Special feature

GA remembers D-Day's Dakotas

This June, D-Day 80 commemorations will be held to remember the men who must never be forgotten. And in 2019 Paul Kiddell set off in his Eurostar in search of visiting Dakotas commemorating D-Day 75…

The story behind this adventure starts on the 6 June 1944; D-Day. The momentous day is less than 30 minutes old but already in an incredible feat of flying, three British Horsa gliders have landed yards from the Benouville Bridge that spans the Caen canal, and Major Howard and his men have seized control of what we now call Pegasus Bridge. Further to the east of Caen, British pathfinders are dropping from Albermarles to prepare parachute dropzones (DZ) and glider landing zones (LZ), which will shortly receive almost 8,000 paratroopers and glider troops of the British 6th Airborne Division. The British airborne operation will secure the eastern flank of the Normandy invasion beaches and neutralise a number of coastal batteries.

At the same time, some 40 miles to the north-west, 20 USAAF Douglas C-47s from RAF North Witham drop US pathfinders from the 101st Airborne and the 82nd Airborne. Their mission is to mark six parachute DZs and three glider LZs to enable 13,000 paratroopers and 3,900 glider troops from the two American divisions to secure the Cherbourg peninsula behind Utah beach.

At 0048, 30 minutes after the pathfinders land, Lt Col John Donalson leads the main 101st Airborne Divisional drop in C-47 That’s All, Brother. He is leading Serial 7, a formation of 36 American C-47s from RAF Greenham Common.

For the next few hours, some 800 US C-47s follow That’s All, Brother in serials (formations) of 36, 45 or 54 C-47s. They fly at 500ft SSW from Portland Bill, turning SE to pass between Guernsey and Alderney before crossing the western Cherbourg peninsula coast. Each DZ serial formation is separated by six minutes and the C-47s drop their ‘stick’ of 15-18 paratroopers from around 700ft at 110mph.

As a lead aircraft, That’s All, Brother carries an enhanced crew of seven with two navigators and has a specially fitted SCR-717 radar in an under fuselage radome to help identify coastlines and prominent landmarks. All the C-47s are fitted with short-range Rebecca receivers, which give range and bearing from Eureka transmitters set up by the pathfinders.

However, Rebecca wasn’t effective within two miles and at close range the C-47 pilots rely on a lit T established by the pathfinders. Operating in strict radio silence, the early serials encounter low cloud and fog over the Cherbourg peninsula breaking up many formations which are also subject to anti-aircraft fire.

British airborne success

That’s All, Brother takes some minor hits but completes its drop and makes it home safely. Poor weather, enemy action and damage to pathfinder equipment results in many drops being widely scattered. But history records that despite wide dispersal (also suffered by British airborne units), airborne troops successfully complete their dangerous missions and make an outstanding contribution to this crucially important day.

Fast-forward to 2010. Nigel Hitchman and I are making our annual pilgrimage to EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh. It is the 75th anniversary of the Douglas DC-3 and they are present in large numbers. Baslers, who continue to convert DC-3s to turbine power at their Oshkosh base, are hosting a 75th anniversary party. 

Parked outside on the ramp is a tired old C-47 in fake Vietnam-era USAF colours awaiting its turn for turbine conversion but, aside from using it as an impromptu sunshade, no one pays it much attention.

But all that is about to change. USAF historian Matt Scales is following up a rumour that Lt Col Donalson led the US D-Day airborne invasion. Not only does he confirm that Donalson led the main 101st airborne drop but he discovers the aircraft serial, 42-92847, belongs to the very same airframe awaiting conversion at Baslers. 

That sets off a chain of events that sees the Commemorative Air Force (CAF) acquiring the aircraft via an online crowd-funding campaign led by my good friend, expat Adam Smith, (former curator of the Scottish Museum of Flight at East Fortune). The campaign is boosted by the discovery of archive film that shows That’s All, Brother on the eve of D-Day during a visit to Greenham Common by the Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D Eisenhower. The campaign is hugely successful and That’s All, Brother, fully restored by Basler to its WWII configuration, makes its first post-restoration flight in January 2018.

Across the Atlantic

From the outset, the CAF intended to fly the aircraft to Europe for the D-Day 75 anniversary events. When Nigel and I attend a press conference at AirVenture 2018, disparate groups have joined to form the US D-Day Squadron and hope to fly around 20 DC-3s across the Atlantic to join with European aircraft at Duxford and Caen. We are lucky to be taken aloft over Oshkosh, Nigel in That’s All, Brother, sitting on the paratrooper bench seats, while I enjoy a bit more luxury in ex-pat Richard Martin’s Californian-based N341A.

N341A is the sole C-41A, a 1939 DC-3 purchased as a military command transport and later used as the personal transport of General Hap Arnold, head of the USAAF. N341A really is travelling in style and the aircraft is fully IMC capable with twin Garmin GTN750 GPS/Nav/Comm and de-icing boots.

What a treat flying over Oshkosh in this iconic aircraft which, incidentally, is one of the lower timed DC-3s around with less than 10,000 hours. Enthused, Nigel and I undertake to meet up with the D-Day Sqn during their European adventure.

Mid-May 2019 and the US DC-3s gather at Oxford, Connecticut. They will follow the WWII Northern Ferry Route from Oxford, Connecticut / Goose Bay in Newfoundland / Narsarsuaq, Greenland / Reykjavik, Iceland / Prestwick. On 22 May, I learn that four Dakotas have enjoyed good Atlantic weather and are arriving at Prestwick, so decide to fly up from Eshott to hopefully grab some photos from above.

Kev Waugh joins me and we plan to fly the two hours north to camp overnight on Bute. We depart Eshott at 1600 in a stiff breeze, Kev in his Eurostar SL and me in our group owned Eurostar Classic G-CEVS. Cruising at 100mph we are soon over the beautiful Southern Upland hills (rising to 2,756ft), speaking to the ever-helpful Scottish Information.

I amuse trainee controller Liam Moran with my clumsy pronunciation of the Scottish reporting points and he happily passes on my request for photography to Prestwick. As a result, on handover, Prestwick immediately clears me to enter the zone and take photos over the Dakotas which are parked to the north of runway 30.

I spy the four Dakotas (in reality they are C-47s, but while not strictly correct, I’ll use the generic British name to cover the different DC-3 variants), which are unloading a huge pile of transatlantic kit and make a grand sight in the evening sunshine. Three of the four, That’s All, Brother, Placid Lassie and the Legend Airways aircraft flew on D-Day operations.

Prestwick play it’s part

Prestwick saw huge expansion in WWII with two concrete runways and extensive aprons being added in 1942 to host an increasing number of aircraft being ferried from the US and Canada. By the end of WWII, some 37,000 aircraft had passed through Prestwick with 300 per day arriving at its peak in 1944. Prestwick still regularly hosts USAF aircraft and the Dakotas make an interesting contrast with three C-130s and a KC-135 tanker parked close-by.

After enjoying half-a-dozen orbits at 500ft, I exit the Prestwick CTR at Irvine harbour before catching Kev up over Bute. It’s always a pleasure to fly on the west coast of Scotland and we enjoy some low-level sight-seeing before positioning for Bute’s 480m grass Runway 27.

As with many Scottish island strips, Bute was originally used by Loganair air ambulance Islanders before helicopters took on the service. Whilst the strip is still owned by the Mount Stuart Estate, its maintenance is overseen by enthusiastic mainland pilots Sandy Cameron and Willie Long who rely on donations from visiting pilots for its upkeep. Details on how to donate are attached to the Control post (literally a box mounted on a wooden stake!) next to the windsock at the western parking area. One major improvement this year has been the removal of trees from the eastern end allowing a clear approach to Runway 27.

Kev and I enjoy a short walk to the Kingarth Hotel, which not only serves great food, but also has first-class B&B. However, after an excellent meal we return to the strip and put our tents up while enjoying a magnificent sunset with stunning views of the Isle of Arran.

We rise early and with no facilities at the strip, you really need to be self-sufficient. I’m well prepared and cook bacon sarnies on my camping stove which runs on unleaded petrol, handy as I can take it out of G-CEVS’ fuel drain. That said, it would be most embarrassing for a future AAIB report to read ‘the Eurostar ran out of fuel after the occupants enjoyed a hearty breakfast’.

We depart Bute, a real gem of a strip, and while no PPR is required, please do support Sandy and Willie should you drop by.

Liberating Europe

I fly a lot in Scotland but have never flown the south Ayrshire coast so we head low-level for Castle Kennedy Airfield at Stranraer. It’s a beautiful morning. We pass Troon harbour and later come across Culzean Castle, once home the Kennedy Clan.

The castle has an interesting D-Day link as when the Kennedy family passed it to the National Trust of Scotland in 1945, they stipulated that the apartment at the top of the castle be given to Dwight D Eisenhower in recognition of his role in liberating Europe. Eisenhower went on to stay four times, including once while serving as US President and today the Eisenhower suite is available to rent.

We enjoy a brief stop at Castle Kennedy, a former RAF WWII training airfield, now owned by the affable Lord Jamie Stair. Like Bute, there are no facilities, though there is a cafe in the nearby Castle Kennedy Gardens. About 600m of the original Runway 26/08 has now been resurfaced and is in good condition. After a leg-stretch, we head back along the Solway Firth and Tyne Valley following Hadrian’s Wall and arrive home after a cracking overnight trip.

Over the coming days more American Dakotas arrive at Prestwick and the airport holds a DC-3 open weekend after which aircraft leave for Duxford. Richard Martin and his crew are the 15th and final US DC-3 to arrive in the UK when they touch down at Inverness on 31 May. What a truly magnificent effort from the Americans.

My group partner Alex Smith would be joining me for the next stage of our Dakota adventure. We plan to leave for Fowlmere (Duxford won’t take flying visitors due to
the number of Daks) on Monday 3 June, stay at Duxford for three days before leaving for Falaise on 6 June. Like several airfields in Normandy, Falaise has restricted access and you have to email the local DGAC office for permission but this was readily granted in a couple of days.

As with all good flying plans, weather intervenes and on Friday evening we decide we need to depart Eshott early Saturday or be stuck. While I rush around gathering camping gear, Nigel informs me that seven American Dakotas plan to arrive at Old Warden on Saturday for the Sunday airshow. Several weeks previously, the Aces High Dakota became the first ever DC-3 to land at Old Warden. But seven aircraft… Wow! We head south with great anticipation.

During our 2.5 hour transit, we pass over the disused RAF Cottesmore. In the early hours of D-Day, 72 C-47s from Cottesmore, supported by 49 C-47s from Spanhoe, dropped a regiment of the 82nd Airborne on to Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Despite one stick of troops falling into the town centre, with Paratrooper John Steele famously hanging from the church steeple, the drop is acknowledged as the most accurate American drop on D-Day. As a result, Sainte-Mère-Eglise became the first French town to be liberated. John Steele went on to survive the war, his ordeal being portrayed by Red Buttons in The Longest Day.

SAS teams…

Approaching Old Warden, we fly over the former RAF Tempsford, WWII home of RAF Special Duties Sqns that supported Special Operations Executive resistance operations across Europe. Shortly after midnight on D-Day, a Halifax of 138 Sqn dropped two three-man SAS teams and 200 dummy parachutists north-west of Marigny, some distance south of the real airborne landings to sow confusion among the German defenders. The SAS team leader, Lt Norman Poole, became the first Allied solider to land in France on D-Day. Norman survived the war and died in 2015 aged 95.

Arriving at Old Warden, there’s a buzz of excitement as word of arrival of the Dakotas has spread. We are greeted by Nigel who has flown in from Hinton in his RV-6. A couple of years back, Shuttleworth took the bold decision to scrap landing fees and as a result, many friends now fly in to use the excellent cafe or pay to wander the museum with its world renowned collection of historic aircraft and vehicles. While waiting, we fuel from the self-serve UL91 linked to a credit-card machine (100LL is also available).

The Dakotas come into sight at 1500 with seven aircraft making the short journey from Duxford. College Road is closed to extend the 521m Runway 21 to almost 1,000m of lush grass. Placid Lassie is first to land and it’s an amazing sight as all the aircraft conduct immaculate wheeler landings and stop in short-order before parking-up on the NW end of Runway 30 near the cafe.

In a very relaxed atmosphere we chat with the crews and position G-CEVS for photos. What comes across is the herculean effort to get the 75-year-plus aircraft across the Atlantic; not only in financial terms (the aircraft alone burns about 95 gal/hr) but springing people from busy work schedules and arranging endless logistics for both aircraft and crew.

Their reward is the incredible level of interest and support wherever they go. Other DC-3 crews and support staff arrive by road from Duxford and later set off across the airfield in Shuttleworth vintage buses where they enjoy a private BBQ.

Operation Market Garden

Inevitably with such old workhorses, all the DC-3s have great backstories. Placid Lassie was based at Aldermaston (now the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment) on D-Day and was one of 52 C-47s that took off at 0200, each towing a Waco CG-4A assault glider delivering heavy equipment for the 101st Airborne. Placid Lassie went on to fly in several sorties in Operation Market Garden over Arnhem and after the war returned to the States, serving as an airliner, a cargo plane, a mosquito sprayer and a jump plane.

Abandoned at Covington in Georgia, the aircraft was purchased in 2010 by ex-pat Lyle James with the objective of getting it airborne in eight weeks so it could attend the Oshkosh 75th DC-3 anniversary event.

Somehow a team lead by British Dakota guru, Clive Edwards, succeeded and it arrived at Oshkosh in its civilian scheme bearing a Union flag on the nose. Today the Tunison Foundation operate the aircraft, which is now resplendent in original D-Day markings.

It was also great to see the restoration detail in our old friend That’s All, Brother right down to the roughly painted invasion stripes (one C-47 sqn at Spanhoe used their snow brush to apply the 24-inch stripes) and the Rebecca Yagi receiver aerials either side of the cockpit. The go-ahead to apply invasion stripes was not given until 3 June and once applied, aircraft were then grounded until D-Day.

Village war memorial

Alex and I decide to camp for two nights in the small Shuttleworth campsite adjacent to the gardens. Wandering to the village pub we discover what a charming village Old Warden is with its thatched cottages, many of which still belong to the Trust.

We note Richard Shuttleworth’s name on the village war memorial. Richard was killed during a cross-country in a Fairey Battle in 1940, which resulted in his mother forming the Trust in his memory. After well-deserved pints and great food, we wander back through the estate and resist the urge to gatecrash a wedding reception that is underway in the magnificent house.

On Sunday, large crowds enjoy an excellent airshow with visitors allowed beyond the fence to wander around the Dakotas in the morning. Shuttleworth airshows seem to get better and better and one highlight is a 1930s racing formation comprising the de Havilland Comet, two Percival Mew Gulls and the Miles Hawk Speed Six racer. But the Dakotas steal the show and depart for Duxford mid-afternoon. Well done to Shuttleworth and the American D-Day squadron for putting on such a fantastic spectacle at an iconic location.

On Monday, after another night under canvas, we depart for Fowlmere. Duxford is just coming alive and as we follow the Dunnington’s Beech 18, Duxford approves a 500ft photo pass. Twenty-two Dakotas from above is a truly memorable sight in the morning sun and the camera is busy.

Old Warden village sign complete with vintage pilot and de Havilland Moth
Count them! DC-3s lined up in front of the Duxford Aviation Society’s excellent collection of British airliners and impressive American Air Museum
C-53D D-Day Doll landing at Duxford. On D-Day the aircraft flew glider-tug missions out of Aldermaston

Continuing three miles west, we land on Fowlmere’s immaculate 700m grass Runway 25 and receive a warm welcome from chief engineer Kevin Gilbert. Fowlmere was also busy during D-Day with the resident P-51 Mustangs of the USAAF 339th Fighter Group providing air cover over the beachheads.

With G-CEVS tied down for a few days, we are collected by Enterprise rental car from nearby Royston and head-off to Duxford. While Monday isn’t a formal Dakota event day, there is a lot of flying with formation practice and display authorisations being issued.

Again, there is a great atmosphere with large numbers of parachutists from the US and around the world dressed in WWII uniforms mingling with the crowds.

By the end of the day, the 15 American aircraft have been joined by seven European Dakotas, mostly operated by enthusiastic preservation groups. Also present, is the world’s last airworthy Lisunov Li-2 from Hungary.

The Li-2 was a Soviet licenced production version of the DC-3 and whilst the licence was granted in 1936, the conversion to metric measurements meant the first aircraft didn’t emerge from the Moscow production line until 1939. Externally the most visible change is the switch of the fuselage door from the port to starboard side. Nearly 5,000 Li-2 were produced, and HA-LIX was built in 1949 at Tashkent (the factory having relocated after the Nazi invasion).

Of the 23 aircraft present, six participated in D-Day itself. Remarkably, three of them flew together out of Barkston Heath on D-Day; N62CC Virginia Ann led a formation of 36, that included the Swedish SE-CFP and the Legends Airways N25641, to drop 82nd Airborne paratroopers.

Another notable DC-3 is N18121, the world’s highest time DC-3 which has flown in excess of 91,500 hours and was recently overhauled by DC-3 specialist, Aerometal International of Oregon. The stunning 82-year-old aircraft was originally delivered to Eastern Airways in October 1937. Paul Bazeley, CEO of Aerometal who flew N18121 across, wonders if it is the oldest aircraft ever to cross the Atlantic?

Flown over from Oregon, N18121 is the highest time DC-3 in the world with more than 91,500 hours

Mass formations

Monday ends with a mass launch of 14 Dakotas that return for a formation run and break to land. The formation turns out to be the largest of the Duxford and Caen events and gives us a little taste of what it must have been like to witness the huge WWII formations.

After a comfortable night in a nearby B&B, Alex and I return to Duxford on Tuesday along with large crowds as it’s a formal event day. The weather is poor with low cloud and the much-hoped for mass Dakota parachute drop is scrubbed due to the wind exceeding the 10kt limit. However, there is still limited flying with some excitement as the Norwegian aircraft shuts down the port engine and returns safely with a feathered prop.

The USAF puts on a wonderful tribute as six V-22 Ospreys fly by in formation with six C-130s. We also enjoy some excellent displays of British and American WWII Airborne weapons, equipment and vehicles in the Air Space hangar. But the rain is incessant and we leave early for the famous Eagle Pub in Cambridge, a haunt of many American and British wartime squadrons. The pub’s RAF bar has a mass of memorabilia and the ceiling is covered in the names of long-forgotten crew members who used their lighters to burn their names into the red paint. Oh, and the food and beer are good, too – so it is certainly highly recommended!

Wednesday’s weather is much improved and the Dakotas are busy preparing to depart en masse for Normandy where 11 aircraft will drop paras in period equipment over Sannerville. There are some great supporting displays including a sensational paired Spitfire aerobatic routine with Richard Grace flying lead and Steve Jones very tight alongside.

Meanwhile, two D-Day Parachute Regiment veterans, Harry Read (95) and Jock Hutton (94) get airborne in a Cessna Caravan with the Red Devils and head off to Normandy to do a tandem drop. Fantastic!

Parachutists in WWII period uniforms loading for their drop over Normandy
Spectacular 11-ship Dakota formation

After a number of delays linked to the movements of President Trump in Normandy, 21 aircraft finally depart with P-51, Beech 18 and Harvard escorts. I’m desperately sorry for the Californian crew of the Flabob Express (a former WWII RAF Dakota), which goes tech and joins the Norwegian aircraft on the sidelines.

The roar of the massed Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp and the odd Wright R-1820 Cyclone finally fades as the aerial armada disappears from view. I phone my parents who have joined thousands at Beachy Head in Sussex to view the aircraft coasting out low-level. The Dakotas have truly caught the public’s imagination. But for us the journey is about over as a huge low pressure system is approaching Normandy and we can’t afford to get stuck. We return to Fowlmere and fly to Sywell to overnight.

In the morning, on the 6 June, we mount-up for home surrounded by warbirds as the Grace team give D-Day rides in the Spitfire and Mustang whilst getting bounced by Dave Puleston in the Buchon. A wonderful end to a fantastic week.

The Allies flew an astounding 14,674 sorties on D-Day with more than 1,000 American C-47s and RAF Dakotas playing a vital role in the airborne assault. Over 4,000 allied troops were killed that day so I’ll leave the last word to D-Day veteran Harry Billinge who was interviewed live on the BBC and had this to say about his colleagues: “Marvellous men, my generation saved the world and I’ll never forget any of them.”

Bravo Harry and all the brave young men of 75 years ago.


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