Gary Parsons was at Duxford for the D-Day commemorations. All pictures by the author or as credited.
Duxford's D-Day airshow had plenty to offer - sun, historic aircraft, modern jets, plus the usual myriad of display stalls, all of which conspired to attract perhaps the museum's largest one-day crowd yet seen in its thirty-year history.
The Longest Queue
Thankfully it's been a long while, but the D-Day airshow also saw the return of an old problem - long queues on the M11 motorway, and many frustrated motorists that failed to get in. A revised traffic plan has been implemented ready for the building work scheduled to commence around the Superhangar for the AirSpace project - parking in the vicinity of the Superhangar will be restricted in time, so will now be used for disabled and DX tickets only. This has resulted in all the M11 and A505 east traffic being shepherded into the north and west car parks, crossing oncoming traffic and drastically slowing progress off the M11 as a result. The last time such chaos was endured was the Spitfire 60th anniversary show in 1996, when again the anticipated crowd was much larger than expected. IWM's Marketing Manager, Tracey Woods explains: "Obviously, there was a problem with the sheer volume of traffic for the air show and we fully appreciate how frustrating this must have been for people trying to get to the show. The IWM and Cambridge Constabulary jointly plan the parking and traffic management systems and these are regularly reviewed. The problems encountered on Sunday were exacerbated by the attendance of more visitors to the show than had originally been anticipated - we had over 25,000 through the gates, which had to close at about 12:30. The Museum wishes to assure visitors that these issues will be addressed in time for the Flying Legends Air Show on Saturday 10 and Sunday 11 July."
that did make it through the gates enjoyed a varied flying display, plus
many period sights and sounds throughout the day. It was the culmination
of a week's activities and events at the Cambridgeshire museum, with many
veterans of both Operation Overlord and the Battle of Britain present
for autograph and picture signings. Before the flying display commenced,
a Service of Commemoration was held including a two-minute silence, something
that the vast crowd respected to a man - you could hear the birds singing
as 25,000 people paid a few moments of respect to the thousands that died
on 6 June, 1944. George Ellis, President of the Royston and District Branch
of the Royal British Legion, led the Act of Remembrance: "They shall
grow not old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them nor
the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we
will remember them." A Bugler sounded 'The Last Post' to signal the
start of the two-minute silence, after which Mr Ellis concluded the service:
"When you go home, tell them of us and say - for your tomorrow, we
gave our today."
Duxford's D-Day, 1944 (with thanks to the IWM)
In June 1944, Duxford was home to the US Eighth Air Force's 78th Fighter Group comprising the 82nd, 83rd and 84th Fighter Squadrons. The Group, resident at Duxford officially from May 1943, was equipped with the Republic P-47 Thunderbolt, the largest and heaviest single-seat piston fighter ever produced. The P-47 was produced in greater numbers than any other American fighter and was one of the outstanding US fighters of the Second World War.
As D-Day approached, there was real concern that the Germans might have attempted a pre-emptive or spoiling attack to disrupt the Allied invasion. Duxford's P-47s began night flying training and, like other groups, the 78th formed a defence flight of four aircraft to protect its home base. The aim was to be airborne within fifteen minutes of an alert but Duxford's fighters, reminiscent of their Battle of Britain predecessors, managed to get their scramble time down to just four minutes. The alert flight was on duty an hour before sunset until an hour after sunrise. To avoid any misunderstandings that could lead to what are now called 'friendly fire' incidents, a P-51 Mustang was dispatched to Duxford so the defenders could easily identify the North American fighter. Ground defences were also tightened considerably and a commando platoon was formed with every man given firing practice.
In the run up to D-Day the Allies pounded German defences around the clock. On the morning of 24 May 1944, less than a fortnight before D-Day, Duxford's P-47s escorted Eighth Air Force bombers over enemy territory and then in the afternoon became bombers themselves. Led by a two seat P-38 Lightning carrying a bomb -aimer the P-47s dropped 500 lb bombs on the railway bridge at Creil in France.
Pre-invasion tension mounted considerably in the first days of June, emphasised by the high degree of security and alertness. Machine guns, gas masks and steel helmets were carried everywhere. Duxford, known as the Country Club of the ETO (European Theatre of Operations), became very businesslike. On 5 June the 78th, together with the P-51s of the 339th from nearby Fowlmere, carried out bomber support and ground attack missions in the Cherbourg and Pas de Calais area. At 1545 hrs the operational order for Operation 'Neptune' was received - Duxford and Fowlmere were sealed off from the outside world and Newmarket Road, now the A505 which separates Duxford's airfield from the domestic site and Officers' Mess to the north, was closed to public traffic. Duxford was only linked to the outside world by closely watched teletypes. No telephone calls went or came into the base. Incoming and outgoing mail was frozen. British civilians and American Red Cross workers on or near the airfield were kept where they were - those on the base at the time were not allowed to leave and those outside were not permitted to enter. Only those military personnel with specific permission were allowed near the aircraft. After the invasion had begun, only pilots scheduled to fly at the time were allowed inside the briefing room before or after a briefing. Blackout restrictions were tighter than ever and special wardens patrolled the station to see that they were strictly adhered to.
Personnel who normally never went near aircraft were given paint brushes to help paint the 78th's fighters with the distinctive black and white 'invasion' stripes around wings and fuselages. Others were pressed into service driving trucks or preparing ammunition belts. Every one of Duxford's eighty-nine 'Thunderbolts' were on line and ready for action. By this period Duxford's operations room function was carried out at Sawston Hall, some two miles to the east of the airfield. As 6 June dawned, the staff knew something big was on as they watched the plotting table filling up. The sky overhead was filled with a continual throbbing drone of aircraft which lasted too long to be a typical RAF bomber stream.
At 0329 hrs, Duxford's 83rd and 84th FS took off for their first mission of the day, giving cover to the invasion fleet as it crossed the English Channel towards the landing beaches. When the first of Duxford's five missions of the day returned to refuel and rearm, the Thunderbolts of the 82nd roared off to take their place. At 1000 hrs, the 83rd Fighter Squadron took off for their second mission of the day, only six hours after they had left on their first. For this mission they were tasked with dropping bombs on rail targets ahead of the landing forces and reported German vehicle convoys moving forward. Before the 83rd landed the 84th were back in the air looking for targets of opportunity in the Alencon area, striking at marshalling yards and ammunition dumps. On landing they claimed two locomotives damaged, 30-45 box cars damaged, eight to ten coal cars damaged, ten flat cars loaded with motor vehicles damaged, one troop truck left burning and three more damaged.
Meanwhile the 82nd was attacking rail traffic and found two Luftwaffe airfields empty of aircraft. On its third mission of the day the 83rd became the only squadron of the 78th to encounter the Luftwaffe, bouncing eight Focke-Wulf 190s near Mayenne and shooting two down without loss. At 1822 hrs the 82nd and 84th were airborne again for the group's final mission of the day. The fighters did not return until after dusk, four and a half hours later. All pilots reported heavy artillery bombardment.
The Operation ended at 2300 hrs Considering the intensity of the day's actions for the 78th FG, losses from enemy action were incredibly low - one Duxford pilot had to be rescued from the English Channel. The records noted that despite the momentous events of the day the pilots needed sleep and were probably 'too damned tired to celebrate' - they would have to fly again in the morning...
Duxford's Own D-Day Veteran- Spitfire ML407 (with thanks to the IWM)
One of the aircraft taking part in the flying display played its own part in the D-Day action sixty years ago to the day. Spitfire ML407 was originally built at Castle Bromwich in early 1944 as a single seat Mark IX fighter, and served in the front line of battle throughout the last twelve months of the Second World War with six different Squadrons of the RAF's 2nd Tactical Air Force, flying 176 operational combat sorties. It was delivered to 485 'New Zealand' Squadron on 29 April 1944 by Jackie Moggridge, one of the top lady pilots of the ATA, where it became the 'mount' of Flying Officer Johnnie Houlton, a 21-year-old from Christchurch.
Houlton's ground crew, flight mechanic Ron White (fitter) Vic Strange (rigger) and Michael Fahy (electrician) took charge of '407' and applied the Squadron identity code 'OU' and individual aircraft letter 'V'. ML407's first operational duties began the following day on 1 May, 1944, escorting bombers to targets in France. A week later ML 407 was again flying escort duties until 20 May when, with a 500-pound bomb slung beneath the fuselage and Johnnie Houlton at the controls, a V-1 flying bomb site in France was dive-bombed.
On 6 June 1944 ML 407 flew into the history books - with the invasion under way, ML 407, flown by Johnnie Houlton, was leading Blue Section on a beach patrol south of Omaha beach when he spotted a Junkers Ju88 bomber.
"I glimpsed a Ju88 above cloud, diving away fast to the south. Climbing at full throttle I saw the enemy aircraft enter a large isolated cloud above the mail layer and when it reappeared on the other side I was closing in rapidly. Our aircraft were equipped with the gyro gunsight which eliminated the snap calculations or guesswork required to hit a target aircraft - especially one in a reasonably straight flight path and it also enabled the guns to be used accurately at a far greater range than before. I positioned the aiming dot on the right hand engine of the enemy aircraft and fired a three second burst - the engine disintegrated, fire broke out, two crewmembers baled out and the aircraft dived steeply to crash on a roadway, blowing apart on impact. Supreme Headquarters nominated the Ju88 as the first enemy aircraft to be shot down since the invasion began putting 485 (NZ) Spitfire Squadron at the top of the scoreboard for D-Day."
A second Ju88 was intercepted almost immediately and destroyed in what Houlton says was a carbon-copy of the first victory, the whole section sharing the second victory collectively.
ML407 eventually racked up 137 operational sorties with 485 Squadron (in the hands of a total of sixteen New Zealand pilots) including 69 fighter sweeps and over 30 patrols over the Normandy beachhead following D-Day. ML407 is credited with two Ju88 kills, two Bf109 kills and another damaged. In addition to this, ML407 went on to serve operationally with 341 (Alsace) Squadron (Free French Air Force), coded NL-D. Today the Spitfire is owned, operated and flown by Carolyn Grace, who keeps the historic aircraft at Duxford.
Carolyn flew ML407 as part of a three-ship display to commemorate the Spitfire's involvement in the allied landings. Together with Rod Dean in SM845 and John Romain in TD248, the three fighters made for a breathtaking tailchase followed by individual routines. With TFC's EP120 also displaying later in the day, Supermarine's finest was central to the action, just as it was sixty years ago.
Missing from the line-up was the P-51D Mustang - one was scheduled to appear, but events dictated otherwise. The other notable absentee was a C-47 or DC-3, not listed as appearing which was surprising given the type's crucial part in the airborne assault. Its absence made one realise that the flying display was quite disparate, given it was to commemorate a particular occasion, but it didn't detract from the spectacle of what was a good line-up by recent Duxford standards. Duxford's runway problems didn't really impact on the day - most of the fast jets were based at nearby Cambridge airport, but the Magister pilot gained approval to land and taxi past the appreciative crowd. Quite amusing was the commentator's description of the Harrier, which is "designed to operate from the roughest, unprepared airstrips" - except Duxford's grass, of course!
the closing of the show by the Red Devils and the sound of bagpipes by
a lonely piper, it left one in reflective mood of the sacrifices made
that June morning in 1944. Duxford delivered with its D-Day atmosphere,
although it certainly was the Longest Day for those stuck on the M11...