The dramatic story of Pointe du Hoc, the backdrop to Biden’s D-Day anniversary speech

An aerial view of Pointe du Hoc, a clifftop in Cricqueville-en-Bessin, on the French western Norman coast, taken in October 2018.
Damien Meyer | AFP via Getty Images

President Biden’s itinerary for commemorating D-Day’s 80th anniversary in France includes giving a speech on Friday at a Normandy site called Pointe du Hoc.

The 100-foot cliff juts out over the Omaha and Utah beaches, where thousands of U.S. troops landed on June 6, 1944, as Allied forces stormed the coast and, ultimately, turned the tide of World War II in their favor.

Pointe du Hoc didn’t only overlook the historic landings and battles happening on shore. Its craggy edges were themselves the site of one of the invasion’s most daring operations.

The occupying German forces had established a defensive position atop the cliff, stationing several long-range guns that posed a major threat to the Allied troops coming ashore.

A group of 225 U.S. Army Rangers — led by then-Lt. Col. James Earl Rudder — was tasked with destroying those guns. But they had to scale the cliff to get to them.

U.S. soldiers from the 2nd Ranger Battalion surround German prisoners on the Pointe du Hoc on D-Day.
US National Archives | AFP via Getty

The mission that ensued has been memorialized with a granite monument, depicted (though not entirely accurately) in the war epic The Longest Day and now honored in milestone anniversary speeches by two U.S. presidents, 40 years apart.

The site, located some 7 miles west of Normandy American Cemetery, has experienced erosion over time and even lost a chunk of its outcrop in a 2022 landslide. But its monument and bunkers remain ever-popular attractions for Normandy visitors.

Pointe du Hoc endures as a symbol of “tenacity, combat resilience, leadership, sacrifice [and] teamwork”, in the words of Mike Bell, executive director of the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy at the National WWII Museum.

“Here’s what these citizen soldiers can achieve, and achieve it, in this case, to begin the liberation,” he told NPR, “achieve it for the ends of ultimately freeing the oppressed peoples of Europe and trying to build a more safe and secure world.”

The history — and significance — of Pointe du Hoc

A group of U.S. Army Rangers demonstrate how they climbed a rope ladder up the cliff face at Pointe du Hoc to surprise a Nazi gun position, easing the Invasion of Normandy at Omaha Beach.
Getty Images

The first few dozen Rangers arrived at the base of the cliff, somewhat delayed and waterlogged, just after 7 a.m.

“They have some extension ladders they got from the fire department, and then they have some grappling hooks with ropes that they shoot out of these little rocket studs,” Bell said. “And then they start climbing the cliffs under enemy fire.”

It took about 30 minutes for the Rangers to battle their way to the top.

“The ropes might be cut and so they’ll have to kind of get over to another rope, or the ladders were pushed down,” Bell said. “It’s a pretty amazing kind of story of tenacity and doggedness and teamwork.”

After the Rangers reached the summit, they cleared out the bunkers and located the five guns, which Bell said had been pushed back into the trees as Germans sought to improve their position.

Using thermite grenades, they destroyed the guns and radioed "mission accomplished" — all by 9 a.m.

“Kind of a claim to fame is this is the first unit on D-Day — major unit — that can report that it’s achieved its objectives,” Bell added. “Whereas the guys getting up Omaha Beach, it'll be hours before they're up over the bluffs and achieve their objectives.”

But that wasn’t the end of their saga.

A-20 bombers fly over German positions at the Pointe Du Hoc coastal battery on May 22, 1944, weeks before D-Day.
Galerie Bilderwelt | Getty Images

The Rangers faced fierce counterattacks by the Germans and spent the next two days engaged in combat.

By the time they were relieved by troops from Omaha Beach on June 8, Bell said, only 90 of the original 225 were “still able to bear arms.” All told, 77 were killed and 152 wounded.

There’s no exact count of how many U.S. lives the mission at Pointe du Hoc helped save, though Bell said there would have been nearly 5,000 ships in the range of the Germans’ artillery.

More than a dozen individual Rangers would go on to receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation’s second-highest award for military valor. Rudder's battalion was awarded a Presidential Unit Citation for heroism.

Bell said Rudder’s own reflections best encapsulate the inspired reaction to the operation.

The lieutenant colonel — who later became president of Texas A&M University and, eventually, the entire A&M system — returned to the site with his teenage son years after the war.

“Will you tell me how we did this?” he pondered, according to the Warfare History Network. “Anybody would be a fool to try this. It was crazy then, and it’s crazy now.”

Ronald Reagan gave a speech there on the 40th D-Day anniversary

President Ronald Reagan gave a speech on June 6, 1984, the 40th Anniversary of D-Day, at Pointe du Hoc in Normandy, France. Dozens of Rangers were in attendance.
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Decades later, President Ronald Reagan commemorated the 40th anniversary of D-Day on-site with a rousing speech about the “boys of Pointe du Hoc.”

Reagan had marked the anniversary at Omaha and Utah Beaches. But senior White House staff wanted him to speak at the cliff, too, former assistant to the president James Kuhn told NPR over email.

“The Pointe du Hoc Memorial itself with the English Channel in the background and the Normandy cliffs to the east and west provided the setting for Reagan to bring another strong focus to the Allied invasion on D-Day,” he wrote.

Reagan delivered his address in front of 62 of the Rangers who had scaled the cliff that day, whom he referred to as "the men who took the cliffs … the champions who helped free a continent … the heroes who helped end a war.”

He honored their valor and called on listeners to “continue to stand for the ideals for which they lived and died.” He also spoke of American security and foreign policy — and about the Soviet Union, acknowledging the communist nation's contributions and losses in the war and expressing the U.S.’ hopes of reconciliation.

Reagan’s speech held lessons of “tremendous significance” not only for the Cold War era but for today, David Trulio, president and CEO of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, told NPR over email.

“He made clear that having allies with shared values is part of America’s strength, and that a ready and engaged — as opposed to an isolationist — America is the way to handle expansionist despotic regimes,” he wrote.

France D-Day
The monument at the Pointe du Hoc honors Rudder and his Rangers.
David Vincent | AP

Reagan was running for reelection in 1984, much like Biden is this year. Bell said because D-Day ceremonies in Normandy get considerable international attention, they are an especially visible place in which to highlight America’s achievements and values.

For Reagan, part of that included emphasizing the NATO alliance, of which “the nucleus was literally there at Normandy.”

Bell said many of Reagan's themes are still relevant in today’s war-torn world, from “the desire to protect those countries that face aggression” to the “strengthening of our alliances.”

“Pausing to reflect on D-Day or the achievement of the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc really allows us to shine a light on those and give it a venue that those causes, I think, all deserve,” he said. “And frankly, the sacrifice for our men and women who served, suffered and died in the war really deserve that we highlight those as well.”

Copyright 2024 NPR