Operation Albany 2018
Many of you know Adrian, our Customisation and Product Specialist. He has recently organised an event to commemorate a D-Day Parachute drop. Here is his account:
I was tasked with helping organise this very special event. After weeks of planning, the day had come!
I left home here in Aberystwyth at 08:30am on Thursday the 31st May to get things set up. I had to travel to Upottery Airfield located next to the village of Smeatharpe, Devon.
During the war, the airfield was home to the American Ninth Air Force’s 439th Troop Carrier Group, equipped with C-47 Skytrain transport aircraft. It was on the night of 5th June, that the 439th were to take part in the Normandy invasion, and around 80 of their aircraft (4 squadrons) took part in ‘Operation Albany’. The task was to land the paratroopers of 101st Airborne’s 1st and 2nd Battalions into a drop zone located near St. Marie-Du-Mont, Normandy. One of the 101st Airborne’s units to fly from Upottery that night, were Easy Company of the 506th P.I.R. They were to become famous due to the HBO series ‘Band of Brothers’.
I arrived just after midday at the Upottery Nissen Hut Heritage Centre, a fantastic museum ran by volunteers of the South West Airfields Heritage Trust. The museum is located inside one of the old shower blocks for the airfield, and has a fantastic collection including photos, dioramas, maps, aircraft parts, uniforms etc all to do with the airfield during the war. Outside and across the grass, are the remains of Lt. Col. Charles Young’s bungalow. Lt. Col. Young was the Commanding Officer of the 439th TCG, and it would have been within these walls he would have spoken with senior officers and probably finalised some of the plans for his squadrons prior to the D-Day invasion.
So, no time to spare, I enlisted the help of those available to erect some shelters/tents and also the ‘jump door’ that the paratroopers use to practice exiting the aircraft prior to a jump.
The plan was that the C-47 ‘Drag Em Oot’ (herself a veteran of D-Day) based at East Kirkby Airfield in Lincolnshire, would fly down to Headcorn Airfield in Kent, refuel and take on board the 50+ camp beds for the paratroopers that evening. Then she would fly from Headcorn and arrive at Upottery very late afternoon. Unfortunately, the weather didn’t see it that way! The aircraft managed to get airborne from Lincolnshire, and fly down to Headcorn, where immediately the weather closed in. I was in contact with crew members, and keep the many public who had turned up to see her arrive at Upottery informed of the progress. It turned out that the crew waited and waited for the weather to improve, but by around 7pm it was too late and they had to cancel the flight. Whilst I had to break the bad news at Upottery, it was the crew who worked frantically to unload the 50 camp beds from the aircraft, onto their support van, and proceed to drive the 3 hours from Kent to Upottery.
It was around 10:30pm that the paratroopers of the Round Canopy Parachute Team and the 50 camp beds arrived at the Nissen Hut for the night! It was all systems go to unload the van, as well as greet the paratroopers who had come over by coach from France. The volunteers of S.W.A.H.T had put on a Barbecue so everyone was able to grab some food upon arrival, and everyone was in such high spirits considering the weather. It was shortly after this that most of the Round Canopy Team and others supporting the event managed to get their heads down, however I wasn’t able to finally finish up until about 1am!
1st June 2018 – our D-Day!
I woke up at 6am but most of the Round Canopy Team were already awake and grabbing breakfast. Once that was completed, they all gathered in the field adjacent to the Nissen Hut to begin their stretches and go through final safety briefs. It was quite interesting to watch and listen to!
Whilst this was happening, we were joined by a serving US Army Dignitary, as well as local BBC News who wanted to cover the event.
The team then moved over to the Jump Door to practice their exits, whilst at the same time I’m desperately trying to get any news on whether the aircraft was able to get out of Headcorn. Unfortunately, no was the reply. The weather was too bad between them and us, but we still had plenty to do to get ready in the meantime. The three crew members had to weigh each of the paratroopers and kit, to make sure the aircraft wouldn’t be overloaded.
I managed to coordinate between myself and a few other individuals to gather those going to the airfield. We got them formed up outside the hut, all wearing their WW2 American Jump Suits, and ready to march to the airfield. I jumped into a WW2 Jeep that was leading them, with a Wartime RAF dispatcher’s motorcycle blocking the traffic for us. We all set off: The Motorcycle, Our Jeep, the 50 Paratroopers, followed by a GMC Deuce and Half, and another two Jeeps. Marching through the village, the roads were lined by locals and people who travelled from afar to witness such a special and moving event. Everyone was in high spirits, and when reaching the airfield itself, the Paratroopers were singing a verse of ‘Blood upon the Risers’, a song that the 101st created during World War Two.
Then we began to wait. Still no sign of the C-47, and the weather was still terrible, everywhere except over Upottery! We had a few showers throughout the day, but for the most part, it was sunny and hot. However, between us and Kent – Cloud, wind and rain. Between us and Carentan – Cloud, wind and rain. We held a small memorial and special thanks service around 11.30am. A minutes silence to remember the fallen was broken by the song ‘Requiem for a soldier’.
We were joined throughout the day by a number of aircraft. I had a call from Dunkeswell Airfield, just down the road from Upottery, asking if we would like them to fly in, without hesitation I said YES! About half hour later, a T6 Texan and a Stearman Biplane turned up, made one pass, and landed. Half an hour after that, they were followed by WW2 Spotter planes – an L4 Grasshopper and an Auster.
3.45pm – Still waiting, the Aircraft is stuck on the ground… It was beginning to look like the event wasn’t going to happen. Then suddenly I get a tap on my shoulder. It’s Andy from Aerolegends, the company that owns the C-47. He has a huge grin on his face… ‘She’s just getting airborne!’
We were soon joined by a Beech twin engined aircraft used for Air to Air shots, and the world’s only flying Percival Prentice, An RAF trainer introduced in 1948, it is used by Aerolegends as a support aircraft to their events, although a rare and beautiful aircraft in itself!
The Round Canopy Parachute Team began kitting up while we awaited the C-47. Issued with Life Jackets, their main chutes and their reserve chutes, there were smiles everywhere.
5.15pm – There’s a drone in the distance, and breaking through the cloud is the beautiful sight of ‘Drag Em Oot’ as she comes overhead, the sound of her two Pratt and Whitney engines like music! She makes three passes, before landing on the main runway perfectly. Parking up, we all gathered around to take a look. Such an icon of history, and ‘Drag em Oot’ with so much history herself, it was fantastic she had made it!
It was all go getting the C-47 set up ready for the parachute team. Due to the late arrival, the original plan of taking off, flying to Carentan, performing the drop, and returning for the next group, couldn’t happen. Only half of the team would get to jump today, but it was something. It wasn’t long until they climbed aboard, massive grins and thumbs up. Laughter, and singing could be heard.
6.55pm – The C-47 starts her engines and begins to taxi for takeoff. I was lucky enough to witness the takeoff stood right next to the runway. The engines gain power, and they begin the takeoff roll. She gets airborne just as she passes me! The First Parachute Jump to have taken off from Upottery since the 5th June 1944. As I turned to those stood with me, there wasn’t a dry eye. Whether it was exhaustion/tiredness or whether it was the significance of the event, it doesn’t matter. There was just a moment for us all to pause and reflect on the unique event we had just witnessed. We shook hands, gave each other hugs, and pats on the backs. There were cheers and clapping as the C-47 gained height and flew onto France.
The rest of the Jump Team spent an extra night at the Nissen Hut and jumped the very next day in the glorious sunshine over Carentan. All of the team landed safely, and ‘Drag em Oot’ then spent the week in France, performing numerous drops.
I want to say a special thanks to all of those who supported the event and whilst I organised it, I could not have done it without their help, and they all worked so hard.
I would like to mention once again the Round Canopy Parachute Team. They perform various commemorative drops, and have members from Britain, USA, France, Germany and all over! If you would like more information, or maybe want to get in touch about giving it a go yourself, you can contact them, either via their website or Facebook pages –
Thanks to South West Airfield’s Heritage Trust for their much welcomed hospitality. Please do take a look at their website, and if you get a chance, visit the Upottery Nissen Hut Heritage Centre –
And also special thanks to all those at Aerolegends, who own the C-47 ‘Drag Em Oot’. They worked so hard to get the aircraft there for us, and the team are a fantastic bunch –
We shall start planning Operation Albany 2019 shortly, and are hoping it will be even bigger! Stay tuned for all of the details!