Mayra Cruz

Fighting in the Bocage

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 Terrain

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 infantryman’s war, with the advantage of the German defender’s 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 (Doubler 38). 

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” (Whiting 80).

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 it’s 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 isn’t 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). 

Works Cited

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, 1994.

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.

Encarta ’98 Encyclopedia. Microsoft.

www.army.mil.com
www.geocite.com 
www.normandy.eb.com