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The Capture of the Merville Battery

Discussion in 'Merville Battery' started by Jim, Mar 4, 2007.

  1. Jim

    Jim Active Member

    Sep 1, 2006
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    The 5th Parachute Brigade's two battalions had a scattered drop around DZ 'N'. Its 12th Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Johnson, planned to rendezvous in a quarry alongside the Ranville-Sallenelles road, but the dispersed nature of the drop had meant that many of its men had come down in the woods and orchards to the east of the zone. After almost an hour only 60 per cent of the unit's strength had arrived at the rallying point. Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson decided that he had enough strength to move and led his men to their appointed task of defending the south-western point of the landings around Le Bas de Ranville. The 13th Parachute Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Luard, was also dispersed over a large area. Nonetheless, within an hour Luard had gathered around 60 per cent of his men and advanced from the rendezvous point to capture the important village of Ranville.

    The rear of Merville Battery's Case mate 1, the largest of the four gun positions. To the right is a doorway leading up steps to a 'Tobruk' weapons pit on the roof. Covering the main door is a machine-gun embrasure. Today it is the entrace to the sites museum.


    To the north-east, on DZ 'V', Gale's 3rd Parachute Brigade, commanded by Brigadier James Hill, also experienced a somewhat disorganised arrival in Normandy. The brigade's two battalions - 9th Parachute Battalion and 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion - were scattered across woods, fields and flooded valleys all around the drop zone. Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway's men of the 9th Parachute Battalion, tasked with attacking the Merville Battery, were the most dispersed of all.
    The gun battery at Merville overlooking Sword Beach was a very important target. Its field of fire dominated the sea lane into Quistreham, through which the invasion ships would have to pass. The 9th Parachute Battalion had to eliminate the battery before 0500hrs or the cruiser HMS Arethusa would attempt to destroy the position with its guns. The battery's weapons were enclosed in an area 700 x 500yds, surrounded by a double belt of barbed wire 15ft thick and 5ft high, with minefields dotted between them. The guns themselves were housed in steel-doored concrete emplacements 6ft thick, two of which were covered with 12ft of earth. An anti-tank ditch barred approach from the seaward side and a total of 15 weapons pits protected all approaches. In addition to the 750 men of the battalion engaged in the operation, Otway was equipped with heavy mortars, an anti-tank gun, and jeeps with trailers full of demolition stores and flame-throwers, all of which were carried to the landing zone in five Horsa gliders. It was planned that, at the time of the assault, three gliders would land a further 50 men directly onto the roofs of the guns within the battery itself.
    The aircraft carrying the battalion had found it difficult to identify the drop zone through the haze and smoke caused by an RAF bombing raid on the Merville Battery shortly before their arrival. Many of Otway's men were dropped to the east of DZ 'V' in the marshes of the River Dives, some as far away as the high ground between Cabourg and Dozule. The colonel knew that time was of the essence; for the battery had to be eliminated before the ships of the invasion fleet came with in range of the guns. Impatiently he waited for his force to gather, with men appearing out of the night in ones and twos, each cautiously moving through the darkness, evading scattered German infantry as they moved toward the battalion's rendezvous point.

    The front of the Merville Battery's Casemate Number 1 facing out towards Sword Beach on the far side of the River Orne. It housed a fairly modest 75mm gun rather than the much larger 150mm calibre coast gun that was expected by Allied planners.


    By 0300hrs Otway knew that he would have to go with the men he had if he was to stand any chance of capturing the battery before daylight. He had only 150 of the 750 paratroopers of his battalion with which to carry out the attack. None of the five gliders carrying the jeeps, trailers and anti-tank guns allocated to the battalion had appeared, nor had the 3in. mortars, demolition engineers, medical teams or naval bombardment parties. Nonetheless, Otway and his small party set out for Merville, determined to execute the important task that had been set them. When Lt Col Otway arrived in the vicinity of the battery he was met by Major George Smith and his party, who had landed earlier to reconnoitre the site. Major Smith told him that the bombing raid had caused very little damage and had mostly missed the objective. Smith did, however, have some good news for Otway, for he and two warrant officers had cut their way through the outer wire of the German strongpoint, passed through the minefield and arrived at the inner wire, where they observed enemy posts and located German positions, all without arousing the attention of the battery's garrison. A taping party, led by Captain Paul Greenway, had also successfully cleared and marked four routes through the minefield even though they had no mine detectors or marking tape.

    A second bunker from the site. Also one of the original kettle gun pits built prior to the construction of the casemates.


    With only 20 per cent of his force and no heavy weapons, mine detectors or mortars, Lt Col Otway was determined that the attack should still go in, timed to coincide with the arrival of the three gliders directly onto the guns. He was hoping that confusion caused by the two-pronged assault would divert the enemy's attention and hamper an effective reaction. There were not enough men to make the attack through the four paths created through the minefield, so only two of the lanes were used, with one party to go in through the wire and attack the casemates whilst the remainder of Otway's group attacked the main gate. As the men were preparing to rush the battery, a German machine gun post spotted the movement and opened fire, alerting the enemy garrison. At the same time the sound of aircraft overhead signalled the arrival of the gliders. Otway ordered the attack to start immediately and the fire fight for the possession of the battery began.
    Two of the gliders now swooped down towards the fortified area; the third had got into trouble after take-off and had returned to base. Winding up to meet them came the snaking trails of tracer fire as the German defenders brought anti-aircraft weapons to bear on the gliders. Both aircraft were hit repeatedly, with the small cannon shells ripping through the canvas and wood sides of the planes and starting small fires, which were fanned by the slipstream. Otway was unable to illuminate the battery with flares because he had no mortars with which to fire his star shells. Disorientated by the fire and darkness, the gliders both missed the target. One landed 200yds from the perimeter, whilst the other came down two miles away. Neither group was able to play any role in the assault.
    Otway's men pressed through the gaps in the outer wire and onto the entanglements protecting the inner zone. Bangalore torpedoes (metal pipes filled with explosives) blasted a way through this second band and in moments the paratroopers were amongst the gun emplacements. In the darkness it was difficult to identify friend from foe. The paratroopers received fire from all sides and all angles. One by one the trenches and weapons pits scattered around the site were cleared in hand-to-hand fighting, as the enemy infantry put up spirited resistance. However, their resolve quickly began to crumble when they realised they were being attacked by paratroopers. Up went the cry 'Fallschirmjager!', and the resistance began to melt away. The conscripted foreigners and old men of the 716th Division had no wish to tangle with elite forces in the dark - the outcome could be only certain death. The garrison surrendered. With time running out for Otway and his men before the naval bombardment was due to crash into the battery, demolition teams quickly went amongst the guns, placing charges in their breaches and spiking each piece. Otway's men were disappointed to discover the guns were relatively small 75mm field guns and not the 150mm coastal guns the paratroopers had expected to find, but the main thing was that the battery had been eliminated as ordered. The job done, Otway rallied his men and withdrew the remnants of his battalion towards the high ground near Le Plein as planned, just as German artillery fire began to pound the area. Of the 150 men who started the assault, only about 80 remained on their feet.

    A memorial to the entrace of the site.

  2. Cabel1960

    Cabel1960 recruit

    Nov 4, 2006
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    Nice thread Jim, i visited this place with my family back in 2004 tracing the footsteps of my Uncle who took part in taking this battery, it is well worth the visit. :thumb:


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