28 Sept 2009
A special service of commemoration to mark the 60th anniversary of the end of the Berlin Airlift took place today at the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire.
The service, which marks the final British flight of the Airlift, was held in the presence of Veterans Minister Kevan Jones, the new Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton, and 500 veterans, families and current Service personnel.
The service paid tribute to the many servicemen and women who served on the airlift in the air and on the ground, supporting operations to keep the population of West Berlin alive during the Soviet Blockade of 1948-1949. The 39 British and Commonwealth personnel who lost their lives during the airlift, also known as “Operation Plainfare”, were also remembered.
Readings were given by representatives from the British Berlin Airlift Association, and a message of thanks on behalf of the people of Berlin from their Mayor, Klaus Wowereit was read out to the congregation by Brigadier General Franz-Josef Nolte, Defence and Air Attaché, German Embassy.
Following the service, the congregation moved to the national Berlin Airlift Memorial within the Arboretum, where wreaths were laid on behalf of the Armed Forces, the British Berlin Airlift Association and the people of Berlin. There was also a minute silence for those who lost their lives and a flypast of an RAF Dakota from the time of the Berlin Airlift.
The day concluded with a flypast by the Red Arrows, two Hercules aircraft, and aircraft from the Army Historic Aircraft Flight, acknowledging the contribution of the Army to the campaign.
Veterans Minister Kevan Jones said:
“The airlift veterans deserve our respect and pride. Over many months and in treacherous conditions, they worked tirelessly to keep West Berlin alive while it was under siege. Taking place during a period of austerity and hardship for Britain, their achievement is all the more selfless. They truly showed Britain at its best.”
Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Sir Stephen Dalton said:
“The Berlin Airlift was a difficult, unglamorous and dangerous undertaking; the biggest humanitarian operation ever conducted. I am proud to be here today to mark this remarkable achievement, and pay tribute to those who lost their lives.”
Airlift veteran Geoff Smith, Chairman of the British Berlin Airlift Association, said:
“Today brings back many memories of Operation Plainfare. Standing alongside my fellow comrades and their families, and representatives of the people of Berlin, I am so proud of what we achieved sixty years ago. Those who lost their lives are not forgotten and our success truly was a defining moment in the history of the Cold War.”
British aircraft flew more than 175,000 trips to and from the city as the RAF, supported by civilian pilots and Army teams on the ground, faced the most challenging of conditions in ensuring that the two million people living in Berlin did not starve or freeze to death when their supplies were cut off by the Soviets.
Today’s service is the culmination of a year of 60th anniversary events commemorating the Berlin Airlift. They began on 12 May, the anniversary of the end of the Soviet Blockade, with ceremonies in Berlin at the former Gatow and Tempelhof airfields, and at the Imperial War Museum in London.
At the start of the Berlin Blockade, before the Airlift started, West Berlin had just thirty-five days' worth of food, and forty-five days' worth of coal. Without the involvement of the Allied Armed Forces, West Berlin would have been lost and the nature of post-war Europe would have altered significantly.
British aircraft spent more than 210,000 hours in the air, the equivalent of 24 man years, and flew more than 30 million miles, which equates to flying to the moon and back 63 times.
During the Airlift, British military and civilian aircraft lifted more than 540,000 tons. This included food, coal, liquid fuel, military equipment and other items, such as metal girders to rebuild the bridges in the city destroyed during the Second World War.
The airlift sustained the population of West Berlin, at that time estimated to be around two million. Their daily requirement for food alone was 900 tons of potatoes; 641 tons of flour; 106 tons of meat and fish, 105 tons of cereals and so on, amounting altogether to some 1,800 to 2,000 tons of food alone every day. Nearly 45 per cent of the food and supplies taken in to Berlin were flown in British aircraft.
Alongside the population of Berlin, there were also many Servicemen and women with their families stationed in the city as part of the Allied garrison for the duration of the Blockade.
British aircraft also transported more than 131,000 individuals – mainly children and the sick - out of Berlin for medical attention in West Germany. They also transported people into the city, including Service personnel and their families.
The British were the only force that sustained trade with the city, exporting nearly 360,000 tons of goods produced in Berlin out to West Germany and beyond.
The Soviet Blockade was lifted on 12 May 1949, the Airlift having prevented the starvation of the city. Flights continued for several months however, ensuring the city was well stocked in the event of further blockades.
During the Berlin Airlift British aircraft transported 542,000 tonnes of freight over 175,000 sorties. The RAF’s modern-day equivalent of the Dakota, the C17 Globemaster, is capable of transporting a maximum 73.6 tonnes of freight, and could potentially have lifted the same freight in only 7465 sorties, just over 4 per cent of the flights made during 1948 – 1949.
The C17 Globemaster is part of 99 Squadron RAF, which currently transports approximately 25,000 tonnes of freight a year over a distance of 3300 miles to Afghanistan. This is the equivalent of nearly 5 per cent of the total Berlin Airlift tonnage, and is achieved with only 6 C17 Globemaster aircraft.
The Berlin Airlift Memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum is a replica of the main Berlin Airlift memorial at the former Tempelhof airport in Berlin, representing the “airbridge” of three corridors in to Berlin during the blockade. The UK memorial also has a carved wooden eagle representing the Royal Air Force surmounting the stone. The approach to the memorial is an avenue of 39 trees, each representing a life lost during the campaign. They are planted so they blossom in May, to coincide with the end of the blockade, and bear fruit in the Autumn, symbolically marking the final flight and the purpose of the Airlift.
Dakota flypast on previous event.
Brigadier General Franz-Josef Nolte, Defence and Air Attaché, German Embassy.
Editor: Vicky Beacon
Photographer: Corporal Anthony Stinson
RAF/MOD Crown Copyright 2009.