Of all the workhorse weapons in the Allies’ World War II arsenal, from the American M-4 Sherman medium tank and jeep to the British Handley Page Halifax bomber and 25-pounder field gun, none was more widely and effectively deployed than the Douglas C-47 transport plane.
Dubbed the Skytrain by the U.S. armed forces and the Dakota by the British, the C-47 was the most ubiquitous airplane of the war, performing a variety of services in all theaters of operation, from North Africa to Burma, from New Guinea to Normandy, and from Sicily to Holland.
General Dwight D. Eisenhower believed that the rugged, dependable aircraft was one of the five pieces of equipment—along with the jeep, bulldozer, 21/2-ton truck, and DUKW amphibious vehicle—that were “among the most vital to our success in Africa and Europe,” while the official U.S. Army Air Forces history noted, “A steady and proven aircraft, the C-47 earned for itself a reputation hardly eclipsed even by the more glamorous combat planes.” Nicknamed the “Gooney Bird” by its American crews and passengers, the C-47 was regarded by some as the most remarkable plane in the history of aviation.
The design of the C-47 originated from the Douglas DC-2 and DC-3 family of commercial transports that followed in the wake of the DC-1 prototype that flew for the first time on July 1, 1933. The DC-3 airliner made its maiden flight on December 17, 1935, the 32nd anniversary of the Wright brothers’ historic first powered flight. A military role for their plane was the last thing on the minds of Douglas Aircraft officials observing the maiden flight at Santa Monica, California.
Yet the U.S. Army Air Corps gained early experience with the basic aircraft after acquiring production DC-2s in 1936, followed by more specialized variants for use as cargo and personnel transports. In August of that year, an improved DC-3 entered service with domestic airlines and revolutionized air travel. Its larger capacity and upgraded performance made it an even more attractive proposition to the Air Corps, which quickly advised Douglas on changes in configuration considered desirable to make it suitable for a variety of military roles.
The modifications included more powerful engines, a strengthened rear fuselage to allow for the inclusion of large cargo doors, and a reinforced cabin floor to make it suitable for heavy loads. Much of the basic design work had been completed by Douglas engineers, with a C-41 cargo prototype mounting 1,200-horsepower Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasp engines in a DC-2 fuselage. It reached Wright-Patterson Field in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1939. So, when the Army Air Corps started issuing contracts in 1940 for the new transport planes designated C-47, the company was well prepared to meet the requirements and get production underway.
The only serious problem was the limited production capacity at Douglas’s Santa Monica plant, where European war demands for the DB-7 light bomber—forerunner of the famous A-20 Havoc—had filled the factory floor. Therefore, C-47s were built in a new plant erected in Long Beach, California. The basic structural design remained virtually unchanged through the entire production run.
Powered by the Twin Wasp engines, the low-wing, all-purpose transport had a maximum speed of 230 miles per hour, a range of 1,350 miles, a ceiling of 24,100 feet, and a load capacity of 12,000 pounds. Its crew comprised a pilot, copilot-navigator, and radio operator. A total of 10,123 C-47s were built before production ceased in 1945.
Besides supplies, the Skytrain could be modified to transport 28 fully armed troops or 18 to 24 stretchers and a three-man medical team. The plane was a favorite with pilots, who eventually gave it a host of affectionate nicknames, including “Douglas Racer,” “Dowager Duchess,” “Grand Old Lady,” “Old Methuselah,” and “Placid Plodder.”
The first C-47s were delivered in 1941 to the Army Air Corps (renamed the Army Air Forces that June), but the flow was small and slow because the production line at Long Beach still needed time to settle down. When the Pearl Harbor attack thrust America into World War II, attempts were made to boost production, so to meet the military demand DC-3s operating with airlines or well advanced in construction were impressed into USAAF service.
When Douglas began to draw contracts for thousands of C-47s, it became obvious that the Long Beach plant could not cope, so a second production line was set up in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The first model built at Tulsa was the second production version, the C-47A. Tulsa built 2,099 of the planes, and Long Beach 2,832, and 962 of them were delivered to the hard-pressed Royal Air Force, which designated them Dakota IIIs.
The formation of the USAAF’s Air Transport Command on July 1, 1942, brought about the wide-scale deployment of C-47s as haulers of an incredible range of supplies, from weapons to rations to small vehicles; for carrying troops into combat; for dropping paratroops; for towing Waco and Horsa gliders; and for evacuating wounded. The C-47 became the workhorse airlifter of the ATC fleet, and after being incorporated into the Troop Carrier Command that year it took part in all major airborne operations of the war.
Skytrains were among the first types of aircraft delivered by the Air Corps Ferrying Command across the North Atlantic to Great Britain in 1942. In the war zones, the Douglas transports were initially used extensively by the U.S. Navy and the RAF. Six hundred of them were in U.S. Navy service, and a number of them were operated initially by the Naval Air Transport Service, which was established within five days of the Pearl Harbor attack. C-47s were later kept busy supplying U.S. Marine Corps and Army units when they invaded Japanese-held islands across the Pacific.
The Lend-Lease Dakotas began to arrive in England in February 1943, and several—wearing RAF camouflage—were immediately put to use by British Overseas Airways Corporation on its routes to Gibraltar and Africa. Another early user of Dakotas was No. 216 Squadron of the RAF, based in Cairo, for its regular supply runs between Egypt and West Africa and for evacuating casualties from the Western Desert. More Dakotas were sent to British bases in India.
American Skytrains and British Dakotas saw plenty of action when the Allies launched Operation Torch, the three-pronged invasion of North Africa, on November 8-11, 1942, and a number of the C-47s made military history. Late in the evening of November 7, the 556 men of Lt. Col. Edson D. Raff’s 509th Parachute Infantry Battalion clambered aboard 39 C-47s of the 60th Troop Carrier Group at two airfields in southern England and took off. Their mission to capture two airfields near the Algerian port of Oran after flying nonstop for 1,500 miles set a distance record for an airborne operation.
The planes ran into foul weather, and most got lost over the Mediterranean. Widely scattered, they landed in Gibraltar and Spanish and French Morocco, and only six of the C-47s managed to fly directly to Oran. Some of the troopers, including the fearless, egotistical Raff, jumped in daylight, but they were attacked by Vichy French planes and troops in a confused action. The French killed eight paratroopers and two C-47 crewmen, and none of the survivors were able to play a decisive role in the battle for Oran or seize the airfields.
Major General Frederick “Boy” Browning’s British 1st Parachute Brigade left England on November 10, landed at the Maison Blanche airfield near Algiers the following day, and dropped from Dakotas onto the airfield at Bone, a seaport on the Tunisian border, on the 12th. They seized the field and helped to capture the port.
Raff’s battalion, meanwhile, was soon in action again. On the night of November 14, a few hours after moving to Maison Blanche, he was ordered to carry out an operation at dawn the next day. The objective was the capture of a French airfield and large stocks of fuel at Youks-les-Bains, near Tebessa on the Tunisian border. Raff and about 350 of his men jumped in daylight from 33 C-47s. Troops of the 3rd Zouave Regiment zeroed in on the Americans, but neither side fired, and Raff was able to persuade the defenders to surrender the airfield. The troopers hastily dug in, secured the airfield, and shot down a German plane attempting to land.
One night in late December, “Little Caesar” Raff led a smaller airborne mission 110 miles inside the German lines in Tunisia. Two C-47s airlifted 30 of his troopers to blow up a bridge near El Djem. Dropped in the wrong place, they were unable to locate the bridge and were discovered by a German patrol the next day. Twenty-two of the paratroopers were killed or captured, but eight escaped and hid for a month before reaching the Allied lines. The operations of Raff’s battalion earned high praise from General Eisenhower, the Allied commander in North Africa, and his deputy, Lt. Gen. Mark W. Clark.
Two months later, far to the east, Douglas Dakotas started performing a vital support role for General William J. Slim’s British 14th Army in its three-year struggle to defeat Japanese forces in the jungles of Burma. In February 1943, the first of a series of long-range penetration raids behind Japanese lines was launched by 3,000 specially trained British, Gurkha, and Burmese troops of eccentric, colorful Brigadier Orde C. Wingate’s 77th Indian Infantry Brigade. The “Chindits” blew up railway bridges and ambushed enemy outposts, and 2,182 men made it back to the British lines. While hacking their way through the dense jungles, Wingate’s men were sustained by supply drops from Dakotas of RAF Squadron Nos. 194 and 31.