June 2004 
Volume 03, Issue 2 
Historical Perspective

Airborne invasion began D-Day


C-47BIn the predawn hours of June 6, 1944, the roar of thousands of aircraft engines could be heard above the Cotentin Peninsula of France. Awakened by the sound, people went outside and looked into the sky. But because of heavy clouds and fog, they saw no planes.

German soldiers who had occupied France for four years began firing antiaircraft guns. The French residents watched as tracer shells disappeared into the darkness, followed by the sound of explosions in the clouds. They realized it must be the invasion, and that meant liberation.

That night, flying over the Normandy countryside at an altitude of less than 1,200 feet, more than 1,000 Allied military transports launched a massive airborne assault against Hitler's "Fortress Europe." They spearheaded "Operation Overlord," the largest invasion in history-a day that forever after was known as "D-Day" (the "D" simply referred to the "day" of invasion), and whose 60th anniversary takes place this month.

Most of these air transports were military versions of the famous Douglas DC-3. Before the war, the DC-3 had represented 90 percent of the world's commercial transport fleet, some 450 aircraft. On D-Day, more than twice that number was used in opening the battle for Europe.

Early in the war, the Allied air forces had selected a modified version of the DC-3 as their standard transport aircraft. The U.S. Army Air Forces designated it the C-47; the Navy version was the R4D. The British called it the Dakota (based on the acronym DACoTA, for Douglas Aircraft Company Transport Aircraft). Even before D-Day, military DC-3s had operated from every continent in the world and participated in every major battle up to that time. By D-Day, more than 10,000 had been built.

Around 11 p.m. on June 5, the C-47s took off and headed across the English Channel. Some towed American and British gliders filled with soldiers, their equipment and supplies. But most-more than 800-carried 13,000 paratroopers of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, the British 6th Airborne Division and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. Each plane carried a "stick" of between 15 and 18 paratroopers. The C-47's job was to drop these troops behind enemy lines so they could secure the crossroads and bridges leading to the Normandy beaches, thus preventing enemy reinforcements from interfering with the seaborne invasion. Just off shore, more than 5,000 ships carried 150,000 soldiers.

Even with superb planning and an almost flawless takeoff from England, the long streams of C-47s ran into trouble on D-Day as they crossed the French coast. Battling poor visibility due to weather conditions and intense enemy antiaircraft fire, the pilots did their best to deliver their charges to the assigned drop zones, but most missed. Once on the ground, although lost and disorganized, the paratroopers accomplished most of their assigned missions by the end of D-Day. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe, termed the C-47 one of the most vital pieces of military equipment used in winning the war.

C-47s were not the only aircraft in the skies over Normandy. The Allies flew some 10,000 combat missions on D-Day in support of the invasion. Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses bombed from 20,000 feet, Douglas A-20 Havocs provided close air support, and North American Aviation P-51 Mustangs helped maintain air superiority over the beaches.

During ceremonies this month in observance of the 60th anniversary of D-Day, several DC-3s will make symbolic flights over the Normandy coast. They will pass over the towns of Ste. Mere Eglise, Vierville and Colleville sur-Mer. This time, instead of dodging antiaircraft fire, they will be greeted by thousands gathered to honor those heroes of long ago and to pay respect to the men and women who built the planes that helped return freedom to Europe.


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