Obituary of Lt Col Terence Otway DSO

Lieutenant-Colonel Terence Otway, who died on Sunday aged 92, led the 9th Parachute Battalion in operations on D-Day and was awarded the DSO.

The 9th Battalion, part of 3rd Parachute Brigade, was given the task of destroying the coastal battery at Merville before the seaborne invasion began at dawn on June 6, and afterwards of occupying a key feature of the heavily invested defence perimeter on the Allies' eastern flank.

The battery was believed to be equipped with four 150 mm calibre guns capable of laying down fire on Sword Beach, which was the landing area for the British 3rd Infantry Division. It was guarded by a garrison of 130 within a 15 ft thick and 5 ft high barbed wire fence and surrounded by a minefield 100 yards wide. Twenty weapon pits had been counted in aerial photographs; there were also isolated minefields laid across all likely approaches; and an anti-tank ditch had been dug on the west side.

The assault, supported by three gliders with orders to crash-land directly on the battery, was to go in at 4.30 am, thus allowing the battalion one hour to destroy the guns before the assault-craft landed.

Otway divided his force into 11 groups, each with its own task. Among them was a reconnaissance party, a taping party, a breaching unit and the assault group. Four minutes from the dropping zone, the assault group ran into anti-aircraft fire and began to take evasive action. As a result, instead of being dropped in a concentrated area the battalion was spread over 50 square miles.

A shell exploded close to Otway's aircraft, and incendiary bullets went through his parachute just as he was about to jump. He, his batman Corporal Wilson and another man landed close to a farmhouse which was a German HQ.

Wilson fell through the roof of a greenhouse which attracted fire from the Germans but, with quick thinking, he threw a brick through one of the farm windows. This was mistaken for a grenade, which provided a moment of respite in which the three men got clear.

Much of the path-finding equipment had been damaged and smoke from a bombing raid reduced visibility. As a result few of the pilots saw the beacons prepared by the advance party, and there were parachutists who missed the dropping zone by 30 miles.

Some landed chest high in water and, weighed down by their 60 lb kitbags, were drowned. On reaching the rendezvous, Otway discovered that he had no radio sets which worked, no engineers, no medical orderlies and only a quarter of his men.

But as the attack went ahead, it was found that the reconnaissance party had penetrated the minefield. The taping party had also arrived, but without tapes or mine-detectors; they marked the route through the minefields by scratching heel-marks in the dust.

The plan had to be drastically changed. The men from "B" company were divided into two breaching teams. The assault was to be made by a composite force of "A" and "C" companies, comprising about 50 men. As they formed up, they were fired on by machine guns inside and outside the perimeter from both flanks.

At 4.30 am, two of the three gliders carrying the assault party could be seen circling low over the battery. The plan for illuminating this had gone seriously awry and one of the gliders landed four miles from the objective; the other crashed in an orchard and immediately engaged a German platoon which was trying to reinforce the garrison.

The enemy machine guns were silenced and Bangalore torpedoes were detonated to clear the wire in front of the assault. "The battery concentrated everything waist-high on the gaps in the wire," Otway said later. "Booby traps and mines were going off all over the place, fierce hand-to-hand fighting was going on inside the battery, and I had to keep dodging a machine gun in the tower which was shooting at me."

Twenty-three captured men were then ordered to guide Otway's force through the minefields as the Germans opened fire with shells and mortars from neighbouring positions.

Otway started with about 750 men, few of whom had seen action before; of the 150 who took part in the attack, only 65 were still on their feet at the end of an action, which saved a great many Allied lives. The citation for his DSO stated that his utter disregard for personal danger had been an inspiration to all his men.

Terence Brandram Hastings Otway was born in Cairo on June 15 1914 and educated at Dover College. After attending Sandhurst, he was commissioned into the Royal Ulster Rifles in 1934 and served with the 2nd Battalion before joining 1 RUR in Hong Kong the following year.

Two years later he was sent to India before being posted to the North-West Frontier. Not a week passed, he recalled afterwards, without a skirmish with the local tribesmen, often hand-to-hand with swords and knives.

Otway returned to England and attended Staff College, where he passed out fourth among a class of 200. After a staff job at the War Office, he returned to 1 RUR in 1943 as a company commander. He transferred to the Parachute Regiment and, in March 1944, was promoted lieutenant-colonel on taking command of 9th Parachute Battalion.

After taking the Merville Battery, the battalion pushed into Le Plein, where they encountered stiffening resistance and, despite their depleted numbers, took the Chateau St Côme on the ridge.

Two days later, while making a routine tour of his positions, a stray shell landed close to Otway. He was diagnosed with severe concussion and subsequently evacuated, then graded unfit for a return to active service.

In May 1945, Otway took command of the 1st/5th King's Regiment in India with instructions to convert it into an airborne battalion. He was made divisional chief of staff in September and, in 1946, he was again posted to the War Office. There he wrote the official history of Airborne Forces, which became available to the public in 1990.

Disillusioned with the post-war Army, Otway resigned his commission in 1948 and joined the Colonial Development Corporation, for which he worked in the Gambia and Nyasaland. Deteriorating health brought him back to England the following year to go into business. He was general manager of the Empire News, a director of Trianco and Scotia Investments and worked in the life insurance industry. As deputy chairman of the London headhunting firm Korn-Ferry, he wrote a lucid account in The Daily Telegraph in 1984 of how to be headhunted.

After retiring in 1979 he remained active in promoting the welfare of soldiers in the Parachute Regiment and their widows. For almost 30 years he pursued a claim that he was being deprived of his full pension rights as a disabled officer, which was eventually confirmed by the Ombudsman, who declared that "Colonel X" (as Otway was known) and 24 others had been deliberately misled.

When he met the German commander of the battery in 1993 he admitted that he did not have the guts to refuse the proferred hand, but said afterwards that he could not forget his men, shot by the Germans as they hung helpless in trees. He shooed away picknickers from the battery, which is now a memorial and museum, declaring: "I don't like people eating and drinking where my men died." In 1997 he unveiled a bronze bust of himself at the site; and in 2001, he was awarded the Legion d'Honneur.

Terence Otway married, in 1939, Stella Whitehead, with whom he had a son who predeceased him. The marriage was dissolved and he had another brief marriage before marrying again, in 1971, Jean Walker.

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