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Disabling the Cannons

Converted for the Web from "The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose

Jump to: Pointe-Du-Hoc | The Cliff | The Cannons

As the tide was reducing the beach to almost nothing, and because the attack from the sea -- although less than two hundred rangers strong -- was proceeding, Colonel Rudder told Lieutenant Eikner to send the code message "Tilt." That told the floating reserve of A and B Companies, 2nd Rangers, and the 5th Ranger Battalion to land at Omaha Beach instead of Pointe-du-Hoc. Rudder expected them to pass through Vierville and attack Pointe-du-Hoc from the eastern, landward side.

On the beach there were wounded who needed attention. Sergeant South had barely got ashore when "the first cry of 'Medic!' went out and I shrugged off my pack, grabbed my aid kit, and took off for the wounded man. He had been shot in the chest. I was able to drag him in closer to the cliff. I'd no sooner taken care of him than I had to go to another and another and another." Captain Block set up an aid station.

"As I got over the top of the cliff," Lieutenant Kerchner recalled, "it didn't look anything at all like what I thought it was going to look like." The rangers had studied aerial photos and maps and sketches and sand table mock-ups of the area, but the bombardment from air and sea had created a moonscape: "It was just one large shell crated after the other."

Fifty years later Pointe-du-Hoc remains an incredible, overwhelming sight. It is hardly possible to say which is more impressive, the amount of reinforced concrete the Germans poured to build their casemates or the damage done to them and the craters created by the bombs and shells. Huge chunks of concrete, as big as houses, are scattered over the kilometer-square area, as if the gods were playing dice. The tunnels and trenches were mostly obliterated, but enough of them still exist to give an idea of how much work went into building the fortifications. Some railroad tracks remain in the underground portions; they were for handcarts used to move ammunition. There is an enormous steel fixture that was a railroad turntable.

Surprisingly, the massive concrete observation post at the edge of the cliff remains intact. It was the key to the whole battery; from it one has a perfect view of both Utah and Omaha Beaches; German artillery observers in the post had radio and underground telephone communication with the casemates.

The craters are as big as ten meters across, a meter or two deep, some even deeper. They number in the hundreds. They were a godsend to the rangers, for they provided plenty of immediate cover. Once on top, rangers could get to a crater in seconds, then begin firing at the German defenders.

What most impresses tourists at Pointe-du-Hoc -- who come today in the thousands, from all over the world -- is the sheer cliff and the idea of climbing up it by rope. What most impresses military professionals is the way the rangers went to work once they got on top. Despite the initial disorientation they quickly recovered and went about their assigned tasks. Each platoon had a specific mission, to knock out a specific gun emplacement. The men got on it without being told.

Germans were firing sporadically from the trenches and regularly from the machine-gun position on the eastern edge of the fortified area and from a 20mm anti-aircraft gun on the western edge, but the rangers ignored them to get to the casemates.

When they got to the casemates, to their amazement they found that the "guns" were telephone poles. Tracks leading inland indicated that the 155mm cannon had been removed recently, almost certainly as a result of the preceding air bombardment. The rangers never paused. In small groups they began moving inland toward their next objective, the paved road that connected Grandcamp and Vierville, to set up roadblocks to prevent German reinforcements from moving to Omaha.

Lieutenant Kerchner moved forward and got separated from his men. "I remember landing in this zigzag trench. It was the deepest trench I'd ever seen. It was a narrow communications trench, two feet wide but eight feet deep. About every twenty-five yards it would go off on another angle. I was by myself and I never felt so lonesome before or since, because every time I came to an angle I didn't know whether I was going to come face-to-face with a German or not." He was filled with a sense of anxiety and hurried to get to the road to join his men "because I felt a whole lot better when there were other men around."

Kerchner followed the trench for 150 meters before it finally ran out near the ruins of a house on the edge of the fortified area. Here he discovered that Pointe-du-Hoc was a self-contained fort in itself, surrounded on the land side with minefields, barbed-wire entanglements, and machine-gun emplacements. "This is where we began running into most of the German defenders, on the perimeter."

Other rangers had made it to the road, fighting all the way, killing Germans, taking casualties. The losses were heavy. In Kerchner's D Company, only twenty men out of the seventy who had started out in the LCAs were on their feet. Two company commanders were casualties; lieutenants were now leading D and E. Capt. Otto Masny led F Company. Kerchner checked with the three COs and learned that all the guns were missing. "So at this stage we felt rather disappointed, not only disappointed but I felt awfully lonesome as I realized how few men we had there."

The lieutenants decided that there was no reason to go back to the fortified area and agreed to establish a perimeter around the road "and try to defend ourselves and wait for the invading force that had landed on Omaha Beach to come up."

At the base of the cliff at around 0730, Lieutenant Eikner sent out a message by radio: "Praise the Lord." It signified that the rangers were on top of the cliff.

At 0745, Colonel Rudder moved his command post up to the top, establishing it in a crater on the edge of the cliff. Captain Block also climbed a rope to the top and set up his aid station in a two-room concrete emplacement. It was pitch black and cold inside; Block worked by flashlight in one room, using the other to hold the dead.

Sergeant South remembered "the wounded coming in at a rapid rate, we could only keep them on litters stacked up pretty closely. It was just an endless, endless process. Periodically I would go out and bring in a wounded man from the field, leading one back, and ducking through the various shell craters. At one time, I went out to get someone and was carrying him back on my shoulders when he was hit by several other bullets and killed."

The fighting within the fortified area was confused and confusing. Germans would pop up here, there, everywhere, fire a few rounds, then disappear back underground. Rangers could not keep contact with each other. Movement meant crawling. There was nothing resembling a front line. Germans were taken prisoner; so were some rangers. In the observation post a few Germans held out despite repeated attempts to overrun the position.

The worst problem was the machine gun on the eastern edge of the fortified area, the same gun that had caused so many casualties on the beach. Now it was sweeping back and forth over the battlefield whenever a ranger tried to move. Rudder told Lieutenant Vermeer to eliminate it.

Vermeer set out with a couple of men. "We moved through the shell craters and had just reached the open ground where the machine gun could cover us also when we ran into a patrol from F Company on the same mission. Once we ran out of shell holes and could see nothing but a flat 200-300 yards of open ground in front of us, I was overwhelmed with the sense that it would be impossible to reach our objective without heavy losses." The heaviest weapon the rangers had was a BAR, hardly effective over that distance.

Fortunately, orders came from Rudder to hold up a moment. An attempt was going to be made to shoot the machine gun off the edge of that cliff with guns from a destroyer. That had not been tried earlier because the shore-fire-control party, headed by Capt. Jonathan Harwood from the artillery and Navy Lt. Kenneth Norton, had been put out of action by a short shell. But by now Lieutenant Eikner was on top and he had brought with him an old World War I signal lamp with shutters on it. He thought he could contact the Satterlee with it. Rudder told him to try.

Eikner had trained his men in the international Morse code on the signal lamp "with the idea that we might just have a need for them. I can recall some of the boys fussing about having to lug this old, outmoded equipment on D-Day. It was tripod-mounted, a dandy piece of equipment with a telescopic sight and a tracking device to stay lined up with a ship. We set it up in the middle of the shell-hole command post and found enough dry-cell batteries to get it going. We established communications and used the signal lamp to adjust the naval gunfire. It was really a lifesaver for us at a very critical moment."

Satterlee banged away at the machine-gun position. After a couple of adjustments Satterlee's five-inch guns blew it off the cliffside. Eikner then used the lamp to ask for help in evacuating the wounded; a whaleboat came in but could not make it due to intense German fire.

The rangers were cut off from the sea. With the Vierville draw still firmly in German hands, they were getting no help from the land side. With the radios out of commission, they had no idea how the invasion elsewhere was going. The rangers on Pointe-du-Hoc were isolated. They had taken about 50 percent casualties.

A short shell from British cruiser Glasgow had hit next to Rudder's command post. It killed Captain Harwood, wounded Lieutenant Norton, and knocked Colonel Rudder off his feet. Lieutenant Vermeer was returning to the CP when the shell burst. What he saw he never forgot: "The hit turned the men completely yellow. It was as though they had been stricken with jaundice. It wasn't only their faces and hands, but the skin beneath their clothes and the clothes which were yellow from the smoke of that shell -- it was probably a colored marker shell."

Rudder recovered quickly. Angry, he went out hunting for snipers, only to get shot in the leg. Captain Block treated the wound; thereafter Rudder stayed in his CP, more or less, doing what he could to direct the battle. Vermeer remarked that "the biggest thing that saved our day was seeing Colonel Rudder controlling the operation. It still makes me cringe to recall the pain he must have endured trying to operate with a wound through the leg and the concussive force he must have felt from the close hit by the yellow-colored shell. He was the strength of the whole operation."

On his return trip in 1954, Rudder pointed to a buried blockhouse next to his CP. "We got our first German prisoner right here," he told his son. "He was a little freckle-faced kid who looked like an American .... I had a feeling there were more of them around, and I told the rangers to lead this kid ahead of them. They just started him around this corner when the Germans opened up out of the entrance and he fell dead, right here, face down with his hands still clasped on the top of his head."

Out by the paved road, the fighting went on. It was close quarters, so close that when two Germans who had been hiding in a deep shelter hole jumped to their feet, rifles ready to fire, Sergeant Petty was right between them. He threw himself to the ground, firing his BAR as he did so -- but the bullets went between the Germans, who were literally at his side. The experience so unnerved them they threw their rifles down, put their hands in the air, and called out "Kamerad, Kamerad." A buddy of Petty's who was behind him commented dryly, "Hell, L-Rod, that's a good way to save ammunition -- just scare 'em to death."

In another of the countless incidents of that battle, Lt. Jacob Hill spotted a German machine gun behind a hedgerow just beyond the road. It was firing in the general direction of some hidden rangers. Hill studied the position for a few moments, then stood up and shouted, "You bastard sons of bitches, you couldn't hit a bull in the ass with a bass fiddle!" As the startled Germans spun their gun around, Hill lobbed a grenade into the position and put the gun out of action.

The primary purpose of the rangers was not to kill Germans or take prisoners, but to get those 155mm 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.

By 0815 there were about thirty-five rangers from D and E Companies at the perimeter roadblock. Within fifteen minutes another group of twelve from F Company joined up. 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 inland), 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 goddamned 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 amunition dump, and were now preparing to man their guns, but they were in no hurry, for until their infantry drove off the rangers and reoccupied the observation post they could not fire with any accuracy.

Lomell never hesitated. "Give me your grenades, Jack," he said to Kuhn. "Cover me. I'm gonna fix 'em." He ran to the guns and set off thermite grenades in the recoil and traversing mechanisms of two of the guns, disabling them. He bashed in the sights of the third gun.

"Jack, we gotta get some more thermite grenades." He and Kuhn ran back to the highway, collected all of the thermite grenades from the rangers in the immediate area, returned to the battery, and disabled the other three guns.

Meanwhile Sgt. Frank Rupinski, leading a patrol of his own, had discovered a huge ammunition dump some distance south of the battery. It too was unguarded. Using high-explosive charges, the rangers detonated it. A tremendous explosion occurred as the shells and powder charges blew up, showering rocks, sand, leaves, and debris on Lomell and Kuhn. Unaware of Rupinski's patrol, Lomell and Kuhn assumed that a stray shell had hit the ammo dump. They withdrew as quickly as they could and sent word back to Rudder by runner that the guns had been found and destroyed.

And with that the rangers had completed their offensive mission. It was 0900. Just that quickly they were now on the defensive, isolated, with nothing heavier than 60mm mortars and BARS to defend themselves.

In the afternoon Rudder had Eikner send a message -- by his signal lamp and homing pigeon -- via the Satterlee: "Located Pointe-du-Hoc -- mission accomplished -- need ammunition and reinforcement -- many casualties."

An hour later Satterlee relayed a brief message from General Huebner: "No reinforcements available -- all rangers have landed [at Omaha]." The only reinforcements Rudder's men received in the next forty-eight hours were three paratroopers from the 101st who had been misdropped and who somehow made it through German lines to join the rangers, and two platoons of rangers from Omaha. The first arrived at 2100. It was a force of twenty-three men led by Lt. Charles Parker. On the afternoon of June 7, Maj. Jack Street brought in a landing craft and took off wounded and prisoners. After putting them aboard an LST he took the craft to Omaha Beach and rounded up about twenty men from the 5th Ranger Battalion and brought them to Pointe-du-Hoc.

The Germans were as furious as disturbed hornets; they counterattacked the fortified area throughout the day, again that night, and through the next day. The rangers were, in fact, under siege, their situation desperate. But as Sgt. Gene Elder recalled, they stayed calm and beat off every attack. "This was due to our rigorous training. We were ready. For example, Sgt. Bill Stivinson [who had started D-Day morning swaying back and forth on the London Fire Department ladder] was sitting with Sgt. Guy Shoff behind some rock or rubble when Guy started to swear and Bill asked him why, Guy replied, 'They are shooting at me.' Stivinson asked how he knew. Guy's answer was, 'Because they are hitting me.'"

Pvt. Salva Maimone recalled that on D-Day night "one of the boys spotted some cows. He went up and milked one. The milk was bitter, like quinine. The cows had been eating onions."

Lieutenant Vermeer said he could "still distinctly remember when it got to be twelve o'clock that night, because the 7th of June was my birthday. I felt that if I made it until midnight, I would survive the rest of the ordeal. It seemed like some of the fear left at that time."

The rangers took heavy casualties. A number of them were taken prisoner. By the end of the battle only fifty of the more than two hundred rangers who had landed were still capable of fighting. But they never lost Pointe-du-Hoc.

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. So by 0900 our mission was accomplished. The rangers at Pointe-du-Hoc were the first American forces on D-Day to accomplish their mission and we are proud of that."

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Jump to: Pointe-Du-Hoc | The Cliff | The Cannons

Copyright © 1998 Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

This text is from Chapter 8 of Stephen E. Ambrose's book "The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II." Click here for purchasing information from Amazon.

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