The Open Door

The Berlin Airlift: Laird Cawte of Middlebanknock

A Plane landing in BerlinIn 1948 a detachment from 749 Company RASC (AD) was posted to Germany to fulfil air despatch duties in the British Army Of The Rhine and was stationed at the RAF Transport Practice Camp at Schleswigland and attached to the 16th Independent Parachute Brigade Group, together with Horsa Flight No. 85 from the Glider Pilot Regiment. The detachment consisted of two officers, three sergeants and 58 other ranks commanded by Captain Roy Royle. On 24th June 1948 the Russians imposed a blockade on West Berlin and later Stalin ordered the electricity supply to the city to be cut off. On 25th of June 1948 instructions were delivered by Despatch Rider for the detachment to commence “Operation Knicker”. Orders were lodged in the Company safe, a 25-Pounder ammunition box chained to the floor. However, on that particular occasion Roy Royle was not the key holder to the safe and he had to wait a few hours until I returned to camp and was able to produce all the documentation we had.

There was nothing which related and phone calls to Brigade HQ and RAF Station Commander Schleswigland failed to shed any further light. The order had come direct from HQ BAOR. OPERATION KNICKER REQUIRED 749 COMPANY RASC (AD) TO RELOCATE TO RAF WUNSTORF IMMEDIATELY, AND TO SUPPLY THE BRITISH GARRISON IN BERLIN WITH FOOD AND FUEL. The Unit split into two, various tasks had to be performed en route and on arrival at Wunstorf we were met by a sea of tented accommodation.

In the meantime the grass airfield at Gatow Berlin was being surfaced with pierced steel planking in readiness to receive the Dakotas. On 27th of June 1948 2 Dakota Squadrons, 53 and 77, flew from RAF Waterbeach to Wunstorf and were serviced by the men of 749 Company. An air corridor 20 miles wide extending from ground level to 10,000 feet was arranged between Hanover (Wunstorf) and Berlin. The Russians later stated that any aircraft flying outside the ‘corridor’ would be forced down. At 1600 hrs on 28th June 1948 the first Dakota took off en route to Gatow and I went to assess arrangements in Berlin. 13 Dakotas flew a total of 44 tons of food to the Berlin Garrison in the ensuing 24 hour period but a safe solution to the liquid fuel requirements, petrol, diesel, paraffin, had not been found. Wunstorf was Luftwaffe bomber base but had a decent runway added at the end of WW11 conflict. Dakotas and Avro Yorks were based there throughout the entire operation.

On 30th June 1948 a reassessment of the operation was made and showed that with combined British and American resources it would be possible to supply the inhabitants of West Berlin as well as the Garrisons. Another 6 squadrons of Dakotas quickly followed the earlier 2, and the operation was named “Carter-Patterson”. It was also realised that the Dakota Squadrons would still not have the capacity to meet this new commitment.

York Aircraft with AD Officer talking to a Jeep driverAccordingly York aircraft (Left, with an Air Despatch Officer talking to a driver) were withdrawn from their worldwide operations and were flown to Wunstorf to take over the major part of the RAF effort. They started operating on 3rd July. This required the use of 8 Avro York Squadrons. The operation was renamed “Plainfare” on 19th July and two more air corridors were arranged, Hamburg - Berlin and Frankfurt - Berlin.

749 Company RASC (AD) detachment was retitled 68 Company RASC (AD) and moved to Celle and was greatly supported by personnel from 749 Company and from other general service companies of the RASC within BAOR. It had an HQ Company plus three platoons of two officers and 70 other ranks. Each platoon worked at 12 hour duty shift and two shifts off. This became the operational pattern for all rear and forward air supply and organisation company units in each of the airfield locations. It was later decided that military aircraft could not provide the necessary lifting capacity and so civilian aircraft were chartered.

On 5th July 1948 2 squadrons of Sunderland flying boats started operating from Finkenwerder, Hamburg, to Havel Lake in Berlin, gains serviced by the RASC (AD) and continued until winter icing of the lake became hazardous. Aquila Airways used Hythe flying boats. The flying boats carried, amongst other things, solid fuel On the 27th of July 1948 three Lancastrian tanker planes from Flight Refuelling Ltd flew from Buckeburg to Gatow and Tegel and, together with other tanker companies, eventually delivered a total of 92,280 short tons of fuel.

On the 21st of August the American USAF started operating out of Celle (British Zone) and Fassberg with their larger Skymaster planes.

Whilst Stalin lifted the blockade at 00.01 hours on the 12th of May 1949, flying operations continued and it was in August of that year he rundown of flying operations commenced. The RASC units then became a small team assisting in the closure of all forward and rear air supply organisations. Handley Page Hastings aircraft were the last to be in regular operation and ceased flying on the 6th of October 1949. However, a squadron of Hastings was based at Wunstorf ....... Just in case!!!

If you combine the American and British operation fed and sustained West Berlin for 328 days with a total of 2,325,509 tons of vital supplies. Thus ended what became known as the Berlin airlift.

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