Berlin Airlift 70th Anniversary Celebrations in Schleswig-Jagel

The blockade imposed by Stalin on the jointly administrated city of Berlin in the spring of 1948 dissipated any doubts on the post-WWII attitude of the Soviet Union towards their former allies in the west. The ensuing joint effort to support the trapped population of Berlin resulted in one of the major airlift operations in history – the Berlin Airlift, or Luftbrücke in German language. In June 2019, 70 years after the end of the blockade, Germany hosted a great celebration for the anniversary of this vital operation.

History – in Brief

The blockade started slowly, with trains crossing the Soviet occupied territory – soon to become administrated as a new state, the communist German Democratic Republic – between Berlin and western Germany forced to stop and go back, truck routes closed, increased controls at border checkpoints. In early summer, the city was completely isolated from the west.

The Soviets tried to motivate the move with treaty violations by the western forces, but this did not receive much credit by the administration of President Truman in the US, nor in Britain, France, or the occupied territories of western Germany. To mitigate the lack of coal, food, drugs and other goods of primary use for the local population, the joint forces of the United States, Britain, France, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand set up a massive airlift under the coordination of the US military.

Over roughly a year more than 275’000 flights were carried out, mainly between three airfields in the territory of western Germany – Jagel, Fassberg and Wiesbaden – occupied by the western Allies, to Berlin Tempelhof downtown airport (see this post), as well as other land and water bases in the cut-off urban area. These were operated with a variety of transport aircraft, including Douglas C-47 and C-54 twin and four-propeller cargo planes manufactured in the US, as well as several British models, including some Shorts seaplanes.

Stalin opted to avoid an escalation. The blockade was finally lifted by the Soviets on May 12, 1949. The situation was stabilized with the birth of the Federal Republic of Germany in the west, and of the opposing German Democratic Republic in the east, later the same year. The western sectors of Berlin were to remain an enclave of the free world deep in the communist bloc for slightly more than another 40 years, when the GDR – aka DDR in German language – finally ceased to exist, and the re-unification started.

A great museum tracing the history of the presence of the western Allies in Berlin, telling the history of the Airlift in great detail, is the Allied Museum (website here) in the former US sector of Berlin-Zehlendorf.

70th Anniversary Celebrations in Germany

In 2019 the 70th year since the end of the blockade, lifted as a result of the airlift effectively sustaining the population of Berlin for an entire year, was celebrated with the patronage of the German government with a series of unique aircraft-related events. The most prominent were a few formation flights of an incredible group of historical aircraft, between the airfields formerly used as supply bases for the airlift.

One of these, the still-active military airfield of Jagel, in Schleswig-Holstein some 60 miles north of Hamburg, hosted a ‘spotter day’ on June 13th, 2019, when a few hundreds photographers were admitted for the whole day on the premises of the airbase, to assist to the landing, departure and flypast of a fleet of nine Douglas C-47, a major workhorse in the days of the airlift.

This marked possibly the largest grouping of such historic aircraft in Europe since many years. But what made the event even more unique – besides the weather, incredibly mild for the region… – was the origin of the aircraft, which except for one are all based in the US. They crossed the Atlantic once more to parade in the celebration of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day in Normandy, attended also by President Trump and Charles, Prince of Wales. A few days after, they toured Germany for the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift.

Besides the commemoration flight, normal flying activity was carried out during the spotter day around the airbase, so this was a good chance to assist to flight operations by Tornados and Typhoons of the German Air Force, as well as other military aircraft.

Historical Flight – Fly-in

A single C-47 arrived earlier than all others, anticipating the massive fly-in of the full wing of Douglas C-47 twin-prop liners. Later on, a flypast all Skytrains to take part in the event started from the east of the field. The aircraft then landed one by one, taxied ahead of the photographers and after a stop of a few hours, took off in a row for another location in Germany.

US Air Force C-47A/DC-3C ‘Miss Virginia’

The first aircraft to come was ex-USAAF 43-30655, built in 1943 as a military C-47A. The aircraft fell in private hands in the 1970s, after yeast stored in Arizona, when it was converted into an DC-3C, an energized version of the original 1930s design. It spent the 1980s in Colombia, then returned to the US as a utility aircraft. It was finally acquired for restoration and given the nice US Air Mobility Command colors it bears today. It flies with the civilian registration N47E.

Golden Age Tours C-41A

This incredible aircraft, now in civilian hands since long, is a unique example of an executive version of the original 1935 DC-3. Built in 1938, it entered military service soon after as a private flight for Maj. General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold – an instrumental figure in the reorganization of the US military forces upon the early 1940s. It went on keeping its original executive configuration, and today it is lent out for special flights and for filming purposes from its base near San Francisco, CA. It bears the civilian registration N341A.

USAAF C-47A 43-30647 ‘Virginia Ann’

This aircraft was in service with the USAAF since 1943. It took part to the D-Day operations with the name ‘Virginia Ann’, but was put on storage soon after WWII. It later went to private owners and was based in many domestic locations, including being part of the famous Planes of Fame collection in Chino, CA (see this post). Today it is still based on the West Coast, with the registration N62CC.

Chalair C-47B

This C-47B was built among the latest in May 1945. It was surplus for the USAAF soon after WWII, so it joined the Royal Air Force inventory, and from there it left for Canada, where it enjoyed many years of service as a VIP transport in the Royal Canadian Air Force until the 1970s. It reportedly served as a Royal Flight for the Queen of England during a visit to Canada. After withdrawal from active service and changing hands several times in Canada, it was finally acquired in France and totally restored in the late 2000s. It flies with the registration F-AZOX.

Johnson Flying Service, Inc. C-47 ‘Miss Montana’

This incredible aircraft was built soon after the WWII, and as many other surplus C-47, it moved to the civilian market. This aircraft was used in firefighting operations over the Northern Rockies, and was even involved in a tragic accident, crashing in the water causing fatalities. It was drawn back to a second life through the effort of the Museum of Mountain Flying in Missoula, Montana, where it is based now, with the registration N24320.

Legend Airways C-47D/DC-3C ‘Liberty’

A true combat veteran of WWII, this aircraft was pressed into service with the USAAF in mid-1943, and took part in operations in Algeria and the Mediterranean, as well as the D-Day in Normandy, where it sustained direct hits from German anti-aircraft guns. Soon after the turbulent war years, after returning to the US it fell into private hands in the south as a corporate transport. It kept the role, undergoing several upgrades, until it was finally acquired for a lavish restoration and cabin refurbishment, which gave it its current appearance. It is based in Colorado, where it is being operated for pleasure flights and filming, with the registration N25641.

Pan American Airways System C-47B/DC-3

This aircraft had an adventurous history between its entry into service in 1944 and the early 1950s. It was originally allocated to the Chinese National Aviation Corporation, which in the war years carried out covert flights over a route known as the ‘hump’. These allowed resupply of Chinese forces from the British Empire in India, through resupply flights over the high peaks of western Tibet. This aircraft flew on that very dangerous route, until the breakdown of the Japanese forces and the end of WWII. As the Chinese National Aviation Corporation reverted back to normal operations, this aircraft was turned into a commuter between Hong-Kong and Canton. In the meanwhile, Mao Tse-Tung communist revolution subjugated China overturning the government. The new dictatorship tried to grab as many aircraft as possible, which in the meanwhile tried to escape from the country, assisted by western powers. This very aircraft, after some years on ground in China, was finally allowed to leave for the US, where it arrived in 1953. Since then it was refurbished as a corporate aircraft, and enjoyed a long career, being finally restored with a VIP internal layout and carefully reconstructed 1953 on-board systems. It is registered as N877MG.

USAAF C-47DL 43-15087

The aircraft you see flying is indeed a WWII veteran, but not with the colors you see today. The number 43-15087 on the tail refers to a C-47 which actually took part to the operations over Normandy on June 6th, 1944. But the airframe you actually see entered service with the USAAF as a personnel transport in North Africa and the Middle East in 1943. It then went to the Armee de l’Air in France, then to civilian operators in France and back in the US after the 1960s. There it was later restored and changed livery several times for special occasions, like the 75th anniversary of the D-Day – the ‘9X-P’ designation you see now. It is based in Texas, with the US registration N150D.

USAAF C-47 42-26044 ‘Placid Lassie’

Pressed into service in the summer of 1943, this aircraft is a true combat veteran, having flown on June 6th, 1944 over Normandy, and in September 1944 for several times over Flanders during the ill-fated operation ‘Market Garden’. It then went on as a civilian transport in the continental US. After years spent in disrepair, it was drawn back to life in the 2000s, and is now flown by a foundation dedicated to the crew of ‘1D-N’ during WWII.

German Air Force Aircraft

As the historical flight performed basically a fly-in and fly-out, in the few hours between them the aircraft of the German Air Force – the Luftwaffe – and of the Navy – the Marine – based at Jagel flew for the public. There were also German aircraft taken there in preparation for the day of the Armed Forces – Tag des Bundeswehr – to be celebrated the following week-end with an open day of the base.

Jagel is the home base for the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 51 ‘Immelmann’, which currently operates the Panavia Tornado. These massive swing-wing aircraft flew in several time slots during the spotter day.

Small formations demonstrated refueling abilities.

Some passages were performed at high speed, with maximum sweep.

One of the aircraft has been painted in a flamboyant celebration livery, with the portrait of Max Immelman, a German WWI ace, on the vertical tail.

Another impressive performance was given by a Eurofighter Typhoon, a massive delta-winged twin-jet with a tail-less, all-moving canard configuration. This compares well in size with the Super Hornet – a pretty massive attack aircraft.

This very aircraft is from the Taktisches Luftwaffengeschwader 31 ‘Boelcke’, based in Nörvenich.

At some point in the day, there was a flypast of a single Lockheed P-3 Orion, on strength to the German Navy – Marine. On its double passage it was possible to see the large racks for sonobuoys under the belly of this four-propeller aircraft.

There were also exhibitions by some rotorcrafts, including a huge Sikorsky CH-53G, an Airbus H145 and a larger NH-90, the most modern of the three. The very dark camo livery made them pretty difficult to photograph, despite a rather wide zoom lens I was using for the task.

Finally, a pretty rare aircraft, albeit possibly not so eye-catching, a single Dornier Do-28 military light transport landed in the evening.

Visiting Aircraft from Other Countries

Other aircraft landed and departed from the base, some possibly in preparation for the Tag des Bundeswehr to be held a couple of days later. These aircraft were not from Germany.

First, two more Tornadoes of the Italian Air Force landed at some point, and posed for photographers. They belong to the 6° Stormo ‘Diavoli Rossi’, based at Ghedi. A small devil’s face is painted on the vertical tail of these aircraft.

A SAAB JAS-39 Gripen of the Hungarian Air Force, in a twin-seat configuration, landed soon after.

A single Aero L-159 Alca of the Czech Air Force appeared at some point.

An Antonov An-26 of the Hungarian Air Force landed and later departed. An iconic Soviet-made transport, this sturdy workhorse is still flying in many Countries, both for the Armed Forces and for civilian operators as well.

A single Pilatus PC-9 of the private company Qinetiq made an appearance.

Finally, two pretty rare Douglas A4 belonging to the Canadian private training company Jet Aces landed and taxied for the photographers, one of them in a rather eye-catching NATO anniversary commemoration livery.

Final Note

The Marine base of Schleswig-Jagel where this event took place was originally a Luftwaffe airfield, operated by the British military during the Berlin Airlift and until the early Sixties, and later handed over to the Federal Republic of Germany. It is still today an active airbase. There is no public access except on special occasions.

The Border Forts of Czechoslovakia Against Nazi Germany

The Maginot line – a line of forts running along the French border with Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Belgium – is a widely known example of military engineering from the inter-war period (see this chapter). The adopted construction technique, based on reinforced concrete pillboxes with walls several feet thick, half interred to decrease visibility from above, field cannons and anti-tank defensive guns, witnesses the great consideration given to tanks and aircraft as attack weapons.

Due to the fast movements typical to the new strategy of the German army since the beginning of WWII, the Maginot line is mainly remembered for having not been involved in any major action, and having being largely bypassed. As a matter of fact, the German opted for a bypass also because the line was in place, so it was not as ineffective as it is often thought.

What is possibly even less known is that similar defensive lines were built in earnest in other European countries, before and even during WWII, after the Maginot line had failed to stop the invading German army. The enormous Salpa line, built by Finland against the Soviet Union, was probably the last and most effective to be completed (see this chapter). The Stalin line, prepared by the Soviets against Germany in Belarus, is another example. Another country who invested much in this type of deterrent was Czechoslovakia.

To understand the drivers of the design of the huge line of forts envisaged by the Czechoslovakian government of the mid-1930s, one should take a look at a map of Europe from the time. After the defeat of WWI Germany had managed to keep significant parts of todays Poland. The border between Germany and Poland ran close to Gdansk – aka Danzig in German -, and the province of Lower Silesia with the town of Wroclav – Breslau in German – were undisputed German territory. This means that todays border between the Czech Republic and Poland used to be actually a border between Czechoslovakia and Germany in the years before WWII.

With the turmoil preceding the infamous Munich Agreement and Nazi Germany claiming the right to control ‘Sudetenland’ – a large part of the peripheral territories of todays Czech Republic – in 1937 the Czechoslovakian government quickly started the construction of a huge system of forts to protect the border.

The concept was pretty similar to that of the Maginot line, with extensive underground tunnels to shelter soldiers and ammos, facing to the surface with reinforced concrete bunkers with different purposes, including observation, artillery shelling with field cannons, mutual protection with short range anti-tank cannons, machine guns and grenade-throwing tubes. There were also bunkers for accessing the tunnel system with resupply. About 10’000 light fortifications were actually built, more than 200 heavy fortified positions and a handful of heavy artillery positions.

The geopolitical situation in Europe got worse quickly in 1938, with the annexation of Austria in spring and finally the Munich Agreement, which caused the dissolution of Czechoslovakia. As a result of this internationally approved de facto German invasion, the works on the defense line were halted by the Wehrmacht. A relevant part of the hard construction had been completed, but most of the bunkers were still unarmed or lacked some software – air filters, ammo supplies, everyday items for the troops, etc. – and were not serviceable.

Most of the ironworks, including especially all heavy-metal turrets, were salvaged by the Germans. Some of the cannons found their way to the Atlantic Wall. The most massive concrete bunkers were used to test new weapons. As a result, the majority of the most sizable structures are still today in a partly damaged shape.

Some of the bunkers came to life again in the 1970s, when re-founded Czechoslovakia, that time a satellite country of the USSR living under a repressive and hard communist dictatorship, started a low-paced conversion of some of the structures into nuclear shelters for top ranks of the military and political hierarchies.

Notwithstanding these incidents, todays Czech Republic is duly proud of the significant work which was carried out in the difficult late Thirties. Very much was done for the little time available, and the quality of the design and construction is remarkable. While most of the sites are open only rarely, there are some where you can step inside and enjoy an interesting visit. This chapter covers with photographs and text five larger fortified complexes along this anti-German defensive line, from a two-days visit taken in August 2018.

Map

The following map shows the highlights of each of the five sites listed in this chapter. Please zoom in for greater detail. For the Bouda fort I could not spot and pinpoint on the map all the pillboxes you can easily visit from the outside – this are covered by vegetation.

Navigate this post – click on links to scroll

Sights

Stachelberg

The Stachelberg site is located about three miles north of the small city of Trutnov. The fort should have consisted of a main entrance and peripheral shooting positions, some of them linked by underground tunnels, to defend the area of the Giant Mountains. Construction works were terminated much before completion, so the surface bunkers forming the ensemble are actually not connected. Yet the major installation, a bulky infantry positions with provision for anti-tank artillery, provides access to an extensive system of half-prepared tunnels, which gives you a clear picture of the size and capacity of the complex.

The site is open to the public, and the ticket office can be found right inside this huge major bunker. From the outside, the volume of this pillbox is particularly stunning. Also interesting are the anti-tank obstacles, which used to be placed along the border line and between the forts, to trap invading columns in a position where anti-tank guns could be most effective.

This multi-level bunker is also place for a little museum on the fortifications, mainly based on explicative panels and scaled models of weapons and of the entire bunker complex. It covers the history of the fortifications, and explains most technical features of their construction. There are no weapons or other software – they were either not installed before the construction works were stopped, or salvaged by the Germans.

The tunnels can be visited on a guided tour only, starting from inside the main bunker with a descent of several tens of feet along a flight of stairs, originally made at the time of construction. The tunnels unfold on the sides of a major, perfectly straight initial track. Some of the lateral halls, intended to store ammos as well as for sleeping the troops, are very large and close to completion, whereas others are just sketched.

The tunnels were dug in the rock with the help of explosives. The next step in the construction works would have been a layer of concrete from the pavement up to the ceiling of the tunnels. This is present today only close to the entry point, at the bottom of the access stairs.

There are at least other five smaller pillboxes which have been preserved to some extent in the Stachelberg complex. They are accessible with different timetables, and do not provide access to the underground – by design, some of them should have.