By Hank Schrader, USMA ’71, Europe Destination & Europe River Cruise Expert
The crossing was rough—the weather was stormy and the seas were not kind to the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. Most could not get any sleep as the dread of an upcoming mission along with the rough seas made them restless. It is always that way before critical missions—no amount of training and preparation could ease their minds—they were going Pointe du Hoc to destroy an artillery battery on top of a 100 foot cliff.
The capture of Pointe du Hoc was considered critical to the overall invasion plan. It was considered one of the most dangerous areas of Normandy. The 155mm cannons could fire upon the landing zones of Utah and Omaha with devastating effect on the invading force. It had to be neutralized.
Pointe du Hoc was defended by elements of the 716th and 352d Infantry Divisions, along with artillerymen–it became a heavily fortified bastion for the Wehrmacht as part of the Atlantic Wall. Approximately 200 German troops (125 infantry and 85 artillery men) were garrisoned in or around the Point du Hoc position.
The rangers had to take this defensive area or the whole D Day mission might fail.
An Obstacle too Difficult to Take from the Sea
The Pointe du Hoc cliffs were considered too difficult to scale under combat conditions. This point of view was firmly held by the Germans. And, not surprisingly, most American military commanders also thought it was a suicide mission. Yet, it was vital to the success of the overall invasion scheme. The 100 foot cliffs were almost 90 degrees from the base to the top.
The Germans planned the defense on the land bridge of Pointe du Hoc facing away from the sea by concentrating their forces for an inland assault. They developed a defensive position consisting of heavily fortified concrete casements interlaced with tunnels, trenches, and machine-gun positions around the perimeter.
On fateful day, Lt. Col James Rudder led 225 men in an assault on the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. But to understand this superb combat unit, we must return to the days of 1943, where Rudder formed the Rangers. The 2nd Ranger Battalion was activated on April 1, 1943 at Camp Forrest, Tullahoma, Tennessee. They were volunteer units. Each soldier had to possess superb physical qualities and sharp mental skills. They also trained in Florida. Each ranger became skilled in all types of weapons, hand-to-hand combat and handling difficult terrain. The unit was deployed to Scotland next. Here they trained on scaling cliffs and worked with British Commandos.
The rangers were organized into 6 line companies, A to F. Each company consisted of 65 men and 3 officers. The companies were organized into 2 platoons.
The plan was for the 2nd Ranger Battalion to assault the cliffs at 0630 and take possession of the German position by 0700. Company D was to scale the cliffs from the west; Companies E and F were to scale the cliffs from the east. They would then destroy the cannons once on top of Pointe du Hoc. After destroying the weapons, they were to establish a defensive perimeter on Pointe du Hoc and prevent the Germans from moving reinforcements down the coastal highway that connected Grandcamp and Vierville. The rangers were to hold the ground until relieved by the 116th Infantry Division. Relief was scheduled for noon on 6 June 1944.
If they failed, the 5th Ranger Battalion would then take up the mission, along with companies A and B of the 2nd Ranger Battalion. They were scheduled to also land at Pointe du Hoc as reinforcements, assuming the objective was taken by 0700. If it was deemed the initial assault was a failure, this force was to land at Omaha Beach and move inland to take Pointe du Hoc.
A Landing that Started Off Wrong
At 0445 the rangers were loaded into landing craft that held 22 men per landing craft. They men and supplies were loaded into 10 landing craft and 4 DUKW’s amphibious vehicles.
As they approached the beachhead, they were 3 miles off course, and LTC Rudder realized the error and the landing craft had to travel exposed back to the correct landing site. By the time they arrived at the objective, 1 landing craft and 2 DUKW’s were sunk.
They were due to start their assault at 0630, but the currents and navigation errors delayed the landing until 0710. Since the plan called for the assault to begin at 0630, the naval bombardment stopped at 0625. This allowed the Germans to regroup and take up some defensive positions.
The Germans, however were slow to reorganize, and this aided the assault.
The first landing crafts made it to Pointe du Hoc at 0710.
Over the Top and Success
Scaling the cliffs was one of the most impressive military feats ever successfully accomplished by a US unit. Companies D, E and F landed and scaled the cliffs by using rocket-fired grappling hooks attached to ropes. They developed the scaling techniques primarily by trial and error during their training sessions. Their training was intense and it paid off—under pressure and enemy fire these soldiers responded despite incredible odds against their success.
The landing problems resulted in an assault only from the east side of Pointe du Hoc. The soaked ropes often didn’t reach the top, but finally some worked correctly. They only had 15 casualties in the initial assault. The German defenders cut ropes, threw potato mashers, and fired on the exposed soldiers. Within 15 minutes of landing, the majority of Rudder’s assault force had made it on top of Pointe du Hoc.
Once up top, small groups of ranger went off to accomplish their mission. They were stunned by the results of the bombardments—one soldier said it looked like the craters of the moon. It looked nothing like the mock-ups and photos of the site.
But the biggest surprise were that they 155 mm cannons were missing—the Germans had placed telephone poles in the concrete bunkers to fool the aerial reconnaissance. The German ruse had worked.
Rudder divided his forces into two units. One group established a command post in the bunker area. The second group went off in search of the missing cannons. They were located, unguarded, in an apple orchard about a mile from Pointe du Hoc. With thermite grenades, the rangers destroyed the weapons and ammunition supplies.
By 0830, Pointe du Hoc was secured and 5 artillery cannons were destroyed.
Rudder has signaled that he had landed late but the message was garbled and not understood by the commanders at sea. They committed the reserve ranger to land at Omaha. Rudder’s group was now on their own.
Later that day, the Germans started their counterattacks. By night fall, Rudder’s men were forced back into defensive positions of a small 200 yard perimeter. By 7 June, Rudder had a fighting force of fewer of 100 of the original 225 who had begun the assault. Ammunition and food were running low.
Rudder held on until 8 June, when the 5th Rangers finally linked up with his force. His men had withstood 5 counterattacks.
The 2nd Ranger Battalion (a total force of about 560) had 77 killed and 152 wounded and 38 listed as missing. At the time of the relief, Rudder’s original force of 225 had less than 75 men capable of fighting.
Rudder was wounded twice in the battle and was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (DSC). Thirteen other Rangers were awarded the DSC for their roles at Pointe du Hoc. The 2nd Ranger Bn. was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.
My Final Thoughts
To me, the value of visiting a place like Pointe du Hoc, is to see first-hand the difficulties this unit had to endure to insure the success of the D Day invasion. Reading about this in history books or blogs just doesn’t due it justice—when you walk the terrain, the hardships and sacrifice leap out at you. It really is about the best of America military forces—superbly train soldiers, given a near impossible mission, and they triumphed.
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HANK is a certified Western European Destination Specialist (DS) who has been traveling to Europe for 45 years. He is also an Accredited Cruise Counselor (ACC), conferred by the Cruise Line International Association (CLIA). This recognized expert in cruise and leisure travel is a retired Army Officer, and taught World Geography for 8 years. He is a `71 graduate of West Point and has earned 2 master’s degrees. His other Certifications:
- AmaWaterways River Cruise Specialist
- Viking River Cruise Specialist
- Scenic River Cruise Specialist
- Emerald Waterways Specialist
- Avalon Waterways Specialist
- Brit Agent