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Armed with little more than grit, on the morning of June 6, 1944, some 200 men of Colonel James E. Rudder's 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the 100-foot cliff of Pointe du Hoc and passed into legend.
Theirs was a remarkable achievement. At a cost of more than 135 casualties, Rudder's men seized an objective that Allied leaders had deemed the most important piece of real estate on the whole Norman coast, while destroying a nearby battery of heavy guns and protecting the right flank of the Omaha Beach landings when the success of the D-Day invasion itself was in doubt. General Omar N. Bradley later remarked, "No soldier in my command has ever been wished a more difficult task than Rudder."
So important is the site of Rudder's heroics that in the years since the invasion the battlefield itself has been preserved, with the lunar landscape and shattered remains of massive concrete bunkers maintained by the American Battle Monuments Commission as an eternal reminder of the might of the Allied invasion force and the bravery of its participants. Millions have made the pilgrimage to the battlefield, among them several U.S. presidents, including Ronald Reagan, whose address to the "boys of Pointe du Hoc" on the 40th anniversary of the invasion has come to be regarded as a major policy speech and was the subject of a bestselling book by historian Douglas Brinkley.
Given the Pointe's significance, it would be shocking indeed if it turned out that the Rangers' D-Day heroism had all been for naught. As capricious an idea as that may seem, it is just what amateur historian and militaria collector Gary Sterne is claiming. Sterne also asserts that it was a massive intelligence failure that led to an unnecessary slaughter of GIs on Omaha Beach and a subsequent military coverup.
Normally, such outrageous notions would be given short shrift by all but a few of the most devoted conspiracy theorists, but Sterne's discovery of a long-forgotten German battery complex at Maisy and his ongoing investigation of the site raise the possibility that his outlandish remarks might have substance.
As reported in "WWII Today" in the July/August issue of World War II Magazine, Sterne's routine purchase of a Ranger's military memorabilia led to the accidental discovery of a massive German battery complex outside the village of Maisy. Among the items in the collection was a map with the words "area of high resistance" scribbled on it.
Curious, Sterne took the map on his next visit to Normandy. As he traveled down one of the roads marked on the map, he came across three large casemates that are well known as the La Martinière bunkers. These emplacements, however, were not the ones indicated on the map. He began searching the area behind the three gun positions and before long was standing on top of a large concrete slab nearby at Les Perruques. Further investigation revealed the entrance to a bunker, then another and still another. Most important was the discovery of a concrete mount for a large 155mm gun.
Unsure of what he had discovered, but well aware that anything this size was considerably important, Sterne began the process of quietly purchasing the land. Four years and 25 acres later, in January 2006 he made the official announcement of his discovery and his plans to eventually purchase the remainder of the 100-acre complex and to open up the battery site as a major Norman tourist destination by 2007. To make it clear that his bunker complex is not just another of the countless concrete relics that dot the invasion coast, Sterne claims that it was the battery at Maisy that did the real killing on Omaha Beach.
Although his assertions have generated much outrage, Sterne has presented a sufficiently intriguing case to interest not only local French officials and Normandy enthusiasts, but also the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), which is planning a major documentary on the site.
Because of the importance of Sterne's discovery and its potential impact on our understanding of the most significant invasion of the war, World War II believes it is worthwhile to consider the claims and counterclaims surrounding the mysterious Maisy battery.
To the German defenders of Normandy, what everyone today is calling the Maisy battery was officially known as Widerstandsnest (Resistance Nest) 83 at Les Perruques, and its neighbor WN84 at La Martinière. The Royal Air Force flew several reconnaissance missions over the site, and Allied aircrews later bombed it. The two Widerstandsnesten received another pasting on D-Day itself, with several aerial bombing missions flown against the two batteries, as well as bombardment from the British cruiser Hawkins and other Allied ships. The 352nd Infantry Division, the Wehrmacht unit responsible for defense of the area, stated in a later report that the "area around Maisy is being subjected to heavy artillery fire from Allied ships located off Marcouf."
Even with this pummeling, Sterne maintains that the structures on the site suffered little or no damage. "Until the evening of the 6th of June, the HQ and 155mm battery was untouched. Despite the Allied attempts to destroy it — I guess 90 percent survived totally intact. One bomb landed within the wire and nothing else. It was fully operational on D-Day."
The position only ceased to be a threat when it was taken by the 5th Ranger Battalion on June 9. The Rangers were assigned the task of clearing the Maisy area after the 116th Infantry Regiment bypassed it en route to Isigny and the planned rendezvous with other American units coming from Utah Beach.
On the morning of June 9, A, C and F companies of the 5th Ranger Battalion, two halftracks armed with 75mm cannons, elements of the 58th Armored Field Artillery Battalion and Company B, 81st Chemical Weapons Battalion, launched an assault that brought them to the Maisy battery. Major Richard Sullivan conducted the attack from the back of one of the halftracks.
Because the perimeter of the site was mined, Sullivan advanced in column formation with A Company in the lead. The attack began around 0800, and as medic Jack Burke recalled, "It was a very nice day…a good day for a fight."
Dan Farley has vivid memories of the engagement. "We were…the lead company. Our squad…came into contact first. We went through there…fast. We had to fight in the trenches. [There] wasn't actually any hand-to-hand combat with trench knives, but it was gun-to-gun. [The Germans] gave up pretty quick. They threw down their weapons. However, there were some SS officers in there. They…shot some of their own soldiers in the back that were trying to surrender. They…gave up surrendering, so we had to start all over again.
"If the SS officers hadn't been there, there would have been less casualties…and it wouldn't have been as bad as it was. I remember stepping over an SS officer…a Captain. [He] was the highest-ranking officer that I personally saw. There was a couple more [SS] running around there. [Pfc Jesse] Taylor…or both of us shot at the same time and got a couple of more. I know there were a couple of other lesser officers, and I know there was an NCO we got rid of. All SS. About four that I came in contact with."
Richard Hathaway also took part in the battle on the 9th. "I wasn't really scared, [but] I was all hyped up. We were in a bayonet assault. I had it on, but I didn't have to stick anybody. We did use some concussion grenades. Once we started our assault, we came in from one direction. We couldn't cross that area, so we had to come out and come in from a different direction. The swamp, the water — there was just too much of it…so we pulled out. It was just too large an area to cross and too much open space. We all split up.
"I went into one trench and there was a guy nearby…I can only remember his nickname, it was Frenchy. I said, 'Frenchy, come out with me; we're going in here.' I went in. We came around a corner. Three other guys had come up over the top. They had blown one guy, a German — they had blown his face off. He had no face. I remember [Pfc] Taylor saying, 'Hey, this guy isn't dead,' and he stuck him with a bayonet."
Farley recalled that Captain John Raaen Jr., in his after-action report, noted that "about 90 defenders became POWs." Countered Farley, "There were dang sure more than 90 because I had at least 15 or 20 myself that I was herding around. I'd say 130 to 150."
When Sterne began searching for information on his discovery, he realized that in the thousands of pages written about the D-Day landings, the guns at Maisy are scarcely mentioned. This, along with the oral testimony of veterans of the fight for the battery and the presence of certain types of large German bunkers, led him to his startling conclusions about Maisy's importance.
His first assertion is that the formidable emplacements at Pointe du Hoc were nothing more than decoys meant to distract the Allies from Maisy, and that like Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg, General Dwight D. Eisenhower let his emotions get the better of him and had the Rangers carry out their attack even though he knew it was unnecessary.
"The Rangers had been sent on a wild goose chase at Pointe du Hoc," Sterne says, "and therefore someone at HQ in the UK didn't want the subsequent mission to Maisy recorded, because it was clear that Maisy being overlooked created a huge number of deaths at Omaha Beach. Perhaps…it was good PR to turn the failure at Pointe du Hoc into a huge U.S. success and give them all medals."
According to Sterne, the master magician behind the deception was German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel. Sterne asserts that Rommel's very public visit to the Pointe du Hoc battery prior to the invasion was circulated in newsreel footage to draw attention away from the batteries at Maisy, adding: "[Maisy is] going to be…a military Watergate…it's pretty strange that the whole site, my piece — HQ and battery, was buried under 1 to 2 meters of soil immediately after the war. Lots of stories and many heroes exist, but the real battle for Omaha Beach and D-Day was at Maisy, not Pointe du Hoc."
Responding to this accusation, a historian for the U.S. Army, who wished to remain anonymous, claims, "The amount of resources used to destroy Pointe du Hoc were infinitesimal given the scale of assets employed by the Allies, so I am not sure if Rommel actually did not realize what was facing him — which is the only way he might think one fake battery position could actually have a significant operational impact."
Another historian who has taken exception to Sterne's cover-up speculation is John McManus, a professor of military history who has written extensively on Normandy. "I am not much of a conspiracy theorist. I'm very reluctant to believe that the Allies mistakenly attacked Pointe du Hoc instead of Maisy, suffered thousands of casualties and then conducted some sort of sunny PR campaign about the Pointe to fool future historians. Bradley's commanders had their hands full with such a mess at Omaha that they were dealing with whatever was right in front of them, rather than a few miles down the coast."
Apparently stung by the criticism, Sterne later tempered his remarks. "Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't go and climb a 60-foot cliff under any type of enemy fire and then keep the enemy at bay for days. They were all very brave men. My angle is not to say they didn't do a good job, because they obviously did. I just want to add to the knowledge of D-Day."
Sterne maintains that the Allies knew prior to the invasion that there were no guns in the casemates at Pointe du Hoc. As proof, he says he is in possession of minutes from a British government intelligence meeting dated June 1, 1944, in which there are notes that the Pointe du Hoc guns were "inoperable." He also refers to Jean Marion, a former mayor of Grandcamp and a veteran of the French Resistance, who "radio telephoned England twice before D-Day to say the same thing."
Even if this were the case, it does not necessarily prove the conspiracy claim. McManus offers a plausible explanation on why the attack on Pointe du Hoc went forth, even after intelligence revealed that the guns were not operable: "Two reasons: 1) bureaucratic inertia — the Allies had a difficult time in the days leading up to D-Day utilizing fresh intelligence to their advantage; 2) the Rangers were going to assault the Pointe no matter what. Even if the guns were inoperable on June 5th, there was no guarantee they still would be on June 6th."
There were, in fact, five guns behind the Pointe that were destroyed by Rangers Leonard Lomell and Jack Kuhn. Those guns are usually linked to Pointe du Hoc, but Sterne says that local residents told him the guns at Pointe du Hoc "were removed from the open pits in 1943 after Rommel's visit…and replaced with wood. [The Rangers] went to Pointe du Hoc. They…stumbled across a 5x155mm howitzer battery a mile inland, which everyone…claims were the guns from the Pointe. They forget the difference between howitzers and cannons. Howitzers were what [the Rangers] destroyed, not cannons. There were never howitzers installed at Pointe du Hoc."
Lomell has always maintained that the guns he and Kuhn destroyed were placed at one time inside the Pointe du Hoc casemates. "We found the guns…in an alternate position," Lomell recalls. "They were unmanned. There were about 70 German soldiers conferring…about 100 yards away. Kuhn and I…decided we would take [the guns] out. We did. Artillerymen generally have alternate positions from their primary positions just in case they have to move their guns. I think that there was so much shelling of Pointe du Hoc…that the Germans…moved those guns to an alternate position where they would be safe and ready to fire on D-Day."
Sterne's theory is that the guns were part of a mobile battery. "The regiment had…mobile batteries in the area — both destroyed on D-Day, so I guess it was one of them. All the units were controlled from Maisy. I have another map of the area [composed] from recon photos which shows…a temporary field gun battery behind Omaha Beach. The only other place I find another field battery is at Pointe du Hoc."
The U.S. Army historian disputes the "mobile battery" theory. "One thing that bothers me about the mobile battery theory — why park guns near a known fortified strongpoint that would certainly be the focus of Allied air reconnaissance? Why not put them someplace as far away as possible…in order to make the job tougher for the Allied planes looking for mobile guns?
"The guns were definitely not entrenched, and they were also not emplaced to fire — which is a telling point. Why have a mobile battery if it isn't prepared to fire, and where were the crews? [What Lomell said] tends to support the notion that the battery was not configured for mobile operations — otherwise, why would they have a big meeting? The guns would have been emplaced and ready to fire immediately if they were set up for mobile operations. I am not sure that [Lomell and Kuhn] saw the gun crews…but perhaps reinforcements preparing for a counterattack against the Rangers on Pointe du Hoc. Gun crews do not need to gather around…to obtain their orders — each gun commander would attend a meeting while the crews prepared the weapons for firing. Sounds more like an infantry or engineer unit getting ready to conduct a counterattack."
An official after-action summary, Operational Report Neptune, Provisional Engineer Special Brigade Group — Omaha Beach, supports this sentiment by referring to the guns at Pointe du Hoc. "Located in this area…the Germans had constructed concrete emplacements for artillery. Without the knowledge of the Allies, the guns were withdrawn inland…just a few days before the invasion."
That report, Sterne claims, is just "typical speculation…written after the war. After all, they didn't know where the guns were at the time." Sterne emphatically insists that the guns destroyed by Lomell and Kuhn were never installed in the Pointe du Hoc casemates and further believes there never were plans to install guns there. "There are only three finished casemates [at Pointe du Hoc], not five for the number of cannons destroyed in the fields. The casemates are not fitted with gun mounts. How can a cannon have been removed from a mount that was never fitted?"
Sterne also maintains that the guns destroyed by the Rangers were not the right size to fit inside the finished casemates. "The guns [destroyed] inland could not physically fit in the three casemates at the Pointe. [A] 155mm cannon won't fit in [there]. The casemates…were being built to house 10.5cm guns."
If the big guns in question were actually part of the Maisy battery, they would have been in a position to lay a withering fire on Omaha. According to Sterne, it was these guns, not the machine guns or other armament along the beach, that were the real cause for the slaughter in the Vierville Draw. "Maisy caused a huge number of deaths at Omaha. Omaha would have been the target. Grandcamp Harbor is nothing, and the guns in the casemates at La Martinière covered Utah. The field of fire from the next battery up the coast in Longues-sur-Mére is nicely covered and interlocks with Maisy, not Pointe du Hoc."
The validity of this claim depends on determining which type of gun was in fact positioned within the Maisy battery complex. According to a 1942 Organization Todt document, La Perruque was armed with captured weapons, including: six 15.5cm French sFH414 howitzers, one British 25-pounder field artillery gun, two French Renault tank turrets mounted in concrete emplacements and several 37mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns. La Martinière was armed with either four 10cm Czech or 10.5cm German howitzers and several smaller caliber guns. The field guns at La Perruque were manned by elements of 9th Battery, 1716th Artillery Regiment, while the field guns at La Martinière were manned by men of that regiment's 8th Battery.
Eight 88mm guns guarded the northern approach to Maisy, while four 88mms guarded the southern approach. Sterne believes elements of the 352nd Infantry Division were billeted in eight wooden buildings to the south of the battery. The locations of all of those gun positions appear on a General Staff Geographical Section (GSGS) map of the two sites.
Sterne says that the Todt specifications verify the presence of the heavy guns within the Maisy complex. On the other hand, historian Hans Sakkers, in his exhaustive examination of German D-Day defenses, omits the British 25-pounder from La Perruque and substitutes a captured Russian 7.62cm FK(r).
The difference might seem slight, but it is critical to Sterne's argument. "The range of the captured British field gun at Maisy…is up to 13,400 yards. This gun alone…would hit Les Moulins at Vierville," Sterne says, adding, "The British lost over 700 25-pounder guns in the campaign for France…which the Germans readily pressed into service."
Another ordnance conundrum surrounds the larger caliber guns. Sterne claims that while excavating the site, he discovered hundreds of artillery shell fuzes, which he initially claimed were for 155mm French howitzers, though he later changed that assertion. "I spoke to an ordnance mate of mine, who told me the German fuzes for 15cm howitzers were made of aluminum. I have alloy ones. It does appear that the fuzes are German and not French because the French ones are made of brass. [Mine] are made of alloy — the Germans only made their fuzes from alloy or metal coated plastic. I sent the fuze picture to an expert…and he said to me that they are for a 15cm German howitzer and not a French one. The UK's leading ordnance guy, Steve McGreggor, [said] that a site the size of mine would not have inferior equipment. If that is indeed the case, then the guns were German modern ones and could easily hit Omaha Beach."
Sterne also believes the howitzers within the La Martinière battery were German 10.5cm guns and not Czech 10cm howitzers, as has been previously written. "I have found 3x105mm steel cases at La Martinière, thus also disproving the crap being written that the guns there were Czech. The 105mm is also a German gun!"
The distance from the Maisy battery complex to Pointe et Raz de la Percée on the western edge of the Omaha Beach landing zone is approximately 61¼2 miles, while the distance from Maisy to the Vierville exit is approximately seven miles.
The extreme ranges of guns that may have been located in the Maisy complex vary and include: 10cm IFH14 (Czech) = 6.197 miles; 10.5cm IFH16 (German) = 7.45 miles; 15cm sFH18 (German) = 8.25 miles; 15.5cm sFH414 (French) = 7.145 miles; and MkI 25-pounder (British) = 7.6 miles.
Sterne is adamant that Sakkers is incorrect and that "6x155mm howitzers [can be seen] on aerial photos and [the] Org. Todt spec is 6x155mm sFH414(f) plus a British 25 pdr, not Russian." Citing a confidentiality agreement with the BBC, however, he refused to provide access to the recon photos in his possession or his source for them. He did claim later, however, that he could not tell if the guns at La Perruque were pointed toward Utah or Omaha, since they were concealed under netting. Of course, this begs the question that if the guns were photographed under camouflage netting, how could he tell they were 155mms?
To support the claim that Maisy was the real source of the killing on Omaha, Sterne cites after-battle radio reports for USS Ancon (the landing zone command ship) and the amphibious support ship Samuel Chase, which "both state regularly that [the] batteries at Maisy [were] still firing on Omaha Beach throughout D-Day morning." Various references to the Maisy batteries also appear in 1st Infantry Division G-3 reports, which include references to the batteries firing as late as 10 that morning and knocking out incoming landing craft.
Several eyewitness accounts seem to corroborate Sterne's claim. Captain Raaen is "sure the barrages we took at St. Pierre du Mont came from Maisy. Maisy's fire on the beach would have been a little problematic. Such fire would have to pass over the bluffs [at Pointe du Hoc and Point et Raz de la Percée] and then come down on the beach. Most of the artillery fire from inland batteries that we experienced came down out in the water. Since that was where the boats were, it was very effective. But [the artillery fire] didn't bother the infantry that had reached the beach. After we got into the hedgerows, we took some artillery fire, probably some from Maisy. That was clearly interdictory fire and not fire adjusted by a forward observer."
Some regard this as a stretch of the imagination, especially since the Germans had guns in fortified positions along the landing zone that were capable of hitting targets approaching the shore. If Maisy had in fact been firing on Omaha Beach, it raises as many questions as it answers.
First, if heavy caliber shells were raining down on the beach, where were the craters? Photos of Omaha Beach show few, if any, craters. Second, if the Maisy battery was delivering such concentrated fire on the Vierville Draw, why was so much ammunition later found at the site? By some accounts, 180 tons of unexploded ordnance was seized at the battery when it was captured. Finally, how was the fire of the batteries being directed?
According to Sterne, the gunners at Maisy were being fed target allocation information from observers in at least two bunkers. "There are two purpose-built ones at the water's edge. In physical terms, they are closest to Omaha." Sterne also alleges that a church tower behind Maisy was used to site targets. "From the church, you can see the Omaha beach area, or the water anyway." The tower was destroyed on D-Day.
However, Dirk Peeters, who has studied German fortifications for more than 20 years and is the author of two books on the subject, says: "[Werner] Pluskat was the commander of La Perruque. He would have received orders for directing fire from four other observation bunkers along the coast, besides his own. It is natural that this battery can receive orders from observation posts other than their own — nothing special. All of these types of batteries are connected with other observation posts, not only their own."
Peeters also questions the exact location of Maisy's dedicated observation bunkers. He says that one bunker in question faced toward Utah not Omaha, as Sterne has claimed. "The observation post of this battery is an old type…the thickness is only a meter, and the bunker is located in the estuary."
Sterne claims that Maisy is the "largest gun battery and regimental headquarters in the area." Although he is certain Maisy was a major headquarters complex, Sterne is unsure of what regiment exactly was quartered there. "I guess it was a regional one for the various divisions. The 1716th had another headquarters, but a number of miles away and nothing locally. [Perhaps it was for the] 716th, 726th, 1716th, 352nd?"
Peeters says he questions this claim as well, believing that Maisy was "just a normal battery. I will not say that this battery was not important for this sector, but I cannot say that it was one of the better ones either. Maisy was nothing more than a field battery." He added: "This battery was among the third group (III/1716) and its headquarters was in Formigny. It was unlikely there was communication to any higher echelon than Formigny. General [Erich] Marcks [the one-legged commander of the German LXXXIV Corps] had nothing to do with these batteries. I searched the divisional papers of Marcks and also the regimental papers and they do not indicate anything special for this battery."
If the Maisy complex was as important as Sterne believes, Peeters asserts that the Germans would have built the site's structures differently. "If the guns were important, they would have been put into concrete casemates. If the buildings were important, the Germans would have made thicker concrete walls."
Facilities excavated at the La Perruque site have included one R502 and two R622 personnel bunkers. The 502 is an early model of a small unit headquarters bunker, while the 622 is the later version. Both are commonly found in German fortifications, and hundreds of examples exist along the coast of France. The 502 bunker was outfitted with two aerial masts, while one of the 622 bunkers was fitted with four. Normally, a 622 would have only two mounts. Peeters has no explanation for the anomaly. The second 622 bunker had no mounts, indicating it was used as a barracks.
Sterne says a radio communications aerial situated in one of the fields near the battery complex was used for long-range communications. Peeters discounts this, saying: "The aerial mast behind the 502 bunker can mean that there was no good location for the antennas on the bunker, so they put up a large one behind it. The mast in the field could have been there just to improve reception, not, as Gary speculates, for long-range communications. What I've seen on the site, it was standard bunker radio equipment. Nothing special. The only special thing about Maisy is that it is placed in the Normandy area and was involved with the invasion. The most important battery in the neighborhood is the one at Longues."
While many of Sterne's claims are in dispute and the significance of the site is still being debated, there is no doubt Maisy represents one of the largest batteries in the region, and by its very size is important. With the mounds of books written about D-Day, the question begging to be answered is why hasn't the Maisy battery been better chronicled and why was the site buried over and forgotten?
"Good question," McManus says. "The implied answer seems to offer two extremes: 1) historians have totally missed the boat in ignoring Maisy because it was what really ravaged the Americans on Omaha Beach from June 6-8; 2) it has been ignored because it wasn't that important. I suspect the significance will be more archeological than historical, and I think it will be a fascinating look into a well-preserved fortification complex."
As to why the site was buried, one explanation is that like many other fields in Normandy, the area was graded over to make room for the huge quantities of supplies that were coming up from the beach to be stockpiled until the invasion forces could move inland.
With each claim and counterclaim, the question for researchers and historians now is to determine just how important Maisy was. Until that question can be answered with certainty, it seems the 100-acre site must continue to rest in the shadow of its neighbor up the road at Pointe du Hoc. n
This article was written by David Lesjak who covers news for World War II Magazine. This article originally appeared in the October 2006 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
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