Leonard 'Bud' Lomell: US Ranger who led a successful attack on German clifftop machine guns during D-Day

Leonard "Bud" Lomell, at the time a 24-year-old sergeant, led a platoon of US army Rangers, climbing hand-over-over hand by rope, up the sheer, 100ft Pointe du Hoc cliffs in Normandy on 6 June 1944 in one of the most crucial actions of the Second World War. The objective of his platoon, and 200 other men of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, was a cluster of five or six clifftop German 155mm artillery guns which threatened the entire allied D-Day landing force on the nearby Omaha and Utah beaches. Allied intelligence had suggested that the guns, with a range of up to 15 miles, could decimate the allied landing force and turn the D-Day landing into a disaster.

Lomell, already wounded on the beach by a German machine gun, scaled the cliff under heavy gunfire, a shower of grenades and with the Germans trying to cut their ropes. But he and the Rangers were shocked to find there were no big guns where the reconnaissance photos had traced them; the intelligence flights had been fooled by angled telegraph poles painted to look like gun barrels. After the Rangers fought their way from the cliff edge in small groups, sustaining heavy casualties, Lomell and another sergeant, Jack Kuhn, stumbled across the real artillery pieces, five of them. They had been camouflaged in an apple orchard almost a kilometre inland.

The guns were aimed at Utah beach, where American troops had been landing since H-Hour – 06.30 French time – but could have been swivelled round to hit the Americans coming ashore on Omaha. Lomell, who had waded ashore at 7.08, saw that the guns, though ready to fire and surrounded by ammunition, were unmanned. But he and Kuhn quickly ascertained that the guns' crews and infantrymen of the German 716th Infantry division –100-150 men – were bunkered in or around a French farmhouse 100 yards away. They had taken cover from RAF bombing and heavy shelling from the US battleship Texas during the 40 minutes before H-Hour.

While Kuhn kept watch, Lomell put three of the guns out of action with thermide (incendiary) grenades, destroying their recoil mechanisms and sights. He had to crawl away to get more such grenades from his platoon before putting the other two out of action. It was not yet 09.00 and Lomell and the US Rangers had become the first allied unit to complete their mission.

That mission has featured in many films, notably The Longest Day (1962) although it upset the surviving D-Day Rangers because it ended their role at the moment when they found no German artillery pieces on the cliffs. In the movie, one Ranger says to a Lomell-like character: "Sarge, you mean we came all this way – for nuthin'?" The D-Day exploits of Lomell and the Rangers' Dog Company also feature in the popular video game Call of Duty 2.

Lomell would receive the Distinguished Service Cross, the nation's second-highest military honour, for his D-Day action, as well as the Silver Star for his bravery in the capture of Hill 400 in December 1944 during the long Battle of Hürtgen Forest, before the Battle of the Bulge. For 50 years after the war, a successful lawyer, he rarely talked about his wartime experiences. It was only in 1999 that he won fame in the US after the popular NBC TV news anchor Tom Brokaw published the award-winning The Greatest Generation, dedicating a chapter to Lomell. Always a team player, however, he was embarrassed after the war historian Stephen Ambrose, in his 1998 book The Victors: Eisenhower and His Boys, described Lomell as the single American, other than President Eisenhower, most responsible for the success of D-Day. Lomell's response: "I lost half my guys. What more is there to know?"

By the time Lomell had reached those guns, he had lost 12 of his 22-man platoon, dead or wounded. Of the 225 men of the three companies – Dog, Easy and Fox – of the 2nd Ranger Battalion who scaled Pointe du Hoc, only 90 were left standing at the end of D-Day.

The Rangers force, commanded by Lt. Colonel James Rudder, had been trained, partly by British commandos, at Achnacarry in Scotland and around Swanage and the Isle of Wight. On 5 June 1944, they left Weymouth on board HMS Ben Machree, the LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) which would ferry them to the shores of Normandy.

Shortly before H-Hour on D-Day, Lomell and his platoon jumped into LCA (Landing Craft, Assault) 668, one of 10 LCAs and four amphibious DUKWs ("Ducks") crewed by the Royal Marines and equipped with rockets to fire grapnels, or grappling hooks, on to the clifftops. The men also carried their own rockets, with ropes attached, and tubular-steel extendable ladders "liberated" from the London Fire Brigade and mounted with Lewis machine guns.

Lomell was the first Ranger hit by a machine-gun as he waded ashore, but the bullet did not hit any vital organs and he headed for the ropes. On the beach, he saw the giant British Lt Col Thomas "Joe" Trevor, a senior commando adviser, striding around despite the heavy gunfire. "I take two short steps and three long ones," he explained to his astonished American comrades. "And they always miss me." When a bullet hit his helmet and knocked him to the ground, Trevor yelled "you dirty son of a bitch!" and began crawling like the others, before climbing the cliff.

Leonard G Lomell was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1920, the adopted son of Scandinavian immigrant parents. He was still a child when they moved to Point Pleasant, by the Atlantic in New Jersey, where he graduated in 1937 from Point Pleasant Beach High School after starring for the school's American football and baseball teams, the Garnet Gulls. An athletics scholarship got him to Tennessee Wesleyan College in Athens, Tennessee, where he edited the student newspaper before graduating in 1941. He served for a time as a brakeman on freight trains in New Jersey before joining up in 1942 with the US Army's 76th Infantry Division and then volunteering for the Rangers.

After the war, Lomell studied law under the GI Bill, graduating from Rutgers Law School in New Jersey. He married Charlotte Ewart, a nurse, on the second anniversary of D-Day and went on, in 1957, to co-found what eventually became known as the Lowell Law Firm in the New Jersey township of Toms River. He became known for his pro bono work for the poor and as "a fierce advocate for women in trouble," notably in divorce cases, according to colleagues. Once, when fellow lawyers refused to admit a Jewish colleague into a private club, Lomell told them: "I didn't climb the cliffs of Normandy to find fascists in my own back yard."

One of Lomell's proudest possessions was a painting entitled The Point, by the American war artist Larry Selman, which shows Lomell firing his Thompson sub-machine gun as one of his platoon helps their radio man on to the clifftop.

Phil Davison

Leonard G Lomell, soldier and lawyer: born Brooklyn 22 January 1920; married 1946 Charlotte Ewart (three daughters); died Toms River, New Jersey 1 March 2011.

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