June 2019 marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the momentous allied landings on the beaches of Normandy that began the liberation of Western Europe. The commemorations have been touching, spectacular and all encompassing, including a significant number of aviation elements, with aircraft old and new. Words Lindsay Peacock and Gareth Stringer, images as credited.
June the 6th 1944 is, without a doubt, one of the most important dates in modern history as it marks the date on which 156,000 Allied troops stormed the beaches of Normandy to begin the action that would free Europe from Nazi occupation and play a huge part in eventually bringing about the end of World War 2.
The assault was preceded by 24,000 troops who either parachuted in or arrived in gliders and the most significant aircraft to support this airborne assault was the Douglas C-47 Skytrain or Dakota. These iconic work-horses carried the bulk of the men into battle across the English Channel and, central to the events marking D-Day’s 75th anniversary, a plan was drawn up to fill the skies of England and Normandy one more time with a significant number of these aircraft and hundreds of paratroopers. They would be called the D-Day Squadron.
Lindsay Peacock was at IWM Duxford in Cambridgeshire to see the largest number of these aircraft gathered in one location since World War II, and he sent us this report:
“The Jeep, the Dakota airplane, and the landing craft were the three tools that won the war.”
General Dwight D Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
On a June night, 75 years ago, Operation Overlord was launched with the objective of establishing a bridgehead in Normandy, France, from which Allied forces could move out to liberate the rest of Europe.
A successful invasion was imperative.
Had it failed, Nazi domination might well have lasted several more years, with the “sunlit uplands” envisaged by Winston Churchill just four years before remaining an illusion. It was even possible that Russia’s onslaught from the East would not be content with victory over Germany, but would just keep rolling across virtually defenceless countries like Belgium, France and Holland until they reached the coast, resulting in one form of totalitarian domination being replaced by another.
Had that happened, Churchill’s much-vaunted Iron Curtain could have begun barely 20 miles from Britain, at Calais.
As we now know, securing the vital foothold was costly, but ultimately successful. Less than a year later, in May 1945, Germany capitulated… Hitler was dead, by his own hand, and the scourge of Nazism was defeated. In paying tribute, Eisenhower acknowledged the part played by not only the soldiers, sailors and airmen, but also some of the tools that they used to secure victory.
Rightly he mentioned the Dakota, perhaps oddly preferring to use the British name rather than the US appellation of Skytrain when talking of the Douglas C-47. Some 800 C-47s were directly involved in the opening phase of Overlord, with more than 24,000 soldiers spearheading the Allied airborne onslaught, landing by parachute or glider – subsequently, the C-47 played a key role transporting supplies in support of the advance and evacuating casualties for treatment at hospitals in Britain.
Today, of course, the C-47 and its civil counterpart, the DC-3, are both referred to as the Dakota, but most commonly more affectionately as just the “Dak” or “Gooney Bird”. The days when thousands of them were still active throughout Europe and around the World are long gone. Nevertheless, a significant number do still fly – especially in the USA – and when the time came to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings, it was only right and proper that some of those elderly machines were gathered together to take part in the proceedings.
The original intent was to have close to 40 aircraft, but this ambition proved to be a bridge too far. In the end, the organisers had to settle for just over two dozen assorted Daks, including around 15 that followed the route from the USA across the Atlantic Ocean to the United Kingdom that was taken by so many C-47s in World War 2.
On this occasion, the final destination was the Imperial War Museum’s airfield at Duxford, just a few miles from the university City of Cambridge. Arriving in late May and early June, they joined forces with a number of European-based aircraft. These participated in several happenings at Duxford on 4 June, that were planned to include a mass drop by over 200 parachutists using round canopy parachutes and wearing period clothing and kit.
Regrettably, the fickle British weather put paid to that, with strong winds and rain forcing cancellation in advance of the main event. This was to be a re-enactment of the D-Day operation to take place on the afternoon of 5 June, when some 20-odd Dakotas would fly in echelons of three aircraft from Duxford to Caen, via a drop zone at which more than 300 parachutists were expected to jump. In the event, it appears that 21 of the 23 Dakotas at Duxford flew to France, with N103NA and LN-WND both evidently experiencing engine problems that prevented them from joining in. Only 10 of the formation carried parachutists, some 220 which made the jump on to a drop zone at Sannerville.
Moving on to consider the aircraft that were at Duxford, four of the visitors from across the ocean were true D-Day veterans, with three (N47TB, N62CC and N25641) employed to drop troops in the early hours of 6 June, while the fourth (N74589) towed a Waco glider to a landing zone near Hiesville, just to the rear of Utah Beach. Interestingly, N62CC and N25641 were both assigned to the 61st Troop Carrier Group at Barkston Heath and both participated in Mission “Boston”, delivering paratroops of the 2nd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment to Sainte-Mère-Église. Two of these aircraft (N47TB and N62CC) sustained minor battle damage, with the pilot of the latter being slightly wounded.
Another D-Day veteran is British-based N147DC of Aces High. This machine is understood to have retrieved gliders from the Normandy landing zones for reuse in later airborne operations. This aircraft has subsequently spent most of the past 70 years in Britain, including close to two decades on various trials such as radar development with the Ferranti Flying Unit at Turnhouse, Edinburgh, when it carried the RAF identity TS423.
The final D-Day veteran that was expected to feature in the commemoration was PH-PBA, which, as 42-100971, was involved in Mission “Boston”, although it was assigned to the 316th Troop Carrier Group and flew from Cottesmore. Nevertheless, it was also tasked with delivering paratroops of the 2nd Battalion, 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment to Sainte-Mère-Église. Unfortunately, this aircraft flew directly to Caen and was not to be seen at Duxford.
Although not a D-Day veteran, N341A might justifiably claim the distinction of being the most significant of the aircraft present at Duxford, for it was the very first DC-3 to be purchased by the then US Army Air Corps. Delivered in September 1939, more than two years before the USA entered World War 2, it was allocated the military identity of 40-070 and given the designation C-41; sold on the civilian market at the end of the war, it has since carried at least eight different US civil aircraft registration marks including its present identity. Vying with N341A in terms of significant aircraft, N18121 might justifiably also claim that honour, for it was acknowledged by McDonnell Douglas in the late 1980s as having accumulated more flying hours than any of the DC-3s that were then active around the world. Since then, it has continued to occupy the leading slot and has now passed 91,600 hours. By any yardstick, that is a formidable achievement, with this one aircraft having spent more than 10 years in the air and covered more than 16.5 million miles, equivalent to circumnavigating the globe no fewer than 660 times.
A particular rarity which travelled to the UK from Hungary is what is believed to be the world’s last airworthy Lisunov Li-2. A licence-produced version of the basic C-47, almost 5,000 were eventually completed by Russia. This particular example, HA-LIX, was manufactured at GAZ33 (Aircraft Factory No.33) in Tashkent and delivered to Hungary in 1949, subsequently seeing service with the military and the Hungarian airline Malév. Withdrawn from use in 1974, it spent the next 23 years on display at Szolnok, before being transferred to Budaörs in 1997 for a restoration programme that took three years and culminated in a return to flight on 21 September 2001. An interloper for sure, it was good to see and hear this extremely rare machine at Duxford, for it possesses a very different engine-note when compared with all the genuine Dakotas.
By any yardstick, the gathering at Duxford was an impressive one.
While it undoubtedly fell short of what was originally anticipated, the opportunity to see 22 examples of the Douglas Dakota or Skytrain (call it what you will) and an Li-2 on the same airfield at the same time in 2019 was a real treat.
Perhaps more important though was the fact that it served as a fitting tribute to all of the aircraft and personnel that were involved in those stirring events back in June 1944.
List of participants – Blue = D-Day veteran (There is an extensive gallery of images at bottom of this feature):
C-47A N47E/0-30665 Miss Virginia c/n 13816 Dynamic Avlease Inc, Bridgewater, VA
C-47B N47SJ/348608 Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber c/n 25869 Gooney Bird Group Inc, Templeton, CA
C-47A N47TB/292847 That’s all Brother c/n 12693 American Airpower Heritage Museum, Dallas, TX
C-47A N62CC/330647 Virginia Ann c/n 13798 Mission Boston D-Day LLC, Newport Beach, CA
C-47B N103NA Flabob Express c/n 33569 Flabob Aviation Associates, Riverside, CA
C-47A N147DC/2100884 c/n 19347 Aces High, Dunsfold, UK
C-47 N150D/315087 101st Airborne Tribute c/n 4463 Aircraft Guaranty Corp Trustee, Onalaska, TX
DC-3/C-41A N341A Golden Age Air Tours c/n 2145 Aerotechnics Aviation, Tewkesbury, UK
C-47A N431HM Swissair c/n 9995 Aircraft Guaranty Corp Trustee, Onalaska, TX
C-47B N877MG Pan American Airways Systems c/n 20806 Historic Flight Foundation, Mukilteo, WA
DC-3A/C-53 N8336C The Spirit of Benovia c/n 7313 JM Air LLC, Phoenix, AZ
DC-3/C-49G N18121 The Great Silver Fleet c/n 1997 Blue Skies Air LLC, Portland, OR
C-47A N24320 Miss Montana c/n 20197 Museum of Mountain Flying, Missoula, MT
C-47 N25641 Liberty c/n 9059 JB Air Services LLC, Brighton, CO
C-47B N33611 Clipper Tabitha May c/n 34378 PMDG Flight Operations LLC, Alexandria, VA
DC-3A/C-53D N45366/268830 D-Day Doll c/n 11757 American Airpower Heritage Museum, Dallas, TX
C-47A N74589 Placid Lassie c/n 9926 Tunison Foundation Inc, Oxford, CT
C-47B F-AZOX Chalair c/n 33352 Association Un Dakota sur la Normandie, France
DC-3A/C-53D LN-WND/268823 c/n 11750 Dakota Norway, Torp, Norway
DC-3A/C-53C OH-LCH Airveteran Oy (Airveteran Ltd), Helsinki, Finland
C-47A OY-BPB/K-682 Gamie Dame c/n 20019 DC-3 Vennerne (Danish Dakota Friends), Denmark
C-47A SE-CFP Daisy c/n 13883 Flying Veterans Foundation, Sweden C-47B
Lisunov Li-2 HA-LIX Kármán Tódor c/n 18433209 Goldtimer Foundation, Budaörs, Hungary
Seven of the aircraft attended the Shuttleworth Collection’s Flying Festival Airshow at Old Warden on Sunday 2nd June and Chris Wood was there to see them:
As the D-Day Squadron formation headed towards France on Wednesday 5th June, in murky weather and following a delay of two hours, many photographers gambled and tried to get an image of them crossing the coast.
We are most grateful to Rob Laker for giving us permission to use his atmospheric capture:
As well as the historic elements that have commemorated the events of June 1944, various air arms have marked the anniversary with special paint schemes (a gallery can be found at the bottom of this feature) on more modern day aircraft types, including USAFE with three F-15s at RAF Lakenheath (wearing schemes based around P-47 Thunderbolts from WW2) and a KC-135, MC-130 and CV-22 out of RAF Mildenhall.
The Belgian Air Component has painted two F-16s and a C-130 and the Royal Norwegian Air Force a spectacular F-16B.
D-Day 75th Anniversary – 48th Fighter Wing Public Affairs at RAF Lakenheath:
The Belgian Air Component statement on the anniversary:
“75 years ago, during this operation (Operation Overlord) and more specifically on June 6th, 1944 (D-Day), 349th Sqn and 350 Sqn made several missions over the beaches of Normandy. That day, the 349th Sqn won two air victories (JU-88). Therefore, in honour of all those who put their lives in danger to liberate Europe, 349th Sqn and 350th Sqn will commemorate this date. In addition to the two F-16 Squadrons, 349 and 350, a C-130 also received ‘invasion bands’. This is in honour of 525th Sqn, a transport unit mainly made up of Belgian pilots and these aircraft will bear their marks during various air activities during the next year both in Belgium and abroad.”
The Royal Norwegian Air Force F-16B really stands out and we are most grateful to Peder Mathisen for permission to use his images. You can see more HERE.
RAF Mildenhall also put together a very special formation to mark the occasion, consisting of six MC-130J Hercules and six CV-22B Ospreys, all belonging to the 67th SOS and 7th SOS, 352nd SOW.
This then was our look at just some of the elements that combined to mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day so effectively. There was of course a lot more, with the Royal Air Force’s very own Red Arrows and Battle of Britain Memorial Flight (with its Dakota) taking part, as well as Royal Navy and British Army participation, both on the ground and, totally appropriately, at sea.
But it will be the gathering of Dakotas that lives longest in the memory from an aviation perspective and it was wonderful to see it all come together so well, despite the inevitable vagaries of the British weather.
Best of all though was seeing so many veterans commemorating the anniversary with us. Sadly they won’t live forever, but the memory of what they achieved in 1944 most certainly will.
Lest We Forget
Global Aviation Resource would like to thank the Imperial War Museum and everyone else who contributed to this article.
D-Day Squadron gallery
D-Day 75 special schemes gallery