Merville Battery Assault


Continue to walk back onto the D223, turn right and stop on the corner of the track leading back into the battery at Point C (Map 2, p.79). Please note there is no access into battery grounds from this lane. It was along this road that the assault force gathered. As you continue along the D223 past the narrow lane, the area to your left was a small wooded area back in 1944. Today it is just an open field. It was through these woods that Otway and his men, heading north-west, approached the battery perimeter fencing and waited for the order to attack. The whole area though was then also covered with bomb craters from the Allied bombing raids.

Lieutenant Colonel Otway had already given the order to Major Allen Parry to lead the assault since the CO of C Coy, Major Ian Dyer, had not turned up. Otway then led the men up the lane, past the Firm Base, and towards the battery perimeter itself at 0400hrs. There they waited for the gliders to approach. Unknown to him at the time, they were already experiencing their own difficulties. One of the gliders had to turn back after it was found to be overladen with men and equipment. The glider pilot, Staff Sergeant Arnold Baldwin, had attempted to correct the glider’s flight as they left the airfield at Brize Norton. However, the strain was too much for the tow rope and it snapped whilst in flight.

I felt physically sick. Although we had only been training for this job for about three weeks, all the previous month’s training had led me to believe that the end of this flight would mean France and at first I couldn’t accept the fact that we were off tow still over England. I eased back on the stick very gently and had a look around. There, to my amazement and great relief, I saw a runway’s lights just off our starboard wing... The passengers already knew that their big night was a flop, as their officer had been standing in the doorway when the rope broke, and they were a very disconsolate unit as they disembarked.


Staff Sergeant Arnold Baldwin.

The two pilots found themselves having to land at Odiham and the troops were taken, by truck, back to Brize Norton and put aboard another glider for the evening landings. The second glider, piloted by Staff Sergeant S. Bone, also had some problems, but this time they were encountered after they had crossed the French coastline.

Private Gordon Newton.

We came under heavy fire, mainly small arms and flak. It was heavy and very accurate, but fortunately no one was hit, probably because we were not fully laden with troops. We tried not to think of all the high explosives under the seats! We decided to open the doors front and aft for easy exit when we landed. I was sitting opposite a door and, fearing that I may fall out particularly if the aircraft banked, I moved from port to starboard positions. As I moved over the flame-thrower on my back was hit but damaged the air supply and not the fuel tank.


As the glider and tug approached the battery there was no sign of the flares, or signals from the EUREKA beacons, that were supposed to guide them in. They circled the area at between 5,000ft and 6,000ft (1,524m and 1,828m), under constant fire from the ground until the tug pilot gave the glider pilots the option of casting off then or being towed back to England, Captain Gordon-Brown told the pilots to cast off.

As they descended the pilots realized that they had mistaken a village for the battery in the darkness. The pilot pulled the glider up and turned away from the village, and aimed to put the glider down in a nearby flooded field. The tailpiece was torn off the glider as it skimmed across the water, but finally came to a standstill in about 3ft (0.91m) of water, allowing the crew and passengers to get out of the glider without too much difficulty. However, some of the men very soon found themselves out of their depth when they stepped into an irrigation ditch, which was hidden by the flood water. Twenty year old Private Gordon Newton, with the 117lb (53kg) flame-thrower on his back, had to be pulled out by his comrades. Fortunately the Germans had not noticed their arrival and the group finally made their way to dry land. But since they had landed several miles from their objective they subsequently missed the assault on the battery.

Major Allen Parry, having been given the task of leading the assault groups, also had the task of destroying the guns in the casemates. He had been given two officers some NCOs and about fifty other ranks which he then split into four sections,

To assault casemate No. 1 he assigned one group led by Lieutenant Alan Jefferson and for casemate No. 2 he assigned a group led by Lieutenant Michael ‘Mike’ Dowling. With no more officers left he appointed Company Sergeant Major Barney Ross to lead a group in the attack on casemate No. 3 and Colour Sergeant Harold Long to attack casemate No. 4.

Each ad hoc party had been assigned its specific task and had made their way through the Firm Base towards the start line near the battery perimeter fencing. Major Parry let each group know that a blow on his whistle would sound the order for the Bangalore torpedoes to be detonated.

We started to approach the battery. I will always remember the moon coming out from behind the big dark clouds and the lonely bellow of the cows... occasionally having to wait a few minutes now and again while the forward patrol did some prowling. My first glimpse of the defences came just before dawn, a barbed wire area with a notice on it ‘Achtung Minen!’ I knew then we weren’t far from the battle we had been specially trained for. I was well prepared in myself to do my part.


The third glider, piloted by Staff Sergeant ‘Dickie’ Kerr, had also had a rough time from enemy ground fire, but was on a direct heading for the battery. On the approach the glider was hit several times and four of the men inside were wounded. Lieutenant Hugh Pond and the rest of the men braced themselves for the landing. This time they were on course.

The casemates came into sight. Travelling at over 90mph (145kmh) flak hit the aircraft again, this time on its tail. Swerving from the impact, the glider’s heading shifted from between the casemates and towards the field just beyond the battery. Just before the glider was about to touch down the pilot caught sight of a large skull and crossbones sign and he immediately pulled back on his control stick to avoid the minefield. The glider became airborne again. It passed only feet above the heads of the assault force as they waited for the order to attack. The arrester parachute was deployed and the glider crashed into a bomb cratered orchard near the Firm Base.

On crossing the French coast, ack-ack and small arms fire, while gliding in, hit [us]. Then the corporal sitting opposite to me, and showing half his arm, next held my hand and said, ‘Tug I’ve been hit.’ It was machine-gun fire, he had been hit from the wrist up to the elbow. The corporal’s name I can’t remember, but I believe he lost that left arm. We crashed outside the battery, the glider broke up, and I fell into a bomb crater.


But their troubles were not yet over, as the sound of a German patrol was soon heard approaching along the lane near the glider. It would seem that these were German reinforcements heading towards the battery. Lieutenant Pond immediately dispersed his men on either side of the lane and opened fire on the patrol. The Germans scattered and began returning fire. By this time the assault on the battery had already started.

Since they had no sappers or mine-detectors to clear the minefield, or tapes to mark the lanes, the first Trowbridge party had cleared, as best they could, four lanes through the minefield. This they managed to do by using their bare hands and marking the safe areas by digging up the ground with the heel of their boots.1 Once this had been accomplished the path was clear for the few Bangalores that had been recovered to be put through the inner barbed wire fence ready for detonation to clear two gaps in the barbed wire. Private ‘Bob’ Abel was in one group assigned to clear the left hand gap.

My actual task, with nine other lads in the section, was to breach the wire around the battery with Bangalores. When the command for the attack was given, Jerry was already opening up with machine-guns, but we just ran through the perimeter wire which was already down and just followed the path through the minefield. I remember seeing bomb craters everywhere, but we didn’t stop until we reached the concertina wire. When we reached the wire we pushed our Bangalores under the wire.


Clearing the right hand gap was Sergeant Len Daniels, men were also assigned the job of holding back the barbed wire once it had been cut by the explosion. Lieutenant Colonel Otway witnessed the glider miss the battery. Nevertheless, at 0430hrs, he gave the order to attack. Major Parry blew his whistle signalling that the Bangalore torpedoes were to be detonated.

Map 2

Our Second in Command, Captain Greenway, set the fuse. Having blown the wire, the assault parties went through to attack the casemates. Our section stayed outside in a defensive position until after the attack.


Captain The Hon Paul


The deafening explosion created two 20ft (6m) gaps in the barbed wire. Otway immediately gave the order to attack.

Immediately his words were ‘Get in. Get in.’... In the next ten minutes, or maybe more, I seemed to be deafened by the noise of the battle and confusion which was now going on, as I found myself running and looking for cover, seeing Germans running here and there. In all this I seemed to have run into a mortar bomb and I’m afraid that’s as far as I got, plus a couple of bullets of which one passed through my arm, which stopped my advance.


With only one medium Vickers machine-gun left after the drop Sergeant ‘Sammy’ McGeever, Corporal Jim McGuinness and Private Fenson had been assigned the task of covering the left flank of the assault.

We were at the rear of the battery as we came into the open field, Jerry opened up with his machine-gun, a good job he used tracers, he missed us by about three feet, everyone including myself jumped into a bomb crater. But when McGeever called to get the bloody gun into action, Fenson ran out, mounted the tripod, I put the gun on, he loaded and McGeever gave the range, then the order to fire. We heard no more from the machine-gun. By then the battalion were advancing on the battery. We stayed until they came out.


In addition the breaching and assaulting parties also had supporting fire provided by Bren gunners and snipers. These men had been moved up with the main assault force and had taken up positions by the battery perimeter wire.

As we moved forward it was obvious that various machine-gun positions had been prepared around the area and this caused some initial trouble but some Bren fire soon silenced them. The assault groups were moving in to my right, firing as they went, but the wire, bomb craters and minefield made slow going. I moved to the entrance of the gun emplacement but there was plenty of activity inside with bodies milling around.... Germans were running out of the exit and being picked off as they went. Another party of B Coy was now moving into the area to mop up the rest of the garrison, whilst noise could be heard from the main gate area where our diversion party was keeping the enemy busy. Explosions from the four gun emplacements signified that the guns were receiving treatment mainly by the use of the Gammon bombs.


The assault force charged through the perimeter fence and across the bomb cratered fields. As they crossed the minefield, not all were able to see the crudely marked lanes. Inevitably some were crippled or killed as they stood on mines. Along with the deafening sounds of machine-guns and the exploding mines the night sky was also now lit by the flares fired by the German sentries. In addition the Germans soon began shelling the perimeter of the battery.

At the time of the attack Stabsfeldwebel Büskotte was in the command post. After hearing the attack he immediately contacted Oberleutnant Raimund Steiner, the Merville Battery Commander, who was in the observation bunker nearly 1.5 miles (2.41km) away on the beach. After Steiner had received the telephone call he contacted another battery at Cabourg and asked them to lay down shellfire on the perimeter of the Merville Battery.2

Stabsfeldwebel Büskotte in the grounds of Château de Merville.

Oberleutnant Raimund Steiner,

Commander of the Merville Battery.

Walk back to and through the entrance of the Merville Battery, stop at Point D (Map 2, p.79) just to the left of the concrete platform on which now stands the British 5.5in (139.7mm) medium gun. From here you have the same view that Lieutenant Colonel Otway had as he commanded the assault on the battery.

Lieutenant Colonel Otway in the meantime had taken up a position just inside the battery to the right of one of the gaps blown in the barbed wire fencing. From here he was able to observe the battle as it unfolded. However, this was a dangerous position he was nearly hit by at least two bullets. One having passed through his smock and another hitting his water bottle.3

My three skeleton platoons had been quickly reorganized into one breaching platoon and went through the well practised routine, opening a gap for C Coy to assault. Soon after this Terence Otway ordered me to sort out a machine-gun half left of the axis of the assault. The rest of my company being committed to the gap they had blown, I set off with my batman in the direction indicated. I had not gone more than 50 to 100yds [46m-91m] when a bullet clipped a nerve behind my left knee incapacitating me.


As his men were entering the casemates they overpowered the defenders in hand to hand fighting. Otway decided to send in his reserve force to deal with the rest of the German machine-guns that were killing his men. During the chaos of the battle it was impossible to discern what was happening or who was winning. Bodies lay scattered around the battlefield as the men charged into the casemates. It was important to keep up the momentum once the attack had started, so the men were under orders not to stop and help anyone who was hit during the attack. These men were to be left for the six medical orderlies to deal with.

I being a medical went in a few minutes after the attack. My God what a terrible sight. I thought I could stand anything like dead men, arms and legs blown off, men crying for their mums. I couldn’t. It made me feel sick and I am sure I was. I then helped and did what I could with the aid of the other medics.


Once inside the casemates the men were surprised to find 100mm (3.94in) Czech howitzers instead of the 150mm (5.91in) calibre weapons they had expected. Nevertheless, they set about making the guns inoperable, using their Gammon grenades. The explosives were placed, the fuses set and they all exited the casemate to avoid the blasts of the explosions. They then returned through the thick acrid smoke to check that the guns were damaged beyond repair should the Germans reoccupy the battery later. By now the fight had gone out of the Germans in the garrison and those that were still alive surrendered.

Czech howitzer of the type the attackers found in the gun emplacements at the Merville Battery – 100mm calibre weapons instead of the 150mm guns they had expected.

Lieutenant Colonel Otway surveyed the battlefield to ensure that their mission had been accomplished. As he did so the medics were treating the wounded that littered the battlefield and beginning to make arrangements to move them out.

I glanced at the huge guns of the battery itself and saw the lads marching out the German prisoners who had, after some hand to hand fighting, surrendered. At that moment I heard cries from within the minefield. It was from Captain Hudson, the adjutant. Scared stiff, I ran through the minefield and did what I could for him. He was very badly wounded and I was unable to move him on my own. I looked up and the prisoners were being marched along the mine free lane, I called out for some help and the corporal in charge ordered two of the Germans over to help me. They refused to walk through the minefield. This was soon sorted out by a few bursts of fire at their heels. With their help I managed to get Captain Hudson and a lot more of the lads out of the battery area.


The walking wounded made their way out mostly unassisted. One of them, Major Parry, decided to go and check on the damage to the other guns before he left. As he moved off Lieutenant Dennis Slade, himself wounded, reported that all the guns had been spiked. He also reminded Parry that HMS Arethusa needed to be contacted with the success signal otherwise the 6in (152.4mm) guns of the battleship would open up on the battery. Since no naval signallers had arrived at the battery there was only a carrier pigeon and some smoke flares.

The road along which Otway’s assault force gathered.

Point C Map 2, p.79. The track leading to the Merville Battery. Otway’s men attacked across the minefield to the right of this track.

View from the machine-gun post on top of No. 1 casemate.

The front of No. 3 casemate.

The carrier pigeon was carried under the battledress of Lieutenant James ‘Jimmy’ Loring, the signals officer. He pulled the pigeon out and let it go. After circling the battery twice it flew off, in the wrong direction!d The yellow smoke flares were also set off and it was hoped that these would be seen by reconnaissance aircraft from the Fleet Air Arm who were to fly sorties over the area before the bombardment began.4 However, nothing could be left to chance. The order was given to evacuate the battery area.e

Moving back to a bomb crater occupied already by two men, one an officer, name of Parry, I was joined shortly after by a sergeant, who cut open my sleeve with his fighting knife and applied a field dressing to the wound. Shortly after we moved the wounded to a house not far from the battery where I spent some time collecting grenades from the wounded and stacking them outside.


As the survivors assembled the cost was counted. From the 150 men who attacked the battery only about eighty walked away.5 The Germans, too, had sustained heavy casualties and later Oberleutnant Steiner confirmed that out of the 130 men who had manned the garrison that evening only six remained unwounded and able to continue with their duties.6

The speed and ferocity of the assault on the battery left some of those who survived with memories of turmoil, which has through time, taken on an almost dreamlike quality. The resulting flashbacks of the assault, however, will remain etched into their memories forever.

The stench of dead cows. Seeing a glider circle the battery before passing over our heads and crashing into an orchard. As we approached the battery two machine-guns opened up on us from our right and a sergeant told me to get them with the Bren. I fired, first from the hip and then on his instructions from the more accurate position on the ground until both machine-guns ceased firing. Running on then into the battery and towards an emplacement on my right, hearing an officer shouting at me to get down and then seeing him immediately get up and kick the backside of a German. Running forward again into the gun emplacement until stopped by a bullet which promptly sat me hard on my backside. My left arm being useless, giving the Bren to Colville and thinking I must remember his name because I had signed for it.


9 Para with some German Prisoners.

Having overcome overwhelming odds the men of 9 Para had proved themselves in battle beyond any doubt. Later, the name Merville would be one of many names added to the regiment’s battle honours. It is this battle, though, that will provide inspiration to future generations in the armed forces, and particularly to members of The Parachute Regiment, and show what can be achieved by a small, highly trained force whatever odds may be stacked against it.

It was time to pull out as time was limited and, glancing back, the battery area was strangely silent with men moving slowly out, some wounded and others quite still on the ground where they had fallen. The remaining German prisoners were being herded together and taken out of the area. The impression was of all passion spent but I personally felt strangely privileged and maybe a little satisfaction that I had been a member of this unit who had, I feel, achieved all that was asked of them.



After the battle those who were able to move made their way to the second RV. This was at the Calvary (see Ch. 6, A1) which is situated at the junction of the D223 and D95a about 0.5 miles (0.8km) south of the battery. Once here Otway took stock of the situation and moved on to his next objective which was around the high ground of le Plain (aka le Plein) near Amfréville. On approach to the village it was discovered that it was held strongly by the enemy. Otway’s depleted force increased to about 100 men as more stragglers joined his force. However, the Germans inflicted further casualties in the fight for the village. Although Otway had too few men to overpower the German defenders completely, 9 Para were able to take half the village. Thereafter there was a period of watching and waiting by both sides until reinforcements from 3 Cdo arrived.7

Brigadier James Hill DSO MC.

But it had not just been the operation to destroy the guns at Merville that had been severely disrupted because of the disastrous parachute drop the previous night. Otway’s own commander had also had great difficulty in reaching his objective. Brigadier James Hill, commander of 3 Para Bde, had landed in several feet of water in a flooded field near Cabourg,8 several miles away from his intended destination. By 0600hrs he had finally found his way to the DZ near Varaville and made contact with 1 Cdn Para Bn. From there he decided to make his way to where 9 Para should be and find out how their attack on the Merville Battery had gone.

I had with me my brigade defence platoon commander, two parachute sailors who were part of our wireless link with the bombardment ship and one of our parachute Alsatian dogs, together with some thirty-five good chaps. We were making good progress and were encouraged by the tremendous din of the preliminary bombardment which the beach defences were undergoing. We were walking down a lane when I suddenly heard a horrible staccato sound approaching from the seaward side of the hedge. I shouted to everybody to fling themselves down and then we were caught in the middle of a pattern of anti-personnel bombs dropped by a large group of aircraft which appeared to be our own Spitfires... The lane had no ditches to speak of and I flung myself on top of a young officer who had been one of my sergeants when I commanded the 1st Parachute Battalion in North Africa. Something seemed to hit me very hard on the backside and, when the dust and foul stench of cordite had almost disappeared and the shattering din had died down, I looked round and saw a leg lying beside me. I then saw that the boot was a brown one and therefore it could not be mine. After stumbling to my feet, I found one other man who was able to stand, namely my defence platoon commander, and the lane was littered for many yards with the bodies of groaning and badly injured men.


The two officers set about injecting the wounded with morphia to ease their suffering. They also removed the morphia phials from the dead and gave them to the wounded to be used later. Then they set off to find 9 Para. Two hours later they found Captain ‘Harold’ Watts, the Medical Officer of 9 Para, who promptly gave the brigadier some temporary first aid treatment and told him about their success at the Merville Battery. It was later discovered that the aircraft that strafed them were Typhoons on sorties to disrupt any enemy movement behind the lines. Unfortunately, the pilot had mistaken the group of British paratroopers for a German patrol.

Major John B.V. Pooley.

The following day it was believed that the Germans had managed to get the battery operational again after some shellfire landed on SWORD Beach. Two troops of 3 Cdo were ordered to retake it. Under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Peter Young, twenty-five year old Major John B.V. Pooley, 2ic, stormed the battery with No. 4 and No. 5 Troop. They managed to overpower the small garrison that had retaken the position after Lieutenant Colonel Otway’s attack, but within minutes the Germans put in a strong counter-attack with SP guns. The commandos fought bravely, but were outnumbered and forced to retreat back to le Plain. This they did after losing half their men in the action. Major Pooley was one of the last to be killed.9 He was posthumously awarded the Military Cross and now rests in Bayeux Commonwealth War Cemetery (plot XXIV, row F, grave 2).

Temporary graves of those killed in the ‘friendly fire’ attack on Brigadier Hill’s group.

Rev Captain John Gwinnett.

Three months later Brigadier James Hill ordered Major Crookenden, who had by that time taken over command of 9 Para, to send a party out to the lane where he had been wounded in an attempt to locate and bury the bodies of the rest of his men. Major Allen Parry, CO of A Coy, went out with a party which included the Padre, Reverend Captain John Gwinnett. The soldiers were soon found, having been roughly buried in a bomb crater. Among them were nineteen year old Private Emile Corteil and his paradog ‘Glen’. Having identified nearly all the bodies, they were all reinterred and their location passed on to the graves registration and concentration units. Eventually the remains were moved to their final resting place at Ranville War Cemetery (see Battleground Europe book Pegasus Bridge & Horsa Bridge Ch. 7, B1).

Pte Emile Corteil and his paradog ‘Glen’.

Headstone for Pte E. S. Corteil and his paradog ‘Glen’ buried with him.

Finally, take some time to explore the grounds of the Merville Battery. The four casemates are accessible and now form an integral part of the museum as a whole (see Ch. 5, D).

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