It was the toughest mission of D-Day. Allied plans called for 225 Rangers, including Dog Company, to land on a tiny beach, scale the ten-story-high cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, France, under a torrent of enemy fire, and destroy the most dangerous gun battery threatening the American portion of the invasion.
It was a suicide mission.
Allied headquarters projected Ranger casualties would top seventy percent. One intelligence officer remarked, “It can’t be done. Three old women with brooms could keep the Rangers from climbing that cliff.”
Atop Pointe du Hoc, the Germans had constructed a massive fortress. They considered the position largely impregnable from a seaborne attack, thanks to the ninety-foot cliffs. Nevertheless, they had placed artillery shells suspended by wires—precursors to today’s IEDs (improvised explosive devices)—along the cliff faces as an added defense against a seaborne assault. German machine guns and anti-aircraft guns could also hit the beach at the base of the cliffs, where any attacking craft would be forced to land. The fortifications made land-borne and parachute attacks similarly difficult: heavy minefields, machine gun nests, bunkers, and barbed wire rendered an overland attack without armor practically impossible. The only possible Allied route of attack was a frontal assault.
Pointe du Hoc’s formidable defenses guarded six 155 mm artillery pieces. With a potential range of 25,000 yards (14 miles), the guns could reach both Omaha and Utah Beaches and even a portion of the landing beaches in the British zone. The German battery also threatened the Allied naval armada carrying the invasion forces. Of the twenty-two guns the Germans had at their disposal within the First Army’s landing zone at Normandy, those at Pointe du Hoc were “the most formidable.” Destroying them would be “the most dangerous mission of D-Day,” and it was critical to the success of the invasion.
On June 6, 1944, around 7:15 a.m., the Rangers disgorged from their landing craft, which had come as close as possible to Pointe du Hoc. Many Rangers went into water over their heads as they made their way to the rocky beach at the base of the cliffs. As the men of Dog Company dashed toward the cliff, they heard the ripping sound of a German “bonesaw” M-42 machine gun. Capable of firing between 1200 and 1500 rounds per minute, the MG-42s struck the gravel around Rangers. “I thought I was kicking up pebbles and dirt. But they were actually bullets that were hitting the sand and kicking up the dirt around me,” one Ranger explained.
From the top of the cliff, the German soldiers relentlessly fired on the incoming Americans. “Until that moment, I had probably fired 10,000 rounds. I had switched barrels [on the MG42] several times but the flash hider still sometimes got red hot,” one German machine gunner remembered.
Some of the men, like Sigurd Sundby from Dog Company, struggled with the ascent. “The rope was wet and kind of muddy; my hands just couldn’t hold. They were like grease, and I came sliding back down. I wrapped my foot around the rope and slowed myself up as much as I could, but my hands still burned.”
Another Ranger, Bill Hoffman, described the confusion, “I was assigned a specific rope [and] to a specific gun. I was supposed to do some specific damage. I had a big stick of C-2 in my pocket. I just grabbed a rope, and somebody yelled ‘Hey, Hey, that’s mine.’ They were firing down at us and throwing down potato masher grenades, and they also cut some ropes. I don’t really know how we got up the cliff.”
First Sergeant Leonard Lomell, Dog Company’s senior enlisted man, concentrated all of his energies on climbing. He took a machine gun bullet in his side, but continued to ascend. Adrenaline coursed through his body, allowing him to ignore the searing pain. Exhausted, Lomell’s muscles strained to carry him upward.
Climbing next to the first sergeant was 2nd Platoon’s radio operator, Sergeant Robert Fruhling. Interspersed with the din of battle, Lomell could hear the ominous sound of crumbling rock as the face of the cliff gave way with each foothold. Running out of strength from making the treacherous hand-over-hand ascent while avoiding enemy fire, the wounded Lomell clung to the wet rope. Straining to lift his body the last few feet, he finally crested Pointe du Hoc.
The incessant fire from the MG-42s rained down on the men. From the top of the cliff, Lomell looked down and spotted Fruhling, who was now near the summit, but barely hanging on. Fruhling cried out for help.
Unable to reach the radioman, Lomell provided covering fire from his Thompson and shouted, “Hold on. I can’t help you!” Lomell then spotted Sergeant Leonard Rubin, an “excellent athlete with a powerful build,” and called out, asking him to help the struggling Ranger. Just as Fruhling was slipping down the rope, Rubin grabbed him by the nape of his neck and, with a mighty swing, hoisted him over the top of the Pointe.
After surviving the climb, Lomell and his men fought through a maze of bunkers atop the Pointe but found that the guns they had come to destroy were not in their casements. Acting on their own initiative, Lomell and Sgt. Jack Kuhn found tire tracks made by the German guns and followed them. After fighting through several German strongpoints, they located five of the guns in an apple orchard hidden by the Germans under camouflage netting. Using their thermite grenades, they disabled the deadly weapons, two men accomplishing a mission that hundreds of Allied bombers and scores of heavy naval guns of Allied warships failed to achieve.
The surviving Rangers then tackled their secondary mission. They set up a roadblock across the road atop the Pointe that connected Omaha and Utah Beaches. On the night of June 6-7, hundreds of Germans counterattacked in force, overrunning portions of the Ranger position and nearly retaking the Pointe in an epic assault. But the Rangers held. Eventually, they linked up with troops who had fought their way off Omaha beach. Through personal initiative and courage, a small group of men proved that they could shape history.
Only a few heroes of Dog Company remain. Unlike the counterfeit heroes of Hollywood and current pop culture who incessantly crave attention for faux achievements and insignificant acts, this WWII generation of American rock stars is quietly fading before our eyes.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of ten books including Dog Company, and he has interviewed more than 4,000 WWII veterans. Washington’s Immortals is his newest bestselling book. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and speaks often on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and for documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickKODonnell.com @combathistorian
Posted: June 6, 1944