By Kevin Shannahan
With the benefit of historical hindsight, by 1944 the fate of Nazi Germany was clear. They were doomed. The entire German 6th Army was either killed or captured at Stalingrad. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps had been driven from North Africa. The largest tank battle in history took place at Kursk in August of 1943 as over 2 million men and thousands of tanks fought. It was a catastrophic defeat for Hitler’s legions.
Nazi Germany was far from a spent force however. It still stretched across a conquered continent from France to deep inside the Soviet Union. V1 and V2 rockets rained down on the people of London. The gas chambers and brutality of the concentration camps were killing millions as the war raged on. Victory was far from a certain thing.
The Nazis occupied France, and had years to prepare a defense. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, one of the Wehrmacht’s most able commanders, led the Nazi forces. Before the first inch of German soil could be conquered, the Nazi war machine had to be driven from France.
Operation Overlord, the invasion of France and the largest amphibious operation in history was originally set for the 5th of June, 1944. The weather, fine during May, had grown steadily worse. The timing was delicate due to an interplay of tides, weather and the phases of the moon. The window of optimal days was closing fast, not to reopen for another month. General Eisenhower met with his commanders and his chief weatherman. There would be a brief break forecasted for the 6th of June, not good weather, but good enough. The invasion to liberate Europe from Nazi tyranny would commence on June 6th, 1944.
Omaha and Utah beaches were assigned to the United States’ Army. Before the men could attack the beaches, there was a danger that had to be dealt with. Pointe Du Hoc was a promontory located between Utah and Omaha Beaches. The Germans had placed artillery there which posed a deadly threat to the American armies. Even without the guns, enemy observers would be able to direct artillery fire onto the beaches. The area had to be in Allied hands before the landings. It was a daunting task. There was a narrow strip of beach and then 100 foot sheer cliffs with the enemy awaiting at the top.
“…I accept the fact that as a Ranger my country expects me to move further, faster and fight harder than any other soldier….” From the Ranger Creed
Thousands of lives and the possible success of the landings at Omaha and Utah Beaches were to rest on the shoulders of 225 men from the 2nd Ranger Battalion under Lt. Col. James Rudder. The 2nd and 5th Ranger battalions were originally set to attack Pointe du Hoc. Delays and the fog of war resulted in only the detachment under Lt. Col. Rudder assaulting the cliffs. The rest of 2nd and the entire 5th Ranger Battalions landed at Omaha Beach.
A wrong turn delayed their arrival. German machine gun fire hit them as they arrived at a narrow beach near the cliffs. The Rangers fought on, firing grappling hooks on rockets up the cliff. They started climbing. Grenades and gunfire rained down. The German defenders cut the ropes, sending several Rangers to their deaths. The Rangers kept climbing. They eventually reached the top of the cliff and drove the enemy from the position, blasting them with explosives and grenades. The guns had been moved inland after an Allied bomber attack in April. Patrols went out, found a mobile gun battery and destroyed 5 artillery pieces with thermite grenades.
“…Energetically will I meet the enemies of my country. I shall defeat them on the field of battle…”
From the Ranger Creed
The bloodiest part of the battle was to come. An enemy gun battery at Maisy was to fire on the Rangers until its capture on June 9th. The German counterattack was fierce. The Rangers were isolated from other Allied forces and held ground the Nazis wanted. The battle raged until the morning of June 8th when the Rangers of Pointe du Hoc were finally relieved. Of the slightly more than 225 men who made the assault, only 90 were still capable of bearing arms.
On the 75th Anniversary of the battle, Rangers from the 75th Ranger Regiment, the successors of the Rangers of WWII, reenacted the climb up the cliffs. The Regiment has been in combat continuously since the Sept 11th attacks. They serve our nation as their forefathers did, with courage and determination.