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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

Alan Mower and Sid Capon were now so close to casemate one that they could see the camouflage netting. Capon noticed that the rear steel doors were ajar and hurled two fragmentation grenades inside. The effect of the explosion in a confined space was devastating.

Kamarad! Kamarad! Russki! Russki!” Those who survived the blast came running out with their hands up.

“What the hell are they on about?” thought Capon. Only later did he realize that they were Russian prisoners, conscripted to fight for the Germans.

The attack on the Merville Battery seemed totally chaotic to those involved, but it was nowhere near as disastrous as it appeared. One group of 15 men had reached the fourth casemate, while another team had made it to the third.

Kamerad! Kamerad! Kamerad!” Yet more Russians emerged from the darkness. One of the British platoon leders had lost so many men that he felt no sympathy. “We’d have liked to have shot the bloody lot.”

A few hundreds yards away, in his coastal observation post, the battery’s German commander—Raimund Steiner—put a call through to the battery’s command centre.

“Down the line I could hear my men were suffocating. Some were praying, some were swearing.”

He hung up the phone and decided to see for himself what was happening, setting off with a couple of others. By the time they reached the crossroads close to the battery, they could go no further. “The situation was chaotic,” he said. “Nobody knew who was friend or foe.

Terence Otway was one of the first to realize that the battery had been captured. It happened in a flash. All four casemates had been abandoned by the defenders.

This should have been a moment of celebration, but the assault was not yet over. It was imperative for his men to destroy the battery's big guns.

It was now, at this moment of victory, that the battle took a most unwelcome twist. When Allen Parry entered casemate one, he saw that the gun was tiny and not at all like the huge cannon he had been led to expect.

There was worse news to come. The rest of Merville’s guns were not heavy-duty artillery pieces, as had been believed, but small Czech guns that represented very little threat to the troops soon to land on the nearby beaches.

When Otway did a head count, he discovered that only 75 of the 150 men involved in the assault were still standing.

This left the men with a terrible sense of deflation. Worse by far, their victory had come with a very high price tag. When Otway did a head count, he discovered that only 75 of the 150 men involved in the assault were still standing.

The capture of Merville was not the triumph it was supposed to be, yet there was one aspect to the attack that was to be welcomed by all at Supreme Headquarters. Terence Otway had been warned that his Merville assault would require 750 men and tons of weaponry. In the event, he had attacked the battery with only a fifth of his troop, a mixed group of men equipped with very little. This depleted force had nevertheless managed to seize Merville after a surprisingly short fight.

Even more heartening was the fact that the battery’s defenders had thrown in the towel as soon as the going got tough. This boded well for the beach landings soon to begin. For if such a small group could capture a mighty battery, then it stood to reason that larger groups would be able to knock out the smaller coastal bunkers with relative ease.

Such logic was lost on men still nursing their wounds. Most felt profoundly dejected and there was a real danger that despondency would drain their remaining morale.

Allen Parry was quick to see the need to give his men a lift. Injured in the leg and transported into field headquarters in a wheelbarrow, he summoned all the swagger he could muster when greeting Major George Smith, commander of the 9th Battalion headquarters.

“He took a brandy flask from his pocket, gulped a mouthful and beamed. 'A jolly good battle, what?'"

Smith gave a vigorous nod. Black humour was not always appropriate but on this occasion it seemed to work, for “the grim faces of the men burst into smiles."

It had, after all, been a good night’s work.

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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.