On this day during World War II in June 1944, Army Rangers would complete a mission, scaling the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day that would immediately become the stuff of legend. Later, the survivors would comment that they couldn’t believe that they survived. The Commander of the Rangers, LTC James Rudder would comment, “How did we do this? It was crazy then, and it’s crazy now.”
The Allies had formulated their plan in the fall of 1943 to storm the coast of France the following spring. While the Germans assumed, with much Allied disinformation, that the landings will take place in the Pas de Calais area, Normandy was the actual target.
The two beaches in the American sector code-named Omaha and Utah were separated by a large promontory point called Pointe du Hoc. The Germans recognized the importance of the high ground which rises to over 100 feet over the beaches, where both are clearly visible and spotters or guns from the point can dominate both beaches.
The Germans initially placed a battery of six captured French 155mm artillery pieces in open gun pits in 1943, in a good position to support their defenses on both beaches. The 352nd Infantry Division (a good hardened unit) was in positions to defend and support the guns. The open pits were vulnerable to air attack and because of Allied bombing, the Germans withdrew the guns 1000 yards to the rear in an apple orchard early in April 1944. An American Army Air Corps A-20 raid dropped 33 tons of bombs and forced the Germans to build casemates, an observation bunker and gun pits for 20mm flak anti-aircraft guns. By the time of the invasion, two casemates would remain unfinished.
The Plan: LTG Omar Bradley, the American ground force commander, tasked LTC James Rudder with taking the high ground, destroying the guns, and denying the Germans the use of the high ground for observation.
The 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions were tasked with the assignment. The 2nd with an assault force of Companies D, E, and F (Force A) was to land on the beach, scale the cliffs, using a combination of ropes, ladders, and grapples, secure the high ground while the remainder of the 2nd Bn. and 5th Bn. were to be signaled by a flare at the top of the cliffs to signify the cliffs had been taken. There they would push through and bolster the three companies at the top of the cliffs, block the Germans from using the road and then attack the Maisy Battery which was located back behind the cliffs. Maisy battery consisted of four 155mm captured French guns, four 105mm artillery pieces and four additional 150mm pieces that were destroyed by Allied naval bombardment.
The Rangers had been rehearsing for this mission at the Isle of Wight under the watchful eyes of the British Commandos.
Bradley later remarked that assigning Rudder that task was the most difficult decision he had to make in the war. Rudder had recruited, trained, and led the Rangers and believed them to be ready for the job. “My men can do it,” Rudder told Bradley.
The Navy with Allied destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont would provide direct fire support on the German positions to keep the enemy fire from coming down the cliffs. One Navy commander thought the attack was suicidal remarking, “It can’t be done. Three old women with brooms could keep the Rangers from climbing those cliffs.”
Just prior to the invasion Rudder and Major Cleveland Lytle, the commander of Force A, got into an argument over the assigned task. According to some reports, Lytle thought the focus of the attack should be on Battery Maisy rather than Pointe du Hoc and that the Rangers were attacking in the wrong place.
Other reports had Lytle in an alcoholic stupor loudly proclaiming that the mission was suicide. And that the Free French forces reporting that the guns had already been moved from Pointe du Hoc. Either way, Rudder felt that Lytle was unfit for command, relieved him on the spot and took personal charge of the assault on Pointe du Hoc.
Lytle didn’t go quietly, having to be manhandled out of the door by several Rangers, and knocked out the Regimental Surgeon. He later commanded a Regiment in the 90th Infantry Division and was awarded the Silver Star and the Distinguished Service Cross.
The Attack: The attack on Pointe du Hoc in Normandy began at 0405 hrs. on June 6th when 108 Royal Air Force (RAF) heavy bombers saturated the area with 635 tons of bombs. Just after 0500 the German defenders could see hundreds of ship’s silhouettes appear on the horizon. The naval bombardment began at 0555 hrs.
The assault force was squeezed into ten landing craft. An additional two were used for supplies as well as 10 of the Army’s DUKW amphibious trucks carrying the 100-foot ladders that were to be used to scale the cliffs. Immediately things began to go awry.
One landing craft sank, drowning all but one soldier. A DUKW was hit by artillery fire and sank. A third was swamped. Both landing craft with supplies were swamped, one sank and the other had to jettison all of its equipment to stay afloat.
Worse, the new radar that was to guide the landing craft into shore was inoperable and some of the landing craft were miles off from their intended landing spots at Pointe du Hoc. When they finally realized their error, they had to turn and go an additional two miles to the right beach. Force A’s troops were over 40 minutes late hitting the beach. This error would change the course of history.
Omaha Beach: The follow-on force of the remainder of 2nd Bn. and the 5th Bn. of Rangers did not head to Pointe du Hoc instead to Omaha Beach because it had not received the radio signal from Force A that the cliffs were secured.
Their secondary landing point put the Companies at the “Dog Green” sector of Omaha Beach on the shoulder of the Vierville Draw where a murderous fire ripped the Rangers to shreds along with the Infantry. This was made famous by the opening scene of “Saving Private Ryan”. But the rest of the force was diverted to “Dog White” and landed among the 29th Division. There they met Asst. Division Commander Norman “Dutch” Cota, who gave the famous order, “Rangers, Lead the Way.” Due to unforeseen circumstances, the Rangers, at the wrong beach would save the Omaha beachhead and the 5th Bn. broke thru and flanked the German defenses.
Pointe du Hoc: The plan was for the naval bombardment to cease at 0630 and the Rangers landing craft to hit the beach shortly after. But the mixup had caused them to hit the beach at 0710 where the Germans had plenty of time to recover and they poured murderous fire on the Rangers still on the landing craft and on the beaches below.
The landing craft were getting swamped with water and the men were all seasick, so they bailed brackish water and vomit over the sides as they approached the beach. The men finally reached the beaches only to find that the 100 foot ladders were too short to reach the top of the cliffs.
But the grappling hooks fired by the landing craft had reached the top and the Rangers began making the deadly climb by ones and twos to the top. Amazingly, it took only 3-4 minutes for the first Rangers to reach the cliff’s edge at the top.
By 0730 the Rangers had reached the top and were clearing the Germans out of the battery positions. There they found the casemates empty. After clearing the remaining Germans out of the immediate area, 35 Rangers set up their secondary mission, building the road block by 0815. They were amazed at the amount of destruction on top of the cliff by the aerial and naval bombardment. Nothing resembled the aerial photographs they studied pre-invasion. Everything was rubble.
A patrol was sent out to find the guns and they disabled them using thermite grenades at 0900. The Germans begin counterattacks that were beaten back. Later that night a patrol of Rangers from Omaha Beach, link up with the survivors on Pointe du Hoc.
By nightfall on June 6, one-third of the 225 men that came ashore were either dead or wounded, but many of the wounded continued to fight on. Food, water, and ammunition were dangerously low. Many of the Rangers took to using captured German weapons as ammunition for those was plentiful.
Rudder’s men held two areas, the HQ near the top of the cliffs and the roadblock. The Germans launched a counterattack against the roadblock at 2330. They then launched a second, stronger attack at 0100 on June 7th. And again, they were repulsed. The Germans launched a third, even stronger counterattack at 0300. Losses were heavy, and 20 Rangers were captured.
About half of the force at the roadblock about 45 Rangers pulled back to the HQ, erroneously reporting to Rudder that the roadblock was destroyed. Rudder has only 90 men still under arms the morning of the 7th.
Later that afternoon, an LST arrived with a Ranger platoon and would take wounded Rangers off the beach. The next morning, three battalions of infantry from the 116th Infantry broke thru from Omaha Beach and relieved the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc.
Of Rudder’s original landing force, only 75 could bear arms on June 8th. Casualties were high, bordering on 70 percent with 77 killed, 152 wounded and 38 missing. The 5th Bn. suffered 23 killed, 89 wounded and two missing. One ugly situation that arose during the battle was that a number of French civilians were executed, having been accused by the Rangers of having fought with the Germans during the battle.
Rudder was wounded twice in the battle and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross. Thirteen other Rangers were awarded the DSC for their roles at Pointe du Hoc. The 2nd Ranger Bn. was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
At the 40th anniversary of the battle, several of the surviving Rangers joined President Reagan at his speech in Normandy, one of his most memorable, “The Boys of Pointe du Hoc” at the top of the cliffs. One of the surviving Rangers joined some Green Berets in reclimbing the cliffs, although this time, not under fire. And was the first one to the top.
The 75th Ranger Regiment’s proud legacy lists many battles all the way back to Robert Rogers during Colonial times, but arguably none were as difficult a task as the one faced by Rudder and the men on a beach in Normandy. Sua Sponte
Photos courtesy US Army