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Quis Separabit: John Heren and his comrades died in a Sherman tank at the beginning of Operation Totalise, part of the drive to close the Falaise Gap and trap the German Army in Normandy. They are buried in the Canadian cemetery at Bretteville

This summer, towards the end of a most enjoyable French holiday, I visited the Normandy invasion beaches for the first time. I had read a great deal on the battle, and I knew that a cousin, a tank driver, had died in the fighting and was buried there. It was a good opportunity to pay my respects to him.

We had booked a couple of nights in the Grand Hotel, Cabourg, or Balbec as Marcel Proust renamed it. I had not realised that Cabourg lies only six miles east of the British landing beaches, just beyond the estuary of the River Orne. The town has the charmingly unreal perfection of all good seaside resorts, much nicer and cleaner than its British rivals. The Grand is a wonderful hotel, and though altered since Proust's day, it is not hard to imagine Saint-Loup, Charlus and Albertine going through their extraordinary evolutions there. Indeed, our stay was enlivened by the unexplained appearance on the promenade of hundreds of people in Belle Epoque dress.

My wife Fiona suggested that on our last full day she devote herself to the beach and Marguerite of Navarre's Heptaméron, while I went alone to investigate what she drily termed les scènes de carnage. The day before, we had crossed the famous Pegasus Bridge on the road to Cabourg, but as I headed there after breakfast I diverted to the site of the Merville battery, only three miles from Cabourg and the site of a little-known but even more desperate action.

The Merville battery consisted of four heavily fortified German gun emplacements ideally positioned to command the British landing beaches from Ouistreham to Arromanches. It had proved impervious to bombing, and thus the whole 9th battalion of the Parachute Regiment, some 700 men, had been detailed to seize it in the hours of darkness before the beach landings. The commanding officer, 29-year-old Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, had trained his men exhaustively on a mockup of the battery in Berkshire. The defences were formidable, with triple belts of wire, minefields and 120 heavily armed German soldiers inside the bunkers.

The operation began disastrously, with the paratroopers scattered over a wide area, some drowning in flooded fields. Otway could muster only 150 of his men, with little equipment other than their weapons. Desperate improvisation was called for, with paratroopers clearing paths through the minefields by hand. When Otway ordered them, as he recalled, to "Get in! Get in!" they did just that, and captured the battery in 20 minutes of ferocious combat. At the end, only half of Otway's men were on their feet, while more than 100 Germans were killed and wounded. 

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Stephen Fox
October 5th, 2013
12:10 PM
Thanks for this. I live south of Caen near Culey-le-Patry, and have exhibited my sculpture in the chapel of Quilly, at Bretteville sur Laize. The trees in my garden yield the occasional piece of shrapnel, and the small towns I shop in, Aunay s/Odon, and Villers-Bocage (famous for the destruction of British armour by a single Tiger) are rebuilt since the destruction, and so lack some of the mystique of old French urban architecture. I salute your cousin, and all like him who gave their lives.

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