RAF Gatow

Known for most of its operational life as RAF Gatow, this former airfield is in the district of Gatow in south-western Berlin, west of the Havel river, in the borough of Spandau. It is now called General-Steinhoff Kaserne and is home to the Luftwaffenmuseum der Bundeswehr, the Luftwaffe Museum.

Also on the site of the former RAF station, but not part of General-Steinhoff Kaserne, is a school, the Hans-Carossa-Gymnasium, as well as houses for government employees of the Federal Republic of Germany. This part of the former airfield has since 2003 been part of the district of Berlin-Kladow.

History

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U.S. Army Generals Dwight D. Eisenhower and Lucius D. Clay at RAF Gatow during the Potsdam Conference in 1945.
The airfield was originally constructed in 1934 and 1935 by the Luftwaffe as a staff and technical college, Luftkriegsschule II, in imitation of the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell. Clues to its original use survive in the barrack block accommodation, each block of which was named after a famous German airman of the First World War, with the airman's bust above the entrance door. The architect was Ernst Sagebiel, an architect who worked full-time for the Luftwaffe. Other surviving features during the entire period of the airfield's use as RAF Gatow (1945-1994) included lightbulbs in the main hangars, many of which dated from the 1930s.

Late April 1945, towards the end of World War II in Europe, the airfield was occupied by the advancing Red Army. Following the division of Berlin into four sectors, Soviet forces relinquished the airfield to the British after the Potsdam Conference (in exchange for Staaken-Dallgow airfield). On 25 June 1945, 284 Field Squadron, RAF Regiment, arrived at Gatow by land via Magdeburg. Their reception by Soviet troops was extremely hostile, the Soviets attempting to confine 284 Field Squadron behind barbed wire fences, as the Squadron was said to have arrived “too early”. This set the pattern for relations, with Soviet checkpoints being set up beside the airfield manned by fully armed and unfriendly troops. RAF Regiment officers occasionally surveyed Soviet positions by air from Avro Ansons, and the tour of duty of RAF Regiment detachments at Gatow was limited to six months, because of the constant activity occasioned by the Soviet presence and the Berlin Airlift.
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An RAF Handley Page Hastings
The first landing by a Royal Air Force aircraft was on 2 July 1945 at 11.55 hours. Initially, Gatow as called Intermediate Landing Place No. 19, but on 19 August 1945 was renamed Royal Air Force Station Gatow, or RAF Gatow for short. The Station was given the Latin motto Pons Heri Pons Hodie, which may be translated as A bridge yesterday, a bridge today.

The Station was modernised with a 2000 yards long concrete runway, using 794 German workers, in March 1947. Along with the American airfield of Tempelhof and the French airfield of Tegel, RAF Gatow played a key role in the Berlin airlift of 1948. Initially, about 150 C-47 Dakotas and 40 Avro Yorks were used to fly supplies into Gatow. By 18 July 1948, the RAF was flying 995 tons of supplies per day into the airfield.
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A B.S.A.A. Avro Tudor 2 pictured at Gatow during the Berlin Airlift
In November the latest RAF transport aircraft, the Handley Page Hastings, was added to the squadrons flying into RAF Gatow and some aircrews and aircraft were redeployed to train replacement aircrews. A Hastings aircraft, which served on the airlift and was later RAF Gatow's 'gate guardian' until the station's closure, is now preserved in the Alliierten Museum (see weblink at base of page). By mid-December, the RAF had landed 100,000 tons of supplies. In April 1949, civilian companies involved in the airlift were formed into a Civil Airlift Division (of British European Airways) to operate under RAF control. By mid-April, the combined airlift of all nations operations managed to make 1,398 flights in 24 hours, carrying 12,940 tons (13,160 t) of goods, coal and machinery, beating their record of 8,246 (8,385 t) set only days earlier.
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A Short Sunderland similar to those used during the Berlin Airlift
RAF Gatow has the unique and unlikely distinction of being the base for the only known operational use of flying boats in central Europe, during the Berlin airlift, on the nearby Havel river. In July 1948, the RAF began using 10 Short Sunderland and 2 Short Hythe flying boats, flying from the Elbe near Hamburg to Berlin. The flying boats' speciality was transporting bulk salt, which would have been very corrosive to other aircraft, but was not as corrosive to the flying boats because of their normal use for maritime operations.

The novel Air Bridge by Hammond Innes is partially set in RAF Gatow at the time of the Berlin Airlift, and is notable for its accurate descriptions of the Station, including corridors and rooms within it. Some of the descriptions were still accurate some 40 years after the book's publication.

After the Berlin Blockade, RAF Gatow served as an airfield for the British Army's Berlin Brigade, and was prepared to revert to its role as a supply base, if another Berlin Airlift to West Berlin ever became necessary.

Meanwhile, Gatow was also used as a civilian airport for a limited timespan. In 1946, BEA took up flights to and from West Germany. The service moved to Tempelhof airport in 1950, where most of West Berlin's civil aviation was concentrated from then on. Gatow's only non-military use after 1950 were several state visits by Queen Elizabeth and other members of the Royal Family which frequently took place over the years.

RAF Gatow was from 1970 also used by the Army Air Corps, 7 Flight being based at the station initially flying three Westland Sioux (UK built Bell 47) and later Aérospatiale Gazelle AH 1 helicopters. From 1986, this was increased to six Aérospatiale Gazelle AH 1 and four Westland Lynx AH 7 helicopters, the Lynx's being equipped to fire TOW anti-tank missiles. The RAF Gatow Station Flight used two De Havilland Chipmunk T10s, one of which is now in the Alliierten Museum (see weblink at base of page), to maintain and exercise the British legal right under the Potsdam Agreement to use the airspace over both West and East Berlin, as well as the air corridors to and from West Germany to the city.

These aircraft were also used for reconnaissance missions in co-operation with The British Commander-in-Chief's Mission to the Soviet Forces of Occupation in Germany, commonly known as BRIXMIS (see weblink at base of page to the BRIXMIS Association). They were authorised, at the highest level, on an irregular basis to carry out covert photographic reconnaissance flights. All flights had to be notified to the Berlin Air Safety Centre (BASC), a quadripartite organisation responsible for authorising all flights in the 3 Air Corridors and the Berlin Control Zone (BCZ). All the Chipmunk Flight Notification Cards in the BASC were stamped by the Soviets “Safety of Flight Not Guaranteed” due to their interpretation of the 1946 Agreement as excluding flights outside West Berlin. Within the BCZ were many Soviet and East German military airfields and other installations.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Chipmunk reconnaissance flights soon ceased and the two Chipmunks were flown to RAF Laarbruch, in Western Germany to await disposal action. Chipmunk WB466 was flown back to Berlin and was donated to the Alliierten Museum in Berlin, where it remains on display today. WG 486 is still in RAF service with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (see weblink at base of page).

A Signals Unit (26SU) was also based at RAF Gatow and on the Teufelsberg in the Grunewald.

On 15 July 1987 a young East German, Thomas Kruger, defected by flying a Zlin Z-42M light aircraft of the Gesellschaft für Sport und Technik (GST - an East German youth military training organisation) from Schoenhagen to RAF Gatow, his first request to the RAF Police being a request for political asylum. He was handed over to the civil authorities and received West German citizenship. His aircraft, registration DDR-WOH, was dismantled and returned to the East Germans by road, complete with humorous slogans painted on by RAF Airman such as "Wish you were here" and "Come back soon". DDR-WOH is still flying today, but since 1991 under the different registration D-EWOH.

The closest military neighbour to RAF Gatow was a tank unit of the National People's Army of East Germany. This was located immediately opposite the airfield, behind the section of the Berlin Wall that ran along the western side of the airfield, and was clearly visible from RAF Gatow's control tower. The Berlin Wall section opposite Gatow was not in fact a wall, but a wire fence. East Germany claimed that this was a "military courtesy", but nobody at RAF Gatow believed this, thinking that it was instead intended to make a military invasion easier. This surmise was confirmed after the reunification of Germany, when the East German invasion plans for West Berlin, codenamed "Operation CENTRE" were found. The invasion plans were continually updated, even in 1990 when it was clear that East Germany would soon cease to exist.

Following the reunification of Germany, the British ceded control of Gatow Airport on 18 June 1994, and it was handed back to the Luftwaffe on 7 September 1994. It was kept in use as an airfield for a very short time, and closed to air traffic in 1995.

The history of RAF Gatow and of western forces in Berlin from 1945 to 1994 is told in the Alliierten Museum, or the Allied Museum (see weblink to <http://www.alliiertenmuseum.de/> at base of page).

Current use

The airfield is now called General-Steinhoff Kaserne. Units now based there are Bw Fachschule Berlin-Gatow, Fernmeldeaufklärungsabschnitt 921, Luftwaffenunterstützungskompanie Gatow, Kommando 3. Luftwaffendivision, Luftwaffenmusikkorps 4 and Truppenambulanz Berlin-Gatow.

Also on the site of the former RAF station, but not part of General-Steinhoff Kaserne, is a school, the Hans-Carossa-Gymnasium, and houses for government employees of the Federal Republic of Germany. This has been since 2003 part of the district of Berlin-Kladow.

The General-Steinhoff Kaserne is also home to the Luftwaffen Museum der Bundeswehr, the museum of the Luftwaffe which has many displays (including historic aircraft) and much information on German military aviation and the history of the airfield. Admission to the museum is free, and full details of the museum and how to get there are on the museum's website <http://www.luftwaffenmuseum.de>.

Bibliography

  • Barker, Dudley, Berlin Airlift (HMSO, London, 1949)
  • HQ Berlin Infantry Brigade, Berlin Bulletin Volume 45 Issue 36 (Berlin, 16 September 1994)
  • Best, Peter B. & Gerlof, Andreas, Flugplatz Gatow (English edition Gatow Airfield) (Kai Homilius Verlag, Berlin, 1998)
  • Corbett, Major-General Sir Robert, Berlin and the British Ally, 1945-1990, (Privately published by Sir Robert in Oerlinghausen, 1991)
  • Geraghty, Tony, BRIXMIS (London 1996)
  • Hall, Alan W., Berlin Airlift, article in Scale Aircraft Modelling, August 1998
  • Innes, Hammond, Air Bridge, (London, 1951)
  • Meek, Colonel AD, Operation CENTRE, article in British Army Review, August 1994
  • Miller, RE, A Bridge Yesterday – The Story of Royal Air Force Gatow (Undated, in 3. Luftwaffendivision Archives)
  • Wilson, Squadron Leader GD (edited by S/Ldr. PC Whitfield), History of Gatow (RAF Gatow, March 1971)

See also

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