Aviation history in Colchester
Colchester is home to many historic treasures and buildings to which this town should be proud to own and care for. These include the country’s largest Victorian water tower, Largest Norman castle keep and a Roman Circus, one of the most significant finds of them all. With all that Colchester has to offer there is one modern treasure which many people will be surprised to learn is also located within the town, although not accessible to the public.
Standing inside the entrance to Merville Barracks is a piece of aviation history, the last Dakota aircraft to have been in service with the R.A.F, still playing her part within the modern military after 70 years. The aircraft has featured in television documentaries, used as a backdrop for celebrity photographs, the Colchester Military Wives Choir and now welcomes all who pass into the barracks. With all that we know about this aircraft, she does hold one secret, which is that out of all the notable people she carried, one name stands out from the rest!
The aircraft itself is a Douglas C-47B-35-DK Mark IV, which was manufactured on 4th June 1945 in Oklahoma City in America and she was aircraft number 16670/33419 built by the Douglas Corporation. The number 35 is a block number denoting the model variation, whereas the letters DK denote Oklahoma City the location of manufacture. The aircraft was delivered to the USAAF on 6th June from the Douglas Aircraft plant and the following day delivered to the RAF in Montreal, Canada. At the time there was no great need for Dakotas in England and therefore she wasn’t delivered to RAF Kemble for operational service until 14th September 1945.
A further five months passed before KP208 was delivered to 24 squadron based at RAF Bassingbourn, Cambridgeshire on 31st January 1946. This was the VIP squadron, and whilst in service throughout her flying life she carried many important people including Field Marshall Jan Smuts, Aneurin Bevan (known as Nye Bevan), Lord Mountbatten and General Bernard Law Montgomery himself. During the war and the years after she spent her time mainly in storage whilst not in use, but it was in the 1960’s that she once again took to the skies.
On 26th February 1962, KP208 was returned to RAF Northolt to be used by the Station Flight as a general communications aircraft and after two years the aircraft was refurbished again for VIP use. On 11th August 1964 she was transferred to the British High Commission in Safdar Jang, New Delhi to be used by the Air Attaché. Surprising she was even used for a short while by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited for transport duties during the merger of Hindustan Aircraft Limited and Aeronautics India Limited on 1st Oct 1964.
On 20th April 1967 KP208 had returned from India and arrived back at RAF Northolt to become the personal aircraft to the Commander in Chief, Allied Forces, Northern Europe who was General Sir Kenneth Darling who was based at Fornebu outside of Oslo, Norway. During this time the aircraft flew to many destinations around Europe, even flying up into the Arctic Circle. The General used this aircraft for just over four months until 31st August, often referring to her as “The Old Girl” in communications!
By September 1967, she was once again back in storage, only to fly for one more time. This was on the 18th May 1970, when she flew from RAF Kemble to RAF Odiham, before being transported by road to the Airborne Forces Museum in Aldershot, where she remained on display inside the gates.
The Museum in Aldershot closed back in 2008 and was transported to Colchester in January 2010 following a paint respray at North Weald. She was now painted in the colours of another aircraft, that of KG374 as a memorial to a D-Day veteran and his crew who were shot down during Operation ‘Market Garden’ at Arnhem in which the pilot, Flight Lieutenant David Lord, won a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions that day.