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D-Day: American Rangers Who Terrified the Germans

A group of American Rangers, led by the bold James Rudder, were some of the strongest and bravest soldiers in D-Day battles. Learn how they sabotaged a giant stockpile of German weapons aimed at Normandy beaches.

By
Giles Milton
Episode #84
Soldiers resting at Pointe du Hoc

Who were William Petty’s Bastards? And why were the Germans so afraid of them? Well—with very good reason. Not for nothing did this band of tough-nut American Rangers refer to themselves as the bastards.

Welcome to Season 3 of Unknown History: D-Day Stories. I'm your host, Giles Milton, and today we're talking about the mission of the American Rangers to capture the big German guns at Pointe du Hoc.

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Pointe du Hoc on the coast of Normandy is a vertical cliff that looms skywards to the height of a nine-story building. From here, there is a spectacular view across the Normandy beaches.

In the spring of 1944, the Germans were quick to realize that if you placed big guns on top of these cliffs, you could cause absolute mayhem by firing down on men attempting to land on those beaches.

To this end, they had installed six 155mm cannon that could lob huge shells a distance of 25,000 meters. They could hit both Utah Beach and Omaha Beach, as well as the cruisers and destroyers at anchor in the coastal waters. It was clear to the Allied planners of D-Day that the big guns of Pointe du Hoc had to be taken out.

But how? And by who?

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. James Rudder was to lead an attack that would be spearheaded by a small band of specially trained Rangers. Theirs was to be no conventional attack. Instead of attacking from the land, as the Germans were expecting, Rudder decided instead to scale the cliffs of Pointe du Hoc and attack the guns head-on. 

It was a crazy plan. Bold, daring, and all but impossible. But Rudder felt sure that if he had the right men—and trained them to within an inch of their lives—then he would succeed.

He wanted only the finest men in his battalion and he selected them for their stamina and motivation. His chosen band could come from any walk of life, just so long as they were prepared to fight to the death.

It was a crazy plan. Bold, daring, and all but impossible.

Many of Rudder’s recruits were unruly misfits. Merril Stinnetti was a firebrand who was forever getting into fights. He’d as soon knock you off the bar-stool if you looked him wrong, said one of his mates, Herman Stein. "I was sitting right next to him when he cold-cocked a guy."

Bill Anderson was another hulk of "downright blood and guts" who had been demoted from sergeant to private after a fist-fight.

William Petty was similarly violent: he soon fell in with a gang of hotheads like himself—Bill Colden, Gene Vershare, Bill Coldsmith, and Bill McHugh. Collectively they were known as Petty’s Bastards. They were determined to prove that they could be bastards—absolute bastards—on the field of battle.

As the men leaped from their landing craft into thigh-deep water, some of them tumbled into craters so deep that they found themselves plunged underwater. Getting ashore was only the first step in a highly dangerous operation. They now had to scale the cliff.

One of the Rangers’ greatest problems in those opening minutes of combat came when their amphibious vehicles were unable to get purchase on the shingle beach. It meant that the 80-foot extending ladders, loaned by the London Fire Brigade and welded securely to the decks, could not reach the cliff-top.

This technical drawback did nothing to deter one of Rudder’s more acrobatic men, William Stivison hoisted one of the ladders vertically into the sky and then scampered to the top. He was completely unfazed by the fact that the ladder was swinging back and forth like a precarious trapeze as the amphibious vehicle bucked and kicked in the heavy swell. In the brief seconds when the ladder was upright, Stivison would straighten his machine gun and "fire short bursts as he passed over the edge of the cliff."

Seconds later, he would wrap his arms around the rungs of the ladder as it plunged back towards the water.

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About the Author

Giles Milton

Giles Milton is a writer and historian who graduated from the University of Bristol. He is an internationally bestselling author of nine works of narrative non-fiction and three novels. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and serialized by the BBC.

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