When Leading Aircraftwoman Myra Roberts of Oswestry, Corporal Lydia Alford of Eastleigh and Leading Aircraftwoman Edna Birbeck attended a routine briefing on 12th June 1944 they had no idea they would be making history the following day. At the end of the briefing the three were asked to remain behind and were told they were flying to France the next morning on an RAF No. 233 Squadron Dakota Mk.III which was outbound to deliver supplies to the forces in Normandy, and was to return with wounded who would need their care. The British had never sent women to a combat zone before; Myra, Lydia and Edna, and around 200 other Flying Nightingales as they were soon dubbed were the first.
Lydia later recalled of their training
“Within weeks of applying [to become part of the WAAF Air Ambulance staff], I was sent on an intensive air ambulance training course at RAF Hendon. This included instruction in the use of oxygen, injections, learning how to deal with certain type of injuries such as broken bones, burns and colostomies, and how to cope with the effects of air travel and altitude.
When I had completed the course I was posted to RAF Blakehill Farm, near Cricklade. The training continued with a ‘brush up’ course at the RAF hospital at Wroughton, dinghy drill in the swimming pool at Bath and several hours of flying experience often on glider exercises.
These were pretty terrifying, as they were carried out with the cargo door removed, and when the glider was released the whole plane juddered. During the tense days of waiting we were put through a tough time routine of physical training and helped with building roads on the newly built airfield”.Corporal Lydia Alford
They hadn’t always been welcome, as recalled by Myra Roberts of her training;
“The pilot of the Dakota in which I did my training flights was Scottish, Warrant Officer Jock McCannell. After the first few trips I had the feeling he didn’t want me there and eventually I asked why. He said it was nothing personal, that he’d come from a fishing family and fishermen would never put out to sea with a woman aboard as it was bad luck. During that first week in June us women were grounded, while all the planes took part in the landings. Jock’s was one of the few that didn’t return and I thought of the women in the boat”.LAC(W) Myra Roberts
The next morning at RAF Blakehill Farm near Swindon, Lydia, Edna and Myra joined the rest of the aircrew for their preflight aircrew breakfast of bacon and eggs – something which later Nightingales didn’t always get to do as they were not officially classified as aircrew.
Boarding their Dakota Mk.III the next morning they would have noticed that their Air Ambulance didn’t carry Red Cross markings. As they carried supplies and munitions on the outbound trip to France the Dakotas could not display the Red Cross – they were in fact legitimate targets for flak or the Luftwaffe. It wasn’t long before they landed in France…
“Chiefly I remember the dust which was everywhere, coming up in great clouds. While the supplies were being unloaded I tried to make the wounded men as comfortable as possible in all that dust. I had water to give them and panniers of tea.
There was a little stray dog which came up from somewhere or other and started to play with the wounded – it cheered them up no end.”Corporal Lydia Alford
After unloading their supplies the wounded were onboarded. Fourteen stretchers were loaded on the first flight while later, up to eighteen stretchers could be accommodated as well as an additional number of walking. wounded. The Nightingales were confronted with the variety of horrific injuries and wounds suffered by the men in France; traumatic amputations, horrific burns and
“You couldn’t let it get to you.“Leading Aircraft Women Edna Birbeck
Upon their return to Blakehill Farm the three Nightingales were greeted by press from the UK, US and Canada. With the wounded safely unloaded and transported to nearby hospitals the three WAAF’s took a well earned rest.
After the successful initial trip on 13th June, operations began on 18 June 1944, when 11 Dakotas landed on an airstrip at Beny-sur-Mer in Normandy. Those 11 Dakotas returned to Down Ampney with183 casualties and were followed by 90 more three days later. By the end of June, 1,092 stretcher cases and 467 sitting wounded had been evacuated by Nos. 233, 271 and 48 Squadrons and their ‘Flying Nightingales’.
One of the Nightingales on the 18th June sortie was 24 year old Elsie Beer.
“That first flight was scary. Our plane got hit but we managed to get everyone out.
We saw all sorts of things. The soldiers would all ask for cups of tea, and I remember one man saying he wanted a drink but he couldn’t, because he didn’t have a mouth. That part of his face had just disappeared. I can still see him now.
But we didn’t think about the danger. We were young then and it didn’t seem like anything extraordinary.”Elsie Beer
Although the Nightingales were trained to use the parachutes they were issued, the ‘chutes themselves were locked away on the return flight. The Nightingales were in fact forbidden to bail out of a stricken aircraft and had to remain with their wounded men, even under enemy attack.
“We also had a parachute but were told we were only allowed to use it if the plane was in trouble going to Europe, never on the way back because you had to stay with your patients.”Margaret Wilson
Most were allowed the to join the aircrews for the standard pre-mission breakfast of eggs and bacon, but this wasn’t true for all. Initially, the RAF did not acknowledge the nurses were in fact on active duty and as such, were not always allowed the normal compensations afforded to the men. Eventually though, this wrong was righted and they even received active duty of 8p per week.
Once the concept was proved, it became common for female nurses to fly with the transports in every theatre, including the pacific. One might argue this was an even greater hazard for the Nightingales there (though there is no record of them being known as such in that theatre) as the consequence of capture by the Japanese were far more dire than if captured by the Germans.
Of the 200 Nightingales, two lost their lives. Nursing Orderlies Margaret Walsh and Margaret Campbell were both posted missing, presumed killed, whilst on nursing duties. While Margaret Walsh’s aircraft was lost in an air accident, 27 year old LACW Margaret Campbell lost her life aboard a No.437 Squadron RCAF Dakota III (FZ655) on 24th October 1944 which was brought down by flak near Dunkirk during a cargo flight from Antwerp to Blakehill. Margaret is buried, along the rest of her crew at the Calais Canadian War Cemetery in France.
Sadly, the Nightingales had to wait until 2008 for recognition of their contribution to the war effort. By then, only seven remained and only five well enough to meet with the Duchess of Cornwall who presented them with lifetime achievement awards.
At that ceremony Air Vice Marshal Paul Evans, the director of RAF Medical Services, summed up the Nightingales’ contribution best when he said;
“The WAAF changed the perception of women in this country. They were pioneers of modern medical evacuations, and began the kind of evacuations we still use today in countries like Iraq and Afghanistan.”Air Vice Marshal Paul Evans
Indeed, what remarkable women they were.
Airfix Dakota Mk.III in 1/72 Scale
Of my last five builds, four of them have been Airfix. Each of them have been a pleasure to build for broadly the same reasons; good shape, good fit, clever engineering (except perhaps the older one, the PR Mosquito). Having decided that this piece would be dedicated to the Flying Nightingales my choice was either the 1/48th scale Trumpeter or Monogram, or the 1/72nd Italeri or Airfix. Availability of kit landed the Airfix kit on my bench and I consider that good fortune.
One of the advantages of 1/72nd scale larger aircraft is that not much can be seen of the internals and therefore not much in the way of effort is needed to complete them. This is especially true of this aircraft with its narrow windscreen and small fuselage windows. I did little more than assemble the parts and paint the whole lot interior green.
When finished, the cargo doors will be open so I did work on the rearmost interior with a wash and some dry brushing to pop the details of the internal structure.
Assembly progressed quickly and without too much trouble. I was forewarned that positioning of the interior was crucial for a good fuselage closure. I still managed to achieve a step in the fuselage seam, something common to almost all my builds in fact, but other than that self-imposed issue all went well. I assembled and then attached the wings section by section and needed no filler at all.
The red circles show the order in which I glued the wings on; forward seam first, then the nacelles, then the wing fillets, and finally the trailing edges. Meanwhile I also worked on the propellers and other sundries including blanking off the tail cone with plastic card; the tail cone wasn’t installed on war-time Dakotas.
With assembly complete I masked the windscreen and fuselage windows and installed them. I need a little filler around the windscreen, the fit of the fuselage windows was perfect.
I used a dark grey to pre-shade the underside and then applied Tamiya Neutral Grey in misted coats until I was happy with the coverage and resultant texture to the finish. After 24hrs I flipped the model over and did the same to the upper surfaces with Tamiya’s Olive Drab.
Before fixing a couple of areas that required touching up, I applied a thin sealing coat of clear gloss to protect what I had done. After the touch-ups, I applied a full gloss clear coat in preparation for the decals. It’s a little disconcerting to see all my carefully textured depth of paintwork disappear under the clear gloss coat but I know it’ll come back when I apply the final flat coat. I hope.
At this point I had not made a final decision on whether this was to be a No.233 or a No.437 Squadron marking but decal availability decided for me; No.233 Squadron it is. Painting D-Day stripes on a finished paint scheme is a little ballsy, but that’s how it was done on the real thing too. Airfix calls out the stripes at 8mm wide and I wasn’t about to argue with them. After measuring and masking 40mm for the wings and fuselage stripes I applied the white, being careful to avoid overspray – not careful enough as it turned out. Then I masked the white stripes and painted the black. Et voila…
At this point I was more or less stalled while waiting for the decals to arrive in the post. A member of the Britmodeller Forum had decals for the No.233 Squadron FZ392 which he kindly sent from Germany. They took just over two weeks to arrive so I finished the props, the doors, the control surfaces and the undercarriage as wells as apply the stencil decals while awaiting them.
Having time to explore new approaches paid off on the undercarriage I think. I tried a different approach to their finish and was pleased with the result. I first applied a coat of Vallejo Aluminium, then flattened it. When that was dry, I dry brushed neat Aluminium to pop the detailed raised surfaces before a dark wash to enhance the contrast as well as add some grime.
Markings and Weathering
The decals were a breeze, there were only a few to apply, the roundels and fin flash, plus the name and mission markings. All one down well enough but needed plenty of Micro Set/Sol. They came form an Italeri kit so I was surprised that they weren’t a little softer.
Above is the only image available of FZ692 during its time with 233 Squadron. The mission markings show two airborne drops, five air ambulance flights and six sundry cargo trips. Reference to the Operations Records of 233 Squadron places this photo in late July 1944. It couldn’t have been much later than that as from August onwards the upper D-Day stripes would (should) have been covered. The photo itself doesn’t give too many clues as to the state of weathering but contemporary photos of Dakotas and C-47’s show an accumulation of grime and paint wear and tear but not much in the way paint chipping or bleaching. Interestingly, the rudder appears quite faded (which I replicated during painting) and there’s something going on with the nose (which I didn’t). The paint work around the doors looks chipped but mine will be posed open so not visible one displayed.
I assumed therefore that the airframe would show some dirt and grime from general use, that there’d be some oil and fluid staining around the engines and access panels, particularly on the underside, and exhaust staining would be restrained but in-ground so more of a discolouration to the paint than soot deposits such as on the Lancaster, for example. I notice (as I write) that the exhaust was fitted with a flame suppressor, which I also didn’t add… Anyway, all that to say there’s no special weathering required on this one, more just the typical stains and grime. I also note that I’m much more comfortable in 1/48 scale weathering than 1/72 scale – I feel that in the smaller scale one must be much more restrained and suggest rather than replicate.
As is my normal routine, after applying a dark wash to enhance the control surfaces, I sprayed an initial flat coat and then went to work with some crushed chalk. I wasn’t happy at all with how that was going so I removed it and picked up my airbrush instead and was much more satisfied with the result. I’m doing more and more weathering with the airbrush. I did however use a dark wash to sort of dirty up the white in the D-Day stripes, simply painting it on and then removing it – there’s no way to get white back to pristine once a dark wash has been slathered over it and it looks quite convincing when done. This had the added benefit of also fading out the black to a more convincing used look. With the underside weathering complete, I finished up with my own mix of Future, flat clear coat and Windex which to my eye gives a realistic painted-metal-like smoothness to the surface finish without being too shiny nor flat. Hard to explain, but even dead flat painted metal is very smooth, which I am trying to replicate.
With the weathering complete, I added the landing gear and set it upon its feet to go through the same process on the topside.
The final tasks after the weathering were the application of the bits and pieces; the doors, propellors antennas and removal of the masking. There was something a little curious about the antennas. In addition to the antenna wire there a small whip-like antenna on the rear fuselage, slightly off centre. It’s visible in the photo of FZ692 above, and also on a contemporary Dakota from 437 Squadron seen below.
The very last task was decalling the windows with the little black circles in each’s centre. When that was successfully accomplished, this one was done.
I must say I’m quite pleased with how this one turned out. The only thing that bugs me is the slightly off-kilter astrodome – I tried to lift it to set it correctly but it wouldn’t come and I was worried it would cause too much collateral damage should I apply any real pressure. It is what it is.
As my second 1/72 scale model this year, I’m coming around to this being my preferred scale for larger aircraft and I highly recommend the Airfix kit if a C-47/Dakota is your subject, it was a joy to build. Later this year I’ll do another, also FZ692, but this time in its 437 Squadron RCAF markings at Arnhem.
References and Credits
- The Daily Mail report on the Presentation of the Lifetime Achievement Awards
This article, including its text, and photos of the model(s), is my original work and is protected by copyright in its entirety, except where noted. All research sources are listed in the References and Credits section above, including photos from official sources. All other images were sourced from the internet and are used here under protection of fair-use. Any copyrighted images will be removed or credited forthwith upon request by its rightful owner.