It was the 40th anniversary of the invasion of Normandy, France – D-Day.
President and Nancy Reagan visited the beaches and battlements, and with dignitaries and veterans of WWII in attendance, it was here he gave one of his most stirring speeches:
This was an emotional day. The ceremonies honoring the fortieth anniversary of D-Day became more than commemorations. They became celebration of heroism and sacrifice. This place, Pointe de Hoc, in itself was moving and majestic. I stood there on that windswept point with the ocean behind me. Before me were the boys who forty years before had fought their way up from the Ocean. Some rested under the white crosses and Stars of David that stretched out across the landscape. Others sat right in front of me. They looked like elderly businessmen, yet these were the kids who climbed the cliffs.
– Ronald Reagan –
The moment –
REAGAN: We’re here to mark that day in history when the Allied armies joined in battle to reclaim this continent to liberty. For four long years, much of Europe had been under a terrible shadow. Free nations had fallen, Jews cried out in the camps, millions cried out for liberation. Europe was enslaved, and the world prayed for its rescue. Here in Normandy the rescue began. Here the Allies stood and fought against tyranny in a giant undertaking unparalleled in human history. We stand on a lonely, windswept point on the northern shore of France. The air is soft, but 40 years ago at this moment, the air was dense with smoke and the cries of men, and the air was filled with the crack of rifle fire and the roar of cannon.
At dawn, on the morning of the 6th of June, 1944, 225 Rangers jumped off the British landing craft and ran to the bottom of these cliffs. Their mission was one of the most difficult and daring of the invasion: to climb these sheer and desolate cliffs and take out the enemy guns. The Allies had been told that some of the mightiest of these guns were here and they would be trained on the beaches to stop the Allied advance. The Rangers looked up and saw the enemy soldiers at the edge of the cliffs shooting down at them with machineguns and throwing grenades. And the American Rangers began to climb. They shot rope ladders over the face of these cliffs and began to pull themselves up.
When one Ranger fell, another would take his place. When one rope was cut, a Ranger would grab another and begin his climb again. They climbed, shot back, and held their footing. Soon, one by one, the Rangers pulled themselves over the top, and in seizing the firm land at the top of these cliffs, they began to seize back the continent of Europe. Two hundred and twenty-five came here. After two days of fighting, only 90 could still bear arms. Behind me is a memorial that symbolizes the Ranger daggers that were thrust into the top of these cliffs. And before me are the men who put them there. These are the boys of Pointe du Hoc.
REAGAN: These are the men who took the cliffs. These are the champions who helped free a continent. These are the heroes who helped end a war. Gentlemen, I look at you and I think of the words of Stephen Spender’s poem. You are men who in your, quote, “lives fought for life … and left the vivid air signed with your honor.” I think I know what you may be thinking right now — thinking “we were just part of a bigger effort; everyone was brave that day.” Well, everyone was. Do you remember the story of Bill Millin of the 51st Highlanders? Forty years ago today, British troops were pinned down near a bridge, waiting desperately for help.
Suddenly, they heard the sound of bagpipes, and some thought they were dreaming.
Well, they weren’t.
They looked up and saw Bill Millin with his bagpipes, leading the reinforcements and ignoring the smack of the bullets into the ground around him. Lord Lovat was with him — Lord Lovat of Scotland, who calmly announced when he got to the bridge, “Sorry I’m a few minutes late,” as if he’d been delayed by a traffic jam, when in truth he’d just come from the bloody fighting on Sword Beach, which he and his men had just taken. There was the impossible valor of the Poles who threw themselves between the enemy and the rest of Europe as the invasion took hold, and the unsurpassed courage of the Canadians who had already seen the horrors of war on this coast.
They knew what awaited them there, but they would not be deterred. And once they hit Juno Beach, they never looked back. All of these men were part of a roll call of honor with names that spoke of a pride as bright as the colors they bore: the Royal Winnipeg Rifles, Poland’s 24th Lancers, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the Screaming Eagles, the Yeomen of England’s armored divisions, the forces of Free France, the Coast Guard’s “Matchbox Fleet” — and you, the American Rangers. Forty summers have passed since the battle that you fought here. You were young the day you took these cliffs; some of you were hardly more than boys, with the deepest joys of life before you. Yet, you risked everything here.
Why did you do it?
What impelled you to put aside the instinct for self-preservation and risk your lives to take these cliffs? What inspired all the men of the armies that met here? We look at you, and somehow we know the answer. It was faith and belief; it was loyalty and love. The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge — and pray God we have not lost it — that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.
Today, it’s a history lesson for anyone who wants to learn it:
In between Omaha and Utah beaches in Normandy lies a promontory called Pointe du Hoc. Prior to D-Day on 6 June 1944, the Germans had six 155mm artillery pieces that could effectively fire on either Omaha or Utah beaches. Pointe du Hoc (typo’ed as Pointe du Hoe on many D-Day documents and maps) was target number one for the Americans to neutralize.
Feeling the pointe was unassailable from the sea, the Germans focussed most of the defenses facing rearward. The Americans, knowing this, sent their elite infantrymen, Companies D, E & F of the 2nd Ranger Batallion, to scale the seaside 100 foot vertical walls of the pointe in an attempt to surprise the Germans.
The pointe was subjected to an unprecedented aerial and naval bombardment prior to the invasion. You can see the effects of this in the giant craters that still exist here today. The firing lifted just before the Rangers were to land at 06:30. This is where things begian to go wrong.
At approximately 06:20, the Rangers’ landing craft were heading for the wrong pointe (Pointe de la Percee, a similar pointe) 2 miles closer to Omaha beach. The Ranger leader, Lieutenant-Colonel James Rudder, noticed the error and corrected the flotilla. However, to correct, the Rangers had to run parallel to the coast and against a strong tide. Swells engulfed several boats, including a supply boat. This meant they were 40 minutes late, short of men, food and ammunition. The delay meant the Germans had begun to re-occupy the pointe after the aerial and naval bombardment had lifted.
The Rangers landed at the base of the cliffs at approximately 07:10. Using grappling hooks and ladders, the first elements were up in 10 minutes. The Germans killed and wounded 15 by firing down on the Rangers and dropping grenades on them, but supporting naval fire suppressed them enough to allow the Rangers to get on top of the pointe.
h/t Joshua Treviño