In the early morning of June 6, 1944, thousands of soldiers, sailors, and airmen from the United States, Great Britain, and the British Commonwealth readied themselves for D-Day of Operation Overlord, the designated day for the invasion of France and the liberation of Western Europe from their Nazi occupiers. As dawn broke, thousands of soldiers hit five beaches along the Normandy coast under the protective fire of British and American warships and overwhelming airpower. Despite this protective umbrella, the fighting was hard and costly before the battle was won.
For several divisions of American and British soldiers, the invasion had actually begun the night before. That evening, 18,000 men of the U.S. 82nd and 101st Airborne Division and the British 6th Airborne Division loaded up into their transports, each marked with large black and white invasion stripe around the wings and fuselages, in anticipation of a daring aerial assault behind German lines in the hope of cutting off Nazi reinforcements from reaching the Normandy beachheads. Their target were bridges, intersections, and other strategic targets. The Americans were dropped behind Utah Beach in support of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division in the Cotentin Peninsula while the British jumped behind Sword Beach to protect the Allied left flank, silencing a German coastal battery and destroying bridges across the Dives River.
Bad weather and enemy anti-aircraft scattered many aircraft so many paratroopers missed their landing zones. Fortunately, the resulting confusion perplexed the Germans even more while the Americans and British secured their objectives and successfully fought off German counterattacks until the beachheads were secured. By the end of the first full day of combat, more than 23,000 paratroopers had landed by parachute or gliders, most of them carried to war by one single aircraft type - the Douglas C-47.
Affectionately known as the "Gooney Bird," the C-47 was the primary military transport of the Allies during the Second World War. More than 10,000 were built, with most serving with the Army Air Forces as the C-47 Skytrain, the U.S. Navy as the R4D, and the Royal Air Force as the Dakota. The Soviet Union built 6,000 under license as the Lisunov Li-2, while even the Japanese foe built 400 - ironically under license - as the L2D.
The C-47 was sturdy, reliable, and rugged, and was capable of carrying 6,000 pounds of cargo over long distances. It was the backbone of the Allied military airlift and served with distinction in every theater of the war. Supreme Allied Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower thought it one of the most significant military assets responsible for the Allies' victory over the Axis, yet it was merely a slightly modified airliner.
But what an airliner. The C-47 was a militarized version of the classic Douglas DC-3, arguably the most significant airliner in history as it is widely thought to be the first airliner capable of making a profit without government subsidy.
The DC-3 was a major part of the second aircraft revolution when the modern all-metal aircraft came of age. In 1933, the Boeing Airplane Company produced the revolutionary Model 247. It was 50 percent faster than its rivals, yet used 50 percent less horsepower. Equipped with an all-metal stress-skin structure, cantilevered wings, retractable landing gears, and two closely-cowled air-cooled radial engines, the 247 set the mark for a new generation of aircraft. Afraid that all of the new 247s were going to his competitor at United Air Lines, TWA Vice President Jack Frye enlisted Donald Douglas to build him a better 247. The result was the graceful Douglas DC-2, with Jack Northrop's famous and virtually indestructible multicellular wingspar design, which was faster than the 247 and could carry 14 passengers rather than only 10. It was an immediate success.
At American Airlines, president C.R. Smith wanted a sleeper version of the DC-2 for his overnight transcontinental service. Douglas responded with a larger, widened version of the DC-2, known as the Douglas Sleeper transport - the D.S.T. Impressed with its speed and efficiency once the D.S.T. entered service, Smith ordered a day version that could seat 21 to 24 passengers. The result was the DC-3, which began carrying passengers in 1936. By the end of the 1930s, over 80 percent of the airliners flown in the United States were DC-3s.
The airlines were not the only organizations impressed by the DC-3. Already a customer for the DC-2, the Army Air Corps placed its first of many contracts for the C-47 on September 16, 1940. The C-47 differed little from the DC-3. C-47s were equipped with two twin row Pratt & Whitney R-1830 radial engines each producing 1,200 horsepower. Most, but not all, DC-3s were fitted with Wright R-1820s of similar power. C-47s were built with a reinforced floor with cargo fittings, a large two-panel port-side cargo door, and an astrolabe bubble for navigation above the cockpit. The wingspan was 6 inches wider than the similar DC-3A, and the fuel capacity was increased from 804 to 822 gallons with interior fittings for nine 100-gallon fuselage fuel tanks. Later versions were equipped for glider towing. The aircraft was flown by a pilot and co-pilot with a radio operator and could carry either 6,000 pounds of cargo, 28 fully equipped paratroopers, or 14 stretchers with medical attendants - an extremely versatile design.
The first C-47 entered service on December 23, 1941, just two weeks after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Production was centered in Long Beach, California, and soon Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The Army Air Forces based its vast, quickly-built transport network around the C-47 and its variants. New routes were blazed around the world, made possible in large part by the aircraft's legendary reliability. With the creation of the Air Transport Command in June 1942, the C-47's operations expanded further, opening up the dangerous aerial supply from India across the "Hump" of the Himalayas to China. C-47s dropped paratroopers into Sicily, New Guinea, Southern France, the Netherlands, and the Ruhr Valley. They played a key role in supplying the Allies around the world and, after the war started, the Berlin Airlift that saved that city from Soviet aggression during the Cold War. C-47s flew during the Korean War, ventured to the South Pole and, in Vietnam, performed electronic reconnaissance and psychological warfare missions, and even pioneered the aerial gunship for night interdiction.
The C-47 served the nation with distinction for over 35 years in many guises and names. But perhaps its most important contribution was in the skies over Normandy on June 5 and 6, 1944.