D-Day, 6 June 1944, is a day that revives numerous stories for millions of people. Another tale to add to the bunch is that of Rudder’s Rangers.
Rudder’s Rangers were an elite volunteer group formed on 1 April 1943 at Camp Forrest in Tennessee. They were led by their commanding officer James E. Rudder, or “Big Jim.” He was a six-foot, 220-pound Texan who was known for his take-no-prisoners football style. His leadership and toughness were exactly what the 2nd Ranger Battalion needed. Rudder drove them double time all the time and gained their deep respect in return. As one ranger, Leonard Lomell, later recalled, “He talked to you softly but firmly, like a big brother. He inspired you to do your best. You just wanted to die for him,” (The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc). Rudder was determined to turn these men into the best fighting unit of the army, and that is what he did.
After completing their extremely physical ranger training in Tennessee, amphibious training in Florida, German language and customs training in New Jersey, and French geography and cliff training in Cornwall, England, Rudder’s Rangers were finally prepared for their first (and for many their last) assignment.
General Omar Bradley approached Rudder with the details of Operation Overlord and how Rudder’s men would be needed to scale the 100-foot cliff at Pointe Du Hoc, which divided Utah and Omaha Beach, and take out the six 155mm cannons that were deadly to any sea or air offense. Rudder thought Bradley was joking at first. His men had never seen combat, and yet they were being sent on what was basically a suicide mission.
Pointe Du Hoc was one of the most protected landmarks in France. It was so heavily laden with weapons that every Allied bomber returning to England from assignment would drop whatever explosives they still had on board on Pointe Du Hoc instead of dumping it in the English Channel as was usually done. On the days leading up to D-Day, Pointe Du Hoc was attacked even more to try and break up the defense before Rudder’s Rangers climbed the dangerous cliffs. In all, Pointe Du Hoc was “hit by more than ten kilotons of high explosives, the equivalent of the explosive power of the atomic bomb used at Hiroshima.“
When D-Day finally arrived, Rudder’s Rangers were trying to pass time as they waited for General Eisenhower’s go ahead. The men didn’t get the word to move until 3:30 AM on 6 June, and most still had food poisoning from last night’s rancid hot dogs. “All aboard the Hoboken Ferry!” someone shouted as they moved onto the boats; it gave everyone a good, much-needed chuckle as they embarked on the most dangerous mission of their lives (The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc).
As soon as the boats lowered into the English Channel, one overturned, with all its heavily laden men and cargo sinking to the bottom. Four drowned, and the rest waited to be rescued. What was 225 rangers was now 180. Then a supply craft sunk and killed most men on board. Many other ships had leaks, and rangers were bailing water with their helmets. It didn’t take long for their ropes to become completely soaked. The extra weight meant the grapnels wouldn’t reach as high up the cliffs. Keeping morale high at this point was crucial. Len Lomell, now a sergeant, began taking one-hundred-dollar bets on which ranger would reach the top first (The Boys of Pointe Du Hoc).
All that trouble, plus another boat that initially went the wrong direction, soon put them behind schedule. The setbacks resulted in Rudder’s Rangers being a half hour late for their mission. Promptness was crucial because the aerial attack had occurred on time to distract the Germans at the top so the rangers could scale the cliffs without as much resistance. Because the boats were delayed, the rangers were in much more danger than was originally planned. When the boats reached the shore, Germans began picking off rangers, with snipers, machine guns, and mortars. But Rudder’s Rangers moved forward. A few even began free climbing. They reached 90 feet before they had to scale the rest of the cliff (15 feet) with their trench knives. When they reached the top, they secured ropes for other rangers.
Once the rangers reached the top, they were isolated until the troops down on Omaha Beach broke through. Meanwhile, the cannons still needed to be destroyed. The men had to travel inland to find the big guns: they weren’t at the cliffs as was previously thought. “The Germans had secretly removed all six guns from their concrete emplacements and had set them up in a wooded lane approximately two miles further inland.” Two rangers, Sergeant Len Lomell (who now had a machine gun wound in his right side) and best friend Sergeant Jack Kuhn, nicknamed Batman and Robin for their amazing climbing skills, scaled the cliffs swiftly and were some of the first to head inland. They found the guns not too far off—just sitting unguarded. A group of Germans were about a hundred yards off, so Kuhn covered Lomell as he sneaked over to the cannons and planted thermite grenades in them. The cannons were destroyed without a hitch.
Meanwhile, Rudder’s Rangers were left atop the cliffs “with nothing heavier than 60mm mortars and BARS to defend themselves.” But the rangers held out and finally received backup on 7 June.