In between Omaha and Utah beaches in Normandy lies a promontory called Pointe du Hoc. Prior to D-Day on 6 June 1944, the Germans had six 155mm artillery pieces that could effectively fire on either Omaha or Utah beaches. Pointe du Hoc (typo’ed as Pointe du Hoe on many D-Day documents and maps) was target number one for the Americans to neutralize.
Feeling the pointe was unassailable from the sea, the Germans focussed most of the defenses facing rearward. The Americans, knowing this, sent their elite infantrymen, Companies D, E & F of the 2nd Ranger Batallion, to scale the seaside 100 foot vertical walls of the pointe in an attempt to surprise the Germans.
The pointe was subjected to an unprecedented aerial and naval bombardment prior to the invasion. You can see the effects of this in the giant craters that still exist here today. The firing lifted just before the Rangers were to land at 06:30. This is where things begian to go wrong.
At approximately 06:20, the Rangers’ landing craft were heading for the wrong pointe (Pointe de la Percee, a similar pointe) 2 miles closer to Omaha beach. The Ranger leader, Lieutenant-Colonel James Rudder, noticed the error and corrected the flotilla. However, to correct, the Rangers had to run parallel to the coast and against a strong tide. Swells engulfed several boats, including a supply boat. This meant they were 40 minutes late, short of men, food and ammunition. The delay meant the Germans had begun to re-occupy the pointe after the aerial and naval bombardment had lifted.
The Rangers landed at the base of the cliffs at approximately 07:10. Using grappling hooks and ladders, the first elements were up in 10 minutes. The Germans killed and wounded 15 by firing down on the Rangers and dropping grenades on them, but supporting naval fire suppressed them enough to allow the Rangers to get on top of the pointe.
The next problem came when the Rangers realized that the guns they had come for were not there. However, being trained to never dally around, the Rangers began to move toward their next objective which was to get to the main road (today’s D514) and set up a blocking position. Some Rangers had to fight from trench to trench to move forward, but others had a clear run to the road. Once at the road, elements from the 3 companies that had landed on the pointe set up blocking positions on the road and began immediate patrolling of the area. A CP element and an element trapped by snipers and an anti-aircraft position on the western side remained on the pointe.
Back at the road, the patrols were out. During 2 of these patrols, the missing German guns were found hidden in an orchard. One of the patrols with two Ranger sergeants moved to the south of their positions along a farm track and hedge row. At the end of the track, they found the heavily camouflaged guns in the orchard. They could hear their German crews being briefed and formed up in the distance. The Rangers destroyed the guns with thermite grenades. They quickly made their way back to the highway and sent a messenger to report to the CP back at the pointe.
After landing late in the face of determined opposition and not initially finding the guns, the Rangers had accomplished their mission in approximately 2 hours. Colonel Rudder sent the message that still inspires soldiers today; “mission accomplished – need ammunition and reinforcements – many casualties.”
Rudder thought that his scheduled relief would arrive at any minute, but only a single platoon had made it through. The near disaster at Omaha Beach was preventing the mass of the Rangers’ organic reinforcements from reaching Pointe du Hoc. Rudder and his decimated force were alone. Over the next 2 days, there were 5 German counter-attacks. The Rangers, initially strung out over a mile from pointe to the road, were forced back inside a 200 meter perimeter. They fought for their lives on low ammunition and little food to avoid being pushed off the cliffs and into the sea. In the end, the 190 man strong Ranger force was down to 90 that could defend the position. On D+2, the relief force arrived. The Rangers had taken 70% casualties, but a near mythical founding chapter of an elite force had been written.
In my current life it is hard to imagine the amount of personal sacrifice required for such an undertaking as Pointe du Hoc. This is one of the reasons I ride to these historic battlefields. I may never have to do what these Rangers did, but I have a responsibility for keeping the institutional memory alive. An excellent description of the action can be found at the US Army’s Center for Military History.
Not far from Pointe du Hoc is the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial. It is well worth the visit and the new interpretive center there is superb.