D-Day75 - Daks Over Duxford / by Shaun Armstrong

Reportage photography from RAF Duxford as over 30 Douglas Dakota aircraft gathered ahead of a memorial parachute drop as part of the D-Day75 anniversary.

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The events of D-Day have poignant meaning for me. My father served in the RAF from 1941-1945 and whilst he did not take part in this campaign directly, it was when I was away on a trip to the Normandy beaches in 2008 that he had a tragic accident. He died from his injuries and I never spoke to him again.

To mark the 75th anniversary of D-Day I arranged a trip to Imperial War Museum Duxford, with the friend I was in France with in 2008 ironically, as they were staging a special exhibition and global gathering of 35 Dakota C47’s, the planes that flew the first waves of parachutists into occupied France in the early hours of 6 June 1944. A feat that 220 parachutists were planning to recreate.

As in 1944, the days proceeding the event had been beset with bad weather and the planned practice jumps of 4 June 2019 had been cancelled. Many of the parachutists, wearing authentic gear and kit, had paid to take part, including many from USA who had travelled with their rig especially to do the commemorative jump. There was a risk it would all be for nothing if cancelled again today and tensions were high.

But the day had arrived and it saw men and machines go through their preparations; the previous day’s abort weighing heavy on reports of variable weather over Normandy where they would drop into that afternoon, after 22 Dakotas had flown in formation to France ahead of the 75th Anniversary.

By sheer luck, or divine providence, we found ourselves out on the the flight line as a group of US 101st airborne “Screaming Eagles” were gathered outside an in-period Dakota to say some prayers. The emotion of this event, as I stood immediately behind the circle they had formed, with some WWII veterans in the middle, was intense. It really gave a sense of what the young men who were getting ready to face in 1944 for real, and with dire potential consequences, would have been going through.

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I also had a walk around (not sure I should have been there but there you go) the pre-drop parachutist gathering in the main hanger. Flushed with my success with asking to take portraits at the V&A (see previous blog post) I had a chat with one young American as he was waiting.

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It turned out that Warren Johnson had been training specifically to take part in this event after he had found out his Great Uncle had parachuted into Normandy on D-Day and he just had to honour that memory. He had found other members of that original crew and had with him original mementoes and dog-tags from them which he was taking on the drop. Amazing. On top of that he’d managed to track down the original Dakota they flew on to Sweden and share the story of its history. Whilst converted to an airliner after the war (DC3) Warren would be making his drop from the same plane. Bloody amazing and testament to what you can learn just by chatting to people…

We were also treated to a flypast of 12 Hercules and Osprey and other WWII warbirds in black and white D-Day livery.

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This all added to the anticipation as the crews climbed into the C47’s and the planes started up to then all eventually fly off away to France for a successful if slightly delayed drop over Caen. Well done Warren.

The place was quite eery after they had all gone, leaving us with thoughts of those who went to France and would not see their loved ones again…

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