RAF Broadwell Merville Attack

Merville Attack

DC Douglas


QUESTION In the early hours of D-Day, the 9thParachute Battalion attacked the Merville gun battery and suffered horrendous losses, many men drowning in the marshes due to heavy equipment. Were these men given a proper burial?

THE four casemates of Merville gun battery, each mounting a 150mm gun, east of the River Orne, threat­ened the assault landing of the British 3rd Infantry Division on Sword Beach on D-Day.

The 9th Battalion the 3rd Parachute Brigade was given the task of silencing this position before the seaborne invasion began.

In the early hours of June 6, 1944, the main force of 32 aircraft, under Lt Col Terence Otway and includ­ing support elements such as Royal Engineer sappers, took off from RAF Broadwell, Oxon, and headed for Normandy_

Other elements included a recce and pathfinder force and another ' group that would land directly on the battery as the main group went in.

The Battalioon was carried in transport aircraft or towed in gliders, and as the force approached the coast of France, they were met with strong winds.

This created problems from the outset, with the pilots of the gliders having to fight with their controls to keep on course.

At least one crashed into the sea, some hit obstacles on landing and others were blown off course.

Other gliders, and many of the transport aircraft, were seriously hampered by German anti-aircraft fire, which caused the crews to try to evade the flak.

Finally, some aircraft were sent off course due to smoke from earlier bombing raids and many paratroopers were dropped well away from their drop zones. When Otway reached Merville, he could muster only around 150 men to attack the battery, but this he did, capturing it in a [i]coup de main assault

But their job did not end there; 9 Para was then sent to capture the village of Le Plein, south of Merville, then to go on to secure the Chateau St Come on the Breville Ridge. Heavy fighting ensued and, though many men who landed off course managed to rejoin the battalion, at the end of the main fighting on June 13, 1944, many had been killed or were missing. Further casualties happened after this and 9 Para did not fully come out of the line until June 17, 1944.

The casualty list was appalling — only 126 men were left to answer a roll call on the morning of June 13, with Otway himself being severely wounded on June 12.

Of those who did not make it, around 50 men died in the storming of the battery; at least nine in a friendly fire incident; around 24 were killed in action or died of wounds in the subsequent fighting in the area; and another two were confirmed as killed in other areas. Once the figures had been counted, around 190 men were still missing. Some are thought to have died in the fighting for the battery, but most could not be accounted for and are thought to have drowned in the flooded areas.

Arguments between the Common-wealth War Graves Commission and Otway and the veterans of 9 Para ensued. Records that might have helped trace the men have yet to be located.

This included the all-important battalion roll call and the stick lists for the aircraft.

In Neil Barber's excellent book, The Day The Devils Dropped In, Otway is quoted as saying: “My own comment is that we were there and know the numbers, which civil servants do not. And we have been in touch with the families of the of the missing men., When I came out of hospital I travelled all over the place  visiting family’s”

Those identified are mainly laid to rest at Ranville War Cemetery. Those with no known grave are commemorated on Panel No 18 of the Bayeux Memorial.

Steve Smith,
Guild of Battlefield Guides,
Worstead, Norfolk.

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Aerial views of Merville
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Entrance to Merville
merville Merville


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