Although the Douglas C-47 transport wasn’t technically designed as a combat aircraft, its exceptional performance led General of the Army Dwight Eisenhower to deem it as one of World War II’s most crucial instruments.
The C-47 stands out as one of the most iconic, versatile, and long-serving aircraft in history.
Referred to by various names such as “Skytrain,” the British “Dakota,” U.S. Navy’s R4D, and the affectionate “Gooney Bird,” the Douglas C-47 (USAAF) underwent numerous modifications throughout its extensive service history.
These changes primarily pertained to engine power adjustments, but also included structural adaptations for specialized roles like reconnaissance and navigation training.
The aircraft was even experimented with as a floatplane and a glider, performing commendably in the latter role, although the war ended before this could be significantly capitalized on.
The U.S. Army Air Corps began acquiring C-47s in 1940, and by World War II’s conclusion, they had amassed a fleet of 9,348 units. These versatile birds were deployed worldwide, transporting both personnel and goods.
They played diverse roles, from towing gliders filled with troops to dropping paratroopers behind enemy lines, and even facilitating the air evacuation of the injured or unwell.
In terms of capacity, a C-47 could ferry 28 passengers, 18-22 fully-equipped paratroopers, approximately 6,000 lbs. of freight, or accommodate 18 stretchers with three accompanying medical staff.
The C-47 Dakota’s roots can be traced back to the rapid advancements in aviation during the early 20th century. Its direct predecessor, the DC-3 commercial airliner, was developed by the Douglas Aircraft Company in the 1930s.
The DC-3 itself was an evolution of the DC-1 and DC-2 designs. It stood out for its improved range, speed, and passenger capacity, quickly becoming one of the most popular and influential aircraft in the world of commercial aviation.
Transition to Military Needs
As global tensions escalated in the lead-up to World War II, there was a growing need for reliable and robust military transport aircraft. The U.S. Army Air Corps recognized the potential of the DC-3 for military applications, leading to the development of the C-47 variant.
The adaptions made to the DC-3 to create the C-47 involved several modifications:
Reinforced Cargo Floor: This allowed the aircraft to handle heavier military cargo, including vehicles, artillery pieces, and large amounts of supplies.
Cargo Door: Unlike the DC-3, which had a passenger door, the C-47 was equipped with a larger cargo door to facilitate easier loading and unloading of equipment and troops.
Removal of Luxuries: To optimize it for military operations, many of the luxuries and amenities associated with commercial air travel were removed from the C-47.
Design of the C-47
The C-47 sported a low-wing monoplane design. Its wings were not only optimized for lift but also housed the fuel tanks, which provided the aircraft its impressive range.
The aircraft had a conventional tail design with a single vertical stabilizer and rudder. This was pivotal for stability during flight, especially when fully loaded and pilots commented on what a pleasure it was to fly.
Fuselage: The cylindrical fuselage of the C-47 was constructed using metal, predominantly aluminum, with a semi-monocoque design. This construction method incorporated both the skin and the frame to bear structural stress, providing a balance between strength and weight.
Reinforcements: The C-47’s design incorporated a reinforced floor to handle heavy cargo loads, an upgrade from the original DC-3.
Loading & Accessibility
Cargo Door: One of the most significant design changes from the DC-3 was the introduction of a large cargo door on the left side, which facilitated the quick loading and unloading of equipment, paratroopers, and stretchers for wounded personnel.
Windows: To suit its military applications, the number of windows was reduced compared to the DC-3. Some C-47 variants even had windows that could be fitted with machine guns.
Powerplant & Performance:
Engines: The C-47 was powered by two Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasp radial engines, each churning out about 1,200 horsepower. These engines were known for their reliability and played a key role in the aircraft’s success.
Propellers: The engines drove three-bladed propellers that provided efficient thrust, allowing the C-47 to maintain a cruise speed of around 160 mph.
Avionics & Navigation: As with many aircraft of its time, the C-47 featured basic analog avionics. However, as the war progressed and missions became more complex, some aircraft were fitted with more advanced radio navigation equipment.
Landing Gear: The C-47 had a tricycle landing gear system with a steerable nose wheel. This configuration, which was somewhat innovative at the time of its introduction, allowed for better ground handling and improved takeoff and landing characteristics, especially on unprepared airstrips.
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Interior Configuration: Inside, the aircraft could be arranged to accommodate cargo, paratroopers, stretcher cases, or a mix of these. For troop transport, bench-style seating was provided along the sides of the fuselage.
One thing that was missing was restroom facilities. As we know and mentioned above. the C-47, adapted from the Douglas DC-3 commercial airliner for military use, was a rugged and utilitarian aircraft designed primarily for cargo and troop transport.
As such, it did not have the amenities of more modern transport planes. The standard C-47 did not come equipped with a toilet for the crew or passengers.
In most cases, flights were of relatively short duration, so a restroom facility wasn’t deemed essential. On longer flights, crew and passengers would have had to make do without onboard restroom facilities. And forget the luxury of sick bags.
The standard carrying capacity of the C-47 was 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg), though in urgent situations, it could elevate its load to 6,000 pounds (2,700 kg) or even 7,000 pounds (3,200 kg).
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Its large cargo doors at the rear fuselage were designed to fit items as sizable as jeeps or light trucks, and these doors could be operated mid-flight, making it ideal for parachuting troops or equipment.
This functionality, combined with its roomy interior, established the C-47 as the premier paratroop transport aircraft during the war.
Additionally, it had the capability to pull two CG-4 Waco combat gliders or a single, bigger British Horsa glider. When serving as a medical aircraft, the C-47 was equipped to transport 18 patients on stretchers along with a three-member medical team.
C-47 in Pacific Campaign
The C-47 played a pivotal role in numerous Allied operations, notably during the campaigns at Guadalcanal, as well as the terrains of New Guinea and Burma.
In these regions, both the C-47 and its naval counterpart, the R4D, were instrumental in enabling Allied forces to match the nimbleness of the Japanese Army.
They played a pivotal role in deploying British and U.S. forces via gliders behind enemy lines in Burma (now Myanmar).
Additionally, they were employed for paratroop operations in the Pacific, with a notable operation on the Philippines’ Corregidor Island.
Beyond these specialized missions, the C-47’s fundamental yet crucial role was transporting vital personnel, supplies, fuel, and ammunition across all war fronts.
This capability provided the Allied leaders with a logistical advantage that was unmatched by their Axis adversaries.
C-47 and D-Day: Paratroopers over Normandy
The invasion of Normandy, commonly referred to as D-Day, on June 6, 1944, was a pivotal turning point in World War II.
The massive Allied amphibious assault on the beaches of northern France aimed to break the Nazi stronghold in Western Europe.
A significant component of this operation was the airborne assault, where thousands of paratroopers were dropped behind enemy lines in the hours preceding the beach landings.
The Douglas C-47 Skytrain, known affectionately as the “Gooney Bird,” played an instrumental role in this airborne operation.
Preparations for the invasion were exhaustive. Allied planners recognized the strategic value of placing paratroopers behind German defenses to secure key bridges, disrupt enemy communications, and prevent a counterattack on the landing beaches.
Over 800 C-47s
The C-47 was chosen as the primary transport aircraft for these paratrooper missions because of its reliability, payload capacity, and ability to operate from short and unprepared airstrips.
On the eve of D-Day, over 800 C-47s, forming several serials (a series of aircraft flying in formation), took off from airfields in southern England.
They were laden with paratroopers from the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions of the U.S. Army and British airborne troops.
Flying in a “V of Vs” formation, these planes crossed the English Channel under the cover of darkness, aiming to drop their human cargo in drop zones scattered throughout the Cotentin Peninsula in occupied France.
The airborne assault did not go precisely as planned. German anti-aircraft fire, cloud cover, and evasive maneuvers caused many C-47 pilots to miss their intended drop zones.
As a result, paratroopers were scattered across a much broader area than intended.
The C-47 Became D-Day Lore
This dispersion, though unintentional, is now thought to be fortuitous: it confused German defenders and diluted their response
Despite the challenges, the airborne operations on D-Day were deemed a success. Paratroopers played a crucial role in ensuring the overall success of the Normandy invasion.
The C-47s also returned to England and then back to France, towing gliders filled with more troops and equipment.
The bravery of the paratroopers, combined with the reliability and resilience of the C-47, made these airborne operations a significant part of D-Day lore.
The silhouette of a C-47, its engines roaring in the night, laden with paratroopers ready to jump into the unknown, remains one of the enduring images of D-Day and a testament to the aircraft’s pivotal role in the operation.
You will see many original D-Day C-47s in museums throughout Normandy, including a flight simulator at the famous Dead Man’s Corner Museum, Saint-Côme-du-Mont, Normandy, France. I have done it and it is a great experience.
C-47 in Operation Market Garden
One of the most audacious strategies of World War II, Operation Market Garden was split into two primary components.
The “Market” segment involved almost 40,000 airborne troops from Britain, America, and Poland, who were tasked with parachuting and gliding behind enemy lines.
Their mission was to secure eight crucial bridges over the canals and rivers near the Dutch-German frontier.
These forces aimed to establish control near the Dutch cities of Eindhoven, Nijmegen, and Arnhem.
Concurrently, the “Garden” phase would see British tank divisions and infantry advancing from the Allied frontline along a specific narrow route, aiming to reach and bolster the airborne units and then cross the bridges they had secured.
The C-47 Was Used in Vast Numbers
The “Market” operation stands as the most expansive airborne mission ever conducted, deploying a staggering 34,600 troops from the 101st, 82nd, and 1st Airborne Divisions, as well as the Polish Brigade. Of these, 14,589 were transported by gliders, while 20,011 made parachute descents.
The gliders also delivered 1,736 vehicles and 263 pieces of artillery. An impressive load of 3,342 tons of ammunition and various other supplies were transported both by gliders and parachute drops.
The unified contingent comprised 1,438 C-47 transport aircraft, with 1,274 from the USAAF and 164 from the RAF, supplemented by 321 adapted RAF bombers.
After reconstruction efforts post-Normandy, the Allied glider arsenal, by 16 September, consisted of 2,160 CG-4A Waco gliders, 916 Airspeed Horsas (812 from the RAF and 104 from the US Army), and 64 General Aircraft Hamilcars.
With only 2,060 glider pilots at the U.S.’s disposal, their gliders were flown without co-pilots. Instead, they carried an additional passenger.
Nearly 80 C-47s failed to return back to base in England and were shot down or crashed over the continent.
The Berlin Airlift, occurring from 1948 to 1949, was a pivotal event in the early Cold War years, emphasizing the growing tensions between the Western allies and the Soviet Union.
After World War II, Germany had been split into four occupation zones, each overseen by one of the major Allied powers: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union.
Even though Berlin was situated deep within the Soviet zone, it too was divided into similar quarters.
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As time passed, relations strained between the Western Allies and the Soviets, particularly because of disagreements over the formation of separate Western and Eastern German states reflecting their respective visions for post-war Germany.
The crisis took a severe turn in June 1948 when the Western Allies introduced a new currency in their zones to combat inflation, a move the Soviets had not agreed to.
As a form of retaliation and possibly to oust the Western Allies from Berlin, the Soviets initiated a blockade on all road, rail, and canal routes leading to the western parts of Berlin on June 24, 1948.
Feeding Two Million People
This blockade effectively left more than 2 million West Berlin residents and the stationed Western forces without essential supplies like food and energy.
Rather than entering into direct conflict with the Soviets, the Western Allies opted to sustain West Berlin via an air supply route.
Undertaking an airlift for 2 million people was feasible, but supplying an entire population presented a daunting challenge.
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The Allies could only deploy their C-47, five-year-old aircraft with a capacity of merely 3.5 tons each. After deliberation, they resolved to attempt the monumental task.
Earlier that April, U.S. Forces had executed an airlift, bringing in supplies to make up for those hindered by the Soviets, an operation later termed the “Little Lift”.
West Berlin boasted two key airports: Tempelhof, the primary airport situated in the American Sector, and Gatow, located in the British Sector. These airports allowed for the C-47s to airlift supplies without any Soviet interference.
The foresight displayed in 1945 was invaluable in this context. On November 30, 1945, a written agreement had established three air corridors, each 20 miles wide, leading to the city, and these pathways were indisputable.
From June 26, 1948, for the next 11 months, British and American aircraft undertook more than 200,000 flights, ferrying up to 13,000 tons of necessities daily to West Berlin in what became famously known as the “Berlin Airlift”.
These planes predominantly landed at West Berlin’s Tempelhof Airport, sometimes at highly frequent intervals.
Deepened the Divide
Witnessing the unwavering determination of the Western Allies and the success of their airlift operation, the Soviets decided to lift the blockade on May 12, 1949.
Despite this, the airlift persisted for a few more months to stockpile supplies in West Berlin, anticipating any future Soviet blockades.
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The Berlin Airlift stands as a significant victory for the West in the Cold War, underlining their commitment to supporting West Berlin against Soviet pressures.
This operation not only deepened the divide between East and West Berlin but also paved the way for the erection of the Berlin Wall in 1961.
Furthermore, the West’s successful resistance against the blockade emphasized their containment policy, which sought to curb the proliferation of communism and remained a fundamental aspect of U.S. foreign policy throughout the Cold War.
Overall, the Berlin Airlift exemplified the Western Allies’ dedication to preserving freedom and resisting Soviet expansion, all without resorting to armed warfare.
Perhaps General Dwight Eisenhower was right when he wrote in his autobiographical that the C-47 was a pivotal tool in achieving victory against Nazi Germany.
Until the introduction of the four-engine Douglas C-54 in 1944, the C-47 stood out as the most proficient transport plane of World War II.