A Drop Too Far

Daily Telegraph - 1st July 1982

The Big Drop: the Guns of Merville, June 1944. By John Golley (Jane's. 8.95)

Merville is a small village a mile inland from the Normandy beaches on the east side of the Orne estuary. Here, in 1944, the Germans had established a powerful battery whose guns were able to sweep the beaches to be used on D-Day.

For the landing to succeed at dawn it was vital for the battery to be destroyed an earlier, but the Germans had fortified it so strongly with concrete casements, wire and mines, that an attack would normally require armoured flame-throwers and tanks. These, of course, were not available.

The task of its destruction was therefore allotted to 9th Parachute Bn. Commanded by Lt. Col. Terence Otway.

High winds and appalling weather caused all five gliders carrying anti-tank guns and explosives to break their tow ropes and be lost in the Channel. On the drop itself 600 (out of 750) men were blown right away from the area, and many were drowned in the flooded swamps. Otway rallied his 150 and with one machine-gun and a limited number of explosives, stormed the battery and captured it by 4.45 a.m. In the process he lost half of his small force. They killed or wounded all but 22 of the 160 strong German garrison.

John Golley, a wartime fighter pilot, attended a 9th Para reunion and made contact with the survivors of Merville. From interviews with the Commanding Officer and letters, summaries and reports, he has compiled an account of the operation from many angles. Incorporating this variety of material while trying to reproduce the original authenticity causes the style to be somewhat erratic, but the overall impression is clear and vivid. The illustrations are admirable.

As General Sir Richard Gale, then Commander of 6th Airborne, said : "It was an enterprise as miraculous as it was gallant." The story is well told here.

Philip Warner

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