949. The two Navy squadrons were released from their duties with the Airlift Task Force in mid-August and returned to the continental United States. After having its aircraft reconditioned by the Fleet Logistic Support Wings at Moffett Field, VR-6 was stationed at Westover Air Force Base for operation with MATS between Westover and Rhein-Main, Germany. The reconditioned planes of VR-8 returned to their old base in Honolulu for duties on MATS Pacific routes.

During the months that VR-6 and VR-8 operated in Germany, their aircraft flew 45,990 hours, carrying 129,989 tons of cargo into Berlin and averaging 10.1 flight hours per plane per day for the entire period. Even though the twenty-four aircraft of the two squadrons had not been involved during the first three months of the Berlin airlift, by the end of Operation Vittles they had managed to deliver some 7.3 percent of the total tonnage flown into the besieged city by U.S. aircraft. It was a masterful achievement.

The U.S. Effort During the Airlift*

Operational Aircraft (Average No.): 225

Tonnage Delivered (6/48-9/49): 1.783 million tons

* A total 2.325 million tons of food, fuel, and supplies were delivered during the airlift. The other 0.542 million tons were carried by British aircraft.

Written by: Jeffrey G. Barlow, Ph.D., Contemporary History Branch, Naval Historical Center

 

 

 


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5 February 1998