The Merville Battery Raid or What Can Go Wrong, Will.
Today I’m going to write about the Battle of the Merville Battery, an airborne operation that took place in the opening hours of D-Day, and for me, it’s a story that just doesn’t get told enough, and it’s a proper against the odds war story, where the odds then got even worse.
To give you the background, at the very outset of D-Day a huge series of airborne operations were to take place which were to capture key bridges, and defences to the east and west of Normandy which would hamper the Reich’s ability to a) defend the beaches and b) get reinforcements to their vulnerable beaches. It is one of these sites that we’re taking about today.
On the eastern side of Sword Beach, near the village of Merville there stood a coastal artillery battery featuring what was thought to be 4 150mm coastal defence guns. Each with a range of over 5 miles so looking at this map we can see the problem that Merville is going to cause. Anything attempting to land in the eastern half of Sword Beach is going to get blown out of the water, and if we can’t land on Sword Beach then we cannot take Caen. If we cannot take Caen then the Germans can reinforce the whole of the Normandy coast and D-Day is over.
Someone needs to disable that battery.
That job fell to the 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment under the command of 29 year old Lt. Colonel Terence Otway. The plan, while complex and layered involved simultaneous attacks from the perimeters, a diversionary attack as well as three glider landings, placing 150 soldiers directly onto the Battery itself. In summary the plan was to overpower the site with overwhelming force and overwhelming numbers, in the shortest possible time.
650 paratroopers in total would go in, outnumbering the Germans on the site by 3 to 1.
In order to prepare for their mission the Battalion took over Walbury Hill in Berkshire in April 1944. The geography of the ground here closely resembles that of the Battery, and then, with a mock battery having been built to the same layout they rehearsed and rehearsed until every part of the plan could be done by instinct and reaction alone. The plan was set, the men were ready.
On the night before all troops were locked down Otway sent all his officers into the Bear pub in Hungerford to kick back and relax before the main event, which was appreciated by all. However unbeknownst to his officers, Otway had a test in mind. He sourced the “services” of about 30 of the prettiest local WAAF girls he could find in the area whom he paid to flirt with his officers and try to get information out of them.
Not a man spoke a word…. Sadly I cannot tell you how far the ladies may have gone in that quest. Otway never said, and we never asked.
At 11:20pm on the night of the 5th of June the Battalion took off from RAF Tarrant Rushton in Dorset. The operation was a go, we were invading France. The red light went on and everyone stood up, checked their equipment, the green light went on and they jumped.
But no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy, and from this moment on, everything started to go wrong.
The trouble with night-time parachute drops is that they are notoriously difficult to actually get right. It’s hard to make sure you’re jumping in the right place anyway at night, and then combine that with the fact that there’s an awful lot of anti-aircraft fire, flak, smoke and chaos and it’s no wonder that paratroopers are scattered all over Normandy. Not just the 9th mind, this happens to pretty much every paratrooper unit on D-Day. It was an occupational hazard.
I want you to consider for a moment just how easy that scattering can be even if you are jumping in the right place. To avoid tangling into each other they are going to jump at 5 second intervals at least. The aircraft is travelling at 150 miles per hour. So a little bit of maths and we can work out then that with each jump the aircraft travels 134 metres between jumps.
There are 22 paratroopers in the plane so the distance between the first and last paratrooper to land is 2,949m. This means, even if things go like clockwork your squad is spread over nearly a 3 kilometre area…. And did I mention there’s a war on?
Accounts vary but out of the 500 men that jumped at 1am, by 2:50am only 80 men had found their way to the rendezvous point, and a further 30 arrived by 30:0am. Otway did not have the luxury of waiting around. The assault had to be completed and the men clear by 0500 or HMS Arethusa would bombard the battery from offshore. The clock was ticking, so with a much reduced force they set off for the battery.
Otway and Major Parry took stock of what they had. They had no mine clearing equipment, no heavy weaponry, no explosives for demolishing the casemate bunkers. Take a look at one of the bunkers. These are solid concrete, and they’re not going anywhere. If you take a look at the aerial photo after the initial bombardment you can see that they survived that… and you can visit the site and see they’re still there. Basically these guys have rifles, Sten guns, bangalore torpedoes and grenades.
But they did have three gliders inbound that were going to land right on the battery. But as they got into position they saw the first glider come in, which missed the site and crashed into fields too far to the rear to be of any use in the battle. The Germans were alerted, it was as good as done.
They had gone from outnumbering the Germans 3 to 1, to being outnumbered by the Germans 2 to 1, and those Germans were behind 100 metres of minefield, in 4 concrete bunkers, with 15 MG42 machineguns…. And despite all of this, 9 para went for it.
Corporal Len Dawson crept forward and placed 10 lengths of bangalore torpedo, an explosive designed for clearing fences and light obstacles, and blew a hole in the barbed wire fence. Otway shouted “Get In Get In Get In” and they charged.
They ran across 100 metres of minefield trusting to dumb luck that they could get to the other side and up to the casemates. The Battle of the Merville Gun Battery lasted a whole 20 minutes and at the end of that 20 minutes there were approximately 70 men of 9 Para left standing. All four casemates were taken, even though only four men managed to get to Casemate Four.
With no radio equipment Otway fired a single flare into the night as a passing plane who radioed this back. HMS Arethusa stood down from the proposed bombardment, just ten minutes before she was due to open fire.
While the guns turned out not to be the 150mm terrors that Intelligence had thought, they were still impressive 100mm guns and they were put out of action by the smashing of sights and the use of small plastic charges. The assault on the Merville Battery by a small and woefully ill-equipped force is still considered to be one of the most outstanding achievements of the Parachute Regiment.
But the cost was high. At the end of the battle, out of the 650 men that went in on the operation only 70 were standing at the end, an almost 90% loss rate. According to Otway, 192 of them were never seen again after exiting the aircraft. They were never even found.
So ladies and gentlemen, the Battle of the Merville Battery. One of the most overlooked actions of the Second World War.
Thanks for reading.