The Battle of Merville Gun Battery: Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway DSO
Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway DSO served in the British Army during World War II. In the hours before the Invasion of Normandy, he and the 9th Parachute Battalion were dropped over German lines, and tasked with destroying the Merville Gun Battery. Armed with four 150 mm guns, the Merville Gun Battery was crucial to the German defense.
In this interview, Otway describes organizing and leading the attack, and successfully capturing the battery on D-Day, despite having a fraction of the men they were supposed to.
Otway became a hero for his leadership that day, and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order. After his death in 2006, the citizens of Merville-Franceville-Plage erected a bust of Otway in his honor.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway DSO. Otway served in the British Army during World War II, and led the successful attack on a crucial German gun battery in the hours before the D-Day Invasion.
Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, DSO:
Well, a week after I'd been promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in March, and taken over the command of the Battalion, March 1944, I was told to go to a farmhouse near Amesbury, where we were, in Wiltshire, and there I was shown a model. And I was locked into the room and told to study the model with a view to capture of a battery, and that was all the briefing. I got a battery. Then I looked at the model and there was a battery on it. I got whole picture of the model in my mind and then called in the briefing officer who was a brigade major called Bill Collingwood. And I was then shown a detailed model of the Merville Battery. And my first reaction was it seems stupid to jump over what they call the Atlantic wall as they called the channel yesterday and land outside another fortress. So as I said, that was my first reaction and I said, we must put people inside as well as outside. So then I got on with my plan and in general, it was an assault on the outside with landing half a whole company on the inside by glider.
On the air photographed, they showed an anti-tank ditch to the north of the battery i.e. in the English channel side. Now, they were constructing that as though they were going to go all the way around. So I thought I better cater for the fact that it might be there on the south side when we landed. So I decided that I'd have to have special lightweight footbridges made to run over, for the troops to run over. It so happened that the assistant chief of the general staff was an ex-member of the Royal Ulster Rifles, General Sir Jack Evetts. So I rang him up direct, broke all the rules. You should go through staff, you know, and everything else. Well, I went to telephone to rang him up and he said, come and meet me. And I said, can you have these made? And he said, yes, they can have them made within a week. So they were actually made, although we never took them, which has never been published. Because we knew the ditch wasn't there. The RAF went over and photographed it the day before. So the RAF were flying over every day and taking pictures and coming back and we would have them within hours of them landing.
It was the ditch because we thought the ditch was going to be there, the minefields, and more than that, the wire, because we knew that they had this, I forget what the army term was, rolled barb wire.
Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, DSO:
Concertina barb wire with apron wire on top of it. And it was inside the apron wire. That was my biggest worry. Then the minefield after that, plus the fact that the ratio, in the British army, of an attack onto a fortified place like this was six to one i.e. the attackers should outnumber the defenders by six to one. We were told that there would be a garrison of 150. I was warned that we might get scattered. We might have a very bad drop. And I was very worried that I might be even less than attacking with a force less than 150 and turned out to be true. That was a big worry.
I had a battalion of 600. And then if you added in the specialists, support teams, support troops, yes, I had roughly 700, 750 engineers and that sort of thing. But as it turned out, I didn't have any engineers.
Well, the first thing I did was briefed them all in the dining hall, or the barracks. I had already decided that I had to have, as I've said, I had to have a mock-up battery resembling as near as possible the real objective. But in addition to that, after looking at the problem, I decided it must be on ground as similar. So I told the intelligence people I wanted a patch of ground, which was as near as possible exactly the same as the drop area, the approach from the drop area to the outside of the wire, from the wire into the battery. And they must construct a model and find me a bit of ground. They said they can't do it. So I said, well, I'll do it. So I flew over the area with a brigade major, picked out the ground near Newbury, and then found that there were seven ministries involved in Whitehall, seven, believe it or not. And four of them representatives came down. I said, I want that hill leveled. I want everything done within seven days. They said “Impossible.” I said “Bollocks. It's got to be done.” So I learned that there was an earth, the only earth moving equipment of any side was in Plymouth. So I arranged for it to be brought up straight away. I just rang up and said get it. I got a hell of a rocket. And that was basically it. I did it on my own with the assistance of brigade headquarters. They were behind me. They also got a rocket.
The engineers built the mock ups out of netting and that sort of thing. And we actually put in the ground mock mines, which went off, that came up and went off with firecracker noise. It's all been written down. I'm trying to remember. We rehearsed nine times, five by day and four by night or the other way around, crawling through this damn stuff. And, yes, we put it there if you like, so that every single man knew exactly what he had to do and where he had to go. That was very important because if, and it turned out to be, paid off huge dividend because we expected to be drop wide, but we didn't expect it such a bad drop as we got. But it was essential that every man knew where he was so that he can get to the rendezvous on his own, if necessary. And if we had moved off, follow us, and catch us up, and take part in the attack. So every man, they had air photographs and he was questioned about his route four or five times.
The average age of the battalion was 20. I was 29, one of the oldest. I think there were only two men older than me in the battalion.
When you had walks, runs every week, every day. You were cursing the brigadier. I mean, he was, James was four years older than me, I think. And he would appear with his red tabs on and we'd be doubling along and thinking we were doing very fast. And he'd come on, you're too bloody slow. Get out in front and follow me and go like hell. And it was that, I'm exaggerating when I say every day, but it was about three times a week, right up to the final test was you had to do a 50 mile march in 24 hours carrying all the equipment, which we did in Scotland.
We flew to Scotland from Salisbury Plain. We dropped in the Nether Valley, I think it's called, in Scotland. We attacked, did a mock attack up a mountain called Ben Macdui. It was the second highest in Scotland, four and a half thousand feet, I think it was. Where's my wife? You there, Jeannie? No. She knows about the height. We did that in the dark. There were troops on top of it. Got it. And we then did this force march from wherever it was there to Edinburgh, 50 miles in just under 24 hours caring full equipment, so they were fit.
They were such a good bunch. We'd weeded out the sick and the lame, if you like, what do you call it, halt and the lame. And we'd weeded them out and no, I had absolute confidence in them. They were very, very keen. They were completely unafraid and they were very brave lot. And the officers and noncoms were of a very high standard, very intelligent, and I always had donned into me when I was in the regular army you cannot have good officers unless you have good troops. And that was very true.
They were proud. They considered an honor to go in first, both your chaps and ours. And it's not in my view, it has never been written up properly that your people had two main training areas up in Lincolnshire and down in Berkshire and the ones in Berkshire and us, we'd fraternized a lot. We exchanged training and everything else. That's never been made really public. I don't think and it should have been.
I briefed all the officers about a week ahead or something. I think we were in transit camp for two or three weeks from memory. And the company commanders then had to brief all the troops and then the platoon commanders. And so those two days before I spent my time walking around, checking up they were briefing properly. But the last afternoon I spent up sleeping. I reckoned I wasn't going to get any sleep. I forbade any alcohol to be drunk the day before. The officer's mess was all on soft drinks the night before dinner. I wouldn't have any alcohol done.
We were scared out of our wits. I mean, we didn't know what was going to happen. I don't think you can say we were excited. Everybody was very quiet and sitting in the aircraft. There wasn't a sound. Nobody spoke. Somebody once published we sang. We didn't sing, very quiet. I get the willies now if I think about it.
There was a little flack when we got over the French coast, yes, but not much. Nothing to worry about. There was no problem getting to the rendezvous except for the flooding. You know about that. Do you?
Well, it slowed you down. We knew that Rommel had ordered that the area was to be flooded. We'd seen the photographs taken, as I said, a day or two beforehand, and we knew what we were up against. And I personally was wading through water up to my chest. And in a uniform drying on you afterwards was pretty uncomfortable and you had to carry a weapon over your head. And the other effect it had that some of the troops were carrying kit bags, which was tied to their right leg. Do you know this?
The leg bags. Yeah.
Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, DSO:
Leg bags. And then when they were shoot open, they let go their cord, and it dropped about 20 foot long below them. And actually the people carrying it liked it because it slowed the landing, gave them a very good soft landing. It acted as a handcuff, if you like. Those that were carrying that went into the water, had no hope when they were drowned. And I saw three or four chaps drowned in front of me. There was nothing one could do. Actually another man called Woodgate who was the Staff Captain, John Woodgate, and I met him by chance, going from the rendezvous and we tried to pull out a chap. We couldn't get him out.
The other problem was when I got to the rendezvous, my batman or orderly, you call him oddly, don't you? Same difference. He got there first, although he stood behind me in the aircraft and he got there first and told me there were only 50 men out of the 700 plus, and we didn't get up to more than 150.
Well, first of all, I guess that because I'd been warned by people who'd done this before, there was going to be trouble, so I didn't tell anybody. But in my timing, I kept an extra quarter of an hour to allow partly for this. And I didn't tell my brigadier or anybody else, and nobody queried it funnily enough. So I had that in hand and that enabled me to get up to 150. Well, then I was faced with the alternatives. You either go on or you give up. There's no halfway. You can't give up and you can never speak to your friends again if you gave up. And so I had to reorganize. Instead of having four companies, I made it into four platoons and left at the proper time and crossed my fingers and hoped it would work, literally.
I thought that when they realized what was going to happen, they'd say, oh god, and get the shivers and everything else. Not a bit of it. There wasn't one man who displayed any excitement or worry about it at all. They just accepted it. They just knew we had the job to do and they accepted the reorganization. I was astonished. And I think this was due to the training. I think we had succeeded in the physical and, more important, the mental training that we'd gotten to the stage where they would accept anything and they knew they had to do the job. And mind you, to get a man to be fully mentally trained and aware, he's got to be physically fit first. You'll never ever do it the other way around.
Well, first of all, it was pitch dark. I'd sent out some scouts ahead and one of them came back and said that there was a German patrol heading our way. It turned out to be, we counted them as they went by, about 60 men. And we went, we being the large battalion of a hundred and something, went into shell holes and in my case, I could have reached out and taken them by their ankle. They didn't hear us. They were stupid. So there was no German reactions at all on the ground between us and the battery.
First of all, I reorganized the thing on a basis of platoons instead of companies. Secondly, I told the officer commanding B company, which was the assault company, I think he had, from memory, 20 lanes of Bangalore torpedoes. You know what they were. Don't you? Yeah. Instead of whatever we were supposed to have, I said, how many gaps can you blow? And he said, two or three. So I said, okay, do that. And I said, you'll cross the wire by getting some volunteers and telling them to lie down on the barb wire like that and the others run over their backs as a bridge.
They all volunteered, all of them. It was rather like I told you that I thought that it didn't make sense to land outside the battery if you can land inside. And so I nominated A company which was 150 strong, and when the company commander, Alan Perry of course volunteered to go in by glider to this and saying he wanted 60 and warning them that probably they might all be killed, the whole company stepped forward.
He, he being chap called Harold Bestley who was the company commander, so his company was down to a platoon basically, I suppose, and reinforced. He attacked, I suppose was 50, about 50 men. The others were mortar platoon and machine gun and so on, but let's say 60. He divided them up into four groups. He would've taken off, say 20% as a reserve, divided the rest into four groups and told them, get round the front and get in, throwing grenades down the barrels, not to blow them up. A hand grenade, won't blow up a hard steel barrel, but going off inside it makes one heck of a row and could stand people so that basically the attack was the plan and they went in fighting from the hip. They all had standing machine guns, hand machine guns, direct frontal infantry attack.
I had arranged for a bugle to be blown. We laid down outside the wire. We went very, very quietly, took up position ready to assault over and through the wire. We were going to blow two gaps instead of the original four because of the shortage of explosive tubes Bangalore torpedoes. As soon as they went up, we were to go through those gaps and over the inside wire. We hadn't got enough to blow the inside wire, I thought. But actually we did blow some gaps in the inside wire, so the assault troops went through first. The support platoon or company, we'll stick to the original and support company followed. I was in the gap. I went up with the leading troops and I stood in the gap while the others passed me. I was criticized for that because as a commander, people said I should have been at the head, which I had replied, well, what the hell use would I have been if I'd been dead as a commander? I was directing there and I was actually hit, my equipment was hit, not me. I got one through my haversack and one through a side haversack and a bullet right through, it went through the back of my uniform, so I was lucky. And the troops then spread out, went round to the seaward side. Well, one party went to the entrance, which was on the landward side, throwing grenades in there with the doors, which were shut or kicked them open and whatnot. The other party went round to the open side where the guns were firing towards the sea and attacked in there with STEN guns. So the Germans that were there were killed or wounded, but a great number of them were actually down below. Have you been there? Well, you notice a chamber underneath each gun and they were down there. And so those were ones who were left who came out with their hands up.
Well, we took bleacher blocks out and threw them away right out into the fields. You can't fire a gun without a bleacher block. Yes. There were spares obviously somewhere, but they would've had to rattle around. And this is what we planned to do on the basis that by the time they had found any new bleacher blocks, where they'd put them, the main wave of seaborne troops would've got in. Because don't forget, my orders were not to destroy the gun, was to neutralize them. That word has been consistently overlooked. And if you can neutralize a gun and stop them firing, you've done your job, even if you don't have explosives to blow the things up. We did, as I said, put grenades down them. So therefore that would cause a bit of a trouble because they'd had to get all of metal splinters and everything out of the guns before they could put any shells in. So that's what we did. That's all we could do because we didn't have, as you know, the explosives and so on.
The guns of the battery, with those four guns going flat out, it probably would've canceled out the left flank of the British landing, which would have meant that the Germans could have withdrawn the troops from that part of the coast, put them further down, even in front of the American parts of them. And so it could well have been, yes, disastrous from that part. It could have meant that the Germans could have grabbed Pegasus Bridge and could have come in on the left flank. And after that, who knows what would've happened, instead of the allies all the way along landing and pushing in. I don't think that's exaggerating.
Once that part of it was done, I sent the success signal up, which was a green, red, green, I forget, very light. And an REF aircraft went over wagged its wings like that, which was this acknowledgement signal. My signal officer then produced a pigeon out of his inside pocket, wrote out a message, and that went back to Whitehall, London actually, landed in Whitehall. So that was a success signal. I then had to regroup with what little lot I had and go on to the next objective because they'd given me an awful lot to do. I was supposed to attack Amfreville. I was supposed to attack another post up near the coast, but I had, what did I have left? About 50 odd men, I think.
They didn't put up any real resistance at all. Yes of course I lost men, but I lost a lot of men. But they were the machine gunners who had the opportunity to calculate that, yes, those British had couldn't get to me. I'm a machine gunner, but the ordinary infantry, they put their hands up straight away. We took, I think 23 prisoners out of the 150 of garrison and the rest were killed or wounded. I've got a brochure which little thing which I got from Steiner who as I said was away, but he is on record of saying that when he got back to the battery, he only had 12 unwounded men who were capable of firing guns out of the 150. So that gives you the scale of our success basically.
Well, we attacked at five. It was over, as you say, very quickly. So round about between half past five and six, we moved off towards Amfreville and on the way, as I said, we were greeted by this Frenchman. I moved deliberately between in the corn. The corn was high. Whether it made sense or not, I don't know. But it occurred to me that if we moved through the corn, the Germans might be misled, could only see the tops of our heads, the ones up on the hill at Amfreville. I think it worked because they didn't seem to know that we were there. And as we went through, we had to get, before we got to the call, we went along a lane with trees on either side of it, and your air force dropped a great string of bloody great bombs, about 50 to a 100 yards away from us, fortresses came over. I don't think anybody had bothered to tell them that we were there. It was pretty frightening that it happened. It was far more frightening that than the attack on the battery because the bombs were big, and god, the row they made. And we all dived into the ditch cursing, I'm afraid, the USAF, but it wasn't their fault. Nobody told them. Then we went on. We went to Amfreville. We took up a position there. Nothing happened. I was walking around the village green the rest of that day. The Germans did then attack us the next day or two, but we repulsed them until eventually we went onto this place called the Chateau [inaudible]. I was ordered to take that, which have you been to it?
Well, you know where the chateau was and there's the road and there's a long drive up to it. We were in those trees opposite to that gate. Now if you turned your back on that and looked down into the valley, you can see that anybody who held that bit of ground commanded the whole thing, including the bridge, everything. And that's what I was told to hold. What was the expression, oh, at all costs, which in the parachute regiment, yours and ours, means until the last man. And so we dug in and took up a defensive position, but of course I had very few men then. And then I gradually, gradually built up to where the Black Watch came up and they were put under my command. And I think I got up to a total of Black Watch and Rs and odds and sods of about 450 men altogether. And what I did was I put the Black Watch out in front of the manor, the chateau. Put one of my platoons in the chateau and then made my own defense between the road and the chateau and back of the road by the bungalow. That was about it.
I wasn’t surprised- I'd been warned to expect chaos. No. I wasn't pleased. I was bloody angry. I really was angry and I was very tired and... All right. Is this going to be broadcast as I speak or not? I was going to say pissed off and I really was fed up and tired and angry. I know I was being unreasonably angry. My attitude is, why the hell does this happen to us? We knew we were going to be dispersed, but why, out of 750 men, have I only now got 100? That sort of thinking, unreasonable, I know, but we were.
I was just angry. I'm an Irishman, so I get angry. So, no, I wasn't angry at anybody in particular. I suppose angry at circumstances, angry at God if you like. I don't know. But I do remember being angry. I also remember when we got to Amfreville where we were down to 80 men and the Germans were outnumbering us. And I was on the point, literally on the point of surrendering because I had I think three rounds of ammunition left per man and one of my officers, chap called Greenway, who afterwards became Lord Greenway Captain, came up to me and without any ceremony at all. He didn't say Colonel or anything else. I don't know why he wasn't with his company. But anyway, he came up, he said, “Look, stop mucking about. Take a brace on yourself and get out there and do it.” Really, literally, like that. He saved my life really. And he was good. Paul Greenway, Captain, the honorable he was. Then he became Lord Greenway later. It needed somebody to do that. You must have met other men who had this experience when you're on your own and you haven't got any support, close friends supporting after, it's quite a test. And they were.
Even being in the chateau and having these waves and after wave after wave where they started with the platoon and then they went up to a company, then a couple of companies and they brought up reserves and eventually threw in a whole brigade of three Battalion [inaudible]. Even that wasn't as bad as that particular time, just after it. At the shadow they threw in a whole infantry brigade at us and we were, as I said, 400 strong, including the Black Watch and Sappers. We even had glider pilots in the front line who landed and rendezvoused to us. A couple of RAF men. That was tough, but it was something you could handle. You could see. You could plan for it.
I mean, for example, if you look at the Chateau [inaudible], the drive, the road is here and the chateau's where you are and the drives up there, over there as a great big open patch. I made that a killing ground. I didn't have any troops that were left there. I deliberately made it so that the Germans only had one way of attacking me. When we were relieved by [inaudible] who came up to take over the battalion from me, no, sorry, he was Brigade Major, came up to look at the place. He didn't take over 'til later. He had to order parties up to remove the German dead because the relieving battalion, which was the [inaudible] hadn't got a field of fire.
As I said earlier, the two most important objectives for the 6th Airborne Division were the capture of the bridge known now as Pegasus Bridge and the capture of the Merville Battery. The job of the 6th Airborne Division was to defend a left flank of the second British army, or if you write the third division and then the second British army, A, to stop the Germans coming over the Pegasus Bridge, which would've been disastrous, and, B, to stop the guns of the Merville Battery firing over the beaches. So as far as I'm concerned, the 9th Parachute Battalion did one of the most important jobs in the Second World War in the invasion of France. Full stop. And I don't think that's exaggerating, but I don't take the credit for it. The credit is on the men who did the job. Okay. I was the boss and I did the planning, but the fellows on the ground did the job, not me. And I don't mean that to be big headed or conceited in any way. I mean it quite sincerely.
Again, it reflects on their training, but it also reflects on their character and their mental ability and their standard of intelligence that they were able to accept the orders, face what they had to do, knowing the danger, and the fact that they Brown, Smith or whoever might not come through it, might be killed. Yet they accepted it without a murmur. Not one expression of dissent or anything else. Like that?
In the preceding months before the operation, you have got to instill them by a mixture of urging, swearing, cursing, friendliness. You've got to have complete confidence in them and you have got to deliberately set about to make them have complete confidence in you and the other officers. If they don't have confidence in the man who's commanding, they won't do the job. Don't ask me how I do that 'cause I don't know. I have no idea. All I know is that apparently they had confidence in me and they did it. It's described as leadership.
Some people say you can't make leadership. Other people say you make it. I don't know. All I know is that I knew that that job could be done. I knew that those men would do the job to the best of their ability. I had full confidence in them. Mind you, I think, having said that, if you have confidence in the men, you know that the end product is going to be right. It's like if you are building a car and you have confidence, or anything, you have confidence in the material as you're using, you have confidence in the end product. And I think it's analogist to that.
I'm proud of the fact that the 9th Parachute Battalion did the job it was asked to do despite the problems. Simple as that. I'm still very proud of them. There are not many of them left, but you went, you've met them there. See what sort of bunch of men. But having said that, and I don't want to denigrate them in any way, they're no better or worse than any other parachute battalion. Any other parachute battalion, British or American or French or whatever, would've done that job, I reckon. I must say that. And I think it has not been said enough. And your people that, what was the fault that, the difficult job you, 82nd I think in the [inaudible] Peninsula had is equivalent to us anyway. I know [inaudible] has often told me about it. It's the same. The parachute troops of any army are, I think, a class of soldier apart.
Regiment Sergeant Major was a very old friend of mine when I joined the army because I was a regular army soldier for 12, 14 years. When I joined the army in Gravesend as a second lieutenant, this chap was a lance corporal in my platoon, in the Royal Ulster Rifles. And he'd worked his way up and he was a company sergeant major in the time before D-Day with a Royal Ulster Rifles. And I asked for him and got him as a regimental sergeant major to the Ninth Parachute Battalion. And he was a close friend as well as being the senior warrant officer. And the worst moment for me was coming back from a conference at the [inaudible] crossroads to be told that Bill Cunningham was dead, having been hit by a splinter shell in the back of his head. And to see him there, that was the worst moment for me of the whole war. It was complete shock. If he'd been hit in the fighting, the hand to hand fighting, and he had, he'd been engaged in the hand to hand fighting, I think I could have taken it. But the fact that he was walking around behind the lines doing supervising things and was killed doing it was terrific shock.
I find this sort of interview a strain. I still find it a strain, but still is the wrong word. I do find it a strain. It's a physical and mental strain. I don't know why. I can't explain that, but it is. I feel that operation still. I still feel it intensely when I think back over it. I still get the feeling, ‘Was I in any way to blame for the fact that I set off with 700 men and finished up with a little less than 100?’ And I think a lot of chaps in my position feel the same. I've spoken to several other men who were in their twenties as commanding officers and lost a lot of men on that day, that those landings, and it stays with me anyway. My wife will tell you. I mean, I used to wake up with dreams at night shouting my head off. I don't anymore, but I did to start with. Luckily the rest of it's gone. But I talked to a friend who was a psychiatrist and he said, “Don't worry about it. It's natural.” Here we are. It's out of my head now, except for these odd feelings I get. And this sort of interview brings it back up. But I think it's inevitable. With me, it was. That's the way I feel. I used to have moments of sitting back up at the Chateau [inaudible] when nothing was happening and thinking what the hell happened? Have I done anything wrong? Why? Why all these huge casualties? You think, ‘Are you to blame?’ I think, and I know that others have had it. [inaudible] said he never had it. I don't believe him. But then I've known [inaudible] a long time. He was at [inaudible] with me, same company. And I know that [inaudible] puts on a front and I know that the front is not always what he's feeling. So, anymore?
That was Lt. Col. Terence Otway DSO.
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