Artefact of the Month
THE RAF’s CONTRIBUTION TO THE BERLIN AIRLIFT
At the end of the Second World War, Germany was divided and its capital Berlin was jointly administered by the USSR (Russia), Britain, France and the United States. Berlin, one hundred and ten miles inside the Russian zone of Germany, was reached by agreed road, rail and river routes. However, in April 1948, the Russians began interfering with the Allied movement to Berlin and the Allies, fearing a block of surface routes, commenced planning for an air bridge, the RAF calling their participation, Operation Plainfare.
On 24 June 1948 the Russians closed all surface routes to Berlin and two days later RAF Transport Command Douglas Dakotas commenced supply runs from Wunstorf to Gatow in the British sector of Berlin. Flights had to be made along one of three narrow defined air corridors. In July, RAF Avro Yorks joined the airlift and were able to carry nine-ton loads compared with a Dakota’s three-ton load. To make way for the Yorks, the Dakotas moved north to Lubeck. Also in July, RAF Short Sunderland flying-boats began flying to Havel Lake in Berlin. These flights continued until fear of ice in December, caused their withdrawal from the airlift.
Initially, only food to maintain health was airlifted but maintaining energy supplies soon became a priority. Delivery of oil and petrol in special containers commenced and coal was airlifted in sacks. Gatow at the start of the airlift only had a Pierced Steel Planking (PSP) metal runway but by mid July a two thousand yard concrete runway had been constructed. As the airlift scaled up, the RAF introduced the new Handley Page Hastings aircraft in November 1948, operating from Schleswigland. In common with other British operational types, the Hastings had side door loading and a tail wheel undercarriage, which did not make for easy freight handling.
The airlift continued throughout the winter but by the spring of 1949 the Russians realised that their blockade of Berlin had failed and on 12 May free surface access was restored.
The RAF ceased Operation Plainfare at the end of August 1949 – over one hundred RAF aircraft had been involved, delivering almost a quarter of the freight to Berlin. Tragically, during the airlift, the RAF suffered five major aircraft accidents, killing eighteen airmen.
AN EXHIBITION ON OPERATION PLAINFARE IS DISPLAYED IN THE MUSEUM’S TANGMERE HALL INCLUDING A MODEL OF AN AVRO YORK