Monday, August 25, 2014

The Other Landing: Pointe du Hoc

The very point of Pointe du Hoc
As an American, in school I learned about the World War II Battle for Normandy. We heard about the American, British, and Canadian forces storming Omaha, Utah, Sword, Gold and Juno Beaches and the heroism of those who parachuted in from above, collectively pushing the Germans back and eventually liberating Normandy. What I never heard about, and honestly didn't even know happened until recently, was the landing of U.S. Army Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, a craggy cliff face sandwiched between Omaha and Utah Beaches. The Ranger's pivotal contribution was critical in the Allie's success in Operation Overlord and how their story fits into the larger battle is well laid out at the Pointe du Hoc Memorial.

In the years and months leading up to the D-Day invasion, German forces had built a strong defense system along the French coast. Called the Atlantic Wall, this well armed defensive barrier composed of batteries and bunkers on land and underwater mines provided protection to German controlled lands and were thought to be impossible to breach.  But as history shows, that wasn't the case.

On 6 June 1944, under German fire, members of the 2nd Ranger Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Rudder, scaled the 100 foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and disabled the German positions above. During the early morning hours the U.S. Naval bombardment that left those lasting craters began. In less than two hours of intense fighting, during which two landing craft and their crews were lost, American Rangers were able to reach the top of the cliffs, capture the strategic location and destroy numerous German artillery. The battle continued but the success of initial attack helped pave the way for future successes. Of the initial attacking force of 225 men however, only 90 were still able to bear arms when this portion of the battle was over on 8 June. The personal stories of those who were killed are shared in the Sacrifice Gallery that lines the exit of the memorial site.

View in the direction of Omaha Beach
Today the Memorial is operated by the American Battle Monuments Commission and visiting it is a completely hands on experience. Visitors can tour the visitors center and view an introductory film before heading out and walking over the crater pocked battlefield. Along the way you walk through the Ceremonial Circle where plaques from the French government honor the Ranger's exploits. And you pass craters; huge indentations in the earth that are a visible reminder of the bombs that were dropped on this point of land. Even seventy years later the earth is scarred. Some are enclosed by barbed wire but others are covered with rocks, crumbling dirt and worn grass. Signs warn of the dangers of climbing into them but don't explicitly forbid it. As a result visitors are able to walk down into and out of the craters. My little war-playing boy was not the only child running through them and wondering at their size. And it is their very size that makes you understand the extent and power of the bombs that were dropped. Concrete bunkers of varying sizes sit alongside the craters. Two meters of solid concrete formed the outer walls of the ten-person and twenty-person bunkers where German soldiers sought shelter and sat watch over the sea below. Three ammunition bunkers, numerous casemates, hospital and observation bunkers also fill the pock marked field. Some of the concrete structures are in near perfect condition while others have been ravaged by bombs and time. Visitors are welcomed to explore the ins and outs of these bunkers. You can walk through the rooms that were crew quarters, check out the casemates and even peer out the observation bunker and see the same view of the surrounding water and land that the occupying Germans did seventy years ago.

The granite dagger that is the Pointe du Hoc Ranger memorial sits atop another bunker at the every end of the point. It was erected by the French government then later landed over to the U.S. government in 1979 as a sign of friendship between the two nations. From this point it is possible to look up and down the coast in both directions and see the landing beaches. From this perch it is easy to see why capturing this point of land was so crucial to the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy.

Bunkers and craters for as far as the eye can see

Exploring a crater

If you go:

Pointe du Hoc Ranger Memorial
Pointe du Hoc, France
33 02 31 51 62 00
Open daily

No comments:

Post a Comment