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This was published in the Cotswold Life in June 1984 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of RAF Broadwell
D-Day on the Cotswolds
It is difficult now, some 40 years on, to link the Cotswolds to the gigantic assault upon Hitler's West Wall on 6th June, 1944. Although the vast majority of the Allied military might was transported to Normandy by sea from the south coast ports between Ramsgate and Falmouth, their assault may have been in vain if it had not been for the airborne attack by parachute and glider-borne troops upon selected objectives inland. These objectives were chosen to protect the flanks of the seaborne forces from German counterattacks, thereby assisting them to secure beachheads and enable reinforcements to be brought in.
The United States forces, both airborne and amphibious, were tasked with capturing beachheads along the eastern side of the Cherbourg peninsula. The objective of their airborne troops was to secure routes and villages which would enable the seaborne divisions to move inland. They were flown to Normandy in Dakotas and Waco gliders from airfields in the East Midlands, Berkshire, Devon and Somerset.
The British and Canadian assault on the beaches on the Normandy coast to the north of Bayeux and Caen, was preceded
by an airborne landing mounted from Royal Air Force bases in Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and Berkshire. Among these was the trio of airfields controlled by No. 46 Group of RAF Transport Command comprising Broadwell near Burford, Down Ampney near Cirencester and Blakehill Farm near Cricklade. All three airfields were of wartime construction and the squadrons which flew from them were all equipped with the ubiquitous air transport workhorse, the Douglas C-47 Dakota. Broadwell had two such squadrons, Nos. 512. and 575, Down Ampney also had two, Nos. 48 and 271, and Blakehill Farm one, No. 233.
In addition to their ability to carry and drop parachute troops, all five squadrons were skilled in towing the Airspeed Horsa gliders. These, piloted by soldiers of the Glider Pilot Regiment, many of whom were trained to fly at Stoke Orchard near Cheltenham and at Northleach, were to carry into battle, infantry, guns and jeeps. But the. initial assault from the three bases was to be mainly with paratroops of the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Parachute Regiment, which with the 1st Canadian Parachute Regiment, formed part of the 3rd Parachute Brigade of the British 6th Airborne Division.
From RAF Broadwell and RAF Down Ampney, the target for the 9th Battalion was the Merville battery - a formidable concrete bunker of lour 75mm German guns which commanded the British assault beach code-named "Sword". Destruction of these guns was vital to the security of the seaborne landing and the ships standing off the beach. RAF Blakehill Farm Dakotas and some of the Broadwell and Down Ampney aircraft were to drop the 8th Parachute Battalion on a Drop Lone (DZ) some five miles inland to give protection in depth to the other British airborne landings.
Many practices had been carried out in April and May of 1944 by the Squadrons from the three airfields, and the fleets of Dakotas, sometimes towing Horsa gliders, had become a familiar sight to inhabitants of the towns and villages of the Upper Thames countryside. The area around Lechlade, in particular, had been the scene of a major parachute exercise in April.
On 25th May, 1944, the 9th Battalion, Parachute Regiment, moved into a tented transit camp near RAF Broadwell where they, were to complete their final preparations for D-Day, sealed off from the local townspeople and villagers to preserve security. They shared the camp with the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles who were to be transported to Normandy in Horsa gliders later on D-Day. The following days were spent in detailed briefings, starting with company commanders, clown through platoon commanders to the final briefing, on 30th May, to the whole of the 9th Battalion. Maps, air photographs and scale models gave every man a detailed and accurate picture of the battalion's objectives as a whole and his own section's in particular.
On the morning of Saturday, 3rd June, the battalion paraded in full jumping order, complete with weapons and equipment containers and moved off in lorries to the airfield. Each lorry carried one aircraft load, or "stick", of paratroops, and drove to the correct aircraft. There, parachutes were issued and fitted and containers were attached to the underside of the aircraft. Each man marked his parachute with his last two personal numbers and placed it on his seat in the aircraft. This scene was repeated at all the bases for the airborne assault.
Take-off was planned for the evening of 4th June. Later that day, the commander of 3rd Parachute Brigade, Brigadier Hill, talked to all his officers. His final remark was: "Gentlemen, in spite of your excellent training and orders, do not be daunted if chaos reigns - it undoubtedly will!" Shortly after, news was received that the invasion had been postponed for 24 hours. Tension was relieved and the teetotal rule relaxed-but only temporarily, for early on .5th June, it was confirmed that the airborne assault would be mounted that night. After resting in the afternoon (they would probably get no steep for 24 hours apart from a doze in the aircraft on the way to the DZ), the men had tea, readied themselves, and paraded at 8pm by sticks for the drive to Broadwell airfield. By 10.45pm they were all in their Dakotas.
In Kencot and Filkins, Down Ampney and Marston Meysey, Cricklade and Chedworth, the inhabitants went to bed on Monday, -5th June, in a silence that was ended as the 108 aircraft started their engines on the three airfields and carried out their final pre-take-off checks.
At 11. l0prn, Wing Commander Coventry, commanding No. 512 Squadron, pushed forward the twin throttles of his Dakota to full power at the end of Runway 20 and took-off in the lead of the 32 Broadwell aircraft. All aircraft were airborne by 11.36pm into a moonless fine night sky with some medium level cloud. After take-off their route was north-east to a turning point between Chipping Norton and Banbury, where they joined up with the squadrons from RAF Down Ampney to turn south-east towards London and then south along a beacon marked route across the south coast at the Air Traffic Control Tower at RAF Broadwell in 1984.
Worthing and on to Normandy.
At 12.50am on Tuesday, 6th June, the green "Go" lights started to come on in the aircraft as they reached the Drop Zone and the men of the 9th Battalion began to tumble out into an unsuspecting France. The flight across had been uneventful and although there was light anti-aircraft fire as the Normandy coast was crossed, no aircraft were shot down. The troops, however, were spread over 50 square miles as the pilots had not been able to identify the DZ positively, due to the pathfinder paratroops' guiding beacons being lost or damaged when they landed. Only 17 Dakotas dropped their men on the DZ, nevertheless, the Merville battery was seized and silenced before it could fire on the approaching amphibious forces. Five officers and 65 men of the Parachute Regiment were killed or wounded.
At RAF Down Ampney, the picture was similar. Seven Dakotas towing Horsas were airborne at 10.48pm, followed by 39 Dakotas with paratroops of the Ist Canadian Parachute Battalion and the Headquarters troops of the 3rd Parachute Brigade. The Canadians' objective was the destruction of two bridges on the River Dives to the east to prevent a German counter-attack.
Blakehill Farm saw No. 233 Squadron Dakotas take-off at 10.50pm on 5th June, the first six towing Horsas and the following 24 with paratroops of the 8th Parachute Battalion destined for Drop Zone K, near l scoville, a few miles further inland from the Merville battery. Tile battalion drop, in which small numbers of Down Ampney and Broadwell aircraft participated, was also dispersed. Twenty aircraft dropped accurately but 13 sticks landed on the wrong DZ. Two aircraft were shot down on the run-in.
On returning to their Cotswold airfields, the aircrews were debriefed, fed and rested, while their aircraft were refuelled and prepared for the next phase of the assault. This took place later in the afternoon of 6th .tune, when the squadrons from Down Ampney and Broadwell tookoff to play their part in a mass lift of gliderborne troops for a landing to the east of the River Orne bridge which had been captured during the previous night. The troops in the Horsa gliders were the Ist Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles. They started to take-off at 6.40prn, the weather was fine and the visibility 10 to 15 miles, allowing the aircrews and troops to see the escorting RAF lighters and, near the Normandy coast, the river and adjacent Caen Canal which was to be their target. The drop at 9.00pm was a complete success, with almost all the gliders reaching the Landing Zone. One Dakota from Broadwell and one from Down Ampney were damaged by anti-aircraft fire and ditched in the sea.
•The Commemorative Plaque at the end of the runway at RAF Down Ampney in 1984.
But D-Day had not yet finished for tire Cotswold squadrons. As 233 Squadron at RAF Blakehill Farm had not participated in the mass glider assault, 30 of their aircraft began to take-off at 9.30pm, carrying ammunition and supplies for the troops in the area of the Orne bridges. With them were 10 Dakotas from the other two airfields. It was a clear night and all seemed set for an easy run, but over the mouth of the River Orne they were fired upon by Allied naval vessels and many aircraft were hit. Two were severely damaged and turned back, one ditching in the Channel. Five more were missing and the rest so scattered that only a quarter of the stores reached the soldiers on the ground.
So ended D-Day on the Cotswolds. It had been a day of contrasts - of contrast between the aircrews who, having run the gauntlet of German flak, returned to the safety of England and an English breakfast to prepare to go again, and the airbome troops who descended by parachute or glider to face days of fighting and the possibility of being wounded or killed. Of contrast between the success of the evening mass glider assault and the tragedy of the stores drop. Many more days of action by the Cotswold squadrons were to follow, involving the evacuation, when landing strips in Normandy became available, of wounded troops to the hospitals at Bradwell Grove and Wroughton.
Today, Broadwell airfield has returned to farming, but the tarmac and concrete remains, as does the shell of tire air traffic control tower, no longer the hub of the thousands of aircraft take-offs and landings which took place there. A road runs down one of the runways and on a drive along it, it is not difficult to imagine a Dakota, perhaps with a Horsa glider swaying behind it, accelerating at full power to lift off and climb away.
Down Ampney, too, is back to agriculture with its reminders of a previous existence similar to Broadwell's. It also has two other signs of those days - a window in All Saints Church which commemorates the aircrews of No. 271 Squadron and the men of the Airborne Divisions who flew with them, and a memorial plinth at the end of Runway 03, which is the focus of an annual pilgrimage for many who served at Down Ampney. Further south, Blakehill Farm is now the site of a communications organisation with a large aerial dish astride the runways from which men once flew to battle.
This clutch of airfields amongst the Cotswold Hills played a vital part in launching, 40 years ago, the British airborne forces against Nazi-occupied Europe. But their glory was not over, on 17th September 1944, there was Arnhem -but that's another story.
W.H. WILLLIANSON With acknowledgements to Drop Zone Normandy by General Sir Napier Crookenden and Action Stations 6 by Michael J.F. Bowyer. The author would also like to thank the Museum of Army Flying, the Airborne Forces Museum and the Imperial War Museum.
In a silver cascade
of metal and smoke,
One by one...
The Spitfires peel off
Quickened by the stroke
Of their powerful propellers
Ten thousand feet
And curve to level out
Behind their unsuspecting prey.
Too late he sees:
He dives and swerves
And turns about in vain
But can't escape the deadly spate
Of burning lead that rushes
in his side
Letting out life:
And marking where he dies
Wrapped in a pall of smoke,
A crimson pyre bums bright,
The choir of Spitfires roar
and dip their wings
In tribute to the brave,
An aerial fugue
over a Domier grave.