The Southern African History Musings of Ross Dix-Peek

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South Africans and the Berlin Airlift 1948-1949:

The 24th June 2013 will see the 65th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, Operation “Plainfare”, and I just wish to pay tribute to all the aircrew involved, and especially the South African Air Force (SAAF) aircrews who were also to participate in the airlift, and helped to alleviate the plight and hardships endured by the people of Berlin during the Russian blockade.


The Berlin Airlift began on the 24 June 1948, when the Soviet Union sealed off West Berlin in an attempt to starve the city into surrender. It is ironic when one considers that only three years prior to the airlift, Allied aircrew, including South Africans and Rhodesians, had been intent on bombing the capital in their bid to bring about the end of the Nazi regime, but were now just as intent on Berlin's rescue, and that of its citizens.

Ten SAAF crews were involved in the airlift and first arrived at Lubeck on the 15 October 1948. They were to fly Dakotas, and operated from Lubeck together with Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and Royal New Zealand Air Force (RNZAF) aircrews. The airlift would last until the 12 May 1949, and would involve approximately 277, 804 flights, and transportation of approximately 2, 352, 809 tons of supplies into the beleaguered city, the vast amount of tonnage being coal, followed by food . The SAAF aircrews were to remain until September 1949, whereupon they then returned home.

And it is also interesting to note that another South African, namely Air-Vice Marshal Thomas Melling Williams, Royal Air Force (who had served with the South African forces during World War I before joining the RFC), was also directly involved in operations. Williams was Air-Officer Commanding, British Air Forces of Occupation (BAFO), and an article, entitled "Farewell to Plainfare", that appeared in Flight Global Magazine (dated 1 September 1949, page 267) states:

The last Air Lift sortie to be made by an Avro York of the R.A.F., and also the last Air Lift flight from Wunstorf, was made from that station on the afternoon of Friday, August 26th, by an aircraft of No. 511 Squadron. It was flown by F/L. L. A. Miller, who has over 300 sorties to his credit; his co-pilot was Air Marshal T. M. Williams, A.O.C.- in-C, B.A.F.O. Hastings and Dakota squadrons' operating from Schleswigland and Lubeck respectively, will continue to take part in the Air Lift. Seven York squadrons of Transport Command have been employed in Operation Plainfare. Their aircraft have made 29,000 flights and carried some 23,000 tons of supplies into the city. During Plainfare it was found possible to increase the York's average load from 7¼ to 9 tons. In a message to R.A.F. Station Wunstorf, Air Marshal Williams has said: 'Throughout the 14 months of the Air Lift the York force has been one of the mainstays of the operation. Its record is particularly praiseworthy in view of the fact that Yorks are normally longrange aircraft and the crews employed on trunk route operations. They had to adapt themselves quickly and efficiently to the frequent short-range trips involving numerous landings with heavy all up loads. This change of role has been admirably accomplished. The ground crews in particular are deserving of praise for their sustained and efficient servicing of aircraft on a quick turn round requirement." Air Marshal Williams concluded, 'On behalf of B.A.F.O. I wish the York squadrons all good luck, and I know you will return to your normal role of trunk route flying having benefited from the experience gained in the Air Lift."

There was at least one other South African who was present during the Berlin Airlift and that was Lieutenant-Colonel (later Brigadier) Geoffrey Marnham, Royal Artillery, who served in the British sector during the airlift. Marnham was educated at the Diocesan College (“Bishops”) in Cape Town, and was the brother of the surgeon, Brigadier Sir Ralph Marnham, who at one stage served as sergeant-surgeon to the queen (1967-1971).

And it is be hoped that the commendable contribution made by SAAF crews (and other individual South Africans), as well as the American, British, Australian, New Zealand and additional civilian aircrews, during the Berlin Airlift in their attempt to bring much-needed relief to the starving Berliners will be remembered and deservingly commemorated on this, the 65th Anniversary of the Berlin Blockade.


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