Header Photo Credit: Martin Smith @OrangeyMart46
More than 1,200 Douglas C-47 Dakotas were used in Operation Overlord in June, 1944. They air-dropped the American 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions into Normandy the night before the main D-Day beach assaults, allowing them to secure rear areas and prevent the German reinforcement of the beach defenses.
This airborne drop is legendary in the annals of military aviation history; 40% of the flight crews were new arrivals or replacements who had yet to fly a combat drop. And only 20% of all the IX Troop Carrier Command pilots were trained for night drops. Of all the crews that flew that night, almost one third of them didn’t have navigators. They were all expected to cross the Channel at low level, at night, in formation, under radio silence, and hit their drop zones on time and on the mark. Despite these challenges and the fact that the aircraft had no armor plating, no self-sealing fuel tanks, and no defensive weapons, these flight crews delivered two entire airborne divisions in the dark and played a key role in preventing German reinforcements from reaching the Normandy beaches.
At Normandy, the 101st Airborne Division was tasked with securing the routes inland from Utah Beach, where the 4th Infantry Division would be making its amphibious assault. The battle-hardened 82nd Airborne Division, having made its first two combat jumps the year prior in the invasion of Sicily (Operation Husky) and Salerno on the Italian mainland (Operation Avalanche), were tasked with a drop deeper in German-held territory west of the crucial highway junction at the little town of Ste-Mere Eglise. Holding this junction would hasten the fall of the French port of Cherbourg, which could then be used by the Allies. It was expected that the Germans would heavily defend the town, and the 82nd Airborne was tasked with seizing the bridges and road junctions in the vicinity. The 82nd’s drop zones also covered the right flank of the drop zones of the 101st Airborne.
Interestingly, the 101st Airborne Division was formed just two years prior to D-Day, unlike the 82nd Airborne Division which already boasted a storied history solidified by their combat drops at Sicily and Salerno in the Mediterranean Theater of Operations. Undaunted, the first commander of the 101st Airborne Division, General William C. Lee, told his men when they were first formed, “We have no history, but a rendezvous with destiny.”
General Lee suffered a heart attack in February 1944 and had to be replaced. When the men of the 101st Airborne Division made their jumps in the predawn hours over Normandy, they yelled “BILL LEE!” in honor of their first commander who had promised them a date with destiny.
Realizing the sheer number of Allied aircraft flying over Normandy would overwhelm the existing IFF (identification friend or foe) systems, planners for Operation Overlord decided on a simple scheme of black and white invasion stripes for Allied planes. This way, the rules of engagement were clear: “If it ain’t got stripes, shoot it down.”
To keep the Luftwaffe from compromising the plan, the invasion stripes scheme was a closely guarded secret. On 1 June, a small group of aircraft with stripes overflew the invasion fleet to familiarize the AA gunners. On 3 June, the C-47s and other large aircraft were painted and the following day, just 48 hours before D-Day, fighters and attack aircraft were painted.
We received quite a few photographs from our followers on Twitter of aircraft painted with D-Day invasion stripes. They range from restored warbirds to modern aircraft painted in homage. A selection of these photos appear below. Thank you to all who shared their photographs!