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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
8-minute read
Episode #80

This was an understatement.  The landing had been a total disaster. Otway had trained no fewer than 750 men for the assault on Merville. Of these, only 100 had made it to the rendezvous. The rest had been shot, captured or sucked into the flooded meadows.

Otway explained to Jefferson that he had none of the special explosives needed to destroy the Merville guns, nor mortars, nor even any wireless sets.

He waited for 15 minutes, agonizing over what to do. In that time, another 50 stragglers arrived at the rendezvous. But he still had only a fifth of his men and many of his platoon leaders had not showed up.

He turned to Alan Jefferson, a junior subaltern, and promptly promoted him to commander of C Company. “Well, don’t just stand there. Get on, go and see your company.” Jefferson did just that and discovered that it consisted of five men, two of whom were seriously injured. “It was really lamentable,” he said.

Otway had trained no fewer than 750 men for the assault on Merville. Of these, only 100 had made it to the rendezvous.

Otway was caught in a terrible dilemma. “Do I go with 150 men?” he asked himself. “Or do I pack it in?” He turned to Joe Wilson, his aide, and betrayed a rare moment of weakness. “I don’t know what I’m going to do, Wilson.”

Wilson stiffened and replied, “There’s only one thing, sir.” He then handed Otway a hip flask “as if it were a decanter on a silver tray” and added, with the calm deference that only a former valet could truly muster, “Shall we have our brandy now, sir?”

In the space of a few minutes, Otway dramatically modified the plan of attack. He divided the men into four assault groups, each composed of 12 men. The assault was to be led by Allen Parry, who had spent the last 20 minutes up a tree, trying to attract stray parachutists with his lamp and whistle.

When it was clear that no one else was going to arrive, Otway ordered the men to move up to the barbed-wire perimeter fence, a long crawl through waterlogged craters and shell-holes filled with mud.

Move up!

The men pushed themselves forwards through the mud and only stopped when they reached the outer ring of wire that surrounded the Merville Battery.

It was already 4:45 a.m., far later than intended, and Otway knew that it was now or never. His two explosive experts blew a hole through the perimeter fence, sending wire and earth into the night sky.

“Get ready, men.” Allen Parry gave a shrill blast on his whistle. Jefferson blew his hunting horn.

“Get in! Get in!” yelled Otway. It was time for the attack.

“Bastards! Bastards! Bastards!” 
Sid Capon was bawling at the top of his voice as he charged towards the gap in the wire. He was heading for the first casemate, one of the four gun emplacements.

“Mines!” yelled a voice. Bullets were zipping through the air and smacking into the wet earth.

Alan Jefferson was hurtling forward when something slapped hard on his leg. “I went down like a sheep on its back.” Sprawled in the mud and sprayed with shrapnel, he watched the others continue their charge.

Allen Parry had also been brought down by gunfire. “I was conscious of something striking my left thigh and my leg collapsed under me."

Private Smith hit a mine that exploded in front of him, gouging out an eye. Hal Hudson received multiple wounds to his stomach and clutched his open belly with his hand. He could feel sticky blood pumping out and tried desperately to staunch the flow.

“Are you all right?” shouted Otway as he ran past.
”I think so.”


"He’s been hit in the stomach,” said a voice from the gloom. “Oh, bad luck.”

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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.