Return to Normandy – Carlo D’Este Revisits the D-Day Invasion Site
Despite the tranquility and great natural beauty of the region, with its clean and beautifully neat villages, all of which are festooned with flowers in summer in the form of window boxes and plantings in town centers and along rural streets and back roads. What is striking is how well cared for are these towns and villages. Litter is non-existent and it is evident that great care is taken by the locals to enhance their quality of life.
In the picturesque little town of Sainte-Mère-Église, a silk parachute and a mannequin dressed in the uniform of Private John M. Steele of the 82d Airborne Division still hangs from the lovely church situated in the center of town. For those of you not familiar with John Steele, he was the legendary paratrooper (portrayed by actor Red Buttons in the film The Longest Day) whose parachute became entangled in one of the spires of the parish church. Hanging in plain sight of the German garrison, Steele acted lifeless for several hours before being captured, then rescued a short time later by a unit of the 505th Parachute Infantry Regiment. The town lays claim to being the first French town liberated by the Allies.
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Inside the church are several stained glass windows, one of which depicts Saint Michael, the patron saint of paratroopers, and another, the Virgin Mary, surrounded by paratroopers.
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Situated on the extreme western end of Omaha Beach is a large promontory some 100 feet in height called the Pointe du Hoc. One of the most visited places in Normandy, it was regarded by the Allies as one of the most crucial objectives on D-Day: one that posed perhaps the gravest threat to the success of the landings. A battery of 155-mm guns was known to be emplaced atop the Pointe du Hoc, protected by a series of concrete bunkers and blockhouses. The guns had a range of more than twelve miles and could reach both Utah Beach to the west and all of Omaha. They scared the hell out of the Allied high command for their potential to fire on the invasion force.
Thus, one of the most dangerous missions on D-Day was assigned to the 2d Ranger Battalion commanded by a Texan, Lt. Col. James E. Rudder. Rudder’s Rangers were given the near-suicidal mission of scaling the cliffs from a narrow rocky beach and putting the gun battery out of action.
What ensued was one of the bloodiest and most desperate of the many battles fought on D-Day. (Cornelius Ryan has a fine description of the battle in The Longest Day.) Casualties were high on both sides: 80 Rangers were lost and of the 225 men who assaulted the cliffs, only ninety were left able to continue fighting. Sadly, it was later discovered that, in what was surely one of the war’s most inexplicable reasons, the guns had been moved inland to a nearby orchard and never employed against the Allies. To this day no one knows why.
In 1979, the approximately 100 acres that comprise the Pointe du Hoc – much of it still pockmarked with bomb craters – were ceded to the United States in perpetuity by the French government. Managed by the American Battle Monuments Commission, the American flag flies over the Pointe du Hoc, which is a living testimonial to the bravery and sacrifice of the Rangers. Until a few years ago it was possible to stand at the top of the cliffs and tour the main German bunker. However, due to increasing erosion, the entire area along the cliffs is now sealed off. A large viewing stand has been built in the center of the Pointe du Hoc, which offers an excellent view of the entire area.
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