The prominent heights of Pointe du Hoc on the Normandy coast were the scene of a desperate battle during the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944. The strategic promontory overlooks Utah Beach to the west and Omaha Beach to the east, making it an obvious choice for a coastal battery. To mark the anniversary of D-Day I thought I’d share some photos I took during a visit to the site.
The battery at Pointe du Hoc was constructed in 1942 and added to throughout 1943, as part of the Atlantic Wall, a series of German fortifications designed to defend against any Allied invasion, and was built to house six First World War 155mm French guns that the Germans had captured. From the heights of Pointe du Hoc, guns such as these would wreak absolute havoc on the landing beaches – so to prevent huge losses at Omaha and Utah the Allied forces had to knock this battery out.
Pointe du Hoc was plastered with heavy aerial bombardment, but this wasn’t enough to do the job. Naval guns could suppress the defenders, but again, this wouldn’t be enough to silence the battery during the invasion. It was decided that the best solution was to send in a specially trained force of U.S. Army Rangers. That way not only would the battery be captured, but the Germans would also be denied the use of the high ground for observation purposes.
Early on the morning of 6 June 1944, Allied landing craft approached the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and came under German machine gun and mortar fire. The U.S. Rangers landed at the beach, ran across the short distance and scaled the 80 to 100 feet cliffs using ladders and ropes with grappling hooks, all while under fire from German infantry tasked with defending the battery. If you are a fan of cinema then you might recall the fictionalized depiction of this battle in ‘The Longest Day’ (1962).
At the top of the cliffs the U.S. Rangers pushed forward and engaged the German defenders in a fierce firefight among the trenches, tunnels, pillboxes and gun emplacements. Their intense training paid dividends and the Rangers successfully captured their key objective – only there was a problem – there were no guns, only wooden decoys covered in camouflage netting.
Several months earlier, perhaps in response to the aerial bombardment, the Germans had moved the guns further back. The Rangers consolidated their position at Point du Hoc and sent patrols inland looking for the guns, successfully locating and disabling most of them. However, their job was far from over. Throughout 6 and 7 June the Rangers came under heavy counterattack and desperately held their ground.
When reinforcements from Omaha Beach reached Pointe du Hoc on 8 June they found that of the 225 or so men from the original landing force on D-Day, only around 90 were still fighting.
Today, Pointe du Hoc acts as a memorial to those brave men. The battlefield is left in much the same condition that it was in June 1944. The bunkers and emplacements are still there, many bearing damage from the aerial bombardment, and the whole site is covered with large craters.
At the most prominent point, on the edge of the cliffs, there is a monument to the U.S. Rangers, situated on top of an observation bunker. Here the cliffs are eroding away and, at least when I was visiting, the memorial was off-limits to visitors. Erosion seems to the plague of many historic coastal fortifications. However, I understand that work has been done to stabilize the site and in 2011 it was re-opened to the public.
While I couldn’t visit the observation bunker, there were many others to explore, as well as gun emplacements, underground magazines, shelters and tunnels.
It was an eerie feeling to walk through some of the tunnels and underground rooms, remembering that some of the battle was fought below ground.
Some of the gun emplacements, tunnels and bunkers reminded me in part of some Second World War coastal fortifications here in New Zealand, places like Godley Head in Lyttelton, and the defences around Wellington, which I explored as a teenager and used to imagine what it would’ve been like if they had ever come under attack. At Pointe du Hoc there is little need for imagination, the evidence of the assault on D-Day is preserved for visitors and is on the ‘must see’ list for anyone with an interest in Second World War history.
If you enjoyed reading this then make sure to check out my previous post on Omaha Beach.
Unless identified as otherwise, all photographs were taken by the author in June 2009.
© Lemuel Lyes