by Austin Bay
June 5, 2014
Pointe du Hoc on Normandy's northern coast was D-Day's "high ground."
The promontory's 30-meter high cliffs overlooked two long and relatively flat "beach zones" capable of handling large amphibious landing ships. The beach to the northwest is now best known by its D-Day code name, Utah. The beach due east — which connects to the narrow shelf below Pointe du Hoc's cliffs — Allied planners dubbed Omaha.
From the promontory, German guns could pummel landing crafts as they bobbed toward shore and then swing their barrels to rake the beaches with high explosives. Allied infantrymen would die in the sand.
German defenders understood Pointe du Hoc's geographic and military significance. In 1943, they placed heavy artillery on the position. In 1944 they added concrete gun casemates and observation bunkers.
Even if allied bombing raids and naval gunfire eliminated the big guns, professional soldiers understood that Pointe du Hoc was decisive operational terrain. German mobile artillery might occupy the position after the pre-invasion bombardment lifted. Allied and German planners also identified the hard-surfaced road cutting across the plateau's southern base as a vital communications and high-speed movement route for German forces operating on the exposed flanks of the beach zones.
On June 6, 1944, Pointe du Hoc had to be taken, and it then had to be held — denied to German counter-attackers — until relief forces arrived. The seize, destroy and hold mission demanded soldiers with crack combat skills, physical stamina and peerless discipline under enemy fire — special operations soldiers capable of fighting alone, on limited rations and using enemy weapons, if need be.
That's why General Omar Bradley, overall commander of U.S. forces, gave the mission to the U.S. Army's Lt. Col. Earl Rudder and his elite 2nd Ranger Battalion. Under enemy fire, 2nd Ranger scaled the steep cliffs and destroyed key fortifications. Indeed, the Germans had moved the guns inland (to avoid the bombardment).
The Rangers found and destroyed five of the six heavy guns. The Rangers then held on until the morning of June 8, defeating German counter-attacks day and night, and frustrating German movement between the beach zones.
Second Ranger's tactical victory on the high ground between Omaha and Utah Beaches had operational effects (securing D-Day's success) and strategic significance (a major step in freeing Europe from Nazi tyranny).
Their heroic action exacted a stiff price. By June 8, two-thirds of the original assault force was killed or wounded.
However, you wouldn't know too much about Pointe du Hoc if your historical sources were Cornelius Ryan's bestselling "The Longest Day" and the blockbuster movie of the same name directed by Daryl Zanuck.
In his well-documented biography of Ranger commander Earl Rudder— "Rudder: From Leader to Legend" —historian Thomas M. Hatfield excoriated Ryan for repeatedly sacrificing "facts for dramatic effect."
Scaling sea cliffs under fire is incomparably dramatic. However, the German guns were not in the casemates. "Sacrifice for nothing" became Ryan's ironic storyline.
It is historically inaccurate, to the point of falsehood.
In Hatfield's view, Ryan was not a professional historian but a man grinding out a book to meet a publication deadline. Ryan admitted he relied on one Ranger veteran for his entire D-Day account, a sergeant who manned an observation point over a mile from the most critical combat on Pointe du Hoc. Professional military historians seek multiple sources, to include after-action group interviews.
Earl Rudder, who later became president of Texas A&M University, was a superb special operations commander, but a man not given to grandiose language.
Ryan's interview of Rudder didn't produce the sizzle Ryan sought. Ryan asked Rudder where and when he arrived in Normandy. Rudder: "Omaha Beach, H-Hour." Ryan asked if Rudder had lost friends in the battle. Rudder: "Yes, many." Was Rudder wounded? "Yes, twice." Ryan appealed for a dramatic moment. Did any single incident stand out in Rudder's mind? "No."
One moment? The battle for and on and over Pointe du Hoc was two-and-a-half days of endless suffering, death, violence and chaotic hell, yet Rudder and his Rangers had succeeded in achieving their critical mission.
Hatfield noted that a man with solid Hollywood connections helped correct the record. In 1984, President Ronald Reagan held a ceremony at Pointe du Hoc. With Rudder's widow and 2nd Ranger vets at his side, Reagan said: "Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion, to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. ... These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the men who helped free a continent."