‘Daks over Duxford’ – A D-Day tribute
Welcome to this latest edition of Aerodrome and our regular look at the fascinating world of aeroplanes and the historic aviation scene in the UK. As the dust begins to settle on the memorable and extremely emotive 75th anniversary commemorations of D-Day land, sea and air operations, there really could only be one subject for this latest edition of our Aerodrome blog – the magnificent ‘Daks over Duxford’ event. If there could have been any doubt that the British nation would get squarely behind this latest wartime commemoration, the thousands of people who made their way to Duxford during the four days of this unique event provided the answer, queueing from early in the morning (despite a normal 10am airfield opening) and braving some unseasonably inclement weather conditions. None of this seemed to matter, as everyone felt it necessary to attend this event, both to say they had been present during this historic occasion and to pay their own respects to the thousands of men who embarked on this terrifying and danger filled endeavour, each one determined to make their own personal contribution in bringing about an end to war. Aerodrome edition 121 will serve as a photographic tribute to this magnificent event and a thank you to all the people who made this little piece history happen, almost 75 years to the day since arguably the most historic day Britain had ever seen.
A Gathering of Skytrains
Playing host to an impressive gathering of C-47s, there was only one aircraft type that mattered at Duxford during this D-Day 75th anniversary week
OK, I am probably guilty of using a little blog poetic licence here, as this heading would be more accurate if it read ‘A gathering of C-47 Skytrains, Skytroopers, Dakotas and Douglas DC-3s, but this simply does not have the same ring to it. As Britain basked in glorious sunshine during the summer of 2018 and spent the Airshow season commemorating the Centenary of the Royal Air Force, people began to notice a rather curious marquee which appeared at a number of shows, sporting an extremely distinctive logo and informing people about a very special event they were planning to take place the following summer. In order to honour the men who took part in D-Day and the offensive to finally begin the long awaited liberation of Europe, the ‘Daks over Normandy’ team were planning something unbelievably ambitious, a huge gathering of airworthy Douglas DC-3 and C-47 Skytrains, the like of which had not been seen since the end of the Berlin Airlift. A fascinating project, this sounded like something to get more than just a little excited about, but surely the logistical challenges posed by such an undertaking would prove too difficult to overcome and many wondered if the ‘Daks over Normandy’ team would be able to pull this off - could they serve up the most poignant D-Day tribute that most people in post war Europe would ever have seen?
Central to their plans for this aviation tribute was to assemble a large number of C-47s in the UK, with their owners flying aircraft in from Europe, Canada, North America and even Australia, each with the shared goal of taking part in this once in a lifetime event, re-tracing the flightpaths of over 800 C-47s which carried paratroopers to their drop zones behind the landing beaches, in the early hours of 6th June 1944. In what promised to be an incredibly moving occasion, some of the aircraft would carry paratroopers wearing period uniforms and equipped with military parachutes, flying them across the Normandy coast and dropping them over similar locations to where the airborne troops landed on D-Day itself. The event would be centred on two European locations, the Imperial War Museum airfield at Duxford from 2nd to 5th June and Caen Carpiquet airfield in Normandy from 5th to 9th June, both selected for the access and facilities they offered, as well as their historic WWII heritage. With the D-Day commemorations taking place mid-week and Duxford only having recently staged its first major Airshow of the year, would enough people turn up to make this the fantastic tribute event it promised to be?
World War Two workhorse, the ‘Aces High’ Dakota was sporting new markings for this unique event and looks very different from how we saw her at the first Shuttleworth Airshow of the season
It is probably fair to say that despite its many qualities and an enduring legacy which has seen the aircraft continue flying long after the end of the Second World War, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain/Dakota could be described as something of an unsung hero of an aeroplane, required to perform many of the background duties of transport and supply, even though these proved crucial to the outcome of WWII. Famously, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe described the C-47 as one of his ‘Four pieces of equipment most vital to Allied success in Europe and Africa’, along with the bulldozer, the Jeep and the two and a half ton truck – all products of the American war machine, none of which had originally been designed for the military role they were asked to perform. Arguably not as exciting as a Mustang fighter or as devastating as a Lancaster bomber, the Douglas C-47 did not enjoy the widespread acclaim of either the Mustang or Lancaster, but in its own way, was perhaps even more effective than either of these famous aircraft. Ensuring that troops, supplies and equipment were in the right place at the right time, the C-47 effectively transported Allied forces on towards eventual victory.
Duxford favourite B-17G Flying Fortress ‘Sally B’ must have been wondering why so many people were at Duxford during the week and why she wasn’t the centre of attention for once
Without doubt, the most famous and effective use of massed formations of C-47 Skytrains during WWII occurred on the night of 5th/6th June 1944, the opening operations of D-Day. In order to ensure the defeat of Germany and bring about the end of the Second World War, the Allied powers knew that they would have to launch a full scale assault against continental Europe, an undertaking fraught with potential dangers, as highlighted by the failed Dieppe raid of 1942. In support of this plan, Allied aircraft began a concerted bombing campaign many months before the invasion, targeting aircraft and munitions manufacturing plants, as well as attacking strategic targets in the intended landing areas, all designed to diminish Germany’s fighting capabilities. These attacks were always carefully masked by strong diversion raids, so as not to alert the Germans to where the anticipated Allied amphibious assault would take place, making D-Day as much about deception, as it was about preparation. Finally, after months of planning, the order was given to ‘Go’ and the invasion was on. At RAF Greenham Common in the late evening of 5th June 1944, paratroopers of the US 101st and 82nd Airborne Divisions climbed aboard hundreds of Douglas C-47 Skytrains, as they prepared to drop behind German lines in advance of the main seaborne invasion force, the spearhead of Operation Overlord. There crucial mission was to deliver troops in the areas behind the German fortifications and to disrupt the enemy’s ability to effectively reinforce the landing areas, thus giving Allied forces a greater chance of breaking out from their beachheads. Their main objectives included the seizure of road crossings, bridges and strategic villages, as well as helping to disable as many of the coastal batteries as possible, in advance of the main seaborne landings, spreading confusion amongst the defending Germans.
Destination Duxford for more aviation history
Looking like a still from a war movie, there was the opportunity to capture some interesting images during what turned out to be a busy two days at Duxford
Sometimes the life of an aviation enthusiast can be quite a challenge and even though the ‘Daks over Normandy’ event was clearly going to be the commemorative event of the year, the main activities would be taking place during the week and most of us have a little thing called work to consider. Although I had secured tickets for Tuesday and Wednesday 4th/5th June, I would not be able to arrive at Duxford before early afternoon on Tuesday and the weather forecast was not looking promising. Arriving late, I found Duxford packed with people and with car parks marked as full, I had to enquire in the Guardroom as to where I was supposed to go – for someone who is usually up with the larks and ready to secure an advantageous position for photography, this was going to be a very different event for me. With the rain steadily falling and grey skies promising more of the same, I was parked in a field quite some way from the action and forced to yomp with all my gear towards the centre of the airfield - it would be fair to say that the afternoon was a bit of a disappointment. The planned parachute jumps had to be cancelled due to the weather and flying activities were similarly hampered, with the aircraft which valiantly braved the conditions performing their displays in steadily deteriorating conditions. By around 4pm, the conditions really took hold and everyone made for their cars, pleased that they had attended such a historic occasion, but a little disappointed that things had not gone exactly to plan. Thankfully, I had a second opportunity to enjoy ‘Daks over Duxford’ the following day.
As I sheltered in the large Duxford tent shop on Tuesday afternoon, staring out at the rain which appeared to be getting heavier, it made me think about D-Day itself and how this was actually quite an accurate representation of the conditions facing the invasion force in the days leading up to the onslaught. D-Day was actually scheduled to take place on 5th June 1944, however the weather conditions on the 4th were so poor that the decision was taken to postpone, fearing the Channel storm would wreak havoc with the invasion force – indeed, the weather was so bad that the entire invasion was in danger of being cancelled. With meticulously studied weather and tidal information allowing only a relatively short window of opportunity, any lengthy delay could ruin months of planning and deception, effectively revealing the planned operation to the Germans and allowing them to better prepare to repel the invasion force. Thankfully, a slight improvement in conditions allowed the operation to proceed on the date which is now etched into the annuls of military history, even though the forecast storm would still cause havoc in the days which followed invasion.
The ‘Daks over Duxford’ event was all about C-47s, DC-3s and crowds, as they served up a memorable tribute to the actions of 6th June 1944
Wednesday morning brought much better conditions and a typically early start held much more promise for a memorable day. As we waited patiently for museum staff to arrive and check our tickets, we could hear the tell-tale sounds of Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines firing into life and what was clearly an early morning sortie for several of the aircraft. As they took to the air one after the other, with the sound of their engines filling the air and reverberating against the historic buildings at Duxford camp, I could not help trying to imagine what the sound of hundreds of C-47s taking off at the same time must have sounded like and how this mighty force must have sounded as it crossed the Normandy coast. Once we were allowed on to the airfield, it was clear that the BBC had beaten us to it and had been reporting live from the airfield since first light – with their outside broadcasting unit in full swing, this should have given some indication of the international interest which was being shown in this incredible event. With several of the aircraft already heading to France (where they would carry out a practice parachute prop), we settled in for a busy day, which was initially taken up by trying to photograph as many of the assembled C-47s and DC-3s as we could – with the constant stream of people pouring onto the airfield, I certainly felt that the very early start had been vindicated.
The D-Day Squadron
‘Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber’ made an epic transatlantic journey from its home in California to take part in this unique D-Day commemoration
One of the major attractions of this unique event was the participation of the D-Day Squadron, a collection of airworthy C-47s which made up the American contingent of the ‘Daks over Normandy’ adventure. Determined to play their own significant tribute to the 75th Anniversary of D-Day, these aircraft gathered at Oxford Connecticut before heading off to make their own little piece of aviation history – they would be following the same North Atlantic Route flown by hundreds of WWII crews, as they brought US aircraft for combat in the European Theatre. Flying a route which had been strategically planned to ensure aircraft had as much access to land as possible during a flight which was predominantly over vast expanses of ocean, staging points would be Goose Bay in Newfoundland, Narsarsuaq in Greenland, Reykjavik in Iceland and finally Prestwich on the west coast of Scotland. The route allowed the formation to receive navigational support, take on fuel and supplies, as well as grabbing a little well-earned rest along the way. Once in the UK, the aircraft could receive any necessary maintenance, before making their way to Duxford and the start of what promised to be a truly memorable tribute to the troops who took part in the monumental events of 6th June 1944.
With the 2019 Airshow season only just underway, news that the D-Day Squadron had embarked on their epic journey suddenly made this event seem all the more real and as two other DC-3s arrived at Duxford during their Air Festival display season opener, I am sure that many people rushed to purchase their event tickets as soon as they got home from the Airshow. For many people, the attendance of one very special aeroplane would have been a major deciding factor on attending this event, allowing them the opportunity to see a truly historic aircraft – the plane that launched D-Day. The lead aircraft at the head of a mighty air armada consisting of almost 800 C-47s, C-47A 42-92847 “That’s All Brother” was equipped with specialist equipment to navigate through thick cloud and the anticipated accurate German defensive ground fire, to deliver her precious cargo of brave paratroopers onto their designated drop zones in Normandy and the opening combat operations of D-Day. Equipped with an early form of airborne radar, this significant aircraft was the first one to take off from RAF Greenham Common late on the night of 5th June 1944, the lead aircraft at the head of a determined force of US paratroopers, who were aiming to cause havoc behind the invasion landing beaches. It is thought that the name painted on the nose of the aircraft was linked to the significant role it was scheduled to play on invasion night and was a message to Hitler, informing him that his murderous reign as Fuhrer was about to come to an end. Damaged by flak during her historic mission, ‘That’s All Brother’ was patched up, before flying a second mission on D-Day, towing a glider with troops of the US 82nd Airborne Division destined for the battle now raging in Normandy.
For many people gathered at Duxford for this event, C-47A ‘That’s All Brother’, with its unique D-Day provenance, was undoubtedly the star of the show
Inside the cabin of ‘That’s All Brother’, following her early morning parachute drop on Wednesday 5th June 2019
Just as they were in 1944, the conditions did their best to disrupt the event, but thankfully, there is no stopping a Skytrooper
Seeing plenty of action in the months following D-Day, as the Allies continued to sweep across northern Europe, she was ultimately to suffer the same fate which befell thousands of aircraft following the end of the war and was put up for disposal. This famous aircraft would spend the new fifty years passing through the hands of several civilian owners and ended up wearing a scheme representative of a Spooky Gunship from the Vietnam War era, with her true identity lying forgotten under successive layers of paint. In serious need of costly overhaul it was thought that this aircraft had been scrapped, until it was discovered as a derelict airframe awaiting conversion into a turbine powered transport aircraft, which in itself is testament to the enduring quality of the aircraft’s design. Once her identity had been discovered and the historic role the aircraft played on D-Day, the Commemorative Air Force launched a successful crowdfunding campaign to purchase and restore the aircraft, eventually undertaking a triumphant first post restoration flight in early 2018. Her participation in the ‘Daks over Normandy’ D-Day 75th Anniversary commemorations was truly historic and a development not lost on the thousands of aviation enthusiasts who were desperate to see this piece of living wartime history and undoubtedly the most poignant flying tribute to the men and machines that were involved in that historic day back in June 1944.
“Load em up”!
Paratroopers embark on D-Day’s lead C-47 ‘That’s All Brother’, ahead of a historic drop over Normandy almost 75 years since that fateful day
The 5th June 2019 proved to be an extremely busy day at Duxford airfield and I can only imagine how stressful it must have been for the organising team behind this magnificent event, let alone the pilots, crew and ground support staff of the aircraft taking part. Under the gaze of the world’s media, the ‘Daks over Normandy’ D-Day tribute was working to a strict timetable, with challenging weather conditions on both sides of the Channel making their lives all the more difficult. The culmination of events at Duxford would see the massed departure of all serviceable C-47s and DC-3s, as they headed for Normandy and the official commemorations in France. Several of the aircraft would be carrying paratroopers, who were scheduled to drop in to designated landing zones in the Normandy area, providing an unforgettable spectacle for those fortunate enough to witness it and an emotional recollection of 75 years ago for the surviving veterans who had gathered for the commemorations. As the paratroopers in wartime attire and faces painted ready for combat marched past the huge crowds at Duxford heading for their assigned aircraft, spontaneous applause broke out across the airfield, not only to wish them well in performing their moving D-Day tribute, but also by way of marking our own appreciation for the sacrifices of 6th June 1944. As the aircraft cleared the skies over Cambridgeshire and the world prepared to mark events in France, everyone at Duxford knew that they had been present at a very special event, one which will not only stand as one of the highlights of 2019, but also for many, the most memorable D-Day commemoration they will ever see.
Here is a selection of images taken at the ‘Daks over Duxford’ D-Day 75th Anniversary event.
We start with some of the aviation support acts – even Britain’s most famous Spitfire has joined in with the D-Day anniversary fever
Not so ‘Little Friend’, the mighty Republic P-47 Thunderbolt is a beast of a fighting aeroplane
More D-Day tributes, this time from Mustang Airshow favourite ‘Sharky’, who is currently sporting D-Day identification markings to mark the 75th anniversary
Flying top cover for the day, a pair of suitably D-Day prepared Spitfires add a little grace to the proceedings
Not a sight I thought I would ever see, USAF Mildenhall popped over to take a look at Duxford’s Dakotas and paid their own spectacular D-Day 75th Anniversary tribute, despite the conditions
History in the making. The crew of ‘That’s All Brother’ pose for pictures with the paratroopers they would be dropping later in the day
This unique C-41A N341A ‘Hap Penstance’ will be staying in Europe to begin an extended world tour, following the end of the D-Day 75th Anniversary commemorations
N8336C was unique amongst the gathered C-47s and can boast a luxurious VIP interior
You can tell you are getting old when DC-3 pilots start looking like kids! Legend Airways N25641 was a gleaming example of this magnificent aircraft and one of the number which recently arrived from America
This happy band of brothers (and sister). This group prepare to play their part in the historic parachute drops which would be taking place in Normandy
With her airborne troops loaded, ‘That’s All Brother’ heads for Normandy, just as she did 75 years ago
Another historic aircraft association with Duxford. Would this be the one and only time that D-Day’s lead aircraft graced this famous airfield?
I am afraid that is all we have for you in this latest edition of Aerodrome, but we will be back as usual in two weeks’ time with more aviation related content for your enjoyment. As always, if you have any ideas for a future edition of Aerodrome, or if you would like to supply a feature of your own which will be of interest to our worldwide aviation readership, please send your suggestions to our regular contact e-mail address at firstname.lastname@example.org, where we will be delighted to hear from you.
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