Under the cover of darkness, in the early hours of D-Day, 12,000 men of the British 6th Airborne Division landed in fields around here. One of them was 20 year old Harry Read, a truly remarkable man who parachuted into Normandy a second time at the age of 95. After the war, Harry became a leader in the Salvation Army and is loved and respected by so many for his devotion to God and peple. I was deeply honoured to meet him and interview him in his home.
Two targets had to be taken and held at all cost in the early hours of June 6th 1944. The first was Pegasus Bridge and the second was this gun battery at Merville, 3 miles away. Intelligence pinpointed these imposing concrete structures each containing 6 inch guns ominously pointing at Sword Beach where 28,000 men were due to come ashore at 7:30am. The battery had to be silenced. The immense challenge fell to 29 year old Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway and 600 men of the 9th Parachute Battalion. American Dakotas carried most of 9 Para from Greenham Common while three gliders took off at the same time from Brize Norton. The story of what happened here is one of courage and carnage.
The plan was meticulously rehearsed back home in England. Every possible eventuality was considered and formed part of the practise runs. But nothing could have prepared the men for what they would experience here that morning. The plan was for the majority of the battalion to parachute into fields a mile away while the three gliders would land inside the battery in a coup de main style attack. Most of the Dakotas came under fire and overshot the drop zone in an attempt to stay airborne. The men struggled to find each other and most of them never made it here in time. So much for plans.
The Merville Battery was protected by 160 men, an anti-tank ditch, two belts of barbed wire, 50 machine guns, 3 anti-aircraft guns and a minefield. Because of the chaos of the drop, the assault team were desperately depleted in men, weapons and equipment. Otway was forced to rethink the plan on the spot. 150 men assembled at the perimeter fence waiting for the for three gliders to land inside the compound, carrying Royal Engineers and the explosives needed to destroy the guns. They never arrived so at 4:30am Otway gave the order to go in. The men charged into the battery their sten guns blazing, supplemented only by hand grenades and fighting knives.
Most of the German defenders fought bravely to the death and after 20 minutes the bugle call sounded for the remnant of 9 Para to exit the battery. Only 75 of the original 600 came out of here but thousands were saved on Sword Beach by their selfless dedication to duty. It was said of those men that no one told them it was impossible, so they did it. The wounded were dragged out on wooden ammunition sledges by their friends. Those who were left then rendezvoused at the Calvary Cross 700 yards down the road in a state of shock. Lieutenant Colonel Terrence Otway sat on the steps beneath the cross with his head in his hands. What on earth would have been going through his mind.
One of those immense moments of irony that that should be the spot they ended up at beneath a religious sculpture depicting the sacrifice and death of Jesus Christ on the cross. What a backdrop for a gathering of the survivors of a battle who had paid such a high price. There are hundreds of thousands of roadside crosses all over France and to most people they only represent religious history. But strange as it may sound, Jesus dying on a cross has nothing to do with religion but everything to do with being reconciled to God. The men who gathered at that cross on D-Day knew that freedom only exists on the other side of sacrifice. That’s why Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world.
Terrence Otway had a background in the Church of Ireland as did a third of the battalion, another third were Catholic. He told a reporter after the war “I follow the teachings of the church and when a man told me that he didn’t believe in God, I didn’t believe him. All men need someone or something, especially on a battlefield.” In 1993, Ottway met the German commander of the Merville Battery in front of the TV cameras. He shook the man’s hand but also moved groups of people on who were having their picnics near these gun emplacements. “I don’t like people eating and drinking where my men died.” he said. Who could blame him?
People have wronged me in my life and I have been able to forgive them in the light of how much I know God has forgiven me. But it’s easy for me, I’ve never had to go through what these guys went through. I can only imagine the trauma, the anger and the loss. Forgiveness is difficult in those circumstances I would imagine.
“We crouched close to the ground just below the hill top. While lying there I did most of my praying.”