Before World War Two, Terence Otway was a career soldier serving in the Empire's hardest trouble spot - the North-West frontier.
In April 1944, while only in his late twenties, he was second in command of the 9th Parachute Battalion. He was surprised to be suddenly promoted to the top job and ordered to drop into Normandy in the early hours of June 6, 1944 and put out of action heavy German guns known as the Merville Battery, which could have wreaked havoc on the beaches where Allied troops were to land.
The Merville Battery defences were formidable. A 400-yard anti-tank ditch, 15ft wide by 10ft deep, wound its way around the west and north-western sides. Two belts of barbed wire surrounded the whole Battery, the outer not being too fearsome, but the inner was around 6ft high by 10ft deep. The garrison was estimated to contain 160 men, manning 15 to 20 weapons pits, each containing 4 to 5 machine guns and possibly three 20mm anti-aircraft guns.
Against Terrible Odds
The attack itself did not go to plan. There were two nasty surprises for Otway and his men. Firstly, the areas were covered in wide, water-filled ditches which no-one had warned them about. These proved almost impossible to cross. To make matters worse, the Germans had opened the sluice gates to the nearby River Dives, flooding the fields to a depth of around 4 feet. The result was disaster. The paratroops were scattered across Normandy and some drowned in the marshes. Much equipment was lost.
In the end, Otway was forced to attack the well-defended gun position with barely 150 men. The attack ended at around 5.00am, successfully. A signal flare was fired and a carrier pigeon released in order to convey to HMS Arethusa waiting off-shore that the battery had been silenced. The men retreated, taking with them their injured comrades and 23 prisoners.
Of the 150 paratroopers who took part in the assault, half were dead, missing or wounded. The courage and resourcefulness shown by Otway and his men is the stuff of legend in British military history.