The Douglas C-47 Dakota is without doubt one of the most successful aircraft designs in history. It became one of the world's most famous military transport aircraft and saw widespread use by the Allies during World War Two and subsequently by Air Forces and civilian operators worldwide.
Dakota in Burma loading a 20mm AAA gun The C-47 is a military version of the DC-3 airliner, which first flew in 1935 and was used extensively thereafter by America's airlines. Recognizing the DC-3’s great potential as a military transport, the United States Army Air Command specified a number of changes needed to make the aircraft suitable for military use, including more powerful engines, the replacement of airline seating with utility seats along the walls, a stronger load-bearing floor and the addition of large loading doors. Deliveries of the military version of the DC-3, which was designated C-47 ‘Skytrain’ in the United States, commenced in October 1941. When production finally ended, a remarkable 10,692 DC-3/C-47 aircraft had been built.
Under the lend lease programme large scale deliveries of C-47s were made to the UK, with nearly 2,000 Dakotas, as the aircraft became known in RAF service, being delivered, the first entering service with the RAF in India in 1942. The delivery of large numbers of Dakota IIIs revitalised the RAF’s transport capacity, which until then had been based around a number of obsolete bombers and general purpose aircraft, which were poorly adapted for the role. The Dakota III eventually equipped twenty two RAF squadrons and three RCAF squadrons under RAF operational control. Dakotas served in every theatre of the war, most notably in Burma and also during the D-Day landings and the airborne assault on Arnhem in 1944.
Dakota flying at sunset As a tactical transport aircraft, the Dakota was used to carry troops and freight, for the air-dropping of supplies and paratroops, for towing gliders and for casualty evacuation. The Dakota ‘s amazing ruggedness became legendary and under the demands of war its capabilities were increased to permit it to carry a payload more than double the original specification or 28 fully-equipped soldiers or paratroops. In practice, the aircraft’s specified limits were often exceeded. For example, on 8th May 1942, a single RAF Dakota of No 31 Squadron evacuated an astonishing 65 passengers (refugees, walking wounded and the crews of two other Dakotas which had been destroyed on the ground by Japanese air attacks) in one flight, from Myitkyina airfield in Burma, just before it was captured by the advancing Japanese Army. The C-47 was actually overbuilt, making it almost indestructible. As one Dakota pilot put it: "You can wreck a Dak, but you can't wear it out!"
Its work was, perhaps, often unglamorous and ‘unsung’ but the C-47 Dakota and its crews played a crucial part in the final Allied victory of World War Two.