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Assignment to Destroy

Lt. Col. Terence Otway, commander of the 9th Parachute Battalion of the British 6th Airborne Division, has an assignment to destroy the four powerful guns of a coastal battery in Merville, overlooking Sword Beach. If the 9th could not complete the task on time, naval gunfire would try. The bombardment was to begin at 5:30 a.m.

Otway had an elaborate strategy to overrun the guns, but the plan misfired. An initial air attack was a total failure, and then his battalion was dropped across almost 50 miles of the countryside. Of his 700-man battalion, Otway could find only 150 soldiers.

Nevertheless, the men improvised brilliantly. They cut gaps through the outer barricade of the gun battery with wire cutters. One group cleared a path through the minefields, crawling on hands and knees while feeling for tripwires and prodding the ground ahead with bayonets. Now they waited for the order to attack.

Otway knew casualties would be high, but the guns had to be silenced. “Everybody in!” he yelled. “We’re going to take this bloody battery!”

And in they went.

Red flares burst over their heads, and machine-gun fire poured out to meet them. Through the deadly barrage, the paratroopers crawled, ran, dropped and ran some more. Mines exploded. There were yells and screams and the flash of grenades as paratroopers piled into the trenches and fought hand to hand with the enemy.

Germans began surrendering. Lt. Michael Dowling and his men knocked out the four guns. Then Dowling found Otway. He stood before his colonel, his right hand holding the left side of his chest.

“Battery taken as ordered, sir,” Dowling declared. The battle had lasted just 15 minutes. Otway fired a yellow flare—the success signal—a quarter of an hour before the naval bombardment was to start.

Moments later Otway found Dowling’s lifeless body. He had been dying at the time he made his report.

Reader’s Digest, June, 1994, pp.196-197