Dakota Kwicherbichen

Dakota FZ692 ‘Kwicherbichen’

Dakota FZ692 ‘Kwicherbichen’ of 233 Squadron

233 Squadron

In early 1944 No 233 Squadron returned to the UK from the Azores (where it had flown Lockheed Hudson aircraft on anti-U-boat patrols). It was re-equipped with Douglas C-47 Dakotas and became part of RAF Transport Command. From 5th March 1944 to 8th June 1945 the Squadron was based at RAF Blakehill Farm, near Swindon in Wiltshire, from where it flew numerous operations including those in support of the D-Day Normandy landings in June 1944, Operation Market Garden (the Arnhem landings) in September 1944, and the Rhine crossing in March 1945.

Dakota FZ692 ‘Kwicherbichen’

RAF Dakotas on a landing ground in Normandy Douglas C-47 Dakota Mk III, FZ692, was built by Douglas in the United States in 1943 and was delivered to the RAF in February 1944. The aircraft served with 233 Squadron at RAF Blakehill Farm until September 1944 when it was transferred to 437 Squadron RCAF. FZ692 was painted olive drab green all over and shortly before D-Day had the black and white ‘invasion stripes’ added for identification purposes. The stripes on the rear fuselage covered the ‘5T-UK’ squadron code letters so the aircraft’s individual letters ‘UK’ were transcribed onto the nose. (This is not, therefore, an indication of the aircraft or unit’s nationality!) FZ692 was named ‘Kwicherbichen’ and this was painted on the port side of the nose under the cockpit. Just behind the port cockpit window was a block of symbols detailing the ‘ops’ it had flown. (FZ692 survived the war and is still flying with Environment Canada wearing the civilian registration C-GRSB).

D-Day Operations

On the eve of D-Day, No 233 Squadron fielded 30 aircraft, part of a force of 108 Dakotas which were to drop the main element of the British 3rd Parachute Brigade into Normandy. Taking off at 2250 hours on 5th June 1944 for the first airlift, six of the Squadron’s ‘Daks’ towed Horsa gliders, including those used for the famous and successful mission by Airborne troops to capture and hold Pegasus Bridge. The other aircraft dropped 407 British paratroops into Normandy to secure canal and river bridges and eliminate coastal batteries in advance of the sea-borne landings. On 6th June, D-Day itself, 233 Squadron flew 21 sorties to drop supplies to elements of the British 6th Airborne Division. During the operations on D-Day, 4 of the Squadron’s aircraft were lost to anti-aircraft fire, a heavy price.

Casualty Evacuation

On 13th June, three of 233 Squadron's Dakotas, with a Spitfire escort, had the honour of being the first Allied transport aircraft to land in France since the invasion, arriving on the newly-completed B2 airstrip at Bazenville near Bayeux with four tons of military freight onboard, including ammunition. After the supplies had been unloaded, 14 stretcher cases and six sitting wounded were loaded on to the aircraft ready for an immediate return to England and to hospitals. During the following months 233 Squadron operated a shuttle service, five times a day, to and from the Continent, flying military supplies and equipment into forward airfields, and evacuating casualties on the return flights.

Air Ambulance Nurse Edna Birkbeck and “The Flying Nightingales”

'Flying Nightingales’ Nurses Leading Aircraft Woman (LACW) Edna Birkbeck was a WAAF Air Ambulance Medical Orderly with 233 Squadron. Edna joined the WAAF as a nursing orderly "for excitement" in 1943. Shortly afterwards she responded to a call for volunteers for air ambulance duties, although she was not entirely sure what was involved. Following training at Hendon she was posted to Blakehill Farm in February 1944 to be attached to 233 Squadron. During the period leading up to D-Day she and her colleagues flew on training exercises with the Squadron. As aircrew they received an extra 8 pence a day flying pay, and on the days they flew they were allowed an orange, two packets of chewing gum and a barley sugar, all luxuries.

On 12th June the nurses were called together to be briefed by an RAF medical officer on the plans for casualty evacuation flights. Corporal Lydia Alford, LACW Myra Roberts and LACW Edna Birkbeck were asked to remain behind at the end of the briefing to be told that they would be on the first of these flights, the next day. They were issued with parachutes and Mae West life jackets. No Red Cross markings were allowed on the aircraft since they would be transporting military supplies, including ammunition, on the way out. On D-Day+7, 13th June 1944, 20-year-old Edna became one of the first three women to fly into the combat zone to evacuate wounded soldiers. On landing back at Blakehill Farm a few hours later, the Dakota crews were met by 42 press correspondents representing many British, Canadian and American newspapers. They immediately dubbed the WAAFs "the Flying Nightingales", a name that was to remain with the air ambulance nurses for the rest of the campaign.

Loading a casualty into a Dakota 1944 By the end of June 1944, 1,092 stretcher cases and 467 sitting wounded had been evacuated by the 233 Squadron Dakotas. Edna Birkbeck flew a total of 60 casualty evacuation operations from airfields in Belgium, Holland and Germany; she personally escorted, by air, 630 casualties from the war front. Despite the severity of the injuries none of her patients ever died on any of her flights, a fact of which she was justly proud. The nurses had to deal with horrifying injuries. Many young men were missing limbs or had their faces burnt or blown away; treatment such as amputations, transfusions and colostomies had often been improvised in the field. Edna simply said, "You couldn't let it get to you". She also recalled, "They always wanted tea, those that could drink. We'd carry an industrial-sized tea urn. They'd always want to know when we were over the coast. I'd tell them that and say, “It won't be long before you're home” and they'd cheer."

During her time at Blakehill Farm Edna Birkbeck met Flight Sergeant Glyn Morris, a wireless operator flying with 233 Squadron. They were married in March 1945, and six months later she left the WAAF. Edna Morris passed away in 2004.

RAF Aeromedical Evacuation Today

The aeromedical evacuation of casualties from combat zones, started by Edna Birkbeck and her colleagues in 1944, has continued to be a service carried out by the RAF ever since. Using aircraft temporarily converted into ‘flying hospitals’, the RAF has been evacuating sick and injured troops back to the UK since the Falklands War. Today, the RAF’s Aeromedical Evacuation service provides a world-leading capability to Defence during peace, crisis and war for the global movement of patients, by air, 24 hours/365 days a year, the delivery of which requires the full teamwork of the RAF. According to patient requirement, appropriately trained specialist medical teams are drawn from the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron located at HQ Tactical Medical Wing, RAF Lyneham and numerous medical units and establishments within the RAF Medical Services, including No 4626 Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron RAuxAF.

Inside the C-17 today In combat areas such as Afghanistan, casualties are initially evacuated from the initial point of wounding, or injury, by helicopter-borne Medical Emergency Response Teams (MERTs). These often unsung helicopter crews – aircrew and medical teams – routinely put themselves in harm’s way to extract injured soldiers from the front line to a fully-equipped field hospital, such as the one at Camp Bastion. Each MERT consists of a tri-Service anaesthetist or emergency medicine specialist, an RAF emergency nurse, and two RAF paramedics who fly in Chinook helicopters. The MERT personnel have to work in temperatures of more than 40°C carrying 20kg of personal protection and kit. Their courage and skills have undoubtedly saved the lives of many hundreds of not only coalition troops but also Afghan civilians and children.

Once casualties have been stabilised in the field hospital they can be moved by Tactical and/or Strategic Aeromedical Evacuation (AE) Teams. Tactical AE provides intra-theatre movement between medical treatment facilities within the area of operations. Strategic AE enables the evacuation and repatriation of injured servicemen and women to the UK. Seriously ill and injured patients are cared for in flight by a Critical Care Air Support Team (CCAST) which provides expert, consultant-led care from Theatre back to the UK. To facilitate what is effectively a replication of an intensive care facility in the back of an aircraft, the Aeromedical Evacuation Co-ordination Cell at RAF Brize Norton is able to call on one of the RAF’s Boeing C-17 Globemasters. These are capabilities that would not even have been dreamt of by Edna Birkbeck and her colleagues in 1944. CCAST teams include a consultant anaesthetist, two critical care nurses, a medical equipment support technician and a flight nursing assistant.

The evacuation of casualties by air with medical support, started by 233 Squadron with its Dakota aircraft in 1944, has today developed into a world class medical support system which ensures that patients are brought back quickly, efficiently and safely to the UK, where they can receive the specialist care they need. The sick and wounded of the British Armed Forces are thus provided with the first class service they deserve in return for their selfless dedication and courage.

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