The Berlin Aircraft

By Sqn Ldr E.G. (Ted) Ferguson, RAAF, Retired

The Author: 

The following story is written by our Sub Branch member Ted Ferguson and I am sure you will enjoy it.

Squadron Leader Ferguson served in World War 2 and remained in the RAAF until retirement in 1975.  Although he served in many areas, one of his most memorable postings was on exchange duty with the RAF which saw him serve in the Berlin Airlift.  In December 1949 he met the King and Queen prior to marching through London to the Guildhall for a luncheon in honour of those who served on the airlift.  In 1954, he transferred to the Equipment Branch and in 1968 a posting took him to Butterworth, Malaysia.  He served as Wor Master of his Masonic Lodge and was Secretary for many years.  In 1980—82 he served as District Grand Inspector of Workings.  He now lives quietly not far from the Bass Hill Sub-Branch and enjoys his twice weekly game of golf.

His Story:

This narrative does not attempt to relate the whole story of the Berlin Airlift, rather it gives a bird’s eye view mainly of the RAF sector, Wubstorf to Gatow and return flown by our four engine York aircraft.

In June 1948, all RAF aircrew were placed on standby alert.  My crew had reached HABBANIYAH, an airfield a few miles north west of Baghdad en route to Singapore.  We received a priority message which ordered our return to the U.K..  A few days later I was at Wünstörf near Hannover in West Germany.

Wünstörf lies in a small pine forest and had been built for light bombers of the Luftwaffe.  The living quarters were scattered among the pine trees in a pattern that was both picturesque and a wise dispersal against air attack.  There were large mess halls overlooking pleasant stretches of lawn and both officers and NCOs enjoyed bars of lavish proportions.  The administrative buildings and hangars were well appointed, but in the hands of the Luftwaffe the runways were grass.  Since 1945, these amenities had been enjoyed by pilots of the RAF fighter Command, however they had improved the technical efficiency by equipping it with long and solid runways with a large number of PSP dispersal bags.

But in the closing days of June 1948, the security of Wünstorf was disturbed by the arrival of York and Dakota aircraft of Transport Command bringing with them their ground staff and mobility deployment support teams.  The weather was bad for that time of the year, mid summer, 8/8 low cloud cover, heavy rain, mud underfoot, and squally wind gusts.

This burst of activity in June looked like a minor move on the European chess board, but the whole game had reached a critical moment.  At the end of World War Two political expediency had produced an agreement that the Russians would control the eastern half of Berlin whilst Britain, America and France would control the western half, thus placing their occupation forces well inside the Russian Zone of Germany, in fact more than one hundred miles at the nearest point – an island if you like.  The city had been devastated by bombing, its public utilities largely wrecked and its industry virtually stopped.  But between 1945 and 1948, this ruined city had returned to a hard but tolerable standard of existence.  Public utilities had been partially restored, an elected administration was functioning, and industry was reviving.

The total import of all kinds upon which the Western sector of Berlin had been established amounted to 13,500 tonnes daily; food, coal, rail and water i.e. surface transport.  There was also (by agreement of the four powers), three corridors into Berlin from the West, each twenty miles wide, which converged in the shape of an arrowhead.  At the apex of the arrow in West Berlin there was two airfields to handle all air traffic, limited by political agreement to passengers and mail.  N.B. Tegel, a third airfield was completed in the French sector during the air lift.

But since January 1948, the Russians, move after move, had gradually been imposing a surface blockade on the western sectors of Berlin.  Mostly they were puerile excuses, but in April 1948, a Russian YAK fighter had shot down a British civil aircraft in the corridor and caused flash point to be reached.

On the 24th June 1948 the final Russian move was made, and the surface blockade, road, rail and water was complete.  The only way in or out was by air.  The problem of air supply to support 2,100,000 people can be simply stated, but its execution was of immense difficulty.  The economy and standard of existence had to be reduced to the lowest possible level consistent with the maintenance of public health and employment.  The previous imports of 13,500 tonnes daily had been reduced to the minimum for survival, and that minimum had to be transported by air at whatever the cost in money and manpower.

The main ingredient of course was food.  Other commodities included raw materials for power, e.g. coal and liquid fuel, plus as host of other articles necessary for the life of a city, clothing, medical supplies, mail etc. and of course, some needs for the maintenance of the proposed airlift.

On 28 June, 44 tonnes of food was flown into Berlin.  At that point, nobody imagined this to be anything but a short term affair.  One English newspaper read in large headlines "Coal Cannot Be Flown In”.  A Berlin newspaper stated “No one in authority here pretends that rations to Berlin can be maintained by air supply past end of July when present food stocks will be exhausted”.  But what in effect had just begun was the largest and greatest air supply operation ever attempted or were likely to be attempted again.  The Berlin Airlift, code name “Operation Plains Fare”, became a near miracle every day.  It is almost beyond comprehension that in any one day controllers could direct a stream of aircraft into and away from a single runway with a frequency equal to that of underground trains using one platform in peak hour; indeed, it may well be more difficult as every fluctuation of weather presents new problems.

In its infancy, the airlift operation , whilst a trifle hazardous, was conducted in a carefree manner.  One small room equipped with a Perspex board suitably ruled into columns, was set aside as the Operations Room,  This was adjacent tot eh large briefing room, a corner of which had been set aside as a NAAFI snack bar for waiting air crews; a bar which only sold a doughnut and a cup of cha or coffee for a pfenning token.  From here, aircrews full of this stuff trudged forth over mucky ground to seek any aircraft which happened to be fuelled, serviced and loaded.  Soon the sky had a gaggle of aircraft heading in the general direction of the entrance to the Northern air corridor to Berlin.

It was a bit of a lark really, and anyway we didn’t think it would last very long, we were told “take kit for seven days”.  But as we, full of doughnuts, tea or coffee, were merrily heading to Berlin, Joint Task Commanders were calling conference to complete the plans for a massive airlift operation which could not be anything of a lark at all, but a strenuous, slogging and split second routine.

The Operation Order was signed at 1900 hours on 30 June.  On 1 July three hundred and eleven tones of food for the German civilians and ninety four tones for the British troops was carried from Wünstörf to Gatow.  The Real job had started.  And let it be said at once that it had started, not only for the aircrew, but also for those toiling, often under estimated, absolutely essential men and women, the ground staff.  They had flown in with us from UK and had set to work in pouring rain with only short intervals for sleep to keep our aircraft serviceable.

The Airbridge was a complicated and intricate affair managed by Joint HQ Staff and Admin.  Here worked the planning staff aided by the war time boffins reducing the Airlift to equations and calculating the probabilities of the future with remarkable exactitude.  Not to be forgotten were the airmen at the airfields back in the UK to which each aircraft was flown after completing 100 flying hours to be overhauled, serviced and put back on the line in A1 condition.  There was also the super-efficient Aircraft Controllers, the super-efficient Load Control organization, the dedicated Malcolm Club, Sally Ann and NAAFI girls who seemed to be always cheerful.  Also the aircrew and our loved ones back in UK who faced life with some apprehension because with the complexity of the operation, the frequency of aircraft movements coupled with the vagaries of the weather, our occupation caused them some anxiety.

The RAF contributed three types of land aircraft.  C47 twin engine Dakota capacity 3.5 tonnes.  Four Engine York and four engine Hastings, each with nine tonne capacity.  For a time Sunderland flying boats operated about five tonne capacity.  At the end of July British Civil companies joined in using Tudor, Lancastrian, Halifax and an assortment of other aircraft all converted to carry liquid fuel.

The supply of goods to the numerous airfields in the Western Zone of Germany did not entail any abnormal feats of organization, but the situation at the receiving end in Berlin was very different.  There were six German airfields available for use in the British Zone.  Schleswigland, Lübeck, Fuhlsbüttel, Fassberg, Celle and Wünstörf.  Of these Fuhlsbüttel, Fassberg and Celle were allocated to the USAF, but to operate under British control.  The US Zone had Frankfurt en Marne and Wiesbaden.  In Berlin, there were two airfields, Gatow and Templehof.  Lake Havel was used as a flying boat base.  Tegel, a third airfield was completed in the French sector during the airlift operation.

But runway space was not the only requirement of the airfields.  Perhaps more important was the technical control and navigational equipment.  To make best use of the available runways at Gatow, it was necessary to land and dispatch aircraft at an extremely high frequency.  It was a fact that the remarkable intensity of aircraft at Gatow was to land one aircraft and dispatch another within every three minutes day and night, i.e. and aircraft movement in an aircraft out every ninety seconds.  In bad weather the three minutes was stretched to five.  This intensity could be achieved only by use of radio and radar of the finest technical efficiency with the most skillful of men to operate it.  When the weather deteriorated, which it often did, aircraft would be taken one by one for thus close approaches by a controller who would watch the movement of each aircraft on his radar screen and give exact instructions until the last movement when he said “Look ahead and land”.

On 5 July Sunderland flying boats joined the operation flying from Finkenwerde near the centre of Hamburg to Lake Havel in West Berlin, a most picturesque place and in former times a Hitler Youth resort.  They ceased operation in December due to the danger of ice forming on Havel.  By mid July, the York fleet at Wünstörf was operating to full capacity.  The Dakota aircraft had moved their operational base to Lubeck.  At the end of July civil air companies under charter operating mainly Tudor and Lancastrian aircraft joined us.  These aircraft were specially adapted to carry liquid fuel, thus air crews were experienced and specialized.

All airfields at the dispatch end were in full use by the end of August except Schleswigland which commenced operation in Neo with the post war Hastings aircraft flying operationally for the first time.  The early days of improvisation had gone.  Air crew flew round the clock, each doing three return sorties before relief.  Airlift traffic was rationalized, controlled and drilled into a strict routine, and frequency of flights increased.

Rigid traffic rules were put into force which were designed to get as near as possible to the ideal, a steady, regular, unbroken stream of aircraft into and out of Gatow day and night.

But the aircraft were not all of the same type, some were much faster than others, theirs carried larger loads which took longer to unload.  British and American aircrew were not only using different methods of navigation, which could not be standardised because the aircraft were fitted with different types of ration and radar equipment.

If these aircraft had been sent continuously in and out of Gatow at regular intervals the result would have been disastrous.  There would have been grave danger of collisions between aircraft of different speeds.  The difference unloading times would have thrown the entire programme out of gear within a short time every day.

So time blocks of one hour for each type of aircraft was introduced.  Thus the different groups of aircraft operating from British controlled airfields flew into Gatow hour by hour, each group in its own time block and flying at its own special height.  In practice of course, the thing was much more complex than this.

As winter crept in the weather deteriorated.  We had to contend with all sorts of weather that clamped one airfield for months.  Sometimes it was rain, or a gale, or both, and sometimes a thick murky continental fog.  You could barely see your inboard motors let alone your outboards.  It was a case of continuous juggling by Operation Staff, but that’s their job anyway.

The whole RAF traffic system was piloted upon the Frohnaus beacon sited on a church a few miles north of Gatow.  Once the aircrew had left the operations room at Wünstörf and become airborne, the whole flight hinged upon one fact, the time the aircraft HAD to be over the Frohnaus radio beacon.  From that datum, with an allowed margin error of plus or minus fifteen seconds, the crew had worked out the speed at which they must fly given the strength and direction of wind.  The height at which they must fly they already knew, that was constant at angels 3.5 (3,500 ft) for our York aircraft.

The aircraft took its place on the taxiway at Wünstörf in the in the wave of Yorks destined for Gatow, each leaving precisely three minutes after its predecessors.  Once airborne, it turned northward towards the entrance opposite Hamburg – and there, at the entrance to the northern air corridor to Berlin, - the entrance opposite Hamburg – and there, at the Egestorf radio beacon swung into the procession down the corridor.  The flight time to Gatow was 55 minutes.

The territory beneath the corridor was, of course, in Russian occupation.  But the crew paid little attention to this other than an occasional glance downwards.  It is necessary to be reminded that the Soviet had many Fighter Squadrons operating in the Berlin Airlift zone.  The fighters were mostly YAK and harassed the Allied aircraft and in fact, during the unsettled period between January and June 1948, had in April shot down a British Viking aircraft.  The Russians became skilled in buzzing and harassing the sense aircraft traffic of the Berlin Air Lift.

Twenty miles out from the Frohnhau radio beacon, contact was made with Gatow Approach Control stating your Tail No, load carried and ETA Gatow, to facilitate unloading arrangements.  To prevent double messages handling on the ground, a DHF receiver tuned to the approach control frequency was installed in Load Control, manned twenty four hours per day.  Over Frohnau beacon you called Gatow Tower and was instructed to turn in a sou westerly direction and start to lose height.  From now you remained in close contact with the Tower.  Coming in VFR (visual) you turned again over another radio beacon near the centre of Berlin, still losing height and now heading directly for the Gatow runway.  You selected undercarriage down and called again as you crossed over the Kaiser Wilhelm I Memorial, a tall tower brightly lit at night with red lamps, and a short distance from Gatow “Over the Christmas Tree”, you reported, that was SOP for that particular moment on the airlift.  You are now practically there and below say in the twilight the lighting of Gatow stretched before you.  The aircraft ahead of you was just rolling off the runway on to the perimeter track, the one ahead of that was taking up position on the unloading apron, there was another aircraft rolling on to the runway to take off for base, the aircraft behind you was over the middle beacon, another was over Frohnau and continually throughout the duration of the Air Lift the aircraft bridge was continuous.  You touched down, rolled to the end of the runway and taxied rapidly to the unloading apron.

Had there been heavy cloud or similar conditions, you would have been talked in by the GCA Controller.  Furthermore, there was no time for the customary circuit before landing, if you miscalculated and were forced to overshoot, you were given instructions to join the departure traffic and return to base with your load.

You took up position on the unloading apron under control of the batman, applied th4e brakes, cut the motors and wheel chocks were slid into position.  Even before you could unlock your safety harness German labourers were aboard starting to unload the aircraft.  The crew strolled to the NAAFI hut dropped into chairs and consumed another doughnut etc.  You had only twenty minutes to spend in that haven; doors open to doors close was thirty minutes during which time the aircraft had to be unloaded and reloaded.  Touch down to airborne was fifty minutes.  The Load Control at Gatow to work at all had to be perfect – it was.  And so, by the end of July, the whole wonderful airlift could be soon in full working order.  The “Bridge across the Sky”, or so Prime Minister Atlee called it, “The Eighth Wonder of the World”.

Whatever may be said of the Allies contribution, the German labour force, both men and Women proved of untold value to the operation, working staunchly and without discomfort often in appalling weather conditions.  They were provided with a meal per shift off the ration, with warm winter clothing, rest rooms and baths.

Cargo Carried to West Berlin

What was it necessary to airlift into West Berlin in order that this city might survive the blockade, to remain a place of industry for nearly one million workers and to retain its economy?  The list is extensive and varied.  Here are the five categories.

    Food and supplies for the British troops, forty tonnes per day and top priority;

    Food for the civilian population, thirteen hundred tones per day;

    Coal, mostly of a special kind from the Ruhr, for such essential purposes as the maintenance of public utilities (electricity, sewerage disposal, hospitals etc.) and to stoke the industrial furnaces of the factories, with a small allocation for domestic heating;

    Liquid fuel i.e. petrol for motor transport, diesel for heavy transport and power plants, and some industrial high grade fuel;

    Special cargo

            newsprint, vitally necessary to keep in circulation newspapers upon which the morale of the people so much depended,
            German economic cargo, raw materials to enable the factories to keep production, and
            Miscellaneous, ranging from medical supplies to such essential consumer goods as person items, or plant and materials required to extend an airfield, to convert a power station to burn oil instead of coal, or to keep a factory productive.

The method of supplying these various commodities was kept flexible.  The basic principle was to accumulate in West Berlin about thirty days supply or reserve stock of each of the main commodities and keep them at about that level.

Sometimes airfields chiefly delivering, say coal, were clamped by weather for a few days, in consequence of which coal reserves would fall.  Opportunity would then be taken to build up stocks of some other commodity, say flour.  However the juggling it was not long before stocks of the necessities of life were in general better than when the airlift started and also better balanced.

Each type of cargo presented special difficulties of its own.  All were variations of the central problem, how to carry the greatest value in terms of use, not money, in the smallest space and at the lowest weight.

Such difficulties are most easily illustrated in the haul of food.  Flour, with cereals and dehydrated potatoes for a long time formed eighty percent of the lift.  Dehydrated vegetables are not a particularly attractive diet, but the Germans realized their necessity when told that one hundred and eighty tones of real potatoes, a saving of eighty sorties per day for our York aircraft.

Savings also were made by stripping foodstuffs of their packaging and carrying the product in calico sacks or cardboard containers.  Salt always remained a vexing problem.  No matter how well salt was packed, some of it always leaked going through the floor on the aircraft controls and causing corrosion.  Lancastrians, able to carry a pannier beneath their fuselage were given the task of carrying salt.

Coal transportation by air is not a pleasant task, it grimes everything in sight.  It had to be carried in sacks which in itself is a problem – shortage of sacks in post war Europe.  They wore out at an astonishing speed, three journeys.  The average daily loss through wear and tear was seventeen thousand sacks, five hundred and ten thousand per month at a cost of fifty thousand pounds.

There is a somber footnote to this.  An operation of such magnitude could not be performed without cost to human life.  Twenty service personnel including one Australian lost their lives.  Flying is no more dangerous than most forms of transport but it involves a risk.  Flying of such complexity and frequency intensified that risk.

Conclusion

Berlin under blockade, with its bombed buildings and mountains of rubble, the drabness of its streets by day and their pitch blackness by night, was not the easiest of cities in which to cherish at the cost of real hardship, freedom of mind.  But the West Berliners did so cherish it.  As month by month the blockade went on they did not waver, they put their trust in the “Bridge Across The Sky”.

And when it all ended in may 1949, 277,264 flights had been made and 2,300,000 tonnes airlifted into West Berlin.  At the time some journalists who overestimated their ability and who make unjustifiable claims to be historians, wrote the “airlift” as only a liability, a costly expedient and that it would easily have been averted.  But of course, they did not say HOW!  Whatever the verdict, I believe as do many others that it was an asset of incalculable worth, and not least in the spirit it preserved in

West Berlin.

The Berlin Airlift was about LIBERTY, about West Berliners right to freedom and to choose the way of life they wanted.  If it be thought of as a psychological struggle as part of the battle of wills over Europe then one asset can be clearly claimed; it heightened the respect for Western democracy and revived in millions of doubting hearts and belief in the strength of freedom.

                                                                                                                              END