Climbing the CliffConverted for the Web from "The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys: The Men of World War II" by Stephen E. Ambrose
The beach at Pointe-du-Hoc was only ten meters in width as the flotilla approached, and shrinking rapidly as the tide was coming in (at high tide there would be virtually no beach). There was no sand, only shingle. The bombardment from air and sea had brought huge chunks of the clay soil from the point tumbling down, making the rocks slippery but also providing an eight-meter buildup at the base of the cliff that gave the rangers something of a head start in climbing the forty-meter cliff.
The rangers had a number of ingenious devices to help them get to the top. One was twenty-five-meter extension ladders mounted in the DUKWs, provided by the London Fire Department. But one DUKW was already sunk, and the other three could not get a footing on the shingle, which was covered with wet clay and thus rather like greased ball bearings. Only one ladder was extended.
Sgt. William Stivinson climbed to the top to fire his machine gun. He was swaying back and forth like a metronome, German tracers whipping about him. Lt. Elmer "Dutch" Vermeer described the scene: "The ladder was swaying at about a forty-five-degree angle -- both ways. Stivinson would fire short bursts as he passed over the cliff at the top of the arch, but the DUKW floundered so badly that they had to bring the fire ladder back down."
The basic method of climbing was by rope. Each LCA carried three pairs of rocket guns, firing steel grapnels which pulled up plain three-quarter-inch ropes, toggle ropes, or rope ladders. The rockets were fired just before touchdown. Grapnels with attached ropes were an ancient technique for scaling a wall or cliff, tried and proven. But in this case, the ropes had been soaked by the spray and in many cases were too heavy. Rangers watched with sinking hearts as the grapnels arched in toward the cliff, only to fall short from the weight of the ropes. Still, at least one grapnel and rope from each LCA made it; the grapnels grabbed the earth, and the dangling ropes provided a way to climb the cliff.
To get to the ropes, the rangers had to disembark and cross the narrow strip of beach to the base of the cliff. To get there they had two problems to overcome. The first was a German machine gun on the rangers' left flank, firing across the beach. It killed or wounded fifteen men as it swept bullets back and forth across the beach.
Colonel Rudder was one of the first to make it to the beach. With him was Col. Travis Trevor, a British commando who had assisted in the training of the rangers. He began walking the beach, giving encouragement. Rudder described him as "a great big [six feet four inches], black-haired son of a gun -- one of those staunch Britishers." Lieutenant Vermeer yelled at him, "How in the world can you do that when you are being fired at?"
"I take two short steps and three long ones," Trevor replied, "and they always miss me." Just then a bullet hit him in the helmet and drove him to the ground. He got up and shook his fist at the machine gunner, hollering, "You dirty son of a bitch." After that, Vermeer noted, "He crawled around like the rest of us."
The second problem for the disembarking rangers was craters, caused by bombs or shells that had fallen short of the cliff. They were underwater and could not be seen. "Getting off the ramp," Sergeant South recalled, "my pack and I went into a bomb crater and the world turned completely to water." He inflated his Mae West and made it to shore.
Lieutenant Kerchner was determined to be first off his boat. He thought he was going into a meter or so of water as he hollered "OK, let's go" and jumped. He went in over his head, losing his rifle. He started to swim in, furious with the British coxswain. The men behind him saw what had happened and jumped to the sides. They hardly got their feet wet. "So instead of being the first one ashore, I was one of the last ashore from my boat. I wanted to find somebody to help me cuss out the British navy, but everybody was busily engrossed in their own duties so I couldn't get any sympathy."
Two of his men were hit by the machine gun enfilading the beach. "This made me very angry because I figured he was shooting at me and I had nothing but a pistol." Kerchner picked up a dead ranger's rifle. "My first impulse was to go after this machine gun up there, but I immediately realized that this was rather stupid as our mission was to get to the top of the cliff and get on with destroying those guns.
"It wasn't necessary to tell this man to do this or that man to do that," Kerchner said. "They had been trained, they had the order in which they were supposed to climb the ropes and the men were all moving right in and starting to climb up the cliff." Kerchner went down the beach to report to Colonel Rudder that the D Company commander's LCA had sunk. He found Rudder starting to climb one of the rope ladders.
"He didn't seem particularly interested in me informing him that I was assuming command of the company. He told me to get the hell out of there and get up and climb my rope." Kerchner did as ordered. He found climbing the cliff "very easy," much easier than some of the practice climbs back in England.
The machine gun and the incoming tide gave Sgt. Gene Elder "a certain urgency" to get off the beach and up the cliff. He and his squad freeclimbed, as they were unable to touch the cliff. When they reached the top, "I told them, 'Boys, keep your heads down, because headquarters has fouled up again and has issued the enemy live ammunition.'"
Other rangers had trouble getting up the cliff. "I went up about, I don't know, forty, fifty feet," Pvt. Sigurd Sundby remembered. "The rope was wet and kind of muddy. My hands just couldn't hold, they were like grease, and I came sliding back down. As I was going down, I wrapped my foot around the rope and slowed myself up as much as I could, but still I burned my hands. If the rope hadn't been so wet, I wouldn't have been able to hang on for the burning.
"I landed right beside [Lt. Tod] Sweeney there, and he says, 'What's the matter, Sundby, chicken? Let me -- I'll show you how to climb.' So he went up first and I was right up after him, and when I got to the top, Sweeney says, 'Hey, Sundby, don't forget to zigzag.'"
Sgt. Willian "L-Rod" Petty, who had the reputation of being one of the toughest of the rangers, a man short on temper and long on aggressiveness, also had trouble with a wet and muddy rope. As he slipped to the bottom, Capt. Walter Block, the medical officer, said to Petty, "Soldier, get up that rope to the top of the cliff." Petty turned to Block, stared him square in the face, and said, "I've been trying to get up this goddamned rope for five minutes and if you think you can do any better you can f--ing well do it yourself." Block turned away, trying to control his own temper.
Germans on the top managed to cut two or three of the ropes, while others tossed grenades over the cliff, but BAR men at the base and machine-gun fire from Satterlee kept most of them back from the edge. They had not anticipated an attack from the sea, so their defensive positions were inland. In addition, the rangers had tied pieces of fuse to the grapnels and lit them just before firing the rockets; the burning fuses made the Germans think that the grapnels were some kind of weapon about to explode, which kept them away.
Within five minutes rangers were at the top; within fifteen minutes most of the fighting men were up. One of the first to make it was a country preacher from Tennessee, Pvt. Ralph Davis, a dead shot with a rifle and cool under pressure. When he got up, he dropped his pants and took a crap. "The war had to stop for awhile until 'Preacher' could get organized," one of his buddies commented.
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.