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June 6, 1944: Rangers at Pointe du Hoc

Operation Overlord, the Allies’ plan to breach Nazi Germany’s Festung Europa (Fortress 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 battery of artillery at Pointe du Hoc. Neutralizing the guns was the mission of the Provisional Ranger Force, composed of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions under the command of Lt. Col. 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 6 to 10 feet thick, had a commanding view of the area and were capable of shelling both Utah and Omaha beaches as well as Gold, the westernmost British beach.

“The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at 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

Manned by 200 troops, and connected by an elaborate system of tunnels and trenches, most of the German defenses for the position 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 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-high 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 position, provided anti-aircraft defense. An observation post for the artillery was located at the seaward side’s tip.

Ninth Air Force

Medium bombers of the Ninth Air Force striking Pointe du Hoc on June 4, 1944, the beginning of two days of intense but ineffectual bombardment and naval shelling leading up to the assault on D-Day. National Archives photo

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.” Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) headquarters estimated casualties as high as 70 percent, making it a suicide mission. But if anyone could do it, it was the Rangers.

In 1942, then-Capt. William O. Darby was authorized to organize a company of Rangers as an American Army counterpart to British commandos. His experience at Dieppe, France, and successes in North Africa, Sicily, and Italy with what ultimately became the 1st Ranger Infantry Battalion inspired Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall to authorize additional Ranger units. The 2nd Rangers were formed on April 1, 1943, and the 5th Rangers were formed on Sept.1, 1943. Ultimately six Ranger battalions fought in the war.

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.”

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 Rudder and his executive officer, Maj. Max Schneider, were entering U.S. First Army Commander Lt. Gen. Omar Bradley’s headquarters at Bryanston Square. There, with Bradley in attendance, operations officer Col. 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.”

Pointe du Hoc Map

German dispositions and the plan for assault at Pointe du Hoc. National Archives map

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 important, 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, and Fox companies), Force B (2nd Rangers, Charlie Company), and Force C (2nd Rangers headquarters, Able and Baker companies, and all of 5th Rangers).

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.

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 30 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.

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...