The British airborne involvement in the D-Day landings, especially the assault of what are now called Pegasus and Horsa Bridge, is particularly well documented. However, elements of the 6th Airborne Division are relatively less well known.
The British airborne involvement in the D-Day landings, especially the assault of what are now called Pegasus and Horsa Bridge, is particularly well documented. However, elements of the 6th Airborne Division are relatively less well known, especially Brigadier James Hill’s 3rd Parachute Brigade, who were tasked with taking the heavily defended gun battery located three miles east of Ouistreham.
Sword beach was the eastern most landing point for the British seaborne invasion on the 6th June 1944, which meant that it was crucial that the foothold there could be secured and widened as quickly as was possible.
To do this, the 6th Airborne Division were to be deployed as a ‘buffer’ type force, offering a small amount of protection to the main invasion attempt from the full force of a potential counterattack from German tanks and supporting infantry.
The primary targets selected for the night of the 5/6th June were the two bridges near Ranville and Benouville and the gun battery on the outskirts of Merville.
The defences employed at the battery itself were very daunting to even the most seasoned of professional soldiers, never mind the young men who would be experiencing combat for the very first time.
Around the extreme perimeter of the battery, barbed wire was deployed right the way around and along the northern edge was a large ditch, which in places was up to ten feet deep, designed as an anti-tank measure.
Closer to the battery, there was a second ring of barbed wire around the defences, which were around six feet high and ten feet deep. In the ‘No Man’s Land’ that the two barbed wire rings created, mines had been placed, as well as some along various other possible attack routes that the Allies might go down.
Machine gun nests were fixed in strategic positions, as well as an estimated one hundred and fifty men garrisoned there, trained to use the various weapons pits, anti-aircraft guns and machine guns that littered the site.
Therefore, for the soldier who was faced with attacking and taking the battery, it is clear to see that the task that they were faced with was a mammoth one.
However, it was also one that was vitally important as Allied intelligence had estimated that, judging by the sizes of the gun emplacements, that the casements housed guns that were 150mm in diameter (just shy of six inches). If this was the case, then the guns would have an effective range of around eight miles, which meant that they would easily wreak havoc on Sword beach, and consequently a sizeable force of the British 3rd Infantry Division.
The 9th Parachute Battalion, part of the 3rd Parachute Brigade were tasked with attacking and destroying the battery which, considering Britain’s first airborne operation had happened a little over three years before was going to be a mammoth undertaking.
The assault on the Merville Battery and one man’s experience of it, is imagined in ‘As If They Were My Own‘. Out this Friday.