Pompadour veterans visit Walbury Hill – site of the mock-up of the Merville gun battery assaulted by the 9th Parachute Battalion early on D-Day

In recent years a group of Pompadour veterans who served with the 3rd Battalion, together, primarily in Berlin and Aden in the mid-sixties, get together occasionally to reminisce. This gathering often takes place somewhere with a historical connection with its heritage – the Essex, Bedfordshire & Hertfordshire Regiments. Amongst them the battlefields and cemeteries around Ypres, the National Memorial Arboretum in Alrewas and Tempsford Airfield, site of WW2 SOE flight operations.

On the 29th and 30th March 2023 Kerry Woodrow, Randall Cross, Brian Harrington Spier, Trevor Veitch, Jeremy Veitch, Patrick Shervington, Jerry Steele and organiser David Norbury visited Walbury Hill, accompanied by a supporting cast of partners and, in one case by a son. Situated in the North Wessex Downs in Berkshire, this Iron Age fort site surprisingly has an Essex Regiment connection. In the last few weeks before D-Day a mock-up of the Merville Gun Battery in Normandy was secretly constructed there to allow the 9 Para to rehearse its assault of the position, ultimately with live ammunition. The battalion had been formed from the 10th Battalion of the Essex Regiment in Dec 1942, and named 9th Parachute Battalion (Eastern & Home Counties) and in 1944 was assigned to the 3rd Parachute Brigade part of 6th Airborne Division for the Allied invasion.

The Division’s mission was to secure the left flank of the invasion and 9 Para had been tasked with silencing the Merville battery guns that overlooked the allied landing beaches early on D Day morning. 9 Para achieved this mission but this success came at a very high cost. Of some six hundred men who jumped from Dakotas and those who flew in a coup de main force in Horsa gliders, only 150 reached the assembly area. Tragedy had struck in the air and a disastrous overshoot had scattered the battalion over a wide area, much of it into fields flooded by the Germans around the river Dives. After the successful, but bloody, assault only 70 men were left standing. These men fought on bravely for several days engaging secondary objectives and keeping the counter attacking enemy at bay until relieved by units that had landed as part of the seaborne operation.

The Pompadour party gathered on the early evening of 29th March for drinks at the delightful Jack Russell Inn in the small village of Faccombe situated a couple of miles from Walbury Hill. Here they met our guide Neil Cook, an amateur airborne military historian. Neil’s day job is as an executive working for Vodafone. He is an army reservist, and we were fortunate enough to get him back in time from a deployment in Lithuania for this event! The group spent a happy evening dining together and were honoured to be joined by Lady Katherine Astor whose family own the land around Walbury Hill.

The following morning, in a meeting room kindly provided by the Jack Russell, our guide presented the story of these Essex men’s strenuous hardening and parachute training as they converted to form 9 Para. In and around Salisbury Plain they carried out further parachute jumps and were introduced to glider operations, still very much in their infancy. The physical training increased in its’s intensity as preparation for the Allied invasion continued and details of divisional and brigade plans developed to allow rehearsals. 9 Para (Essex) only learnt that it’s objective was to be a German gun battery, pivotal to the defence of the Normandy beaches, several weeks before D Day. At this time, the detailed layout of that battery became known but it’s exact location was kept secret. Royal Engineers quickly constructed a battery life size model using earth moving equipment, scaffolding and hessian below Walbury Hill. This location had been chosen, because its physical features – fields, hedgerows, ditches and lanes – closely resembled the approach routes that 9 Para planned to use to the Merville battery and was remote enough to be cordoned off for security. Here the battalion secretly conducted detailed rehearsals against an objective strongly defended by wire, mine fields and machine gun posts, as individual roles were practised. Final rehearsals were live firing events and the exact location and name of the Merville gun battery released just days before D Day.

Following this excellent briefing, in blustery conditions, the party visited Walbury Hill and the memorial stone that overlooks the site of the replica battery where these rehearsals were conducted almost 80 years ago. The feature made an important contribution to these Essex men in 9 Para’s successful assault on and silencing of the guns of the Merville Battery early on D Day morning.

Sign up to our newsletter

Get email updates with all of our latest news directly to your inbox.

You can unsubscribe at any time, please contact us if you would like to be taken off our mailing list.