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1940s Society Shop >  History >  Articles on the 1940s >  The Battle for Merville Battery - D Day 1944

The Battle for Merville Battery - D Day 1944

A brief description and explanation of this important D Day event.


The Merville Battery
Written By Neil Barber

The Merville Battery

The Merville Battery Today (Casements 2 and 3)
  This article by Neil Barber briefly covers the events that occured at the Merville Battery in France on 6th June 1944 (D Day).

Neil has spoken to many of those that were actually there but would be most interested to hear from anyone with further information, especially concerning the activities of the 9th Battalion during the following week.
Neil can be contacted at: Neil@mervillebattery.co.uk

Since this article, Neils book 'The Day The Devils Dropped In' has been published by Pen & Sword Books. More Details are available at: www.mervillebattery.co.uk

Introduction


Towards the eastern end of the Normandy coastline stands the small port town of Ouistreham. Back in 1944 it marked the limit of the D-Day Invasion beaches. To the west, for over 18 miles, the British and Canadian 3rd Divisions were due to begin landing at around 7.30am on the 6th June, and it was vital that once ashore, the landing forces had enough time to consolidate and then expand the bridgehead. Therefore to protect the eastern flank from the bulk of the German tank strength which was situated south of Paris, the 6th Airborne Division was to be dropped to act as a buffer. This gave the Division many important tasks for D-Day, but its primary objectives were the capture, intact, of the bridges over the Caen Canal and the River Orne at Benouville, and the silencing of a battery of four concrete gun emplacements, near the village of Merville, 3 miles east of Ouistreham. It was believed that they contained guns of 155mm calibre and could therefore pose a serious threat to the landing beaches.

The attack and capture of 'Pegasus' Bridge, as it is now known, and the River Orne ('Horsa') Bridge have received huge publicity through both book and film, however, the Merville Battery has not been given quite the same attention. Therefore, this brief narrative is just to give an outline of what happened.



Map of the area

The task of silencing the Merville Battery was given to the 9th Battalion, The Parachute Regiment, which was part of the 3rd Parachute Brigade. The Battalion's Commanding Officer was Lt Colonel Terence Otway. The nucleus of the Battalion had evolved from the 10th Battalion, The Essex Regiment.

The Plan for the Attack on the Merville Battery


The Merville Battery defences were formidable. A 400-yard anti-tank ditch, 15ft wide by 10ft deep, wound its way around the west and north-western sides. Two belts of barbed wire surrounded the whole Battery, the outer not being too fearsome, but the inner was around 6ft high by 10ft deep. Between these belts was a minefield, while other mines had been sown in various possible approach routes around the Battery. The garrison was estimated to contain 160 men, manning 15 to 20 weapons pits, each containing 4 to 5 machine guns and possibly three 20mm anti-aircraft guns.

The 9th Parachute Battalion was to land on Dropping Zone (DZ) 'V', a group of fields 1¼ miles east of the objective. Beforehand, 'C' Company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, was to capture and secure the DZ and Pathfinder Paras of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company would then mark the DZ in order to guide in the main drop.
('A' Company, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion, was to protect the left flank of the 9th Parachute Battalion in its approach march and attack on the Battery). Between 12.30 and 12.50am, approximately 100 heavy bombers were to 'soften up' the objective.

The 9th Battalion had prepared with several rehearsals on a full size mock-up of the Battery, and every man knew precisely, his role in the assault. Several special groups had been formed to carry out the pre-attack tasks. A Rendez-Vous (RV) Party was to drop at 12.20am to prepare to organise and control the assembly of the Battalion on the DZ. Jumping with them was A 'Troubridge' (Battery Reconnaissance) Party which was to head straight for the Merville Battery. It's tasks were to make a reconnaisance of the Battery, meet the Battalion outside the objective, advise the CO on the prospects of his plan, and lead the unit along to the assault by the best route.

The main body of the Battalion was due to begin jumping at 12.50am.First out was a Taping Party, which, using mine detectors, was to reconnoitre and clear gaps in the minefields up to the main perimeter fence, then mark with tapes the best approach to the Battery as indicated by the 'Troubridge' Party. One and a half hours were allowed to reorganise and get clear of the RV, and so the moving off time was set for 2.35am. The Battalion would then prepare for the assault at a pre-arranged 'firm base', about 500 yards from the Battery, at somewhere between 4.10am and 4.20am. Part of the assault plan also required 3 Horsa gliders, ferrying men of 'A' Company, plus some 591 Parachute Squadron Engineers, to land within the Battery perimeter itself. These engineers carried the explosives that were to destroy the guns. At an arranged time, the gliders were to arrive above the Battery, and a mortar would illuminate the area around the casemates with star-bombs. After two and a half minutes, upon a bugle-call signal, fire would cease everywhere except for a diversion party at the main gate. A further two minutes later, at 4.30am, as the first glider was due to land, the bugler would sound another signal and the firing of star-bombs would stop. The attack would then go in. 'B' Company was to blow gaps in the inner wire and 'C' Company was to carry out the assault.

Tuesday 6th June 1944


Exactly on time, the pre-attack parties made their jumps, but owing to the aircraft taking evasive action due to flak, the Canadians were dropped over a wide area. Only about 30 of them landed on the DZ and a further number within a one-mile radius. Fortunately very little resistance was met on the DZ itself, and the Pathfinders immediately began to set up the navigational aids. However, due to damage from the drop itself, few of their signal emitting 'Eureka Beacon' devices were serviceable.

The 'Troubridge' Party landed satisfactorily, and headed off for the Battery. Ten minutes later, the drone of approaching bombers gradually grew louder until suddenly, bombs began to fall on and around the DZ. Luckily there were no casualties sustained on DZ 'V'.

There were two nasty surprises awaiting the Brigade once it had landed. One characteristic of the area was wide, water-filled ditches which surrounded each field. The ditches had either not been noticed by aerial reconnaissance or just ignored. Either way, the men were not briefed about them, and they were to prove almost moat-like in their difficulty to cross. To make matters worse the Germans had opened the sluice gates to the nearby River Dives. This had flooded the fields over a wide area to the east of the DZ, to a depth of around 4 feet.

By 12.45am, 32 Dakotas carrying the main body of the 9th Battalion, around 540 men, were approaching the DZ. The transport pilots were met by a huge dust cloud caused by the wayward bombing raid, and the poor visibility caused difficulty in locating the DZ and made them perform their 'run-ins' at different altitudes and directions to those planned. There was also patchy cloud base at 1000 feet and a strong easterly wind. The Paras stood up, ready to move towards the exit door at the rear of the aircraft in order to jump in their practiced quick succession. Flak began to rise, and many pilots, surprised by the sheer amount of it, began to throw the aircraft about in violent evasive action. The effect on the drill of the parachutists was chaotic, the sudden lurches throwing them about the planes. Many ended up in great heaps on the floor. The effort of sorting themselves out was made even more strenuous by the weight of their equipment, and many were not ready when the signal came to jump. Virtually the whole of the 9th Battalion and much of the Brigade suffered the consequences, and they were spread over a wide area, with many landing in the flooded fields. Of those in Otway's plane, only 7 of the 20 men managed to disentangle themselves in time to jump while over the DZ, and the Dakota had to make three more runs to get them all out. The Taping Party landed in the water and although they quickly escaped, the tape itself was lost. It was nearly 2am when Colonel Otway finally reached the RV, only to find that there was hardly anyone there.

Gliders transporting the 9th Battalion's mortars, anti-tank guns, mine detectors, in fact all their heavy equipment had also not arrived. There was only one Vickers machine gun. Once again the smoke and dust clouds resulting from the bombing raid had caused the problems. Map reading had been impossible. With the strong wind, the pilots had struggled to control their gliders, and landed to the south-east of the DZ amongst anti-landing poles, causing seven deaths and many casualties. There was to be no support equipment for the assault on the Merville Battery. By the appointed time of 2.35am only 110 men had reported to the RV, however, the Colonel had allowed a 'window' of 15 minutes for problems, and so waited a little longer. During this time about 40 others arrived to raise the strength of the group to around 150 men. They then began their journey to the Battery. En route they met Major George Smith, commander of the Troubridge Party. Some of his news was good, some of it bad. He had cut the outer wire fence, crossed the large minefield, and lain by the inner belt of wire for half an hour listening to the conversation of the Germans inside the Battery. The defences were no tougher than had been expected, but due to the loss of the mine-detectors and tape, a path had had to be cleared through the mines by searching for them with their bare hands and making them safe one by one. To mark the path they had dragged their feet to scratch two lines in the earth. The attack by the heavy bombers had missed the Battery.

In the meantime, not all had gone well for the three assault gliders, which had taken off from Brize Norton at 2.30am. Two of them had run into trouble. Assault glider No 28a flown by Sgt Arnold Baldwin and S/Sgt Joe Michie had entered a large cloud and lost sight of its tug. It suffered a very rough ride, but just as they thought the worst of it was over, the tow-rope broke. Fortunately they were still over the southern coast of England and managed to land at RAF Odiham. In glider No 28, piloted by S/Sgts Bone and Dean, the arrester parachute cable had streamed prematurely and damaged the tail plane. The flying controls became sloppy and the starboard undercarriage was lost, but it struggled on towards the Normandy coast.

By 4am, Otway's 150 men had reached the position of the intended 'firm base'. The Colonel formed a new plan of attack. He decided to make two gaps in the wire and send two assault groups through each; these were split into two teams, one for each casemate. Another section was ordered to wipe out the German machine gun posts that were outside the Battery. The gliders would have to do the best they could, as there was no mortar to illuminate the area for them.

The first glider to arrive in the area was the damaged No 28. The tug, flown by Pilot Officer Garnett, circled the area four times under fire, and eventually S/Sgt Bone released the tow at 1800 feet. He could not see the Battery, and believing that the bombed village of Gonneville was the target, he descended to 500 feet, but realising his error, banked the Horsa away. They ended up landing in water, some distance to the east of the Battery. All got out unhurt, but they were not going to make it to the Battery in time for the assault. In the final glider, S/Sgt Kerr cast off at 1200 feet. He could not see the Battery either, was hit by flak, and landed in an orchard 500 yards east of the battery perimeter. As they clambered out of the broken fuselage, fighting could be heard from the direction of the Battery, but then another noise could be heard approaching from a lane in the other direction. It had to be Germans. The Paras got down into the ditches on either side of the narrow lane and started firing. The Germans, about 30 yards away, did likewise.



Diagram of the Merville Battery attack

At the Battery the gaps were blown in the wire and the men stormed straight in, firing from the hip. The diversion party attacked towards the main gate. It was 4.30am. Utter chaos reigned, as hand-to-hand fighting went on. The carnage continued for 20 minutes until the defenders finally gave in.

The Paras entered the casemates and found 100mm Field guns. The main armament had not yet been fitted.
Without the necessary explosives, the Paras did what they could to put the guns out of action.

Only 75 men were still on their feet. 22 prisoners had been taken. Wounded were lying about getting wounded again by German shells. The whole area pervaded a peculiar smell of freshly turned earth, smoke, cordite and torn flesh, a smell the survivors would never forget. Many of the Battalion's casualties were dragged out on wooden ammunition sledges to a Calvary Cross which stood at a crossroads about 700 yards to the south, along the road to Breville. Here, the remnants of the Battalion had a brief respite before setting off for their next objective,
but that is another story….



Casemate 1 of the Merville Battery (Today)

Aftermath

Aftermath

The 9th Battalion Memorial at the Merville Battery
  During the chaos of D-Day, the Germans re-occupied the Battery. On D+1 a message was passed to the Commander of the 6th Airborne Division, Major-General Richard Gale, stating that the guns had opened fire. He was ordered to ensure that the Battery was silenced, and the task fell to Nos 4 and 5 Troops, No 3 Commando.

During the attack they found relatively few Germans in the Battery, but these fought to the death. The Commando casualties were light, but they suffered a bitter loss in Major John Pooley. Shortly after however, a counter-attack backed by overwhelming firepower caused heavy losses to the Commandos. The necessity of the Commando attack was questionable. They felt this at the time, and were very unhappy about it, especially as they did not have any explosives with which to destroy the guns either. Much controversy exists as to whether the guns did open fire on D-Day, and although the reasons why are still the subject of much debate, the overriding fact is that the Battery did not perform to anywhere near its capability. With the failure of the bombing, the only possible reason for this is the consequence of the 9th Battalion attack. As a result, many lives were saved on Sword beach.

Today

Today

A Tribute to the 9th Battalion from the village of Merville -
  The Merville Battery survives today, and is now a picture of serenity. Flat, well groomed grass has now replaced the cratered ground around the casemates. No 1 casemate houses a small museum that is full of 9th Battalion memorabilia, plus details of the Commando attack, making it an essential visit when touring this part of Normandy.

It is now hoped to restore more of the Battery over the next few years.

Further Reading


The 9th Parachute Battalion in Normandy:
The Day The Devils Dropped In - Neil Barber
Pub. Pen & Sword Books
ISBN: 0850529247
Details at: www.mervillebattery.co.uk

Merville Battery:
The Big Drop - John Golley
Assault on the Guns of Merville - Alan Jefferson
(A 9th Bn Officer who took part in the attack) -
Pub. John Murray 1987
9th Battalion War Diary - Public Records Office
Storm from the Sea: Brig. P. Young - (Commandos)
Pub. W. Kimber 1958

The Airborne in Normandy:
Dropzone Normandy - Lt Gen. Sir Napier Crookenden
Pub. Ian Allen 1976
With the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy - Maj. Gen. Sir Richard Gale
Pub. Sampson Lowe 1948

Glider Operations:
One Night in June - K. Shannon & S. Wright -
(Operation Tonga, The First Stage of the Airborne Assault)
Pub. Airlife 1994
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