Al Williams grew up in Old Ottawa South until he left to join the RCAF during the war. He still has a connection here in activities at the Firehall. His OOS story can be found in the online OSCAR archives for April 2017.
We had heard rumours that a second front was in preparation and the Battle of Normandy was going to begin sometime soon. That was in February 1944; we didn’t know what our role would be, but we had some months to prepare for it. I had been flying Ansons and Hudsons and we all had to be switched over to DC-3’s, that is “Dakotas” (or “Daks”).
The Daks were lovely to fly. Those still in use today hold 24 to 30 passengers, however under emergency conditions on a couple of occasions I packed in as many as 48 passengers for a short journey.
They called us Operational Transport Command. We towed gliders, carried paratroopers, resupplied paratroopers, or anybody on the ground and we carried wounded back from the battlefields. We got shot at a bit, but not very much, actually.
The gliders were almost as big as the DC-3 itself; they would hold 24 men or three jeeps with their crews. The heaviest ones, the Hamilcar gliders, could carry one fully operational 10-ton tank inside, believe it or not. This glider could be landed directly on the battlefield where its tank could emerge immediately and start firing at whatever target presented itself, thus affording protection to troops already landed.
All the gliders were expendable; they only recovered them when they were in training situations. Their purpose was to get people and things into the battle zone, but not out. It was tough on soldiers; they either had to fight their way in or fight their way out. It was a no-holds-barred part of the war.
The invasion had been cancelled twice because of weather conditions, but on the third night, the night before June 6th, we were relieved to be on our way though the weather was still risky. We took off with our paratroopers around midnight. Everybody took off on a strict schedule designed to put us over the drop zone in a steady stream. Stirlings and Dakotas were carrying parachutists and others were towing gliders.
We had no running lights at all, not the white at the back, nor the red and green navigation lights. We had three dim blue lights on the top of each wing, so we couldn’t be seen from the ground. We could just barely see each other, which made formation flying extremely difficult.
When you’re flying in formation at night, and trying to guide yourself by where you are relative to another aircraft – over there or down there or up there – you try to maintain station with it. But, all of a sudden, if you’re using your instruments (which you’re supposed to do at night), you watch your mark for a minute and when you come back to your instruments you find you’re flying one wing down and fighting with your controls, or slipping badly and making everyone uncomfortable. So, you have to straighten up using your instruments and look out quickly to see if you’re about to hit someone. It’s a constant fight when proper navigation lights are not in use. Everyone had that kind of problem, but fortunately we had no mid-air collisions that night.
The interesting thing about the load that I personally carried was that they were all conscientious objectors, and had trained as a field hospital unit. They refused to carry arms, but they would carry hospital equipment. They were orderlies, a couple of doctors and a group of male nurses. I tell this to everybody that I know because I realize the prejudice against non-arms bearing people in wartime. It was fine as far as I was concerned. They had a great deal of courage and had no way to strike back if they were in a bad position.
We got up to our cruising height, which was something like 2,000 feet, and set course for the English south-east coast, apparently heading for the Strait of Dover and the Pas de Calais where the German 15th Army waited for the invasion. This deception had been in place for months in the spring of 1944. At a certain point we all made a quick right turn and headed for Normandy. The Germans held their place for some weeks afterward, still believing that the D-Day landing was a mere distraction tactic.
We flew in toward the drop zone and fortunately I was able to map read the various fields and markers on the way in. When you crossed the coast, you put on a red light and the parachute team would all stand up, make sure they were all attached to the static line which ran along the middle of the aircraft and push toward the open door where they would jump out. We had to get it right, because the other fields next to our designated field were full of land mines.
When the green light came on, all twenty men jumped quickly and the chutes were opened automatically by the cables attached to the aircraft. The rush to the door is important, for at a speed of 110 knots, the smallest delay can separate the men on the ground and make it very difficult to organize in the dark. The airplane shakes and bangs around when they’re jumping out because the wing loading is changing so quickly, twenty men with 60 pound packs.
The trip home was a piece of cake.
Bruce Grant, retired Engineer, Layabout and occasional Writer is a resident of OOS.
Originally published in the November 2017 OSCAR.