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D-Day and Pointe du Hoc

June 6, 2011 Leave a comment

A roundabout near where we lived outside Paris. Flags pictured from left to right: France, Great Britain, USA, Canada.

I am writing this on June 6.  This is an important day in history.  Unfortunately, for many Americans, we have forgotten why this day is so important.  I wanted to spend a few moments talking about one important battle that happened on D-day in 1944.

When I lived in France, one of the highlights for me was when friends and family came to visit.  If they were staying long enough, my wife and I would try and take our guests to Normandy.  We would go to the wonderful little town of Bayeux, to the American Cemetery from WWII, and to Pointe du Hoc.

Now, I understand that many of you are not familiar with Pointe du Hoc, and that is okay.  I am going to give you a quick snapshot of why the battle that happened there is so incredible, but I won’t be able to give this story due justice.  There is so much to tell, that I can’t cover everything in this blog, but I will highlight some of the great points about this story.

Pointe du Hoc is a small point that overlooks both the Utah and Omaha beaches.  The Germans had captured many guns from the French including the six long range guns (155 mm) that were placed at Pointe du Hoc.  These guns had a range of up to 12 miles!  So from this overlooking point, the Germans could hit the incoming troops at both beaches.  In order for D-day to succeed, these guns had to be taken out.  The point has cliffs that are 100 feet tall and the Germans considered the cliffs to be unassailable.  So, their fortifications were all set up for forces coming from the land, not the sea.

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

The U.S. 2nd Ranger Battalion was given the job of taking the point and destroying the guns so that the boats bringing the troops to the beaches would be safe from these long range guns. The Rangers had quite a time even getting to the point.  Their navigator mistakenly headed for a point (Pointe de la Percee) that was between their target and Omaha beach.  They were able to correct, but it cost them important time.  The boats that carried the Rangers had been refitted with extra protection.  But this caused the boats to take on water.  The Rangers were actually bailing water with their helmets to keep the boats afloat.  One of the boats sank and only eleven of the soldiers survived the two hours in the cold water.

One of the remaining bunkers at Point du Hoc

225 US Army Rangers landed and scaled the cliffs amid gunfire.    Because of the navigation error, the Rangers were late getting to the point.  They were supposed to hit a window of thirty minutes that had bombing raids on either side of it.  They missed the window and the Germans were actively defending the top of the cliffs.  Because of the firefight, the rangers were not able to signal their reinforcements that they had arrived.  So, the reinforcements went to their secondary target at Omaha beach. (An interesting side point that was crucial to the Allies taking Omaha beach was the arrival of the the redirected rangers on the west side of the battle allowed them to flank the Germans and they truly turned the tide in that battle. Omaha beach may not have been taken without these men coming in.)

Me poking my head out of a bunker at Pointe du Hoc

Despite all of these setbacks, the Rangers were able to fight their way to the gun placements, only to find that the guns had been moved farther inland.  Two separate groups of Rangers worked their way back to where the guns were removed to destroy the guns and extra ammunition that they found.  For two days, the Rangers held the point against the superior numbers of the German forces until reinforcements came.  Out of the 225 Rangers that attacked, only about 90  were able to still fight.

The land has been deeded to the United States in honor of the men who fought there and secured this important victory.  It has not been restored, and so you can see the deep craters (10 feet deep or more) and the remains of the gun placements and bunkers.  It is truly a moving site to visit and makes me so proud that the US Rangers fought so hard to secure this important victory in the war to liberate France and Europe.

There is much more about this battle to learn about, and I encourage you to do an internet search and see more about what happened in the pivotal battle.  Even better would be a visit to the Normandy region for yourself.  And if you are willing to pay for us, my wife and I will come along as your own personal tour guides (did I mention that she speaks fluent French?)!

The French are extremely grateful for what the Allied forces did for them.  Overlooking Paris, not far from where I worked, is an American cemetery.  It is mostly soldiers from WWI but there are 24 soldiers from WWII.  This cemetery is next to a place where French resistance fighters were shot by the Germans.  The street that runs in front of the cemetery is called Blvd Washington and on specific holidays, they fly the French and American flags.  Let us Americans never think that the French have forgotten our sacrifices for them.

The French and American flags fly proudly in Suresnes overlooking Paris.

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