Germany - from BSAA to the Berlin Airlift, by C. I. (Charlie Item) Smith (1948-49)

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I joined BSAA (British South American Airways) as a flight engineer in 1948, and after passing my type technical and flying exams in January 1949, was duly granted a flight engineer’s licence, endorsed for all the Avro Tudor aircraft in the BSAA fleet (series 1,2,4 and 5). I was issued with a smart new uniform, promoted to 2nd engineering officer, and was looking forward to starting my new career flying on BSAA’s routes into Brazil and Chile.

However, BSAA’s Avro Tudor fleet suffered a serious setback in early January when 'Star Tiger', a Series 1 aircraft, disappeared without trace over the South Atlantic. No parts of the aircraft were ever found and despite a thorough mechanical check of the rest of the fleet, no reason was established for its disappearance, and the Tudors were put back into service.

In early February 1949 I was rostered for a route training flight to Santiago in Chile, via Bermuda. But, just two days before my scheduled flight, 'Star Ariel', a series 4 aircraft, disappeared without trace on the climb-out from Bermuda. The aircraft had just reached cruising altitude when the radio went dead and nothing further was heard from her. It was lovely sunny day, but no-one saw her disappear and no bodies or aircraft debris were ever found in the sea.

All sorts of fanciful theories about the Bermuda Triangle appeared in the press, but those of us who flew for a living knew that this could not be the reason. It was popularly believed that the aircraft had suffered a catastrophic explosion, but with the total absence of any aircraft wreckage, nothing could be proved. Incidentally, in those days, aircraft did not carry a black box, but even if they had, there would have been little hope of recovering it with the technology available at the time.

The Tudor aircraft fleet was withdrawn from service and its Certificate of Airworthiness (C of A) was suspended. Further exhaustive checks were made of all the structures and systems, but no definite fault could be located. It was suspected that the disasters might have been caused by a fault in the cabin heating and/or pressurization system, but again this could not be proved. All Tudor crews were sent home on leave and morale in BSAA sank to a very low level.

In late February 1949, a rather strange decision on the Tudor aircraft was made by the top brass in the Ministry of Aviation. Although the aircraft had been withdrawn from service on safety grounds, it was decided to strip out all the seats from the aircraft, instal 5 x 500 gallon tanks in the cabin and fly them as tankers to carry fuel on the Berlin Airlift, which had begun in June 1948. The only restriction was that we would not be able to use the cabin heating and pressurization systems. We were assured that all would be well, and, armed with this reassuring news and a new restricted C of A, we duly arrived at RAF Wunstorf in Germany with all our Tudor aircraft converted to flying tankers.

The Second World War had been fought on two main fronts, and it ended with the Russians invading Germany through Poland from the east and the western allies advancing through the Rhineland and Low Countries. At the end of the war, Berlin had fallen to the Russian army, the Battle of Berlin being one of the bloodiest of the war. The Russians had continued their advance across eastern Germany to a point where they had military control of all territory east of a line from Luebeck on the Baltic to the westernmost point of Czechoslovakia. This meant that Berlin was more than 100 miles inside the zone occupied by the Russian forces and they now controlled all the road and rail links between Berlin and West Germany. It was nevertheless decided that as Berlin had been the formal capital of Nazi Germany, it should be split into four segments, each controlled by the four main allied powers, USA, USSR, Britain and France.

This decision was hammered out amidst mounting tensions with the Russians, who argued that as they alone had taken the city at a terrible cost in human lives, the whole of Berlin should be theirs to control. The Western allies maintained however that the final collapse of Berlin had been achieved equally by the opening of the second front on the French coast, and that the city was already reeling from the incessant bombing raids mounted at night by the RAF and by day by the Flying Fortresses of the American Eighth Air Force.

Amid growing mistrust, the Russians suddenly gambled by closing the road and rail links from the West to Berlin. This audacious move was possible because they knew the Western forces would not attack them as they were much stronger on the ground. The Soviets now had Berlin completely in their power – or so they thought!

In retaliation the Western allies decided to mount a massive airlift to provide the three Western sectors with all their needs. In order to succeed, this had to be an enormous operation using hundreds of aircraft. Nothing like it had ever been tried before, and the eyes of the world were upon us. Aircraft and crews began arriving in large numbers at many airfields in Western Germany. These were supplied by the American, British and French air forces, supplemented by several civilian charter companies. Everything had to be flown into the city, including food, coal and fuel.

My company (BSAA) and Flight Refuelling Ltd. were given the job of supplying all the domestic and automotive fuels required. We were based at Wunstorf, an RAF airfield near Hanover. We were billeted in a pleasant little spa town called Bad Niemdorf. This resort had two main hotels, with the BSAA crews accommodated in one and the Flight Refuelling crews in the other. Although we were some 15 kilometres from the airfield, we had an excellent shuttle service, so living where we were caused no problems.

Between the two companies we had 27 tanker aircraft in service. Each aircraft could carry a load of 2,500 gallons and was required to achieve a utilization rate of 9 trips a day. This meant we could carry to Berlin 27 x 2,500 x 9, or over 600,000 gallons a day. The cargo consisted of 3 types of fuel: petrol, diesel and white spirit. To achieve the required nine flights daily, each aircraft had three operational crews. Each crew operated an eight hour shift, during which time they made three round trips to Berlin.

The RAF controlled the entire operation and all the air traffic controllers were British girls; they did a first class job and the crews admired their professionalism. An eight hour duty shift in BSAA went something like this: the crew shuttle bus picked you up at the hotel and took you direct to the aircraft. The ground crew had already loaded and prepared the aircraft for flight, so you boarded immediately, strapped yourself in and awaited orders to start engines. When this was given, you started up and taxied out to the holding position. This operation, or ‘WAVE’ as it was called, involved some 30 aircraft at a time. When your machine was cleared for departure, you took off and climbed straight ahead to 1,500 feet. Then you turned and set course for Berlin along the designated air corridor at a speed of 160 knots.

There was an aircraft just minutes ahead of you and another one minutes behind you, all flying at 1,500 feet and 160 knots. The corridor was just 20 miles wide and you flew down the centre. This meant that if you strayed more than 10 miles to port or starboard you were over Russian controlled territory and if they saw you, they would scramble a MiG or YAK fighter to intercept you. This happened to us one morning and the skipper and I spent a worrying few minutes being buzzed by a MiG – close enough for us to see the pilot. He appeared on our port side so we edged over to starboard, whereupon he peeled off and disappeared. It was therefore essential that you kept within the corridor to avoid interception. This meant that if there was a thunderstorm ahead, you went through it rather than around it! Electrical storms can be somewhat alarming at times, particularly if you happen to be flying in a fully loaded fuel tanker! Static discharges and ‘St Elmo’s Fire’ do not go well with petrol vapour!

When you reached Berlin, you turned 90 degrees to starboard over the ‘Christmas Tree’ – a brightly lit monument, christened thus by the crews. Here you called up your aircraft identification and gave details of the load you were carrying. Within seconds you would receive instructions for landing at Gatow. During the peak of the Berlin Airlift, an aircraft landed at this airfield every three minutes during daylight and every six minutes at night. All this was handled by softly spoken lady controllers. If a mishap occurred on landing and an aircraft was unable to move, it was immediately bulldozed clear of the runway. It had to be, due to the sheer weight of the traffic behind it. After landing, you taxied to the unloading station, where you had just 15 minutes to grab a cup of tea in the Sally Ann hut, before it was time to start up, taxi out and take off for your return trip to Wunstorf.

As we were flying on a restricted C of A, we were permitted to fly with a three-man crew, consisting of pilot, flight engineer and wireless operator. I flew in the second pilot’s seat and handled the voice radio transmissions as required. After take-off I would give the skipper a break and fly the aircraft part way back to base. Flying discipline on the airlift was very strict; we all did exactly as we were told, even four ringed senior captains, although there were not many of these at Wunstorf.

The only relaxation we had was at night, when we could joke, briefly, with the controllers over the radio telephone. My favourite trick was to call up, when we were over the ‘tree’:- ‘Gatow, this is British South American Baker Zebra inbound with a load of balalaikas and YAK spares’. (We could do this without upsetting the system, as the controllers knew that BSAA aircraft were all tankers.) The message was for the benefit of Russian Intelligence monitors who recorded every transmission we made.

On Easter Monday 1949, I was on duty flying a daylight shift and as we approached the runway at Gatow, I could see through the cockpit windows hundreds of Berliners lining our approach path right up to the boundary. They were waving and cheering each aircraft as it passed overhead to land in their city.

The efforts were greatly appreciated in the Western Sectors and the longer the blockade continued, the more the German people hated the Soviets. The flying was intense and occasionally a little frightening, but it was in a good cause. We did however have our fun whenever the ‘wave’ was cancelled and then we would party - and did we ever do that!

The hotel had German staff and a male member of the Control Commission in attendance as advisor, interpreter and peacemaker. Our representative of the C C G was a retired British Army officer and he knew precisely how to handle us. On the board outside his office was a comprehensive list of all the items of all hotel property – furniture, sheets, pillows, towels, crockery etc., with a price against each in Deutschmarks and Sterling. After each party, whatever had been broken had to be paid for - without exception. The crews called the C C G supervisors ‘Charlie Chaplin’s Grenadiers’ – in retrospect a slightly unfair description as they really did look after us and made constant allowances for our outlandish behaviour.

About every 14 days, we would fly the aircraft back to base for its 150 hour maintenance check. This provided a welcome three or four day break during which we could have a brief stay with our families. Russia maintained the blockade of Berlin for 16 months, from 21 June 1948 to 6 November 1949. Finally they backed down and reopened the rail and road links to Berlin and the Airlift was over!

BSAA flew some 2,600 missions into the beleaguered city and my personal contribution was 132 flights. Hundreds of British, American and French aircrew flew on the operation and I was very proud to have been one of them. Over the years I have flown thousands of hours on various aircraft with many different crew members but I shall always remember the Berlin Airlift and the first class aviators I was privileged to fly with on this vital operation. I was on board the last BSAA flight (G-AGBZ) out of Berlin.

We returned to London to face an uncertain future. BSAA was disbanded in early December 1949 and all the crews were transferred either to BEA or BOAC. After yet another selection board, I was accepted by BOAC as a flight engineer officer and was posted to Hurn Airport to attend a three month technical course on the Handley Page Hermes IV aircraft.


Image: Avro Tudor 4

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