The Norman Bocage, an expanse of lush meadows dotted with apple orchards from
which the locals made their apple brandy, calvados. Each of these rectangular meadows was
surrounded by a tall, thick hedgerow, designed like those across the Channel of Kent, in order to
keep the wind of the pastures and the plump cows which grazed on them (Whiting 80).
Overview of Omaha Beach: D-day: June 6, 1944
It was General Bernard Montgomery, who was in charge of the Normandy
assault on June 6, 1944, D-Day: the invasion for Overlord, the U.S.
First Army under General Omar Bradley, and the British Second Army under
General Miles C. Dempsey, established beachheads in the French coast. The German resistance was strong, and
the footholds for Allied armies were not as good as they had expected.
By the end of June, Eisenhower had 850, 000 men and 150, 000 vehicles
ashore in Normandy.
The success of the Normandy invasion did not occur on D-day. The progress
of the Allied troops off the beaches across the front was slower than
expected, with the possible exception of the Contenin Peninsula (Miller
8). For the first forty-five days of the invasion, the invasion
remained in doubt. The city of Caen, scheduled to be taken on D-day,
was not secured until late July. The Germans had concentrated their
strength particularly their Panzer (armored) divisions, against the
British forces trying to take the city. Meanwhile the Americans were
finding it difficult to get through the hilly, wooded bocage, and only
the city of Cherbourg was captured on scheduled (Miller 8).
The region west and southwest of Omaha Beach figured prominently in
D-day, for early junctions with VII Corps depended on progress in that
direction. The flooding of the lower Aure Valley was 10 miles long and
5 miles wide, comprising the low tableland stretching from Formingny-Trevieres
west to the Vire Estuary. In it lay some of the strongest German fortifications,
controlling the approaches to Carentan, and through it from east to
west ran the main highway from Paris to Cherbourg and the Contentin
(www.army.mil.com). North-south roads in the region are winding, and
usually narrow; they were expected to present difficulties in the form
of steep shoulders and narrow bridges. Local communications are served
by many small lanes and track, designed for the needs of farmers,
but regarded as unsuitable for military use except by infantry. Any
advance inland would require, for the supporting vehicular traffic,
a great deal of engineering work to develop small roads into suitable
north-south axials (www.army.mil.com).
Jeep, by Guivia Canete
The American troops who fought in Normandy will remember fighting in
the hedgerows or bocage. Stock raising and fruit growing are the main
rural activities in this part of Normandy, and the field system is characterized
by a patchwork layout of irregular fields varying from narrow ribbon-like strips to squared-shapes. These range in size from
10 or 15 to a 100 acres or more. The majority however, ranged from 50
to 75 acres. Some contained orchards of apple trees, more are used for
pasture, and there are occasional patches of grain.
Boundaries between the fields follow north-northeast to south-southwest
and west-northwest to east-southeast axes in the Omaha region,
and they could not be counted to provide a safe direction-line for keeping
an axis of advance (www.army.mil.com). The hedgerows form a natural
fence and vary in shapes. Some are low bushes, five to six feet high,
growing from the ground level of the field and not hard to break through.
Others are thick, densely matted walls of tough and briery hedge, running
up to 10 feet in height and interspersed with large and small trees.
Many hedge embankments are not passable for tanks. Communication between
fields is usually limited to small openings at the corners. Narrow trails
or sunken roads, running between parallel hedgerows give access to fields far
off the regular road net (www.army.mil.com).
It was a disadvantage to the attacking forces to fight in the bocage.
Each hedgerow across the axis of advance might conceal a nest of enemy
resistance, in which good positions for flat-trajectory weapons could
be quickly organized, with short but excellent fields of fire across
the nearest fields. Axial hedgerows could be utilized by defenders for
delivering flanking fire (www.army.mil.com). On the other hand, the
defending force could use prearranged fires of mortars and automatic
weapons sited to cover the hedgerows leading toward any prepared positions.
Due to hedgerow walls the attacking forces found difficulty maintaining
communications on their flanks and in coordinating the attack if units
larger than a company.
The church towers were regarded as observation points in this terrain
lacking hills. The isolated farms consisted of buildings grouped around
a courtyard; many of these farms became the strong points in the battles
through the hedgerow country (www.army.mil.com).
The Enemy Defenses
Within days after the Allied invasion, Americans found themselves facing
a stubborn opponent on terrain that favored the defender. Planners within
Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF) thought that
by the 20th of June, the First Army would be far inland occupying the
line Lessay-St. Lo-Caumont. However, it was not until another month
would Bradley occupy the sector. Commanders identified the three factors
most responsible for their slow progress: the inhospitable bocage country,
the tenacity and organization of the German defense, and various problems
within their unit (Doubler 36). Immediately after the American attackers
reached the hedgerows, it became clear to the troops that in this terrain
their advantage of tanks and aircraft was virtually lost. Also, it was
clear it would be an infantrymans war, with the advantage of the
German defenders side (Whiting 80).
The terrain allowed the Germans infantry to use all the skills they
had learnt in three years of combat with Russia. Their machine guns
and mortars were sited so that all the gaps in the hedgerows were covered
and ranged. They even placed ranging sticks out of sight of the attackers, so that even the rawest German recruit would know the exact
distance to his target and employ his weapon accordingly (Whiting 80).
Using the system of fortified hedgehogs that the Wehrmacht had
employed in Russia, the defenders would cover a couple of rectangles,
usually not adjacent ones, with an easy and covered escape route already
worked out, so that when they finally had to yield to the weight of
the American attack, they could fall back to the next field and begin
the lethal process all over again (Whiting 80).
Machine guns were the primary weapons of the German defense. At the
corners of each field in positions dug into the embankments of the bocage,
the Germans placed heavy machine guns whose purpose was to pin down
attacking infantrymen in the open, making them easy targets for
small arms and preplanned indirect fires. Light machine guns and machine
pistols supplemented the heavy machine-gun fire and were placed in positions
to the front and flanks of the attackers. The purpose of the grazing
fires was to inflict casualties on American infantrymen seeking cover
and concealment during their advance. Indirect fire was a key defensive
component. Once pinned down in the open, preplanned artillery and mortar
fire punished American units. German mortar fire was particularly effective,
causing as much as 75% of all U.S. casualties during the Normandy campaign
Other measures enhanced the bocage defenses. German commanders linked
together defensive positions with wire communications that allowed them
to coordinate the defense of their sector. Snipers guarded forward positions
against infiltration and delivered harassing fire during lulls. Booby
traps and mines abounded within the thick vegetation as well as tripwire
explosives. German infantry used the panzerfaust, a highly effective,
hand-held antitank weapon in order to combat American armor at close
range. At longer ranges Germans engaged American armor with tank main
guns and self-propelled guns, and used the legendary 88-mm antiaircraft
gun in ground defense mode (Doubler 38).
The Americans initially attempted to use normal fire and maneuver tactics
with two rifle platoons abreast followed in turn by the third riffle
platoon and the weapons platoon. However, as the point men leading platoons
emerged from the hedgerows, they found themselves exposed to almost
point-blank German machine-gun fire. Pinned down in the open in the
middle of a well-prepared kill zone. American commanders found out that
four or five German defenders positions could pin down an entire infantry
battalion and hold up an attack for long periods of time (Doubler 38-39).
As a German officer wrote after the war: There was really no forward
thrust, no attacking movement in these chessboard tactics; all they
amounted to was the constant occupation of one small square, previously
softened up by the gunfire. Even more than the First World War, everything
depended on the mechanics of ground fighting, on sledgehammer tactics
With any weapon design, it either led to losses or gains. A major shortcoming
of the Sherman for hedgerow fighting was its unarmored underbelly, which
made it vulnerable to the panzerfaust when it tried to climb
a hedgerow. The German potato masher could be thrown at a greater distance
because it was lighter. However, it had less explosive power than the
American grenade and caused more noise than damage according to the
GIs (Ambrose 65). According to Stephen Ambrose, over four decades of
interviewing GIs, they often tell stories about duds, generally about
shells falling near their foxholes and failing to explode (Ambrose 65).
Sniping in the Bocage
German snipers were a particular source of fear. The experience of a
platoon leader in the 9th Division illustrates how green troops can
react under fire: One of the fatal mistakes made by the infantry
replacements is to hit the ground and freeze when fired upon. Once I
ordered a squad to advance from one hedgerow to another. During the
movement one man was shot by a sniper firing one round. The entire squad
hit the ground and froze. They were picked off, one by one, by
the same sniper (Doubler 40). Ernie Pyle, with the 9th Division
writes about the snipers hidden in the high hedgerows that line every
roadside and lane. A man can hide himself in the thick fenced-row
shrubbery with several days rations, and its like hunting
a needle in a haystack to find him. Every mile we advance there are
dozens of snipers left behind us. They pick off our soldiers one by
one as they walk down the roads or across the fields. It isnt
safe to move into a new bivouac area until the snipers have been cleaned
out. The first bivouac I moved into had shots ringing through it for
a full day before all the hidden round men were rounded up. It gives
you the same spooky feeling that you get on moving into a place you
suspect of being sown with mines (www.normandy.eb.com).
Ambrose, Stephen A. Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy
Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany June 7, 1944
May 7, 1945. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
Doubler, Michael D. Closing With the Enemy: How the GIs Fought the
War in Europe, 1944 1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas,
Miller, Robert A. August 1944: The Campaign for France. Novato:
Presidio Press, 1996.
Whiting, Charles. In Combat from Normandy to the Ardennes. New
York: Stein and Day Incorporated, 1984.