Rangers Led the Way on D-Day
By Maj. Gen. John Raaen Jr. (Ret.)
Leadership is the quality in a commander that makes a subordinate want to follow that individual’s orders or desires. What goes into military leadership usually includes charisma, demonstrated bravery, reputation and understanding or empathy.
I was witness to these acts and have recorded my observations in a recently released book. “INTACT: A First-hand Account of the D-day Invasion from a Fifth Rangers Company Commander” chronicles the actions of the U.S. Army’s 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion’s landing in Normandy and is replete with examples of fine military leadership.
The first would be leadership shown by the officers and petty officers of the Royal Navy Flotillas that brought the Rangers from their Royal Navy landing ships to the beaches.
The mission of the Rangers in Normandy was to destroy the German 155 mm guns located at Pointe du Hoc. Having done that, the Ranger Forces would then block the routes of German reinforcements for the Omaha beaches. The plan was for Ranger Force C to land at Pointe du Hoc behind Ranger Force A—three companies, D, E and F of the 2nd Rangers—and climb the cliffs there. Then, they were to locate and destroy the guns and move inland to set up blocking positions.
Unfortunately, the guide boat for Ranger Force A lost its way in the storm, smoke and confusion inherent in landings on a hostile shore. The Royal Navy Commodore of the five ships carrying the two Ranger battalions had to bite the bullet and give the order to abandon the Pointe du Hoc landings. As a result, Ranger Force C—consisting of Companies A and B of the 2nd Rangers and the entire 5th Ranger Battalion—diverted to Omaha Dog Green Beach. The three flotillas—the 501st, the 504th and the 507th—were already late in following the alternate landing plan as they turned for Vierville-sur-Mer.
Arriving at the Vierville exit of Omaha Dog Green Beach, the three flotillas were waved off by landing control boats and told to land on Dog White Beach.
As the first wave—Companies A, B and a Headquarters element of the 2nd Rangers—landed at the boundary between Green and White beaches, they were met by overwhelming fire from the bluffs and from WN 70—a small German strongpoint. Over half these Rangers in the first wave were immediate casualties, including most of the officers. Despite these losses, the noncommissioned officers of Company A rallied the shattered Rangers, crossed the beach and fought their way up the bluffs, eliminating WN 70 in the process. The Force C commander, Lieutenant Colonel Max Schneider, now had his own bullet to bite. And he did. He diverted his second and third waves of landing craft another 1,000 yards east to Omaha Dog Red where it turned out the landing conditions were far more suitable than on Dog White. The entire 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion—some 450 Rangers— landed intact with no more than five casualties.
Three times the plan was changed and three times the officers and petty officers of the flotillas rose to the occasion, leading their flotillas as if on a peacetime drill. No boats were lost and perfect order was maintained.
Discipline and tradition played a huge role in the success of those maneuvers, but the leadership that guided those crews in doing their duty was outstanding.
Colonel Schneider’s instant recognition of the danger to his troops on Dog White was another example of leadership. Schneider had landed on hostile shores in Africa, Sicily and in Italy at Salerno. He knew what could happen, recognized that it was happening and took action to save his forces. Was that leadership? You bet it was. He was bound to be second guessed for any failure of his battalion.
But did his men doubt that he knew what he was doing? No way. We all followed the man with complete faith in what he chose to do.
But now, on the beach—the wrong beach—more than a mile away from where he was supposed to be, what was Schneider to do? Improvise.
He knew where he was, where he was supposed to be, and what he was supposed to do. He didn’t hesitate one moment, but ordered his company commanders to infiltrate to their pre-planned assembly area southwest of Vierville and then resume the pursuit of his mission. No one doubted his decision. He was the experienced leader and we all had faith in him.
Orders from the 29th Division changing the battalion’s mission failed to reach A Company’s commander.
So with one platoon, he continued on his mission and the 5th Rangers began its infiltration to the assembly area. His second platoon received the change in orders and turned back as instructed.
Lieutenant “Ace” Parker, the company commander, fought and infiltrated his way to the assembly area.
Finding no one else there, and knowing the battalion mission was to relieve the Rangers at Pointe du Hoc, he started out on his own to accomplish that mission.
A single platoon in the middle of the German Coastal Defenses for Normandy worked its way over six miles to join the Rangers of the 2nd Battalion at Pointe du Hoc. By the time the three companies of the 2nd Rangers were relieved, nearly 40 percent of the fighting force at Pointe du Hoc were Rangers from the 5th Battalion.
The audacity of Parker’s decision and the unswerving devotion to what he saw as his duty and the performance of his platoon are superb examples of leadership at the junior officer level.
At the higher levels of command, Brigadier General Norman D. Cota demonstrated uncommon leadership and heroism.
Landing on Omaha Dog White Beach with his staff about one hour after H-Hour, he immediately went on a personal reconnaissance mission to learn the situation. What he found was frightening.
There was no evidence that any 29th Division troops had left the beach and the German defenses were holding. He had to do something to get the soldiers off the beach. To that end—and with small-arms fire coming from the strong points—he began walking through the troops dug in on the bluffs of Green and White Beaches. He yelled at soldiers cringing behind the seawall and the embankment. He went up to them individually as they lay there and shook them. The message was always the same: “Get off the beach or you’re gonna die!”
His fearless example sparked C Company of the 116th Infantry to blow holes in the barbed wire that was containing them on the beach. The same company then burst through the wire, assaulted the bluffs and carried their attack into hedgerow country.
I saw General Cota—chewing on a big, unlit cigar—coming toward my position on Dog Red when he was about 100 yards away. By the time he got to me, I realized he was someone high ranking and moved to report to him. I gave him the situation of the 5th Rangers, including the fact that we were in the process of blowing the wire in front of us so we could move off the beach.
As he moved through about a 100 yards of Rangers he added something to his mantra. “You men are Rangers, I know you won’t let me down,” and what later turned out to be the Ranger motto, “Rangers, Lead the Way.”
When the 5th Rangers went through the wire and up the bluffs, General Cota was still with us, right up with the lead platoons, always urging the troops onward.
But he didn’t stop there. Returning to the beach and finding the Vierville exit still blocked by antitank walls, he found a dozer loaded with explosives and an engineer sergeant eager to blow the barriers.
With German artillery fire falling around him, he continued restoring order to unit after unit until he reached the First Division Forward Headquarters, nearly two miles down the beach. Cota was a real leader and a real hero.
If INTACT weren’t about the 5th Ranger Infantry Battalion, Major Sidney Bingham would be the star. Bingham commanded the 2nd Battalion of the 116th Infantry Regiment—the Stonewallers—direct descendants of Stonewall Jackson’s Brigade.
When Bingham landed in front of WN 68—another German strongpoint—his battalion was scattered. Many troops were leaderless, as wind, tide, smoke and other obstacles scattered the formations of landing craft. Undeterred, Bingham organized any troops he found nearby, made sure they were armed and attacked WN 68.
The German forts were not designed to defend themselves, but to use interlocking fires to defend adjacent forts and the troops and weapons emplacements scattered along the bluffs. When Bingham’s actions forced WN 68 to defend itself, the German troops between the strong points found themselves unsupported.
Other leaders were able to pull together enough troops to penetrate between strong points and then spread out into the rear areas of the German defenses, as well as attack the strong points from the rear. When Bingham’s makeshift force was repulsed, he went back again and again, finding new soldiers to repeat his attacks on WN 68. Eventually enough troops had climbed the bluffs between the strong points to establish the beachheads.
Thanks to Bingham’s leadership—and that of many others too numerous to mention who did exactly as Bingham did—the day was won.
–Retired Army Major General John C. Raaen Jr., graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1943. Commissioned as a Second Lieutenant in the Corps of Engineers, he joined the newly activated 5th Ranger Battalion, landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He was awarded a Silver Star for his actions that day. Raaen recently published “INTACT: A First-hand Account of the D-day Invasion from a Fifth Rangers Company Commander.”