At 6 a.m. on June 24, 1948, the Soviet Military Administration closed all road, rail and water access to and from West Berlin, in violation of agreements between the United States, Great Britain, France and the Soviet Union. West Berlin, totally surrounded by the Russian occupation zone, was blockaded.
The blockade wasn’t totally unexpected. Since March, the Russians had been making threats about limiting access to Berlin. Gen. Lucius D. Clay called on the U.S. Air Force to launch a massive airlift to supply the civilian population of Berlin, starting with the 100 or so C-47s available. The British and French joined in with limited planes plus ground support, but most of the planes were American, with U.S. pilots at the controls. The United States soon added larger four-engine C-54s to the airlift fleet.
The airlift started on June 26, 1948. Planes took off or landed every 90 seconds, with split-second timing, between three airports in West Berlin and five in West Germany. The German population turned out in force to watch a steady stream of planes fly in narrow air corridors, bringing food, clothes and coal to 2.5 million Berliners.
Clay later referred to the Russian action as “one of the most ruthless efforts in modern times to use mass starvation for political coercion.” But that effort failed, and the airlift won. The Russians ended the blockade on May 12, 1949.