Daks

Prose: Carl Wrightson
Photography: Carl Wrightson & Robert Griffiths

“Soldiers, Sailors, and Airmen of the Allied Expeditionary Force: You are about to embark upon the Great Crusade, toward which we have striven these many months. The eyes of the world are upon you.” - General Dwight D. Eisenhower

Everyone who knows of Operation Overlord (D-Day Invasion) has probably read or at least heard Eisenhower’s speech to those who would embark on the liberation of Europe. Those very words could also be attributed to a recent undertaking by Daks Over Normandy to get more than 30 venerable Douglas C-47’s (otherwise known as the Skytrain, Dakota, DC-3, or Gooney Bird) to overfly the original drop zone for the 75th anniversary of the invasion.

There are currently many celebrations, commemorations and remembrance activities going on in every country that was involved; from the US to Australia, New Zealand to the very shores of France. As it was 75 years ago, the aircraft for this event were staged in the United Kingdom. These aircraft were used to drop paratroopers on D-Day ahead of the main landing force, and some of the returning airframes were actual D-Day veterans. They gathered mostly at Imperial War Museum, Duxford, but also congregated at smaller grass strips throughout Southern England.

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Robert Ieuan Griffiths and I converged on IWM Duxford on Tuesday June 4th to watch preparations for the big day and experience something that had not been seen since D-Day. Full Disc Aviation was not going to miss this opportunity to be a part of warbird history, the likes of which may never be repeated.

This was an historical event and I even made sure I took my wife and young son to see this on the previous Sunday. I’m sure he’ll appreciate it more when he is older! But on a serious note, every day had generations of families in attendance which was fantastic to see. On Monday 5th June I even got to speak to some British 1960’s paratroop veterans who had made the journey down from North East England, proudly wearing their black blazers adorned with medals and their iconic red berets of the elite British Army Parachute Regiment.

On a personal note, D-Day is something that is close to my heart and has always been a fascination of mine. My Grandfather had been in the Royal Marine Engineers and was transported to Normandy on the 8th June 1945. He rarely talked about the war which isn’t uncommon, but I do remember him telling me the story of driving on the Mulberry Harbour. Mulberry Harbour B was located at Arromanches on Sword Beach and initially you had to reverse your lorry off and he had seen quite a few lorries go off the side of it and into the sea. But he managed to survive that.

Once the British forces broke out of Normandy, it took him up through France, into Belgium then Holland and finally into Germany and Berlin where he watched and took photos of the Allied Victory Parade of September 1945 where all four Allied powers took part. I have included a few of the original photos here I now have, along with their negatives.

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He survived being strafed by a German Messerschmitt Me-109 whilst riding on the back of a Canadian pick-up truck after their own truck broke down at the back of the column. The motorcycle outriders who were supposed to check for this and stop the entire column didn’t and they were left stranded, so he went off to find them, returning the next day having jumped from the moving truck into a ditch.

As they moved up and into Belgium, they arrived in Antwerp. I remember him telling me how, on December 16th, 1944, he was asked by some of his friends if he wanted to go to the cinema, the Cine Rex in Antwerp. He changed his mind and decided not to go. This was the first day of the Ardennes offensive and at 15:20 the SS Werfer Battery 500 launched a V-2 rocket from Holland at Antwerp. This landed on the roof of the cinema as the film was showing with 1,100 people inside. The rocket killed 567 people, including 296 Allied servicemen, some of whom were his friends who had asked him to go, destroying 11 buildings, and it was the highest death toll from a single rocket attack during WWII. Ironically that date would also be significant for him 22 years later, when I was born!

Finally, he managed to avoid being shot by US Forces in a camp up on a hill where he and two of his friends were selling Navy rum rations they had “acquired” from the Officers mess that they had watered down in all but one of the casks they had. Unfortunately, when selling them, the US soldiers decided to open them all and not just drink from the 100% rum cask. They cottoned on to what was going on and he and his two friends ran off down the hill whilst being shot at!

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It’s stories like these and those of the remaining veterans of WWII that are important to capture and remember and ensure the younger generations are told. The remainder of those veterans won’t be around for much longer and so to see them with their families and the children of today at Daks Over Duxford was very special. There were school trips in attendance which was great to see and children there in school time but with their parents. What better way to take a day off school!

I had decided to take the opportunity on Monday 4th June to fly in the back of a T-6 Harvard and watch as 5 of the Dakotas practised their formation link ups and flights ahead of the formal celebration days. As we and two other T-6’s took off, the Dakotas taxied past us to join us. We took off and flew a circuit and watched below as the Dakotas ran down the runway and got airborne from this historic airfield. It was as surreal sight to watch, almost like you were watching a documentary on TV. We stayed airborne for 40 minutes spending time watching them and having been required to stay 1000ft above them for safety reasons, but then our three T-6 Harvard’s, with ours as the lead ship, headed home to Duxford. But before we landed, we had the opportunity to make a 3-ship pass down the runway for the crowds below.

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One note to everyone though, if you get a chance to fly in the back of one of these aircraft, don’t expect much room to turn to take photos! The canopy comes in very close, so I had to take shots of the other T-6’s holding my camera out a foot in front of me whilst doing back button focus with one hand and taking the shot with the other! It was still an awesome experience.

Tuesday 4th June arrived, and Rob and I met up at IWM Duxford for the first of the two Daks Over Duxford celebration days.

It seemed that it was not only the Dakota’s that would try to replicate the day of June 6th, 1944. With previous days basking in glorious sunshine, you guessed it, it wasn’t long before the typical ‘British’ weather would make an appearance. This, however, did not dampen our resolve to see these machines grace the sky and launch all who attended into time warp. The first crack of a Pratt & Whitney R-1830-90C Twin Wasp caused everyone's eyes to look down the flight line and it still didn’t quite sink in. We were looking at 23 aircraft; 16 x C-47 Skytrains, 4 x C-53 Skytroopers, 1 x C-41, 1 x C-49 and even an unbelievably rare Lisunov Li-2T from Hungary.

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It wasn’t long before the first began to roll out onto the taxiway to our left; everyone had their cameras and phones out to document this momentous time. Seven airframes slowly taxied past us, gracefully handled by each of the crew who happily waved to the slowly gathering crowds. One thing that was pretty special was the cacophony of noise that these aircraft put out at full chat, one after the other, as they headed down the runway, tails up quickly before gracing the skies with their iconic sound and outline.

As they laboured into the skies and joined up, it wasn’t long before something was noticeably wrong as one pulled sharply from the formation and headed downwind. As it got closer, looking through the lens, we noticed that the left engine on the Norwegian DC3 “Little Egypt” was motionless and feathered indicating the crew thought it necessary to shut down an engine. Expertly handled, she was coaxed on a single engine onto the runway but would ultimately stop at the end of the runway, necessitating a tow. It was an ominous start but thankfully no injuries, save an engine or two.

We were treated to some formation flying during the rest of the day, in-between rain showers, some of which were heavy and with a gusting wind. The paratroopers were preparing for their afternoon drop onto the airfield, but this would be weather, and specifically wind, dependent due to their 10-knot limit.

Over 200 active and re-enactor parachutists, including the RAF’s Red Devils display team, had come from re-enactor groups as far away as the US to jump at Duxford ahead of their jumps over Normandy. Crowds gathered to watch them prepare and then wait by their aircraft to board. As you looked through your camera’s eyepiece you were taken back 75 years. The aircraft and the jumpers and the location were a perfect combination of realism and it was as if you had gone back in time and were watching them leaving for Normandy or another mission such as Operation Market Garden, Operation Rapture over Bastogne in Belgium and Operation Varsity that supported the Allies as they crossed the Rhine river into Germany.

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The weather conditions hadn’t changed, and it was now just after lunch. The wind was still blowing and as the parachutists boarded their aircraft everyone hoped they would jump, but deep down we all knew that the limits would just not let them. As people looked on, we watched Olive Drab Dakotas with black and white D-Day stripes taxi to the runway from in front of us and line up. What a sight, but as expected, after two circuits of the airfield they returned to land with a single jump. The aim was to get back up there later in the afternoon and try again but with no preparations of either the parachutists or the aircraft we knew that it was not to be.

However, we did see two Supermarine Spitfire Mk IV’s, ML407 and MH434, displaying as a pair, followed by a four ship display of the Republic P-47D Thunderbolt, two P-51D Mustang’s and a Grumman FM-2 Wildcat with solos afterwards.

Wednesday 5th June was departure for the Daks, but busy VIP airspace and weather constraints meant a delayed departure to Normandy in late afternoon. That also meant late drops for the parachutists, just after 7pm French time. The local weather had improved though, although Rob and myself couldn’t attend that day, so we did not get to see the fly-past of the USAF MC-130J Commandos and the CV-22B ospreys.

With aircraft having technical issues, the C-47A-60-DL Skytrain “Flabob Express” could not make the trip to Normandy. The Norwegian C-53D-DO Skytrooper “Little Egypt” did not recover from her engine failures of the day before either. In the end, 22 of the 220 parachutists could not jump and lots had to be drawn to decide who would make the trip which was gut wrenching for those left behind.

All in all, the experience of seeing a flight line with so many of these aircraft was special. The history of these aircraft when you dig into them is amazing. They look like they rolled off the production line yesterday but of the 23 at IWM Duxford, 7 undertook missions as part of Operation Overlord, specifically flying on D-Day either dropping elements of the 101st and 82nd Airborne divisions or towing them in WACO gliders. A further 9 took part in WWII but not in D-Day and the final 7 not in WWII at all.

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Although involved but not at IWM Duxford, bullet holes still exist in some, such as the C-47A “Drag-em-Oot”. Handwritten names of soldiers are preserved for ever such as in the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight’s C-47 “Kwitcherbitchin” from the Berlin Airlift, which did not attend Daks Over Duxford due to the weather and headed straight for Normandy on 4th June.

 It’s unlikely we will ever see this happen again, certainly in these numbers. To be part of this experience of remembrance was inspirational and at times an emotional one.

In time we’ll only be left with the aircraft as “living” memories of what happened back then. 75 years ago, the men who flew, jumped out of or were towed in these aircraft were 18, 19, 20 years or so old. Now in their 90’s, it is important we make sure we remember what they did. Not just for the people of the time, but for subsequent generations; those who are alive now and those who have yet to live. We must pass those stories on. Explain to our children what happened, why and what it meant. It is easy for newer generations to become detached from their past because they never knew anyone or their relatives who took part. It’s almost fictional.

It’s our responsibility to make sure we never forget. Show them the photos. Read them the stories. Keep the memories of those who fought alive. They aren’t just aircraft. They are history and carried peoples lives, hopes and dreams.

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If Daks Over Duxford showed us anything, seeing the generations of great grandparents, grandparents, parents and children come together to experience this shows us that this can and is being done.

Be a part of it.