Following WWII, the segmentation of Germany–and Berlin in particular–amongst former Allied powers became a flashpoint and symbol of the beginnings of the Cold War. Amongst the iconic images such as the Berlin Wall and Checkpoint Charlie that came out of the Cold War struggle in Germany, the sight of a cargo plane flying over the war-ravaged capital remains a symbol of humanitarianism and the dramatic mobilization of military technology to save lives in the twentieth century.
As tensions mounted between the former allies, the Soviets blocked rail and road access to the western sectors of Berlin on June 24, 1948 in an attempt to thwart the Allied powers’ plans to create a unified West German government. With no other means of delivering food and supplies to the German people under their protection, the Allies organized the Berlin airlift.
On June 24, the Soviets cut off communications by land and water between the non-Soviet zones and Berlin and halted all rail and barge traffic in and out of Berlin. With only about 36 days worth of food and 45 days of coal, West Berliners were in a dire situation.
While land-supply routes had not been negotiated prior to the sectioning of Berlin, the agreed-upon air routes allowed for three, twenty-mile-wide air corridors into Berlin. On June 25, 1948, General Lucius D. Clay, orchestrator of the airlift, gave the order to launch Operation Vittles. The next day thirty-two cargo planes lifted off for Berlin hauling 80 tons of cargo, including milk, flour, and medicine.
The result was a massive, international joint operation between the U.S., Great Britain, and the Royal Australian Airforce. At its height, one plane reached West Berlin every thirty seconds. Initially, the Allies expected the airlift to last approximately three weeks, however, the Soviets did not lift their blockade officially until May 12, 1949, almost a year after it began. The airlift itself was not officially ended until September 30, 1949, ensuring a comfortable surplus of supplies.
The following is an educational film out of Great Britain detailing the airlift and its success (via the Internet Archive).
Information in this post taken from Berlin on the Brink: The Blockade, the Airlift, and the Early Cold War by Daniel F. Harrington