Merville: The Man in Charge

Anyone given the responsibility of planning and carrying out an attack on the Merville battery would be forgiven for struggling with the task. But for Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway, it was all taken in his stride.

Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway.

Born in Egypt in 1914, his family returned to England in 1915, where Otway stayed while his father served in the Great War. After the end of the First World War, Otway and his family spent time in Ireland, before settling back in England in 1921.

After attending Sandhurst, Otway was commissioned into theRoyal Ulster Rifles in 1933, joining the First Battalion out in Hong Kong in1935. He was then sent to Shanghai as part of the international peace keepingforce protecting it from the Japanese, where he spent much of his time beingshelled by Japanese forces, as well as coming under machine gun fire.

He was then sent onto India, to help suppress riots inRawalpindi for a year, where weekly ‘scraps’ with local tribesmen were notuncommon. Otway himself put it as follows, ‘Some of the scraps werehand-to-hand fighting with knives and swords. And that was so called peace!’

Otway married whilst on leave in August of 1939, before the battalion was relocated back to Britain for mechanised infantry training, rather than the horses and mules that they had become accustomed to while in India.

At the end of 1940, Otway was promoted to Major, before attending staff college after which he was posted to the War Office in 1942.

In July 1943, Otway returned to the Royal Ulster Rifles to become a company commander, with the battalion now being an airborne unit under the 6th Airlanding Brigade. In August 1943, he applied to join the Parachute Regiment, eventually becoming second-in-command of the 9th Parachute Battalion, before being promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel in March 1944, resulting in him taking overall command.

It was shortly after taking command of the 9th Parachute Battalion that Otway was informed of the Allied invasion attempt, being taken to a non-descript farmhouse where a model of the Merville Battery had been made up for him.

Looking at the model and intelligence photographs, Otway realised how much of a mammoth task he had been assigned and stated that the guns, had they fired ‘when the troops were landing from their landing craft, it had been calculated that probably the operation would have failed.’

The Merville Battery & Museum as it is today.

Otway began to draw up a plan for an attack on the heavily armed battery, including acquiring several areas of land to recreate a full-scale replica of the Drop Zones, approach roads to the battery and the battery itself for his men to practice on. Otway was so determined to make sure his attack was a success, that he went against orders from the Civil Service to wait for permission to come through saying, ‘to hell with that, I’m doing it and I’m doing it tomorrow!’

Otway was a very meticulous man, resulting in his employment of some WAAFS to get alongside his men, to see if any of them let slip about their target. To their credit, not one man cracked. A drinking ban was also imposed on the men two days before the original operation date of 5th June, as Otway was concerned that the boredom would result in a force of hungover and, in some cases, still drunk, paratroopers failing to act in the best way that they could.

After a delay due to bad weather, Otway and his men loaded up on the evening of the 5th June 1944, due to take off at 23.30 hours. Although confident that his men would get the task done, Otway was concerned that many of his men did not have the combat experience necessary to make it out unscathed.

‘The average age in the battalion was twenty. I was twenty-nine and the second oldest in the battalion. So, they were youngsters, they were wonderful youngsters, but they hadn’t been in action.’

In a matter of hours, all of them would be and Otway’s months of planning for the assault would come to fruition, not without its own fair share of setbacks and challenges.

The exploits of Otway and his 9th Parachute Battalion are fictionalised in ‘As If They Were My Own’ which is out on Friday.

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