Remembering the world’s greatest airlift
- Credit: Archant
This year marks the 65th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, when East Anglian airbases were at the forefront of saving a city from starvation. Sheena Grant reports.
IN 1948 John Aitken was a young Army officer just out of Sandhurst when he was sent to take part in a mercy mission that heralded the start of the Cold War.
The Berlin Airlift was a momentous event, a logistical undertaking of mammoth proportions with the bold ambition of saving the people of post-war West Berlin from almost certain starvation in the face of a Russian road, rail and canal blockade.
For more than a year planes loaded with everything from fuel to food supplies took off from bases across East Anglia bound for Berlin.
Yet despite the scale of the operation and its historical significance, it is little remembered in Britain.
A charity called Legasee, which works to capture and preserve the personal recollections of armed forces veterans, hopes to change all that.
As part of efforts to mark this summer’s 65th anniversary of the start of the Berlin Airlift it is working to trace service people and civilians who took part and record their memories for future generations.
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John, who lives in Aldeburgh and is now 85, was just 20 when he was sent to Wunstorf in the British ‘zone’ of post-war Germany, just months after leaving Sandhurst.
“I left as a subaltern knowing nothing about anything and was packed off,” he says.
After Hitler’s defeat in the Second World War, Germany had been divided up into British, French, American and Soviet administration areas with Berlin, which was wholly located in the Russian sector, jointly occupied and sub-divided into four areas.
“The Western powers used to send all their supplies to Berlin by rail, barge and road,” says John. “The Russians did not like us being there so they stopped the rail and barges and every other means of getting everything into Berlin on which Berliners relied. Western leaders decided that was crunch point and that they would endeavour to supply Berlin with all its needs by air.
“At that stage a lot of our troops had been disbanded. Freddie Laker (who famously ran commercial passenger planes in the 1970s) had come by all the old bombers and he provided them to the forces as a means of flying into Berlin. The pilots, who had been demobbed after the war, were delighted to have something to do and jumped back into their planes again.
“Then, of course, there had to be great big warehouses of everying to go into the planes and this is where the Army came in because we had the expertise in handling large quantities of stores. One of the things I was responsible for was tanks of petrol: that was quite a tricky thing.”
John remembers the ceaseless noise of the planes flying in and out of Wunstorf every few minutes around the clock and a nasty accident involving the Americans and some rivalry to see who could get the most into Berlin the fastest.
“One of the first things that had to go in was coal, which had to be lashed down securely on the planes,” he says. “When planes flew into Berlin they had to go in at a steep angle. In their excitement the Amercians started not lashing them down to get a quicker turn around. There was one occasion that the coal pushed a pilot out of the front of the plane and it crashed.”
He also remembers the heavy tension that marked those few months, when no-one was certain how the Russians would react to the airlift.
“There were three air corridors (into Berlin) that the Russians agreed we could use,” he says. “You had to fly in these corridors and if you went outside you got ruffled up by the Russians fighters.
“It was a 24-hour a day activity and the hut I was in was only a few hundred yards off the runway. All night every night there were aircraft taking off. The whole place shook. It was a tense time.
“We were working round the clock. You put stuff in planes and the planes would come back with things manufactured in German factories to get out. The logistics of it were complicated. I remember the first flight I took into Berlin, looking out of the window on what was a pretty shattered city.”
While the airlift may be little remembered in Britain, Berliners have never forgotten it. Fifteen years ago, to mark the 50th anniversary, John was among the veterans who took up an invitation to return to the city.
“The Berliners were extremely friendly and incredibly grateful,” he says. “It’s a big part of their history. It is not forgotten from their point of view. The Russians are a tough lot and would have starved them out.
“Just after the war Berlin was shattered. They had planes landing every few minutes but there were not the airfields for them to land on so they had to make runways.
“It was just a posting to me at the time. When you are 20 it’s more a bit of excitement than anything else.
“It is only later that you see it in a different context. It is important to know what your country has done, particularly if it is good things. We were not well off as a country at the end of the war. This was a selfless thing for our country to do - if the Russians had been given an opening they would have taken it and life would have taken a different turn. West Berliners know that if it had not been for the airlift they would have gone down the communist route
“Anybody involved in the airlift should be proud. We worked hard and it was a good thing to do. There was no time for play, it was all hard work. It was a critical moment where we as a country did the right thing for Europe as well as ourselves.”
Ipswich-based Juliana Vandegrift is managing an oral history project about the airlift on behalf of Legasee for East Anglia. Pupils from Bungay High School are involved in some of the oral history interviews and are due to go to Duxford next month meet veterans.
“The main thing we want to do is preserve memories in an online archive,” she says. “There is also an exhibition starting in the summer at the Norfolk and Suffolk Aviation Museum in Flixton about the airlift, the role of East Anglia and memories of veterans.”
Airfields providing support to the airlift included RAF Honington, RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall in Suffolk, RAF Sculthorpe in Norfolk and RAF Oakington and RAF Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire.
“We have been more modest than, say, the Americans, in recording our role from a British perspective,” says Juliana. “But it was really the first battle of the Cold War, although a non-combat one. It was a humanitarian airlift, a way of standing up to the Soviets and a precursor to the creation of East and West Germany.”
Among the veterans Juliana has spoken to as part of the project are those that worked alongside Berliners, both women and men, building and extending airfields in order for supplies to be flown in.
“The whole thing was hazardous in the sense that one plane landed every two-and-a-half minutes: they had to have their wits about them,” she says. “Sometimes the Russians would fly close to the British planes and flex their muscles. They did not attack but there were certainly quite a few plane crashes. In fact, the British did not have enough military planes and started using civilian aircraft.”
As part of the project Juliana is interested in tracing military veterans and civilians, who may have worked at some of the bases involved or even lived nearby and saw some of the activity.
“The planes needed a lot of looking after when they came back to East Anglia,” she says. “They would be based in the Allied zones around Berlin but they had to get supplies from Britain and America.
“Every single thing was flown in, from coal for heating to food supplies and everything else inbetween. It must have been a bit strange for those involved at first. The Germans had been our enemy up until 1945 and now they were our friends. For their part, the Berliners were very frightened at first but gradually trust was built.
“It’s hard for us to comprehend it now but for a time there was a real fear this could be the start of a Third World War.”
n To find out more about Legasee, visit www.legasee.org.uk. Anyone with memories of the airlift and the East Anglian bases involved should email email@example.com or telephone 07918 142659.