For Americans, two days are synonymous with World War Two. The first is December 7, 1941, the Pearl Harbor attack. The other is D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the United States and allied forces launched the largest amphibious invasion in history to free Europe from the total conquest of Nazi Germany and the Axis powers.
Having done (and redone) the usual tourist stuff in the City of Lights over the years, on this trip to Paris I was determined to get out of the city for a bit. With the help of the concierge at the Westin Paris Vendome, I booked a day tour to the WWII Normandy invasion beaches. In addition to Pointe du Hoc, the other stops on the tour were Omaha Beach and the American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
There have been several popular movies about the Normandy Invasion including The Longest Day and Saving Private Ryan. Yet for far too many it is simply incomprehensible that only about 70 years ago millions of combatants in the Allied and Axis armies and air forces were locked in exceedingly lethal and destructive combat in fields, villages, cities, and skies across the entire European continent. The stakes were nothing less than the fate of the world.
Getting to Normandy
It only takes a couple of hours to drive from central Paris to the Normandy coast. Most of the drive is via multi-lane highways. (General Patton’s armored divisions could only dream.) Approaching the coast, we exited the highway for the rural roads of the Normandy countryside.
The Normandy countryside is picturesque and quaint and probably looks much as it did in June 1944.
Pointe du Hoc
The first stop of the day was Pointe du Hoc, the site of German artillery emplacements situated between the American landings at Omaha and Utah beaches.
As part of their Atlantic Wall, the Germans had placed at Pointe du Hoc a battery of six captured French 155mm howitzers to discourage or defeat any landings on nearby Normandy beaches.
These guns had the range and firepower to inflict severe losses on the American landings at Omaha and Utah.
Some fortifications remain.
The fortifications included casemates for howitzers, pits for anti-aircraft guns and machine guns, observation posts, quarters for the garrison, and a headquarters bunker. Those who play first-person shooter video games may recognize this site from Call of Duty 2.
Tourists can explore some of the bunkers.
The Assault – June 6, 1944
Because the Pointe du Hoc battery was viewed as an existential threat to the landings at Omaha and Utah, eliminating these guns was one of the invasion’s first objectives. The “honor” of scaling the cliff, capturing Pointe du Hoc, and taking out the guns, an undertaking some viewed as suicidal, went to the U. S. Army’s 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions.
The Rangers were commanded by 34-year-old Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder. His plan was for three companies of the 2nd Battalion (Force A) to land at 0630, scale the 90-foot cliffs using ladders and ropes, engage the enemy, and signal for reinforcements. Force B, Charlie Company 2nd Rangers, would land at Omaha Beach and then attack the strong point at Pointe de la Percee. Force C, the remainder of the 2nd Rangers and the entire 5th Ranger Battalion, would await Force A’s signal that it was atop Pointe du Hoc before following Force A there. If Force C did not see that signal by a certain time, it would divert to Omaha and fight overland for several miles to reach Pointe du Hoc.
As Force A approached the coast, German mortar and machine gun fire damaged or sank several landing craft causing losses of men and material. To compound matters, navigational errors and difficulties pushed the landing craft off course. The problems at sea delayed the landing until 0710. After the Rangers landed, mortars, grenades and small arms fire inflicted more casualties as they struggled to scale the cliff.
By the time some Rangers made it to the top and fired the signal flares, Force C had diverted to Omaha Beach. While a loss for the Pointe du Hoc assault, the 500 Rangers in Force C played a significant role in saving the landings at Omaha. Omaha is where the U. S. Army Ranger motto was born.
With the assault at Omaha foundering under heavy casualties and intense enemy fire, General Norman Cota of the 29th Infantry Division cobbled together a desperate attack with any troops who could fight. He initiated the attack with the order, “Rangers lead the way.” And so they did, carrying the assault into the bluffs overlooking the beach, flanking, then overwhelming the defenders. Cota’s command became the Ranger motto.
At Pointe du Hoc, upon reaching the top, Force A discovered that there were no 155mm howitzers. After the site was bombed in April 1944, the Germans moved the battery until they completed concrete casemates for all six guns. They replaced the guns with painted telephone poles to fool reconnaissance flights. Within 90 minutes of reaching the top, the Rangers had killed or captured defenders in the immediate area. They soon discovered the howitzers a short distance away and destroyed them.
But the fight was only beginning. Over the next two days, the Rangers dealt with snipers, artillery fire, and determined German counter attacks. That night a platoon of the 5th Ranger Battalion that was separated from the other Rangers in the confusion at Omaha was the first Force C unit to link up with Force A. Germans launched strong counter attacks during the night of June 6 – morning of June 7 that shrank the Rangers’ perimeter. It was not until the morning of June 8, that forces from Omaha reached Pointe du Hoc and relieved the exhausted troops.
When relief finally arrived, of the 225 Rangers who landed at Pointe du Hoc only about 90 were still capable of fighting. The French erected a monument that commemorates the action.
A fact that the movies and many accounts omit is that, after the battle, Rangers executed several French civilians who allegedly acted as spotters for German artillery. If the allegations were true, perhaps those civilians had collaborated during the occupation and were concerned about their fate if the landings were successful.
Visiting the site of some of the famous events of the Normandy Invasion is a moving experience that should be done at least once when visiting France. There are many options for group or private tours, and no tour is necessary if one has a car. I took a group tour and enjoyed it immensely. Private tours are more expensive, but can provide a good value because the customer can pick the places to visit and set the schedule.