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How the Cotswolds Helped D-Day

Published: 04 Jun 2019   updated: 15 Nov 2019

75 years ago on 6 June 1944, RAF Fairford and nearby bases at Brize Norton, Broadwell, Down Ampney and Blakehill Farm were making preparations to take part in one of the most audacious military operations ever.

Thousands of young paratroopers waited on runways throughout the Cotswolds, alive with anticipation for the adventure they thought lay ahead. What met them as they descended under their canvas canopies would have been sights and sounds that lived with them for the rest of their lives. The brave efforts of soldiers, sailors and airmen from across the Allied nations on that day in June helped turn the tide of tyrany and finally push the Nazi war machine onto a backfoot. 

All four airfields were launching points for transport aircraft like the C-47 Dakota and Horsa gliders. These workhorses were used to ferry paratroopers and equipment across the English Channel throughout the night, to begin the liberation of mainland Europe. This British airborne contingent to D-Day was codenamed Operation Tonga.

Airfields throughout the Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Oxfordshire area were used in the Operation, which involved 8,500 men led by Major General Richard Gale, Officer Commanding the 6th Airborne Division. The operation begain with paratroopers being dropped throughout the night of the 5/6 June, with the aircraft returning to their bases to then repeat the exercise with towed gliders on the evening of the 6 June.

On the night of 5 June 1944 RAF Broadwell launched 53 Dakotas from Nos. 512 and 575 Squadrons, dropping 952 paratroopers across two drop zones in Normandy. Nos. 296 and 297 Squadrons based at RAF Brize Norton conducted a similar mission with the Armstrong Whitworth Albemarle aircraft, but also targeted the famous Pegasus Bridge and the Merville Battery.

Above © Imperial War Museum: Douglas Dakotas of No. 233 Squadron RAF lined up on the perimeter track at Blakehill Farm, Wiltshire, for an exercise with the 6th Airborne Division, 20 April 1944.

Among the hundreds of aircraft taking part was Dakota FZ692, operated by No 233 Squadron at RAF Blakehill Farm. FZ692 is now immortalised, for the time being, by the Battle of Britain Memorial flight as their Dakota is painted to represent the aircraft, named 'Kwicherbichen' by her crews.

This aircraft and 29 other Dakotas from the Squadron took part in the Allied invasion of France. Six Dakotas towed gliders whilst the rest carried paratroopers from the 3rd Parachute Brigade to Normandy, returning later in the day to drop supplies. Throughout the day the Squadron flew over 20 supply flights and eventually lost four aircraft.

Above © Imperial War Museum: FZ692 '5T-UK' "Kwicherbichen", of No. 233 Squadron RAF based at RAF Blakehill Farm. The aircraft is pictured here returning to the United Kingdom with wounded from the Normandy battlefront.

RAF Fairford was home to Nos. 190 and 620 Squadrons, equipped with the Short Sterling bomber. On the night of 5 June, Sterlings from both squadrons transported nearly 900 paratroopers to Ranville. The following evening 18 aircraft from each Squadron towed Horsa gliders carrying over 250 man to landing zones.

Above © Imperial War Museum: Stirling Mk.IVs of 620 Squadron on the ground at RAF Fairford, two months after D-Day during Operation Market Garden in September 1944.

Just to the South West of Fairford was RAF Down Ampney, home to Nos. 48 and 271 Squadrons. Their Dakotas conducted paradrops and glider towing on D-Day, carrying 570 paratroopers. Uniquely, the first wave of aircraft carried twelve 20lb bombs which were dropped near the landing zones, with the intention to make the raid look like a regular bombing mission. 

Almost all available aircraft, once the initial raids were complete, were employed in ferrying supplies to the continent and repatriating wounded back to England. In the month of June alone, Down Ampney Dakotas evacuated 869 casualties back to the superior medical facilities, saving countless lives. 

Above: The Battle of Britain Memorial Flight's Dakota landing at the 2018 Air Tattoo.

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