With the long-anticipated invasion of Europe now imminent, some new arrivals turned up at US Station 466 Membury airfield in the last few days of May 1944, the paratroopers of the famous 101st Airborne Division ‘Screaming Eagles’, members of the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and a detachment of the 326th Airborne Medical Company. These men would be putting their lives in the hands of the crews of the home based Douglas C-47 crews, but would have trained exhaustively for the historic mission which lay ahead of them. Many would take part in detailed briefings to give them information regarding flight routes, timings, drop-zones and known enemy anti-aircraft gun locations and on 3rd June, base personnel were given orders to paint black and white stripes around the rear fuselage and wings of all their aircraft.
With so many aircraft in the air at the same time and with this possibility of friendly-fire casualties resulting not only from aircraft attack, but from ground and seaborne anti-aircraft fire, Allied D-Day planners called for ‘invasion stripes’ to be painted on the majority of Allied aircraft, in an effort to clearly identify them to other friendly units. For everyone involved in this momentous day, the situation was now crystal clear – ‘if it ain’t got stripes, shoot it down’. In order to prevent German spies and reconnaissance aircraft from discovering this black and white secret, the plan was a matter of the utmost secrecy and was only divulged in the days immediately prior to invasion, increasing an already hectic workload for airfield personnel.
The C-47s of the 436th Troop Carrier Group were assigned to fly two ‘serials’ (sorties) into Normandy on D-Day. Serial #9 would be executed by the 79th and 82nd Troop Carrier Squadrons, delivering the 1st Battalion 502nd PIR, whilst the 80th and 81st TCS would fly Serial #10 carrying the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion and the 326th AB Med Co into Normandy. Due to the heavy loads which needed to be carried for the 377th PFAB, which included their field guns and ammunition, the 85th TCS from the 437th TCG over at Ramsbury airfield were sent on detached service to the 436th and assigned as a third squadron for Serial #10.
The original planned departure date was to have been the 4th of June, however, a storm front forced a 24 hour delay - Operation Neptune finally got underway in the late evening of June 5th 1944. Para-packs were assembled ready to load onto the six racks beneath each aircraft, with the packs containing the component parts of disassembled field guns, ammunition, explosives, firearms and other essential equipment for war. Other packs including wheels for the howitzer field guns were loaded into the aircraft themselves, ready for the troopers to push out when the green light was turned on over the drop zone.
On the 5th of June, shortly before departure for ‘Mission Albany’, General Eisenhower and 101st Airborne Division Commander General Maxwell Taylor visited Membury airfield and the troops who were about to embark on their ‘Great Crusade’. Eisenhower visited all five airfields of the 53rd TCW that day to rally the troops but when he saw their determined, blackened faces and the number of weapons and knives each paratrooper was carrying, he knew that the men of the Screaming Eagles were ready for the coming fight. C-47A 42-100521 ‘Night Fright’ flew as Chalk No 20 in the first of the two serials which took-off from Membury at 2300 hours on the night of 5th June, carrying elements of 1st Battalion, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment, arriving over the DZ ‘A’ near Saint-Germain-de-Varreville at approximately 01:08hrs on 6th June 1944. The flight crew on that fateful night were Pilot; William Watson, Co-pilot; James Hardt, Radio Operator; Robert McKnight, Navigator; Arthur E. Thornton and Crew Chief, Owen Voss.
Upon reaching the western coast of the Cherbourg peninsula, low cloud made staying in tight formation difficult for the C-47 crews, especially as German anti-aircraft fire became heavier and mor accurate the closer they got to their Drop Zone. The navigators onboard the lead aircraft skilfully shepherded the formation and they successfully dropped the paratroopers over their intended primary drop zone, before turning and heading for home and what turned out to be a relatively uneventful return flight to Membury, were they landed just before 0400hrs.
Incredibly, all the C-47s of the 436th TCG made it back to Membury, even though many had sustained damage from the savage ground fire they encountered – ‘Night Fright’ herself sustained around one hundred separate bullet and shrapnel hits, which put her out of service for the next four days whilst she underwent repairs. The Group’s glider pilots were not so lucky, with several men being either killed or injured during the landing operations. Between June 9th and 13th, the 436th carried out a number of further sorties, towing CG-4A gliders full of supplies in an attempt to resupply troops fighting in the area of St. Mere Eglise.After undergoing repairs, 'Night Fright' returned to post D-Day operations, carrying out resupply missions, medical evacuations and freight-moving flights during the rest of this historic month.
After playing such an important role in helping secure eventual Allied victory during the Second World War, Douglas C-47A 42-100521 ‘Night Fright’ entered the US civilian register as NC65384, flying domestic routes with several operators over the next fifteen years. She was then sold to the French Navy, where she served as a navigational trainer and general communications aircraft, arriving in France during the summer of 1963 and joining Escadrille 56S at Nimes-Garons, where she was given the serial 18984 and fuselage code ‘84’.
When the French finally disposed of their military C-47s in 1984, the aircraft came into the possession of Basler Flight Services, who arranged to fly her back to America. Now registered N98BF, she flew the famous wartime northern ferry route on her way back home, not stopping until she reached Texas. Reregistered once more as N308SF, she soon found herself hauling cargo in the colours of Sky Freighters Corporation and whilst she would be used as a load lugger for the next twenty years or so, she would do so under the ownership of several different companies. Underlining the excellence of the aircraft’s original design and the strength of its construction, this warbird would spend many years transporting anything from live chickens to electrical generators all across North and Central America, in addition to regularly turning up at airfields on various Caribbean islands.
For an aircraft which possessed such a rich wartime history, 'Night Fright' was later forced to suffer the ignominy of being listed on a well-known auction site, finally coming into the ownership of a company who were specialists in the dismantling and scrapping of aircraft. Fortunately and for reasons which are still unclear, this former D-Day veteran was spared the scrapman’s attentions and sat forlornly at Walnut Ridge airfield, the same airfield she had returned to following the end of her wartime ETO service. It was from here that she was discovered by a group of people who had a very special restoration project in mind.
Douglas C-47A 42-100521 ‘Night Fright’ is now the subject of a meticulous restoration project taking place in a hangar at Coventry Airport in the UK and significantly, this project will see this D-Day veteran taking to the skies once more. Returning the aircraft to as close to her 5th June 1944 configuration as possible, once the 'Night Fright' restoration team have succeeded in their quest, the aircraft will serve as a unique flying memorial to the men and aircraft which took part in D-Day, allowing the public the opportunity to experience what it must have been like to be on board this very aircraft in the hours prior to making that historic flight.
As 'Night Fright' takes her place as a high-profile addition to the UK and European Airshow circuit, there are also ambitious plans to create a museum at the former US Station 466 Membury airfield site, the actual airfield that ‘Fright Night’ took off from on the night of 5th/6th June 1944. This is something which will clearly enhance the authenticity of this project, whilst also producing a popular visitor attraction for the region. Central to these plans, it is also intended that part of the original runway at Membury will be restored, to enable ‘Night Fright’ to operate from and to be based at her former wartime home airfield, a unique 'living' link to D-Day and a chance for us all to experience history.
As is the case with everyone aware of this fascinating project, we await the first post restoration flight of Douglas C-47A 42-100521 ‘Night Fright’ with some excitement and wish the restoration team every success over the coming months.
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