On June 6, 1944, at 0600 hours the turning point of World War II was underway. Two hundred twenty-five Army Rangers were about to assault the sheer cliff known as Pointe-du-Hoc. By the end of the third day of battle, only 90 had survived. It was considered the most important piece of real estate of the entire Allied Normandy Invasion. Fast-forward ten years to 1954, Ranger Commander, Colonel James E. Rudder, was visiting the Normandy Invasion site at Pointe-du-Hoc and asked, “Will you tell me how we did this? Anybody would be a fool to try this. It was crazy then and it’s crazy now” (Ambrose 399). What if the assault had been a failure? Would D-Day still have been a success? The Rangers precarious assault and a poor Allied Forces battle plan for Omaha Beach nearly made the outcome of this historic battle into a resounding German victory. Poor communication, false assumptions, and the inability to get men to Omaha Beach could have resulted in a failed landing.
By June 1944, World War II was well into its fifth year of conflict. The German offensive in Russia had stymied after its disastrous defeat at Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-1943. In fact, the German army was in full retreat from the Russians. In addition, they had also been chased out of Africa and were unable to prevent Allied forces from establishing themselves in Italy. In essence, Germany would soon be forced to defend itself on three major fronts: East (Russia), South (Italy), and West (France/D-Day). (The Website of General Patton).
An invasion of France would be difficult to keep from Germany’s knowledge. They knew an invasion was imminent, but did not know the exact location. In fact, the Germans were confident that it was going to take place at Calais (the shortest distance between England and mainland Europe). A misinformation campaign by the Allies known as operation FORTITUDE supported the German belief (Rice 34). The premise behind it was to establish an intricate plan to fool the Germans into thinking the attack would be at Calais. The British and Americans built up fake forces in Southern England and assigned Lieutenant General George S. Patton as its leader to give it more credence. Afterwards, they leaked misinformation to known German intelligence. This was important in keeping the majority of the German forces in the Calais area while the Allies landed at Normandy. After the war, British official history records would characterize this operation as, “the most complex and successful deception operation in the entire history of war” (Rice 37).
With the German army spread thin throughout the Normandy coastline, landing areas became of importance to the Allies, specifically Pointe-du-Hoc and the adjacent beach on the Calvados coastline of Normandy codenamed Omaha. Allied Intelligence believed the Germans had installed a powerful coastal battery on top of a rocky promontory known as Pointe-du-Hoc (Blizard 85-86). This strategic high ground afforded the Germans the capability of directing artillery fire onto both Utah and Omaha beaches and at ships of the landing invasion. Omaha’s advantage for the Allies was that it was adjacent to Pointe-du-Hoc and allowed direct access to the rear of it through the Vierville Draw. The Allies also felt this would be the least defended area of the Normandy coast; an assault here would lead the Germans to believe that this was only a diversion and the main assault would still take place at Calais.
Source: “D-Day Maps – D-Day”
The Eisenhower Center for Military History
Date of Access: 4/18/2013
Source: “Plan for Assault at Pointe-du-Hoc”
Date of Access: 4/18/13
Assigned the difficult mission of assaulting Pointe-du-Hoc went to the U.S. Army 2nd Ranger Battalion under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James E. Rudder. The enormity of the task lay in the fact that these Rangers had to climb an almost sheer cliff of about 100 feet high, overcome the German defenders, and destroy the coastal battery (Blizard 86). The plan for the Rangers was to have three companies land at Omaha Beach in unison with the Normandy invasion to secure the Vierville Draw, which led to the rear of Pointe-du-Hoc (Ambrose 399). Three other companies were to land at the base of Pointe-du-Hoc and scale the sheer cliffs (Ambrose 399). The Rangers scaling the cliffs were ultimately successful in reaching the top and overcoming the enemy. To their dismay, the coastal battery they were assigned to destroy was not there. The Germans moved the artillery pieces before the Allied bombardment to an orchard less than a mile from Pointe-du-Hoc. The Rangers, after securing Pointe-du-Hoc, sent out patrols in an effort to find these artillery pieces. In a bizarre set of circumstances two Ranger Sergeants, Leonard Lomell and Jack Kuhn, located the guns that were unguarded and single handedly destroyed them with several hundred German soldiers milling about in a field a hundred meters away. The Rangers successfully completed their mission by 0900 hours on D-Day (Ambrose 415-416).
Where the Rangers found success on top of Pointe-du-Hoc, the complete opposite was true for them on Omaha Beach. Once ashore at Omaha, the GI’s encountered numerous obstructions – concrete cones, slanted polls, logs tilted seaward with mines lashed to their tips, and steel rails welded together and set into the beach so that their ends would pierce the bottoms of landing craft (Rice 74). Once they cleared the obstacles, the Americans waded into a murderous crossfire from undetected blockhouses, bunkers, and machine gun nests. The Germans were landing precise artillery into the American locations. The only thing the GI’s could do was to hunker down behind sand dunes and a low sea wall that ran along the base of the beach (Rice 74-75).
So desperate was the American situation that by 0830 all landings had ceased at Omaha beach. In fact, LTG Omar Bradley, US 1st Army Commander, was “experiencing a time of grave personal anxiety and frustration,” he was led to believe that, “our forces had suffered an irreversible catastrophe.” Bradley would later reveal that he “considered evacuating the beachhead and directing the follow-up troops to Utah Beach or the British Beaches” (Rice 76). With the German defenses effectively pinning down the Americans and preventing armored forces from gaining access to the beach with little to no artillery support, it was up to the American infantryman to turn the tide of battle. Author Earl Rice Jr. describes in his book Normandy the heroic effort of these men, “when the last words are written about how the Americans won the day at Omaha Beach one word will dominate the rest: Infantry. At Normandy it fell to the common foot soldier to turn apparent defeat into a convincing victory” (86). Eventually, the Americans would make their way up the beach and pass the German defenses. When darkness finally ended the first day of fighting on Omaha Beach, the Americans were clinging to a slender beachhead six miles long and not more than one and one-half miles deep.
Despite months of preparation, the Allies initially struggled for a variety of reasons. A primary failure of the Americans at Omaha Beach was a chain of command breakdown. Effectively, battlefield commanders were unable to communicate and direct forces. Communication on the beach was non-existent due to extreme conditions of battle and the fact that a majority of the radio equipment was lost on the way to the beaches. Furthermore, the Americans had a flawed strategy for assaulting Omaha Beach. The beach itself was concave and was approximately four miles long with steep cliffs at each end. Additionally, the Germans had their main strong points, artillery, mortars, and machine guns on the cliffs. The beach itself was also mined and the exit valleys booby-trapped (Blizard 81).
The Americans felt they could successfully assault this beach based on four assumptions that proved to be false: 1.) Intelligence believed a battalion of 800 troops made up of Poles and Russians with poor morale defended it; in fact, there were three battalions. 2.) The Allied air bombardment was suppose to hit the beach neutralizing the bunkers. This did not happen as the B-17’s responsible for the bombardment were late in arrival and not a single bomb fell on the beaches or bluffs. 3.) The Allied naval bombardment was responsible for finishing off what the B-17’s didn’t complete. The naval bombardment ended up being too brief and inaccurate; most of its fire was concentrated on the fortifications above the bluff and not on the beaches where the blockhouses and pillboxes were located. 4.) Confidence was too high that the job could be done due to the fact that 40,000 men with 3,500 vehicles were scheduled to land at Omaha on D-Day. In truth, most of the vehicles and equipment never made it to the beaches and most units didn’t land at the appropriate landing beach (Ambrose 322-324).
It could be argued the single biggest cause of failure was getting the men to Omaha Beach. Stephen Ambrose writes in his book D-Day June 6, 1944: The Climactic Battle of World War II that “nothing worked according to the plan, which was indeed useless the moment the Germans opened fire on the assault forces, and even before.” Only one company landed where it was suppose to on D-Day. This was a result of winds and tides that gusted up to 18 knots. Ten of the first 200 boats were swamped; most of those troops were picked up later by the Navy or drowned. Ambrose elaborates, “ In general, the men of the first wave were exhausted and confused before the battle was joined. Still, the misery caused by the spray hitting them in the face with each wave and by their sea sickness was such that they were eager to hit the beach feeling that nothing could be worse then riding on those damn Higgins boats (landing boats)” (324-325). Furthermore, the Americans landed on the beach with no supporting fire directed towards the Germans. The Germans were allowed to fire un-mercilessly into the defenseless invaders.
The Germans had complete control of the situation in the early hours of D-Day due to the poor reconnaissance of the Americans and their failure to take out vital German targets. It is important to note though, that the Germans had many years to prepare for an assault. Author Early Rice Jr. notes in his book Normandy, “Hitler issued orders in December of 1941, for the Atlantic coastline. This strategic objective was to assure protection against any landing operation even of very considerable strength with the employment of the smallest possible number of static forces” (40). Field Marshall Erwin Rommel, the tactical commander in the West under Field Marshall Gerd von Rundstedt who was the overall Commander in Chief West, executed the German defense strategy. Rommel, as described by Ambrose, “was an aggressive risk taker.” Rommel always commanded forces that were inferior in number and firepower, which made him appropriate for this task (Ambrose 62). His plan for D-Day was centered on his belief that the Germans would not have air superiority and therefore would need to have reinforcements (Panzers close at hand). On this critical issue Rundstedt disagreed; where Rommel wanted the Panzers close at hand to drive the defenders off the beach, Rundstedt wanted to allow the Allies to move inland and then fight the decisive battle, which was well out of range of the heavy guns of the American and British battle ships and cruisers. This disagreement would hinder the German command efficiency during the invasion (Ambrose 64).
Although the Germans initially had the upper hand at Omaha Beach, they were not able to exploit the complete failures that the Americans had presented to them and had problems of their own to deal with on D-Day. Namely, the lack of air superiority by the Germans echoed Rommel’s sentiments in their strategy. Also, the Germans were completely baffled as to what the Allies were planning. They still believed the main assault would take place at Calais and that this landing at Normandy was a diversion. This was critical, as the Germans could not commit Panzer reinforcements until it was too late. Additionally, Hitler had gradually moved more experienced soldiers from the West to fight the Russians in the East, and leaving, as Rice would describe, “during the next year (1943) 22 infantry and 6 armored divisions left France for the Eastern Front taking with them the best men and equipment of the divisions left behind. Western replacements consisted primarily of over aged soldiers or troops convalescing from wounds. Some units were made up of Italian, Polish, and Russian defectors” (45-46).
So what should have happened on D-Day, June 6, 1944? The German battle plan, as implemented by Field Marshall Rommel, was working perfectly. Everything that could go wrong for the Americans was, and it was clear that the Germans should have pushed them off the beach. Derek Blizard, in his book The Normandy Landings D-Day The Invasion of Europe 6 June 1944, states that, “a determined German counter attack would very likely have swept the U.S. Corps back into the sea” (85).
A German Victory at Pointe-du-Hoc and Omaha Beach would have resulted in a few possible scenarios: The Germans could have eventually retaken Pointe-du-Hoc. Thus giving them command of the surrounding terrain and the ability to fire on the invasion forces. This would have allowed the Germans to thwart the Allied invasion on Utah Beach. Eventually, the Panzer reserves could have been released to engage the British forces and defeat them. A German victory would also have had dire consequences for the Allies hopes of establishing a Western Front in France. It could be argued that the German success at Normandy would have allowed them to negotiate favorable peace terms with the Allies. Given this scenario, the Germans would have retained control of Western Europe and potentially defended themselves against the Russians in the East and the Anglo-American forces in Italy.
The Allied victory at Normandy led to the defeat of Hitler and the German Army. While the end of the war was imminent, the length to that end could be measured by the success or failure of Omaha Beach and Pointe-du-Hoc. The brave Rangers and Infantrymen who made these assaults were forced to adapt to the false assumptions that the enemy was weak and ill prepared. A sound German battle plan was nearly flawless and combined with American logistical mistakes, almost prevented the invasion force from landing. Additionally, poor communication throughout the day hampered the Americans efforts to succeed. Through it all, the ability of the Americans to adapt, improvise, and overcome allowed them to turn a likely defeat into a victory that would hasten the end of this devastating World War.
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featuring Memorabilia & History. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2013. <http://www.generalpatton.org/D-Day/Dday_importance.htm>.
Rice, Jr., Earl. Battles That Changed the World Normandy. 1st Edition. Philadelphia:
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