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.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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