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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

With the extending ladders out of action, the men were forced to rely on their rope and steel grapnels. These were fired from rocket guns and had been designed to embed themselves into the clifftop and leave a trail of rope dangling down to the beach. That, at least, was the theory. In reality, most of the ropes were too sodden with spray (and therefore too heavy) to reach the cliff-top. Very few of the grapnels buried themselves into the wet clay at the top of Pointe du Hoc.

William Petty was about to scale one of the dangling ropes when a German machine gun began spitting bullets at his comrade halfway up the cliff. "He stiffened and swung out. Next, he slid down the rope like an elevator, bounced several times against ledges" before thumping on to the rocks below.

Petty grabbed the greasy rope and started to climb, praying that the machine-gun fire wouldn’t hit him. The men could easily have been wiped out there and then, but fabulous training and a determination to succeed saw the first few men successfully scale the cliff.

"Let’s go!"

The men could easily have been wiped out there and then, but fabulous training and a determination to succeed saw the first few men successfully scale the cliff.

"I don’t know what to do."

"Mac, you and Coldsmith take the left flank. Colden, you take the right and move out."

Petty’s Bastards were soon on the move, hungry for action. Petty himself was keeping a sharp eye on the German positions. "There come seven of the bastards." They all let rip and watched them drop to the ground. The few Germans they captured alive would live to regret it. "All right, let’s see you bastards goosestep," yelled one to one small group of captives he was tormenting. "Ein – Zwei – Drei."

The chewed-up terrain meant it was impossible to undertake a coherent attack and the assault soon broke down into a series of individual fire-fights. Each platoon had been given an objective. Now, even when separated, they tried to fulfil their goal of capturing and securing the clifftop.

James Rudder had established his command post in a crater close to the cliff edge. He had been shot through the leg but refused to let it trouble him. He ordered the medic to run a swab through the hole—excruciatingly painful without anaesthetic—and then sluice some iodine onto the raw flesh.

His men were by now under fire from every direction—and not just from the Germans. When the American ship Texas fired towards the land, one of its fourteen-inch shells landed smack on Rudder’s command post.

One of his men was so seriously injured in the blast that he died soon after. Others were left clutching their heads as they reeled from the shock. Jerking with terror, they found their skin had been dyed bright yellow from the smoke of the colored shell.

William Petty and his team fought their way through the German trenches, clearing them one by one. One of them took a bullet in the throat. "The blood was gushing out of him," said Herman Stein. He thumped his fist into the gaping hole, "trying to stop the flow of blood, but that high blood pressure of his was pumping like mad." It took just a couple of minutes for him to die. His eyes "opened in a glassy, far-away look and I knew he was gone."

When the Rangers finally reached the gun emplacements, they found—to their surprise—that the guns were not there. The Germans had taken them out and hidden them. The hunt was now on to find them. It was essential that the Rangers locate the guns and destroy them.

Among the group that pushed inland, away from the clifftop, was William Petty and his bastards. Petty himself took up position behind a low wall, with a view over a sweep of the main road that ran along the coast. At one point, eight Germans swung by on bicycles. Petty opened up on them.

"Almost like goin’ duck huntin'," he said with a grin.

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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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