“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers—the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machine guns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb . . . . Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only ninety could still bear arms. . . .” — President Ronald Reagan, June 6, 1984, Pointe du Hoc, 40th Anniversary of D-Day ceremony
Operation Overlord, the Allies plan to breach Nazi Germany’s Festung Europe at Normandy, was the largest and most complex amphibious operation in history. Of all the enemy targets identified at the landing sites, the one at the top of the Overlord planners’ priority list was the artillery fortress at Pointe du Hoc. Neutralizing the fortress was the mission of the Provisional Ranger Force composed of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions under the command of Lt. Colonel James Earl Rudder.
Incorrectly identified on pre-D-Days maps and aerial photographs as Pointe du Hoe, the fortress was strategically located between the American beaches of Utah and Omaha. Its six 155 mm cannon, protected by concrete casements six to ten feet thick, had a commanding view of the area and were capable of shelling both American beaches of Utah and Omaha as well as Gold, the westernmost British beach.
Manned by 200 troops, and connected by an elaborate system of tunnels and trenches, most of the German defenses for the fortress faced inland, as the Germans expected the main attack to come from the landward side. Its outermost barrier was composed of fields flooded by German engineers. The fortress’s immediate defensive barrier consisted of an outer ring of barbed wire followed by thick minefields and then another ring of barbed wire. Camouflaged interlocking machine gun nests and bunkers, located at strategic locations, completed the landward defenses.
Additional machine gun nests were located on the seaward side whose primary defense was a formidable 90-foot cliff strung with an assortment of improvised explosive devices composed of dangling artillery shells. Two 20 mm Flak 30 cannon, one at each end of the fortress, provided anti-aircraft defense. An observation post for the artillery was located at the seaward side’s tip.
After reviewing photographs of the defenses, one intelligence officer stated, “It can’t be done. Three old women with brooms could keep the Rangers from climbing that cliff.” SHAEF headquarters estimated casualties as high as seventy percent, making it a suicide mission. But, if anyone could do it, it was the Rangers.
In 1942 then-Captain William Darby was authorized to organize a company of Rangers as an American Army elite unit counterpart to British commandos. His experience at Dieppe and successes in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy with what ultimately became the 1st Ranger Infantry Battalion inspired Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall to authorize additional Ranger units. The 2nd Rangers were formed on April 1, 1943, and the 5th Rangers were formed on September 1, 1943. Ultimately six Ranger battalions fought in the war.
The 2nd Rangers arrived in Scotland at the end of November 1943, and immediately began training for an as-yet unrevealed mission. Less than three weeks later, commander Lt. Colonel Rudder and his executive officer Major Max Schneider were entering U.S. First Army commander Lt. General Omar Bradley’s headquarters at Bryanston Square. There, with General Bradley in attendance, operations officer Colonel Truman Thorson told Rudder and Schneider of their mission.
Using aerial photographs and maps, Thorson began his briefing by ticking off German defenses at Pointe du Hoc. When Thorson told the two that their mission would be “the most dangerous mission of D-Day” Rudder thought, You’ve got to be kidding. This is just to scare me. Thorson’s briefing was only designed to tell them what they faced. How they accomplished the mission was left to Rudder and Schneider. Later that day, in Bradley’s office, Rudder assured the general, “Sir, my Rangers can do the job for you.”
Rudder and his staff went to work. Because the landward defenses were so strong, they decided on a sea assault. But in truth the decision was essentially a Hobson’s choice. More importantly, Rudder decided he needed more strength. He created the Provisional Ranger Force composed of 2nd and 5th Rangers under his overall command. This was subdivided into three groups: Force A (2nd Rangers, Dog, Easy, Fox companies), Force B (2nd Rangers, Charlie Company), and Force C (2nd Rangers headquarters, Able, Baker companies and all of 5th Rangers).
Force A was to lead the assault, landing at 6:30 a.m. on the as yet to be determined D-Day with Easy and Fox companies landing on the eastern shore of the point and Dog on its west. It was given thirty minutes to scale the cliffs and secure a foothold. If successful, Force A would radio the message, “Praise the Lord,” and Force C would land and continue the assault. The message “Tilt” meant it had failed and Force C would continue to its secondary objective, Omaha’s Dog Green Beach. Force B was assigned the mission’s secondary objective, the mortar and machine gun emplacements at Pointe et Raz de la Percée that threatened Omaha Beach.
Training commenced in earnest. To rapidly scale the cliffs, the Rangers practiced with rocket propelled grapnel hooks. Training concluded on May 19, 1944. Early in the first week of June they were ordered to their troop ships. Though displays of bravado were common and boisterous aboard ship, some had private doubts about the mission. All was put aside when, at 4:05 a.m. on June 6, the troopships’ PA system announced, “Rangers, man your craft.” Two hours later, huddled in their LCAs, the Provisional Ranger Force headed toward the hostile shore.
It’s a military axiom that a plan never survives the moment of contact. For the Provisional Ranger Force it happened en route to shore. A malfunction of the new radar navigation system caused the Force A flotilla to be off course by two miles. Not until the craft had penetrated the protective smokescreen and haze and were about 100 yards from shore did Rudder see to his horror that they were about to land at Pointe et Raz de la Percée!
Normally Rudder would have been in the Provisional Ranger Force headquarters ship. But a last minute command crisis forced him to relieve Force A’s commander and, over the objections of his superior Major General Clarence Huebner, assume command of Force A himself. Quickly Rudder ordered a corrected change in course west to Pointe du Hoc. But the assault’s timetable had been shattered. It would take forty minutes to reach their primary objective.
Schneider, commanding Force C, waited off Pointe du Hoc an additional ten minutes after the appointed time for a signal from shore. When no message arrived and unaware of the situation because of the smokescreen, he ordered Force C to its secondary objective. When an initial landing at Dog Green revealed it was heavily defended, he ordered the bulk of his troops landed at nearby Dog White. There the reinforcements arrived at the right place in the right time and were instrumental in creating the breakout at Omaha Beach.
But now Force A would be attacking alone, with no hope for reinforcements. Worse, because the bombardment had lifted at 6:30, the Germans would have forty minutes to recover and prepare themselves.
Instead of landing at both the eastern and western shores of Point du Hoc as originally planned, Rudder concentrated his force to assault from the eastern shore. When the Rangers’ boats neared the beach, one Ranger later said, “all hell broke loose.”
At approximately 7:08 a.m. the ramps of the first LCAs dropped into the churning water. Machine gun fire tore into the boats and open bows, killing many in the first rows. Others leaped over the gunwales and disappeared into underwater craters created by the bombardment.
Some boats fired grappling rockets too soon, causing them to miss the summit and fall uselessly into the water. German defenders cut a few ropes. But they avoided others that had burning flares, thinking the flares were explosive. Potato masher grenades, machine gun and small arms fire raked the clusters of Rangers below.
The casualty count quickly climbed. With the sounds of gunfire and explosives and the cries of wounded pounding their ears, Rangers began their ascent. Some struggled up ropes slick with sea spray only to lose their grip, fall back onto the beach, where they would try again. Some crawled up the cliff itself using hand and foot holds. Others scampered up the rungs of assault ladders that were quickly assembled. Those that fell wounded or dead were replaced by others. By 7:20 a.m. the first group, about twenty Rangers from Dog Company, reached the summit.
As they had been trained, they quickly broke off into small groups. Running from shell hole to shell hole and bomb crater to bomb crater and firing at defenders, they worked their way inland to their objective, the six casements protecting the Germans’ cannon.
Sergeant Leonard Lomell led a small group of Rangers that attacked gun emplacement number four. When they reached it they found . . . a decoy cannon constructed from a wooden telephone pole, designed to fool Allied aerial reconnaissance. They advanced southwest to emplacements five and six and discovered two more telephone pole “cannons.” Jesus Christ, there’s no guns here, thought Lomell. They’ve got to be somewhere.
By now Rangers from Fox and Easy companies had arrived. After a quick conference, they split into three groups to find the missing cannons. Lomell and about a dozen Rangers fought their way south, knocking out bunkers, snipers, and other defenders along the way, advancing about 800 yards where they reached the paved road that paralleled the coast.
Though his group had suffered losses along the way, Lomell still had an effective force. Equally important he and Sergeant Jack Kuhn discovered something suspicious, a hedgerow lined sunken dirt road with recent tire tracks whose impressions in the ground were too deep to have been made by a farm wagon. Cautiously leapfrogging down the road, they continued for about two hundred yards where they reached an apple orchard.
There, hidden beneath camouflaged netting, amazingly unguarded, and pointing toward Utah Beach, were five of the six Pointe du Hoc cannon. A few hundred feet away in an adjoining field were about 100 German soldiers, apparently the crews and guards for the field pieces. Amazingly, the two Rangers had not been discovered.
With Kuhn covering him, Lomell reached the five guns. After using his thermite grenade and one provided by Kuhn on two guns, Lomell wrapped his field jacket around the butt of his Thompson submachine gun and smashed the gun sights of all five cannon.
Lomell and Kuhn retreated up the road where they linked with Rangers from their platoon. Getting from them more thermite grenades, they returned to the orchard. Again with Kuhn covering, Lomell wired the three other cannon with thermite grenades and pulled the pins. Just as he returned to the protection of the hedgerow the air was rent by powerful explosions.
Unknown to them Sergeant Frank Rupinski and Rangers from Easy Company, advancing from the east, had detonated the cannons’ ammunition dump. They also had located the sixth gun and disabled it.
Elements of Rangers of Fox, Dog and Easy companies then formed an outer defensive line near the coast highway. Col. Rudder, though wounded, had established a command bunker on the summit. For two days, the Rangers of Force A, aided by navy gunfire and air support, fought off German counterattacks.
At 11 a.m. on June 8, lead tanks from the 743rd Tank Battalion and two companies from 5th Rangers had linked up with the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc. As predicted, the Rangers suffered seventy percent casualties; only 90 Rangers were left standing. But, even with a smaller than expected force, the Rangers had fulfilled their mission, and were the first unit to do so on D-Day.