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D-Day and the Battle for Merville

A few hours before the beach landings at Normandy, Allied troops invaded the Merville Battery—a giant gun encampment—with instructions to destroy it. However, they had hundreds less soldiers than necessary to complete the mission.

By
Giles Milton
Episode #80
Merville battery memorial

Who was Terence Otway? And why was he chosen to capture one of the biggest German bunkers in the early hours of D-Day? Turns out that he was one of the most extraordinary Allied commanders to fight against the Germans on June 6, 1944.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about a top secret mission that took place just a couple of hours before the Allied beach landings.

It was still night when a young German officer named Raimund Steiner took a look outside his observation post on the coast of Normandy. There was drizzle in the air and a white crest on the waves. “Bad weather,” he muttered to himself. “Not the kind of weather for an invasion.” He stepped back inside his bunker and decided to return to bed.

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Steiner was the officer in charge of Merville Battery—a giant gun emplacement that was situated just inland from the beach. It was one of the key defences in the Atlantic Wall, the string of fortifications that the Germans had built all along the coast of Normandy.

Merville was among the biggest gun batteries of all: a massive fortified bunker whose 160 gunners were under Steiner’s command. Its four gun emplacements were buried in 18 feet of concrete and were positioned to dominate a huge length of Normandy foreshore. As such, it represented a very real threat to the Allied beach landings.

They had one order: destroy the big guns.

Eisenhower knew this and ordered that Merville be destroyed. In early hours of June 6, before the troops poured ashore from their landing crafts, a small group of specially trained soldiers were to be dropped into the countryside around Merville. They had one order: destroy the big guns.

Raimund Steiner knew none of this. He had fallen into a deep sleep in his coastal observation post and had no idea that thousands of paratroopers were already landing in Normandy.

The first he knew something was wrong was when he was abruptly woken by the ring of his telephone. He glanced at his watch: it was 12:25 a.m. local time. He lifted the receiver and heard a frantic voice at the other end.

“Herr Leutnant,” said a breathless voice, “a glider has come down at our battery and we are in close quarters fighting.”

Steiner was so alarmed that he immediately got dressed and stepped outside. When he glanced towards the Merville battery, he saw dozens more gliders swooping towards it. Merville was indeed under attack.

For those involved in the mission to destroy the battery—British paratroopers—it had turned into a mission from hell. The landing had been a disaster, with men scattered so widely that they were unable to form any sort of coherent fighting force.

Among the paratroopers in the Merville assault team was a young man named Alan Mower. As soon as he had landed he peered into the darkness in the hope of seeing his comrades. But there was no one.

Boiled beef. Boiled beef.” He called out the agreed password as loud as he dared, but no one answered.

Those like Mower who had survived the drop collected their scattered equipment and made their way to the pre-agreed rendezvous. Among them was Alan Jefferson, who found his commanding officer, Terence Otway, “looking very peculiar indeed.”

The reason for this soon became apparent. “The drop's a bloody chaos,” he said. “There’s hardly anybody here." Jefferson looked around and saw just a handful of men. “It dawned on us,” he said, “that something had gone frantically wrong.”

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About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.

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