North Manchester Battlefield Society
North Manchester Battlefield Society  

Normandy - Part 3

With the Tinnitus affliction now bestowed upon the NMBS by the bell ringers, we headed on our first port of call, Pointe Du Hoc – or named “The Impossible Mission”.  Stuart and Kevin had missed going to the Pointe in 2004, and to be honest it has changed a lot since the rest saw it in 2001.  Back on a biting February day in 2001 it was just the NMBS there, no toilets, no “Visitor’s Centre” or “center” as out cousins across the pond call them and a field for a car park.  Today there is a crowd, Centre and toilets and a massive big car park – big enough for “The Stath”.  67 years ago it would have been so different. 

 

Ponte Du Hoc was (In my opinion, Madness) and one of the most heroic episodes of D-day. Pointe du Hoc is located on the coast to the west of the Omaha beach landings and was the position of six 155mm cannons with a range of 25,000 yards. These cannons had a commanding view of both Omaha and Utah beaches and the potential to cause much damage to the invading force. The area had been bombed since May and then grew in intensity during the three days and nights before D-Day.The point stood on cliffs between 85 to over 100 feet high at whose base was a very small rocky beach that offered no protection.

 

Because the point was positioned on near impregnable cliffs, the Germans had concentrated their defences in anticipation of a ground assault from inland. Above were heavily fortified concrete casements interlaced with tunnels, trenches, and machine-gun positions around the perimeter.  Although the 716th Infantry Division was thinly stretched along 30 miles of the shoreline, approximately 200 German troops (125 infantry and 85 artillery men) were garrisoned in or around the point.The task fell to Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder's 2nd Ranger Battalion and called for 3 Companies (D, E, and F) of the battalion to scale the heights. Company D was to approach the heights on the west, while E and F were to attack on the east. The main Ranger force (5th Battalion and Companies A and B of the 2nd) were to wait off shore for signal of success and then land at the Point.

 

In addition to destroying the guns, the Rangers were to move inland and cut the coastal highway that connected Grandcamp and Vierville. They were then to wait for the arrival of the US 116th Infantry from Omaha Beach to the east - scheduled to relieve them at noon on the 6th. Once linking up with the main force, they were then to move on Grandcamp Maisy (Via Circqueville and past the Gite) to the west in order to attempt to link up with the forces that were to land at Utah beach.The Rangers headed for the cliffs, but now they found themselves only on the Eastern side of the point when the plan called for landings on both sides. The beach at the base of the cliff was only 30 yards wide and heavily cratered from the bombardment. In order to climb the heights, the Rangers' LCA's were equipped with rocket-fired grappling hooks and the DUKW's were fitted with fireman ladders. But, because of the shelling from the USS Texas and others, earth had piled up at the base of the cliff and the DUKW's couldn't approach close enough to the cliff to effectively use their ladders. On the other hand, the piling at the base gave the men somewhat cover from enemy fire and also made the height to climb less.

Pointe Du Hoc - on a very hot day


After several failed attempts (due to the weight of soaked ropes) and due to the assistance of naval artillery (especially the British destroyer the Talybont), the Rangers finally struggled to the top after incurring only 15 casualties. As men reached the top, they went off in small groups to accomplish their missions.

They reached the gun emplacements only to find that they had been removed and telephone poles had been temporarily installed. Lt. Col. Rudder then split his command into two. One group stayed behind to establish a command post, while the other went in search of the missing guns. The second group headed south and found the guns in an apple orchard (Close to the gite at Circqueville), where they had been removed in order to be saved from the bombardment. They were unguarded and were destroyed with thermite grenades. The primary mission of the Rangers had been accomplished.

Up to this point, the German defenders had not yet recovered from their initial confusion. They were slowly regrouping and assembling, and later that day the 916th and 726th counterattacked the Ranger positions. Throughout the day, the
USS Satterlee, Barton, and Thompson gave fire support to the Rangers when possible. By nightfall, the Rangers were forced back into a 200 yard wide defensive position inside the battery. The Rangers had lost 1/3 of his men and ammunition was running low.

By June 7th, the next day, of his original 225 men, Rudder had fewer than 100 and almost no food. Despite attempts of the 5th Ranger Battalion that had landed at Omaha Beach four miles to the east, the Rangers remained under siege. By the 8th of June, the 5th Ranger Battalion finally relieved Rudder's position. They were almost 2 days behind schedule.

In the end, Rudder's Rangers had suffered 70 percent casualties and held off five German counterattacks. Rudder was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his service at Point du Hoc and went on to command the 109th Infantry Regiment later in the war.

Pointe Du Hoc - Today

Along the coast is a small coastal town of Vierville, On 6 June 1944 after waves of bombers dropping seventeen warships opened fire simultaneously on the beach defences. The first assault troops landed around 6:30 a. m. The landing ships ran aground fifty meters from the beaches. The Rangers and the soldiers of the 1st and 29th American Infantry Divisions were heavily equipped, they walked in the water to reach the dry sand. Then they discovered that all the Germans defenders were not dead. The machine-guns and guns crushed the first companies entangled in the obstacles. At 8:30 a. m. the beaches were overloaded with vehicles, the order was given to stop any troops landing.

Around 10:30 a. m. the men of the 116th Infantry Regiment and the 5th Rangers rushed into the attack and broke through. In the evening Vierville-sur-Mer was taken, a German counter-attack was pushed back and the only exit of the area was built with the bulldozers.After Vierville we went inland and the small town of Trévières.  On 9 June 1944 the 2nd American Infantry Division set up its headquarter in Formigny, a small town four kilometers from Omaha Beach on the N13 road. Trévières was the 38th Regimental Combat Team objective. A regiment headquarter of the 352nd German Infantry Division under General Kraiss was established in the town. On the left the 9th Regimental Combat Team must occupy the area of Mandeville-en-Bessin.

The 9th RCT progression was slow and Rubercy south-east of Trévières was reached at the end of the day. The advance of the 38th RCT was not easy either, but the Americans moved in the vicinity of Trévières in the evening hours. Threatened of encirclement the Germans of the 916th Infantry Regiment had almost entirely withwdraw from the village. In the morning of 10 June the Americans eliminated several snipers and liberated Trévières definitively. 

 

One of the main “shocks” is the First World War Memorial.  A Shell hit it square in the face and you can see below the mess it made.  On a lighter note, the cake shop in Trévières does a nice flan or hard bread and cheese thingy.  Oddly the pubs were shut but the small cinema was heaving.  Maybe a new Gérard Depardieu film was on and the bar man at the pub wanted to see it.  Whatever this was a dry town.  The same could be said for Isigny-sur-Mer, our next port of call.  To be fair, it was a Sunday and even the French have a day of rest, along with the other 6 days that they seem to have.  Luckily an offie was open and we managed to buy some beers and some gifts – so not a lost cause and indeed the toilets next to the Church were fine, so things were looking up.

 

In the evening of 6 June 1944, General Kraiss who commands the 352nd German Infantry Division failed to drive back the Allied Forces to the sea. The IInd American Corps suffered heavy losses on Omaha Beach and at the Pointe du Hoc. But as the Americans unloaded tons of supplies and troops reinforcements, the Germans Forces weakened. On 7 June, the 1st Infantry Division entered Formigny and the main road Isigny-sur-Mer to Bayeux.

 

On 8 June, the 29th Infantry Division reached Grancamp and La Cambe. On 9 June, Isigny-sur-Mer was fired again by the Allied Navy, the 2nd and 3rd Batallions of the 175th Regiment attacked with support of the 747th Tank Battalion. The Americans liberated Isigny-sur-Mer and made a lot of prisoners. General de Gaulle came back in homeland in Courseulles-sur-Mer on 14 June; he went to Bayeux where he gave his first speech to the liberated French population, then he was received in Isigny-sur-Mer and offered 200,000 Francs to the mayor, to help the completely destitute population, Which was nice of him, wasn’t it?

 

Most people forget that in any war there are two sides.  The victors and the losers. "History is the polemics of the victors." Said American author and commentator William F Buckley Jnr, and the fact that little is shown of the German side, although the “Nazis” were ideologically, morally and politically corrupt and wrong, the men who thought for the fatherland did show the same acts of heroicness, comradeship and also valour. 

 

German suffering was as great as the allies and the NMBS always try and pay their respects to the fallen of all sides, albeit at Langemark, Luxembourg or Ysselsteyn, we have respected the German graves and sites as equal as the allies.  Yes, seeing the graves of SS Officers or even worse seeing a memorial to the civilians who died at the hands of the SS is not a thing the NMBS celebrate, but you have to treat war as nasty and evil full stop.  Some of the men of the Wehrmacht hated the Nazis and the SS, but were Germans and would defend their country, even with a mad man in power.  To this mark of respect to all sides we visited La Cambe German Cemetery.

 

The German war dead from the Normandy campaign were scattered over a wide area, many of them buried in isolated or field graves - or small battlefield cemeteries. In the years following WW2, the German War Graves Commission, Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge, decided to establish six main German cemeteries in the Normandy area, with the one here at La Cambe started in 1954. During this period the remains of more than 12,000 German soldiers were moved in from 1,400 locations in the departements of Calvados and the Orne. The cemetery was finished in 1961, and inaugurated in September of that year. Since this date more than 700 soldiers have been found on the battlefield, and are now also buried here.


In total there are 21,222 German soldiers commemorated here, of which 207 unknown and 89 identified are buried in a kamaradengraben (or mass grave) below the central tumulus.

La Cambe - German Cemetery

Tank ace Michael Wittmann is buried here. Even before Normandy Wittmann had gained a high reputation on the Russian Front, and had been highly decorated. At Villers-Bocage in June 1944, he played havoc with the advance guard of 7th (Armoured) Division and caught them unawares with his Tiger I, inflicting heavy losses before he was forced to abandon it. He finally met his match south of Caen on 8th August 1944, when his Tiger was knocked out and all the crew killed, including Wittman.

 

It was thought that Canadian armour, or RAF Typhoons had accounted for the Tank Ace, but recent research has shown it was a Sherman Firely from the Northamptonshire Yeomanry. Wittmann's remains were not recovered until the early 1980s, when during research for his book Panzers in Normandy: Then and Now, Eric Levévre located the field graves and Wittmann and his crew were buried here.The day was closing and tums were rumbling, as seeing not many bars had been opened during the day, we headed back to the Gite for refreshments.

Michael Wittmann's Grave

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