Whilst the American Airborne operations on D-Day were concentrated around the Cotentin Peninsula and commemorated at the Airborne Museum and D-Day Experience museums, the British Airborne landings were on the eastern flank of the landings and are featured in two museums, Memorial Pegasus, which I covered in an earlier post and the Merville Battery.
In 1942, the Organisation Todt commenced construction of the Merville Gun Battery as part of Hitler’s Atlantic Wall fortifications. Situated near the port town of Ouistreham on the eastern end of the Normandy coastline, the battery’s location was of strategic importance overseeing the estuary of the Orne and Caen canals as well as controlling maritime access to Caen. For Allied invasion planners looking at Normandy as a landing option, it also provided vital eastern flank protection and a pivot point for further advance.
By May 1944, the last two 1.8m thick, steel-reinforced casemates were completed and despite several air raids, the structures remained intact causing some consternation for the D-Day invasion planners who believed that the casemates housed 150mm guns capable of bombarding the beaches on which the British and Canadian 3rd Division were to land. In fact, the guns were first world war vintage Czech 100mm howitzers but with a range of over 8km they still posed a considerable threat to any invading force.
It was vital that the Merville Battery be neutralised before the seaborne invasion and the task was given to the 9th (Essex) Parachute Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. In addition to the battalion, the operation would include sappers from the 591st (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers and medics from No. 3 Section 224th (Parachute) Field Ambulance, taking the assault force to a strength of 650 men.
The battery, manned by 130 men of the 1716 Artillery Regiment, consisted of four artillery casemates along with command and personnel bunkers, a magazine, 20mm anti-aircraft gun platform, fifteen weapon pits each holding around 4 or 5 machine guns plus various outbuilding and shelters all in an enclosed area 640 by 460m. This was surrounded by two, 4.6m thick by 1.5m high, barbed-wire obstacles and a 91m deep minefield. A yet to be completed, 365m long, 4.5m wide by 3m deep anti-tank ditch also faced the casemates on the coastal side completing a formidable defensive position.
To prepare for the assault, a full-size mock-up was built by the Royal Engineers at Walbury Hill in Berkshire and the paras carried out nine practice assaults including four at night in preparation for the assault. Around 50 paras of A Company and some sappers were also retrained as Glider troops whose role was to crash land inside the perimeter, in three Horsa gliders to deliver a ‘coup-de-main’ during the final phase of the attack.
The plan was for the battalion to be divided into two groups with the first, smaller group jumping at 00:20 with the pathfinders to prepare the RV and also carry out reconnaissance on the battery. A bombing mission by Lancaster bombers was scheduled for just prior to the arrival of the paras and Otway wanted to know the extent of the damage before launching his assault. The main body, comprising B and C Companies would be the main assault force with B Company breaching the wire and clearing a path through the minefield which C Company along with the sappers would funnel through before splitting into four groups each tasked with destroying a casemate. This was timed to coincide with the three gliders landing inside the perimeter delivering the additional troops drawn from A Company and sappers carrying flamethrowers and explosive charges. The remainder of A Company, which jumped with the main force, had been tasked with securing and holding the firm base used as the launch pad for the ground assault. Then, if all else failed HMS Arethusa was standing by to pound the battery with her 6inch guns at 05:50.
The advance party departed RAF Harwell at 23:10 and dropped on time at 00:20. Very little resistance was met on the DZ, but unfortunately many of the signal emitting Eureka Beacons were damaged during the drop and unable to be operated. The battery reconnaissance party set off for Merville whilst the pathfinder group marked the DZ only to be bombed by the Lancasters who had strayed off course and missed the target. Luckily nobody was injured and the DZ party attempted to guide the main body in using Aldis lamps.
By 00:45, 32 Dakotas carrying around 540 paratroopers were approaching the DZ, but the pilots were confronted by a huge dust cloud caused by the wayward bombing raid, causing them to make their run-ins at different altitudes to those planned. The despatching problem was compounded by an increase in flak which caused the pilots to take evasive action throwing the paras around in the back and weighed down by their equipment it was difficult for them to stand up and move into position to exit the aircraft. This resulted in most of the battalion missing the DZ completely, many bogged down by the weight of their equipment, drowning in the surrounding fields which had been flooded by the Germans.
When Otway finally reached the RV, it was nearly 02:00 and he was dismayed to find that there was hardly anybody there. Only 150 men of the original force finally arrived. It was less than 25% of those who had set out and they did not have any of the equipment needed for the assault, only side-arms, one Vickers machine gun and twenty Bangalore Torpedoes. At 02:50 Otway could wait no longer and set out for the objective, reaching the designated ‘firm base’ area, about 450m from the battery, at 04:20.
The original reconnaissance group, under the command of Major Allen Parry was given the task of forming the assault party and divided his group into four, in a rough imitation of the original plan. They would make two large gaps in the wire and send two of the assault groups through each. A pathway through the minefield was painstakingly cleared by one of the Company Sergeant Major’s and an officer who had crawled up to the wire, in order to listen and observe German movements. Otway waited to launch the attack as the glider borne force arrived, but things went wrong again. One of the three gliders broke its tow rope just after take-off, the second landed several miles east of the battery and the third was hit by flak, overshot the target and crashed in an orchard some distance from the perimeter.
Otway knew that he would have to make do with the force that was in place and at 04:30 the assault went in. A diversion attack was staged at the main gate, whilst the Bangalore Torpedoes were used to blow gaps in the wire and the paras stormed into the Battery. After about 20 minutes of fierce hand to hand fighting the defenders surrendered and the paras entered the casemates. Without the explosives needed to disable the guns the paras did what they could to make the guns in-effective, dropping No.82 (Gammon bomb) grenades down the barrels and throwing away the breech blocks. Only 75 paras were still on their feet, 22 Germans had been taken prisoner and the position was now being bombarded by German artillery. At 05:00 Otway and his surviving paras left the battery and after a short break at the designated RV point, the Calvary Cross about 850m to the south-east, continued to their secondary objective, the village of La Plein where they linked up with elements of the 1st Commando Brigade later in the day.
German troops of the 736th Grenadier Regiment quickly re-occupied the Battery after the paras left and two of the guns were able to be brought back into action, bringing accurate fire onto SWORD beach. On 7 June, the battery was assaulted by 4 and 5 Troops of No.3 Commando who suffered heavy losses in the action that followed.
Whilst the effectiveness of the Battery had been diminished, the British never succeeded in completely neutralising it and the Battery remained under German control until they began their withdrawal in mid-August.
The Merville Battery Museum is situated in the original casemates of the battle and opened on 5 June 1983 as way of preserving the memory of the exploits of the men of the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment. The museum extends over five hectares with an education trail explaining how the Battery worked and the attack of 6 June 1944.
At the entrance, which is the site of the diversionary attack, there is a Memorial to the 9th Parachute Battalion and small gift shop. Visitors are then free to explore the area following the information boards and diagrams to gain an idea of what happened. The four casemates each feature different displays relating to aspects of the battle and there are also artillery pieces, memorials and the Douglas C-47, serial number 43-15073 ‘SNAFU’ which dropped American paratroopers of the 501st Parachute Infantry Regiment on the Cotentin Peninsula during D-Day.
Casemate No. 1 replicates the events at the Battery on D-Day with a very intense sound and light show occurring every 20 minutes. The show commences with the bombing raid conducted by 109 Lancaster bombers at 00:30, followed by the German artillery being fired at the canal locks at Ouistreham and the Parachute Regiment attack. Casemate No. 2 is a memorial to the 9th Battalion, the Parachute Regiment featuring various objects, photos and stories of the men who took part in the attack. Casemate No.3 shows objects related to the Glider Pilot Regiment, No.3 Commando, 45 Royal Marine Commando and the 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who acted as a protection force on the left flank during the operation. Casemate No. 4 is dedicated to the Belgian, Dutch, Luxembourg and British units which finally drove the Germans out of Merville in August 1945.
A trip to the Merville Battery can easily be combined with a visit to the nearby Pegasus Bridge museum, stopping at various marker points along the way. Major & Mrs Holt’s D-Day Normandy Landing Beaches guide gives an excellent overview of the points of interest in the area and I spent the best part of a day examining this area. As a airborne insignia and militaria collector, I must admit that whilst I particularly enjoyed the Pegasus Bridge museum, the Merville Battery really helped to convey an understanding of the battle, particularly from the defender’s perspective via the ‘sound and light’ show in Casemate No.1. I think it made me think about bomb scarred defences on the cliff tops at Pointe du Hoc very differently than I would have, when I visited that site the following day.
Musée de la Batterie de Merville
Place du 9ème Bataillon
Phone: +33 (0)2 3191 4753
Open: Every day from 10:00 until 19:00. Last entry at 17:30
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