Lest We Forget - Operation Vittles

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

The Soviets presumably did not try to intervene because stopping air traffic ran risks not associated with a land blockade, and might well trigger a war. It also is likely that they assumed that such an endeavor was bound to fail. But they were wrong. For more than a year, aircraft flew in and out of Berlin 24/7—to use the modern vernacular—carrying food, fuel, and other necessities to the beleaguered city at an astonishing rate. At the height of the campaign, an Allied aircraft landed in Berlin every minute. Berliners’ daily food ration actually exceeded that of Londoners at the time.

While the U.S. Air Force deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the incredible feat, a little-known fact is that the Navy participated as well. Two MATS (Military Air Transportation Service) squadrons, VR-6 and VR-8, joined the airlift in late 1948 and consistently exceeded their quotas for the eight months they participated. Flying their R5D Skymasters (the Navy variant of the Air Force C-54 transport), the naval aviators typically made three—and frequently four—round trips a day between air bases in the Western zone of Germany and Berlin, clocking over 45,000 hours of total flying time and delivering nearly 130,000 tons of food and coal.

Incredibly, by the spring of 1949, the airlift was delivering more cargo than previously had been transported by rail. The Soviets were forced to acknowledge that their blockade had failed, and ended it in May. Seen as a major embarrassment to Moscow, it was one of the key moments in the Cold War. Both symbolically and pragmatically it proved Western power and determination, avoiding war at a potentially volatile moment, and establishing Berlin as a focal point of the East-West struggle.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several Naval Institute Press books, including A Sailor’s History of the U.S. Navy and The Battle of Leyte Gulf .
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