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Monday, June 16, 2008

Handing It Over To My Father

I wanted to post this yesterday...but had problems with opening the file. For Father's Day, I wanted to post some of my eighty-six year-old father's writing...hope you enjoy the read.

MY MEMORIES OF THE BERLIN AIRLIFT.

I have been asked the question, was the Berlin Airlift merely a chess move in a political game of chance, or was it a great humanitarian endeavour ? The answer is a little bit more complicated than it may appear at first. Surely the Russians, when they closed all surface approaches to that city, fully expected their former allies, Britain, France and the United States, to quietly fold up their tents and sneak away into the night, retreating entirely from the Russian zone of occupation in Germany. They figured that the Allies would not risk going to war against the mighty Russian Bear, to defend a beaten enemy who had cost them dearly in men, material and almost all resources for close on six years. They were wrong !!

Although some far seeing individual had foreseen the requirement to have several air corridors leading into the divided city, no one really thought that a sustained airlift could possibly provide the massive amounts of food and other necessities to keep Berlin functioning. The Berliners themselves were of the same opinion that the British, French and American occupation forces would only make a token gesture before admitting defeat, and succumbing to the Russian threat.

Even the Allied Triumverate suspected that an airlift, besides being prohibitively expensive, might possibly be beyond their capabilities, but were determined to give it a good try. At first the daily tonnage of supplies flown into the beleagured city seemed to verify those pessimistic forecasts. The sheer logistics of gathering the assorted supplies and providing the crews and aircraft to deliver the goods, seemed overwhelming but gradually the impetus grew, as more planes were diverted from sources around the older theatres of war. As the tempo increased, so did the enthusiasm of everyone employed in this huge task. There was also a noticeable change in everyone's attitude.

When the airlift first started, known variously as Operation Plainfare, or Operation Victuals, most crews were just following orders, and indeed many servicemen felt reluctant to provide succour to the former enemy...but complied anyway. I was one so inclined, but gradually my set of mind underwent a subtle change. Instead of flying on missions of destruction, we aircrews were now employed on missions of reconstruction and mercy. The enthusiasm spread rapidly, and soon everyone became involved in trying to increase the efficiency of the operation. The citizens of Berlin, belatedly and joyfully recognising these efforts, also contributed greatly with many more labourers and constructive improvements to Templehoff and Gatow airfields. A third airfield was then being built at Tegel to help reduce aerial congestion.

As this newfound trust developed, there was more awareness on the civilian side of the true commitment being made by the Allies. Realisation as to their way of life, compared to that in the Russian sector of Berlin, could be considered as the first weakening of the Communist doctrine. Later, when it came to actual voting in the free elections, this became very evident and the Red Party suffered. Little did the Russians realise that by creating the necessity for an air-lift in 1948, they were providing their former allies with a perfect training tool for future use in any similar emergency around the world. All personnel concerned with the logistics of such an operation were being given ample opportunity to perfect their knowledge. The greatest benefits were experienced by the crews of each aircraft in flight.

Although instrument flying, and so called blind landing approaches had been practised and improved upon over a number of years, the bad weather flying we experienced during the sustained airlift proved invaluable. In war time many operations had to be scrubbed because of bad weather. Too many aircraft had crashed, and too many airmen had died when attempting to land in conditions of poor visibility. I can recall feeling quite relaxed and comfortable a number of times when conducting a completely blind instrument approach to Gatow. The re-assuring voice of the experienced G.C.A. operator talking me down and telling me exactly where I was in relation to the runway, was a soothing experience which greatly reduced tension. More than once, just I was informed that I was now crossing the perimeter fence, my first glimpse of the runway lights, and the actual ground since take-off, popped into view a second or so before my wheels kissed the tarmac. Such blind approaches to landing would have been frowned upon, or prohibited in earlier days.

Had the Allies indeed been forced to go up against the Russians at this time, we would all have been at a higher standard of preparation and capability that they, because of the all round experiences gained during the logistical miracle. Fortunately we were never put to that test.

Of course in such an endeavour there were accidents, and fatalities. Such is the price that had to be paid, but we feel that the men and women who perished during this epic operation, did not die in vain. There were also numerous and humourous little episodes where valuable lessons were learned. Such as the following incident.

One very dark and snowy evening in March 1949, as I was taxying a heavily laden Dakota D.C.3 toward the take-off point at Lubeck airport, I was asked by the Air Traffic controller if I could stop and take a passsenger aboard for Berlin. Assured that he was authorised, I agreed and stopped on the taxi way. My radio operator hurried to the rear, opened the door, and set the steps in place for the passenger to climb aboard. Our cargo that night was several hundred bags of coal. As the radio man returned I asked him who, and where, the passenger was. "Oh, he is some high ranking officer, and he's sitting on one of the coal bags near the door," was his reply. "He will freeze back there. Go and tell him that there's a place up here beside me," I stated. A few moments later, a tall distinguished gentleman appeared, lowered himself into the co pilot seat, and strapped in. He then introduced himself as General McLean, a staff officer of the Canadian Army. His previously immaculate greatcoat, known as a service Pink, was liberally decorated with long black smears, where he had come into contact with our inanimate cargo.

Once we were airborne and the undercarriage fully retracted, we were immediately immersed in solid cloud-cover where severe icing conditions prevailed. I was kept busy for a while employing all de-icing rituals, There were several loud bangs as the ice centrifuged off the propellors and slammed against the metal fuselage. The rubber boots on the leading edges of the wings were similarly busy preventing any ice build up. For about ninety minutes, all the way to Berlin, we were cocooned in this environment, and the runway at Gatow did not appear in view until we were less than 100 feet above ground and a quarter of a mile from touchdown. Upon leaving us, general McLean expressed his sincere admiration for the crew's efficiency, and thanked us graciously as he exited the aircraft. He seemed totally unconcerned about the state of his pink and black greatcoat, and was assuredly happy to have both feet back upon terra firma. The more firma...the less terror!

One morning at Gatow the weather was foul with freezing rain and clouds were so low that tall pedestrians were ducking. Even the most experienced pilots were prudently awaiting some signs of improvement, enjoying the brief respite. Air Vice Marshal Bennet, of Pathfinder fame, was amongst those who were chafing at the bit. He had arrived in a new Avro Tudor air liner, and the moment he was given clearance to chance his luck he dashed off, performed a less than accurate pre-flight check and was soon lifting off from the runway. Once airborne he realised that the elevator locks of the Tudor were still in place, and he did not have full control in the pitching plane. With no other craft in the immediate vicinity, a rare occasion, he managed to fly around the circuit and landed safely. A crew member dashed out and removed the offending wooden locks to allow Marshal Bennet to depart without revealing his red face. All's well that ends well !!

On another occasion at Gatow, it was dusk as I taxied out to return to Lubeck for another load. I was behind a Yankee Skymaster at the time, as he asked for permission to line up on the runway for take off. The Traffic Controller answered, "Negative. Hold your position. We have one aircraft on short finals." Naturally he and myself looked out to our right, and spied a Royal Air Force York (civil version of a Lancaster) emerging from the low overcast with undercarriage fully down, flaps extended like huge barn doors, and his navigation lights blinking. Visibility was reduced by the light snow falling, and a blanket of snow covered the ground. Over the button of the runway, the York pilot rounded out a bit high, obviously misjudged his height slightly, and then dropped to the ground with a bone shaking jar. As the machine bounced back into the air the pilot gunned all four throttles in an effort to maintain control. Then he powered off again. Once more the York made heavy ground contact which caused a second bounce as it proceeded down the runway. The Skymaster pilot ahead of me then announced on his microphone, "Ah say there Kangaroo, when yuh gits to the end o' the runway, hop to the left!"

Of course the American crews were notorious for their habit of being rather verbose on the common radio frequencies.The R.A.F. rather frowned upon anyone "hogging the air" as they called it. Strict use of terminology and brevity expected at all times! I have known pilots hauled before the Senior Air Traffic Controller ( S.A.T.C.O. ) for minor breaches of this rule. Profane language was verbotten. There were times, though, when one appreciated the witticisms overheard in passing. For instance, amongst the various and many types of aircraft used on the Airlift, was a twin engined machine known as the Bristol Wayfarer. This was strictly a cargo freighter owned by Silver City's Airways based at Lympne in Kent. Used as a car ferry across the English Channel, it was a high winged monoplane with two powerful radial engines driving two props. It had a fixed undercarriage, a slab-sided fuselage, and two huge clam doors in the nose to expedite the loading and unloading of cargo. The crew compartment sat high above the nose.. It would never win any beauty competitions, but the pilots who flew it commented upon its reliability.

Descending toward Gatow one day clear of cloud, I saw this freighter plodding along. An American pilot who had been back chatting with one of his airborne buddies, also spotted the old fashioned Wayfarer and uttered these words, "Hey Hank, these Limeys are sure throwing everything into this operation. I just passed the Mayflower!"

One of the compulsory reporting points on the way into Berlin was radio beacon called Frownow ( phonetic spelling ) R.A.F. pilots reporting there would state, "Air Force 621 overhead Frownow, 5 point 5, I.F.R., Load coal," thus giving tower control information as to aircraft call sign 621, Position Frownow, Elevation 5,500 feet. In cloud. Instrument Flight Rules, Cargo Coal. The controllers would then know where to direct the aircraft after landing for unloading. Pilots would be instructed to change radio frequency for their final approach and to listen for their G.C.A. talk-down. An American pilot reporting over the same beacon would be likely to say, "Triple deuce, over frownow, in the soup, toting black stuff." Depending upon the load carried, these conversations could sometimes be very colourful.

Pilots like myself, flying the venerable old Dakotas, swear that they are one of the finest, most reliable and forgiving aircraft ever built. I can give you an example. Prior to boarding my aircraft at Lubeck, one very cold wet evening, my crew and I were soaked by the freezing rain. Completing our external pre-flight checks as quickly as possible in order to avoid further soaking, I checked that our cargo was securely strapped down to the strong points on the floor. It didn't look like much of a load. Several large steel wheel / gear / machinery parts which did not take up much space. I removed my heavy coat and entered the flight deck to commence engine-start, without consulting the freight manifest. That was a mistake.

Before long we were cleared to taxi, and then had permission to take off. There were a few inches of slushy snow on the runway as we commenced the take-off run. Acceleration seemed a bit sluggish even with full power, which I attributed to the state of the runway. However, as the length of our run increased, and the amount of runway remaining diminished to a dangerous degree, I realised that my machine was not yet ready to fly. I hurriedly selected 15 degrees of flap to provide more lift, and the willing old Dakota staggered off with literally just a few yards to spare. As our airspeed was barely above the stall I quickly retracted the undercarriage to lessen the drag, and we slowly climbed away. Too close for comfort. Safely on the ground at Gatow I found that we had carried a load intended for the four engined York transport!

The Russians were well known for conducting nuisance tactics to disrupt the flow of allied aircraft in the air corridors we used. One such occasion I noticed a Yak fighter heading toward me at high speed. His intention was obviously to make me veer away, and perhaps slip out of the safe, authorised corridor to become fair game for them. I assured myself that the crazy Russian pilot would not kill himself by crashing into me, and merely lowered my seat a couple of notches to concentrate on straight and level instrument flight. Once foiled of any reaction on my part, the Russian departed to seek other prey.

In May of 1999, my wife and I attended a reunion celebration in Berlin to mark the 50th anniversary of the ending of the Berlin Airlift. We travelled free as guests of the city, and were treated royally by everyone we met. It was most enjoyable to meet up with so many old friends, and the organisers worked very hard to ensure that every visiting veteran received the honours the happy Berliners felt were due to them. It felt strange to have Hausfraus come up to us in the streets to shake our hands, or to give us heartfelt hugs of affection. The closing ceremonies were also quite moving. All in all, a fitting memory of days gone by, and a job well handled. The Allies had shown the World that it could be done.

Jim McCorkle. Royal Air Force.

12 comments:

ROSA E OLIVIER said...

Nel mezzo del camin di nostra vita...
!?...passavo per un saluto!

JosephMcG said...

What a wonderful love story... I was touched deeply at the beginning of the post as your dad talked about how his attitude towards the Berliners changed... enemies became friends... and your dad is quite a story teller... each incident kept my attention and had me smiling...

thanks, dad... Mr. McCorkle

VW said...

What an awesome story! The Berlin Airlift is still a model in air logistics and we are still using the lessons we learned from that endeavor!

Pass along my thanks to your Dad for sharing that story!

VW

Stephanie Frieze said...

What a wonderful primary account, Lorraine! Thanks for securing it for the Neighborhood and posterity. I wish my father and uncle were alive to read it.

Lorraine Hart said...

Dear Rosa, I'm sorry I don't fully understand your comment...though I think I recognize the feel. I would appreciate if anyone can translate for me. Thanks for stopping in Rosa!

Yes Joseph...it was very cool how this changed the attitude of so many...and, trust me, my father doesn't change his mind often!

Vhuwhu...I told my dad that there would be someone in particular who was going to love the piece...and that was you! I'll certainly pass on your appreciation...and it will make his day, thank you.

Ah Stephanie...I would wish that for you too.

Now remember everyone...when you reach the end of the runway...hop to your left! :)

JosephMcG said...

We all can fly, after all

Stephanie Frieze said...

Lorraine, my dearest lifelong friend isn't signed up to comment, but her father flew in WWII in Europe and was a lifelong pilot so she really enjoyed your father's post. She's sent it on to London where her pilot brother is.

Kim Thompson said...

Wow!

My language skills are rusty, so, I tried to find a translator for this on the web. No luck. I suspect though that Rosa is mentioning "a full life" which she is praising.

Stephanie Frieze said...

I've asked my daughter-in-law who speaks Portuguese to see if she can ferret out what it says. Am waiting for a reply, but I think you've got the general idea, Kim.

Lorraine Hart said...

Thank you Kim and Stephanie...that's basically what I thought Rosa was saying.

Stephanie, please thank your friend for me...hope her brother enjoys the story.

I can still remember the sharp smell of oil, mechanics, and my father's kid-leather flying gloves. The cockpit was always a special place.

Stephanie Frieze said...

I am sure Gary enjoyed it greatly being a pilot himself and the son of a Liberator pilot.

I believe he is also enjoying London.

EmeraldPrincessOnline said...

A rich legacy. Cheers!