Unsung British hero foiled Stalin during the Cold War

NATO pilot remembers flying in Soviet airspace in 1972

At Lancaster House on Fehrbelliner Platz, which once housed the British military government, a plaque will be unveiled to celebrate the life of Reginald “Rex” Waite, an extraordinary figure whose work in Berlin was to change the course of history. Waite’s daughter, Romilly, has long struggled to gain recognition for her father’s work. “He was an extremely modest man,” she said, “who never spoke of his accomplishments.” An expert RAF navigator, Waite had helped plan the D-Day landings of June 1944. But his work with General Eisenhower, while important, is not the reason for his claim to fame. Following the defeat of Germany in 1945, Waite was posted to Berlin, a city that had been divided into four distinct sectors: British, American, French and Soviet.

This post-war division created an extremely delicate situation. Berlin lay deep inside the Soviet-occupied area of ​​Germany, and the Western Allies depended on Soviet goodwill to supply their areas of the city, using road, rail and air links that passed through territory controlled by the Red Army.

As Air Commodore for the UK sector of the city, Waite was responsible for all aspects of air transport. As such, he will find himself at the heart of tumultuous events that unfolded between 1948 and 1949.

The crisis began on June 24, 1948 when the Soviets blockaded the western sectors of Berlin. Stalin hoped to expel the Western Allies and take control of the whole city – his first step (he hoped) in capturing the rest of Germany.

Road and rail access to the western sectors was cut off, turning them into a besieged island. The only way to get in and out of supply was through the three air lanes agreed to in writing in 1945.

And therein lay a major problem. The 2.4 million inhabitants of these western sectors depended on the Allied-occupied areas of Germany for their food and supplies. Everything had to be imported into the city.

Stalin was convinced that the immense population of West Berlin could not be supplied by air. President Truman and Prime Minister Attlee too. It was logistically impossible. But a man begged to delay. Air Commodore Waite believed that applied mathematics – his specialty – could provide a solution to the problem. And in June 1948, aware of the imminence of the humanitarian crisis, he set to work.

When the Soviets blocked Berlin in 1948, all seemed lost (Image: Getty)

Waite looked like an archetypal RAF officer, with his mustache cropped and his regulation beret. But under the beret was a supercharged brain wired for mathematical logic. While fellow aviators dreamed of high-altitude aerial combat, Waite pondered complex logarithms.

“Two and a quarter million people is a lot,” he said, “It’s 22 times the size of (the original) crowded Wembley stadium. Anyone who has seen Wembley when it’s full and realizes that there are only 100,000 people … We had 22 times more to feed and care for, every day.

In normal times, Berlin needed a daily delivery of 13,500 tonnes of food and coal, the latter being essential to generate electricity. Without electricity, the city’s water pumps and sewage treatment plants could not function. Waite knew that Berlin’s absolute minimum requirement for subsistence was 4,500 tonnes per day – just enough to keep people alive.

He also knew that the carrying capacity of a C47 Dakota was two and a half tons. And that’s where his problem lies. It would take 1,800 flights a day to keep West Berlin functioning, with one plane landing every 90 seconds at each of the two airports in the Allied sectors.

Journalist Edward Tetlow watched Waite at work as he searched for a solution to the 20th century’s biggest logistical challenge.

“He is bubbling with enthusiasm and imagination,” Tetlow wrote. “Ideas always spring from him. His head was tilted over a tiny wallet and he was making drawings and calculations with the tip of a pencil.


Stalin finally lifted the siege of Berlin after 11 months (Image: Getty)

Waite has identified eight potential air bases in western Germany that could be used to supply Berlin. In the city itself there were two airstrips available – Tempelhof and Gatow. Waite knew that both would require drastic upgrades if they were to withstand the intensity of the traffic he envisioned.

Using his trusty slide rule, he set to work on his plan for the biggest airlift in history. With his tonnage, schedules, and surprisingly tight landing and take-off times, he realized that Berliners could indeed be saved by an airlift – even if he operated on a wing and a prayer. Quick unloading would be crucial. Waite wanted trucks parked alongside the track, engines running, ready to receive their cargo.

The fuel would be taken to a standby barge, which was to receive its cargo through six chutes. Waite wanted each barge to move forward, passing under the falls, so as not to waste precious seconds. He was convinced that his plan could break the Soviet blockade, as long as enough spare planes could be assembled.

When Waite explained his idea to the British commander, General Herbert, he was fooled. “It can’t work,” retorted the general, who was already planning the evacuation of the British garrison and the abandonment of Berlin.

Waite got a similar response from General Brian Robertson, the British military governor of occupied Germany. “Impossible!” said Robertson. But when he showed his plan to the US Governor, General Lucius Clay, he got a very different answer. “Okay,” Clay said. “I agree.”


French prisoners freed on a road west of Berlin (Image: Getty)

With these words, the Berlin Airlift was born. Over the next 13 months, Waite’s logistics plan was put into practice, with British and American planes requisitioned from around the world to deliver supplies to Berlin.

American planes came from as far away as Honolulu, Hawaii and Alaska; the British came from distant colonies and dependencies. Once in Germany, they flew successively at five different altitudes and at 500-foot intervals, with planes landing and taking off every 90 seconds to deliver the daily minimum of 4,500 tonnes.

Despite the fog, snow and high winds – as well as the occasional fatal accidents – the airlift pilots worked miracles. Each month has seen an increase in the tonnages sent to the capital. The record fell on Easter Day 1949, when 12,971 tonnes were unloaded in Berlin, carried on 1,398 flights.

This triumph convinced Stalin that he could not win the Battle of Berlin. On May 12, 1949 – after a siege that lasted 323 days – he lifted the blockade and reopened the roads and railroads in the city.

Stalin’s descent was a personal victory for Waite, although he reserved full praise for the British and American pilots who flew around the clock. “A magnificent effort,” he wrote.

Those who worked alongside Waite knew he deserved a great deal of the fame.

“God knows what would have happened without Rex,” said one observer. General Brian Robertson agreed, praising Waite’s “major role” in the airlift.


A statue of Stalin is erected on Karl Marx Avenue in Berlin (Image: Getty)

But Waite’s work was soon forgotten as the Americans took all the credit for the Berlin Airlift, ignoring the fact that Waite was its original architect. Now that is about to change. Later this year, a plaque honoring his accomplishments is to be unveiled by David Edwards, the only surviving member of the British Berlin Airlift Association to have worked alongside Waite.

Edwards approached the owners of the old Lancaster house and told them about Waite’s work; they, in response, offered to fund the plaque.

It reads: “Here, in June 1948, Air Commodore Rex N. Waite CBCBE, head of the Air Branch of the Control Board, calculated the resources needed to supply the two and a quarter million. residents of the stranded western sectors of Berlin. It was thanks to his initiative and perseverance that the military governors of the time were persuaded to launch the airlift.

Waite’s daughter Romilly said: “My father’s accomplishments have never been recognized enough. The plaque will finally honor his work to prove that an airlift was possible. Without Reginald “Rex” Waite, there wouldn’t have been an airlift or happy ending. Berlin would most likely have been captured by the Soviets – an eventuality that would have changed the entire history of post-war Europe.

Checkmate in Berlin: The Cold War Showdown that Shaped the Modern World by Giles Milton (Hodder & Stoughton, £ 25) is out now. For free UK delivery call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order via www.expressbookshop.co.uk

About Walter Bartholomew

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