A dramatic fly-past at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, prepares the way for the 70th anniversary of D-Day
It was the moment the war in Western Europe turned against the Nazis.
With Josef Stalin’s Red Army making progress towards Berlin from the East, Allied commanders decided the time had come to invade northern France and attack Hitler on the western flank of what the German dictator had termed his “Fortress Europe”.
At 6.30am on D-Day – June 6 1944 – after months of planning, the biggest land, sea and air force assembled before or since crossed the English Channel and began its assault on the heavily fortified Normandy beaches.
While thousands of British, American and Canadian troops poured ashore, in the skies above, hundreds of planes provided crucial air cover and logistical support.
It is that aspect of what came to be known as “the longest day” that was celebrated with a dramatic fly-past at the Imperial War Museum at Duxford, Cambridgeshire, this weekend, in advance of the 70th anniversary of D-Day.
Twenty fighters, bombers and transport aircraft of the type that would have been seen over the Normandy beaches were Saturday and Sunday flying over Duxford, Britain’s best-preserved Second World War Airfield, including eight planes that actually took part in D-Day.
A key role on the first day of the invasion was played by gliders, towed by aircraft such as the C-47 Skytrain taking part in the fly-past, which landed thousands of troops behind German lines, just after midnight, to establish a foothold inland, seizing bridges, road crossings and strategic points, before the assault on the beaches took place.
In the hours before the sea invasion began, airborne troops were parachuted into Normandy. As the boats landed on the beaches, fighter aircraft, such as the Supermarine Spitfires ML407 and MK356 – also taking part in the fly-past – engaged Luftwaffe planes in dogfights to protect the men below.
A total of 156,000 men took part in D-Day, but many times that number were involved in the ensuing campaign over the next two months. More than 6,000 ships and landing craft were involved, delivering troops to beaches along a carefully selected stretch of the Normandy coast – further west than German commanders had anticipated.
Although casualties on D-Day itself were lighter than Allied commanders feared, it is estimated that about 4,400 troops, airmen and sailors died on that day, of whom about 1,500 were British. The toll that was to follow in the weeks ahead was even worse, as Allied and German forces fought for every inch of Normandy farmland, hedgerow, woods and heath.
One fact alone illustrates the cost of liberation: in the whole of the Normandy battle zone there are 17,769 British war graves. Thousands more contain the remains of Americans, Canadians, Poles and other nationalities.
The fly-past and flying displays, which took place at Duxford on Saturday, were being repeated on Sunday between 2pm and 5.30pm. Commemorative events are also taking place on the ground.
Built at Castle Bromwich, Birmingham, in early 1944, the single-seat fighter served on the front line of battle throughout the last year of the Second World War, with six different Allied squadrons of the Royal Air Force’s 2nd Tactical Air Force.
The aircraft was delivered to No 485 (New Zealand) Squadron on April 29 1944 by Jackie Moggridge, a female pilot in the Air Transport Auxiliary.
It was flown in combat by Flying Officer Johnnie Houlton, who used it to strike the first enemy aircraft to be shot down after the D-Day invasion began – a Luftwaffe Junkers Ju 88.
Recalling the moment, Houlton, who died in 1996, said: “Climbing at full throttle, I saw the enemy aircraft enter a large isolated cloud above the main layer, and when it reappeared on the other side, I was closing in rapidly.
“I… positioned the aiming dot on the right-hand engine of the enemy aircraft and fired a three-second burst. The engine disintegrated, fire broke out, two crew members bailed out and the aircraft dived steeply to crash on a roadway, blowing apart on impact.”
DOUGLAS C-47 SKYTRAIN
One of the world’s most famous military transport aircraft, the Douglas C-47 Dakota, called the “Skytrain” in the US, was used to carry troops and freight.
It was also used for the air-dropping of supplies and paratroops, for towing gliders and for evacuating casualties.
This aircraft, known as Whiskey 7, served with the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean during 1943 before transferring to the UK.
In the early hours of D-Day, it was the lead aircraft of the 37th Troop Carrier Squadron, dropping paratroopers of the 82nd Airborne Division near St-Mère-Église in the lower Normandy region. The aircraft was sent across the Atlantic by the National Warplane Museum of Geneseo, New York, for the anniversary.
TRADEWIND AVIATION’S C-47 SKYTRAIN
This C-47 was based at RAF Aldermaston in Berkshire with the 73rd Squadron of the 434th Troop Carrier Group.
It was from there on D-Day that it towed a Waco glider into the Normandy battle zone.
The plane was also flown at Arnhem in the Netherlands and during the Battle of the Bulge, in the winter of 1944-45.
It returned to the US in June 1945 and served for a number of years as a civilian aircraft.
In 2010 it was returned to flying condition by a British restoration team, having been left sitting at an airport in Georgia with vegetation growing through the bodywork.
The team, from Edwards Brothers Aviation in Welling, Kent, painted Britain’s flag on the side, earning the plane the nickname the Union Jack Dak.
The US-based plane arrived in Coventry earlier this month having been flown across the Atlantic from Connecticut for the D-Day commemorations.
DAKOTA HERITAGE’S C-47 SKYTRAIN
Nicknamed “Drag-em-oot”, this C-47 was delivered to the US Army Air Force in December 1943 and later flown to the UK and assigned to the 87th Troop Carrier Squadron at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire.
On the afternoon of D-Day, it flew on operation Elmira, helping to tow gliders into Normandy. It was then used by a specialist unit to recover gliders from the area.
Drag-em-oot also dropped supplies during operation Market Garden, the Allied attempt to enter Germany over the Lower Rhine in September 1944.
The lower wings and rear fuselage of the aircraft were hit by ground fire and flak. The cockpit was sprayed with bullets from a German fighter aircraft, with one passing through the back of the pilot’s seat, although there are no records of any injuries or fatalities.
The aircraft is now privately owned and based at the Lincolnshire Aviation Heritage Centre in East Kirkby, Lincs. It still bears numerous bullet hole patches on its fuselage and around the cockpit.
ACES HIGH’S C-47 SKYTRAIN
This C-47 was in Britain serving with the 8th Air Force from mid-1943 to September 1944.
It is believed to have flown on glider-towing operations, possibly from RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset, over D-Day.
The aircraft was later involved in the Arnhem operation before being transferred to the 9th Air Force.
It is now owned by Aces High, an aerial filming firm, which bought it from the RAF.
It has appeared in a series of television programmes and films, including the James Bond film Quantum of Solace and The Monuments Men, starring George Clooney.