There were 600 of them. All belonged to Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway’s 9th Parachute Battalion, and were cramped aboard thirty two transport planes winging their way over the English Channel on this momentous night of June 6, 1944. They’d gone over their assignment during maneuvers, studying maps, and photographs and replaying everything they could remember in their minds. Now, as just a small part of the thousands of paratroopers belonging to the British sixth Airborne Division, known as the ‘Red Devils’ they mentally prepared themselves a final time for what lay ahead. As for Otway he wondered if his small units already on the ground had successfully gathered further information on the target. He needed it.
The Paras’ assignment was to assault and neutralize a compound known as the Merville battery. Located just 8 miles inland from what was soon to become known to history as Sword Beach, its complex consisted of four tunnel-connected casemates believed to hold 155 mm howitzers along with command and personnel bunkers ringed by landmines, barbed wire, an antiaircraft gun and 15 machine gun nests. Such strong defenses bore witness to its importance to the Germans. But more important, its proximity to the future invasion beaches meant there was no choice but to assault and destroy the position from the ground or else the beaches could be blanketed by salvo after salvo for days on end.
Checking watches, Otway and his men made final equipment checks rose and hooked their jump lines as the door swung open. It was approximately 0050 hours as they leapt out into the night, parachutes almost instantly opening in the high easterly wind and antiaircraft bursts popping around them. Little more than a minute later they slammed onto the ground. But already there was something wrong. Unknown to the Paras already unhooking themselves, the Battalion, like so many others, were jumping out far away from their designated drop zones, with no hope of linking up in time to attack.
Otway stayed around the dropzone as long as he could as small groups of men trickled in. Even with fresh arrivals he knew he was woefully deficient on men. Only about 150 had managed to rendezvous, but with time pressing him he knew he had set out for the battery. The group managed to link up with one of the parties that had landed earlier, who told Otwar that they had managed to cut the wire, prod their way through minefields and get close enough to hear the Germans speaking. They didn’t seem alert. After a cautious advance over the countryside, the Paras neared the battery around 0400 hrs. With the force concealed in woods, Otway decided to change his plan of attack and ordered two gaps to be made in the wire, through which two assault groups would stream to attack two batteries apiece. He dispatched his platoon and company leaders, who led their men crawling over the heavily cratered landscape provided by previous days of heavy bombardment from hundreds of aircraft. They picked their way through the minefields and slipped lengths of Bangalore torpedoes through the barbed wire as quietly as possible.
At about 0430 hours, huge explosions tore massive gaps in the wire, and before the smoke cleared, men were racing through firing rifles and automatic weapons at the startled Germans who ran for cover. The Germans machine guns responded quick, opening up from several different positions and crisscrossing their tracers, forming deadly mazes through which the Paras ran. Though many fell, German resistance failed to stop them from hitting their primary task, the casemates, whereupon reaching them they hurled grenades through the narrow openings where the main guns were.
Once the blasts dissipated, they breached the entrances and rushed inside. What they found surprised them. All the tons of concrete poured over the preceding months to create the casemates protected something one might consider hardly worthy of such a position: World War I-era 100 mm howitzers manufactured in Czechoslovakia. A most curious find. With the roar of battle still raging outside, they quickly dismissed the discovery and sprang back into action.
They rejoined their comrades out in the open as they assaulted each machine gun nest, hurled grenades and took one bloody position after another, often after fighting at arm’s length. Only then, after nearly an hour’s worth of battle, did the fighting start to die down and some semblance of order begin to return through the smell of smoke and battle, when casualties began to be tended to.
Over 70 men had fallen. Those wounded and unable to walk were placed on a sled and drug to a monument called Calvary’s Cross, some 700 yards away, where they could be worked on in peace, and evacuated by relief forces. At 0800 hours Otway sat on the steps of the monument and determined, with the objective neutralized, that it was time to set out for their secondary objective. He gave orders to muster and head-out for the nearby village of La Plein. Here, they attempted to clear out the German garrison, but only managed to take half the village due to the fact there were only 75 or so Paras still able to fight. They had no alternative but to wait until reinforcements arrived before completely clearing it.
With the guns out of action and the British gone, a group of Germans snuck back in and reoccupied the battery. At first light, they could see the majestic invasion fleet stretching the horizon off Sword beach. However, attempts to get all four batteries back in operation proved fruitless. They did manage to get two of the guns into action, but were unable to provide accurate fire. With this occurrence, the batteries’ contribution to the Atlantic wall ultimately proved ineffective.
The British didn’t know this at the time and assumed the battery could still pose problems if left alone. On June 7, a commando attack was attempted and repulsed, allowing the Germans to hold the position until August 17, not as defenders, but as castaways from the battle of Normandy which raged all around them. They finally withdrew with the remainder of the German Army and the war as it sped out of France toward the German border, leaving the battered compound mute and only visited occasionally by servicemen interested in the story of the battle.
After the war, the events at Merville grew in importance, and the site has since become a museum. The place is essential to those wanting to know the complete story of D-Day. I know because I was able to walk the grounds where Otway’s men fought in 2010. The area and structures are impressive and highly recommended. Colonel Otway, in fact, returned on numerous occasions, sometimes asking tourists sitting near the batteries having a picnic to please move it elsewhere because as he puts it: “I don’t want people eating and drinking where my men died.” Even as the German commander of the battery who also survived the war extended his hand in friendship in 1993, Otway hesitated before taking it, commenting that he just couldn’t get the thought of his dead men, men he later found hanging in trees and still in their parachutes, out of his mind.