Blakehill Farm nature reserve, 243 hectares of wildlife-rich hay meadow and pasture on a former RAF station near Cricklade in north Wiltshire, occupies a special place in D-Day history.
So special that Dakota ZA947 of the RAF’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight is painted to represent FZ692 ‘Kwicherbichen’ of 233 Squadron, which was stationed at RAF Blakehill Farm from March 1944.
At precisely 2250 hrs on 5 June 1944, the first of six C-47 Dakotas of 233 Squadron took off in low cloud to get the first wave of British airborne landings (Operation Tonga) under way.
Each was towing an Airspeed Horsa glider carrying soldiers from 3rd Parachute Brigade Royal Engineers, 6th Airborne Division, with orders to blow up bridges around Troarn, just east of Caen.
Also on board for a bumpy two-hour flight to Drop Zone K north of Sannerville was a contingent from 224 Para Field Ambulance, ready to establish a Main Dressing Station once on the ground.
They were quickly followed into the air by up to 30 more Dakotas – from 233 Squadron and a Detached Flight of 271 Squadron – carrying parachute troops of 8th Para Battalion to the landing zone. Although widely dispersed on arrival they regrouped to achieve their objectives.
Operation Tonga involved a total of 14 RAF Squadrons on eight airfields, including nearby Down Ampney and Keevil (Wiltshire), Fairford (Gloucestershire), Broadwell, Brize Norton and Harwell (Oxfordshire) and Tarrant Rushton (Dorset).
233 Squadron was back in the air the following evening as more Dakotas lifted off from RAF Blakehill with paratroops on the second wave of airborne landings (Operation Mallard).
Air ambulance nurses stationed at Blakehill – dubbed The Flying Nightingales – became the first female RAF aircrew to fly into the combat zone, tending to the wounded on returning flights.
On 13 June a 233 Squadron Dakota from Blakehill also became the first aircraft to land at a British-controlled airstrip in Normandy.
RAF Blakehill became a ‘cold war’ radio and monitoring station and the runways were ripped up in the 1970s, to be used as hardcore in the building of the M4 motorway.
It was 1994 before memorial cairns were erected to crews of the Glider Pilot Regiment as well as RAF aircrew, ground staff and the air ambulance nurses who all played their part in the airborne landings at Normandy and at Arnhem.
Their memory and that of the Canadians of 437 ’Husky’ Squadron RCAF who operated from Blakehill later in 1944 is reinforced by the imaginative War to Wildlife project at the entrance to the nature reserve, just off the B4040.
These days the perimeter roads around the nature reserve and some brick-built structures are the most obvious clues to Blakehill’s wartime past, although vestiges of the three runways are visible from the air and to the practised eye on the ground. Much of the site is now private land.
The reserve is predominantly hay meadow and pasture, habitats which have seen steep declines in Wiltshire and the UK. Blakehill on its own meets more than 45% of the government’s 10-year target for restoring hay meadow in England.
The grassland is home to brown hare, roe deer, kestrel and skylarks while in the hedgerows, ponds and damp ground are bullfinch, lapwing, grass snake and 14 species of dragonfly.