D-Day: The Atlantic Wall and Pointe du Hoc

I’VE WRITTEN several posts about D-Day and the Atlantic Wall, but want to call your attention to this piece from the New York Review of Books. It’s the best explanation of the Pointe du Hoc debacle (an heroic debacle, but a debacle nevertheless) that I’ve seen, and its discussion of the Atlantic Wall and its remains is really worth reading.

German watchtower on Guernsey, off the coast of France

German watchtower on Guernsey, off the coast of France

One thing to remember is that Hitler entrusted the construction of the Atlantic Wall to Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox of North Africa fame. The entire coastline of France was a blocked military zone (or sperrgebiet in German), as were the borders with Switzerland and Italy. (Italy, as a German ally, had a little more flexibility.) Serious construction on the Atlantic Wall didn’t begin until early 1944, when Rommel was put in charge. He didn’t swallow the official doctrine that the Allied invasion was come at Calais, but he didn’t much care — he thought the entire coastline should be fortified, because a successful Allied invasion would mean Germany would lose the war. (He died in October 1944, forced to commit suicide as one of the alleged plotters against Hitler. Had he not taken the poison, his family and his staff would have been executed.) Rommel started a crash program that resulted in the chain of beguiling ruins that line the Norman coast to this day. One of those is at Pointe du Hoc, where a team of Rangers scaled the cliffs against brutal opposition with the goal of spiking the big guns they thought were trained on Omaha Beach. When they reached the top they found that the guns had been moved inland and neutralized them with thermite grenades, but then found themselves cut off and dependent on captured weapons. Read the story for the tragic outcome — it gives new meaning to “friendly fire.” This exceptional piece was written by Malise Ruthven, whose wife, the photographer Ianthe Ruthven, has a show of Atlantic Wall pictures at the Royal Geographic Society through June 20. See the entire story on the NYR Blog.

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