“Rangers lead the way!”

Pointe du Hoc

AC20 Havoc aircraft bombing Pointe du Hoc before the landings

Nazi Germany had been preparing for an imminent assault from the west since early 1942, calling for the construction of the 1,900-mile-long Atlantic Wall. One among the many fortified positions used to protect Fortress Europe, a 100-foot promontory lying between Utah and Omaha beaches, is Stützpunkt (“strongpoint” in English) Pointe du Hoc.
 
The Germans placed a battery of six captured WWI-era 155mm French guns there, allowing them to bombard the beaches on either side. The location was heavily fortified in early 1944 with casemates, anti-aircraft guns, an observation bunker and a network of trenches, and artillery support coming from the nearby Grandcamp and Maisy batteries, if need be. Still, some of the casemates were not ready by D-Day. The battery was occupied by the 2nd Battery of Army Coastal Artillery Regiment 1260, and elements of the 716th and 352nd Infantry Divisions were tasked to defend the promontory from attacks.
 
Shortly before the landings and following a series of Allied bombing raids launched in April, the guns were replaced by dummies made of telephone poles and moved further inland but the Allies nevertheless decided that the strongpoint and, furthermore, the batteries at Grandcamp and Maisy must be captured to prevent any potential heavy bombardment of the American beaches. Their objective was also to create a roadblock along the Grandcamp-Vierville road. The task fell to the Provisional Ranger Force, comprising the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder. The actual on-the-site commander was originally meant to be Major Cleveland Lytle, but after a briefing a somewhat drunk Lytle expressed his opinion that the attack was unnecessary and suicidal when he learned that the guns had been moved inland according to intelligence coming from the French Resistance, and was removed at the last minute with Rudder himself taking his place. Lytle wasn't the only one with doubts. An intelligence officer stated that "Three old women with brooms could keep the Rangers from climbing that cliff."

One of the casemates today
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Ranger Force “A”, “B” and “C” was made up of two battalions: the 2nd Rangers, under the direct command of Rudder, and the 5th Rangers, under Lieutenant Colonel Max F. Schneider. 225 men, three companies (D, E, and F, named Force “A”) of the 2nd Battalion were to land from the sea and assault the cliff position at Pointe du Hoc at 6.30 a.m. The main Ranger force of about 500 men (5th Battalion and Companies A and B of the 2nd, named Force “C”) would wait off shore for signal of success (that is two successive flares shot by 60mm mortars), then land at the cliffs. The Ranger Force would then move inland, cut the coastal highway connecting Grandcamp and Vierville, and await the arrival of the 29th Infantry Division from Omaha Beach before pushing west toward Grandcamp and Maisy. An alternate plan was ready if the support force of Rangers had not received word of success from the attack at Pointe du Hoc by 7.00 a.m. In this event, the larger Ranger force would land on the western end of Omaha Beach (Dog Green sector at Vierville) behind the 29th Infantry Division and proceed overland directly toward Pointe du Hoc. Company C, 2nd Rangers (named Force “B”, led by Captain Ralph E. Goranson), had a separate mission of its own at Omaha Beach. It was ordered to land with the first assault wave of the 29th Infantry Division and knock out German strongpoints near Pointe de la Percée, another nearby cliff, immediately flanking the Omaha landing beaches and linking with Force “A”. Tom Hanks’ fictional character in the movie Saving Private Ryan was also a member of Force “C”.

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Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan with the Ranger patch on his shoulder

Force “A” used 9 landing craft, each carrying 22 men, accompanied by 4 DUKW amphibious trucks carrying 100 foot / 30 m extension ladders courtesy of the London Fire Department. The Rangers used the modified British-made Landing Craft Assault (LCA) instead of the American “Higgins” boats (Landing Craft, Vehicle, Personnel - LCVP). The LCA had silenced engines, better armor protection and was manned by Royal Navy crews. For this mission, they were equipped also with six launch tubes to fire grappling hooks and ropes up the cliffs.
 
On D-Day, the mission was off to an inauspicious start. Two landing craft were swamped by heavy spray on the choppy sea, sinking and leaving its passengers in the water waiting for rescue. Shortly thereafter, in the twilight of dawn, the remaining ships realized they were blown three miles off course by the wind and the sea current and were heading for Pointe de la Percée. They corrected their heading, but the detour meant they could only get to the cliff more than half an hour behind schedule. The Allied navy, including the battleship USS Texas, was slated to bombard Pointe du Hoc just before the attack to suppress the Germans, but the delay meant the defenders had enough time to recover thus the element of surprise was lost. As the Rangers landed, they came under heavy fire.

A view today from the artillery observation bunker at Pointe du Hoc

The extension ladders couldn't reach the top of the cliff, so ropes tipped with grapnels and rockets were launched upwards. Heavy from wetness, many of the ropes fell short; others were cut by the Germans or ended up in areas easily covered by fire; nevertheless, the Rangers managed to climb up some of the ropes amid small arms fire and grenades. Fortunately, earlier bombardment had caused part of the cliff to collapse, creating a ramp of debris on the beach and shortening the distance they had to climb.

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Rangers climbing up on the ladders after the battle

The Rangers were accompanied by Colonel Travis Trevor, a British commando who had helped them train for the mission on the Isle of Wight. Heedless of the danger, Trevor walked up and down the beach, encouraging the Rangers to move forward. A lieutenant shouted at him: "How in the world can you do that when you are being fired at?" "I take two short steps and three long ones," he replied, "and they always miss me." The next moment, he was hit in the helmet by a bullet and he dropped, albeit only with a light wound.
 
Once at the top, the Rangers started taking enemy strongpoints and artillery positions. Still, since the deadline to signal for reinforcements had passed, they had to secure Pointe du Hoc on their own without the reinforcements which, according to the alternate plan, proceeded to Omaha Beach to attack the battery from inland. Before leaving, Force “C” waited ten minutes beyond the time limit and then, at 7.25 a.m., received by radio the code word TILT, the prearranged signal to follow the alternative plan but it was too late. At 07.45 a.m., Rudder sent the message PRAISE THE LORD ("all men up cliff"), no positive response was forthcoming anymore.
 
The Rangers quickly realized that the terrain was nothing like the photos and sandbox models they had studied. The heavy sea and air bombardment leading up to D-Day had transformed the top of the cliff into a crater-ridden moonscape. There was no clear frontline, only individual pockets of resistance and a maze of craters and trenches that made navigation difficult. Both Rangers and German defenders captured some of each other at various points, and eight Germans in the observation bunker managed to hold out until the next day. The epic war movie, The Longest Day does not only depict the attack on Pointe du Hoc but it was also shot at the actual location.

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Pointe du Hoc today and a snippet from The Longest Day movie 

In order to find the missing guns, some of the Rangers set out inland in search for them. At 9 a.m., two hours after landing below the cliff, a two-man patrol consisting of First Sergeant Leonard Lommell and Staff Sergeant Jack E. Kuhn, found five of the six guns in an apple orchard and disabled them with thermite grenades that fused their recoil mechanisms together while a force of some 100 German soldiers were preparing for a counterattack a mere hundred yards away. Having accomplished their primary objective and joined by three paratroopers from the 101st Airborne Division who landed far from their drop zones the previous night, the Rangers established a perimeter, dug in and waited for reinforcements.

Rangers with one of the hidden guns after the battle

For the rest of the day and into the night, they endured snipers, artillery and counterattacks with steadily mounting casualties and running out of ammunition. Some of the Rangers didn't hear the order to withdraw to the defensive position around the Pointe proper and were cut off, hiding in hedgerows and ditches. Luckily, some Allied warships provided artillery support to the Rangers from the sea. By the time reinforcements arrived on land, the force of 225 was reduced to about 90. Rudder himself was injured twice: first when a British cruiser accidentally dropped a marker shell on his command post, then when he went hunting snipers and got shot in the leg. During their ordeal, they made good use of a WWI-era signal lamp, which they used to send Morse codes to a nearby Allied ship and have it take out a German machine gun position that would have been impossible to assault without heavy losses. It was not until the morning of 8 June that the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc were finally relieved by the 2nd and 5th Rangers, plus the soldiers of the 29th Infantry Division arriving from Omaha Beach.

Rudder’s command post among the ruins of a bunker

The Rangers paid a heavy price for their success, but taking out the guns, even if they weren't where they were supposed to be, was an important victory. Many of the fallen Rangers are buried in the Normandy American Cemetery a couple of miles from Pointe du Hoc. In the words of communications officer of the 2nd Battalion, Lt. Eikner: "Had we not been there we felt quite sure that those guns would have been put into operation and they would have brought much death and destruction down on our men on the beaches and our ships at sea. But by 09.00 on D-Day morning the big guns had been put out of commission […]. So, by 09.00 our mission was accomplished. The rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc were the first American forces on D-Day to accomplish their mission and we are proud of that."

Rudder with the signal lamp in the background

The French government transferred the area to the American Battle Monuments Commission on January 11, 1979 for perpetual care and maintenance. The French erected also the symbolic granite dagger atop the observation bunker as a monument to the Rangers. This is the spot where President Reagan delivered his famous “Boys of Pointe du Hoc” commemoration speech on June 6, 1984. Today, the site is covered still with countless bomb craters, and, with the original pillboxes and casemates in their place, offering a spectacular view of the Normandy coast. In this daring operation, the Rangers truly lived up to their motto: “Rangers lead the way!”

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