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The attack of the Merville battery - June 6, 1944 Battle of Normandy -  

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British airborne operations in Normandy

The attack of the Merville battery - June 6, 1944



In the locality of Merville, close to Franceville in the Calvados, a battery of the German Army, made up of several protection bunkers, anti-tank ditches, innumerable kilometers of barbed wires, minefields, and especially of four casemates locking up each one a gun of 100mm. These guns are able to open fire on Sword Beach. For the Allies, this military site, reinforced by a whole of various bunkers of observation and support located west of Franceville-sur-Mer has to be under control before the British and French soldiers begin to land on D-Day. the German garrison of the battery of Merville is strong of 200 soldiers.

General Eisenhower's staff takes the following decision: it is a commando of British parachutists which will have to reduce to silence the battery in the night of D-Day, that is to say a few hours before the beginning of the landing.

And it is Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway who receives the command of this commando made up of 700 men, belonging to the 9th brigade of the 6th Airborne division. Conscious of the difficulty of this mission, he wished that his subordinates knew every details of the mission. During the months which precede D-Day, British troops train themselves continuously with the parachuting (day and night). The battery is even entirely reconstituted in England according to photographs taken by Allied planes during reconnaissance missions. The trainings are proceeded by all times and at every hour.

Course of the attack

At the first hours of Tuesday June 6, 1944, the seven hundred and fifty British parachutists jump above Normandy. This time, it is war. In spite of the meticulous drill, the operation do not proceed as it should. Like their American comrades, the British are victims of an important dispersion while arriving on the ground; the wind and serious errors of dropping (in the night some pilots confused the Dives and the Orne rivers) disturb considerably the established plans. The grounds flooded by the Germans in Normandy do not arrange anything: with this problem and in the darkness of the night, parachuted infantrymen were quickly lost.

The losses in men and material is quite higher than the most pessimistic estimations: at 02:30 a.m. in the morning, approximately 150 men out of the 700 committed ones have gathered. The others are strayed in the Norman countryside, wounded or drowned in the marshes. Some will walk sometimes more than four hours to complete one kilometer and half, without even finding their comrades. Lieutenant Colonel Otway has no Jeep, no heavy machine gun, no torpedo, and he does not have any news from almost 550 of his men, parachuted over the Calvados region.




The operation seems to have failed even before it began.

In spite of this reduced manpower, Otway decides to maintain his project. He must absolutely capture the battery because he knows that on this success depends the survival of British and French infantrymen, who are to land on Sword Beach in a few hours, as well as the Allied sailors in the warships on the English Channel.

At 04:30 a.m. Otway reaches Merville where he finds a dozen scouts who discreetly practised some ways through the barbed wires. He notes that the bombardment carried out by a hundred of Lancaster was not precise at all: the battery is almost intact. Gliders filled with explosives must land in the center of the battery right before the attack, they were shot down by the German anti-aircraft artillery, the FLAK.

The parachutists engage however a brief but violent attack against the 200 German infantrymen who defend themselves with eagerness.

Twenty minutes later the British control the battery but their losses are high (70 British officers and soldiers died or are wounded). They launch then lighting rockets as a sign of victory, to inform the Allied sailors who wait off the Norman coasts that the Merville battery is (temporarily) neutralized.

A provisional victory

If the battery of Merville is captured a few minutes before the beginning of the landing on the beaches of Normandy, Otway, already short of men, material and ammunition, knows that if the Germans counter-attack to take back the casemates, he and his men will not have enough means to defend their territory. He decides to move his forces to the locality of Amfreville, a few kilometers south-west of Merville and to abandon the battery after having destroyed the guns in the casemates.

A German doctor, looking after as well the casualties of his fatherland as the British soldiers, decides to remain with the untransportable men. Otway prevents him that the Allied Armada will bombard the battery at 05:30 a.m. and that if he wants to live he should better leave. The sense of duty of the German “doc” is stronger: he wants to remain to take care of the wounded of both sides to put them at shelter from the bombardments. The British Lieutenant Colonel accepts and thanks him, before leaving with his survivor men towards Amfreville. After having put the casualties at shelter from the bombardment, the German doctor is killed by the explosion of the Allied fleet fires, whereas he went to seek medical material in one of the bunkers.


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