THE airfield at Keevil near Steeple Ashton played a prominent role in the D-Day landings on the night of June 5/6 1944.

The Royal Air Force located two squadrons (Nos. 196 and 299) of Short Stirlings at the airfield in 1944 and shortly after they were joined by a mass of Horsa Gliders.

On the night of June 5/6, 46 Stirlings took off from Keevil at 23.55 hours . They were crewed by men of the British, Canadian, Australian, New Zealand and South African Air Forces.

They each carried 20 paratroops to secure the eastern banks of the River Orne, where they landed in the early hours of D-Day, June 6.

They were among the very first Allied troops to land in France on D-Day. During the landings, two aircraft were lost.

The surviving planes returned to Keevil Airfield for the crew members of 38 Group RAF to catch up on sleep, while their aircraft were refuelled and serviced.

Seventeen Stirlings of 196 Squadron and 16 of 299 Squadron returned to Normandy on the evening of June 6.

They headed across the Channel towing the Horsa Gliders, which were loaded with light infantry troops and equipment. The gliders were then released and landed west of the Caen Canal.

It was then the soldiers’ job to unload and set up six and seventeen pounder anti-tank guns to defend the Allied Forces airborne invasion at Pegasus Bridge.

All of 196 Squadron returned but 299 Squadron lost one aircraft after releasing its glider.

The glider crashed on landing, killing the pilot, and the Stirling was seen hitting the water in flames on the return flight, with the loss of the six-man crew.

Former Steeple Ashton resident Mary Boyce (nee Wyeth) was 23 and living with her parents in Bognor Regis, Sussex, when she saw the gliders being towed over the town on the evening of June 6.

A number of airfields across the country were used in Operation Overlord and it is possible the gliders Mrs Boyce witnessed had begun their journey at Keevil Airfield.

Speaking five years ago, she said: “There were hundreds of them. It was a lovely summer’s evening and I watched them go over from my mother’s bedroom window.”

Unbeknown to Mrs Boyce, she also witnessed sections of the Mulberry Harbour being towed across the English Channel before being assembled in Normandy.

“I thought I had seen what looked like buildings off Selsey Bill. I didn’t know what they were, then they disappeared.”

Keevil Airfield was in operation in 1942, when it housed fighter planes including Spitfires and P51 Mustangs as well as transport and reconnaissance aircraft.

A total of 569 Spitfires were assembled at Keevil during the war and saw action in Europe, the Far East and the North African desert.

Gliders also left from the base on the ill-fated Operation Market Garden in September 1944. From 1955 to 1964 Keevil Airfield was occasionally used by the US Air Force. It closed in 1965.

Today, the airfield is home to Bannerdown Gliding Club and Warminster and District Radio Control Club.