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Berlin Airlift Remembered

October 7, 2008

By Cleveland-Peck, Patricia

Patricia Cleveland-Peck visits Tempelhof which is about to close for ever as an airport. Templehof will reach the end of its life as an airport by November. Its tiny duty free shop has already gone, its main restaurant is closed and few footsteps now echo down its long corridors and across its massive passenger hall. The tranquil atmosphere is nothing like that of any modern airport. Its traffic had been much reduced for several years, because its runways are too short for modern passenger jets. The last survivor of the golden age of city airports, like London’s Croydon Airport and Le Bourget in Paris, Tempelhof will have closed completely to air traffic and the whole massive complex will in due course be redeveloped.

When in 1923 it was decided that Berlin needed a larger airport to replace the one at Johannistal, the choice fell on an area to the east of Tempelhoferdamm previously used as a military training ground. The name Tempelhof comes from the Knights Templar, who settled south of Berlin in the thirteenth century. In 1926 the airport became the base for the newly established national airline, Lufthansa.

The Third Reich embraced architecture as a propaganda vehicle for Hitler’s vision of Germany. In 1935 Hitler instructed his Minister for Aviation, Hermann Goring, to expand Tempelhof into a ‘world airport’. The architect chosen for the task was Ernst Sagebiel, who until 1932 had been head Building Director for the great Jewish modernist architect Erich Mendelsohn. After 1933 Sagebiel became a member of the Nazi Party and was also associated with the Deutsche Verkehrsfliegerschule (German Commercial Flying School), a front for clandestinely building up the German air force. He had already designed Goring’s Reich Aviation Ministry, a gigantic building with four miles of corridors, plazas, banqueting rooms and 2,000 offices, all constructed as a statement of the part that the air force would play in regaining German greatness.

The ambitious construction of Tempelhof makes it, perhaps, the best example of Nazi monumental modernism. Sagebiel’s distinctive style, which came to be called ‘Luftwaffe modern’ was starkly linear. First, the old Columbia Haus prison, which for two years had been used by the Gestapo as a concentration camp for prisoners under interrogation, was razed. Then, as with his Air Ministry, Sagebiel built a massive steelframe structure, faced with limestone and simply decorated with symmetrical pillars and arcades. It was crowned with a giant eagle and approached from an entrance plaza with curving wings for the administration buildings, decorated with eagle reliefs. The front five-storey reception building contained twenty-one entrance doors within which was a Hall of Honour from which steps led into the long galleried Passenger Hall. The airfield was bordered on either side for a kilometre by arcaded hangars interrupted by stair case towers. At roof level was a section destined to form a colossal viewing stand for up to 100,000 spectators – Hitler planned to use the airport as a stadium for annual air shows and displays.

Hitler’s projected rebuilding project for Berlin was known as Germania. Our buildings,’ he said at the Reich Party Congress in 1937, ‘should not be built for the year 1940 and not for the year 2000, but like the cathedrals of our past they shall reach into the millennia of the future.’ He appointed the young Albert Speer as General Building Inspector with the status of Minister. To ensure his authority, Speer was to be answerable only to the Fuhrer himself. The project incorporated two monumental axes. Part of the east-west axis, with the Victory column as its visual centre point, was completed in time for Hitler’s birthday in 1939, but the north- south axis, which was to link with Tempelhof, was abandoned in 1941 after Germany invaded the Soviet Union.

During the war the still unfinished airport served as an aircraft factory. Production of Ju 87 Stuka planes began in late 1939 in the terminal and hangars. The underground railway, linking Tempelhof to central Berlin (the first time such a traffic link had been built anywhere in the world) passed through a 400 metre tunnel, which was used for the construction and repair of FokeWuIf aircraft. The discovery of a cache of clocking-in cards revealed that about a third of the workers here were slave labourers.

Underground is a deep network of rooms which were used as air raid shelters not only for airport employees but also for local residents. Several of these underground chambers were decorated with wall paintings in the satirical style of Wilhelm Busch, an early comic strip artist, in an effort to lighten the atmosphere, but it could not have been comfortable with forty or more people crowded into tiny rooms with one primitive bucket closet.

Reached via the Columbiadamm garden is another underground network, a topsecret facility used by the Nazis for film storage. Even today this labyrinth is blackened from 1945 when the Red Army arrived and blew off its armoured door. The inflammable celluloid caused a fire which raged underground for weeks.

It was after the war, however, that Tempelhof played the role for which it is best remembered – as part of the Luftbruhe or Airlift. In June 1948 the Soviets, anxious that economic reforms and the introduction of new Deutschmark currency in West Germany would turn allied-controlled West Berlin into an island of prosperity in the middle of Soviet-occupied East Germany, decided on a total land blockade of West Berlin to force the Americans, British and French to withdraw.

Western powers under the US General Lucius Clay responded immediately with the airlift. Tempelhof in the American-occupied sector of the city became the control centre for the operation, though the British flew most of their supply missions into RAF Gatow (where, as it happens, Sagebiel had also developed the former German air force base). In the course of the blockade it was clear that, despite two new runways at Tempelhof, a third airport was required. It was built at Tegel airport in the French sector, which at the time had the longest runway in the world and is currently Berlin’s main international airport.

Thus began Operation Vutles. The non-stop activity at Tempelhof involved over 200,000 flights (planes landing every 90 seconds), imported 2.3 million tonnes of food and equipment (including parts of a power station) and continued in the face of Soviet harassment (the shining of searchlights into oncoming pilots’ eyes was one ploy) until the blockade was finally lifted in May 1949.

Berliners still remember these life-saving flights. Some who were children then still recall scrambling for sweets thrown out of planes on tiny parachutes. This Operation Little Vittles was the initiative of a US lieutenant (now a retired Colonel) Gail Halvorsen, who is immortalized in a photorealist painting in the Passenger Hall. He says: Tempelhof to me is what the Statue of Liberty is to the United States of America. Tempelhof is a statue to the freedom of Germany.’

In 1951 a 60-ft stone memorial to the Airlift by Edward Ludwig was erected just outside the airport’s entrance in the Platz der Luftbrucke. Its three-pronged design symbolizes the three air corridors flown to Berlin from West Germany, but practical Berliners saw it as a fork. It carries the names of the thirtyone American and thirty-nine British aircrew who died, mainly in crashes, during the operation. In this area, too, is a large stone eagle’s head, all that remains of Sagebiel’s crowning eagle. This was removed by the Americans after the war and taken to West Point Museum, but returned in 1958 as a symbol of US-German friendship.

So what of Tempelhof’s future? It is a protected historical monument, so the architectural wonder will survive. Suggestions for its use range from a giant spa to a university.

Alexandra Muller, spokesperson for the thriving new airline Air Berlin, commented: ‘From an economic point of view it makes no sense for Berlin to have two or three airports. What we need instead is a concentration on one single strong airport, which will be BBI.’ This is the projected Berlin Brandenburg International Airport, which will open in 2011 at Schonefeld to the south of Berlin, which before German reunification was the main East German airport serving Berlin and the surrounding area.

Patricia Cleveland-Pack

“our buildings… like the cathedrals of our past… shall reach into the millennia of the future”

Above: Berliners watch as a US Douglas C-47 flies into Tempelhof.

Right this aerial photograph taken last year gives an indication of Tempelhof’s gigantic scale.

Left: Tempelhof’s gigantic Hall let passengers embark under cover.

For more information about Berlin visit www.visitBerlin.de

Copyright History Today Ltd. Oct 2008

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