Sunday, August 14, 2011

“Will you tell me how we did this?” Col. James Rudder, Ranger Force

When Col. Rudder revisited Pointe du Hoc with his son years after the invasion, his question reflects the incredible challenge that his troops undertook on the cliffs of Normandy. The task that the Rangers faced on June 6 was a daunting one. The Germans has a major coastal battery installed on Pointe du Hoc, one that could threaten the landing beaches. The Allies knew that there were five 155mm cannon entrenched on the point, capable of threatening the Allied landings on both Omaha and Utah Beaches. Even though the location was set to be bombarded by air and sea forces, the Allies felt the fortifications were of such strength that they would need to be taken by ground forces as well.
Three companies were given the task of scaling the heights and destroying the German guns. The grapnels and ropes shot by the landing crafts weren’t very successful. The ropes were too heavy due to the seawater, so most of the grapnels fell short of the cliff. Rangers had to cross a strip of beach to get to the base of the cliff. The Germans had a machine gunner on the left flank that fired across the beach (eventually inflicting 15 casualties) and the bombardment created huge craters, flooded by the recent tides. Many of the Rangers free-climbed to get up the cliff (think about that from gym class), and a few struggled due to the wet and muddy ropes . Germans at the top were tossing grenades and a few cut some of the ropes, but the determination of the Rangers and the support from the shore made the difference. Within fifteen minutes of landing, most of the Rangers had scaled the cliffs.
What did they find when the reached the top? It’s a better story to tell what they didn’t find – German guns. Instead, the Germans had removed the guns and replaced them with telephone poles. The Rangers continued inland, undeterred, facing enemy gunfire from trenches, barbed wire, more craters, and the unseen enemy. One group of the Rangers located the guns in a nearby apple orchard and used thermite grenades to destroy them, while the others set up a command station at the point.

As I read about the Rangers’ accomplishments at Pointe du Hoc, I was in a bit of awe over what they did and the challenges they overcame, as well as how some writers actually discount the impact of their endeavors (usually due to the fact that the guns were actually not at the Pointe). As noted in Ambrose’s D-Day, those writers were off base. Lt. James Eikner commented that “had we not been there we felt quite sure that those guns would have been put into operation and they would have brought much death and destruction down on our men on the beaches and our ships in the sea.”

Pointe du Hoc is one of those sites that has to be seen to be believed, and being there makes the stories of the Rangers’ scaling the cliff even more impressive. I have seen pictures of the location, but after being there, no photo can do the place justice … so you can just ignore mine. When you walk out to the area, it seems like you are on another planet, because the ground changes so drastically. What was one flat coastline has turned into a crate filled maze, dotted with huge cement bunkers and remnants of German emplacements. Walking through the craters can be tough on the ankles … just imagine carrying equipment while a sniper is trying to take off your head.

The actual point is a well preserved German bunker, atop of which stands the Ranger Memorial, dedicated during Reagan’s presidency. The memorial is simple yet striking – something I think epitomizes the Rangers. Looking down from the memorial gives you an amazing view of the cliffs – 30 meters straight down. I was dying to get to the bottom, but barbed wire and my knowledge of my climbing skills combined with gravity. As I stood at the top, it was obvious to me how important that location was to the entire Overlord operation, and that Col. Rudder was right in his question about how the Rangers made the amazing climb.

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