Two of our own explorers Paul Beaver and Alfred Southwell took part in the 75th Anniversary D Day events by flying over to Normandy to attend the commemorations. Whilst many people would fly with BA or Easy Jet, these two were able to fly in aircraft that saw action on D Day in 1945.
Paul recorded the day to share with you, he will also be speaking next week at Chalke Valley Historical Festival about DDay.
D -1 Tuesday, 4th June (Pre-flight preparation & press interviews)
If the traffic is anything to go by, this is going to be an amazing couple of days at IWM Duxford. Sitting in the car, I can already see the Dakota crews are flying, practising their formation keeping. Around them buzz three Harvard trainers of the same period, acting as camera-platforms.
The weather is mirroring events 75 years ago. The wind has increased, and the early parachute practice has been cancelled. That hasn’t stopped an estimated 10,000 people from walking the flight line, taking pictures and meeting the occasional celebratory, like Dan Snow. Besides Dan is Black Star, a company which makes special tee-shirts and one has just been pressed into my hands, so I look the part for television.
On the airfield, there are Dakotas from so many nations. There are Danes, Dutchmen, the beautiful Norwegian machine and a dozen from America. They have flown across the Atlantic using the wartime ferry route via Canada, Newfoundland, Greenland and Iceland. Several have been checked over at Prestwick or Coventry. It’s amazing to think there is still the expertise available to overhaul these 80-year-old beauties – the second oldest Dakota in the world is here. It pre-dates the Spitfire.
Asked to do a ‘quick turn’ for Forces TV on the importance of the Dakota. Told them that the Dakota – and air power – is often missed from the D-Day story because people concentrate on the landing craft and fighting on the beaches. None of that would have been possible without command of the air and the parachute assaults by British and American soldiers would have been so much riskier. Standing with the TV crew, it is possible to see some of the aircraft which helped win that supremacy, including Mustang and Thunderbolt fights; there’s a Spitfire and bunch of those fragile Auster spotter planes I saw on Saturday at Netheravon.
The wind’s up and so is the rain. Time to head home and prepare for the big event tomorrow – 25 Dakotas crossing the Channel with fighter escort. It’s going to be amazing.
D DAY Wednesday, 5th June (Flight armada to France)
I know this is going to be a special day. I arrive at a friend’s airfield near my Hampshire home and brief for a flight to Duxford; with the reports of long traffic delays, it is the only way to travel. I am no stranger to the Gazelle helicopter and am delighted to find that the one allocated is the one in which I first flew as an aspiring helicopter pilot in 1977.
Brief complete, checks and formalities completed, we are airborne – about the only ones who are because of the VVIP movements further south for the spectacular events at Portsmouth. President Trump’s gets airborne and his people stop everyone else in about 50 miles doing the same; that’s real power.
The flight up to Duxford reminds me just how much I miss flying helicopters and especially the nimble Gazelle. The views of Reading, Henley, Beaconsfield and other favourite towns en route is wonderful as the helicopter flies, avoiding houses and farms, at 1,000 feet (305m) and 120 knots (138 mph) Bliss.
On the dot, we land at Duxford. It is truly amazing to see so many Dakota transports, Mustang fighters and Harvard trainers on the ground. I discover at the brief that I am assigned to a Dakota which has just ‘lost’ an engine – it’s still on the wing really! The issue is that it won’t be flying to Normandy and just as I turn away, an American voice shouts “hey, have you got a sectional” seeing my UK aeronautical chart in the pocket of my flying suit. And seeing my pilot’s wings, he adds, “do you want to fly with us as we have no maps”. It is difficult not to jump for joy.
I explain that it would be delighted and heft my bag into the stately, beautifully restored and Seattle-based Pan American Airways DC-3 of the Historic Flight Foundation, complete with armchairs and a cocktail cabinet – having no Downtown Explorer in there is an error which can be rectified. At that moment, more important to me is the navigator’s table on which I can spread my chart and start plotting the route against time. Bliss again.
It takes a while for various VVIPs to clear the airspace across the Channel to Caen, the lovely Norman capital of Normandy which is the destination of the aerial armada. But then, we are off, streaming down the runway at Duxford at 10 seconds spacing, climbing up to make the first waypoint at Stradishall, before tracking to Colchester (homage to 16 Airborne Brigade’s barracks); the Thames between Canvey island and Southend; across the estuary to Rochester; Maidstone; direct track to Beachy head where there are thousands of people all waving madly. And now, I come into my own, setting the course to steer which other American Dakotas will follow.
As we leave the shores of Blighty, the radio crackles with a familiar (Scottish) voice as a Mustang flies past. It is Miss Helen with friends John and Alfie aboard taking pictures of the aerial armada. No time, to wave as I must keep an eye on track and time. We make Le Havre within 60 seconds of my dead reckoning. A bit of self-congratulation although the Chief of the Air Staff might say, it should have been plus or minus 5 seconds! He’s not here, so I am very content.
We land at Caen and find the French police delightful. They are in the spirit of the event and stamp our passports with the date, place and a small aeroplane. Back to the aircraft to put them to bed. Miss Helen is there, next to the Dakota line so we exchange banter in true aviator style and cover the valuable machines for the night. There will be no flying for non-Americans tomorrow as POTUS (Trump) is in Normandy and the Secret Service has clamped everything down. Surprising that the usually independent French authorities fall into line.
It takes this long to get to the hotel. No food on offer so we have to order in pizza which suits the Americans from another Dakota, called Placid Lassie.; it’s come from Tennessee. Out comes the bottle of Downtown Explorer. No Fever Tree but at least some Schweppes and perhaps a few beers. The Americans quickly fall in love with the idea of hand-crafted gin. We are on to a winner here!
Paul is a Historian, Aviator, Explorer and Gin connoisseur.