Welcome to This Date in Aviation History, getting of you caught up on milestones, important historical events and people in aviation from June 5 through June 7.
June 6, 1944 – A huge airborne armada carries Allied troops across the English Channel to begin the D-Day invasion of Europe. On the morning of September 1, 1939, the German army unleashed its Blitzkrieg warfare with the invasion of Poland and beginning World War II, a global conflict that eventually claimed the lives of 70-85 million people. The fall of France on June 25, 1940 left Germany and Italy in control of almost all of Europe, and the Nazis ruled France through the puppet Vichy Government until 1944. While the Russians strongly advocated the creation of a second front in Europe to fight the Germans and relieve pressure on the Eastern Front, Allied leaders balked, saying that they had neither the men nor the materiel to make an effective invasion.
The western allies opted instead to invade North Africa (Operation Torch) and then Italy (Operation Husky and Operation Avalanche), what British prime minister Winston Churchill the “soft underbelly” of Europe. That underbelly turned out to be much harder than Churchill imagined, and though the invasion of Italy eventually bogged down, the Allies gained valuable experience with amphibious landing operations that they would put to use in the eventual invasion of mainland Europe. At the Trident Conference in Washington, DC in 1943, Allied leaders decided that the time to invade Europe had come, and the beaches of Normandy in Northern France were selected as the point at which the Allies would try to gain a foothold in Festung Europa.
Getting the troops from England to Normandy would be a mammoth undertaking, involving thousands of ships, transport aircraft, and gliders, as well as the bombers and fighters that would soften up the enemy and protect the invasion. To disguise their planes and preserve the element of surprise, the Allies went to elaborate extents to confuse the German defenders. As a result, the Germans were convinced that the Allies would attack at the Pas de Calais, the narrowest point of the English Channel between England and France. The Allies did nothing to disabuse the Germans from this idea, and even littered the English countryside with dummy tanks and aircraft to confuse German reconnaissance flights. On the night of June 5/6, aircraft and ships were sent against Calais in the north, while others steamed slowly towards Cap d’Antifer to the south. At the same time, aircraft circled over the Channel to tie up the German coastal radars and shield the actual airborne invasion. When the airborne troops and gliders arrived over France, not a single Luftwaffe aircraft rose to meet them.
In the predawn darkness of June 6, airborne troops descended over the Normandy countryside to pave the way for the airborne invasion forces. These pathfinder companies were tasked with deploying ground beacons for the Rebecca/Eureka transponding radar system which directed following planes loaded with paratroopers and equipment. The pathfinders were followed by a force of airborne soldiers which included 13,000 troops from the US Army 82nd Airborne Division and 101st Airborne Division, along with 6,000 British troops of the 6th Airborne Division and 500 paratroopers from 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion. These paratroops were dropped behind the invasion beaches to block German reinforcements from coming forward, capture causeway exits from the beaches, and establish river crossings so troops on the beach could fan out across the countryside. They also marked out landing zones for the nearly 4,000 glider-borne troops to follow.
At first light, the British launched a glider-borne assault against the Pegasus Bridge across the Caen Canal. In an amazing feat of airmanship, six Horsa gliders brought 181 airborne soldiers to within 50 feet of their objective, completely surprising the German defenders. Capturing the bridge helped protect the eastern flank of Juno Beach from German armor. The British were followed by paratroops brought across the Channel by a fleet of over 900 Douglas C-47 Skytrains (RAF designation Dakota). Flying from England, the aerial armada was arrayed in consecutive V-formations, nine planes wide in a line that stretched nearly 300 miles. Once over the drop zones, thousands of soldiers rained from sky, while others descended in gliders that were, at times, more dangerous than any enemy fire. Many paratroops were scattered, and it took many hours for units to form up, while others joined whichever soldiers they could find and moved toward their objectives. By the end of June 6, US Army Air Forces and Allied aircraft flew roughly 15,000 sorties in support of the D-Day invasion. Despite the difficulties, most of the pre-invasion objectives were met, and the airborne soldiers helped open beach exits and provide cover for the nearly 160,000 Allied troops that came ashore at dawn on D-Day, the first successful invasion of a defended European mainland in over 800 years.
June 5, 1989 – The Antonov An-225 Mriya sets a world record for the greatest maximum takeoff weight ever flown. The An-225 was originally designed to transport the Russian space shuttle Buran, though with the end of the Buran program following the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 Mriya was converted to a super heavy-lift strategic airlifter. As part of a demonstration for the 1989 Paris Air Show, Mriya flew from Kiev to Paris-Le Bourget airport carrying Buran on its back with a combined weight of 1,234,600 pounds, a record that still stands.
June 5, 1944 – The first combat mission of the Boeing B-29 Superfortress. Deployed to bases in southern China and India in April 1944, the B-29 flew its first combat mission against Japanese targets in Thailand. Of the 77 bombers launched on that first raid, five were lost, though none to enemy fire. Then, on June 15, 68 Superfortresses attacked Yahata, Japan in the first attack on the Japanese homeland since the Doolittle Raid of 1942. Operations from China and India proved difficult, so the decision was made to capture the Mariana Islands for the construction of airstrips that were close enough to attack the island of Japan. Superfortresses carried out bombing raids, fire bombing raids, and mine laying missions from these forward bases, culminating in the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. Later, the Surperfortress saw action in Korea, and the airframe was modified into reconnaissance and aerial refueling tankers before finally being retired in 1960.
June 6, 1942 – Aircraft from the carriers USS Enterprise and USS Hornet sink the Japanese heavy cruiser Mikuma. In one of the final actions of the Battle of Midway, American Douglas SBD Dauntless and Douglas TBD Devastator dive bombers from USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Hornet (CV-8) sighted Mikuma, along with her sister ship Mogami, both of which had been damaged early in the battle when they collided with one other. Mogami was struck by at least six bombs, while Mikuma was hit by five. The bombs struck the forecastle and amidships, setting off numerous explosions inside the ship and rendering her forward guns inoperable. Mogami was able to limp back to port, but Mikuma sank, taking 650 sailors down with her. The attack also marked the final combat action of the obsolete Devastator.
June 6, 1915 – Zeppelin LZ 37 becomes the first Zeppelin destroyed in air-to-air combat. During WWI, the Germans used Zeppelins to carry out strategic bombing missions against France and England. On the night of June 6-7, LZ 37 of the German Imperial Navy (Kaiserliche Marine) took part in a three-airship raid on Calais and was attacked by Royal Naval Air Service pilot Reginald Warneford flying a Morane-Saulnier L fighter. Warneford climbed above the Zeppelin and dropped bombs on the airship, setting it on fire and causing it to crash. The explosion caused Warneford’s fighter to roll and lose power and he was forced down behind enemy lines, but was able to restart his fighter and return to base. Eight members of the nine-man Zeppelin crew were killed, along with two people on the ground. For his actions, Warneford was awarded the British Victoria Cross and French Légion d’honneur.
June 7, 1981 – Israeli fighters destroy the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. As part of a program to develop what they maintained was a peaceful nuclear power program, the Iraqi government, with the help of French engineers, constructed a nuclear reactor at Osirak near the capital city of Baghdad. Following attempts at sabotage, including the assassination of a French scientist working on the program, the Israeli government carried out Operation Opera, sending six General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcons, each carrying two 2,000 pound unguided bombs and protected by six McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagles, to destroy the Iraqi facility. Ten Iraqi soldiers were killed in the attack, along with one French civilian. Iraq vowed to rebuild the facility, but it was finally completely destroyed by the US in 1991 during the Gulf War.
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