D-Day 70: Keevil villager remembers invasion aircraft overhead

D-Day 70: Keevil villager remembers invasion aircraft overhead

Stirling bombers at Keevil Airfield before their D-Day missions

Mary Boyce remembers seeing gliders being towed towards France in June 1944

First published in News

On June 5, 1944, at 11.30pm, the first of 46 fully laden Stirling heavy bombers left Keevil Airfield destined for France and the pivotal military action of the war.

The planes, from 196 and 299 Squadrons, were part of Operation Overlord.

Each aircraft carried 20 paratroopers from the British 6th Airborne Division and dropped them in Normandy in the early hours of June 6.

Both 196 and 299 Squadrons lost one aircraft.

The surviving planes returned to Keevil Airfield for the crew members of 38 Group to catch up on sleep, while their aircraft were refuelled and serviced.

Seventeen Stirlings of 196 Squadron and 16 of 299 Squadron returned to Normandy on the evening of June 6.

They headed across the Channel towing Airspeed Horsa Gliders, which were loaded with light infantry troops and equipment. The gliders were then released and landed west of the Caen Canal.

It was then the soldiers’ job to unload and set up six and seventeen pounder anti-tank guns to defend Pegasus Bridge.

All of 196 Squadron returned but 299 Squadron lost one aircraft after releasing its glider.

The glider crashed on landing, killing the pilot, and the Stirling was seen hitting the water in flames on the return flight, with the loss of the six man crew.

Steeple Ashton resident Mary Boyce (nee Wyeth) was 23 and living with her parents in Bognor Regis, Sussex, when she saw the gliders being towed over the town on the evening of June 6.

A number of airfields across the country were used in Operation Overlord and it is possible the gliders Mrs Boyce witnessed had begun their journey at Keevil Airfield.

She said: “There were hundreds of them.

“It was a lovely summer’s evening and I watched them go over from my mother’s bedroom window.”

Unbeknown to Mrs Boyce, she also witnessed sections of the Mulberry Harbour being towed across the Channel before being assembled in Normandy.

“I thought I had seen what looked like buildings off Selsey Bill,” she said.

“One or two appeared, then there were quite a lot. It looked like a little town. I didn’t know what they were, then they disappeared.”

Keevil Airfield was in operation in 1942, when it housed fighter planes including Spitfires and P51 Mustangs as well as transport and reconnaissance aircraft.

A total of 569 Spitfires were assembled at Keevil during the war and saw action in Europe, the Far East and the North African desert.

Gliders also left from the base on the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in September 1944.

From 1955 to 1964 Keevil Airfield was occasionally used by the US Air Force. It was kept in reserve until 1965 when it was closed.

Today it is used occasionally for Army and RAF exercises and is home to Bannerdown Gliding Club and Warminster and District Radio Control Club.

Details courtesy Vol 2 of A Book of Keevil, produced by Keevil Society, and the Steeple Ashton and Great Hinton Newsletter June 2014.

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