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Battle of Normandy

The 1944 bocage war: its specificities

 
Normandy was the scene of furious fightings for several weeks after June 6, 1944. After the battle of the beaches came what historians now commonly call the "hedgerows war" in reference to the nature of the land. The hedgerows, also known as the "battle of the bocage", began the day after D-Day and was over at the end of August 1944, when allied troops eventually released the biggest part of the current Basse-Normandie region. Almost two months of fierce and bloody fightings that have severely tested men. What are the specificities of combat during the Battle of Normandy? Revealing many tactical and technical lessons for the military even at the present time, the battle of the hedgerows deserves detailed study, which combines areas such as geography, tactics or weapons.

The hedges in 1944

The very nature of hedges in 1944 is not the same as today. At the time of the Normandy landings, the hedges are an average of five meters high, a size smaller than today. Particularly well maintained, they have a dominant economic role in the region, which has largely disappeared today.

Indeed, if the hedges are used to delineate the properties and keep the flow of water, they also serve to keep cows or horses. Providing non-negligible food supplements due to the presence of many apple and pear trees in the region (which can also produce alcohols such as cider, perry, the pommel or calvados) which are either located within hedges or in orchards that surround it. The plant mass bordered mostly by nettles and brambles is also a source of wood for heating.

Difficult to cross because of the tortuous structure forming the plant, the hedge in 1944 is in line with traditional Norman agriculture. Widespread and part of the landscape, it has influenced tactics of combatants for all the duration of the Battle of Normandy.

The tactical interest of hedges

The structure and layout of hedgerows in Normandy is particularly unfavorable to the attackers.

A squad leader must be able to achieve three things: to see, to shoot, to maneuver. But in an offensive during the Battle of the bocage, the attackers could only rarely have views across the fields, hedges also hid the lines of fire. They were also insurmountable obstacles which avoided movements for the squads and battle groups.

By contrast, soldiers in defensive positions were in a position of strength if they had taken into account the characteristics of the land. The Germans knew the Normandy insofar as it had been occupied for nearly four years. The maneuvers had increased in Normandy and lessons for the Wehrmacht and armored divisions are legion. The soldiers as well as tanks crews learned to take advantage of the terrain, to camouflage their positions. On the one hand they were flooding a large portion of land south and southwest of the Bay of Veys, on the other hand, they have carefully avoided touching the fences that formed a natural wall. Only hedges close to fixed support points were cut for obvious reasons of observation and ability to open fire.

If, as we have seen, a squad leader has to be able to see, to shoot and to maneuver, virtually only the defense was capable of it. It can reference before the battle, the best observation posts, the best firing positions, they are able to fix and destroy the enemy and can already stake possible paths to handle the downturn more quickly and more efficiently as possible. cMany observation posts, such as concrete Tobrouks, were reinforced before the fighting with the coordinates of places nearby that the enemy might take. The Germans had just to transmit the coordinates to the closest artillery battery to halt the enemy progression and in a particularly rapid period.

For the attacker, however, it was just the opposite. Unaware of the ground, the attacker needed to move from one field to another, and each hedge was a fortress to assault. The views were very limited and the direct infantry support was therefore difficult to complete. If the range of some Allied weapons Allied was several hundred of meters, the bocage reduces that distance. Enfin, la manoeuvre, de part la structure même des haies, est extrêmement difficile pour celui qui ne connait pas les détails du terrain, les possibilités d'entrée et de sortie de chaque champ ou de chaque verger. Finally, the maneuver, part of the structure of hedges, is extremely difficult for one who does not know the details of the field, the possibilities of entry and exit of each field or each orchard. La haie demeure toutefois une protection non-négligeable contre les armes légères d'infanterie, pour l'assaillant comme pour le défenseur. The hurdle remains a non-negligible protection against small arms infantry for the attacker as the defender.

 

The hedgerows war

The hedgerows war began itself in the early hours of June 6, 1944: U.S. and Anglo-Canadians paratroopers and the landed troops have immediately faced this vegetation. Allied gliders, transporting men and equipment (ammunition, small vehicles, heavy weapons) stroke hedges like cars driving at full speed struck walls. Losses are disturbing, so are the equipment damages.

On June 6, 1944, German mobile artillery batteries used hedges to accomplish their mission by being camouflaged from the views of the enemy aircrafts which could either destroy or define their position and guide the firing of the artillery on board warships in the Bay of Seine. This is particularly the case of the German battery installed at Brécourt near Sainte-Marie-du-Mont (Utah Beach).

The end of the battle on the beaches let the place for the hedgerows war. The Americans were mostly confronted with this kind of struggle. Indeed, in the area of Caen (where the Anglo-Canadians have progressed) the land is mainly composed of vast plains, suitable for armored fighting. To the west, however, the Cotentin is largely divided into small orchards or cultivated fields bordered by hedges (note also that at the time, corn has not the same importance than the one given today Today in Normandy). C'est ce que les géographes appellent véritablement le bocage normand. This is what geographers call truly the Normandy. The Anglo-Canadian soldiers have, however, also encountered this type of vegetation.

The objective of the Americans is to cut the Cotentin in two to prevent the Germans to refuel and strengthen Cherbourg and its deep-water port. The 5th corps of General Collins literally drove through the grove to reach the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula. Troops movements were voluntarily accelerated, what caused many casualties among U.S. troops often attacked by German snipers and artillery positions. Crossroads and bridges are crossed at full speed but when there is no surprise, the Germans used the hedges to stop the landed forces.

Aviation has played a central role throughout the Normandy campaign. Not only was it possible for it to cover the troops, but it could also dislodge the enemy troops from their caches and prepare offensives through extensive bombing, mostly concentrated in the space and time. The most striking example is operation Cobra, which has seen an intense bombing to open passages through German lines to pierce the front toward Brittany. On 25 July 1944, the Americans apply the carpet bombing strategy. 1,500 B-17 and B-25 bombers droped almost 3,300 tons of bombs between Montreuil and Hebecrevon, north-west of Saint-Lô. But because of bad weather and the proximity of U.S. forces, dozens of U.S. soldiers were killed during the bombing: there are 111 dead and around 500 wounded.

The Allies needed ingenuity to carry out their missions whit the minimum required equipment on the field. To do so, they enhanced the signal capacity between the fighter and artillery support and develop equipment suitable to Normandy, such as the Rhinoceroses Sherman, with blades that allowed it to cross hedges more easily (cf. above). This invention enabled the use of tanks during the progression through the various fields, what was difficult to achieve without risking the premature loss of these devices (ambushes allowing the Germans to attack close and very effectivly the Allied armored).

Conclusion

This study of the hedgerows war in Normandy showed the characteristic of combat in the hedgerows and the ascendancy of the defense tactics on the attack. The Allies military power has come to grips with his opponent but at the cost of heavy losses and delays. . This fighting has shown the importance of support weapons (ground and board artillery, aviation) that have generally saved troops from hard situations.

The Germans had wanted the extension of the conflict since they could not resist the Allies war machine. Their actions have delayed the advance of U.S., British or Canadian troops, but it did not arrest them so far. However, German generals have not benefited from these delaying actions in Normandy. Indeed, Hitler was expecting a decisive victory that could reject the Allies into the sea, while his generals advised a tactical retreat behind the Seine. This lack of clarity and the loss of time has benefited to the Allies who were able to rush in France and make great strides towards the total liberation of Europe.

 

Marc Laurenceau

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