As the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev allegedly later said, “Berlin is the testicles of the West: every time I want to make the West scream, I squeeze on Berlin.”. In 1948 the Soviets wanted to castrate the West and take all of the city, isolated as it was 100 miles in the Soviet-occupied east of Germany. Taking west Berlin would have fortified already growing anti-US feeling in West Germany and could have led to a disaster for the US: all of Germany turning Communist. Whereas the Western powers envisioned a future Germany as vast industrial and military stalwart at the centre of Europe that needed to stay functional to avoid another Hitler, the Soviet Union feared a strong Germany and wanted to keep it weak and use it as a bulwark against the West. In an attempt to starve out West Berlin and force the population to look east, the Soviet Army blocked all roads and rivers. Effectively depriving its already desperate citizens of electricity and food. The battered city sat on the edge of catastrophe. Losing Berlin was a nightmare that President Truman could not bear to consider. While his military advisors suggested withdrawal, the British Royal Air Force suggested an exceptionally unlikely solution: supplying 4,000 tons of food and fuel a day to the beleaguered city. Truman agreed, and the West responded with the greatest humanitarian effort in history, the Berlin Airlift. Finding enough aircraft proved hard, and air forces looked everywhere to find suitable aeroplanes. A motley armada was assembled and against all odds succeeded. Here are the 14 most important aircraft in this titanic enterprise.
14. Yakovlev Yak-3 ‘Yak Cult’
If the USSR had decided to oppose the great airlift with force, hundreds of transport aircraft would been savaged by Soviet fighters. The most significant Soviet fighter in terms of number and potency was the Yakovlev Yak-3. Marcel Albert, a French ace, who flew the Yak-3 in the USSR with the Normandie-Niémen Group, considered it a superior fighter to even the the P-51D Mustang and Spitfire.
Whereas other nations had moved toward ever bigger and heavy fighters, the Soviets had gone in the opposite direction with the Yak-3; a loaded Supermarine Spitfire XIV weighed a whopping 2,500 pounds more than a similarly configured Yak-3. Every measure was made to keep the weight down to ensure it was the best-of class for power-to-weight ratio and wing loading, this included partial construction in laminated wood and the use of pneumatic systems in place of the more usual electrical/hydraulics.
During the war, the Yak-3 had been found to be an outstanding dogfighter below 13,000 feet. Unarmed, fully laden transport aircraft would have been easy meat for the superb Yak-3. As it turned out, the Yak-3s did no more than buzz the transports. The world could have become a far worse place if the Yak pilots had been given more aggressive orders.
Loaded weight: 2,697 kg / 5,946 lbs
Favourite cargo: 150 rounds 20mm ShVAK cannon ammunition
13. Amiot AAC.1 Toucan ‘Me Julie’
Mention the Berlin Airlift and few people think of France’s contribution (nor do we generally remember the help from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa). But France did help and it did so using a German aircraft design. The Amiot AAC.1 Toucan was a French-built Ju 52/3m produced at the same former Amiot factory that had previously turned out 320 examples for the Luftwaffe. Following the war, Amiot was renamed the Atelier Aéronautiques de Colombes (AAC) and continued to turn out ‘La Julie’, the French nickname for the ’52.
Loaded Weight: 10,499 kg (23,146 lb)
Favourite cargo: coal and sugar
12. Douglas C-74 Globemaster ‘The Wasp Factory’
The C-74 was a giant new airlifter in 1948. A single Globemaster aided the operation from the 14 August. Over the next six weeks, the Globemaster crew flew 24 missions delivering 1,234,000 lb (559,700 kg) of supplies. It once delivered 20 tons of flour in one mission, as well as delivering quarter of a million pounds of coal in a single day.
Favourite cargo: coal, rock crusher (in parts), flour
11. Short S.25 Sunderland/Hythe ‘The Flying Porcupine’
These big flying boats had been with RAF Coastal Command on the first and last day of the Second World War. Theirs had been a very busy war but yet more was to be asked from them. Taking advantage of their ability to take-off and land from water they were operated between the Elbe Estuary in Hamburg and Berlin’s Lake Havel. The Sunderlands and Hythes (the name for the unarmed civil version of the Sunderland) added capacity to the airlift without consuming space and resources at ground bases. The seaworthy paint on Sunderlands enabled them to carry sacks of salt without fear of corrosion.
Loaded weight: 27,200 kg / 60,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: steam irons, rolls of newsprint, sacks of salt, children not feeling well, cardboard boxes with MADE IN CANADA printed on them.
10. Avro Lancaster/Lancastrian ‘Gert Lancaster’
To a wartime Lancaster crew, the seemingly innocuous word ‘cookie’ had a macabre meaning, it was another word for a ‘blockbuster’* bomb, so-called because it was big enough – sometimes weighing as much 12,000Ib – to destroy an entire block of streets. The aircraft went from dropping ‘cookies’* of death from 25,000 feet to bringing actual cookies to the people of Berlin. The most warlike aircraft on this top list is surely the Lancaster, working with its civilian sister, the Lancastrian. Good luck overstating the irony of seeing Bomber Command’s premier high explosives delivery platform in the role of humanitarian relief with a fuselage full of essentials. The very people subjected to the Lancaster’s nocturnal attentions during the war were, before they knew it, eating a warm dinner by the stove only thanks to the presence and capacity of this machine. Oceania has always been at war with Eastasia. Either way, the Lancastrian would have about a decade of service on long-range air routes after the war until modern passenger airliners were available (ones that could carry more than nine people in side-facing chairs). Unconverted Lancasters, it can be noted, had repatriated prisoners of war back to the UK in another operation so the Berlin Blockade is not the only time this aggressive machine did more heart-warming, less people-burning, duties.
Loaded weight: 29,484 kg / 65,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: Nivea moisturizer, tinned creamed corn, exercise equipment, comic books, pork sides.
*It is from this we have the word to describe a successful film
9. Avro 688 Tudor ‘A Tudor rose’
The Tudor was a big plane, an ambitious design intended for long range civilian air travel. It had Lancaster DNA: the Tudor used the same wing as the Lincoln, which was essentially a stretched Lancaster. But it sported a new tail and circular fuselage and such comforts as kapok insulation and the first pressurised fuselage on a British airliner. Sales were slimmer than hoped due to what is looked back upon as a combined government and industrial failure to capitalise on post war opportunities and the fact that better quality or cheaper alternatives were available from American firms or in the form of war surplus. The air effort to supply Berlin was simply ramped up so fast it couldn’t help but suck in a few civil-registered Tudors to move liquid fuels, securing the type’s only real claim to fame. If we discount the Rolls-Royce Nene testbed VX158, that is.
Loaded weight: 34,473 kg / 76,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: barbecue starter fluid, Ronson and Zippo lighter flints, gasoline, nylons.
8. Handley Page Halton/Halifax ‘ ‘Last cargo in Halifax’
Aircraft from the Second World War served in the Berlin Airlift in modified, civilianized forms and in their exact wartime configurations. Newer aircraft produced after the war were also present. Sometimes such aircraft were operated by civilian airlines (with, no doubt, demobilised service personnel in their crews) contracted to help military organisations. The most visually striking aircraft of the entire effort must be the red Halton freighters belonging to Eagle Aviation Limited. Four-engined bombers were among the top three or four strategic weapons of the war and they were nearly always a noisy and impressive sight in any numbers. In comparison to the Lancaster, the Halifax suffered from the kind of airplane sibling rivalry that assigns reputations sometimes unfairly in the manner of the Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane. The demilitarised Halifax, the Halton, adds a thick layer of obscurity to that process. Either way, the mail brought in and out of Berlin by Haltons was probably cherished in a Europe still heartbroken by the worst war in human history.
Loaded weight: 25,000 kg / 54,400 lbs
Favourite cargo: coal, flour, mail, Coke, dog food, prams, car engines, aquarium filters, feather pillows.
7. Bristol 170 Freighter ‘Lovely Bristols’
To many the Bristol 170 Freighter conjures up nostalgic thoughts of mid-century air travel. The idea of Triumph convertibles or Rolls-Royce Silver Wraiths disgorged onto French airfields from a giant aluminium nose now seems utterly exotic, and sadly they are gone for ever. Less glamorous but far more important was the Bristol Freighters role in Berlin, as part of the mixed collection of types operated by Silver City Airway.
Loaded weight: 34,473 kg / 76,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: Leica cameras for export, Life magazine, tinned sardines, bricks, sewing pins, pianos.
6. Handley Page Hastings ‘The cattle of Hastings’
The largest aircraft ever designed for the RAF
A heavyweight champion of the airlift, with a physical resemblance to the Focke-Wulf Fw 200 Condor, the Hastings was a massive tail-dragger with 6,700 horsepower turning a set of four-bladed props. Its service adoption was accelerated by the demands of the airlift, especially the need for coal. The three RAF squadrons operating the type delivered 55,000 tons of supplies.
Loaded weight: 80,000 lb (36,287 kg)
Favourite cargo: coal, lumber, Mars bars, books, rope, anvils, printing presses, fabric swatches, cigars.
5. Fairchild C-82 Packet ‘The Boomers’
Like the Sunderlands, the Packets were given a specific job to do in support of Berlin. Graders, bulldozers and other machinery, sometimes partially disassembled, were loaded into these aircraft and sent over to Berlin’s airports. There to be employed building and maintaining the aprons, taxiways, cargo dumps, parking areas and runways. The twin-boom tail on the Packet, found later on the C-119 Flying Boxcar and the Nord Noratlas, allowed loading clearance for objects of almost any kind and for trucks to reverse directly up to the aircraft.
Loaded weight: 24,500 kg / 54,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: earth-moving equipment, racks of bottled milk, evening wear, eggs
4. Douglas C-47 Skytrain/DC-3 Dakota ‘Dakota spanning’
The C-47 was arguably the most important transport aircraft of the Allied nations in the 1940s. It had served at D-Day, Market Garden and the Burma-India theatres with aplomb and developed a reputation for rugged do-anything reliability. In the Berlin Airlift it performed thousands of sorties into Tempelhof and Gatow airports. Many Dakotas even remained in their wartime camouflage schemes while doing so. All ranks in the C-47 units must have felt as if the war days had come right seeing row upon roaring row of the beloved aircraft loaded and dispatched for Berlin. But the Skytrain’s day was over and it was time to make way for the bigger, more capable, C-54.
Loaded weight: 13,200 kg / 29,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: accordions, X-ray equipment, cats, atlases, vacuum tubes, dentist’s chairs.
3. Avro 685 York ‘The Grand Old Duke’
Into this list of butch utilitarian designs arrives the feminine triple-tailed Avro York. Churchill and Charles de Gaulle used one each during the war and whatever else those men got up to, you can’t blame them for wanting to be seen next to one of these silver Art Deco beauts. Not just a pretty thing with portholes*, no, the York had Merlin XXs and the same wings as the Lancaster. Still a fairly fresh design in 1948, Yorks performed sterling service during the airlift. Nearly half of the British contribution to supplying Berlin was carried by Yorks: a million tons, over 58,000 sorties.
(*Ed: This is bit ’70s and borderline sexist. Stephen, you have been warned)
Loaded weight: 29,500 kg / 65,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: coal, flat-pack furniture, plaster-and-lathe supplies, bronze statues of classical musicians, shoes, umbrellas, Jazz LPs.
2. Vickers VC.1 Viking ‘Horny Vickers’
An evolution of the successful Wellington bomber, much was anticipated of the Viking as the world returned to peace. First flying in 1946, the Viking would go on to become a global success story. In 1948, a mid-air collision between a Soviet Yak-3 and a British European Airways Viking over Berlin killed 15 people. This incident would set the stage for the airlift, in which the Viking would participate and quickly prove itself. The controversy and tension created by the’ Gatow air disaster’ further soured the already hostile mess of Germany’s diplomatic, political and economic relationships to her former enemies, allies and subjects. This encouraged Stalin to isolate Berlin, and to further test western resolve. From such a dramatic and pivotal youth, the Viking enjoyed a happier later life and become a common sight at airports all over the world.
Loaded weight: 15,422 kg / 34,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: machine tools, nail files, lead ingots, concrete blocks, mail, passengers.
1. Douglas C-54/R-5D ‘Candy Bomber’
Absolutely the icon of the entire operation and the immortal ‘candy bomber’, was an ocean-spanning, four-engined cousin of the DC-3. What a machine. After a respectable wartime career, the C-54 came into its own during the airlift. The famous photograph of a C-54 passing over German civilians gazing up with hearts full of democratic warmth illustrates the success of the operation in both humanitarian and public relations terms.
Few expected such a vast, complicated and dangerous operation could succeed in the face of abysmal winter weather. How could aircraft take over the daily mass bulk movement of goods like coal and flour normally handled by trucks, canal barges, and rail cars? The handsome C-54 would more than answer the doomsayers and Premier Stalin in equal measure.
Loaded weight: 33,100 kg / 73,000 lbs
Favourite cargo: refrigerators, switchblade knives, juke boxes, chocolate bars, toys and raisins and the feeling that we all really cared and had something to stand up for.
Stephen Caulfield (with Joe Coles, Ed Ward and Thomas Newdick)
From the cocaine, blood and flying scarves of World War One dogfighting to the dark arts of modern air combat, here is an enthralling ode to these brutally exciting killing machines.
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