05 Jun Overlord is Go!
On the 5th June 1944, every US soldier and airman preparing for Operation Overlord was read these words, part of the message to all troops from Commander in Chief of Allied Armed Forces – General Eisenhower:
“Your task will not be an easy one, your enemy is well trained, well equipped and battle hardened, he will fight savagely… I have full confidence in your courage, devotion to duty and skill in battle. We will accept nothing less than full victory.”
The task for these men was certainly staggering – the allied invasion of Normandy. A massive air and waterborne assault that would prove a turning point in the Second World War, and make for the beginnings of the allied victory.
D-Day minus one was a day of planning, preparation and anticipation for all involved. Many of the men preparing knew their chance of returning was slim, none more so than the men of the 82nd and 101st pathfinder divisions of the USAAF.
These men, based at US Army Airforce station 479, North Witham were to be the very first to the fight.
RAF North Witham was built in 1942, initially as a base for 5 Group Bomber Command, but it was never used as such. In 1943 it was handed over to the USAAF and became a base for the 1st Tactical Air Depot, whose role included modification and maintenance of existing aircraft and construction of gliders.
Conditions at the base were miserable, with thousands of men being quartered in temporary accommodation known as ‘tent city’, over a cold and wet Lincolnshire winter.
It was not long however, before they would be joined by the 9th Airforce Troop Carrier Command Pathfinder School. Here volunteer paratroopers of the 82nd and 101st airborne divisions were trained in the use of specialist signalling and transmitter equipment. Their purpose would be to guide the main body of the airborne assault troops to their landing zones during the D-Day attack.
Their very existence was top secret, no one was to know the role of the pathfinder troops until D-Day itself.
The training they received was extensive, the men being rigorously drilled in drop procedure and how to operate and set up the Eureka Beacons and Helophane lights which would mark out the drop zones for the main assault.
The flight crews manning Dakota C-47 troop carriers received extensive training on low level flight and navigation techniques. During the attack they would fly low, sometimes as low as 500ft to avoid detection by German radar. The planes were unarmed and loaded to the limits of their capability – surprise was crucial for success
The unit was under the command of the 33 year old, former commercial airline pilot, Lt. Colonel Joel Crouch.
At 9.54pm Lt. Colonel Crouch received the go signal, and taxied his plane, tail number 42-93098, down the runway. Along with his crew, he was carrying men of the 506 Paratrooper Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne, led by Captain Frank Lilliman. Operation Overlord had begun!
That night a total of 20 planes would take off from Station 479, headed for the Cherbourg Peninsular. Shortly after midnight on the 6th June they arrived at their assigned drop zones. Captain Frank Lilliman, his face blackened with burnt cork, cigar clamped in his teeth, became the first man dropped over Normandy. The men who followed did so under a barrage of fire, tracer bullets lighting their descent.
Talking after his return Captain Pedone, Co-pilot to Colonel Crouch, would summarise the feelings of the men that day:
“You have no time to think about the big picture…you think about the people in your plane, and you do your job. There’s no time to be scared. Only when you get back and sit down can you be scared and say what the hell happened?”
The pathfinders who landed that night, as well as the main body of the air and seaborne assaults that followed would turn the tide of the war, taking part in some of the most iconic and well-remembered actions of WWII.
By late 1944 the fighting in Europe had moved too far south for the Lincolnshire bases to be of operational use. Station 479 was eventually handed back to the RAF, largely used for munitions storage, until it was sold to the Forestry Commission in 1960.
The site, still owned by the Forestry Commission, is now known as Twyford Woods. Visitors to the site can still walk the runways, and see the ghostly remains of the control tower.
 Chorlton, M. (2003) ‘Paths in the Wood, a Complete History of RAF North Witham’. Old Forge Publishing