Pointe du Hoc
It is late in the afternoon when we reach Pointe du Hoc, a rugged headland jutting out to sea west of Omaha Beach. The Allies believed a powerful artillery battery was in place at the top of the sheer cliffs, and it was vital that it be neutralized so that it could not fire down upon Omaha and Utah beaches.
Unfortunately, the only way to attack the position was to climb a sheer 100-foot-high cliff face, a task assigned to two Ranger battalions. Equipped with special grappling hooks and using modified ladders provided by the London Fire Brigade mounted onto DUKW amphibious craft, the Rangers began their attack at 6:30 on D-Day. They were supported by the 16-inch guns of the USS Texas anchored out to sea, which kept up a steady barraged aimed at the top of the cliff.
A pitched battle between the Rangers attempting to scale the cliff and the Germans above ensued, but at last a few intrepid Rangers hauled themselves over the edge of the cliff, where they fought from bunker to bunker against the German garrison. At the end of the fight, however, it was discovered that the Germans had actually taken the guns from the emplacements and moved them to a field inland. The ‘guns’ that had been observed by air reconnaissance were long timber beams.
The Rangers’ ordeal was not over once they routed the garrison at Pointe du Hoc. Completely surrounded but with no reinforcements forthcoming, the Rangers withstood German counterattacks for over two days before they were finally relieved. Only 90 of the 225 men who made the cliff-top ascent survived.
Today Pointe du Hoc is one of the more dramatic D-Day battlefields, with enormous craters gouged into the earth by the more than ten kilotons of high explosives that rained down upon it. This is equal in explosive power to the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Even so, many bunkers remain, the meter-thick walls pockmarked but intact. It is the ground that bears witness to the day’s savagery, sculpted by explosions into an eerie landscape of hollows, craters, and irregular gullies.
Greg insists on exploring each bunker and emplacement, of course, scrambling up iron handholds and clambering down steps into narrow fortified chambers. Once again I marvel at the difference in attitudes between Europeans and Americans in regard to public places. In the U.S., there would surely be dozens of cautionary signs, advising the dim-witted not to get to close to the edge of the cliff. Here, however, the French rely on visitors having the common sense – and respect – not to damage themselves or the site.
Before leaving Pointe du Hoc, we stop to read the inscription on the Rangers’ Monument at the cliff’s edge. It stands on top of the ruins of a firing casement, soldiers’ bodies still buried beneath the massive concrete structure.
As we enter the quiet village of Sainte-Mère-Église in the late afternoon, it’s easy to imagine the scene that took place here on the night of June 5th/6th. A stray incendiary bomb had hit a villa on the broad village square, and the entire town had awoken to the sound of the bells in the church tower, an alarm signal. As the bewildered townspeople came out into the square and began battling the raging fire, they saw a strange spectacle. Hundreds of white parachutes were suspended above the town, illuminated by the flames below as they gently descended. Unfortunately, the villagers were not the only ones to witness the descent of the American 82nd and 101st Airborne; the Germans garrisoned in the village had been roused by the alarm as well, and they opened fire on the parachutists as they came down.
This event was made famous by Darryl Zanuck’s film The Longest Day, of course, but what I hadn’t realized was that the movie was filmed Sainte-Mère-Église. In fact, a number of villagers played bit parts in it. At one point during the filming, Zanuck had to prevent onlookers from throwing stones at the "German soldiers" (actually French extras in Nazi uniforms) who marched into the village square. Although it was 1961, the residents of Sainte-Mère-Église still bore a grudge.
There’s movie trivia like this and a great deal more at the Airborne Museum just off the village square. We’re ending our day, as we began it, with the Airborne. Two great airborne operations – one to the east undertaken by the British and one to the west by the Americans - were the prelude to the D-Day invasion. As mentioned in the entry on Pegasus Bridge, the British airborne assault quickly achieved its objective, made possible in large part by the accuracy of the glider and parachute landings.
The incoming American Airborne troops were beset by bad weather and heavy firing from anti-aircraft guns. Parachutists were dropped miles from their landing zones and wandered lost through the countryside, separated from their companies. The pilots of the C-47 "Dakotas" dipped and zig-zagged to avoid being hit; in some cases they signaled their ‘sticks’ (groups of parachutists) to jump at too low an altitude for their parachutes to deploy. Others were dropped into fields the Germans had flooded as a form of coastal defense. Many men drowned, sometimes in as little as two feet of water, as they struggled with their parachute harnesses and equipment in the darkness.
Isolated, spread out, and confused, the elite Airborne troops still managed to achieve many of their objectives, though in most cases it took longer than had been planned. Despite the slaughter that had occurred in the square, Sainte-Mère-Église was taken within four hours. Then, outnumbered five-to-one, the Americans held the town. Private John Fitzgerald of the 101st Airborne recalled:
A sight that has never left my memory. . . was a picture story of the death of one 82nd Airborne trooper. He had occupied a German foxhole and made it his personal Alamo. In a half-circle around the hole lay the bodies of nine German soldiers. The body closest to the hole was only three feet away, a grenade in its fist. The other distorted forms lay where they had fallen, testimony to the ferocity of the fight. His ammunition bandoleers were still on his shoulders, empty. . . Cartridge cases littered the ground. His rifle stock was broken in two. He had fought alone and like many that night, he had died alone.
At the Airborne Museum, it feels not as if we are in a museum but instead have been given a glimpse into living memories of the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions. Like many museums in the area, symbolism weighs heavily in the design of the buildings and layout of the exhibits. One building houses a Waco glider surrounded by dozens of glass cases containing artifacts, photos, and memorabilia. Each piece of equipment carried by the paratroopers is displayed, each type of K ration or phrase book. A ‘stick’ of mannequin paratroopers inside the Waco glider wears authentic uniforms and insignia, while the other building houses a Dakota C-47, its wings painted with the black and white D-Day ‘invasion stripes.’
Men of the 101st, the 'Screaming Eagles', don war paint
before loading into a C-47 heading for Normandy
On our way out of the museum, just before it closes, I buy Greg a ‘cricket,’ a simple noisemaker the Airrbone men used as an identifying signal in the early hours of June 6th. One click was to be answered by two. It produces quite a distinctive, carrying sound.
Needless to say, before we’ve traveled a mile from Sainte-Mère-Église, I’ve confiscated the cricket.