29 May 2014

Part 5 D-Day Refought: Merville Battery

D-Day Re-fought: Merville Battery:

 On 6 June 1944, the British 6th Airborne Division was given the task of securing the left flank of the Allied seaborne landings. One of their objectives was the destruction of the Merville Gun Battery. Allied planners had judged from the size of the concrete gun emplacements that the guns must be around 150 mm in calibre. If so, the guns would have a range of about 8 miles (13 km) and could threaten Sword Beach, to the west of Ouistreham, where the British 3rd Infantry Division were due to land later that day.






The Merville Battery was composed of four 6-foot-thick (1.8 m) steel-reinforced concrete gun casemates, each housing a Czech M.14/19 100 mm gun Other buildings on the site included a command bunker, a building to accommodate the men, and ammunition magazines. During a visit on 6 March 1944, to inspect the defences, Field Marshal Erwin Rommel ordered the builders to work faster, and by May 1944, the last two casemates were completed.

The battery was defended by a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun and several machine guns in 15 gun positions, all enclosed in an area 700 by 500 yards (640 by 460 m) surrounded by two barbed wire obstacles 15 feet (4.6 m) thick by 5 feet (1.5 m) high, which also acted as the exterior border for a 100-yard-deep (91 m) minefield. Another obstacle was an anti-tank ditch covering any approach from the nearby coast. The original commander of the battery, Hauptmann Wolter, was killed during a Royal Air Force bombing raid on 19 May 1944. He was replaced by Oberleutnant Raimund Steiner, who commanded 50 engineers and 80 artillerymen from the 1st Battery, Artillery Regiment 1716, part of the 716th Infantry Division.







The unit assigned to destroy the battery was the 9th (Eastern and Home Counties) Parachute Battalion, part of the 3rd Parachute Brigade, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway. The battalion's normal complement of 600 men was supported by a section of sappers from the Royal Engineers, eight Airspeed Horsa glider loads transporting Jeeps and trailers, and stores including explosives, an anti-tank gun and flamethrowers.




Three of the gliders, transporting 50 volunteers, were to carry out a coup de main landing onto the position to coincide with the ground assault.

Just after midnight on 6 June, the 9th Parachute Battalion's advance party landed with the brigade's pathfinders, and reached the battalion assembly area without any problems. While some men remained to mark out the company positions, the battalion's second in command, Major George Smith, and a reconnaissance party left to scout the battery. At the same time, Royal Air Force Lancaster bombers started their bombing run, which completely missed the battery, their bombs landing further to the south. The pathfinders in the meantime were having problems. Those who had arrived at the correct drop zone found their Eureka beacons had been damaged when they landed, and in the smoke and debris left over from the bombing, their marker lights could not be seen by the pilots of the transport aircraft.



 The main body of the 9th Parachute Battalion and their gliders were to land at drop zone 'V', located between the battery and Varaville from 01:00. However, the battalion was scattered, with a number of paratroopers landing a considerable distance from the designated drop zone. Lieutenant-Colonel Otway landed with the rest of his "stick" 400 yards (370 m) away from the drop zone at a farmhouse being used as a command post by a German battalion; after a brief fire-fight, they helped other scattered paratroopers, and reached the drop zone at 01:30. By 02:50, only 150 men had arrived at the battalion's assembly point with 20 Bangalore torpedoes and a machine gun. The mortars, anti-tank gun, mine detectors, jeeps, sappers and field ambulance section were all missing.



Aware of the time constraints, Otway decided he could wait no longer, and the reduced battalion headed for the battery and joined up with Major Smith's reconnaissance party just outside the village of Gonneville Sur Merville. The reconnaissance party had cut a way through the barbed wire, and marked four routes through the minefield. Otway divided his men into four assault groups, and settled down to await the arrival of the three gliders.

In England, one of the gliders never left the ground, as its tow rope had snapped on taxiing. The other two gliders, unable to locate the battery, did not land where expected.  On their run in, both gliders were hit by anti-aircraft fire. One landed around 2 miles (3.2 km) away, the other at the edge of the minefield. The troops from this glider became involved in a fire-fight with German troops heading to reinforce the battery garrison.



Otway launched the assault as soon as the first glider overshot the battery, ordering the explosives to be detonated to form two paths through the outer perimeter through which the paratroopers attacked. The defenders were alerted by the explosions, and opened fire, inflicting heavy casualties; only four attackers survived to reach Casemate Four, which they disabled by firing into apertures and throwing grenades into air vents. The other casemates were cleared with fragmentation and white phosphorus grenades, as the crews had neglected to lock the doors leading into the battery. During the bombing raid, the battery's guns had been moved inside the casemates and the steel doors left open for ventilation.  During the battle, 22 Germans were killed and a similar number made prisoners of war. The rest of the garrison escaped undetected by hiding in the underground bunkers.


Steiner was not present during the bombing, but at a command bunker in Franceville-Plage. After the raid, he set out for the battery, but was unable to gain entry due to the volume of fire from the British paratroopers. At the same time, a reconnaissance patrol from an army Flak unit with a half-track mounting a large anti-aircraft gun arrived. The crew had intended to seek cover at the position, but instead used the gun to engage the paratroopers.

With the battery in their hands, but no sappers or explosives, the British gathered together what plastic explosives they had been issued for use with their Gammon bombs to try to destroy the guns.

By this time, Steiner had returned to Franceville-Plage, and directed his regiment's 2nd and 3rd Batteries to fire onto the Merville Battery.

Just before 05:00, the battalion's survivors, just 75 men of the 150 who had set out, left the battery and headed for their secondary objective, the village of La Plein. The battalion, being too weak, only managed to liberate around half of the village, and had to await the arrival of the 1st Special Service Brigade later in the day to complete its capture.

After the British had withdrawn, the Germans reoccupied the battery position. Steiner was unable to see Sword Beach from his command bunker, so even though he was able to get two of his guns back in action, he was unable to direct accurate fire onto the landings. However, observers with the 736th Infantry Regiment, holding out at La Br├Ęche, were able to direct his guns until that position was neutralised.

The Merville battle formed a very small part of out D-Day scenario.

Effectively the Airlanding and Paratroops had to control the Orne River Bridges first, before they could advance on the Merville Battery.

The game: 

In our Mini Universe Leutnant Steiner was present from the preliminary bombardment, or if he wasn't, the German succession rule came into play, with a grizzled NCO stepping up; as the Germans were not pinned down. The Allied did not succeed in opening a path through the perimeter defenses.

The Allied paratroops were way off on the first landing, and only managed to arrive on the table in turn 2, and then only near the DZ of the horsa air landing group, directly in the line of fire of line on line of dug in defenders, minefields and barber wire defenses.


On the 3rd turn the 4th Airborne Regt succeeded in landing near Benouville and also to the east of the gun emplacements. Sappers gut the wires, and the Paratroops stormed into the Battery, only to find that the Germans had anticipated this move. 

A Pak 40 was rapidly swung around, and 3 shells tore into the tightly packed Parabats. Just to add to the hail of destruction the reluctant Luftwaffe AA gunners then turned their Flak vierling on the hapless group. 
(just like in te real history)

Several of the gunners also remembered those distant rifle range days, and let their Mausers do the talking. 

If A troop had not left the vecinity of the Benouville bridge they may possibly have given covering fore, and split the defenders' fire, but they were too far away. The confusion closely resembled the actual battle, and misfortunes that befel Otway's men. Lady luck was not smiling on out table-top Paras though.

 Dusk saw the battery still in German hands.



On 7 June, the battery was assaulted again by two troops of commandos from No. 3 Commando, part of the 1st Special Service Brigade. The attack in daylight was repulsed with heavy losses to the commandos. As they withdrew, they were engaged by the battery's guns firing over open sights.

The British never succeeded in completely destroying the battery, and it remained under German control until 17 August, when the German Army started to withdraw from France.

So it was in our alternate universe too.






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