Gabriel Bonilla

The Bocage: How the Americans Overcame It

American soldiers needed to overcome the difficulties of tactical mobility and communication in order to defeat the Germans nesting in the bocage. The bocage's hedgerows did not permit Sherman tanks to maneuver or penetrate the German defenses, and this was a huge problem. The Americans were in dire need of using heavy-caliber weapons against the Germans in order to defeat them, but the hedgerows did not permit this by preventing the Sherman tanks to adequately fire at them. Also, there was a lack of communication between the infantry and the tankers, and this led to uncoordinated, inefficient attacks. The Americans were not prepared to battle in the bocage, but after weeks of experiencing it, the Americans created tactics and technical innovations that proved successful in battling Germans in the bocage country.

The American Sherman tanks could not run over the hedgerows. Instead, the Sherman tank would continue to roll once making contact with the hedgerows, and this would cause the tank to lift up a bit and expose its vulnerable "belly." A major shortcoming of the Sherman for hedgerow fighting was its unarmored underbelly, which made it particularly vulnerable to the panzerfaust when it tried to climb a hedgerow (Ambrose 216). The panzerfaust were German tanks better suited for fighting in the hedgerows. Therefore, Americans initially broke through the bocage's hedgerows by using explosives. Fifty-pound explosives proved to be powerful enough to clear a path large enough for Sherman tanks to drive through. However, explosives were not the wisest methods for clearing the hedgerows, because they took away the element of surprise. The sound of the explosion warned the Germans of an attack and gave the Germans the location of the attack so they could concentrate their firepower in that area. Americans found that dozer tanks, Sherman tanks with blades, caused the tanks to act like a bulldozer. The dozer tanks were a better solution than the explosives, because the dozers were efficient and did not immediately caused the Americans to loose the element of surprise. However, there were not enough dozer tanks to supply all of the American troops, and ordering more dozer tanks would have been a waste of time, because it would have taken too long to deliver them. These conditions created the ideas of using the Sherman tanks as battering rams and as cutting devices. 1st Lt. Charles B. Green came up with the idea of welding a strong bumper device made of railroad tracks on the Sherman tanks so that the tanks could ram through the hedgerows. This proved to be a successful method, but it was not the most popular. Soldiers of the 2d Armored Division's 102d Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron invented the hedgerow device that gained the widest publicity (Doubler 45). During a discussion among the officers and soldiers of the division, someone suggested attaching teeth to the tanks in order to cut through the hedgerows like a gardening tool. Many of the troops did not take the suggestion seriously, but Sgt. Curtis G. Culin did take it seriously. He designed and supervised the welding of the cutting devices made from scrap iron from German roadblocks. These customized Sherman tanks were effective and were nicknamed "rhinoceros" because of their appearance. On 14 July, General Bradley attended a demonstration of Culin's hedgerow cutter and watched as Shermans plowed through the hedgerows "as though they were pasteboard, throwing the bushes and brush into the air" (Doubler 46). Ironically, the German roadblocks provided the Americans with an effective method for penetrating the hedgerows that the Germans themselves used as defensive walls.

Drop by Neidy Parada

Before the massive construction of hedgerow cutters, the U.S. 29th Division developed tactics that used explosives. The 29th Division's solution relied on the firepower and maneuver of small, closely coordinated combat teams (Doubler 49). The teams consisted of a Sherman tank, an infantry squad, a machine-gun, a 60-mm mortar, and an engineer team. Before the actual attack began, the engineer team and infantry occupied the hedgerow. The Sherman tank fired a white phosphorous round in order to eliminate German machine-guns in the opposite corners of the hedgerow. The tankers then fired their machine-guns, and the 60-mm mortars prevented the Germans from retreating by firing right behind them. The infantry attacked once the tankers fired their machine-guns. The infantry stayed away from the hedgerows on their flanks in order to avoid enemy grazing fire (Doubler 49). Once the infantry advanced to the point where they covered the Sherman's machine-gun fire, the Sherman ceased fire. The infantry threw hand grenades over the neighboring hedgerow in order to confuse or kill Germans on the opposite side. The Sherman simultaneously backed away from its firing position and allowed the engineer team to blow up an opening on the hedgerow for the Sherman to enter. The Sherman then advanced and provided close support to the infantry, and the tankers and infantry then cleaned out the hedgerow of the remaining Germans. This strategy first eliminated German machine-guns, provided indirect fire that covered the infantry, and the Sherman then joined the infantry in directly firing at the Germans. This strategy was effective, because the Sherman and the infantry constantly defended each other and attacked the Germans. It also allowed the Sherman to safely cross the hedgerow so that it fired its heavy-caliber weapons at the Germans, and this was an important objective in the Americans' victory in the bocage country.

Unlike the 29th Division, the 3rd Armored Division developed an assault method based on the coordinated efforts of an infantry company and a tank company. The units attacked three fields wide and attacked the center field last. The assault began when engineer or dozer tanks penetrated the left and right hedgerows while indirect fire fell on the German defenses. An entire tank platoon then attacked, with one section moving forward along each hedgerow paralleling the axis of advance (Doubler 54). The Shermans advanced while using their main machine-gun fire in the center of the hedgerows and their heavy machine-gun fire towards the sides. The heavy machine gun fire was aimed at the Germans' machine-guns in the corners of the hedgerows. Early in the battle, the tanks would move slowly so that the infantry men could move at their pace and provide protection. The tanks also avoided being less than twenty yards from the nearest hedgerow. After reaching the main German defensive position, the tanks turned inward and worked their way toward the center of the field, covering the hedgerows with heavy machine-gun fire (Doubler 54). Once the left and right hedgerows were cleared, both of the left and right infantry and tank companies were able to double team the Germans in the center hedgerow by penetrating the left and right sides of the hedgerows. Follow-on forces moved forward to occupy the hedgerow delineating the original line of departure (LD) and provided suppressive fire with tank cannons and machine guns (Doubler 56). Essentially what occurred, the German defenses were sandwiched between direct fire and received indirect fire from the front. Once the center hedgerow was cleared, the tank and infantry companies resumed their initial positions in order to continue their hedgerow tactics for the next three hedgerows. The 3rd Armored Division's hedgerow tactics allowed for tanks and infantrymen to simultaneously attack because of the Sherman rhinoceros tanks. The Americans did not have to send infantry alone first to attack and distract the Germans, because the Americans now did no loose the element of surprise.

Both of the hedgerow strategies mentioned heavily relied on coordinated between the infantry and the tanks. Therefore, communication was an essential factor in order to maintain coordination, but it was not an easy task at first. During the battles, the tank engines and machine-gun fire caused large amounts of noise that did not permit soldiers to use voice commands. The infantry and tank radios operated on different radio waves so this also hindered communication. Infantrymen and tank crews discovered the best way to communicate was through a tank interphone box connected directly into the tank's intercom system and mounted on a Sherman's back deck in an empty ammunition container (Doubler 47). The infantrymen were able to protect themselves from enemy fire as they talked with the tank crew. In addition, arm signals were developed in order to indicate when to begin or end fire among the infantry and tank crews.

Works Cited

Ambrose, Stephen E. The Victors. Eisenhower and his Boys: the Men of World War II. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Doubler, Michael D. Closing with the Enemy. How GIs Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1994.