Terence Otway led a brave and successful assault on the Merville Battery on the morning of D-Day, 4 June 1944. Despite anti-aircraft fire leading to his battalion of 750 men being spread over a wide area, leaving Otway with just 150 under his command, he successfully achieved his objectives.
He later recalled details of the day in an interview in the Daily Telegraph sixty years later in 2004:
“I drifted straight into the side of a building at first-floor level,” he says with an involuntary rub of the side of his face as he recalls what is still, 60 years later, his clearest memory of June 6, 1944.
“As if that wasn’t bad enough, the building turned out to be one of the company HQs of a German regiment and after I slid down the side of the wall and looked up from the ground, this fellow popped his head out of his bedroom window and stared at me.
“Fortunately, one of my corporals had landed right next to me and he had the presence of mind to pick something up, probably a stone, and chuck it at the chap, who popped his head back in. Then we vanished and never heard any more from them.”
Lt Col Otway, the commanding officer of the 9th Parachute Battalion, still has reason to remember the house, which has since become a hotel. “It is an excellent place. We have become great friends with the owners and we stay there when we visit Normandy.”
After his abrupt introduction to Normandy, Lt Col Otway had to find the rest of his reinforced battalion of 750 men who had been scattered by the winds and erratic RAF navigation around the flooded hinterland east of the Normandy beaches.
He and Captain John Woodgate tramped a wet mile to their rendezvous point, sometimes wading through chest-high waters, towards their target, the heavily reinforced battery on the dunes of Merville which threatened annihilation to the British 3rd Division due to land later that day a mile or so to the west on Sword Beach.
“We saw several men who had been caught in the floods, and were weighed down with their packs, just sinking. We tried to pull them out, but there was nothing we could do except watch them be sucked down by the mud.
“It was very unpleasant.”
Of the 150 men who took part in that assault, only 65 remained alive by the end of it.
Later, he gathered another 300 Paras to his command, but as many as 300 were captured or drowned on that first jump on to enemy territory.
“It was about what I had expected, 40 per cent casualties on the landing,” he says, shaking his silver-haired head with the resignation that must be borne by senior shoulders.
With all the troops at his command, Lt Col Otway marched the mile or so to the battery, sending a vanguard ahead to clear the first minefield around it and cut the first perimeter of barbed wire.
The remnants of 9 Para followed the path of their vanguard through the minefield, marked by the dragged heel of Capt Woodgate’s boot in the muddy grass, then blew a hole in the last wire barrier with Bangalore torpedoes, a kind of exploding scaffolding pipe.
After a ferocious fight, they took and spiked the four guns in the battery, killing or incapacitating all but a dozen or so of the 130 defenders, before moving back south towards Pegasus Bridge and the main defensive line.
The same day, they captured the village of Amfreville and later successfully completed their final objective, the capture of the Chateau St Come to secure the most important sector of the ridge that protected the eastern flank of the beachhead.
Lt Col Otway led his men in the stubborn and bloody defence of their position until the next month, when, as the Germans poured wave after wave of tanks and infantry at their lines, he was severely injured by shellfire.
“I was blown clear across the lane to the other bank. When I woke up, the padre was sitting beside me. People said, ‘Oh, he was waiting for you to die’,” he says, able now to smile at events that once drew the line between life and oblivion.
In 1998 Terence Otway submitted some evidence for some PhD reserach being undertaken by Alan Robinson, who subsequently published the excellent Chaplains at War: The Role of Clergymen during World War II (London: I.B. Tauris, 2008). This research is held in the archives of the Royal Army Chaplains’ Deparment at Amport House, Hampshire.
In the submission, he had some very interesting points to make about Christianity in the Second World War. As commanding officer of a battalion in the Royal Ulster Rifles, he was keenly aware of the religious mix in the regiment, being around one third Church of Ireland (as Otway himself was), one third Roman Catholic and one third Presbyterian. Over half the regiment were natives of the Republic of Ireland. His own family had provided `many priests’ for the Church of Ireland including one Archbishop of Dublin. Terence himself, `simply followed the teachings of the Church.’
When asked about the importance of Christianity, he wrote:
`Whenever a man told me that he did not believe in God, was agnostic, atheist etc. I did not believe him. All men need someone or somthing to hang on to especially in danger.’
He encouraged Christian values among his men, although made sure that they were never coerced into taking part in religious activities unless they had that particular faith. As a result of pre- and post-war service in India, as well as leading a denominationally diverse battalion, he became very ecumenical in his views. He came across Muslims, Hindus, Parsees, Buddhists, Shintoists and Confuscians and saw it as:
`A case of understanding the other man’s point of view.’
Whilst he agreed with the missionary work he saw in India in terms of social work, he disagreed with their attempts to convert people from one faith to another.
Leaving the army in 1948, he had a successful career in business, wrote a history of the Airborne Divisions in 1990 and campaigned for the pension rights of disabled soldiers.
In 1993 he revisited the Merville Battery and was upset to see people taking picnics on the sight where his comrades had been killed five decades previously. He was able to shake the hand of a German who had been in the enemy forces on D-Day, but did not feel entirely comfortable doing so on account of his slain comrades.
In 1997 he unveiled a bust of himself at the site of the battery.
Terence Otway died in 2006, aged 92.
If you are interested in the ways in which the Christian faith shaped people’s understanding of their roles in the mass wars of the twentieth century, you may be interested in Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the First World War and Fight the Good Fight: Voices of Faith from the Second World War. They can be ordered direct from the publisher or at a discounted rate of £14 each plus £4 p+p directly from me at email@example.com, or £30 for the pair, inclusive of p+p. I can sign and personally inscribe them, to make a lovely gift.