Berlin Airlift Exhibition OpenedDate: 24 June 2008
By Dean Wingrin
The SAAF Museum at AFB Ysterplaat held a ceremony on 24 June 2008 to commemorate the South African Air Force's participation in the greatest humanitarian airlift of the 20th Century. An exhibition was created to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift. This is the only official commemoration in South Africa and forms part of a sequence of similar events which will be held in Europe, Britain, US and Australia.
In 1948, the relations between the Western Allies and their Soviet counterparts had deteriorated to such a degree that the Soviets instituted a blockade on all rail, road and water canal links into West Berlin, situated 177 km (110 miles) into Soviet occupied Germany. The only way into Berlin was via three air corridors agreed upon at the Potsdam Conference in 1945. It was decided to sustain the population of West Berlin by air, a feat that the Soviet Union had never anticipated. Thus, the Berlin airlift began on 24 June 1948.
The SAAF supplied 20 aircrews for the Berlin Airlift, with the crews flying to Britain in Dakotas via east Africa, Egypt and Malta, a journey that took five days. They then joined the Royal Air Force in flying sorties into Berlin. The SAAF crews flew 2 500 sorties and carried a total of 8 333 tons of humanitarian aid while flying RAF Dakotas.
The sorties were flown from Lubeck in West Germany into RAF Gatow in West Berlin. In addition to this, civilian members in need of evacuation from occupied Berlin were carried on return trips to Lubeck, especially orphaned children who were placed with families in the West. It was here that modern air traffic control procedures were developed.
In all, during the 406 days of the Berlin Airlift, American, British and Commonwealth air crews carried out 300 000 flights and transported two million tons of supplies.
The Soviet blockade Berlin was lifted at one minute after midnight, on 12 May 1949.
Flights continued for some time, though, to build a comfortable surplus. By 24 July 1949, a three-month surplus was built-up, ensuring that the airlift could be re-started with ease if needed. The Berlin Airlift officially ended on 30 September 1949, after fifteen months.
Councillor James Vos addressed the guests, which was attended by seven surviving members of the original contingent of 60 who departed South Africa in September 1948. Also attending were representatives of America, Britain and Germany. The Military Attaches from these countries were each presented with a symbolic loaf of bread, while Gen. Duncan Ralston, SAAF (Retd), who was one of those who served in the Berlin Airlift, received a loaf on behalf of the South African contingent.
After the ceremony, the guests were invited to inspect the restoration progress of Dakota 6832. This Dakota is the aircraft that flew to Pamanzi on the Comores Islands in December 1952 to bring back a recently discovered Coelacanth fish. The aircraft is being restored to airworthy condition.
Photos by Dean Wingrin and Elmarié Dreyer.