'Assault and Battery'

Extract taken from the Financial Times , Saturday, 7th February, 1981

Next year, all going to plan, visitors to Normandy will be able to visit a refurbished relic recalling the crucial action of the British 6th Airborne Division following its early arrival in France on June 6th, 1944.

The site of this nostalgic venture is close to the village of Merville Franceville-Plage, nearly a mile from the British landing beaches. There, 37 years ago, the 9th Battalion of the Parachute Regiment had the task of silencing a heavy coastal gun battery several hours before the allied armies hit the beaches. A sector of the battery is about to be restored, with replicas of the gun teams in action, and much more, so that the scene appears as it did at the time of the attack.

The planning of the actual Merville raid was precise down to the last detail - even to the extent of creating a mock-up of the battery in the quiet of the English countryside near Newbury. Every paratrooper knew exactly where he was supposed to be at the right moment when the attack started. In theory, nothing was left to chance.

In practice, however, the operation turned out to be an enormous SNAFU which only the British appear to be able to turn to advantage at the eleventh hour.

The fleet of aircraft carrying the 750 paratroopers ran into heavy flak as it crossed the coast, and weaved about the sky to avoid destruction. In the ensuing confusion, most of the key men and their equipment were dropped many miles from the target. The reconnaissance group - which was actually put down at the right spot - was heavily bombed by Lancasters of the RAF, which were aiming to hit the target and soften it up before the paras went in. Not one bomb hit the target, but they caused havoc amongst the cattle in the surrounding countryside. Three gliders, with heavily armed troops on board, were meant to crash-land on top of the battery in support of the assault force from outside the perimeter. Only two arrived and they were both forced to land outside the target area.

Lt. Colonel Terence Otway, the battalion commander, had also been put down in the wrong place - in the garden of a German military headquarters. Having hurriedly removed himself, he made his way to the rallying point for the attack on the battery.

He recalled yesterday that when he arrived he had only about 100 men to launch the attack. As the minutes ticked towards zero hour, about another 50 stragglers turned up to swell the numbers. The other 600 were scattered over 50 square miles of Normandy. So was the battalion's vital equipment. There were no mortars or mine detectors, and no six-pounder guns or jeeps.

Nevertheless, supported by only one Vickers machine-gun and sufficient lengths of Bangalore torpedo (explosives in a long steel tube) to blow the barbed wire, Otway gave the order to attack. Feeling for mines in the dark with their bare hands, and under a hail of machine-gun fire, the battalion overran the battery.

Because its guns were trained on the beaches, a serious impediment to the main allied landings was removed. But the cost had been high. Nearly half the attacking force was killed, wounded or missing.

Since all this happened, the French have generously put up more than 80,000 to honour the part played by the 6th Airborne Division in Normandy. There is a fine museum close to Pegasus Bridge over the Canal de Caen at Benouville. So far, although the British Airborne forces and museums have supplied advice and equipment, there has been little hard cash from this side of the Channel. Now, with the backing of the biggest names in the Parachute Regiment, past and present, the Airborne Assault Normandy (AAN) Trust has just been formed as a registered charity to help put matters to rights.

The AAN Trust is now appealing to all past and present members of the Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces, and others, to support this expansion of its latest venture in Normandy.

Contributors:

Arthur Sandles
Trevor Bailey
David Lascelles
Ian Dunning


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