PARATROOPERS past and present were given a tour of a restored Second World War plane which holds a special place in the hearts of all airborne forces.

The Dakota has been given pride of place by the front gate at Colchester Garrison.

Some 25 veterans from the East Anglia branch of the Parachute Regimental Association visited Colchester’s Merville Barracks to look around the Dakota, which is the type most paratroopers jumped from during the D-Day and Arnhem operations in the Second World War.

The two operations established the formidable reputation of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, which is maintained today by Colchester’s 16 Air Assault Brigade.

Among the veterans was 86-year-old Len Harris, who did his training jumps from Dakotas.

Mr Harris, from Wickford, served with 16th (Staffords) Parachute Battalion in the Far East from 1944 to 1947.

The former lance corporal said: “It brings back a lot of memories to sit inside a Dakota again. It’s just the same now as it was then, with everyone cracking jokes to distract from how uncomfortable it is.

“I did all my parachute training in Dakotas and in 1945 my unit was out in India preparing to jump on Singapore, which got cancelled when the A-bombs were dropped on Japan.

“It’s really good to see this aircraft is being looked after and the history it represents kept alive.”

Soldiers from 2nd Battalion, the Parachute Regiment, which returned from a six-month tour of Afghanistan earlier in the year, hosted the visiting veterans.

Private Andre Ferreira said: “The regiment’s history is very important to us and it’s fascinating to meet up with veterans and compare stories. As paratroopers, we’ve all trained to deal with hardship and keep on fighting, but times change and we face different challenges.”

The Dakota was moved to Colchester in 2010 from Aldershot, the former home of Airborne Forces. It is being restored by Jim Kilbride, a former 2 Para sergeant.

Mr Kilbride said: “The Dakota is iconic for Airborne Forces.

“It may not be the first aircraft that was used for parachute jumps, but it’s remembered as the aircraft used in the big airborne operations of the Second World War.

“The restoration is about three quarters finished and the aim is to have the aircraft back in the state it would have been on the morning of an operation, just waiting for paratroopers to climb aboard.”