- The reconstitution in England of the Merville battery.
Newbury 40 km, as the crow flies, North East of Bulford camp
Let us briefly step back in time. From the moment Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway finalised his plan for the attack and the scheduled parachute jump on the night of 5th/6th June, there was just two months.
Two months, barely enough time to complete the training he had planned for his mission would be successful. It was very tight because, for Otway, the key to success rested on creating a life size detailed replica of the drop zone and the battery, spread over 5 hectares of the guns that would be silenced.
The ground was re-shaped to replicate exactly what the aerial photographs had revealed. All this was completed within seven days with Engineer plant working day and night.
Everything was replicated. From the casemates made of scaffolding and hessian cloth to the anti-tank ditch, the double barbed wire obstacles and minefields, the other bunkers, machine gun nests, the anti-aircraft gun… all so that the Battery would be perfectly recreated.
Lieutenant Colonel Otway wanted his men to rehearse in a location that reproduced exactly what they would find on the ground in Merville, so that they knew it like the back of their hand, so that they could approach furtively and maintain the element of surprise.
This initiative was made possible by the connections that Otway had made during the course of his military career. For it was no mean achievement once he had been given the green light by Brigadier Hill to mobilise the necessary logistic effort at a time of frenetic preparations and general shortages.
When the site was ready for the 9th Battalion it was classified secret and placed under strict regulations.
Once the replica battery and surroundings had been completed in minute detail, the whole area was secured and put under close surveillance of the civil and military police. Regular patrols crossed the area and the civil population were informed that live ammunition has been issued to the sentries. All access routes from the surrounding villages were placed under control.
The 9th Battalion, having moved into the area, felt the tension being ratcheted up a few notches. The plan of attack indicated the importance of their mission. The training devised by Terence Otway brought them closer to their objective; they would soon be launched on their dangerous mission, with all that entailed…
- The action plan for D-Day.
A plan of attack based on surprise
The heavily armed battery seemed, in the eyes of Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, more like a fortress when he looked for the first time at the aerial photographs displayed inside the intelligence Headquarters.
He and Captain Robert Gordon-Brown quickly came to the conclusion that a frontal attack would be suicidal. For Otway, an attack from the rear seemed more feasible but the advantage of surprise was still of primordial importance. Many long hours were spent poring over the photographs, which were being updated as new information became available.
To bamboozle the Germans Otway planned that three gliders would deliver troops directly into the heart of the Merville battery site. In order that they would be halted as quickly as possible, the gliders would touch down between the four casemates, breaking their wings. 70 men would quickly emerge from the gliders at the same time as the main attack came in from the flank. The Germans would be confused and quickly overwhelmed.
Prior to the scheduled crash landing, the Pathfinders would reconnoitre and mark with great stealth, the positions and routes that had been pre-selected for the 9th Battalion. Having dropped in advance of the main body, the pathfinders would gather their equipment and regroup.
One group of Pathfinders was to open a lane through the minefields and mark it with white tape so that other troops could bring up their bangalore torpedoes and blast a way through the barbed wire entanglements, clearing the assault route through to the Battery.
Other Pathfinders would mark the rendezvous (RV) where the 9th Battalion would regroup and move off the drop zone (DZ), and the landing zone (LZ) for the five gliders that would bring in the Battalion’s heavy equipment.
After, the Albemarle carrying the Pathfinders had taken off, the aircraft carrying the main body of the 9th Battalion and the gliders carrying their heavy equipment would follow.
Once at the RV, Lieutenant Colonel Otway’s 750 paratroops would be guided by the Pathfinders to the Form Up Point. With them would be their heavy equipment (jeeps, mortars, machine guns, explosive charges, medical supplies, signals equipment, flame throwers).
They would have to cover, at night, around 2200 metres from the DZ to the Battery.
When everyone was in place the Pathfinders were to use their beacons to bring in the gliders to crash land inside the Battery. At the moment of touch down, the bangalore torpedoes would detonate and the four (one per casemate) assault parties would go in. The guns were to be neutralised as quickly as possible using explosive charges.
Once this task had been achieved, Otway and the 9th Battalion would quickly recover the wounded and move off the area towards their next task, signalling their success to Headquarters.
As will be seen later, the neutralisation of the guns of the Merville battery was but the first of a series of tasks for the 9th Battalion.
That was the plan and it was now necessary to train hard so that the paratroops of the 9th Battalion were in the best possible condition to fulfil their assigned mission. It was for that reason that Terence Otway did not hesitate to build a replica of the battery and its surroundings.
- The intensive training of the men of the 9th Battalion.
An Plan of Attack Rehearsed Over and Over Again
Otway’s paratroopers started by repeating individually their particular task. Naturally they did this by day and by night. Then, when the Colonel judged them to be ready, they underwent a complete rehearsal so that the component parts of the plan could be put together.
But Otway wanted his men to know their mission by heart, the lie of the land, the timings, the layout of the defences. He wanted no element of doubt. He wanted them to be able to do it with their eyes closed and within the time available.
Rehearsal followed rehearsal so that the plan worked like a well-oiled machine. Terence Otway wanted his soldiers to become formidable warriors so they could take on their mission, danger and all, and emerge victorious. And warriors they now were.
- The target revealed.
Once they were in the transit camp, the name of the target was revealed by Lieutenant Colonel Otway.
Shortly before their departure, Lieutenant Colonel Otway revealed to the 9th Battalion the name of the Battery that they were to silence.
He stressed that it was a vital priority D Day objective for SHAEF and that they were relying on them. The men of the 9th Battalion were proud to have been entrusted with this mission. A formidable esprit de corps bound them together.
- The final preparations.
The transit camp just prior to the invasion
Transit camp near to the RAF station. The invasion would soon be announced. The camp was cut off from the rest of the world. Total secrecy.
Everyone prepared his equipment. Each paratrooper had the freedom to choose the arms he took, on condition he did not exceed the maximum allowable weight. Around 30 Kg (66lb) of equipment was carried.
Major General Richard Gale encouraged the men in his 6th Airborne Division. Brigadier James Hill gave his final orders to his officers. Lieutenant Colonel Otway delivered his final briefing.
D Day was planned for the day after. 7, 000 paratroopers of 6th Airborne Division were to be dropped in two hours. A fleet of 400 aircraft, mostly Dakotas from 36 and 48 Groups Royal Air Force, was waiting.
The paras marched towards their transport, equipment and chutes fitted for the big night before D Day. They waited for take off.
Then the news broke. D Day had been delayed by 24 hours owing to bad weather.