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Special Feature

D-Day 80: Where to fly for key sites

2024 is the 80th anniversary of D-Day, the start of the liberation of Europe towards the end of WWII. Rob Pritchard takes us on a personal flying tour

The 6th of June this year marks the 80th anniversary of the start of the assault on Hitler’s  ‘Fortress Europe’. The operation was codenamed ‘Overlord’, the initial assault carrying the title ‘D-Day’.

This is likely to be the last ‘round number’ anniversary at which survivors of that day will be present. For the GA community there is zero chance of getting anywhere near the key sites as airspace is closed. But in the run-up and afterwards there are opportunities to visit significant locations.

Here’s my choice, via the nearest airfield:

Standing outside the D-Day Story museum in Portsmouth is a unique survivor: LCT 7074
Standing outside the D-Day Story museum in Portsmouth is a unique survivor: LCT 7074

Via Solent Airport

Landing Craft Tank 7074

Operation Neptune, the seaborne element of Overlord involved around 7,000 vessels of all categories to transport, protect and deliver the 133,000 soldiers who would land on the five Normandy beaches.

Standing outside the D-Day Story museum in Portsmouth is a unique UK-sited survivor. LCT 7074 is a Landing Craft Tank that took part in the assault, delivering ten tanks onto the beach to support the ground troops. 

After a chequered post-war history that included use as a nightclub and sinking in Birkenhead docks, she is now fully restored and open to visitors. Examples of the two main tanks of D-Day, the American Sherman and British Churchill, are positioned on the tank deck that, on the day, carried ten such vehicles.

Remember the words of the supreme allied commander, Dwight D Eisenhower: “You will not find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics.” 

If there was one major factor beyond the exploits of RAF Fighter Command in the 1940 Battle of Britain that scuppered Hitler’s projected invasion of the UK, it was the lack of ships such as 7074.

The most convenient airfield to LCT 7074 and the D-Day Museum is Solent Airport which is hugely GA friendly. From here to the museum will take around an hour and a quarter by public transport, a 22 minute taxi ride, or about 45 minutes for those with folding cycles.

Sherman Tank Memorial on Slapton Sands. Photo: Jim Linwood
Sherman Tank Memorial on Slapton Sands. Photo: Jim Linwood

Via Bolt Head

Exercise Tiger disaster

Whilst on the south coast, an aerial sightseeing opportunity is the site of one of the more tragic parts of the D-Day preparations.

During April 1944 in the lead-up to D-Day, a training exercise codenamed Operation Tiger turned into a devastating disaster off the shores of Slapton Sands, Devon. This large-scale rehearsal for the Normandy landings resulted in the deaths of at least 749 US servicemen, a secret kept hidden until after the war.

A German flotilla of fast attack boats, known as E-boats, managed to penetrate the Allied defences undetected. Two Landing Craft Tanks (LCTs) were sunk In the ensuing night attack and another heavily damaged, with hundreds of soldiers perishing in the cold waters of the English Channel. Many drowned due to inadequate training on life vests or hypothermia after spending hours in the water.

The secrecy surrounding the impending D-Day invasion forced a cover-up of the Operation Tiger losses. Families were told their loved ones died at sea in accidents or training mishaps. The news only emerged decades later.

The Operation Tiger tragedy provided valuable lessons. It exposed communication gaps and weaknesses in landing craft design. Modifications were made to improve life vests and procedures before the actual D-Day invasion. While the human cost was immense, the insights gained likely saved lives on the beaches of Normandy just two months later.

The closest airfield is the 600m farm strip at Bolt Head, just outside Salcombe. From here to the Exercise Tiger Memorial, another Sherman tank, this one recovered from the seabed nearby, it’s a 26 minute taxi ride. It is viewable from the air too.

Café Gondree, adjacent to Pegasus Bridge. Photo: Rundvald
Café Gondree, adjacent to Pegasus Bridge. Photo: Rundvald

Via Caen Carpiquet

Pegasus Bridge 

At the start of D-Day the intention was to seal off both ends of the invasion beaches with the use of airborne troops to delay the response from the occupying forces and open the road for the eventual breakout. The eastern end of the beachhead was the responsibility of the British Army, and it was here that arguably the single greatest piece of flying in WWII took place.

A Horsa glider piloted by Sgt Jim Wallwork was released from its tow over the Channel in darkness, and with navaids no more complex than a compass, landed just yards from its objective of the Orne River Bridge. Three of the remaining gliders landed within a hundred metres of Wallwork’s aircraft.

Lieutenant Den Brotheridge led the assault on Pegasus Bridge, facing immediate but brief resistance. The unprepared German guards were overwhelmed and the bridge was secured within 15 minutes. 

Demolition charges were removed by Royal Engineers to prevent the destruction of this bridge, and later the adjacent bridge at Ranville. The first house liberated was the now famous Café Gondree which is still open and acts as a memorial to Major Howard and his men.

Throughout 6 June the force, which at the start numbered just 181 men, held off German counter-attacks. They relied in part on captured German weapons and anti-tank guns. 

By nightfall, reinforcements from Sword Beach arrived, solidifying their hold on the crucial bridges.

In honour of this action the bridge has ever since been known as Pegasus Bridge, derived from the Paratroop Regiment’s cap badge. It has since been replaced by a more modern structure that retains the original’s basic profile. The first Pegasus Bridge is now displayed at the museum to the north of the café.

The all-important Pegasus Bridge in June 1944. Crashed Horsa gliders in the field behind - expert flying to get so close! Photo: Sgt Christie, Army Photo Unit
The all-important Pegasus Bridge in June 1944. Crashed Horsa gliders in the field behind - expert flying to get so close! Photo: Sgt Christie, Army Photo Unit
Standing with Giants at the new Caen British Memorial
Standing with Giants at the new Caen British Memorial

British Memorial & Standing with Giants

In July 2015, George Batts – a young soldier in the Royal Engineers on D-Day – met the BBC broadcaster Nicholas Witchell. George pointed out that the United Kingdom, alone among the principal Allied nations of WWII, did not have its own national memorial in Normandy recording the names of all those under British command who died on D-Day and during the Battle of Normandy.

In September 2016 a suitable site on farmland overlooking Gold Beach was identified. The site was secured with a £20 million contribution from the British government and substantial sums from private benefactors. Work started soon after the 75th anniversary of D-Day and was completed in time for the official opening on 6 June 2021.

The memorial itself is a stunning piece of work, but for D-Day 80 it is further enhanced by an art installation, ‘Standing with Giants’.

Life-size silhouettes, representing the 1,475 British servicemen who lost their lives on 6 June 1944, plus 50 French resistance fighters and two nurses, Mollie Evershed and Dorothy Field, stand proudly in the fields surrounding the memorial. 

The latter are the only two women to be found amongst the 22,442 names engraved on the memorial, all the British casualties of the Normandy Campaign.

The ‘Standing with Giants’ element will be removed at the end of August so the window to view this unique tribute is tight.

The nearest port-of-entry airfield is Caen Carpiquet, itself a WWII veteran. On D-Day the German 12th SS Panzer Division, known as the Hitler Jugend (Hitler Youth), used existing concrete shelters, machine gun towers, and anti-tank guns to put up a formidable defence. The airfield remained under German control for almost a month after D-Day.

Deauville Normandie Aerodrome is another option. From either, the most practical way of visiting these two sites would be by rental car.

St. Mère-Église with 'Private John Steele' hanging from the spire. Photo: Wiggy Too
St. Mère-Église with 'Private John Steele' hanging from the spire. Photo: Wiggy Too

Via Cherbourg Manche

St. Mère-Église

At the opposite (western) end of the beachhead it was the task of the US 82th and 101st Airborne to perform a similar interdiction.

Situated near the crossroads of Route N13, a vital artery connecting Utah Beach to the inland regions, St. Mère-Église offered the Germans a potential route for counter-attacks from the large garrison defending Cherbourg itself. Securing the bridges over the Douve River would prevent German reinforcements from hindering the Utah Beach landings.

The night before D-Day, paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne parachuted into the darkness around St. Mère-Église.

The drop was chaotic, the troop carrier pilots, unused to anti-aircraft fire, or indeed any action at all, exhibited many of the symptoms of panic, dropping their troops at too high speed or height, with considerable numbers of the heavily laden troops drowning in the sea or flooded fields.

Famously Private John Steele hung by his snagged parachute from the roof of the town church and dangled for hours before his eventual release and capture. Four hours later he escaped from the Germans and was able to re-join his unit.

A dummy Steele hangs by his parachute draped over the present day church tower, albeit far too high and in completely the wrong, but highly visible, place. 

The true story of his survival is far more interesting than the fictional version portrayed in the movie The Longest Day.

Despite the chaos, Lieutenant Colonel Edward C. Krause led his men in securing the town square by dawn. However, fierce German resistance ensued, turning St. Mère-Église into a battleground for two days. 

Eventually, American reinforcements arrived from the beaches and pushed the Germans back, securing the town and the crucial crossroads. Today there is an excellent museum just off the town square.

Pointe du Hoc where US Rangers took the site but suffered 70% casualties. Photo: Melinda Young
Pointe du Hoc where US Rangers took the site but suffered 70% casualties. Photo: Melinda Young

Pointe du Hoc

Between the US beaches of Utah and Omaha lies Pointe du Hoc. In 1944 it was heavily fortified and contained casements for a number of heavy artillery pieces which would have been capable of bombarding both of those beaches and causing heavy casualties amongst the landing troops and supporting naval units.

The 2nd Ranger Battalion led by Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder was tasked with scaling the 100-foot cliffs and neutralising the German artillery battery. It didn’t start well, with a navigational error heading them initially for the wrong landing spot, the extra time spent finding the right cliffs exposed them to heavy fire as well as a lot of discomfort in heavier than expected seas.

Despite these initial setbacks the Rangers exhibited incredible courage and tenacity. With the help of some much-needed support from the destroyer USS Satterlee, which on her Captain’s initiative closed in and provided fire suppression on the cliff tops, the Rangers were able to accomplish the climb using ladders and grappling hooks.

To a large extent it was wasted effort as the artillery pieces had been pulled out of the site and were in no position to play any part in operations against the invasion. Nevertheless, the Rangers remained at Pointe du Hoc, repelling German counter-attacks throughout the day. Facing heavy casualties and low on supplies, they held their position until finally relieved on June 8th having suffered something in the region of seventy percent casualties.

The heavy naval bombardment that preceded the assault left the ground cratered with an almost lunar look. There is simply no mistaking the site from the air, even today as nature softens some of the raw edges.

The nearest port-of-entry airfield is Cherbourg Manche. From here it is likely you will need a taxi to the town in order to pick up a rental car to visit the sites featured here.


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