The Guns of Pointe du Hoc, Normandy, France
D-Day, June 6, 1944
Leonard G. Lomell, DSC
This is the memoir of Lt. Leonard G. Lomell, which was delivered as a speech at Brookdale Community College. He has given the Center for World War II Studies and Conflict Resolution permission to offer his speech in written format online for the "War Memoirs" Project. In the speech, Lt. Lomell recounts the destruction of the guns of Pointe du Hoc on D-Day by the 2nd U.S. Army Ranger Battalion and his role.
Lt. Lomell, D Company, 2nd Ranger Battalion, was described by historian Stephen Ambrose as "in my view...the man, if you want to pick out an individual other than Eisenhower, more than any other single individual that made D-Day a success...."
GREETINGS. I have been asked to speak to you about the five 155MM coastal artillery guns (6"ers), claimed to be located at Pointe du Hoc. These "Big Guns" had a range of 10-12 miles that could be fired at Omaha and Utah American landing beaches and other allied beaches, and at the thousands of ships of the invasion fleet anchored off the shores of Normandy, France, the morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944.
Located on the west flank of Omaha Beach, Fortress Pointe du Hoc, was believed to be one of the strongest forts in Hitler's Atlantic wall, possessing the most fire power. It was located on cliffs 100 feet high. The five large coastal artillery guns, and the German Army divisions nearby were totally able to prevent the successful invasion of France if the "Big Guns" were not put out of action quickly and early on June 6, 1944, D-Day.
Why was I asked to speak to you about this great historic battle that took place over a half century ago? Why should you be interested in this ancient history at this late date?
Answer: So you can better understand and appreciate the risk of the loss of life, limb and lots of blood of the guys and gals of the then greatest generation, and also understand why this Ranger mission was called the most dangerous and one of the most important missions of D-Day. The invasion of France was the largest and greatest invasion in all of the history of wars in the world to date. The battle for Normandy would take two and a half months for it to be liberated, longer than either Iraq war lasted with the U.S. On D-Day, thousands of military personnel and innocent civilians would die, homes and communities would be destroyed and the invasion fleet would be severely damaged, if the "Guns of Pointe du Hoc" were not put out of action by American forces as early as possible on June 6, 1944, before H-hour, 6:30 a.m., when the troops were scheduled to land.
The U.S. Army Air Corp, as it was then known, unopposed by German aircraft because of bad weather, flew 1365 bombers, dropping 2746 tons of bombs, hopefully on or near the American landing areas, Omaha and Utah beaches, before the tens of thousands of Allied troops landed. The American Navy fired 21,600 rounds before the landing. Unfortunately, there was very little damage, if any, to the German targets including the "Big Guns of Pointe du Hoc", and the 30,000 plus German soldiers. They had not been destroyed or rendered less effective by the above described American fire power as planned. The German targets were missed by three miles, according to WWII historians. The Allied landing was not a 'piece of cake' as some anticipated it to be. Due to bombing errors, there were no bomb craters on Omaha Beach that could be found or used for protection in the assault. It became referred to ever after as "Bloody Omaha Beach." Thousands of Americans died there that day, and many more thousands were wounded.
Fortunately, the most dangerous ground mission of D-Day was assigned early on to the Rangers with orders to "Find the Guns of Pointe du Hoc and render them inoperable as soon as possible" in case the above described mighty American firepower did not succeed as expected, and it did not. The biggest surprise of all to the Rangers when they climbed the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, was that there were no big guns in the encasements, only telephone poles or something similar. The U.S. Army and U.S. Army Air Corp Intelligence units had unintentionally and unknowingly, misguided the Rangers by use of their aerial photography and other misinformation. The French Underground Resistance Units informed the Rangers right after D-Day that the 'Big Guns' were never installed at Pointe du Hoc. They claimed that U.S. Army Intelligence had been duly informed about this several times months before D-Day. Nevertheless, the 'Big Guns' were in an undisclosed alternate position over a mile from the Pointe du Hoc fortness inland, still capable of killing tens of thousands of allied troops and innocent civilians. These Ranger volunteers strongly pursued and accomplished their mission by rendering the 'Big Guns' inoperable by 8:30 a.m. It was the answer to the surviving Allied troops prayers. Now, let me tell you the rest of this historic and exciting war story. I was there.
I was First Sergeant of Company D of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, U.S. Army, acting as a Lieutenant platoon leader of the 2nd Platoon. We were short one officer when we landed at Pointe du Hoc on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was transferred to Battalion Headquarters for special duty a few days before D-Day. After the hours of tremendous aerial and naval bombardment as earlier described, the greatest invasion i n history started landing troops at 6:30 a.m. as planned. After a stormy two hour trip in our British LCA, through cold rain and high seas and running the gauntlet for three miles, 300 plus yards offshore, under fire from the German soldiers from cliff tops along the way, we Rangers finally fired our grappling hooks with their plain or toggle rope up ove the 100 foot cliffs of Pointe du Hoc (visualize a 10-story building), when our British LCA landed and the ramp was dropped. The Germans were waiting for us on top of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc, determined to drive us back into the sea. (If we had been on time we would have caught them in their underground quarters, but we were 40 minutes late due to a British navigational error.) They were waiting to cut our ropes, drop grenades on us and shoot us off the ropes. We could not shoot back or defend ourselves very well while climbing. We were seriously outnumbered but we prevailed.
Shot through my right side as I led the men ashore in a wet landing, I suddenly disappeared in water over my head as I stepped off the ramp into an underwater bomb crater, which I could not see. I came out of the water cold and wet, my right side hurting, with my arms still full of combat gear with the help of my men. We hurriedly headed for the nearest ropes and up we went as fast as we could climb.
There had been twenty-two of us in our British LCA, and we were all up the cliff within 15 minutes, rushing through the German small arms fire, as quickly as we could to the three gun emplacements that were our original objective on the west flank: of the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc on Omaha Beach. We continued to have more combat with the enemy as we moved from bomb crater to bomb crater, which had been created months before. This fortress had underground tunnels, troop quarters, etc. and the Germans popped up often firing their weapons from where we least expected. We moved on very quickly to avoid more sniper and machine-gun fire, as well as flat trajectory anti-air craft machinegun fire, too, which was becoming more and more of a serious problem. We neutralized one German machine gun position on our way across the point and temporarily quieted down the antiaircraft position, in order to get by it quickly and not get pinned down or delayed as we continued our assault. We got to our first objective in a matter of minutes after the assault; only the three guns in positions number four, five and six were not there. Remember, there were no big guns anywhere on the Pointe's 40 acre fortress area that we could see, only telephone poles or something similar sticking out of the bombed out encasements. By this time we were taking mortar and heavy 88MM artillery fire, crawling fire to our rear. We moved out of that position fast, hoping to locate the missing guns, thinking they were in an alternate position inland and we would soon hear them firing. It did not happen that way.
By the time we fought our way about a mile or so to the blacktopped coastal road (about one hour), I had only a dozen men left, some of whom were lightly wounded, but able to fight on. Ten of the original 22 Rangers in my boat team had been killed or were very badly wounded. We still had not found the guns nor had a ny idea of where they were. It seemed we were surrounded and greatly outnumbered by German troops, in broad daylight. We were then behind their second line of defense. Fortunately, the Germans had no idea we were in their midst. I left all my men except S/Sgt. Jack Kuhn, behind to set up a roadblock as ordered.
S/Sgt. Kuhn and I started leapfrogging down this sunken farm road heading inland, following wagon tracks between the high hedgerows with trees, not knowing where it was going. It led to a little swale, or draw in an apple orchard. There was netting with camouflage over the missing guns, their barrels were over our heads. There was not a shell or bomb crater anywhere that we could see. Looking over the hedgerow, I saw the five big 155MM coastal artillery guns and their ammunition and powder bags neatly in place, aimed at Utah Beach. The German gun crew could easily turn the 'Big Guns' around to fire on Omaha Beach when they so desired. The five Big Guns were located a little over a mile from where we had landed. About one hundred yards away, a German officer was talking to about 75 of his men we believed to be his gun crews, at a farm road intersection. A few minutes earlier, S/Sgt. Kuhn and I had discovered another 50 Germans, a combat patrol about two hundred yards in the other direction. They eventually passed within 20 feet of us across the blacktop road behind a boundary wall on their way to join the German troops just referred to.
Our Rangers had totally surprised the Germans. They never expected an attack from the sea, up those 100 feet cliffs of Pointe du Hoc. The E Co. Rangers were continuing to attack the German Observation Post, a mile away at the cliffs so there were no firing orders coming back to the German crews where Kuhn and I were. We thought the Germans could have a roving Observation Post patrol out trying to relocate in another advantageous spot to send firing orders back to them as soon as possible. Still, no one was 'a sitting target' guarding the guns themselves that I could see, so I told Jack to cover me. Between us, we had two incendiary grenades, later called thermite grenades. When the pin was pulled and the incendiary compound was exposed to air, it poured out like solder, flowing over the gears and crevices, setting and hardening up like a weld. I used them to weld and fuse fast the traversing mechanisms of two of the guns. I also silently smashed the sights of all five of the guns with my padded gun butt. I had, wrapped my field jacket around my submachine gun stock to silence any sound that possibly could be heard. Then Jack and I ran back down the sunken road about 200 yards out of sight of the Germans to the blocking position, got more thermite grenades from our guys, and hurried back to finish the job of rendering the remaining three 'big guns' inoperable, several minutes, at most. Since thermite grenades make no noise, we luckily managed to do our job. quickly and escaped without being discovered.
All of our especially chosen 225 Rangers had the same mission, but not our good luck. Our Ranger front moving in land searching for the guns was over a mile wide. We (D Co.) were on the extreme right or west flank of the front. S/Sgt. Jack Kuhn and I just stumbled onto the guns in our efforts to find them. We were at the right place at the right time. Luckily, we were a couple of well trained Rangers on patrol doing our job. The guns were rendered totally and completely inoperable by 8:30 a.m., D-Day morning as ordered.
From the time we landed (7:10 a.m.) until the time we crested the Pointe, no more than 15 minutes had passed, landing and then climbing the ropes. Because we moved very quickly, kept our objective in focus, and worked as a disciplined team, we had completed the operation in little more than one hour. Sergeants Harry Fate and Gordon Luning of D Co. using different routes back to the Bn. Command Post on the Pointe, notified Col. Rudder, our CO, "mission accomplished" before 9:00 a.m.
Our work at the alternate gun positions completed, we rejoined the other D Co. men at the roadblock and began to consolidate our defensive position for the rest of D-Day and to protect our D Co. roadblock. In the meantime, Sgt. Koenig of our platoon destroyed all the German communications along the coast road. About this time, the remnants of our 1St platoon of D Co. joined us (about 11 men); they had been helping to defend the Pointe where half their platoon became casualties. We needed them now to strengthen the roadblock. (Our third LCA with the rest of D Co. men had earlier sunk offshore. A Ranger company consisted of 68 men. At this point in time we only had 20 men left).
The original battle plan indicated we would be relieved by noontime on D-Day by the American troops on Omaha beaches. It never happened, they were over two days late. We had gathered about 85 other Rangers during the afternoon to defend our roadblock D-Day night. Our orders were to hold our blocking position on the coastal road until relieved, which we did until D+2. Despite on and off shelling and three counterattacks, D-Day night in which we were outnumbered 10-1, we never lost control of our D Co. roadblock. No German troops ever got through to help out their comrades at Omaha Beach.
The 225 Rangers who attacked Pointe du Hoc, had only 90 left standing when relieved D+2 (June 8, 1944). Eighty-one had been killed in action, the rest of the casualties were unable to fight. Many of the 90 left standing were lightly wounded; nevertheless, they fought on. D Co. had the highest number of casualties at Pointe du Hoc. Our medics often remarked it was difficult to get our wounded to the rear for evacuation, which remained true throughout the war.
Like everyone else that day, we did what we were trained to do. With a lot of luck and a lot of casualties, I like to think we did it well. The Ranger Force, consisted of the 2nd and 5th Ranger Bns, (U.S. Army) under the command of Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder, 2nd Bn. C.O. D, E, F and part of Headquarters Co. of the 2nd Bn were assigned to assault Pointe du Hoc. All of these Rangers had the same three part mission: 1) destroy the guns of Pointe du Hoc as quickly as possible; 2) destroy all German communication along the black top coast road; 3) create a roadblock to prevent any Germans to come through from the west (Grandcamp and Utah Beach area) along said coast road to help the Germans on Omaha Beach. Our D Co. of the 2nd Ranger Bn accomplished this important and most dangerous mission. C Co. of the 2 nd Ranger Bn. took Pointe de la Percee and accomplished their mission. A and B Co. landed at the Vierville Draw, and successfully did their part, and the 5th Ranger Bn, led by Lt. Col. Max Schneider, landed east of them, later to successfully lead the troops off Omaha Beach to the high ground above at the command of General Coda (E.O.) of the 29th Infantry Division, when the General at the top of his voice shouted his command, "RANGER LEAD THE WAY". It has become our motto ever since. All Rangers eventually gathered at Pointe du Hoc and prepared for their next objective on D+3.
The angry tidal drifts, underwater obstacles and the terrible pounding from the enemy caused the early landings (6:30 a.m.) at Omaha Beach very high casualties, and scattered units up and down the beach. The unplanned landing and fighting of Rangers on Omaha Beach added an element of stability just at the right time to overcome the enemy and establish the beachhead. Captain James W. Eikner, our 2nd Bn communication officer explained that the above information distracts nothing from the heroic efforts of the combat engineers, the troops of the First and 29th Inf. Div. and other special forces including the Navy, Air Corp, Marines and allied troops. Fighting together, we got the job done.
Yes, I think the Rangers did well on D-Day, as most troops did. Tens of thousands of lives were saved with those guns put completely out of action by the Rangers so early. Yes, and the armada of thousands of our ships, the invasion fleet could now move in closer to shore to offload men and equipment, ensuring the success of the D-Day invasion of France - the climactic battle of WWII and the largest: invasion in history.
For their bravery and combat excellence, the 2nd Ranger Bn was awarded the U.S. Presidential Unit Citation (P.U.C.) There were no Medals of Honor awarded by our U.S. Congress to a Ranger in WWII. The highest medal for valor the Army can award is the Distinguished Service Cross, which Col. Rudder presented to me. S/Sgt. Jack Kuhn received the Silver Star. Gen. Omar Bradley, Commanding Officer of all American ground forces, who assigned this mission to the Rangers, said it was the most dangerous and one of the most important missions of D-Day. See his book, The Soldiers Story.
The Rangers of WWII fought in nine campaigns, 13 invasions, 1 1 major battles and six Ranger raids. They conducted innumerable combat patrols and just as many recon patrols. We did not have PR sections in our table of organization (T.O.). Many of our missions were classified or secret. The Rangers also cleared up and resolved many pockets of resistance and successfully completed the many missions assigned to them by various divisions they were attached to. In WWII, there were only 3000 Ranger volunteers chosen after testing and qualifying, plus many chosen volunteer replacements. Their casualties were very high, approximately 500 Rangers were killed in action or died of their wounds, and many more were wounded in WWII. Few escaped without a Purple Heart.
Our 2nd Ranger Bn, while in Europe in 1943-45, trained in Scotland and England, and fought through France, Luxemburg, Belgium and Germany, finally meeting the Russians on the River Elbe in Czechoslovakia. The war in Europe ended in May, 1945. I was wounded three times. I was honorably discharged December 30, 1945.
The two Rangers who found and rendered the Big Guns of Pointe du Hoc inoperable, Len Lomell and Jack E. Kuhn, each returned to a successful civilian life. Jack E. Kuhn had been promoted in service from platoon sergeant to First Sergeant of D. Co., 2nd Ranger Bn, and retired as the Chief of Police in his hometown of Altoona, Pa. While still in service, I was promoted from 1st. Sgt. of D. Co., in June 1944 to Sgt. Major of 2nd Ranger Bn. In October 1944, I was given a battlefield commission to 2nd Lt., and was assigned to D. Co. 1st platoon. In civilian life, with the help of the G.I. Bill to complete my legal education, I became a lawyer. I am now retired and reside in Toms River, NJ.
Incidentally, the French people of Normandy have erected another monument to the Rangers on Pointe du Hoc, part of which is a large 155 MM coastal artillery gun like the D-Day guns described above. Over a million tourists visit Pointe du Hoc each year.
The Ranger volunteers of WWII were America's brightest and most proficient counterpart to the commandos of other nations, special forces for special and dangerous missions. Their Ranger motto was: "Be the best of the best" and "Rangers lead the way" and still is. Many generals and other members of the "high brass", as well as some historians, thought the Rangers were the best soldiers in any army. Please excuse my modesty or the lack thereof, whatever, c'est la guerre.