D-Day 75th: Daks over Normandy
Report and photos by Gabriele Rivera
August 5, 2019
The D-Day has been a military operation of such strategic relevance to be remembered in the centuries to come in the history books (or whatever shape will the books take in the future). Being so tightly connected with the recent European history it’s not surprising that every June Normandy hosts a number of celebrations all over the sites that have been theater of fierce fightings, and one striking feature of these anniversaries is the participation, every passing year a bit shrinking, of veterans that have fought along those coastlines and countryside. Every five years the celebrations assume the shape of huge events, rallying head of states and hundred of thousands of people commemorating the courage of young soldiers from USA, UK and other countries willing to contribute, men in the very spring of their life who landed on the Norman coasts and jumped in the dark of the night from crowded formations of transport airplanes, risking (and too often losing) their life to free Europe from the stranglehold of Nazi occupation.
This 75th anniversary will probably be the last big one to witness a significant participation of veterans; their average age is approaching the century milestone and is sadly easy to forecast that the 80th celebrations will see a much smaller group of them. But June 2019 has been just as likely a unique chance to witness the participation of several representatives of another subject which had a leading role in the operations of those days, the Douglas C-47 Skytrain, the military version of the DC-3 airliner, which once entered into service in the Royal Air Force was designated the Dakota.
In 2014 a first attempt to bring together as many Daks as possible was set up at the Cherbourg-Maupertus airport during the D-Day’s 70th anniversary. Modest but successful, this event put in motion a group of people, led by Peter Braun, whose goal was to gather the highest possible number of still flyable Dakotas to celebrate the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Their efforts gave birth in 2017 to an initiative named again “Daks over Normandy”; the potential number of participants was impressive, almost fifty aircraft were candidate to take part to this awesome enterprise but, during the various stages of the preparations, the harsh reality due to several kind of problems started to decrease the number of players. Eventually the final number topped to 23, which is still a gathering that in the future will not be easy to match again.
The core of this formation is an American one, the D-Day Squadron, formed by 14 airplanes; officially launched on February 5, 2018 by the Tunison Foundation, a non-profit organization that owns and operates World War II era aircraft. Among the planes forming the squadron some are D-Day veterans: the Tunison Foundation’s Placid Lassie, the D-Day Doll (a C-53D Skytrooper), the Virginia Ann, the Legend Airways Liberty (a DC-3C), and the Commemorative Air Force’s That’s All, Brother, the very lead aircraft in the formation of over 800 Dakotas which took off from English airports a few hours before the D-Day’s landings to drop 13,000 paratroopers behind the enemy lines.
All of them have been built during the war years, except two: the Clipper Tabitha May, a DC-3 built in Oklahoma in October 1945 and one of the last C-47/DC-3 aircraft made from original parts (and the last DC-3 to fly in scheduled passenger service in the U.S.), and the Spirit of Sonoma, the one and only DC-3 variant designed as a C-41A, delivered in September 1939 and requisitioned by Major General Henry ‘Hap’ Arnold to serve as VIP transport for himself and his staff. Miss Montana falls in a yet different category, being built during the war but not having flown in those years.
All the other ships have contributed to the war effort, operating in different theaters with the United States Army Air Forces, Royal Air Force and other allied operators. After their decommissioning most of them found a second life flying with civilian registrations for commercial operators or private owners, often changing hands and missions. As is widely known General Eisenhower considered the C-47 one of the four pieces of equipment (along with the jeep, the bulldozer and the 2 1/2 ton truck) “most vital to our success” in Africa and Europe; seeing eight planes painted in the classic Army olive drab color, complete with the Invasion Stripes on the wings and the fuselage and the big white letters stating each C-47’s squadron and call sign gives us a tangible representation of Ike’s statement, while the bare metal ships and the vintage airlines’ colors remind us of the founding role that the DC-3 has had in the newborn industry of passengers transport.
The D-Day Squadron has started to leave the United States to cross the Atlantic Ocean on May 19th, taking off from Oxford, Connecticut, bound to Presque Isle, Maine, and then to Goose Bay, Labrador, to Narsarsuaq, Greenland, to Reykjavik, Iceland, to Prestwick, Scotland (where Clipper Tabitha May was the first to land first on May 21st), and eventually to Duxford. The crossing had to be made six planes a time and not all together, because the apron area in Narsarsuaq could accommodate only six aircraft. The route followed by the twelve ships is the same one (named Blue Spruce) used by their predecessors 75 years ago to redeploy in UK to build up the mass formation needed for the D-Day drops; as many pilots have stated, their thoughts were for the pilots of the war days’ Dakotas, who crossed the Atlantic without GPS or other advanced navigation tool and often with very few flight hours on their log.
Once in Duxford the preparations for the two-day airshow (“Daks over Duxford”) launched by the local Imperial War Museum kicked in high gear. The arrival of other 9 Dakotas based in Europe helped to temporarily transform the British airfield in “Daksford”; aircraft from Norway, Denmark, Finland, Switzerland, Sweden, France and Hungary, most of them in shiny airline-like liveries, added variety to the formation. Each of them has her share of history to tell: Daisy (SE-CFP) and Drag em oot took part to the D-Day (the latter being used to tow gliders), F-AZOX had several times the honor to be the “royal coach” during Queen Elizabeth II’s visits to Canada, but one is surely a rare piece, the one and only airworthy Lisunov Li-2 (HA-LIX), a Russian licensed version built in Tashkent in 1949, painted in the livery adopted by Malev (the Hungarian airline) in 1960.
Reuniting such a number of C-47 and derived versions to join the D-Day celebrations was already an awesome feat to accomplish, but a really touching idea was to organize a launch of 250 paratroopers, wearing WW-II-like uniforms and equipment and using round-canopy parachutes. Obviously the chosen drop zone, located in Sannerville, near the Norman city of Caen, was an historic one, the drop zone K, which on the eve of the D-Day saw the landing of the 8th Battalion Parachute Regiment (3rd Para Brigade) men. So the days in Duxford have been useful in order to revise the timings and all the details necessary to let this extraordinary organization work at its best.
A rehearsal jump was scheduled on the first day of the air show (June 4th); the Dakotas went up, wind conditions were tested but safety couldn’t be assured so the planes had to land after performing a few formation passages. Luckily the day before the weather gods were kinder; a night photoshoot had been scheduled and the presence of re-enactors allowed to recreate the mood of the hours just before the drop behind the enemy lines.
In order to provide a complete picture of the forces involved 75 years ago, an exhibition of the specially modified equipment to be dropped with the paratroopers and transported inside the gliders could be visited inside the AirSpace hangar, one of the several exhibition halls that make Duxford Britain’s largest aviation museum.
The following day I decided to move to France to attend the drop in Sannerville; surely it’s been a pity not to stay in Duxford to watch the massive C-47s’ take-off, but I wanted to be where the most poignant tribute to the young men of the 1944 was staged. I arrived to the drop zone just in time to see RAF’s Hercules, a C-160 and a CN-235 of the Armée de l’Air dropping 130 paratroopers of the 16th Air Assault Brigade and 150 of the 11e Brigade Parachutiste, paying an official homage to their predecessors. The drop from the Dakotas was scheduled at about 5pm, but soon news of a delay of couple of hours reached us from the other side of the Channel. An aircraft had a problem with a carburetor, forcing her to cancel the participation to the drop; one can only imagine the frustration that spread among the 250 paratroopers when they’ve been told that a draw had to be done to select those who couldn’t take part any more to the drop. As a preview of what was in store for the people attending this breathtaking event Drag em oot (3X-P) ended this first phase dropping a platoon of para-reenactors. Just less than an hour before, the same aircraft had brought paras over another drop zone, in Carentan-les-Marais; among those paratroopers there was a veteran, Thomas “Tom” Rice of the 101st Airborne Division, who had chosen to pay a very personal tribute to his pals of that decisive night jumping in tandem at the jaw-dropping age of 97!
A couple of hours later two aircraft, a Beech 99 Airliner and a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, started to loiter over the drop zone and, after a few minutes, they opened their side door and the Red Devils (the British Army parachute display team) started to jump. As announced since several days, two of them launched in tandem, having the honor to help two British veterans, Harry Read and Jock Hutton (now 95 and 94) to relive the emotions they felt when they dropped 75 years ago, part of the 13th (Lancashire) Parachute Battalion.
Using websites like Flight Radar 24 and FlightAware helped all of us to follow, almost in real time, the Dakotas’ formation getting closer for the historical drop; if sighting them approaching from our right was no more a surprise, I can assure you that watching those nine Gooney Birds circling over our heads, filling the sky with the magnificent sound of their Twin Wasps and dropping lots of period dressed paratroopers with their round canopies, has been a goose bumps experience that I’ll treasure for the rest of my life.
The mass drop from the Dakotas has surely marked the climax of “Daks over Normandy” but the following day, exactly 75 years after the D-Day, reserved another surprise: the Presidential Fly over. Due to the official ceremonies which have seen the participation of President Trump and Queen Elizabeth II, British Prime Minister May and French President Macron and several other world leaders, French authorities have literally blocked private circulation along the major roads of Normandy, so I remained stuck near Arromanches, an historical landmark of the D-Day operations, but almost 15 miles far from Omaha beach, where the fly over was planned to be performed.
So I spent the morning strolling along the beach, where lots of Willys, Dodge, DUKW and other historical vehicles kept going back and forth, on the sand and in the water (only the DUKWs, of course). Keeping an eye on the socials and over the horizon the hope to see the formation flying over the coastline started to grow, and just a few minutes before deciding to take a break and taste a dozen of oysters, the formation started to appear over the white cliffs on the west. While the planes of the armed forces broke to return to their bases, an impressive formation of thirteen Dakotas paraded over my head, led by a US Coast Guard Hercules (another nice surprise!), flying over the waters and the beaches that 75 years before had been theater of bloody sacrifices. A few minutes later the morning ceremonies were closed by another formation, the Patrouille de France.
Citing a wonderful song, one could say that the thrill was gone, but that’s not entirely true; in the afternoon, after having watched the celebrations held in Arromanches, a Dakota, escorted by a Spitfire, passed three times over the town, and at 17:15, precise as a metronome, the Red Arrows, smoke on, paid their colorful salute closing the flight activity (except for the Black Hawks and Chinooks involved in the logistics of the day)
The Daks in Normandy were based at Caen-Carpiquet, where a sort of Open Day was scheduled on June 7th and 8th, with scenic flights, night photoshoot and so on. Unluckily storm Miguel has brought disarray to the organization, leaving lot of enthusiasts with several reasons to complain for.
Sunday 9th put the word ‘end’ to this wonderful enterprise, or to be more precise, transformed its name in “Daks over Europe”… Having so many Dc-3 and C-47 available was not a chance to miss, so almost all of them left France to join the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of the Berlin Airlift, spending several days in Germany. For Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber this anniversary was a special one, having her taking part to that historic operation. A flight of four “redeployed” for a weekend at Nicelli airport near Venice, in Italy, where in the immediate postwar, DC-3s started to run a regular airline service.
Eventually the time to disband had come; while the Europe-based aircraft flew to their home, the D-DAY squadron had to cross the Atlantic again. Before returning to USA, three of them took part to the Flying Legends airshow held at Duxford.
It’s easy to bet that everyone involved in this unforgettable experience will keep charming memories of the time spent in Europe. We can only hope to have the chance in 2024 to meet all of them again and possibly also those ones who couldn’t make this year. Lots of issues need to be addressed in order to make it happen again, and obviously a serious funding is required (the operating costs amount to $2.7 million!); so follow their websites, go to their events, crowfund’em and in five years we’ll be witness to another historic gathering!
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