The Merville Gun Battery and its Role After 9th Parachute Battalion's Attack
by Carl Rymen
Although books had been written before 1959 in which the attack on the Merville battery at least featured, it was probably Cornelius Ryan's 'The Longest Day' that made the attack on the Merville Battery familiar with the broader public. With the 1982 book, 'The Big Drop', John Golley was the first to write a detailed and excellent account of the attack itself. These two books and many other books written up till 1987 presented the attack as a successful masterstroke resulting in the destruction of the guns. However, in 1987, Alan Jefferson published 'Assault on the Guns of Merville'. For the first time, German soldiers told the other side of the story. Austrian, Raimund Steiner, the Battery Commander, denied that the battery's guns had been destroyed. According to him, three of his guns were in full working order (Assault on the guns of Merville, p 147), and two of his guns were already firing back on D-day (Assault on the guns of Merville, p 149). This he confirmed to me in a letter: "Die Merville-Batterie wurde also nicht erobert und die Geschütze nicht zerstört. Meine batterie war sogar am Nachmitag des 6.6.'44 voll im Einsatz." (letter Steiner to C.Rijmen, 12.09.1997). Jefferson also quoted Leutnant Hans Malsch, who had been the Battery Commander of 1/1716 between December 1943 and March 1944: "The battery was fully operational, fully equipped and fully manned. It also participated in the defensive firing in the Ouistreham sector during the first days of the invasion." (Assault on the guns of Merville, p 157).
This was explosive material and a debate immediately started between the pro and anti-Jefferson parties. Today, this debate is still going on, although not among the pro or anti-Jefferson camps but between those who think the raid was a success and the others who think it was not. Even the latest British work on the Merville Battery, "The Manner of Men" written by Stuart Tootal does not give a clear-cut answer to the question if the guns or some of the guns were knocked out. Stuart Tootal seems to reconcile between the two views. He goes so far as to acknowledge that the paratroopers may have done their destruction less well and to excuse them for it: "In the confusion of trying to reorganize on the position, deal with their casualties, and collect prisoners while under intermittent mortar fire, the manner of checking that the guns had been made inoperable was less than systematic. Neither Otway nor Parry personally inspected the damage caused to every gun, nor did the two men confer. In truth, without the hollow-shaped cutting charges and engineers trained in specialist explosive demolition, which had been lost with the gliders, 9 Para's attempts to disable the guns to prevent them firing again could only be rudimentary. They were not gunners and efforts to destroy the guns by double-loading them and firing them, with a round in the breech and loading one down the barrel, would have had little effect unless the shell in the breech was correctly primed. Removing the breech from the LFH 15/19(t) howitzer was also a complex and time-consuming process and no one in 9 Para would have known how to do it properly." (The Manner of men, p 209) But on the other hand he stands behind the view of the Paras and confirms that the guns did not open fire on D-day.
Last year a German book was even published, based largely on German eye witness accounts in which the author even states that the guns did fire on D-Day and probably even managed to stop Montgomery's drive to Caen. He suggests that Montgomery's failure to gain the most important D-Day object was probably thanks to the Merville Battery. This is a wild claim, not proven at all and best not to dwell too much on it! The debate intrigued me and reading the book of Tootal, it amazed me that up till now still no definite answer has been found this many years after the war. But the matter was left and I looked forward to the next book to appear on the subject. I simply continued my own research in other aspects of the history of the 6th Airborne Division and this brought me to consult the website of NARA in the USA. This is of course the American counterpart of the National Archives in Kew. I was wondering if I could find anything about the 6th Airborne Division. I struck a goldmine. From a number of documents I found, it seemed that American seamen had cast anchor in front of 'Sword' Beach and had been fired at by a German coastal battery at the River Orne. This was as far as I knew never mentioned in any literature on the subject. I will leave it to the sources to tell this story.
The main witness is the commander of the American LST flotilla that was bound for Sword Beach. Commander LST Flotilla 4, T.W. Greene: "LST Flotilla 4: US LSTs 331 (Lt. W.D. Strauch), 307, 2 (Lt. Comdr. J.B. Mackham), 266, 347 (Lt. H.A. Kaye), 356 (Lt. Ralph Blanco) and 360 loaded with British troops (King's Shropshire Light Infantry) and Canadian troops (LST 356: 47 vehicles, 200 ton of 25 pound shells) and vehicles of Tilbury Thames River and part of convoy ETM 8 (merchant ships and 22 LSTs, under the convoy commodore, who was in the SS Samark) for Br beachhead Sword to unload troops and vehicles. 15 additional US LSTs were included in this convoy, destined to unload on another sector of the beach. Convoy departed anchorage at Southend, England, at 21.40 h on 13 June 1944. The convoy arrived 'Sword' assault group anchorage without incident at 22.00 h and was directed to anchor overnight. Two air attacks (second on morning of 15.06, between 04.25 H and 06.30 H) occurred over the night and an enemy E boat warning was received. The attacks caused no damage to the LST's, and none of them fired due to previous orders not to open fire unless directly attacked. At 08.00 hours 15 June, a visual message was received from the deputy senior officer assault group to beach on Queen Red beach in the following order from east to west, the first ship beaching at 09.15 hours: LST 331, 2, 307, 266, 347, 356 and 360. The LSTs concerned promptly got underway and beached as ordered. LST 266 beached at 09.45 hrs, the remaining ships beaching in order. The time of beaching was approx three hours before low water and most of the ships had about 40 yards of water between the bow and the beachline. At 10.00 hours observers on the 266 noted shells falling in the water to the eastward of the line of beached ships. At 10.45 hours the sea had receded enough that some of the ships started unloading; however, many vehicles stalled in the water. The shelling had slowly walked up the beach and at 11.20 hours a shell landed off the port quarter of the 307, throwing debris over the ship. (in port side of ward room: killing six (Jackson, James, Watkins, James Harold and Lowell, Keith and three British: one officer and two soldiers) and injuring 14 men" (NARA: Flotilla 4)
Lieut. W.D. Strauch of the LST 331 however mentions 6 wounded instead of 14. (NARA: LST 331, group 35, Flotilla 12) Commander T.W. Greene continues: "This was followed by numerous shells apparently hitting the 307. The commanding officer of LST 266 ordered all hands not needed for the unloading to take cover. The beached ships began laying smoke." Which according to another document was only "a feeble effort and no concealment resulted." (NARA: LST 331, group 35, Flotilla 12) Greene: "However, the enemy had already established the range accurately... An officer on the 307 reported casualties and asked the 266 for medical assistance. A doctor and ten hospital corpsmen were sent immediately to the ship. The shelling continued with an interval of approx 20 seconds between the bursts." (NARA: Flotilla 4) Lt. W.D. Strauch of the LST 331 gives a different time elapsing between the bursts: "one every 3 minutes" (NARA/LST 331)
If this firing came from the Merville Battery, however you would interpret the above two statements, it would still be less than its normal rate of fire. Neil Barber: "The battery's normal rate of fire would have been six rounds per minute by all four guns, ie, salvoes of 24 rounds per minute." (The Day the Devils Dropped In, p 214).
Commander T.W. Greene continues: "...all of which were among the beached ships. A message was received to cut the barrage balloons adrift and this was accomplished with dispatch. At 12.01 hours three shells burst within ten seconds off the port bow of the 266 and it was assumed she had been hit, however no damage was apparent due to the height of the water at the bow. At 12.30 hours, on orders from the beach parties, all personnel except a skeleton crew and the repair parties were sent ashore to seek shelter. The unloading was practically completed. About 13.00 hours British warship in the anchorage started bombarding a wooded hill bearing 082T from the 266 and the shelling of the beached ships subsided..." (NARA: LST 331, group 35, Flotilla 12 )
According Lt. W.D. Strauch these were: "a British cruiser and later an LCG,..." resulting in a temporary cessation of fire by the enemy battery, but "This fire was resumed in each case after counter battery fire cease" (NARA: LST 331, group 35, Flotilla 12 )
Commander T.W. Greene: "Some of the personnel sent ashore had started back to their ship after hearing that the shelling would stop when the naval guns started firing on the shore. At 13.30 hours the shelling began again and lasted for about 20 minutes. During this period, approx. 21 shells had burst among the beached ships. Most of the hits seemed to [be] on the LST 2. At 14.30 hours the crews that had been sent ashore were ordered back to their ships by the shore authorities. Just as the majority of the crews that had been sent ashore returned, the shelling began anew. The shelling lasted 18 minutes and approx. 14 shells fell among the ships. At 15.00 hours LST 356 retracted and was seen followed by LST 360, 347, 266, 307, 2 and 331." (NARA, Flotilla 4) Lieut. Kaye gives hours in his report of LST 347 differing a bit from the above. (NARA 347)
Commander T.W. Greene: "By 16.30 hours all of the ships had retracted and had been directed to proceed to the westward and anchor. From the timing of the shell bursts, it is assumed that more than one and at least three guns were employed by the enemy. The degree of fragmentation achieved was very high for so large a calibre gun. All weather decks of the LST 266 were covered with pea sized shell fragments. Examination of shell fragments, the obvious range factors involved, and conversation with the British shore personnel, indicated the guns used by the enemy were at least 105mm. The performance of the enemy's ordnance was very good. The smoke that was laid down by the beached ships and numerous small craft that were sent to the eastward of the beach, from the standpoint of stopping the enemy fire was effective. The smoke certainly hindered the treatment of the wounded and slowed down the unloading operations. When the smoke had completely hidden the beached ships, shells continued to fall and it was evident the enemy guns were laid on the target and that very little spotting was being done. Subsequent examination of an unexploded shell revealed it to be 105 mm. Of the seven US LST's beached in the sector concerned, five are known to have been hit on the exposed port side. Two large holes were visible amidships 5 feet above the waterline on the 331. Two holes were visible on the 2. 4 large holes were observed on the 307, two of them being amidships about two feet above the waterline, one was forward at about frame seventeen about 5 feet above the waterline and one at the junction of the main deck and the wardroom bulkhead. The 266 received one hit at the waterline at frame 12, breaking the frame in two places and exposing ballast tank A406W to the sea. The hole was approx. 6 feet long and, at the widest point, three feet wide. One small hole was observed about 12 feet above the waterline at frame 10 on the 347. Major damage could not be observed on the two remaining ships; however all ships had numerous small holes in their hulls. The number of direct hits known to have been made are as follows: LST 307: 5 hits, LST 331: 4 hits, LST 2: 4 hits, LST 266: 1 hit, LST 360: 1 hit. Since the larger portion of the beach to westward was not being used for unloading by drying out to any great extent, since the proximity of the enemy shore battery (an enemy 105 mm battery located to the eastward of red beach in the vicinity of the Orne river) . LSTs 356 and 347 received no direct hits but were raked by shrapnel from near misses. It is estimated that about 70 rounds of shell were fired." (NARA, Flotilla 4) Lt. W.D. Strauch mentions between 80 or 100 shells. (NARA 331)
Commander T.W. Greene: "At the time the shelling commenced the 331, 2 and 307 were completely dried out with tank decks and about half of main decks off loaded. Western ships eg 356, 360 had not commenced to unload but were partially dried out. Others were partially off loaded. The off-loading on all ships continued under fire. All vehicles were off loaded, except one jeep on LST 331, which was located just forward of the ward room, was damaged when a shell struck the ward room bulkhead, and was abandoned by the army personnel." (NARA, Flotilla 4) Lt. W.D. Strauch: "One hit in the magazine of 331 was a dud!" (NARA: LST 331, group 35, Flotilla 12)
Commander T.W. Greene: "Known casualties suffered during the period of enemy shelling were six dead and approx. 32 wounded. Prompt action on the part of commanding officers concerned in ordering crews to shelter materially reduced the number of casualties to be expected from so prolonged thorough shelling." (NARA Report of shelling of LSTs on Sword beach by enemy battery on 15 June 1944)
The above American testimonies for the 15th of June may be linked to the testimony of Steiner in Jefferson's book: "An enemy freighter was being unloaded in the improvised naval base outside Ouistreham. I ordered my howitzers to fire a salvo... The second shot at 7640m scored a direct hit... The ship immediately caught fire and went on burning for several days..." This also seems to fit in the time frame: "News of Steiner's firework display had reached Berlin, and on about 20 June two war correspondents visited the battery." (The Assault on the Merville battery, p 161) If the action related by Steiner is the same as the one the Americans testify about, he must have exaggerated his results. The ship was certainly not sunk.
So, it seemed that the guns were after all still active and this material was too interesting to let it leave. I wondered if I could do better than previously mentioned authors in unravelling the mystery. Mind you, this may seem arrogant of me, but that is hardly the case. Firstly, I think that above-mentioned authors have all brought forward new and interesting material. But their hands were certainly more bound than mine when it comes to digging up new material. Our world has changed dramatically the last 10 years or so by PC, internet and digital cameras and these have revolutionized history research as well. Thanks to this revolution a lot more sources are now available to the public and it also makes the historian a lot easier to acquire the sources. Gone are the days of copying sources with pencil and paper, just one click with the camera and a document of up to or over 1000 words is copied. Gone are the days of writing long letters and waiting for weeks for an answer, one E mail is enough to get an answer the same or next day or of course in some cases a little bit later. I could go on in this way for some time, but this is not the theme of this article. Anyway, for those who make use of these instruments a heaven of sources opens up. That is exactly what I wanted to do, broaden my horizon thanks to internet and shift focus of research a little bit. So, where could I find the answer? I thought that Neil Barber had hinted at some neglected sources that could help: "When in later weeks they did fire, the battery received such a Naval response that it did not induce the urgency to do it too often." The Navy sources were a good place to look at first and they had until now completely been overlooked. So were many of the German official documents. (The Day the Devils Dropped In, p 214).
Before presenting the new material from these sources, I first want to come back on some of previously mentioned comments of above authors. I asked Neil Barber, who in my opinion is the authority on the subject. Jefferson quoted Leutnant Hans Malsch, who had been the Battery Commander of 1/1716 between December 1943 and March 1944: "The battery was fully operational, fully equipped and fully manned. It also participated in the defensive firing in the Ouistreham sector during the first days of the invasion." (Assault on the guns of Merville, p 157) Neil: "I've never understood this statement of Malsch's. I do not believe that it is entirely truthful. How could it be? Steiner himself stated that the problem with the guns after the attack was that many of the gun crews had been killed. Also, did the 9th Battalion manage to capture the Battery without killing anyone? As you know, I interviewed George Hawkins, who was wounded and left in casemate 4, for all of D-Day and was even found by the Commandos the following day. He hardly saw a German all day, and also stated that the Germans only opened fire sporadically, with one gun. That also tied in pretty well with the 45 Royal Marine Commando statements. Also, what did the Commandos find when they first arrived at the Battery the next day? Getting into the Battery itself was relatively easy for them; hardly any opposition at all." (Mail from Neil Barber to C. Rijmen 5.1.2016)
Jefferson also mentioned "When artillery fire suddenly came down on 'Sword' Beach towards midday on 7 June, Major-General Bullen-Smith thought the enemy battery at Merville to be responsible", (Assault on the guns of Merville, p 129-130) Consequently, two Troops of No 3 Commando were sent to take the Battery out. They did not accomplish anything as the Germans had locked themselves in. Neil added: "...and the Commandos did not have the correct explosive either." (Mail from Neil Barber to C. Rijmen 5.1.2016) The fact that the Commando's on D+1 again attacked the Merville Battery is in itself no proof for the survival of any guns. The fire on 'Sword' Beach could have come from many other batteries still working at that time. Neil: "Jefferson portrays the Battery as a continuous thorn in the side of the Allies, but when I studied the war diary of the relevant aerial reconnaissance squadron, the battery, or anywhere near it never gets a mention. And these spotters were eagled-eyed! If anything moved or opened fire, it was reported and dealt with very quickly, by air or sea. Consequently, I have always been very suspicious of Jefferson's content." (Mail from Neil Barber to C. Rijmen 5.1.2016)
Tootal stated that the paras were no gunners and: "efforts to destroy the guns by double-loading them and firing them, with a round in the breech and loading one down the barrel, would have had little effect unless the shell in the breech was correctly primed." I myself am no expert, so I asked Neil, who worked on artillery weapons for 10 years what he thought about this: "This statement is totally incorrect,... If the gun was fired with a blockage in the barrel, it would certainly be destroyed." (Mail from Neil Barber to C. Rijmen 5.1.2016) Neil agrees with Tootal's statement that the guns did not open fire on D-Day and that not one round was fired against 8th Infantry brigade. Neil: "The above units would have been inland before the sporadic fire of the Battery opened in the late afternoon." (Mail from Neil Barber to C. Rijmen 5.1.2016) Only in the afternoon might the guns have opened fire and even then they would have met with a sharp answer from the Navy. Neil Barber: "Herr Steiner stated to Alan Jefferson that on D-day, probably during the afternoon, he ordered Buskotte to open fire and that he gradually carried out using No.1 and 2 guns. The result was an instantaneous backlash of fire from Allied ships and aircraft on the position." (The Day the Devils Dropped In, p 213).
From the American testimonies and the statements of the main authors we can deduce that the guns of the Merville Battery were not destroyed but damaged and that severe losses in personnel had occurred. On 15 June 1944 the battery was certainly still active. The Americans thought that at least three guns were in action at that time. But both the American and German eye witnesses state that thanks to counter battery fire of the British Navy the amount of firing it could put down on the ships was limited and consequently damage and casualties it could cause also. Regarding the action on the 15th it could have been worse if the shell that had struck the magazine had not been a dud. Questions that remain are when and how many guns were back in action before the 15th of June 1944 and how much was the impact of the battery in the fighting.
It is now time to have a look at the information freshly dug up from the Navy sources. I looked into the logs of some of the British ships responsible for naval artillery support to the Sword sector. The first log I considered was the one of the HMS Arethusa. This ship had been given the task to destroy the battery with its guns on D-Day, should the paras not have accomplished their mission. So, the captain would have been very aware of its presence. But the first mentioning in the log of a possible target near the Merville battery is on 12 June 1944. It concerns area 155745. The battery itself was based on and around the coordinates 155776. On 12 June 1944 Arethusa fired at these coordinates, not on guns, but motor transport. On 22 June1944 between 18.07 hrs and 18.16 Hrs there is however mentioning of the ship firing 10 rounds on guns stationed at 155778, which was probably the northern area of the Merville Battery. The log then says that at 18.39 Hrs "the ship is straddled by shells from a shore Battery". At 19.06 Hours the shoot ended. From the log it is not clear which battery was meant. The same goes for the shore battery that fired at the ship on 23 June '44. If these are the only points in the log that might be linked to the Merville battery it is absolutely clear that the main threat in the eyes of the ship came from the Houlgate battery. It is frequently mentioned in this log.
The same goes for the log books of the HMS Frobisher, HMS Argonaut and HMS Mauritius which logbooks we also looked into. In the HMS Frobisher's log there was a mentioning of a shore battery on 6 June 1944. But no specification. The log of the HMS Argonaut was a bit more interesting. On 16 June 1944, at 19.31 hours it fired on an unobserved defensive gun emplacement near Cabourg. Results were also unobserved. On 17 June '44 it fired on a coastal Battery near Ouistreham believed to be firing at anchorage. This probably was the Merville battery. But again, this ship was mainly active against the Battery of Houlgate. On 23 June '44, it fired at a gun emplacement in Merville Franceville. Its fire was unobserved. But against this one shoot at this particular battery there were again six shootings of the ship the same day against the Houlgate Battery. More shoots followed. On 27 June '44, at 15.29 Hours, an enemy gun position in Cabourg area is fired at. On 29 June '44 again fire was laid at gun positions near Franceville. This time the shoot was effective. A bit later the ship fired at enemy gun battery near Merville. Its fire was again unobserved.
From the above information, we can deduce that the Merville battery was still active but not regularly. Most fire of the ships was directed against the Houlgate battery, which was the main threat. There's no mentioning of the battery before the 16th . Comparing all sources up till now, we get the general idea of the battery being out of action from the 6th June onwards till 14 June 1944 and only from 15 June 1944, firing from time to time at the ships before Sword. But every time it opened fire, it was immediately silenced by counter battery fire. (NA, ADM 53/118866, ADM 53/119464, ADM 53/118878, ADM 53/119862)
In 1945 the war office published a report on Fire support of seaborne landings. This report is of great interest as the Merville battery does not receive much attention. In fact the navy especially mentioned the mobile batteries: "The batteries on the eastern flank required a very much heavier scale of bombardment, since they remained in enemy hands until the left flank of our armies advanced eastwards along the coast from the mouth of the river Orne during the latter half of August. The main period of engagement of the Houlgate and Benerville Batteries was during the first fortnight after D-Day. Heavy ships and cruisers did many shoots but all were of short duration. The average expenditure of the heavy ships per shoot was only 19 rounds. The cumulative effect caused considerable damage. The enemy employed mobile batteries in the wooded country east of the River Orne to shell Sword beaches and anchorage. These became increasingly active, and eventually forced the abandonment of Sword beaches at the end of June. They presented a difficult problem to bombarding ships, since their exact position was not known and they employed deceptive measures with good effect. Ships did not have the help of the army's counter-battery organization and little observation was available to them. A system of snap bombardments was arranged, whereby one ship was always at instant readiness to open fire without observation in the general direction of the enemy as soon as he became active but little success could be expected from this inaccurate form of engagement." (National archives of Canada: Lessons Ops: Fire support of seaborne landings, p8 )
Although Benerville, Houlgate and even mobile batteries are mentioned, there's nothing about Merville. The last remark about the inaccurateness of the navy guns only relates to the mobile batteries as all other batteries, and consequently also the Merville battery, were well known. The report then concludes with a table with all batteries. One of them is the Merville bty, although the report names it as the Sallenelles battery (155776) and adds: Casemated field battery, 4 by 10-cm guns, calibre? Rounds fired ? captured by paratroops. This is the only line the battery receives in the detailed report. If the Navy or the Army would have found the Merville Battery troublesome, it should be mentioned in the war diaries on a regular basis as in the instance of the Houlgate battery. This was not the case with the Navy records we consulted. What about the army intelligence reports then?
A first interesting report to give us information is the 6th AD intelligence report of 19 June 1944. It states: "Extracts from pow 3 Tp 1 Bty 1716 AR who was in Merville Bty on Saturday 17 June: all four guns were 10 cm (Czech), on night of raid two were destroyed and the other two were damaged. POW thought these two were only slightly damaged. In view of the fact that they did not fire on to the beaches during the assault, it is obvious that they were sufficiently damaged to require repairs. The two guns have been firing from the casemates (on to the beaches) and outside the casemates on the rear areas."
On the same day the 3rd Inf. Div. intelligence report states the following: "The Bty near Merville in 1577 is again reported to be occupied. Two 10,5 cm guns are still said to be intact in casemates by PW. Personnel of 1716 arty regt were in the area." (Kew NA, War diaries Of Intelligence Branch of 3 rd ID and of 6th AD)
Although the above information comes from two different sources, both are referring very likely to the same prisoner of war mentioned in the 6th AD report. This German states that two guns were at least damaged and two destroyed. The 6th AD IO states that there was no firing on the beach during the assault! The IO 3rd ID states that the battery seemed to be reoccupied, which implies that the period before 19 June 1944 the Allies were of the opinion it was not occupied. So, it couldn't have been firing its guns too often or might not even have fired at all. Otherwise the headquarters of the different units would have known.
Another interesting piece of intelligence we find in a POW report. It's the statement of Oberkanonnier Kowalenski, who was captured on 18 July '44. He belonged to the 9 Tp AR 1711, which was until 15 July 44 known as 1 Tp AR 1716 and was the only surviving troop of AR 1716. He states the following: "Organisation of 9 Tp consisted of four 10.5 cm Czech gun hows (probably 10 cm LFH 14/19 (t) and one 7.5 cm French gun). Ammunition in 9 tp was short. Strength of troop was about 40 all ranks on 18 July 44. On 6th June 1944, 17 men were killed by Allied paratroopers. Commander 9 Tp: 2/Lt. Steiner... Five guns were in four 2m thick casemates (each 10.5 cm gun had a casemate and a 7.5 cm gun was also kept in one of these casemates) all four casemates are in a straight line facing north. There were personnel shelters south of the guns." (Kew NA, War diary of Intelligence Branch of 2nd British Army) "The French gun is also mentioned by Steiner, but he said it was damaged and left behind in august during the withdrawal." (letter Steiner to C.Rijmen, 12.09.1997)
In this testimony, we can hear Kowalenski complain of a lack of ammunition. This is probably true as the battery was located at the far end of a long small supply line. We add the information from the intelligence reports to our knowledge from the Navy war diaries. Two guns probably damaged, an important number of soldiers of the battery killed, with probably a large number of wounded, a period of inactivity between 6 June and 15 June 1944 and a lack of ammunition due to difficulties in resupply. From 15 June 1944 onwards the battery again joined in the fighting, probably due to more ammunition, extensive repairs to one or two of the guns and new reinforcements.
The last series of documents we had to consider, were the German war diaries. There are no more war diaries left on divisional level of this area. But the war diary of the LXXXI Army Corps still exists. In it we find a big clue to the amount of destruction the paras managed to pass on its enemy. On the 7th of June the war diary states: "Merville taken. One Gun of the Merville battery is still intact and is in action against Sallenelles." One day later again the war diary mentions that the enemy is fired at by one gun of the battery only. (Bundesarchv Freiburg, KTB 81 AK) This fits in with what Neil Barber says: "George Hawkings lay wounded in No.4 casemate for nearly four days: "I only ever heard one gun fire... I don't think they fired many, three or four shells, out of that. So the rest of them didn't use them." (The Day the Devils Dropped In, p 212)
On 14 June '44 the war diary mentions that Merville and the Merville Battery were now under command of the 711 ID. This meant that it should report to LXXXI Army Corps. But we only learn about the battery one more time when on 18 June 1944 the diary states: "Battery fires with all guns." This means that more guns were in action from then on. For the rest the war diary remains strangely quiet relating the Merville battery.
Let's have another look at Steiner's action of probably 15 June 1944 that got Berlin's attraction. Steiner mentioned "a smoke column" rising from one of the ships. But if this smoke column was indeed caused by actual fire and not the smoke screen that was laid down, it could have been caused by some other battery as well. What does the LXXXI War diary for say about the Houlgate battery for the 15th of June 1944, the day of the action against the American ships? We have summarized the main happenings:
-11.50 hrs : 3 battery/1255 HKAR (This is the 3 rd battery of the 1255 Heeresküstenartillerieregiment or coastal artillery battery which was stationed at Houlgate) under fire since 11 hrs from one heavy cruiser...
-14.03-14.43 hrs 2/1255 HKAR in battle with one "Werferboot" (probably a LCTr) and firing 153 rounds at it
-From 17.08 hrs 2/1255 HKAR is fired at by a battleship of the Pennsylvania- class.
-The 3/1255 HKAR fires between 15.15 and 15.41 hrs at La Breche, resulting in 1 hit on a big ship. A high column of smoke can be observed. Both Observation post and fire emplacements at Houlgate are then under fire. A heavy cruiser has fired 12 rounds on 3/1255 HKAR. Two gun boats have continued the fire on this battery. These two ships then fired 60 rounds on the battery. 6/1255 HKAR fired at transports between 11.20 hrs and 12.00 Hrs. The transporters laid down smoke screen.
We can notice some similarities with the American testimonies and the one of Steiner. The pillar of smoke, the smoke screen, the shelling of the Sword area, but it all ends up in lessening the probability that the Merville battery was the only battery responsible for the losses suffered by the ships on 15 June 1944. None of these German sources mention any action against or from the Merville Battery on the 15th of June, nor of any actions on the following days. (Bundesarchv Freiburg, KTB 81 AK)
We have now looked at enough sources for a conclusion. The paratroopers damaged at least three guns on D-Day enough to keep them quiet for at least three full days. Only one gun was brought into action on the 7th and 8th of June and only fired a few rounds. The paratroopers also killed and wounded a large number of men, which also contributed to the inactivity of the guns. Other factors that must have played a role in this inactivity up to 14 June 1944 was the fact that the men were probably shaken by the attack of the paratroopers and later on the commando's and the heavy response of the Navy. There was also a lack of communication with its own division and a lack of ammo, caused by the Airborne Division holding the land between the battery and the rest of the division and Corps. This lifeline also being under observation from Allied ships, artillery reconnaissance aircraft and other roving aircraft.
On 14 June 1944 the battery came under command of the 711 Infantry division. This must have been a major incentive for the battery to come in action again. Two or three of its guns were by now repaired, reinforcements and ammo were received and new orders were given as well. It was now ordered by the 711 division or LXXXI Corps to attack the ships. So, the following day the battery tried to battle it out with the navy resulting in some damage to the allied ships, material and men. It might have tried to continue this the following days, but always met with a heavy counter battery of the navy. By this time, it had lost all its importance. If cameramen came to see Steiner on the 20th of June, then this was not so much proof of the battery's strategic importance or contribution to the war, but its propaganda value. From the OP of Steiner the Propaganda men would have had a grand view of all the shipping in the bay. The OP would offer them fantastic stills. With these shots or stills and some stories from the battery commander they could cook up a fine story.
I can therefore only conclude to agree with Neil Barber's view in his book. Neil Barber: "Was the 9th battalion's attack a success? In a word, yes... The battery's normal rate of fire would have been six rounds per minute by all four guns, ie, salvoes of 24 rounds per minute. And so important damage was done to the guns crews to make this fire ineffectual... when in later weeks they did fire, the battery received such a Naval response that it did not induce the urgency to do it too often. Therefore, for whatever reason, the battery did not perform to anywhere near its capability. With the failure of the bombing, the only possible reason for this is the consequence of the 9th Battalion attack." (The Day the Devils Dropped In, p 214)
In his E mail he added: "What most people do not seem to appreciate is that after the initial seaborne landings on SWORD and the move inland of those forces, the Merville Battery becomes virtually an irrelevance, and in the overall picture, nothing more than a nuisance. It did not prevent the landing, or even cause the terrible casualties it was expected to inflict. What other reason for this can there be, other than the success of the assault on the Battery?" (Mail from Neil Barber to C. Rijmen 5.1.2016)