‘Vittles’ and ‘Plainfare’ – The Orkney Aviation Festival

What links together The Berlin Airlift, Hershey’s Chocolate Bars and the small Orkney island of Flotta ?

If you had been amongst the audience at the Orkney Aviation Festival talk given by Robert Foden you would be able to answer that question with ease.

This was the last in a series of events in the Orkney Aviation Festival and it played to a packed King St Halls, Kirkwall on Sunday 16th of September.

This well researched talk was delivered with an ease of delivery and sense of playfulness. The audience young and not so young loved it.

The Berlin Wall which once divided the city between East and West came down in 1989 and it will be difficult for many young people today to imagine what it must have been like when Germany was not a united nation.

At the end of World War 2 the Allied nations and the U.S.S.R. carved Germany up dividing it into parts – East Germany and West Germany. The city of Berlin located in East Germany was also divided into east and west.

Germany 1945

Germany in 1945 By en:User:52 Pickup via Wikimedia Commons

On the 23rd of June 1948 the Soviet authorities after a prolonged campaign of ‘pin prick activities’ disrupting the daily lives of Berliners announced that they would be closing all the land and water access points into West Berlin. It was a process which they hoped would see the Allied forces leave the western sector. It would starve the city of all supplies: food, fuel, medicines etc – a 20thC siege.

The only routes left into West Berlin were by 3 Air Corridors. The Soviet authorities were not able to impose the blockade on the Air Corridors due to a written agreement signed by both sides in 1945.

Two currencies were circulating, war had devastated the city and it had been stripped of vital infrastructure of plant and power stations.

It was decided to use the air corridors to fly in the supplies Berlin needed to keep going with US General Lucius D Clay  giving the order to launch Operation Vittles on the 25th of June 1948.  The first British aircraft flew on the 28th of June.

At first efforts to keep the city fed and functioning were slightly chaotic as the mammoth task by the USA and Britain got going. What started as a small airlift was soon escalating into a major task. This resulted in extreme difficulties managing the increasing numbers of planes flying into and out of the airports. They had just narrow flight corridors to keep within – if they strayed out of these they would be into Soviet airspace with the potential of being shot down.

A variety of different planes were used – here are two from the USA.

Everything had to be flown into the city: food, medicine, coal, flour – literally everything including salt. Due to its corrosive nature for a time Britain used Short Sunderlands for this task landing them on the River Havel. These were slow, however, and their use was discontinued.

Sunderland 201 Sqn on Havel during Berlin Airlift 1948

Sunderland 201 Sqn on Havel during Berlin Airlift 1948 (photo Imperial War Museum)

As the complexities of the operation unfolded Maj. Gen. William H. Tunner,  from the US Military Air Transport Service was put in overall command of the Berlin Airlift and he soon started to manage the flights efficiently and install operational systems which would produce a faster turnaround time.

Large numbers of planes were now flying in with supplies and stacking, delaying landing, was a major problem. Failed first attempts at landing and allowing further attempts caused more delays. Instrumental Flight Rules were introduced where each plane was talked down by a man on the ground. This was to become the adopted practice for air traffic control. Any pilot who failed to land on his first attempt had to return to his departure airfield.

Two airfields were in use: Gatow and Tempelhof and a third airport was  deemed necessary – Tegel. Constructed in 49 days by army engineers and volunteers it was situated in the French sector and is still Berlin’s main airport today. At the time it’s runway was the longest in Europe.

Uncle Wiggle Wings

The arrival and departure of the planes was watched by hundreds of Berliners many of whom were children. One man US Air Force pilot Gail Halvorsen began giving out chewing gum to the children. He then began to drop Hershey’s chocolate bars attached to handkerchief parachutes. The children were able to identify when it was his plane landing as he would wiggle the wings. The children wrote letters of thanks and soon Uncle Wiggle Wings – The Chocolate Flier – came to the attention of his commanding officers. The US soon realised the propaganda potential of this and with chocolate and sweet manufacturers joining in it became a massive success as ‘Operation Little Vittles’.

Some of the children kept the handkerchief parachutes and one which was signed by Gail Halvorsen was taken up to the Mia Space Station in 1995 – it is now in the Johnson Space Centre. 

The End of the Blockade

On the 12th of May 1949 the Soviets lifted the blockade. The Berlin Airlift ended on 30th of September 1949 – a period of 15 months.

In total, the USAF delivered 1,783,573 tons and the RAF 541,937 tons, totalling 2,326,406 tons, nearly two-thirds of which was coal, on 278,228 flights to Berlin.The Royal Australian Air Force delivered 7,968 tons of freight and 6,964 passengers during 2,062 sorties. 

There were 101 fatalities. A memorial was erected to those who lost their lives at the former Tempelhof airfield.

Berlin Airlift Memorial

Berlin Airlift Memorial dedication ceremony 1952

The financial cost of the Airlift was shared between the US, UK, and Germany. Estimated costs range from approximately US$224 million to over US$500 million (equivalent to approximately $2.3 billion to $5.14 billion now).

And what of the connection with Flotta?

The Vice President of the Douglas Aircraft Company was one James Simpson formerly of Little Bu in Flotta responsible for the development of several of the planes used in the Berlin Airlift including the C54s.

This was a wonderful talk by Robert Foden which included refreshments provided by the Orkney Children’s Theatre Club and some great film footage compiled by Robert.

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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