Earlier this year I learned about the 'Round Canopy Parachute Team' (RCPT) intensions to organise a Douglas C-47 Dakota gathering to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion in June 2014. The plan was to invite all resident UK and European Dakota's to Normandy and re-enact the C-47 Allied paratrooper droppings that took place during the early morning hours of 5/6 June 1944. A total of 13.000 plus paratroopers then jumped out of a grand total of 821 C-47 Skytrains behind enemy lines.
To my surprise the National Warplane Museum, based at Geneseo New York, were bringing their D-Day veteran C-47 N345AB 'Whiskey 7' to Normandy as well. W7 is truly a WWII veteran. This aircraft originally served with the 12th Air Force in the Mediterranean Theater in 1943 and the 9th Air Force in England, between 1944-1945 as part of the 316th Troop Carrier Group. It was one of the lead aircraft of the first strike of the D-Day invasion on June 6th, 1944 over Ste. Mere Eglise, Normandy. It transported paratroopers for the 82nd Airborne Division as part of Operation NEPTUNE.
Additionally a second D-Day veteran was going to return to the beaches of Normandy as well. Early May it was announced that C-47A-40-DL N74589 also known as "Union Jack Dak" was going to make the Trans-Atlantic flight to Cherbourg. She was built in Long Beach, and delivered in 1942 as '42-24064' to the United States Army Air Corps. Early on the morning of June 6, 1944 she and the other C-47s in her unit towed Waco CG4A gliders over the beaches of Normandy wearing the same colors seen today.
According to the RCPT team it was going to be a once in a life time event both in the UK and in Normandy in honour of the 70th commemoration of the 1944 D-Day invasion. The main focus would be the display of the Douglas C-47 Dakota (the Allied workhorse), the largest invasion in human history and the thousands of jumps made by the Allied Airborne Troops during the night and early morning. The DC-3/C-47 fleet would assemble at Daedalus Lee-on-Solent airport (UK) on the 3rd June and then make the channel crossing to Cherbourg-Maupertus airport the following day. The initial plan was to drop troops at the village of Carentan: weather permitting. Around ten DC-3/C-47s would take part in the air armada and land at Cherbourg airport for flights and static display until the 8th of June.
This all had the makings of a historic Dakota gathering, one not to be missed! With this in mind I started planning my road trip to the Normandy coast. I decided to make it into a mini holiday and visit some of the historic sites and beaches along the way, up to my hotel in Cherbourg. After a boring 600 kilometres drive through Belgium and the North of France, I arrived late in the afternoon at Merville-Franceville. The Musee de la Batterie de Merville was closing down so I decided to drive to the nearby town of Houlgate at the coast. This is a small tourist resort with a nice wide beach and casino. The streets were very quiet and luckily I found a room at the hotel restaurant Le Normand for a reasonable price.
The next morning was an early rise because of my appointment with Mr Hans Combee, the museum vice president of the Merville C-47 '43-15073' "The Snafu Special". The Merville Battery was a German Army strong point in the Atlantic Wall, situated on the Eastern flank of the Allied invasion. It was vital that this complex was destroyed and/or taken before the main invasion arrived. The site was bombed by a 100 RAF bombers, but this failed to destroy any of the big guns. During the early morning of the invasion many British paratroopers jumped out of C-47s and gliders, with the objective to capture the complex. Due to weather and difficult night conditions many jumpers were dispersed in a large area making the assault on the battery more complicated.
One of the original C-47s that took part that particular night in June 1944 is now fully preserved at the Merville Battery. Douglas C-47A-80-DL construction number 19539 was constructed at the Long Beach factory and delivered on the 29th January that same year. She joined the US Army AF with tail code 43-15073 and joined the 9th US AF squadron and she was routed to Exeter in England at the beginning of May. On the night of 5/6 June she crossed the English Channel towards the Cotentin Peninsula and dropped men of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment (101st Airborne Division) just South of St-Mere-Eglise. Throughout the entire Normandy campaign she flew numerous supply flights which also included medevac flights back to England. She also participated in operation 'Market Garden' over Holland. She was nicknamed by her crew – The Snafu Special – which was painted below the cockpit window. ('Situation Normal – All fucked Up'). During her civilian life she flew with Czechoslovakian Airlines (CSA) as OK-XDM, and later with the French AF (340-UK/F-BTDF) and Yugoslav AF. She was left to rot at an airbase near Sarajevo. It was in 2007 that members of the Merville Snafu team arrived to rescue her and restore her to her former WW2 glory.
With the help of Mr Hans Combee I was able to climb onboard and fully admire the excellent restoration of the C-47 cabin and cockpit. Several of my aviation friends joined me at Merville, Bjorn Kannnengieser (Germany), Derek Hellman (US) and Hans Wiesman (Holland) also known as The Dakota Hunter. He drove down from Holland on his Harley Davidson motorcycle. The museum started to fill up with tourists and WW2 veterans so we decided to leave and start our road-trip along the N13 (Autoroute de Normandie) towards Bayeux. Along the way the heavens opened up and it started pouring down with heavy rain…typical European June weather. Luckily the rain stopped when we reached Omaha Beach.
This was my first time in Normandy and I wanted to set foot on one of the beaches and pay tribute to the Allied Forces that landed on that faithful morning June 6th 1944. I was surprised by the rural seaside scene at Omaha, basically untouched since the war. As we walked towards the shore line an armada of WW2 jeeps, trucks and halftracks were starting up for a remembrance drive along the beach, all driven by WW2 re-enactors. It was a special moment to see these guys on this historic beach. Across the road we enjoyed a quick lunch at the Hotel- Bar D-day House. We ordered a typical French Baguette sandwich with a café express. After our brief stop we continued along one of the scenic back roads, D514 towards Pointe de Hoc. Along the way we encountered many WW2 campsites filled with vintage US jeeps and motorcycles, it seemed that Normandy was again being invaded by Canadian and American troops.
Pointe du Hoc lies 6,5 km to the west of Omaha. As part of the German Atlantic defense fortification, the cliffs housed six battery positions, which were able to overlook the main beach of Omaha. Prior to the main invasion, Allied medium twin engine bomber from the 9th Air Force unit bombed Pointe du Hoc heavily. Not much damage was achieved; the bomb craters have been left untouched since the war. On D-Day the US Army Ranger Assault group where tasked to scale the high cliffs and capture the site. In the end it took the rangers 2 days to capture the cliff with heavy casualties. The 30 meter high cliffs provide a wonderful view overlooking the English Channel and we walked towards the center memorial. The place was crawling with tourists, WW2 re-actors and veterans. We decided to make our way out and pick up our Normandy trail and continued onwards to the Airborne Museum at Ste-Mere-Eglise.
It was only a short drive towards this famous French scenic town, which was one of the first to be liberated during the D-Day operation. During the early morning of June 6th 1944, hundreds of paratroopers from the US 82nd Airborne Division jumped out of their C-47 Skytrains in the pitch black night. A total of 6.400+ paratroopers jumped out of nearly 370 C-47's. The drops became scattered due to weather and German ground fire. One particular trooper who had jumped in to the night skies drifted towards the centre of Ste-Mere-Eglise and his parachute got caught by the church tower and hung there high up, watching the drama unfold beneath him. He hung there for about 2 hours before being captured by the Germans. As we drove into town…it was the same scene as along the beaches, we were surrounded by WW2 jeeps, tanks and motorcycles! Behind the Airborne museum a huge American WW2 village had sprang up to commemorate the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The Airborne museum is dedicated to the memory of the 82nd Airborne Division – 101st Airborne Division troops who landed in Normandy. Part of the collection is a Waco CG-4 Glider and Douglas C-47 Skytrain. This a/c was delivered as a C-47A-70-DL model (c/n 19288) to the USAF with tail code '42-100825' ex Danish Airlines OY-DDA and French Navy 100825). She flew in support of the Allied landings on D-day flying for the 92nd Squadron of the 439th Transportation Group of the 9th US Army AF. She was involved in towing gliders over Normandy. Later on she also took part in operation 'Market Garden' over Holland (Sept 17th).
At the museum we met up with another aviation friend Mr. Roger Syratt and his wife Joan from the UK. We briefly visited the museum as it was just getting too crowded. We then sat down at a nearby terrace and enjoyed a cool beer and soaked up the atmosphere on the street.
It was time to embark on the last segment of my Normandy drive towards the coastal town of Cherbourg. A last minute decision made me drive to the local airport which is located about 11 km from the city. The Cherbourg-Maupertus airport has a single runway (10/28) which is 2440m long and is covered in asphalt. There are no scheduled flights operating to or from the airport. The ramp and single small terminal are straightforward and basic. Only two DC-3s had already arrived at Cherbourg.
Afterwards I drove to the city centre in search of my hotel. This coastal town has an interesting seafaring history. I found it refreshingly pleasant, with its scenic harbour full of sailboats and the rocky cliff backdrop. The main road into town even had palm trees along side, which reminded me of the south of France. Cherbourg is famous for its first and only visit of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage! After D-Day it was vital for the Allies forces to secure this seaport in order to offload the US & Canadian military supplies. When the German realized that they would loose the city, they completely destroyed the harbour infrastructure, rendering it useless. Its inner harbour and transatlantic terminal completely destroyed. Cherbourg was liberated on the 26th June 1944 and when the American's moved in…the harbour was reconstructed and served as a major port for the rest of the war.
With thanks to Mr Hans Combee (Merville C-47 Snafu), The Round Canopy Parachute Team (RCPT) team, National Warplane C-47 W7 team, Paul van den Berg DDA Classic Airlines, Francisco Agullo & Rebecca Williamson Bazeley - Breitling DC-3 team, Pacal Marcoux Cherbourg Airport – Andre van Loon and From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia