Runway Classic: The Douglas C-47 Skytrain (Dakota) Over Normandy, 75 Years On

On 6 June 1944, Operation Neptune saw the largest seaborne military invasion in history.  Over 130,000 troops, from the British, US, Canadian and Australian armies and the forces of the Free French, Poland, Norway and Czechoslovakia,  were landed on five beaches in Normandy in north west France, supported by 11,500 aircraft and 7000 naval vessels, along with some 20,000 vehicles and 1,000 tanks. Operation Overlord, the battle of Normandy that started with the D-Day landings, was underway. By the end of that first day, over 4000 Allied troops had been killed, alongside 1000 German troops.

But the first Allied troops to land in France that day came from the air. Some 1200 USAF and RAF C-47 Skytrain aircraft carried around 13,000 American and 7,000 British paratroopers from southern England to Normandy, flying over and beyond the landing beaches. The aim of these landings and the subsequent operations was to hinder the German’s ability to organise and transport troops and equipment, by seizing locations such as bridges, railway crossings and certain features of terrain. This would ease the Allied movement from the beaches and the start of the journey to, ultimately, Berlin.

The first troops were on the ground by 1.00 am on 6 June. Over the next few hours, a total of 20,000 were landed by parachuting from the C-47.

Another 4,000 were dropped in gliders, which were quite likely towed behind a C-47.

The place of the C-47, known as the Dakota (Douglas Aircraft CO Transport Aircraft) in RAF service and of course derived directly from the immortal Douglas DC-3, in the pantheon of very influential, successful and great aircraft was guaranteed. The RAF have one to this day, flying in the Memorial Flight alongside a Spitfire, Hurricane and Lancaster.

The C-47 was developed from the DC-3, widely considered to be the first modern civilian airliner, itself a development of the DC-2, which had a narrower body. Its 21 seat capacity made it the first airliner to be profitable without mail subsidies. The first version was also a sleeper variant, the DST. The DC-3 ushered in rapidly expanding airline services in the US. After the war, cheap surplus C-47s were converted to civilian use, and fueled a further expansion into smaller markets.

The DC-3’s radial engines came from Wright or Pratt & Whitney. The P&W engine was used on the C-47. The aircraft was first flown in 1935, and was instrumental in transforming air travel in the US, making transcontinental flights significantly more practical. Ultimately, it became one of the most commercially successful and influential aircraft of its type and over 600 DC-3 and over 10,000 C-47 were built.

Photo from Daks over Normandy

The C-47 Skytrain (and Dakota) was a gentle evolution and adaptation of the DC-3, fitted with a cargo door (used for parachutists as well), a hoist attachment to haul payload up the fuselage, a strengthened floor and glider towing shackles. The C-53 was a specialised troop transport variant, lacking the multi-role equipment of the C-47.

There was also a licence built version, known as the Lisunov Li-2, built for the Russian military during and after the war.

On 6 June 2019, for the 75th anniversary and as part of the commemorations of D-Day landings, a flight of 21 Dakotas carrying paratrooper re-enactors flew from Duxford in England to Sannerville in Normandy. This was one of the largest, perhaps the largest, gatherings of C-47/DC-3/Dakota aircraft for over 70 years, probably since the Berlin Airlift.

The Daks Over Normandy event, which started on 2 June and ran to 9 June, had a very simple outline. The aircraft gathered at Duxford, just south of Cambridge, one of the many WW2 RAF stations which were operated by the USAF during the war and which is now home to the best aviation museum in Europe, if not further afield.

For two days, the public was able to get up close to the aircraft and the crews, as well as watch training and familiarisation flying (Dakotas and their pilots have not flown in such a large formation for many years) of Dakotas and other period aircraft.

On Wednesday 5 June, just after 4 pm, the aircraft departed, loaded with some 250 “paratroopers” (mostly forces veterans, qualified parachute instructors and skilled re-enactors) using period round parachutes, for a two hour flight to Normandy, escorted by Mustangs, a Texan and a Beech 18.

The parachutists were dropped at Sannerville in Normandy, on the edge of Caen, the closest large city to the beaches with important rail, canal and river crossings and which was not liberated for several weeks. Static displays and demonstration flights continued to 9 June.

In the event, 21 aircraft made the formation flight from Duxford to France, having come from all over Europe and from North America – quite a remarkable achievement for aircraft over 70 years old.

I can attest that watching them take off, assemble into formation and leave for France was a very stirring sight, as was watching the parachute drop on-line.

All round a successful event and moving event. Hats off to everyone involved, no doubt.

And thank goodness the first run worked out, too. Our greatest thanks and respect go to those who did that.