This Really Boring Looking Plane Won World War II (Really)

April 19, 2019 Topic: Security Region: Eurasia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: World War IIEuropeAsia-PacificNazi GermanyImperial Japan

This Really Boring Looking Plane Won World War II (Really)

Even though, technically at least, it was not a combat airplane, the performance of the Douglas C-47 transport led General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower to label it as one of the most important weapons of World War II.

The civilian contingent was soon joined by a squadron of Army C-47s that arrived in India as part of Colonel Caleb Haynes’s AQUILA project that was intended to serve as the nucleus of a heavy bomber effort against Japan from Chinese bases. A Japanese offensive in China in retaliation for the Doolittle mission deprived the Allies of the planned bomber bases, and the Army and civilian C-47/DC-3 crews soon found themselves in the middle of the battle for Burma. When it became apparent that the Japanese had gained the upper hand, the transports were put to work evacuating Allied troops.

Although combat operations in defense of India were requiring most of Tenth Air Force’s efforts, it was imperative that supplies get to China, where the American Volunteer Group, popularly known as the Flying Tigers, was doing a good job of harassing the Japanese. Fortunately, there was another air transport organization in the theater. Before the war Pan American Airways had contracted with the Chinese government to operate a national airline. The China National Airways Corporation (CNAC) operated a fleet of DC-3s with civilian crews, mostly Americans.

Tenth Air Force contracted with CNAC to airlift supplies to China, beginning what came to be known as the Hump Airlift. Throughout 1942, DC-3s and C-47s operated the airlift, but the massive amounts of material requiring airlift dictated the use of larger airplanes with greater payloads. In late 1942 the airlift of supplies to China was taken over by the newly created Air Transport Command (ATC). ATC began the airlift with C-47s but switched to larger Curtiss C-46s and Consolidated C-87s, the cargo version of the B-24 Liberator bomber, as they became available.

Although the C-47 was replaced within the ATC airlift to China, the Douglas transports continued to play a major role. One of the conditions of the transfer of the China Air Ferry to the ATC was that Tenth Air Force would receive a troop carrier group equipped with C-47s. Additional Douglas transports came in the form of Royal Air Force Dakotas.

Many Roles in Many Theaters

Air transport would be a feature of new tactics worked out by the eccentric British Brigadier Orde Wingate, the commander of a special force made up of British and Commonwealth troops known as Chindits. In the spring of 1944, Wingate’s special force invaded Burma from the air. The entire Tenth Air Force effort was directed toward supporting the operation, which consisted of a glider assault onto landing zones in Burma that would be used as forward bases supported by troop carrier C-47s. The three C-47 squadrons of Tenth Air Force had been joined by a fourth squadron that came to India as part of Colonel Philip Cochran’s air commando group, and had been further augmented by the temporary assignment of the 64th Troop Carrier Group from the Mediterranean.

The air commando C-47s were assigned to glider towing duty while the troop carrier command transports airlifted men and equipment into the hastily prepared landing zones. One troop carrier squadron was assigned to support the American provisional force under Brig. Gen. Frank Merrill, who walked into Burma in the north. Once again the C-47 proved its worth as the twin-engine transports operated into airstrips that had been constructed with small bulldozers and graders that had been landed by glider.

The role of the C-47 in Europe was initially primarily logistical. In the summer of 1942, the 51st Troop Carrier Wing and its three groups moved to England as part of the Eighth Air Force. Throughout the summer the wing’s C-47s and C-53s supported the newly arrived bomber and fighter groups. Planning for the invasion of North Africa called for the wing to transfer to Africa. Several squadrons of C-47s left England carrying the paratroopers of the 503rd Parachute Infantry Regiment, the first American paratroop unit to see combat.

There were a handful of limited airborne operations in North Africa, but the transport mission became support of air and ground combat units, particularly after the battle moved away from the coast. Military planners had not taken the troop carrier transports into consideration, but their presence proved highly beneficial as they were used to airlift bombs and supplies for combat squadrons to airfields in the desert and to support motorized columns. Troop carriers in North Africa borrowed a page from the Southwest Pacific as they began evacuating casualties from forward areas to rear area hospitals.

In European Combat Operations

Plans for Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily, called for the use of paratroops and glider-borne forces. The airborne operations did not go well, thanks in part to high winds that blew the formations off course. Jittery antiaircraft gunners on ships offshore took the approaching C-47 formation under fire and shot down quite a few transports. Dozens of paratroopers fell into the sea and were drowned. Many gliders cut loose too early and failed to make the beaches, leaving their occupants to the same fate as the paratroopers who fell into the sea.

In spite of the numerous problems, the few paratroopers and glider troops who managed to arrive in one piece caused so much confusion among the German and Italian defenders that airborne operations were planned for future invasions. There was one paratroop drop in Italy when General Mark Clark decided to reinforce the beachhead at Salerno. Once Allied air units were established in Italy, the C-47s assumed a new mission, the resupply of partisans in Yugoslavia.

Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy, included the massive use of American and British airborne forces. The D-Day airdrops have become famous and are perhaps the one World War II event most associated with C-47s. Unfortunately, the drops did not go well, while dozens of C-47s were shot down and hundreds were damaged by intense German fire. Once the beachhead had been established, landing strips were constructed for C-47s arriving on the continent from England.

The American breakout from the beaches in early August saw the C-47s in an important new role as they were called upon to support the rapidly moving armored columns of General George Patton’s Third Army. Patton came to depend on the C-47s and other transports to bring in fuel for his tanks and trucks, and when they were taken away his rapid advance ground to a halt.

The Troop Carrier Command was dedicated to the support of the First Allied Airborne Army when it was established in early August, and its squadrons were taken off combat operations to train for Operation Market-Garden, the upcoming airborne invasion of Holland. An additional 100 C-47s were taken off Air Transport Command domestic operations in the United States and sent to England to beef up the Service Command transport forces.

The drops in Holland saw the C-47 crews earn the respect of the paratroopers. While previous airborne operations had often been characterized by confusion, the drops in Holland were well organized and the crews were motivated to risk their own lives to ensure that the troops were dropped on target. Paratroopers returned from Holland to tell of courageous C-47 pilots were able to hold their course in burning airplanes so their troops could jump, and then went to fiery deaths as their stricken craft crashed. Troop Carrier Command C-47s, supplemented by B-24s detached from Eighth Air Force, kept the troops in Holland supplied until ground links were opened.

During the Battle of the Bulge paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division were sent to hold the town of Bastogne, where they soon found themselves surrounded by a determined enemy and cut off from all means of ground resupply. Terrible winter weather, with low clouds, fog, drizzle, and snow, prevented the C-47s from delivering supplies by air for several days. As their supplies dwindled, the Screaming Eagles held on. Finally, on December 23 the skies cleared and parachutes blossomed over Bastogne as C-47 crews braved German fire to deliver their loads of ammunition, rations, and medical supplies. By evening, 101st artillery crews were firing shells that had just been dropped in. The Bastogne relief was perhaps the C-47’s finest hour.

The Goony Bird Behind the Front

While the airborne operations in the European theater, the Hump Airlift, and the New Guinea missions were their most important, the Douglas transports were a familiar sight all over the world. Army C-47s supported combat operations in the Aleutians, while the Navy and Marine Corps established transport squadrons for duty in the islands of the Central Pacific with their own C-47s, which were given the naval designation of R4D. It was probably the Navy and Marine crews who gave the DC-3 its most famous name—Gooney Bird. Nature’s gooney birds are a species of albatross that are unique to Midway atoll, where sailors and Marines had been entertained by the ungainly creatures long before Midway became famous in mid-1942.

By 1943 the U.S. military was active all over the world as ferry and transport routes were developed over which young, inexperienced crews delivered bombers, fighters, and transports to combat squadrons overseas. Engine trouble, bad weather, and enemy action led to the loss of aircraft and crews who went down in the ocean or over hostile terrain. The Air Transport Command developed its own search and rescue units to look for downed airmen, and C-47s were equipped for the role. Some C-47s were equipped with skis to allow landings close to downed airmen in Arctic terrain. The C-47C was equipped with giant Edo floats to allow water landings. Tests were even conducted with a glider version of the C-47, when an early model was converted to become the XCG-17.