The D-Day Battlefields
Pointe du Hoc
This is another location that superbly emphasises the courage, determination and sacrifice of the Allied forces on D-Day. Overlord Planners knew that the artillery positions on the Pointe du Hoc, reputedly containing a battery of 155mm guns, could wreak havoc among the naval force or units landing on either side of the Point at UTAH and OMAHA Beaches. It was imperative that the guns be knocked-out as soon as possible on D-Day but the site`s cliff-top situation effectively ruled out a parachute or glider drop. The only feasible alternative was an assault launched from the sea.
The guns, housed in reinforced concrete casemates, were situated at the top of 100 foot-high (30 metre) near-vertical cliffs, protected by an interconnected network of bunkers, trenches, tunnels and machine gun posts manned by a 200-strong garrison, mostly non-Germans of the 716th Coastal Defence Division. Artillery shells like the one above, many of which came from captured French stocks, were lowered down the cliff face after being booby-trapped to create an additional hazard.
The Battery at Pointe du Hoc had been well-plastered by high level bombing during the months well before D-Day and the frequency increased in early June. This image of a formation of Douglas A-20 Havocs of the US 8th Air Force overflying the Pointe shows that the bombers hit their target on this occasion.
The Ranger battalions tasked with the capturing the guns were commanded by Texan Lieutenant Colonel James Earl Rudder (6 May 1910 - 23 March 1970). The plan called for the three companies to be landed by sea at the foot of the cliffs, which the men would scale using ropes, grapnels, and other equipment including ladders provided by the London Fire Brigade. This was to be carried out before the main landings.
The Rangers trained for the mission on the Isle of Wight, often during stormy weather, under the direction of British Commandos.
This DUKW, `Joanne`, is on display at the UTAH Beach Museum.
US Army Rangers, possibly some of those involved in the assault on Pointe du Hoc, await the invasion signal in a landing craft somewhere in England, early June 1944. Note the bazooka and the M1 Garand rifles. This replica grapnel hook and launcher is on display in the Pointe du Hoc Visitor`s Centre.
The above image, taken by the RAF in the weeks preceding the invasion, shows the extent of the bombing. Pointe du Hoc was targeted intermittently during the build-up to D-Day along with numerous other French coastal locations to make identifying the proposed landing beaches more difficult for the Germans. The granite Rangers memorial is on the right (see below).
Early on D-Day, the Rangers of the assault force transferred into ten landing craft, while another two carried supplies. In addition, four amphibious DUKWs transported the 100 ft ladders. The easterly gales and choppy seas meant that the group initially veered off course and mistook Pointe de la Percée several kilometres to the east, for Pointe du Hoc. As smoke from a recent naval bombardment slowly cleared, the mistake was realised and the `convoy` changed course, running parallel to the coast against the strong current. One landing craft carrying troops sank, drowning all but one of its occupants, and another was swamped in the rough seas while German fire sank one of the DUKWS. These setbacks meant that initially only part of the assault force reached the bottom of the cliffs and they were 40-minutes behind schedule.
Shortly before the Rangers arrived, eighteen medium bombers had plastered the German positions, driving the defenders underground which allowed the attackers to set up their ladders while the rocket-equipped landing craft fired grappling hooks with ropes attached to fix a line from the upper reaches of the cliffs. Unfortunately, the ropes were sodden with sea-spray and all fell far short of the top. In addition, the delay in reaching the correct location meant that the incoming tide was rapidly reducing the size of the already small strip of beach.
Nevertheless, the Rangers started up the cliffs. The defenders were quick to react, firing their guns and dropping `potato masher`grenades onto the Americans as they climbed. but shelling from the destroyers USS Satterlee and HMS Talybont (L18) (above) onto the plateau beyond the cliff edge proved very effective. This enabled the first Rangers to gain the top and begin firing as they worked their way across the still smoking, shell-blasted terrain towards the main casements. After a hard fight, the Germans who weren`t dead or badly wounded, surrendered or fled.
An additional Ranger force comprising eight companies had been set to follow and reinforce the first wave if flares confirming a foothold had been fired from the plateau but due to the initial delay, the signal for help came too late and the second wave, totalling around 500 men, rerouted to OMAHA. Their arrival there, close to the Vierville draw, gave the beleaguered infantry already on the beach badly needed additional firepower and the Rangers assisted in opening exits and tackling the German defences. The irony is that had the second batch landed at Pointe du Hoc, the casualty rate on OMAHA would likely have been even more horrendous than it already was.
Unknown to the Allies the Germans at Pointe du Hoc had moved all six heavy guns further inland well before D-Day to avoid the bombing and replaced them with wooden mock-ups. The Rangers, after capturing the battery, were supposed to continue south to the main route paralleling the coast and set up a roadblock. The first small band to reach it, about a dozen men in total, had to conceal themselves in a ditch on hearing the approach of a German patrol. The enemy, about 50-60 strong, were heading in the direction of UTAH Beach carrying mortars, machine guns and other heavy equipment. Under other circumstances the Rangers, despite being drastically outnumbered, would have ambushed the column but they let it pass. They then set about blowing telephone poles to disrupt the enemy`s communications.
Two of the men followed a sunken road and discovered five of the six missing guns, well concealed under camouflage netting in an orchard. They were unguarded, the Germans apparently having assumed that being so far inland, the guns were safe from attack. The missing gun had been damaged by a `stray` bomb and was elsewhere for repair but the others, aiming in the direction of UTAH Beach, were all operational with ammunition stacked nearby.
Further cautious exploration revealed German soldiers in a field about 100 metres away, but the two Rangers ducked back into cover then set about spiking the guns - the only two thermite grenades available were placed against the traversing mechanism of first pair, then the sights were broken-off the rest. Minutes after the two Americans made their exit, a huge explosion occurred. This turned out to be the handy work of another group of Rangers who had approached from a different direction, spotted the ammo dump and blew it up. All this was achieved before 08:30 hrs. The Rangers returned to the battery and immediately took up defensive positions with their comrades to ready themselves for the inevitable counter-attack.
Up until this time, the Rangers’ casualties were miraculously light, especially considering the location of their target and the high-risk approach. The Germans regrouped, however, and launched a series of counterattacks which almost succeeded in annihilating the tenuous bridgehead. By nightfall the Germans had forced the Rangers back towards the cliff edge, defending a line barely 200 yards wide. It was only the Americans’ tenacity and concentrated, very accurate naval gunfire that prevented them from being overrun. Allied commanders were made aware of the situation and troops from the 116th Infantry Regiment and 2nd Ranger Battalion, who had landed at OMAHA Beach 4 miles away, attempted to link-up with the besieged survivors at the Pointe but were blocked having fought to within a kilometre of their comrades. The gun barrel pictured above is on display near the end of the walking trail to represent the guns that were destroyed on D-Day.
During the early hours of the 7th, the German commander, General Kraiss, ordered his force to begin a strategic withdrawal to the south by dawn but it wasn’t until noon on the 8th of June that troops and armour from OMAHA relieved their comrades at the Pointe. During the interim period, the defenders not only had enemy fire to contend with, but they were mistakenly bombed by Allied aircraft and shelled by their own side.
At the end of the two-day action, the initial Ranger landing force of 225 was reduced to about 90 fighting men. In the aftermath of the battle, some Rangers became convinced that French civilians had taken part in the fighting on the German side. A number of French civilians accused of shooting at American forces, or of serving as artillery observers for the Germans were executed.
The Visitor`s Centre at Pointe du Hoc opened in May 2004 as part of a €2 Million Euro Franco-American project to honour the Rangers who fought here. The Centre`s reception area is pictured here and, as well as information boards and several small items connected with events, there is a continually running TV program featuring veteran`s testimonies.
There is a free ‘Guide to the Pointe du Hoc Walking Path’ leaflet available with numbered entries outlining the main features on the headland, the first of which is a row of interpretive panels beginning with information on the planning for Operation Overlord. The first panel reads `Planning Operation Overlord was a massive undertaking. In 1943 Allied commanders began the detailed preparations needed to organise transport, land, and support the hundreds of thousands of troops who would come ashore in Normandy. Allied assault units exhaustively practised combat operations while logisticians stockpiled weapons, supplies, and equipment. US Army rangers undertook particularly demanding training exercises in preparation for their crucial role in the invasion.`
Next are embossed bronze plaques at the Ceremonial Circle which was presented by local French government representatives to honour the men who took Pointe du Hoc on D-Day. This is where visitors get their first view of the pockmarked landscape.
The route leads round the craters, bunkers and emplacements to the cliff edge and the Pointe du Hoc Ranger Monument which was erected in 1960 on top of OP Bunker No.13 by the French government. Made of granite it takes the form of a symbolic dagger, the top of which points to the sky. In later years, the bunker was partly damaged when the area immediately in front crumbled away as a result of erosion but this has been repaired and visitors can now walk round and check out the interior.
The concrete observation bunker on which the Rangers Memorial now stands was assaulted by Rangers armed with a bazooka and grenades but the Americans could still hear radio chatter coming from inside. Having dealt with the strongpoint`s machine gun, the position was bypassed to be taken-out 24 hours later with a satchel charge. Eight Germans surrendered leaving another lying dead inside.
The above gallery and following slideshow feature general views of the site.
The excellent, atmospheric colour images of the Rangers in action on 6 June 1944 are etched on the inside of the windows at the Pointe du Hoc Visitor`s Centre. Bright sunlight made them tricky to photograph on the day I visited but I managed to capture some of the detail.
Above: This US Army photograph shows the devastation along the cliff edge after the battle with German prisoners being taken down to the beach under armed escort. The large rock stack which gives the Point its name can be seen in the background.
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Above left: US Army Rangers resting near Pointe du Hoc. Note the soldier using his finger to push cartridges into magazine of his M1 Carbine. The shot on the right shows troops moving in to reinforce the position having just landed on the small beach below the cliffs.
These US Army photographs were also taken after Pointe du Hoc`s capture. The shot of the scaling ladders below shows the steep terrain that the Rangers had to negotiate before reaching their objective. The plaques to Lt. Col. James Rudder and the Rangers 2nd Battalion, are fixed to the inside wall of the bunker supporting the dagger memorial.
The above plaque reads: `On June 6, 1944, Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder (1910 - 1970), a native Texan, led companies D, E, and F of the United States Army`s 2nd Ranger Battalion in the capture and neutralisation of the German coastal battery at Pointe du Hoc. Accomplishment of the mission, which included scaling the Point`s rocky cliff, was seen as crucial to the success of the Allied Forces Invasion of Normandy and the eventual Liberation of France. The original 225 Rudder`s Rangers fought two and one half days before relief. 90 Men survived the Mission.` The other memorial lists the Rangers who lost their lives on D-Day.
The main inscription reads `2nd Rangers Bn: In Memory of those Rangers who so valiantly gave their lives on this site and OMAHA Beach area. 6-8 June 1944.