The airborne operation did not go as planned and Otway had to attack with only 150 officers and men and no heavy equipment because of the wide dispersion of his men in the drop. Prior to the assault, 109 Lancasters dropped 400 tons of 4,000 lb Cookies but hit the village, not the battery although a near miss cracked the wall of one casemate. Nevertheless, Otway took the battery in 30 minutes suffering 70 casualties.
The 150 mm guns were not there, however. All they found were some old 100 mm howitzers which they attempted to destroy. Fearing they could be shelled by HMS Arethusa, which was due to bombard the battery, Otway and his men moved off the site before the allotted time. Unfortunately, this allowed the remainder of the German garrison and the battery commander, Leutnant Steiner, who had been in the battery’s fire-control post in one of the nearby Franceville strongpoints when the assault began, to re-occupy the battery. During Otway’s assault, Steiner had called in fire from the Houlgate battery on to his own. The Merville battery now attempted to fire on the ships but Arethusa returned fire. The battery was bombed on three more occasions and was again shelled by Arethusa to support the commandos trying to retake the battery the next day.
HMS Warspite shelling a German gun battery with its 15 in guns on D-Day
At Riva-Bella, there were six open emplacements for 155 mm guns at the eastern end of a strongpoint that extended for 1,200 m westwards and was 200 m in depth. To the southwest, near a water-tower, was a battery with the Allied codename Daimler. This consisted of four 155 mm guns, three of them casemates. A third battery of four casemated 100 mm guns was located nearby at Colleville-sur-Orne (renamed Colleville-Montgomery after the war), known as Morris, while a strongpoint half a mile to the south was known as Hillman. On D-Day, the Riva-Bella battery was shelled by the 7.5 in cruiser HMS Frobisher, Daimler by the 6 in cruiser HMS Danae and Morris by the Polish 6 in cruiser ORP Dragon.
These batteries and the strongpoint were taken by ground assault on D-Day, Daimler by the 2nd East Yorkshires with tank support from the 13th/18th Hussars (it held out until 6.00 pm), Morris and Hillman by the Suffolks. Morris surrendered at 1.00 pm without a fight but Hillman was the regimental headquarters of the 736th Grenadier Regiment and was manned by 150 men. It contained twelve bunkers, some for anti-tank guns, others were for machine-guns. It was about 600 m by 400 m and surrounded by two 3.5 m belts of barbed wire. It took the Suffolks more than 6 hours to secure the position.
A few miles to the west at Douvres-la-Délivrande, there was a Luftwaffe nightfighter radar station that became operational in August 1943. Its radars were located in two linked strongpoints to the west of Douvres-la-Délivrande, the larger one about half a mile to the south of the other. Strongpoint 1 to the south was defended by five 50 mm anti-tank guns, a 75 mm field gun, Flak, mortars and machine-guns in bunkers, and open emplacements, while the smaller northern strongpoint was only defended by machine-guns and by light Flak. The site was fiercely defended and it took several days for the 8th Brigade of the 3rd Canadian Infantry Division to capture it.
There were three batteries opposite Gold beach. Two were located at Ver-sur-Mer, while the third was at la Mare-Fontaine. The battery near Mont Fleury château at Ver-sur-Mer was, like so many batteries along the Normandy coast, was still under construction at the time of the invasion. The casemates had been constructed using prefabricated concrete blocks to make the inner and outer walls between which concrete was then poured. This speeded up the process but produced weaker structures. The technique was used at several sites in Normandy. On D-Day, the battery was shelled by the 6 in cruiser HMS Orion which hit it twelve times. The battery did not return fire. The second battery was further inland near Mare-Fontaine and consisted of four casemates for 100 mm howitzers which was shelled for 2 hours by the 6 in cruiser HMS Belfast. The battery fired 87 rounds before surrendering to the 7th Green Howards who took 50 prisoners.
The 6th Green Howards had the task of capturing the Mont Fleury battery. During their advance on the battery, D Company came under fire from a machine-gun bunker. CSM Stan Hollis took it on by himself, charging 30 yards towards it firing his Sten. On reaching the bunker, he shoved the muzzle through the aperature and fired again. He then lay on roof and tossed a grenade into the entrance, incapaciting several and killing two. He attempted the same tactic against another bunker but its garrison surrendered before he reached it. This action and another act of bravery later in the day led to Hollis being awarded the VC, the only one to be won on D-Day.
Major Anderson of the Special Observer Party, landed on D+6 to assess the damage inflicted by Allied naval and air bombardments. His appraisal of the Mont Fleury site showed that although the casemate housing the battery’s only operational gun had been hit by a 500 lb bomb the gun was undamaged. On the contrary, he believed that the gun had successfully expended all its ammunition although he conceded that the bombardments had seriously impaired the efficiency of the battery. Anderson’s assessment of the strongpoint at Ver-sur-Mer showed that while the air raids had been on target only one machine-gun was damaged. A 50 mm anti-tank gun in an open emplacement was undamaged despite a 1,000 lb exploding so close that the rim of the crater was a mere 40 ft away. Few of the bunkers had been damaged and none significantly. On the other hand, a nearby resistance nest at la Rivière was more heavily damaged by the naval bombardment although its 88 mm anti-tank gun in a casemate built into the sea wall survived long enough to shoot up two Crabs (Sherman flail tanks) and two AVREs (Churchills modified for bunker busting) before being knocked out by a tank commanded by Captain Bell of the Westminster Dragoons.
A Sherman Crab flailing
To give the defenders clear fire zones, any houses that obstructed them had been demolished. The beach defences were similar to those along all of the Normandy beaches. Beyond the high water mark there were three lines of obstacles. Furthest out at about 225 m were Belgian gates with Teller anti-tank mines fixed to them. The second line, about 20 m closer to the shore, consisted of mine-tipped logs staked into the sand and pointing out to sea, or log ramps, while the third 80 m closer still consisted of 1.7 m tall hedgehogs typically made of three sections of steel girder joined together at their centres.
Immediately prior to the naval bombardment on 6 June, 329 Eighth Air Force Liberators bombed these positions with over 1,000 tons but the bombs mostly fell too far inland. The defences were then shelled by two battleships, USS Arkansas with twelve 12 in guns and USS Texas with ten 14 in guns, along with three cruisers, HMS Glasgow, FFS Montcalm and FFS George Leygues which between them had thirty 6 in guns. Eight destroyers added their 4 in and 5 in guns to the bombardment, firing 2,000 shells into the resistance nests. Finally a thousand 5 in rockets from specially equipped landing craft were launched at the resistance nests as the assault waves approached the shore but these failed to hit the targets.
The Americans believed that this amount of firepower would overwhelm the defences and that the specialized tanks used by the British 79th Armoured Division would be unnecessary. They were wrong. Even before the American V Corps hit the beaches at 6.30 am the resistance nests were beginning to wreak havoc, a situation that worsened as more men came ashore and could not move off the beaches. Casualties mounted alarmingly and 2 hours after getting ashore they were still on the beach. General Bradley considered withdrawing his men but, with aid from destroyers that came to within 800 m of the shore to bombardment the resistance nests, men were now starting to get off the beaches. By nightfall, the nests had been overrun and the Americans were up to about a mile inland. It cost them 2,000 casualties.
A casemated gun at the Saint Marcouf battery after its capture by US troops
A turret from an early model MkIV tank mounted in a bunker at Omaha beach
Adapted from Hitler's Atlantic Wall published by Endeavour Press, May 2014 and available as an ebook