CHAPTER THREE

Merville Battery Defences and Drop

THE DEFENCES

To get to the Merville Battery take the D514 from Pegasus Bridge to Merville-Franceville-Plage and follow the signs for the Musée de la Batterie de Merville. Leave your car in the car park in front of the main entrance. Enter the grounds of the battery (a small admission fee is payable) and make your way along the footpath until you are opposite the second casemate at Point A (Map 2 p.79). For more information on memorials and exhibits in this area refer to Ch. 5, D (p.103).

Intelligence reports made on 8 May 1944, with the aid of RAF aerial reconnaissance photographs, suggested that the size of the casemates at the Merville Battery indicated that each of the four gun emplacements would contain a medium-calibre gun or howitzer of 150mm (5.91ins). If this was the case then the range of these weapons could be over 20,000 yards (18,288m), some 11.36 miles (18.29km), with the capability of firing a 96lb (43.5kg) shell every fifteen to twenty seconds. After considering that SWORD Beach, where the 3rd Infantry Division were going to land on D-Day, was only 3 miles (4.83km) away and the potential devastation that these weapons could cause to the landing forces, it was decided that they had to be destroyed at all cost.

The casemates themselves were set out in an arc facing the landing beaches and were protected by 6ft 6ins (1.98m) thick reinforced concrete walls and roofs. In addition, they were covered and camouflaged by up to 13ft (3.96m) earth banks, while the entrance to each of the casemates was protected by a steel door.

Around the north and north-west side of the battery there was an anti-tank ditch some 250 yards (228m) in length and up to 15ft (4.57m) wide and 10ft (3.05m) deep. This started at a point approximately 60 yards (55m) to the front of No. 1 casemate and extended across the front of the remaining three casemates. The battery was surrounded by two belts of barbed wire of which the inner belt was up to 15ft (4.57m) thick and wide by 5ft (1.52m) high. The area between the two belts of barbed wire had an average depth of 100 yards (91m) and contained a minefield that varied between 18 yards (16m) and 25 yards (23m) in depth.

RAF reconnaissance photograph taken on 31 March 1944, while the battery was still under construction

General Marcks.

General Marcks inspecting bomb damage on one of the casemates at Merville Battery 23 May 1944.

Generaloberst

Dollmann.

Two days later the Battery was visited again, on this occasion by Generaloberst Dollmann; the Battery commander, Oberleutnant Steiner, is to his right wearing the steel helmet. The house near the Merville Battery today.

The strength of the garrison was estimated at 180 to 200 men all ranks. 100 to 120 of these would have been used to man the guns, communication posts and defences while at action stations, leaving the remainder to defend the ammunition, vehicles and horse lines outside the perimeter of the battery.

The area was defended by a number of machine-gun posts; five camouflaged emplacements in the hedgerows and fifteen additional weapon pits, each capable of containing another machine-gun post. Three light anti-aircraft positions were identified, each of which could house a 20mm (0.79in) anti-aircraft gun, in the event of a ground attack. These could also be used as anti-tank weapons.1

THE PLAN

Because of the formidable defences protecting the Merville Battery the plan for attacking this objective had to be more complex and involve a larger and better equipped force than the 181 man strong coup de main party that attacked Pegasus Bridge. And so it was that the task of destroying this coastal gun emplacement went to twenty-nine year old Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway and 650 men of 9 Para, 3 Para Bde.

The plan involved an initial advance party, which included the reconnaissance (aka Trowbridge*) party plus a rendezvous (RV) party, totalling ten men. These would land twenty minutes before the main body of 9 Para, on DZ/LZ V (Map 1). Landing at 0020 hrs, they would be landing at the same time as the pathfinders of 22 (Ind) Para Coy.

The three companies of 1 Cdn Para were each assigned different tasks. C Coy, under the command of Major Hugh Murray MacLeod, dropped first, approximately 30 minutes before the rest of the battalion. They were assigned the job of securing the DZ/LZs and destroying a nearby German HQ and strongpoint. They were then, with one section of No. 3 Troop of 3 Para Sqn RE under their command, to destroy the bridge at Varaville over the River Divette. They were also tasked with destroying a German signal exchange nearby, and neutralising enemy positions in the area around the village.

* ‘Trowbridge’ also referred as ‘Troubridge’ in some publications, is used in the war diary of 9 Para to describe their reconnaissance party. It is rumoured that it is derived from the name of a Captain (or Admiral) Trowbridge (Troubridge) who served with Lord Nelson (some also say at the Battle of Trafalgar) and that he was sent to reconnoitre the French Fleet. However, there seems to be no historical evidence to support this theory and therefore appears to be a legend.

B Coy, under Major Clayton Fuller, also had one section of 3 Troop from 3 Para Sqn RE under their command. They were assigned the task of destroying the bridge over the River Dives some 0.7 miles (1.12km) south-east of Robehomme and then holding the high ground feature at Robehomme.

Meanwhile, A Coy, under Major Don Wilkins, was to provide protection to the left flank of 9 Para as they stormed the battery. They would then cover 9 Para as they advanced to the high ground near Amfréville. Finally, they would take up their own positions around the crossroads at le Mesnil with 1 Cdn Bn HQ.2

As the advance party made their way to their respective objectives, 100 Lancaster Bombers from RAF Bomber Command would drop, using the OBOEb electronic navigation system, their load of 4,000lb (1814kg) bombs onto the battery. Commencing at 0030hrs this would soften up, if not destroy, the German defences.

The advance party, which was split up into two sections, would then perform their designated tasks. The battery reconnaissance party, or Trowbridge party, was assigned the task of infiltrating the battery perimeter by cutting their way through the barbed wire and making a path through the minefield, then reporting if there was still any activity in the battery after the bombing raid. This party consisted of Major George Smith, NCOs Company Sergeant Major ‘Dusty’ Miller and Company Sergeant Major ‘Bill’ Harrold.

The second section of the advance party was the RV party consisting of Major Allen Parry, his batman, Private George Adsett, an NCO from each of the four companies: Sergeants Easlea, Knight, Lukins and Pinkus and Private Mason from the Intelligence Section. Their task was to locate the RV, which was described as a bushy topped tree on the bank of a ditch near an orchard, and set up an Aldis lamp to indicate its position to the rest of the battalion when they arrived. The officers were also given a mouthpiece that imitated the sound of quacking ducks to help any stragglers to locate the RV.

A second Trowbridge party, under Lieutenant Dennis Slade, with Company Sergeant Major Frank Stoddart and Regimental Sergeant Major ‘Bill’ Cunningham, would determine if a second battery situated nearby, which had shown up on the aerial reconnaissance photographs, was indeed a dummy battery as suspected. They would arrive with the main body of 9 Para that would drop on DZ/LZ V at 0050 hrs. This drop also included the landing of five gliders carrying the heavy equipment such as the jeeps and trailers, anti-tank guns, explosives for destroying the guns and additional Bangalore torpedoes. In addition, a section from 224 Para Fd Amb RAMC would arrive and a troop of sappers, from 591 Para Sqn RE, under the command of Captain ‘Tony’ Jackson, would be brought in with their Polish mine-detectors and mine clearance equipment. Once on the ground everyone was instructed to make direct for the RV. Everyone was expected to be assembled and ready for moving off the RV by 0235hrs. It was estimated that the battalion would arrive at the Firm Base at just after 0400hrs.

Stabsfeldwebel Johannes ‘Hans’ Büskotte, Major Karl Werner-Hof and Hauptmann Schimpf from the Merville Battery.

The taping party, consisting of B Coy, led by, the 2ic of B Coy, Lieutenant The Hon Paul Greenway, and a troop of 591 Para Sqn RE, under Captain ‘Tony’ Jackson, would proceed towards the battery in order to make gaps in the barbed wire defences and clear several lanes through the perimeter minefield using their mine-detectors and mine clearance equipment. These lanes would then be marked with tapes and coloured lights. The breaching party would follow the taping party and use Bangalore torpedoes to clear more of the barbed wire entanglements on the inner security fence. The detonation of the Bangalore torpedoes would then be used to signify the start of the main assault.

As the main assault started, a diversionary attack was to be created by the small house at the entrance of the battery. For this task German-speaking paratroopers were to be used, to distract the Germans’ attention away from the main assault group of C and part of A Coy.

At the same time, at 0430hrs, there would be the arrival of a coup de main force, in three gliders, carrying the remainder of A Coy as well as the sappers from 591 Para Sqn RE. Commanding this force was Captain Robert Gordon-Brown, and thus came to be known as the G-B Force. They would land between the casemates after receiving a Morse code signal and upon seeing the area illuminated by 3ins (76.2mm) mortar flares. On landing the troops, who were armed with Sten guns and flame-throwers, would attack each of the four casemates. The gliders also carried explosives, known as General Wade charges, which would be used to disable the battery guns. To help distinguish themselves from the enemy the glider assault force had painted skull and crossbones on their tunics in luminescent paint.

The main assault force also had, as support: a medium machine-gun platoon, who were to provide protection on the assault companies’ flanks along with sniping parties; an anti-tank troop, who were to fire at the steel doors of the casemates as the attack began; and a mortar platoon, whose primary task throughout the battle was to illuminate the battery while the gliders landed.

As an extra measure, to ensure that the Merville Battery was put out of action, 9 Para also had a FOB party to direct the fire of the battleship HMS Arethusa. It was believed by Otway’s men that in the event of no signal being received from 9 Para confirming that the battery guns had been destroyed, whether by wireless or by yellow flare signal, then HMS Arethusa was under orders to open fire on the battery after 0530hrs.

Extra troops with the force, to carry out their own essential field work, were made up of a detachment from the 6th Airborne Division Signals (6 AB Div Sigs), a section from 224 Para Fd Amb RAMC and two jeeps and trailers from 716 Ab Lt Comp Coy RASC.

Upon completion of their tasks 9 Para were then to move to a Calvary (see Ch. 6, A1) which was their second RV point, and proceed with their next objective which was to seize and hold the high ground around Amfréville at le Plain south of Hameau Oger (operational orders and maps issued to the airborne troops mistakenly refer to these places as ‘le Plein’ and ‘Hauger’ – as do the war diaries and many histories that have perpetuated the error) until relieved by the commandos of 1 SS Bde. Lieutenant Colonel Otway was also tasked with setting up road blocks on the routes leading up to the high ground from the direction of Merville and Franceville-Plage (now Merville-Franceville-Plage) and to attack the German naval radar station and HQ at Sallenelles3 (see Ch. 5, A4).

A Company, 9 Para. Major Allen Parry is seated centre with Pte Corteil and his Paradog ‘Glen’ seated in front.

THE DROP

The first men of 9 Para dropped on DZ V (Map 1) were the advance party of ten men who dropped with the pathfinders. But not everyone landed on the DZ. Major Parry found himself alone when the bombing raid on the Merville Battery began at 0030hrs. Unfortunately the bombers overshot their mark and the majority of bombs landed in and around the village of Gonneville-sur-Merville (now Gonneville-en-Auge). Others landed as far away as 2 miles (3.22km) from DZ V.

Major Allen Parry, Officer Commanding A Coy 9 Para.

I made off in the direction of the RV, had just reached a ditch when the [bombs] descended all around me. I felt certain that I couldn’t be missed. Bombs were dropping on my right and left for some ten minutes. When they ceased to fall I breathed a sigh of relief. In contrast to this noise the next I heard was a rustling in the hedge. I lay very still for a few moments and breathed yet another sigh of relief when I heard whispered PUNCHc to which I replied, enthusiastically, JUDY. At long last I was no longer alone and joined up with two Canadians who were as lost as I was. They seemed to think that I should be able to direct them to their RV... By this time, 0100hrs, I was getting a little agitated at the passing of time and still I hadn’t made the RV. I collected about a dozen chaps and eventually saw a red light... I hastily erected my Aldis lamp, took stock of my position and set about organizing the RV. Sgt Easlea was there, waving his torch; also Major Charlton, 2ic, and the Adjutant Captain ‘Hal’ Hudson, but precious few others.

MAJOR ALLEN PARRY, OFFICER COMMANDING,

A COY 9 PARA

The main drop over DZ V was widely dispersed due to a number of factors, despite one of the EUREKA transmitters and holophane lights being set up on the DZ by the men of 22 (Ind) Para Coy. There were high winds, intermittent moonlight, ack-ack casualties and some pilots had taken evasive action, when they entered the flak pockets, as they crossed the French coastline. To add to these problems smoke and dust from the bombing raid on the Merville Battery was also blown across the DZ. Subsequently the paratroopers were dispersed over an area of some 50sq miles (80.46 km2). Many landed in the flooded marshland of the Dives valley, with some subsequently drowning due to the weight of their equipment.

Men of the 22 (Ind) Para Coy prepare to board Albemarle V1740 on the night of 5 June 1944.

Eyes on the red light – waiting for the green.

Our Dakota was hit in the port engine. The pilot went round for another try. The shrapnel was rattling on the aircraft and everybody was more than eager to get out. We got the green light. I went out and it was suddenly quiet, tracers were all over the sky, some went through my chute. I heard somebody on my right scream as he got hit. I cleared a five bar gate and then nearly drowned. I had fallen into 8ft (2.4m) of water. I had to climb up the rigging lines to get out. I found a chap walking around in circles, he was dazed, he came out of it. At first we didn’t know the place we were in. It turned out we were east of the battery not far from the Dives.

CORPORAL ROBERT FERGUSON, MEDICAL ORDERLY, C COY 9 PARA

The searchlight beams, moving ceaselessly back and forth across the sky, were blocked only by some cloud. The large areas of concentrated ack-ack fire seemed to cover the sky. Wave after wave of Dakotas continued to cross the French coastline and into the maelstrom. The men on board the aircraft waited, all hooked up and ready to jump, for the light in the aircraft cabin to turn from red to green.

I don’t remember who was in the same stick, but I do remember the dog handler and ‘Glen’ the dog and I had to help him put the dog out of the door... I think everyone was a bit afraid as we hadn’t been in action before. We kept our spirits up by singing... All the stick jumped wide and I landed in water and the cord on my kitbag snapped so I lost my gear. On landing, I found I was alone and very wet and anyone who said he wasn’t afraid in some way is not telling the truth. I was more afraid of what the CSM would have to say.

PRIVATE ‘JIM’ BATY, A COY 9 PARA

For many of the heavily laden paratroopers it was also a struggle to move in the confines of the aircraft fuselage, and this was not helped by the constant buffeting the planes received from flak. Subsequently this delayed the time it took for each man in the stick to clear the plane, causing the landings to be dispersed over a greater distance than expected.

I was eighteen in the stick and due to the flak throwing the aircraft all over the place I was quite a while trying to get out; then the despatcher pushed me out of the door. My equipment consisted of 2in (50.8mm) mortar, six 2in (50.8mm) bombs, 150 rounds of .303 (7.69mm), rifle, and two grenades. My small pack was strapped to my valise on my leg holding my 2in (50.8mm) mortar and rifle. Through being pushed out of the door I did a somersault and the valise broke from my leg and disappeared. I corrected my descent and got ready for landing which turned out to be not on dry land, but in water. The shock I got really scared me, I am a non-swimmer. There was I, in about 3ft to 4ft (0.91m-1. 22m) of water with my ‘chute over me. I drank quite a lot of water before I managed to stand up.

PRIVATE JOE HUGHES, MORTAR PLATOON, C COY 9 PARA

Not everyone landed in water, though; some had good landings on or near the DZ and were able to make for the RV quite quickly or help others who had not had such a good landing. Apart from the water and ‘Rommel’s Asparagus’ there were also other hazards in the Norman countryside for the paratroopers.

My actual drop into Normandy was very good. I landed in a cornfield, but one of the other lads was not as lucky as myself; he was caught up on an electricity pylon twenty feet (6.1m) from the ground, with his canopy tangled around the cables. Myself and several others managed to get him down using the fireman’s method, only we used an old chute. He released his harness and fell into the chute.’

PRIVATE ROBERT ‘BOB’ J. ABEL, B COY 9 PARA

THE RENDEZVOUS

Lieutenant Colonel Otway had also missed the DZ, coming down with Lance Corporal Wilson, his batman, near the buildings of a farm. Unfortunately, German troops were billeted in the farmhouse and were disturbed when Wilson had landed on top of, and then fell through, the roof of a greenhouse. The Germans fired at the two paratroopers but Wilson caused a diversion by throwing a brick through the farmhouse window. The two men, once clear, then made their way to the RV.

Lieutenant Colonel Otway.

At the RV I soon discovered that the battalion was not much over company strength and that B Coy was at about platoon strength. Specifically I remember that B Coy had dropped about twelve bundles each containing ten lightweight Bangalore torpedoes to cut the wire defences. Only one of these bundles had been found and brought to the RV. Apart from this serious loss of breaching material this threatened the well rehearsed plan of assault, because the firing of the Bangalore torpedoes was more or less the signal for the assault company to surge through the gaps.

MAJOR HAROLD BESTLEY, OFFICER COMMANDING, B COY 9 PARA

At 0235hrs, the time when the whole battalion was supposed to be at the RV and ready for setting off, only 110 men had arrived. None of the gliders had turned up and therefore the heavy equipment: jeeps, trailers, anti-tank guns, 3in (76.2mm) mortars, and additional Bangalore torpedoes, were all missing. The engineers, from 591 Para Sqn RE, with their mine clearance equipment and tapes, had not turned up and neither had any of the section from 224 Para Fd Amb RAMC. In the next fifteen minutes only a few more stragglers turned up.

The road leading from Gonneville-en-Auge (formally Gonneville-sur-Merville) crossroads to the Firm Base and on to the Merville Battery.

We had heard a few whispering voices in a copse, so we lay still, trying to find out what language they were talking when all of a sudden a bloody great corporal with a Sten gun nearly on my temple whispered ‘Halt’. God, what a fright, I thought it was Hitler himself. I managed to get the password out and then everything was OK. I could see more or less that there was a single line of men in the copse. How far the line stretched I do not know. I was sent one way and my friend the other. On getting to where I was sent, I found my medical officer Captain Watts and only four other medics instead of about thirty. So about 80 per cent of our medical supplies were lost.

CORPORAL ‘DOUG’ TOTTLE, MEDICAL ORDERLY, A COY 9 PARA

About forty extra men had shown up by 0250hrs, and Lieutenant Colonel Otway was still left with a seriously depleted force, a force that was equipped with only one medium Vickers machine-gun, a few Bren guns and one container of ten Bangalore torpedoes. The rest of their equipment was all standard issue, such as Sten guns, rifles, 36M grenades, 82 (Gammon) grenades and fighting knifes.

With time passing Otway, was forced to make the most difficult decision of his career; to attack the battery against a force that was well entrenched behind formidable defences, and risk the complete annihilation of his men or leave the battery and join the fighting elsewhere. He considered the effect the battery would have on the beach landing forces, in less than five hours time, if it remained operational, and weighed this against the quality and determination of his men. Otway quickly made his decision;

CSM ‘Dusty’ Miller.

It was a question of move off, or give up. In The Parachute Regiment giving up is not an option.

LIEUTENANT COLONEL TERENCE

OTWAY, COMMANDER 9 PARA

Now that the decision had been made Otway reorganised his men and set off on the one hour march towards the battery. As they marched he modified his attack plan in his head. In the meantime Major George Smith, Company Sergeant Major ‘Dusty’ Miller and Company Sergeant Major ‘Bill’ Harrold were busy clearing two roughly marked lanes through the minefield. In addition the men in the second Trowbridge party, under Lieutenant Dennis Slade, were carrying out their task.

CSM ‘Bill’ Harrold.

I was quickly at the RV... And we left to investigate a second [battery] site which appeared on the aerial photos and establish if it was a dummy. This was established and we returned to join the battery assault.

LIEUTENANT DENNIS SLADE, ASSISTANT ADJUTANT 9 PARA

If you wish to see the point from which 9 Para began the second leg of their approach to the Merville Battery after leaving the RV, the area for the firm base and assault start line, you will need to leave the battery via the entrance/exit (retain your ticket for re-entry later). Walk (due north) along the entrance/exit road of the battery and turn right (due east) at the T junction. Continue for 475 yards (434m) to a crossroads in Hameau de Descanneville and turn right (due south, south-west). Walk along the side of the D233 for a further 635 yards (581m) and take the next left (due east, east-south) down the lane and stop after 620 yards (567m) at Point B (Map 2, p.79). This is the crossroads where Lieutenant Colonel Otway met up with his reconnaissance party. On the corner is a memorial (see Ch. 5, E2). Walk back along the track you’ve just come down and 200 yards (183m) on your left was the orchard (now just a field) where the third glider landed about 20 yards (18m) from the lane. 60 yards (54m) farther along the lane is the area where Lieutenant Colonel Otway established his Firm Base.

By 0250 hrs the assault force now consisted of approximately 150 men and Otway led the men to the crossroads on the north-east corner of Gonneville-sur-Merville (now Gonneville-en-Auge) where Major Smith reported the findings of the first Trowbridge party. They had established that the battery was still active and the Germans were alert but unaware of any immediate threat to their position. They were also able to confirm the layout and strength of the battery defences. Otway adjusted his attack plan after considering Major Smith’s report. He also had to consider how the ground force could carry out the destruction of the guns themselves. Since no mortar flares had been found, the area around the battery could not be illuminated for the gliders. Therefore he could not rely upon the gliderborne supplies, of flame-throwers and high explosives, arriving and landing in the battery as planned. All that remained to destroy the guns was the limited explosive power of the No. 82 Gammon Grenade and his men’s own ingenuity.

On arriving at the RV we were split up into three groups of about platoon size, each group to do the job of what the company would have done. If I remember correctly our gun was No 4. Another problem of putting it out of action was made rather difficult because of the shortage of sappers. There was CSM Jack Harries, another man and myself. We decided to elevate the gun, damaged the elevating gear and placed a Gammon bomb on the breach block with a short fuse.

SERGEANT FRED DORKINS, A COY 9 PARA

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