The D-Day and the rather unknown story of the heroes of Pointe du Hoc
“Rangers, to your boats!” Those four words were enough to generate in those 225 Rangers an extreme mixture of sensations. On the one hand, they were excited knowing that their goal was to liberate Europe from Nazi barbarism. But on the other, they knew that the sea, cold and treacherous, was the first of the great enemies they had to face until they reached that 30 meters high cliff, dominated by German soldiers whom they had to attack by surprise. But not everything turned out as expected.
D-Day: the beginning of the end
June 6, 1944, was the day marked by the allies as the beginning of their master plan to recover the northern coast of France held by the Nazis. The idea was to open another battle front and cornered the Germans. Five were the beaches that would be invaded by a huge fleet: 160,000 soldiers and 7,000 ships. The beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword, were the targets of the allied army made up of soldiers from the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.
But to achieve success it was essential to recover a strategic point: the Pointe du Hoc, a cliff between the beaches of Utah and Omaha, at the top of which the German army had six pieces of 155-mm artillery capable of firing huge guns at more than 14 kilometers of distance. If these pieces were not destroyed, the chances of winning were almost nil since the allied army would receive a rain of shots before they even disembarked. Therefore, weeks before carrying out the great Operation, the allies were in charge of bombing the area with all their forces, with the aim of rendering the great cannons useless. But nothing could be left to chance, so it was necessary to have firm proof that those guns would no longer be a danger. “Good hunting, Rangers,” the captain said to his men, and those boats began their course.
38 minutes late
No one can tell what went through the head of the British helmsman when Lieutenant Colonel James E. Ruddler gave him the orders to turn the rudder to the right. Surely his nervousness for having misguided the course, and being in charge of the first boat that everyone was following, made him comply with the order without even wondering what had happened. The truth is that it was more than half an hour fighting against the current in vain. But it was not fatigue or stress caused by that error the worst consequence. This detour made them lose the element of surprise and gave the Germans time to put together the defense front, something that added an extra impossibility to the already impossible mission.
The bullet rain soon began to fall on their heads. The whistling of the bullets through the icy water must have been music that the Rangers would not have wanted to hear. They were still in their boats, just descending towards the cold sea, and they still needed to climb that monstrous 30 meters high vertical wall. From the boats they grabbed rockets, specially designed for the mission: instead of ammunition, they fired grapples with ropes that would be hooked on the rock and would allow them to climb. But after so much time lost in the water, many of these ropes had been soaked and therefore, they weighed so much that they did not fly enough. Then they took huge stairs of the fire brigade and, while the destroyers Satterlee and Talybont offered their support from the water, the first brave soldiers approached the cliff, leaned their stairs against the wall, and began to climb. Meanwhile, the bullets were still skimming their helmets.
The ascend and the takeover
Some Rangers had already lost their lives at sea since not everyone knew how to swim. The survivors there began to undertake the climb. If one man fell, another took his place. If a partner’s blood splashed them, they would clean their boots and keep going. There was no option to stop or to hide. There were no trees or roof to shelter. The vertical wall was the worst enemy and had to be overcome. The grenades started to replace the bullets and the allies fell from halfway and were covered with large pieces of rock. “The last thing I remember is an explosion and a pile of rocks rolling down the hill. I was unconscious, I do not know how long. When I got up I felt the pain in my legs, I discovered that they were full of blood blisters “, says the soldier Eikner, who despite having received the impact of a grenade, managed to climb the cliff.
16 men were left behind, lying in the now red sand. Those who finally – and courageously – ascended, began to exchange gunfire with the German soldiers until they were dissipated and forced to escape. The capture of Pointe du Hoc had been a “success”. But suddenly the silence took over the place and it was felt even more after so many explosions and shots that had now been silent. The Rangers looked at each other with anguish and despair. The concrete sites were empty. There was no trace of the cannons. They had been able to climb the fearsome cliff, they had faced an army of soldiers who were waiting for them on guard, they had survived, but for what? If it was not possible to find those cannons and verify that they were disabled, the mission was a complete failure.
The cannons and the reinforcement that did not show up
Suddenly one of the soldiers spotted some rail marks on the ground and began to follow the line. Two kilometers later, hidden behind the brush, they found the Nazi cannons, intact, and with ammunition on the ground, tidy, pointing towards the landing beaches, ready to be used. Disarming them with explosives took just a few seconds. Now, the mission had been fulfilled. But the German soldiers who had managed to escape meant a great danger to the Rangers, since at any moment they could return with reinforcements to recover the place again. The Rangers, without being able to warn of the success of the mission since the communications had been cut off, were alone and with a new objective: to survive.
They had to maintain positions and defend the place from the German attacks for two whole days. When the reinforcements finally arrived, of those 225 Rangers only 90 were left alive. Once again, the war had taken over and stained the European lands with blood. Once again the young men died, while the old men argued behind a desk. But without any doubt, those great men gave their lives with courage and certainty that what they were doing was necessary to free the continent from horror. Unfortunately, in a world where war was – and still is – business number one, there was no other way to do it.
Pointe du Hoc: Being there
On the landing beaches, little can be seen of this bloody battle. Beyond a tribute to the victims, the beaches are just beaches, it is sand that follows its course with the wind coming and going, it is a sea that now only carries life. But Pointe du Hoc is different. You can really see the impact of war. I use that word, “impact,” both metaphorically and literally, because nothing has been touched since that June 6, 1944.
The trenches where the Germans were hiding, with their walls full of bullet holes. That fierce sea, a witness of the bloody battle, which carries the same waters that felt the penetrating power of the shots. The grass, which has grown on several levels. That of the beautiful and green meadow, and the lower level, that of the enormous holes that were left by the infinity of bombs that fell in that place.
And the impact, in this case the metaphorical, which hits us squarely to our emotions, is even stronger when you see the children who go with their parents to give their respects to the place walking in those holes, going through them with the innocence of a child who enjoys going up and down a field, as if it was a large slide, without knowing what really happened there, without disrespecting the fallen – as some adults do when they laugh and scream as if they were in a playground- since they are the maximum expression of innocence and purity that we have to try to take care of. That’s why it’s important to take them there. So that one day, when we tell them that they were there, they can take an interest in history and start to twist it.
Pointe du Hoc: When to go and how?
The site is open to the public 365 days a year. The visitor center opens from 9 to 6 from April 15 to September 15, and from 9 to 5 the rest of the year. In the visitors’ center, a little more of the battle can be understood through a documentary that shows, through interviews with the survivors, what happened on those days of the beginning of June 1944.
The cliff is 11 kilometers away from the American cemetery of Omaha. Its coordinates are N49 23.565 W0 59.408. If you do not have your own car (or motorhome), you can arrive by train from Paris to Bayeux, and then hire a taxi or bus service.
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