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Rangers at Pointe du Hoc
On D-Day, 6 June 1944, Operation Overlord, an epic scale Allied landing on the coast of Normandy, began the campaign to liberate France and Western Europe from the German conquest and occupation. Dramatic heroism was routine that day, but none more so than the assault on Pointe du Hoc by the U.S. Army Second Ranger Battalion under the command of Lt. Colonel James E. Rudder.
A photo of Rangers scaling Pointe du Hoc on 6 June 1944 is at the top of the main WW II War Stories page.
The Pointe du Hoc Strongpoint
Pointe du Hoc, on the Normandy, France coast of the English Channel, lies between Utah Beach (to the West) and Omaha Beach (four miles to the East), beaches immortalized as the sites of American landings on D-Day, 6 June 1944. The cliffs of Pointe du Hoc are eighty to one hundred feet high, almost vertical, offering a commanding view of the Channel for artillery observers and gun crews. As part of the defensive Atlantic Wall, the German Army built six heavily reinforced concrete emplacements equipped with captured French 155mm guns. With a 25,000-yard range, the guns could direct fire on the approaches to Omaha Beach and on the transport area of V Corps. In addition, they could reach the transport area from which VII Corps, to the west, would unload for assault at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula at Utah Beach. Well before D-Day, the guns were detected by Allied intelligence, and the positions were repeatedly attacked by bombers and naval guns. The area was heavily cratered but the guns remained intact.
D-Day planners feared the Pointe du Hoc guns would endanger the steady build-up of Allied manpower and materiel in the early hours of the invasion. An assault on the gun position was planned, to commence at H-Hour (0630 hours Normandy time) on D-Day. Suddenly, just prior to D-Day, on 4 June 1944, the Germans moved the guns inland to protect them from the waves of bombers, a fact discovered by Allied intelligence. However, since Pointe du Hoc still represented a threat as an observation post and the guns might be returned, the assault on Pointe du Hoc remained a critical early operation for D-Day.
Rangers Mission for D-Day, 6 June 1944
The Ranger Group, attached to the 116th Infantry and commanded by Lt. Col. James E. Rudder, was given the mission to capture Pointe du Hoc and destroy the guns. The Ranger Group was made up of two battalions: the 2d Rangers, under direct command of Col. Rudder, and the 5th Rangers, under Lt. Col. Max F. Schneider. Three companies (D, E, and F) of the 2d Battalion (Task Force A) were to land from the sea at H-Hour and assault the cliff position at Pointe du Hoc. The main Ranger force (5th Battalion and Companies A and B of the 2d, comprising Task Force B) would wait off shore for a signal of success, then land at the Point. The Ranger Group would then move inland, cut the coastal highway connecting Grandcamp and Vierville, and await the arrival of the 116th Infantry from Vierville before pushing west toward Grandcamp and Maisy.
An alternate plan was ready to implement if the support force of Rangers did not receive the success signal by H+30. In this event, the larger Ranger force would land on the western end of Omaha Beach (Omaha Dog Red beach, Vierville sector) behind the 116th Infantry and proceed overland toward the Pointe, avoiding all unnecessary action en route to its objective.
Company C, 2d Rangers, had a separate mission of its own at Omaha Beach. It was ordered to land with the first assault wave of the 116th and knock out German strongpoints near Pointe de la Percée, immediately flanking the Omaha landing beaches.
To reach Pointe du Hoc from the sea, the attackers would first have to land on a narrow 25-yard strip of beach and then scale the eighty to one hundred foot cliff. One intelligence officer remarked, "It can't be done. Three old women with brooms could keep the Rangers from climbing that cliff." Although initially stunned by the magnitude of the task, Rudder and Schneider stepped up their training program at their base in England, focusing on cliff climbing and amphibious tactics as D-Day drew near.
As a result of experiments aided by the experiences of British Commandos, the Rangers developed special equipment for the assault on Pointe du Hoc. Each of their ten LCA's (Landing Craft Assault) was fitted with three pairs of rocket guns, firing grapnels which pulled up 3/4-inch climbing ropes, toggle ropes, and rope ladders. In addition, each craft carried a pair of small hand-projector-type rockets, which could be easily carried ashore to fire small ropes to the cliff-top. Each craft also carried tubular-steel extension ladders made up of light, four-foot sections suitable for quick assembly. Four DUKWs mounted 100-foot extension ladders borrowed from the London fire department, with two Lewis machine guns mounted at the top of each ladder. Personnel of the assault parties carried minimum loads, with four BARs and two 60-mm mortars per company as heavier weapons. Two supply craft brought in packs, rations, demolitions, and extra ammunition for the three companies.
Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, 6 June 1944
The intense training of the Rangers paid off. Early on D-Day morning, the first assault wave of Rangers, Task Force A under Col. Rudder's personal leadership, made way in LCAs and DUKWs through heavy seas to the Normandy coast. A course error put them about thirty-five minutes behind schedule, forced to approach from the east parallel to the coast. Travelling a few hundred yards offshore, the light craft were subject to fire from German shore positions. British destroyer Talybont observed the late arriving, off course Rangers and closed to fire on the Germans' cliff positions for 15 minutes (0645-0700).
One LCA had been swamped, going down soon after leaving the transport area. One of the supply boats sank fifteen minutes after the start, and the other jettisoned all packs aboard in order to stay afloat. One DUKW was hit and sunk by 20-mm fire from a cliff position near the Point. The nine surviving LCAs came in and managed to land in parallel on a 400-yard front on the east side of Point du Hoc, landing about 0705. Allied naval fire had been lifted since H-Hour, giving the Germans above the cliff time to recover. Scattered small-arms fire and automatic fire from a flanking machine-gun position hammered the LCAs, causing about fifteen casualties as the Rangers debarked on the heavily cratered strip of beach. The grapnel rockets were fired immediately on touchdown. Some of the water-soaked ropes failed to carry over the cliff, but only one craft failed to get at least one grapnel to the edge. In one or two cases, the demountable extension ladders were used. The DUKWs came in but could not get across the cratered beach, and from the water's edge their extension ladders would not reach the top of the cliff.
Despite all difficulties, the Rangers used the ropes and ladders to scramble up the cliff. The German defenders were shocked by the bombardment and improbable assault, but quickly responded by cutting as many ropes as they could. They rushed to the cliff edge and poured direct rifle and machine gun fire on the Rangers, augmented by grenades tossed down the slope. The Rangers never broke, continuing to climb amidst the fire as Ranger BAR men picked off any exposed Germans. The destroyer USS Satterlee (DD-626) observed the Rangers' precarious position, closed to 1500 yards and took the cliff top under direct fire from all guns, a considerable assist at a crucial time.
Within ten minutes of the landing the first Americans reached the top of the cliffs. Using that uncertain foothold, they helped more Rangers to the summit. As men reached the top, they waited no longer than it took for three or four to assemble, then moved out on prearranged missions. They quickly expanded the perimeter and began sweeping the area. By 0740 all the Ranger boat teams were on top of the Pointe except for casualties, headquarters personnel, and mortar men who remained on the beach (30 to 40 in all).
Finding the Guns of Pointe du Hoc
On the clifftop, Rangers found themselves in a bewildering wasteland of ground literally torn to pieces by bombs and heavy naval shells. For months, the Rangers had studied high resolution photographs and large-scale maps that showed every slight feature of terrain and fortifications on Pointe du Hoc. But by D-Day, the constant bombardment had chewed the area into craters and mounds of wreckage, obscuring remnants of emplacements, paths and trenches. The Rangers found it hard to stay oriented as soon as they made a few steps inland from the ragged cliff edge into the chaos of shellholes and debris. The craters made good cover, but maintaining contact even within a squad was almost impossible during movement.
The Rangers assigned to find and destroy the 155mm guns found that the wreckage of the emplacements did not include the guns themselves. As noted, they had been removed a few days before. Intelligence and the Ranger officers knew this, but it was a surprise to most of the men.
Ranger patrols pushed inland through German positions, carrying out the next objective of their mission: to reach the coastal highway and set up a defensive position cutting that main route between Vierville and Grandcamp. About 0900, two Rangers (First Sergeant Leonard G. Lomell and Staff Sergeant Jack E. Kuhn) found the missing battery of five guns, down a lane 200 yards off the main road. Cleverly camouflaged, they were sited for fire on either Omaha or Utah Beach with large ammunition stocks ready at hand. Observing no Germans in or near the position, the patrol put two guns out of commission with incendiary grenades. A second patrol finished the job of disabling the guns and set fire to the ammunition. The main objective of the assault on Pointe du Hoc was accomplished.
Task Force B Lands at Omaha Beach
The delay landing Task Force A at Pointe du Hoc meant that the eight other Ranger companies (A and B of the 2d Battalion, and the entire 5th Battalion), waiting off shore for word of the assault, did not follow in to Pointe du Hoc but joined the 29th Infantry Division (116th Infantry Regiment) assault on Omaha Beach. Heavy German fire raked the beachhead, pinning the Rangers and troops of the 29th behind a seawall. At this point, according to legend, Brig. Gen. Norman D. Cota, the assistant division commander of the 29th, roared, "We have to get the hell off this beach. Rangers, lead the way!" Whether under Cota's inspiration or not, small parties of Rangers and infantry scrambled over the seawall and, under cover of the rising smoke, carried the heights.
Two Difficult Days for Rangers on Pointe du Hoc
Following the successful landing and climb to the clifftop, defeating the remaining German defenders required a series of fierce small unit actions, supported by naval guns, with further heavy Ranger losses. With the exception of a few strongpoints, most of the immediate area came under control of the Rangers by the end of 6 June. Rudder sent a message to V Corps saying "Located Pointe du Hoc—mission accomplished—need ammunition and reinforcement—many casualties."
The Ranger's defense line along the Vierville-Grandcamp Road was under almost continuous attack, but they stubbornly held on over the next 48 hours. Repeated requests for boats to evacuate wounded, additional ammunition and reinforcements had been received at V Corps from the Pointe. Boats to carry the reinforcements were offered. Destroyers off shore were doing their best to help by delivering supporting fire as requested by the Liaison Officer with the Rangers, but their situation was desperate. Finally, on the afternoon of D+1, two boats from the Flagship with 25 additional Rangers, plus small arms ammunition, food, and medical supplies, landed at Pointe du Hoc and delivered them to the group under siege there. On their way out, the boats evacuated the wounded.
On D+2 (8 June), at about 1100, Task Force B, which had landed with the 116th Infantry at Omaha Beach and had been fighting its way steadily westward along the shore line, established contact with the survivors of Task Force A. Maj. Max F. Schneider, the commander of the 5th Ranger Battalion force, relieved twice-wounded Rudder's battered contingent.
When the companies of the 2nd Ranger Battalion were relieved on D+2, only 90 combat-effective fighting men of the original 225 remained. After the war, General Omar Bradley paid tribute to Col. Rudder, saying, "...no soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than that which befell the 34-year old commander of this Ranger force." More than a half-century later, the 2nd Rangers' successful and heroic accomplishment of their near-impossible D-Day mission remains one of the greatest small unit actions in modern military history.
Recommended Book about the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc
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Note: Some documents use the name Pointe du Hoe, the Parisian French spelling, instead of Pointe du Hoc, the old Norman name. Both refer to the same location.