When more than 175,000 Allied troops landed on the beaches of Normandy on June 6, 1944, few of them had visions of glory. Most were simply scared young men barely out of high school who were assigned a rather daunting mission: to free Europe from Nazi domination.
Under constant enemy fire, 200 men from James Earl Rudder’s 2nd Ranger Battalion scaled the 100-foot cliff at Pointe du Hoc (four miles west of Omaha Beach) early in the invasion. Their mission was to take out German gun emplacements raining artillery fire onto thousands of exposed Allied troops crawling across the beaches. “Rudder’s Rangers” destroyed those guns and defended their perilous position for two days. Estimates of casualties from the unit range between 50 and 60 percent.
That same cliff is under assault again, this time from Mother Nature herself. “Wave attacks,” as researchers call them, are slowly eroding the caverns beneath the cliff. Eventually the structural support will be gone altogether when the caverns become deep enough. Gravity will do the rest.
“When you’re at the bottom of that cliff and look up, it’s extremely impressive,” says TTI Research Engineer Jean-Louis Briaud, referring to what Rudder and his men saw some 60 years ago. “We’ve used the latest technology to help find a solution to the erosion problem, though our efforts pale in comparison to the sacrifice those men made.”
Briaud is one of three Texas A&M University researchers studying the structural failure beneath Pointe du Hoc. Last year, using EFA (erosion functional apparatus) technology developed by the Texas Transportation Institute (TTI) in conjunction with the Texas Department of Transportation, Briaud took samples from the site and ran water over them to simulate the erosion process. Strength tests were also run on the rocks.
Robert Warden of the A&M College of Architecture made detailed drawings of the bunkers and artifacts at the site and performed LIDAR (light detection and ranging) surveys. Mark Everett of the College of Geosciences ran non-intrusive geophysics tests, which included shooting a current through the soil to determine the geological composition of the cliff. An international group of consultants—Hayward-Baker (United States), Soletanch (France) and IGM (Lebanon)—supported the research in the interests of finding ways to preserve this historic site.
(Top) Pointe du Hoc, the site of General James Earl Rudder’s assault on the Normandy coast. The memorial to the sacrifice by Rudder’s Rangers stands atop the cliff. Erosion threatening the structural integrity of the site is evident at the cliff’s base (bottom, left). Pointe du Hoc as it appears from the air today (bottom, right).
The team found that, since Rudder’s Rangers scaled the cliff in 1944, some 10 meters of horizontal depth have been lost to erosion by the sea. This causes a significant and ever-increasing amount of weight to press down on the emptying caverns, and every 4 meters of lost depth causes a collapse every 25 years or so.
Preservationists fear that without intervention, the site—along with the memorial that recognizes the bravery of Rudder’s Rangers in helping to liberate France—will eventually fall into the sea. “There is a part of the cliff which, according to our calculations, is getting close to another collapse,” says Briaud. “It’s only a matter of time.”
To preserve the historic cliffs, the team proposes a two-phased solution. Phase I (estimated at $2.5 million) is to backfill the caverns with “shotcrete” (concrete shot into the caverns) as an immediate measure to stop the daily erosion across about 50 meters of the cliff. Phase II (estimated at $17 million) is more ambitious. Engineers will consolidate 300 meters of the cliff and anchor the face of the cliff with rock and soil anchors covered by shotcrete. Preservationists are currently seeking public and private dollars to fund these efforts.
This project has been a very personal one for Briaud. Born in France and having pursued most of his professional life in America, preserving the site has meaning for him beyond the historical. “I love both countries,” he explains. “People dying to essentially come and save my parents makes this a very special project for me. I feel like it’s the least I can do to help save the memorial to their sacrifice.”
Rep. Chet Edwards of Texas’ 17th Congressional District played a key role in convincing Congress to include sufficient funds for the American Battle Monuments Commission to take up the effort.
“Pointe du Hoc is hallowed ground that should stand for generations to come as a sacred symbol to the world of the American GI’s unwavering courage in World War II,” said Edwards, chairman of the Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Appropriations Subcommittee. “This important project represents an international effort to save this historic site.”