World War Two: The Merville Paras
Day of Days
On the 6th June 1944, D-Day, the Allied Expeditionary Force put into operation the most crucial military campaign of the second world war. Operation Overlord's plan was to drive the occupying Nazi forces out of Europe, by landing seaborne troops and artillery along the French coast at Normandy.
Behind the beaches where the British contingent were set to land, lay a terrifying battery of well defended German guns. In the hours before the D-Day landings began, a daring mission was carried out to destroy those guns, a mission that almost went disastrously wrong.
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Hitler had spent the last four years building what he thought was an impenetrable line of defence for the Normandy beaches - The Atlantic Wall. It stretched from the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay and Hitler's top general, Erwin Rommel, was put in charge of it. This defensive line consisted of concrete bunkers, gun emplacements and machine gun nests, which sat menacingly in the sand dunes.
The guns had been sighted to fire straight along the Normandy beaches, over which the British troops were due to land in Operation Overlord. If those guns had fired when the troops were landing, it was calculated that the operation would have failed disastrously.
Leuitenant Colonel Terence Otway and his 9th Parachute Battalion were called upon to penetrate the Atlantic Wall. The most fearsome part of the Nazis defence, was the battery at Merville, a huge concrete fortress that defended the rear of the Atlantic Wall. It posessed four 100mm guns that could cover the landing beach that the British had codenamed 'Sword'. These guns were also defended by rows of barbed wire, minefields, anti-tank ditches and battle-hardened German troops.
The battery could not be approached from the beaches, so another way in would have to be found, a three phase plan was devised. Firstly, RAF bombers would carry out as much damage to the battery as possible. Then, soldiers would be dropped into the area by parachute. Finally three gliders would land inside the minefield, directly on top of the battery complex.
Unlike most units in the British Army, the 9th Parachute Battalion consisted of young volunteers, eager to prove themselves in battle. A full scale replica of the Merville Battery, down to the very last hedge, ditch and fence, was constructed in Berkshire to assist the men in their training for the mission. Security had to be extremely tight, the success of the British forces on D-Day depended on it. However, Otway had no way of telling if his young troops would be able to pull off the mission once they were faced with the imposing German firepower, espacially when the average age of the men was just 20 and had never seen any combat.
Eight hours before the landings were due to take place, Otway and his young Paras took off for France. Once inside the Dakota transporter planes, a nervous silence descended. As they made their way across the English Channel, they were unaware that Otway's plan was about to go terribly wrong. The force of 750 men were due to land just after midnight by parachuting into the area, once they had landed and regrouped, three gliders full of troops would crash-land into the battery, inside the protective circle of mines and barbed wire.
Once over the French coast, heavy flak from German anti-aircraft guns met the Dakotas, which tried to navigate their way through the barrage. This caused the Dakotas to veer off course from their carefully planned routes. As the men jumped out over the planned drop zones, the maticulous plan was starting to unravel.
"Failure is not an option"
A few hours earlier, an RAF raid of 100 bombers had attempted to destroy the Merville Fortress, but they had failed to even hit it. Now, the 9th Parachute Battalion would have to attack an unscathed battery. In addition to this, fallout from the earlier bombing had seriously affected the visibility over the area.
Many of the men had no idea where they were, but eventually managed to reach their rendezvous point, unaware of the extent of the losses they had already suffered. Prior to D-Day, Rommel had ordered all surrounding fields and plains be flooded and many of the men who were carrying heavy kitbags were drowning. In total, less than a quarter of the 750 man force made it to the rendezvous point. They had no radio, no medics and no engineers.
In the confusion, vital supplies and equipment required to attack the Merville Battery had landed outside of the drop zone. The beacons needed to guide the gliders to the battery had been lost and the pilots could not see where to land. Eventually, they either landed or were shot down and found themselves hundreds of yards fron the battery.
Otway momentarily deliberated on wether to continue with the mission, but decided they must press on for the sake of the troops landing on the beaches in the coming hours. In essence he felt that 'failure was not an option'.He now had just 150 men left out of the original 750. Even though the odds were stacked against them and the chances of success were slim, the British Paras raced forward into the minefield. All hell broke loose as the men cut the wire and sprinted forwards. They ran in zig-zags to try and avoid being shot and shouted expletives at the enemy as they did so. Machine guns opened up on both sides as shouting and explosions rang out.
The wounded had to be left or momentum would be lost as the Paras surged forward. Half of the 150 man attack had not made it, but the rest eventually reached the bunkers, lobbed in grenades and shot dead any escaping Germans. There were 130 German soldiers defending the Merville fortress, when the intense hand to hand combat had subsided and all four of the 100mm guns had been destroyed, only 6 had escaped injury or death.
Of the 750 men who set out on the mission, only 65 made it back alive. With dawn now breaking and the German guns out of action, the British troops could move safely up Sword beach without suffering the heavy casualties that had been anticipated.
Those 750 brave souls had potentially saved the lives of thousands and without their heroic efforts, the outcome of the D-Day landings could have been very different.