– The Rendezvous on the Drop Zone.
Awful emptiness at the rendezvous on drop zone V
The first to discover the dramatic situation at the rendezvous was the last to jump, Captain Hal Hudson. Being the last man out he expected to find virtually the whole of the 9th Battalion in the rendezvous. He could not believe his eyes. He thought it must have been an error in the jump, a mistake in the location. When he made contact with Lieutenant Colonel Otway he was quickly disabused of this notion.
Terence Otway was under extreme stress. He hoped that despite everything, other men, more equipment would turn up at the rendezvous. Only one man in five was present. Most of the Battalion was missing. Everyone felt sickened.
Major Alan Parry looked skywards, to mark the drop zone for the five gliders. He advised Colonel Otway that they should also be considered missing.
The five gliders carrying the mission-essential equipment had been lost in the sea over the Channel. This explains why Sergeant Major Miller, already at the battery, did not receive his mine detectors and marking tape.
The bad news of the five gliders left the 9th Battalion short of munitions and explosives, without jeeps, without mortars, without anti-tank weapons, without lightweight footbridges for ditches, without machine guns, without demolition stores, without ambulance, without medical equipment, without means of communication with the cruiser HMS Arethusa…
The mortars were crucial for launching illuminating bombs so that the three gliders could crash land correctly in the battery.
– Lieutenant-colonel Otway’s decision.
Maintenance of the Aim
Lieutenant Colonel Otway had available to him only 150 lightly armed men, instead of the 750 he planned on.
His Medical Officer was present but with just a few medics instead of 30. He had only 6 Bangalore Torpedoes instead of 60. He had only one Vickers medium machine gun, There was only one radio.
The 9th Battalion was in a difficult predicament.
Despite the abysmal lack of men and material, he maintained his aim.
He was about to launch ever man he had into the assault. Failure was unthinkable, absolutely unthinkable.
The guns of the Merville battery were to be neutralized at all costs. The Invasion counted on it, the honour of the Battalion rested on it.
Otway thought about the Allied forces already en route for Normandy. He thought about the young men that would find themselves under a barrage from the battery, who would be cut to pieces if the four guns were not reduced to silence. Therefore it was necessary to get the men moving towards the battery to attack it. He checked his watch, did a time appreciation and waited until the last possible minute before giving the order to move.
Major Alan Parry led the way.
It was 0250 hours on 6th June 1944.
– The march to the Merville battery.
There remained only three hours to reach the battery and reduce it to silence
About 2,500 metres separated the 9th Battalion from the battery.
The column moved off cautiously into the night. They had practiced this route time and time again, but never under these conditions.
They arrived at last at the rendezvous with the reconnaissance party. The crossroads is today named after the 9th Battalion. A pillar watches over the point where the roads cross, for posterity. Sergeant Major Miller briefed Colonel Otway.
Otway quickly absorbed the information and the plan of attack was hastily revised. Major Alan Parry was placed in charge of the main attack on the battery. Only two breaches would be made in the barbed wire fence through which the four attack parties would advance to attack the four casemates.
The troops who detonated the Bangalore Torpedoes would cover the assault groups. The Vickers medium machine gun was to be placed on the left flank and a light machine gun (Bren) on the right flank. A light machine gun would also be positioned at the main entrance to the battery. The remainder of the Battalion would be the reserve and to cover the assault groups neutralising the guns.
Otway himself would be positioned with his reserve inside the barbed wire perimeter. Everyone was ready, the column moved off again into the night.
– The 9th Battalion grouping for the assault.
Major Alan Parry, charged with leading the main attack, and under no illusions that it must succeed, counted on Lieutenant Alan Jefferson, Lieutenant Mike Dowling, Company Sergeant Major Barney Ross and Sergeant Harold Long. They were the four assault group leaders.
It was 0400 hours. Dawn was about to break.
The 9th Battalion took up their attack formation around the road that ran from the Calvary to Descanville. The Vickers medium machine gun was installed in the location circled on the above map. On the ground this position offered complete coverage of the left flank from one machine gun.
The remainder of the Battalion turned left, followed the track that passed through the battery and concealed themselves in an orchard, ready for the attack.
Suddenly two gliders appeared out of nowhere. There were no illuminating flares to enable them to see their crash landing zone.
One disappeared as quickly as it arrived but the other, containing Lieutenant Hugh Pond, prepared to nose dive among the casemates. Everyone in the orchard held his breath but rapidly realized that it was being fired on by the 20mm flak gun of the battery. The tail of the Horsa glider burst into flames. It could no longer land among the casemates, surprise had been lost. It doggedly held its course and passed just above the battery. It continued just above ground level and came to rest on a hedge bordering the road the main party of the 9th Battalion had taken from the crossroads to the battery.
Lieutenant Hugh Pond was well aware of the dangerous nature of the weapons carried with him and his men in the glider.
If the glider arrived at the destination it was possible that a violent crash landing could have put an end to them and their mission. The position of the crash landing is indicated on the above illustration and Lieutenant Pond exited the wreckage in a state of shock.
Even before the glider landed, Colonel Otway ordered Sergeant Major Miller to go to help.
Meantime the attack party for the main entrance of the battery continued for 100 metres on the road towards Descanville. Before they turned left the came across and destroyed a German machine gun nest (see diagram)
Everyone was now in place, ready to attack. They all waited for the signal, the explosion of Bangalore Torpedoes.
Inside the battery, the alarm was heard; the attack would go in imminently.
– The attack.
“They did not know it was impossible, so they did it”
The Bangalore Torpedoes were detonated. This was the signal to attack.
Lieutenant Colonel Otway yelled “Get in, get in”. And all his men took up the same cry. There were only two openings for four assault groups and the men who opened up the breaches in the barbed wire used their bodies as human planks, reducing the risk of snagging and enabling the assault troops to get in quicker. The attackers passed through the wire and penetrated the minefield, where the safe lanes had been marked only by dragging the heels of the de-mining party.
Inside the minefield they advanced through the craters as quickly as humanly possible. The German machine guns opened up on them with deadly fire. The Germans in the trenches were firing in all directions. A hail of fire on Alan Parry’s men turned the situation chaotic. But the paratroops did not flinch. Death was all around as the darkness was lit up by fire and explosions. Mines detonated, bullets flew left and right, grenades were thrown, shrapnel, tracer bullets streaked across, clouds of smoke and dust, bomb craters… nothing could stop the heroic charge of the paratroopers.
Once they had ran over the backs of the comrades, the latter gave covering fire to the attack. Fire rained in on them too. Sergeant McGeever on the Vickers machine gun expertly silenced several enemy machine guns but the intensity of enemy fire was hellish.
The minutes seemed interminable. Lieutenant Jefferson was hit when in the minefield. Captain Hudson was hit by a burst of machine gun fire. Major Alan Parry was hit in the leg… Other paratroops went down but the superhuman attack went on, Sten guns firing from the hip and grenades finding the enemy, whatever the cost.
It all happened very quickly and Lieutenant Colonel Otway knew they had passed the point of no return. He moved to a position close to one of the minefield breaches in an attempt to see how the attack was progressing.
Seeing the intense fire coming from the Germans Otway decided to deploy his reserve to maintain the momentum of the attack. The gains of the first wave must not be lost, the attack must continue into the casemates and the guns silenced. He envisaged the spectre of hand to hand fighting…
– The neutralisation of the Merville battery.
The assault groups reach the casemates that contained the guns
Even in the chaos that reigned, each man knew exactly what was required of him, and he did it with unshakeable determination.
They had trained hard, as Brigadier James Hill wanted “to the limit of the abilities”, and were armed and equipped to take on the unthinkable. And they took it on. But they needed to be armed with exceptional courage and esprit de corps if they were to overcome the shortcomings of their lack of weapons on the day.
A torrent of fire rained into the battery. Grenades thrown through the doors and the ventilation pipes exploded inside the casemates.
Bursts of Sten gun fire, explosions like thunder, cries of the wounded, dust, men cursing.
Some Germans came out to surrender, others continued the fight with determination…then the last nests resistance fell quiet.
Major Parry, dragging his wounded leg, started to neutralise the guns by placing explosives in the breech. After the explosion, they went to the casemate embrasure to verify the extent of the damage. Suddenly a shell whistled in an exploded close to casemate n°1. Major Parry already wounded, felt a sharp pain in the hand so sharp it felt like it was parting company with his arm. He looked around and was relieved to see that his hand and arm were still joined, but gashed by the explosion.
They had been subjected to counter-battery fire from another German battery, ordered by Leutnant Steiner.
After looking over casemate No 1 Major Parry summoned all his strength to look at the other three casemates… More counter-battery fire came in and the shells exploded like thunder around the battery.
Lieutenant Colonel Otway went from casemate to casemate to ascertain the state of the guns. He wanted reports of the numbers of dead, wounded and fit men. He also saw that dawn was breaking and knew that if HMS Arethusa did not receive a signal that the attack on the battery had been successful, it would open fire on the battery and kill any of his paratroops who were still there. He knew that time was short and that the naval bombardment prior to the landings would also begin shortly.
He took note of the high number of wounded men and how his medics were coping with the wounded, despite lacking most of what they needed…
Otway thought no more, averting the threat of “friendly fire” from Arethusa was most important… She must be informed as a matter of urgency.
– HMS Arethusa must be alerted.
If the cruiser HMS Arethusa received no signal from the 9th Battalion that signifying a successful neutralisation of the Merville battery, her Captain would assume the attack had failed and would fire on the battery with all 6 of her 6” guns. However, the naval gunfire observation party, who would establish radio contact with the cruiser and direct the fall of shot, had jumped that night with the 9th Battalion but had not turned up at the rendezvous. To make things worse, the 9th Battalion had no longer had a radio. Time was passing and the mobility of the Battalion with its wounded had been significantly reduced. A carrier pigeon was released, and then a yellow smoke flare was lit.
Everyone anxiously made haste to get well outside the battery perimeter…
HMS Arethusa did not open fire.
The 9th Battalion left the battery having suffered heavy losses.