Tuesday, February 08, 2005

The Rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc

Last week I happened to catch part of the classic epic movie fo the D-Day landings, "The Longest Day", based rather faithfully on Cornelius Ryan's 1959 book of the same name.

And you know, I really hate it when literature tries to demonstrate the absurd and futile nature of war.

War. Hell. One and the same.

Duh! Yeah, we know. It's not useful to dwell on.

Repeatedly driving that point home, as was done in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, only makes it harder to muster the will to fight when the need actually arises.

As in, now.

Western civilization is in need of a massive "deprogramming". The process began to reverse a bit, amid elitist howls fo disapproval, in the Reagan 80s, with the counterattack of non-PC characters like Rambo and the Dark Knight. The sudden fall of the Evil Empire, however, caused us to let our guard down for a decade.

So the part in "The Longest Day" where I turn it on is one of my favorites: a small band of Rangers is assaulting a narrow beach and climbing sheer cliffs under Nazi machine gun fire in order to capture dug-in batteries of heavy cannon on the high ground that would menace the flank of the main landing.

The mission was seen as crucial; and at impossible odds, with great heroism, and at greater cost, they climbed right into the fortifications and seized the bunkers.

The movie shows them walking around in the bunkers, stunned: the pillboxes are empty! The guns are nowhere to be found! The leader mutters, almost in shock, something to the effect of, "they were never here, there aren't even any gun mounts!"

And the Brooklyn kid character laments, in a daze, "Sarge...you mean...we came all this way...for nuthin'?!?"

Exeunt Omnes.

(well, actually, it was a hard cut to another scene.)

That always annoyed me, how it was all a set-up for the "message". Oh, the irony! Oh, the stupidity! The lovable big-guff character died for nuthin!

Well, that account didn't quite square with my dim memory of what I had read in a book at my elementary school, many years ago, abbreviated as the account at that level necessarily was.

So I went to my shelf and took down my copy of Ryan's "The Longest Day" to read exactly what was being adapted.

On page 184 of the paperback edition, Ryan writes:
Minute by minute the valiant Ranger force was being chipped away. By the end of the day there would only be ninety of the original 225 still able to bear arms. Worse, it had been a heroic and futile effort -- to silence guns which were not there. The information which Jean Marion, the French underground sector chief, had tried to send to London was true. The battered bunkers atop Pointe du Hoc were empty -- the guns had never been mounted.
So the movie faithfully reproduced that. It's just so perfect a tragedy, with even the classic device of the "undelivered message", that makes one lament, "if-only...!"

But wait! There's more! A footnote then informs us
Some two hours later a Ranger patrol found a deserted five-gun battery in a camouflaged position more than a mile inland. Stacks of shells surrounded each gun and they were ready to fire, but the Rangers could find no evidence that they had ever been manned. Presumably these were the guns for the Pointe du Hoc emplacements.
Now hold it right there! It's more like, Cornelius Ryan could find no evidence. What, the guns just put themselves in the woods by themselves? Some non-people just stacked the heavy shells nearby for no particular reason, and then wandered off?

Perhaps Ryan didn't want to find such evidence to ruin his point?

This aroused my suspicion, so I went to my other book, D-Day by Stephen Ambrose, who, writing in 1994, had 35 more years of research to draw on, and draw heavily on it he did, using the resources of 1,380 first-person accounts.

Ambrose's account is quite different!

First, he points out the Rangers had a secondary mission of some importance, that they went right to work on, being to set up roadblocks to prevent reinforcements from attacking the main landing beaches. So it had a purpose in any event.

But second, Ryan is deficient in many important details, and in his whole spin!

Ambrose tells that decoy guns were found in the bunkers with telephone poles for barrels to fool spotter planes, and that tracks led away into the forest -- indicating the guns had been mounted, and were withdrawn to save them from bombardment.

On page 415 of the book club trade paperback edition,
The primary purpose of the rangers was...to get those 155 mm cannon. The tracks leading out of the casemates and the effort the Germans were making to dislodge the rangers indicated that they had to be around somewhere...Excellent soldiers, those rangers -- they immediately began patrolling.

There was a dirt road leading south (inland). It had heavy tracks. Sgts. Leonard Lomell and Jack Kuhn thought the missing guns might have made the tracks. They set out to investigate. At about 250 meters (one kilometer nland), Lomell abruptly stopped. He held his hand out to stop Kuhn, turned and half whispered, "Jack, here they are. We've found 'em. Here are the goddamed guns."

Unbelievably, the well-camouflaged guns were set up in battery, ready to fire in the direction of Utah Beach, with piles of ammunition around them, but no Germans. Lomell spotted about a hundred Germans a hundred meters or so across an open field, apparently forming up. Evidently they had pulled back during the bombardment, for fear of a stray shell setting off the ammunition dump, and were now preparing to man their guns...
Lomell and Kuhn destroyed the heavy guns with thermite grenades, and another patrol led by Sgt. Rupinski discovered and detonated another "huge" ammunition dump nearby.

Ambrose also indicates the rangers discovered the guns after 30 minutes of patrolling, by 0900, and not after a leisurely 2 hours, as Ryan implies; it was 2 hours after the initial landing, not after the discovery of the empty bunkers.

Ambrose concludes this section with the scathing rebuttal, directed apparently at Ryan,
Later, writers commented that it had all been a waste, since the guns had been withdrawn from the fortified area around Pointe-du-Hoc. That is wrong. Those guns were in working condition before Sergeant Lomell got to them. They had an abundance of ammunition. They were in range (they could lob their huge shells 25,000 meters) of the biggest targets in the world, the 5,000-plus ships in the Channel and the thousands of troops and equipment on Utah and Omaha beaches.

Lieutenant Eikner was absolutely correct when he concluded his oral history, "Had we not been there we felt quite sure that those guns would have been put into operation and they would have brought much death and destruction down on our men on the beaches and our ships at sea. But by 0900 on D-Day morning the big guns had been put out of commission and the paved highway had been cut and we had roadblocks denying its use to the enemy...The rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc were the first American forces on D-Day to accomplish their mission and we are proud of that."
Put that in your pipe and smoke it!

So I relaxed and recovered afterwards by catching the end of Bronson's trashy and ludicrous but oh-so-satisfying Death Wish 3.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scholar: You are a wonderful patriot, military historian and writer. With seemingly simple words and phrases, you have the ability to evoke powerful emotions in the reader. I was crying at the end of your scathing rebuttle of Ryan and then laughing at the comic relief title of the movie you chose to watch for "R&R."
Thanks for a wonderful post. Keep them coming!! You make us all proud.

2:58 PM, February 09, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Scholar: very interesting comments about the guns at the Pointe. Its interesting that even now no-one knows the exact position of where the guns were in the fields and that the 155mm guns in the fields had trailing arms and wheels - an adaptation of the 155mm gun which would not actually fit in the casements (the two finished ones anyway) on D-day.
Its also a coincidence that there were 3 mobile batteries of 155mm guns posted at the rear of the Ohama sector by the 716th Infantry div on D-day.
Is it not perhaps at Mr Morrion said, the guns had never been placed in the bunkers at the Pointe and the guns behind were a mobile battery found by accident. Or..... would that notion have embarrassed someone in the army at the time for having wasted a good number of young Rangers lives.
Final point. Given that Pointe du Hoc was supposed to be 'the biggest threat to the invasion force in that area' (Eisenhower), then why was there an allocation of only 3 x 4 barrel 20mm AA canon installed to defend it - when most if not all other large size batteries had a raft of 88mm AA to defend them. Could it be that they wanted to allow the Pointe to be attacked to save another battery hidden elsewhere? DANDO.

6:07 PM, May 19, 2005  
Blogger RDS said...

If those were part of a mobile battery, that would be interesting. But I don't see how it detracts in any way from the operation's concrete success, as finding an unknown hidden battery (if that's what it was) would be just as useful and important as finding and neutralizing the expected one. Sometimes even when things aren't as planned, you get lucky anyway!

9:51 PM, May 22, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The more interesting gun battery is the other one which is going to be cleared and opened to the public later this year near pointe du hoc. It puts the battle in a much different light and questions why the Rangers even went to the Pointe...but thats another story.....watch this space.

6:40 PM, May 24, 2005  
Blogger RDS said...

I look forward to your additional information regarding this historical puzzle!

2:04 AM, May 25, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its becoming the subject of a History Channel programme later this year so its not to be unveiled for a while yet. Suffice to say it will explain where the guns went to and why. DANDO

6:08 PM, May 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


7:44 AM, October 28, 2005  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My grandfather climbed the cliffs on D-Day. We travelled back to Normandy with him a few years ago. Thank you for your clarification. Excellent! My grandfather is in poor health, but still living. I would love to know how many pointe du hoc vets still are living! No one seems to know.

1:34 PM, March 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

by the way- my grandfather's name is Harold F. Plank. He has a website telling his story.

1:35 PM, March 01, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


1:36 PM, March 01, 2007  
Blogger RDS said...

Thanks for the link to Harold Plank's Memoirs, they are fascinating! And we thank him for his service.

8:51 PM, March 02, 2007  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just found this thread, and although I am years behind the curve on posting a comment, my grandfather David S. Neugent was one of the 90 who went unscathed up the cliffs. I am very proud.

4:33 PM, November 22, 2010  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even if the guns were never in place it was justifiable to climb Pointe du Hoc. Intelligence had every reason to believe guns would be there it would be insane not to send the Rangers in and risk the lives of thousands of sailors and soldiers not to mention the success of the operation.
Hindsight always has 20/20 vision and the clarity to make perfect decisions. The critics are usually the type who never have to make difficult decisions themselves.

11:59 AM, March 20, 2011  

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