– The construction of the Merville battery.
As was the norm on the Atlantic Wall, the Todt Organisation was in charge of the construction of the Merville Battery.
The Todt Organisation (named after its founder, Civil Engineer Fritz Todt) sub-contracted the work to a firm called Rittman from the nearby town of Houlgate. As elsewhere, local labour and foreign workers were employed.
The first casemate to be constructed was No 1, a type H611, and the most important of the four to be built. Later would follow casemates 2, 3 and 4, which were type 669.
Casemate type 611 needed 1400 m³ of concrete, compared to 500 m³ for the 669. It also needed 800 m³ of soil to be excavated and 70 tonnes of steel to reinforce it. This enormous construction would be covered in soil to blend in with its environment for camouflage. It resembled a huge burial mound.
The casemates were followed by the construction of command bunker, a personnel bunker, magazines, platform for the anti-aircraft gun, tobruks for machine guns, various outbuildings and shelters and a substantial anti-tank ditch in front of the casemates (which was never finished because it was planned to encircle the whole site). Minefields and barbed wire entanglements complemented the protective works.
Following Feldmarschall Rommel’s visit to Merville on 6th March 1944 the Todt Organisation was instructed to work significantly faster, in order to put the two howitzers still in open emplacements under cover. The two remaining casemates were completed in May 1944.
- Concentration of defences opposite of the Orne river estuary.
For many centuries, the link between the estuary of the Orne and Caen, capital of Lower Normandy, made this area strategically important.
The Redoubt, built in 1779 in according to the design of Vauban, keeps guard on the beach at Franceville, emphasising the importance of the site.
Not for nothing did the Germans turn this same area into a fortified place, because it controlled the maritime access to Caen.
Feldmarschall Rommel, in addition to the heavy artillery already installed, had cables stretched across the estuary to bar unwanted access to Caen. What is more, Erwin Rommel when on the heights of Amfréville situated on the East of the Orne declared, “this area is the key for the invasion of France and hence towards Germany”.
It was, therefore, no mean task for the 6th Airborne Division, who were to take and hold this strategic position which would become both a shield towards the East and the pivot for the future advancement of the Allies.
- Command of the Merville battery.
The commander of the Merville Battery was killed in an air raid by the RAF in May 1944.
At the beginning of 1944, the Merville battery was commanded by Hauptman Karl-Heinrich Wolter. His deputy was Rudi Schaaf. They were supported by one other officer and two non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Peter Timp was the observation officer, Johannes Buskotte was the Sergeant-Major and Sergeant Fritz Waldmann was responsible for the aiming and firing of the battery’s guns.
On 19th May 1944, Hauptman Wolter was with his mistress. A heavy bombardment targeted the Merville battery during the hours of darkness and destroyed the building where the Hauptman and his mistress were spending the night. The Merville battery therefore lost its commander.
A successor, Leutnant Raimund Steiner was nominated to be the new Merville battery Commander.
- The SHAEF designate the Merville battery a priority D Day Objective.
Essentially it was the biggest of the reinforced concrete casemates
of the Merville battery, the type 611, which persuaded Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) to classify the battery a priority D Day Objective.
Why? Because ordinarily the Germans did not normally build such casemates for ordinary artillery pieces, for example the 100mm guns that were housed here. Generally the 611 casemate housed 155mm guns that had an average range of 17km.
Also the invasion beaches in the Sword opposite Ouistreham Riva-Bella to the West of the Orne were directly threatened by the Merville battery. This threatened to set back Operation Overlord. It was imperative therefore to silence the guns of the Merville battery before the invasion of 6th June began at 0600 hours precisely. Accordingly a priority classification was given by SHAEF to Leutenant Steiner’s battery.
Terence Otway himself was not sure of the actual calibre of the guns of the Merville battery, because none of the aerial photographs was able to identify them precisely. He came to the same conclusion as SHAEF that the Germans would not have poured so much concrete if what was housed inside did not justify the effort.
In any case, no risk should be taken with the greatest land-sea-air operation ever conceived or realised.
Moreover, in keeping with other batteries, it is imaginable that the Germans had planned to install heavier, more powerful guns.
This question was posed by Leutenant Steiner during the visit of General der Artillerie Erich Marcks, and was told that new guns would be arriving in the near future…
- The Merville battery on 6th June1944.
On 6th June 1944, the Merville Battery comprised 5 hectares of heavy defences and significant troop numbers.
The soldiers of the Merville Battery comprised 80 Artillery soldiers (Gunners) of 1./AR 1716 and 50 Engineers. Sergeant-Major Johannes Buskotte was in charge. His battle station was in the centre of the Battery site, inside the Command Bunker. This bunker was linked by armoured underground telephone cables to Leutnant Steiner in the Forward Observation Bunker on the beach at Franceville.
The Battery’s fire power came from its four 100 mm howitzers, inside their protective casemates. Weight: 2 900 kg. Maximum Range 10 km. Weight of Shell: 16 kg. Maximum Rate of Fire: 8 rounds per minute (per howitzer).
Its defences comprised minefields, a double system of barbed wire entanglements, tobruks, a 20mm anti-aircraft gun which could also be used at ground targets, a significant anti-tank ditch, trenches and numerous bunkers….Not surprising perhaps that Brigadier James Hill, when he was briefing Lieutenant Colonel Otway, said that this mission was particularly obnoxious.