As national, and international interest in the 70th Anniversary of the D-Day landings of WWII increases, it is worth remembering that Halifax aircraft from RAF Elvington’s newly formed French 346 “Guyenne” Squadron took part in the offensive against strategic targets on the Normandy coast in the run up to D-Day. On these first operations, they attacked firstly the radio / radar installation at Ferme D’Urville, in the early hours of 2nd June 1944, in which 12 Guyenne Squadron Halifax bombers participated, from the total of 101 aircraft. The next night saw Cap Gris-Nez (Harinzelles) attacked, with 9 Guyenne aircraft taking part from a total deployment of 271 aircraft. Lastly, on the eve of D-Day itself, the target was the historically little known but huge German heavy gun battery at Grandcamp Maisy, Omaha Beach, with 12 Guyenne aircraft taking part from a total force of 1012 aircraft, showing the intensity and importance of this attack.
Ian Reed, Director of the Allied Air Forces Memorial, comments: “As the French were effectively bombing their own homeland, it can only be speculated the torment that those aircrews underwent on those first operations, but they were fiercely determined to liberate France from occupation. It is fitting that Guyenne Squadron aircraft were involved in those first steps towards the liberation of Europe, and indeed Air Vice Marshal Carr, who was Commander of 4 Group Bomber Command, terminated the first crew briefing with the words: “…. this is a great day for you”. Mercifully, Guyenne Squadron escaped casualties on these first missions, although the tally mounted steadily as their operations increased and the Squadron was joined by 347 Tunisie Squadron, which flew its first mission on 12th June 1944.”
(Scrutiny of Bomber Command Losses in the period 1st June to the night of D-Day itself suggest that 45 bomber aircraft were lost in operations on the Normandy coast, with 228 aircrew killed, 30 PoW’s, 30 evaders and 10 injured.)
Although much attention is now being given to this 70th Anniversary of the D-Day invasion, which is rightly so, this epic period of British military history is remembered on a daily basis here at the Yorkshire Air Museum, through the superb “Airborne Forces” exhibition that was opened in June 2005.
Amongst many unique items, is the impressive display diorama that sets out the location of the area of operations of the 6th Airborne Division landings whose objective was to protect the left flank of the invasion force during the assaults on the Merville Battery and Pegasus Bridge. In fact, this diorama came from the former Pegasus Bridge Museum in Normandy itself.
Uniforms worn glider pilots, troops and Airborne Engineers are on display, along with a comprehensive set of artefacts and information, including an audio commentary of the formation of the Airborne Forces.
Amongst our aircraft collection is an example of the Douglas C-47 Dakota, an aircraft synonymous with Airborne Operations, which is internally fitted out with the paratroop benches and casualty evacuation stretchers, with an audio commentary of a parachute drop. (This aircraft is in engine running condition). Another interesting aircraft is the reconstruction of a WACO Glider, as used in the landings, showing just how fragile these troop and equipment deploying gliders really were.
The original Halifax bomber “Friday the 13th”, of which the Museum displays a unique reconstruction, took part in the attacks against the Maisy battery, flying alongside the French squadron aircraft from its base with 158 Squadron RAF Lissett and it is fitting that the example at the Yorkshire Air Museum carries French markings on one side and the original decals on the other. Halifax aircraft also towed gliders during the invasion.
There is much to learn about this epic moment in military history, from the aviation perspective here at the Yorkshire Air Museum.