Telephone exchange near Merville Battery.

Discussion in 'NW Europe' started by nigel barrett, Mar 5, 2018.

  1. nigel barrett

    nigel barrett Member

    In his excellent book 'The Manner Of Men', Stuart Tootal mentions a telephone exchange sited in a house in Merville. He states there was a failed attempt to cut the wires and an eye witness account of burying the bodies of dead British soldiers near the house.

    As I understand it, the telephone exchange was not an objective for 9 Para, so I'm wondering who was tasked with the mission? Presumably they would have been dropped along with the pathfinders and advanced parties of 9 Para. Or was this part of an alternative SAS-type raid?

    Does anyone have any information?
  2. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron

    Hi Nigel,

    I don't have the Tootal book but found the relevant passage on Google Books which I'll add as it may provide a few more clues.

    The Manner of Men-1.jpg The Manner of Men-2.jpg

    I couldn't find any information on a party connected to 9 Para whose task was to cut telephone lines at the Battery or for that matter any other unit who was given the assignment. According to Carl Shilleto in his book "The Merville Battery & The Dives Bridges" the line between the Battery Command Post and Battery Observation Post was an armoured buried cable.

    "1) The Merville Battery Observation Post. From this bunker, in 1944, the Orne Canal locks, Ouistreham, SWORD Beach and, later, the massive Allied naval fleet could be clearly seen. Firing orders would have been passed to the Merville Battery via underground armoured covered telephone cable. On 6 June 1944 Oberleutnant Raimund Steiner, commander of the Merville Battery, was in his observation bunker and was awoken by a telephone call in the early hours with news that the battery was under attack (see Ch. 5, D28). ..."

    "28) Command Post. The nerve centre of the battery, this position contained the telephone exchange that linked the Merville Battery with its forward observation post on the beach near Merville-Franceville (see Ch. 5, B1) and each of the casemates so that their fire could be accurately directed. At the time of the attack on the battery by 9 Para, Stabsfeldwebel Johannes ‘Hans’ Buskotte was inside the bunker and used the periscope inside to observe the attack. He then telephoned through to Oberleutnant Raimund Steiner, who was in the OP on the beach to inform him the battery was underattack. Oberleutnant Steiner, in turn, telephoned through to other batteries in the area to request help by them laying down fire on the perimeter of the Merville Battery. ..."

    The Chateau de Merville was one building near the Battery that was requisitioned by the Germans during their occupation of the area in WW2. I don't know if it housed a telephone exchange or was connected to the Yvonne Family whose home may have been a different building entirely.

    Regards ...
    Tricky Dicky and Dave55 like this.
  3. nigel barrett

    nigel barrett Member

    Thanks Cee for your help. It seems there is some discrepency around the location of the telephone exchange. In Shilleto's book, as per your quote, it seems that the exchange was within the battery and therefore of course likely to be surrounded by casualties (buried by the Yvonne family?), but in Tootal's book he is very clear that the exchange was in a house in the village so the casulaties are still unexplained as discussed above.
  4. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron


    To be honest I don't know how telephone exchanges work. From the Shilleto book it would appear that it was a dedicated line to the OP with also the ability to contact each of the casemates. There are some references to cables, exchanges and power lines in documents found under the 9 Para WD. For example under "APPX 'A' TO 9 PARA BN OO No 1 DETAILS OF BTY 155776":

    "The bty OP may be within the inf strong pt on the bank of the R ORNE at 138789. Comns would be by buried cable and wireless. The water tower at 156782 is now surrounded by wire which suggests its possible use as an OP."

    That seems to suggest they knew there was a buried cable but may not have known it was connected to the Command Post bunker? The Paras tried to gain entry to the Command Post but were unsuccessful. There may well have been an exchange in the village somewhere as well. The Germans still needed contact with the outside world.

    The Chateau de Merville nearby was a a large house with several out buildings and would have been a good location for a local HQ. It is sometimes confused with Chateau St.Come in some accounts because of its similar architecture. I suspect the following photo was taken after the Germans had left the area. As you can see it is not in the best of shape.

    Chateau de Merville.jpg

    Regards ...

    Edit: CP entry attempt
    Last edited: Mar 7, 2018
  5. nigel barrett

    nigel barrett Member

    Thanks Cee, nice picture.

    Is that the chateau where the original battery commander was killed, along with his French mistress, during a bombing raid?!

    It seems we are no further on as to whether there was a telephone exchange outside the battery or where the dead British troops could have come from - miss-dropped maybe? Canadian Para Reg? I believe they were responsible for flank security; maybe they were tasked with destroying the exchange, or got lost? As far as I know there were no SAS type special missions beyond the Operation Titanic deception plans.
  6. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron


    There are a few bomb craters near the Chateau on a May 28th aerial, although I don't know if the original Battery Commander was staying there at the time. Also there was a fortified house by the northern gate that appears to have been struck. The building didn't survive into present times.

    Aerial Barber Book.jpeg bhc007116zoom.jpg

    I couldn't find any actual accounts by members of A Coy, 1st Canadian Parachute Battalion who made it to the Merville area. The book "Paras Versus the Reich" by Horn & Wyczynski has them arriving late on the scene.

    "By 0600 hours, only two officers and twenty paratroopers from "A" Company, as well as a handful of airborne soldiers from other units, had reached the RV. Severely undermanned and behind schedule, Lieutenant J.A. Clancy assembled his small group and headed to the Merville Battery to join 9 Para Bn. ....

    Lieutenant Clancy's group finally reached the battery as Otway's men were in the process of securing the perimeter, tending to the wounded, and assembling the prisoners. Their trek had been delayed at Gonneville-sur-Merville because of heavy RAF bombardments. As the British paratroopers assembled and prepared to move out, Clancy briefed his men. They were to lead the way and protect Otway's march to their final assembly point, the high ground of Le Plein in Amfreville. As the survivors and walking wounded of 9 Para Bn headed toward Le Plein, they suddenly came under fire from a heavy German machine gun located in a nearby chateau. The Canadians quickly spread out and neutralized this enemy position. Following this short engagement, Clancy reorganized his group so that they formed an all around protective shield for the members of 9 Para Bn during their withdrawal to their new positions in Le Plein. Despite being severely undermanned, the members of "A" Company had nevertheless successfully completed all their D-Day missions. By 0900 hours they left their British comrades and rejoined the Battalion at the Le Mesnil crossroads. ....."

    Regards ...
    Tricky Dicky likes this.
  7. idler

    idler GeneralList

    It's highly likely there were two exchanges; a civilian one for the village - which might have been a corner of someone's house if the village didn't warrant a dedicated building - and the 'hub' of the battery's links between the OP, the guns and the outside world.
    If Merville had a post office, the natural assumption is that's where the civvy exchange would be.
    Cee likes this.
  8. nigel barrett

    nigel barrett Member

    Thank you Cee for spending your time on my meandering thoughts! I enjoyed the photos. I suppose it's not beyond the realm of possibility that Colonel Tootal is a visitor to this fantastic website and could provide more information. Let's hope so.
  9. idler

    idler GeneralList

    I keep meaning to look for the Heimdal book on 6 Abn. As local publications, it's the sort of detail they might have picked up. Another avenue would be the After the Battle book or their magazines.
  10. nigel barrett

    nigel barrett Member

    I see that book is on Amazon, albeit at a pricy £16. Would you recommend it?
  11. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron


    Hans Buskotte in the book "Steiner's War" tells us of the burial of one group of Airborne men:

    “We buried the British dead in one long grave in a pleasant shady spot between the lime trees where the “Offiziersheim” (Officers Mess – the former Mairie) had been”.

    The remains of 7 bodies were found at the site. The only one positively identified was Major John Pooley, 3 Commando, who was killed June 7th during the Commando assault on the Battery. Tootal gives some clues to the location of various requisitioned buildings in his book.

    the Manner of Men - Tootal-3.JPG

    The Officers' Mess is somewhere perhaps in the Descanneville village? I took idler's advice and went looking for a post office. There was a building that served that purpose by the church just up the road from the Battery. Seen here today on Street View. A few post cards which show a telephone/telegraph (?) array installed high on its front wall.

    780_001.jpg 478_001.jpg

    I'm not sure, however, if the post office is connected to the Yvonne family and may confuse more than clarify.

    Regards ...

    Edit - For want of an accurate technical name "array" might describe the installation better than "device"?
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2018
    Tricky Dicky likes this.
  12. idler

    idler GeneralList

    If it's in reasonable nick, £16 isn't at all bad for a Heimdal - they can get rather expensive on the secondhand market.
    I would generally recommend them as they tend to contain a lot of locally-sourced info and photos that you don't get anywhere else, so they complement the more detailed accounts like Tootal's.
    SDP and Tricky Dicky like this.
  13. Tricky Dicky

    Tricky Dicky Re member

    That looks like the normal 'case' that the mairie would place copies of documents in, or details of opening times etc

  14. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron


    Michael Strong, author of "Steiner's War", gave the wartime grid reference of the remaining stumps of the Mairie lime trees to the CWGC. He was informed a prior (?) investigation undertaken by them had recovered the 7 British bodies. So I imagine the location of the field burial for those particular men would be contained in a CWGC document.

    Regards ...
    Last edited: Mar 8, 2018
  15. DannyM

    DannyM Member

    The Grid Reference for Major Pooley and the seven unknown casualties was 156778.

    The only thing I could find in the Operational Orders on telephone exchanges is below. The buried cables are marked on the map.



    1.jpg 2.jpg
    Guy Hudson and Cee like this.
  16. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron

    Thanks Danny!

    Your map places the burial site near the t-junction of Avenue Lavergne and Avenue Merville Battery. The Coordinate Translator puts map reference "156778" a little further north towards the Church. There is a house near the t-junction that was once known as Le Petit Chateau according to an old post card.

    Le Petit Chateau-1.jpg Le Petit Chateau-2.JPG 156778.JPG

    Regards ...
  17. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron


    I had a good exchange of emails with Michael Strong author of "Steiner's War - The Merville Battery". He was very helpful in pointing out the site of the field grave of the 7 men killed during assaults on the Battery and the location of various buildings. Below are a few passages which he kindly allowed me to quote here. I'll add a few photos to illustrate his information.


    ... As you head away from the Merville Battery towards Franceville, the first building on the right is a post-war bungalow named "Les Picaillons". This bungalow was built on the site of the former Mairie which was destroyed by a bomb on the night of 19 May 1944. Buskotte told me that in 1944 the Mairie had been taken over as the Merville Battery "Offiziers Heim" (Officers Mess). The then Battery commander Hauptmann Karl-Heinz Wolter (NOT Walter, please note) and his mistress Marie Denise were killed by the bomb and Leutnant Raimund Steiner replaced Wolter "temporarily" the next day.

    Les Picaillons.JPG

    The grave for the British dead was dug on Buskotte's orders by some lime trees, the sprouting stumps of which are at the roadside fence of the bungalow garden. In 1946 Gordon Newton of 9 Para was in a digging party which dug up the bodies and re-interred them a few yards away in the same garden. He told me he could still identify Lt Mike Dowling among the 7 bodies. In response to a letter from me, the CWGC told me that the bodies from that grid reference were transferred to the back row centre of the British cemetery at Bayeux. Unfortunately of these only Major John Pooley's gravestone carries his name. The other six are recorded as unknowns, but we know that the bodies of Mike Dowling and probably his batman (name?) are there too. ...

    Somewhere I have some slips showing rent paid by the Germans for houses in Franceville. Men of the Battery including Buskotte were lodged at the Chateau de Merville, owned by the Dognien family who went off to live in Paris during the war.

    Hans Buskotte-Steiner's War.jpg Chateau de Merville.jpeg


    Chuck, I am not sure what is meant by the reported "fortified house". As in most French villages, the young childrens' school adjoined the Mairie. My book Steiner's War-The Merville Battery is now in three editions. The first has been on sale for several years. The second edition is only on Amazon Kindle, and the third is currently only on sale at the Merville Battery Museum in French language, where at the request of the mayor, the title is La Batterie de Merville - La Guerre de Raimund Steiner.

    In the first and second editions on page 24 you can see the old mairie at the centre of the lower photo, where Erich Marcks' hat obscures a top window. Note there a very low building to the right and a chimney of a taller building behind it. The taller building is the village school and the low building was known as the preau ( + acute accent on the e) which was a playground shelter for the school. You can also see all three buildings at the right in the top photo on page 110 or 109. These buildings can also be seen in some PR photos.

    Rommel Visit-Jan. or Mar. 1944.jpg Officers Mess, School & Préau - Shilleto Book.jpg Aerial Barber Book-2.jpeg

    On page 31/32, however, the photo of General Marcks' visit later, there appears only to be a low pile of rubble where the mairie and school buildings once stood. I believe that the bombing raid on the night of 19/5/44 destroyed the Mairie and school buildings. There were no children there of course, but in addition to Wolter and Marie-Denise, the young school mistress was also killed. She had been engaged to marry Jules Legrix ,a farmer's son whose horse and cart appear in some of the recce photos of the battery. I met Jules a few times. He never married.

    General Marck Visit-May 20 1944.jpg

    Aye Mike Strong


    We are still searching for information on the Yvonne family and the locations of field graves of other Airborne men killed in the vicinity of the Battery.

    Many thanks to Mike Strong who has spent over 30 years researching the Battle of Merville Battery, in the course of which he interviewed and came to know many of the men, both British and German, who were involved in the assault. He was also very patient in dealing with all my bumbling about ... :)

    Regards ...
  18. nigel barrett

    nigel barrett Member

    This is fascinating, thank you Cee for your continued digging. It would seem unlikely that a seperate attack on a telephone exchange outside the battery would not be mentioned by Buskotte or Steiner and therefore included in Mike Strong's book.

    However, on the recommendation of 'idler' I purchased 'Red Devils In Normandy' by Georges Bernage, and on page 52 he mentions that some special operations paratroops were dropped on 4th June 'to prepare the ground for the coup de main party' and were holed up in the cellar of a cafe opposite the Gondree. This opens up a whole new can of worms for me; firstly it might indicate that there were other operations underway including an attack on the telephone exchange in Merville as per my original question, but also I have have never heard of paratroopers dropped on 4th June - surley the risks of discovery and loss of surprise would have been huge? And does he mean regular paratroopers or some kind of SAS raid or perhaps an SOE operation?
  19. Cee

    Cee Senior Member Patron


    I'm not aware of any credible accounts of special forces arriving in Benouville in the days before Operation Deadstick, June 6th. Something like that would surely have shown up in official documentation and in the stories of those who participated in the Coup de Main raid. Monsieur Picot, owner of the cafe opposite the Gondree's, awakened by the noise of the battle was immediately shot and killed when he emerged to see what was going on.

    Leslie Wright makes the claim he was part of a Commando group, disguised as farm labourers, that were infiltrated into the area by sea in late May, and were on the ground when the Airborne troops arrived in Benouville. I asked around and was pointed to Brian Lett's book "The Small Scale Raiding Force". In a chapter titled "Leslie W. ‘Red’ Wright – the Man Who Was Not There" Lett labels him a fantasist and thoroughly discredits many of his alleged wartime involvements.

    None of that is meant to discourage your searches - it's a huge subject area and who knows what still remains to be discovered.

    Regards ...
    Tricky Dicky likes this.
  20. idler

    idler GeneralList

    Looping back to the original query for a moment, 'cutting telephone wires' may simply have been a standard procedure on the grounds it might help and won't do any harm. It might be wrong to infer that it was a defined objective.

    Regarding the 'special ops', there are similar accounts in another Heimdal title of US paras bimbling about behind Omaha a day or two before the landings. It does seem rather unlikely. I'm not knocking Heimdal, far better to have accounts recorded than not - it's all grist to the mill.

Share This Page