D-Day plane open for invasion's anniversary

Tour guide Duane Bach stands aboard a Douglas Dakota DC-3 transport plane at the National Air Force Museum of Canada at CFB Trenton, Ont. Thursday, June 6, 2019, the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Allied paratroopers stood in the same place before jumping into Nazi-occupied France. Luke Hendry/Belleville Intelligencer/Postmedia Network Luke Hendry / Luke Hendry/The Intelligencer

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CFB TRENTON — It was a flight into danger and onto the pages of history.

Thursday marked the 75th anniversary of D-Day and the start of the Second World War’s Operation Overlord, the Allied invasion of German-occupied France.

The day’s visitors to the National Air Force Museum of Canada were invited to tour one of the aircraft which carried some of the earliest invaders.

The Douglas C-47 Dakota transport is a permanent exhibit in the museum’s outdoor air park.

National Air Force Museum of Canada curator Laura Imrie holds a Second World War message on display at the museum in Trenton, Ont. Thursday, June 6, 2019. “The tide has turned!” Supreme Allied Commander Gen. Dwight Eisenhower told the troops on the eve of D-Day. Luke Hendry/Belleville Intelligencer/Postmedia Network Luke Hendry / Luke Hendry/The Intelligencer

It was one of 32 Dakotas from the Royal Air Force’s 512 Squadron to ferry paratroopers across the English Channel and behind enemy lines in the Normandy region of Nazi-occupied France.

Bearing the serial number FZ658, it took off on the night of June 5, 1944. Its passengers, paratroopers of Britain’s 6th Airborne Division, would be among the first Allied troops on the ground.

A few of the aircraft in the museum’s outdoor air park are opened only on special occasions.

Curator Laura Imrie said the museum has few D-Day artifacts, since the invasion was largely a land-based operation.

The Dakota, though, is a very large and noteworthy one.

“It’s pretty special for us,” she said. “They have played such a huge role in the RCAF.”

By September 1945, the museum’s Dakota was used by the Royal Canadian Air Force’s 435 and 436 Squadrons in India and Burma to supply the British Army. It was the last Canadian aircraft to leave Burma after the war and by 1946 was assigned to 436 Squadron. It would fly with various Canadian squadrons until its 1989 retirement.

Merv Matiowsky boards a retired Dakota transport Thursday, June 6, 2019 at National Air Force Museum of Canada in Trenton, Ont. Paratroopers on D-Day used the door at the top of the stairway to jump into occupied France. Luke Hendry/Belleville Intelligencer/Postmedia Network Luke Hendry / Luke Hendry/The Intelligencer

It now bears that squadron’s green-and-white colour scheme of the Burma era.

Imrie explained planning for the invasion began months in advance. The museum’s small D-Day indoor exhibit contains air crews’ log books, medals, photos and other items.

The logs detail some of the RCAF’s pre-invasion missions. They included photo reconnaissance flights and the bombing of roads and bridges.

“D-Day was, and still is … the largest amphibious operation of this scale,” said Imrie, adding it involved multiple nations and naval, land and air forces.

“Strategically it was incredibly important,” she said.

The successful plan gave the Allies another critical foothold in Europe and set the stage for the late-summer liberation of France and the eventual push into Germany, which surrendered May 8, 1945.

Museum volunteer Merv Matiowsky of Quinte West said perhaps 30 paratroopers would have lined the Dakota’s long, narrow cargo bay. Ahead of them sat the four crew: a pilot, co-pilot, navigator and radio operator, all in tight quarters.

Matiowsky spent 20 years flying the CC-130 Hercules with 435 and 436 Squadrons, the latter based in Trenton. He was also an instructor with Trenton’s 426 Squadron.

Retired military pilot Merv Matiowsky sits in the pilot’s seat of the National Air Force Museum of Canada’s Dakota transport Thursday, June 6, 2019 CFB Trenton, Ont. Matiowsky spent 30 hours flying Dakotas before a 20-year career on the CC-130 Hercules. Luke Hendry/Belleville Intelligencer/Postmedia Network Luke Hendry / Luke Hendry/The Intelligencer

But before all that, he logged 30 post-war hours on a Dakota.

“When the tail was down on the ground, it wanted to go sideways,” Matiowsky said. “Once the tail came up, it was normal.

“You had to pay attention” in the air, he said, as there remained the potential for the plane to yaw as one engine or another overpowered the one on the other side.

Matiowsky said the D-Day pilots were under “tremendous stress.”

“People relied on you to get there,” he said. “The enemy was out there.”

Fellow volunteer Duane Bach of Prince Edward County greeted Thursday’s visitors by the Dakota’s rear door, which Bach said would have been removed for the D-Day mission.

“It was wide open back here,” he said. The paratroopers would have approached the door in a column, their parachutes linked to a so-called static line which would open them as the men jumped.

“They only had one way to go and that’s out this door,” said Bach, who between 1982 and 1984 served as a paratrooper in the Canadian Airborne Regiment. He then worked as a Trenton-based loadmaster on the Hercules from 1977 to 1996.

Like Matiowsky, he drew on his own military experience to relate to what D-Day personnel may have experienced.

One of his closest calls came in Bosnia and Herzegovina as the Hercules flew over Sarajevo. The enemy targeted the plane with a missile, forcing the crew into evasive action. They landed safely.

“I thought we were toast,” Bach said. “There’s a fear level there; you’d be crazy if you denied that.

“You have to focus on what you’ve gotta go do.”

Despite the D-Day anniversary, visitor traffic was light. Curator Imrie said no school tours were booked for the day, though some were scheduled for Friday.

Second World War veteran Bob Doan of Trenton was working in the gift shop. He said he grew up on a farm near Newmarket and, with his parents’ consent, enlisted in December 1942 at age 17.

Doan became a radio operator and soon began training navigators in Canadian Forces Base Rivers, Man.

It was one of 151 schools of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan for Allied air crew. Doan and his students flew aboard Avro Anson trainer aircraft.

At the time, he said, navigation was “pretty primitive by today’s standards” and navigators had about three instruments aboard a plane.

“Now they just press a button and they could get a better positioning fix than we ever could,” he said.

He said he had no specific memory of learning of the D-Day invasion and said he was “probably flying” at the time.

Many of his students would be in combat overseas, but Doan said despite the military being “a big family,” he didn’t dwell on their fates.

“We knew there were heavy losses in Bomber Command in Europe,” said Doan. “You didn’t think about those things, really.”

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