Fighting in the Bocage – the US Army Experience Part I

This provides an example of typical German defense configurations in the bocage fighting. This area, between the village of La Meauffe and St Lô, was held by roughly a battalion of troops from Kampgruppe Kentner. This was a combat formation based on Grenadier-Regiment 897 of the 266. Infanterie-Division that was detached to the 352. Infanterie-Division in mid-June 1944. It suffered so many casualties during the July fighting that it was reinforced with II./GR 898 and II./GR 899. This sector was called the “La Mare−Le Carillon Nose” position by the attacking 35th Division since it formed a distinctive salient. The 2/137th Infantry pushed into the defenses on July 13–14, but the position was not finally cleared out until it was out-flanked to the southeast.

The American inland offensive operations were confronted with areas that the Germans had flooded and hedgerows (“bocage” to the French).

The dictionary definition of a “hedgerow” is a simple row of trees or bushes that separate one field from another. What the Americans actually found in Normandy were six- and even eight-feet-high hedgerows trapped by a row of trees that added an impenetrable layer anywhere from six to twenty feet high. Tanks could not break through them and had to expose their vulnerable undersides to climb over them, thus making their guns useless. The bocage offered the Germans ideal defensive positions. “I couldn’t image the bocage until I saw it,” said Bradley after the war.

In preparing the original COSSAC invasion plan, General Morgan had alerted the British Chiefs of Staff to the difficulties posed by the bocage. General Alan Brooke, one of their members, was also very much concerned about this bocage country. He had spent many summers there as a boy. In July 1940, he had led Anglo-French forces across this terrain before the Dunkirk evacuation. Similarly, Patton had also traveled extensively in this area as a soldier in World War I. He understood how disruptive it was for offensive warfare.

Allied planners, however, failed to prepare the troops and equipment to meet the bocage challenge—a major gaffe. Aerial photos clearly identified an eight-square-mile hedgerow area behind the American beaches, divided by four thousand bocage enclosures. A battalion commander lamented, “We were rehearsed endlessly for attacking beach defenses, but not one day was given to the terrain behind the beaches, which was no less difficult and deadly.” This training failure greatly delayed the Allied breakout from the Normandy bridgehead.

Bocage is the Norman and French name for the style of terrain found in the western area of Basse Normandie (Lower Normandy) consisting of pastures boxed in by hedgerows. It is most common in the departments of Manche and Calvados west of the Orne River to the Cotentin peninsula, and so largely in the battle zone of the First US Army and German 7. Armee. The terrain east of the Orne gradually shifts to open pastureland and rolling hills where the British Second Army engaged Panzergruppe West.

An officer of the 329th Infantry described the hedgerows:

These hard-earthen banks, with their matted head-dress of stumpy trees and hedges, have been standing for centuries, as boundaries between tracts of land parceled out in the days of feudalism. As time went on, the land had been sub-divided in order to give each son a plot which he could call his own, until now the fields and orchards bordered by these hedgerows are so small that further sub-division would render most of them useless for any form of farming or grazing. These hedgerows are fifty to one hundred yards apart, on the average, and made very formidable barriers to our advance, for the earthen portions range from three to eight feet in height and anywhere from three to ten feet in thickness at the base. From the tops of these banks grow the trees and hedges, thickened by the indiscriminate pruning carried on by the Norman farmers, who use them as a principal source of fire kindling wood.

From a military perspective, the hedgerows created a network of inverted trenches, forming a natural, layered fortification system that was well suited to defense. The earthen bases of the hedgerows shielded the defender from enemy fire and were thick enough to protect against small arms and machine-gun fire. The vegetation on top of the hedgerow provided concealment for the defenders and restricted the observation of the attacking force. Bocage complicated the use of field artillery since the vegetation could prematurely detonate the artillery rounds in the trees above before their intended impact against enemy positions. In addition, the hedgerows provided a solid basis for foxholes to shield against mortar and artillery fire.

The bocage severely constrained maneuver by the infantry, and even more so for vehicles. Many hedgerows were too tall to be surmounted by tanks, and even the lower hedgerows created problems since a tank climbing over the earth wall exposed its weakly protected underside to enemy anti-tank weapons. The road network in the bocage was poor since this region did not make much use of motorized farming techniques. Aside from a limited number of regional roads between the major towns, the individual hedgerows were connected by small openings and footpaths with the occasional cart path or small unpaved road.

The Germans themselves described fighting in the bocage as “Buschkrieg,” Bush Warfare. They would plant mines at the bottom of shell craters in front of their positions so that an American soldier, throwing himself in to take cover, would have his legs blown off. Alongside tracks they rigged what the Americans called castrator mines or ‘bouncing Bettys’, which jumped up and exploded at crotch height. Their tanks and field gunners became expert at firing tree-bursts, which meant exploding a shell in the crown of a tree to blast splinters of wood into anyone sheltering below.

The bocage country was well suited to German defensive doctrine. The outer layer of the German defenses was a thinly manned outpost line. This served to identify the approach of American units and the tenacious defense of an outpost line by a small number of troops was often able to stop the advance of a much larger force. Furthermore, it served to tie down the attacking force, fixing it in place for mortar and artillery bombardment. In the event that the outpost line was captured, one or more additional defense lines were behind it to provide resilience. This type of defense was not entirely dissimilar to World War I trench warfare. However, there were some significant differences. The German commanders called this fighting “Buschkrieg,” bush warfare. Static defense was not sufficient since the defense lines could be gradually worn down by infantry attack and artillery fire. German commanders placed considerable stress on the individual initiative of small unit commanders. Once the attacking force was halted by machine-gun and mortar fire at the outpost line, small combat teams would maneuver on foot to further disrupt the attack by strikes against their flank or rear.

An anonymous US Army officer provided a pungent and succinct description of hedgerow fighting techniques from the American perspective:

There were just three ways that our infantry could get through the hedgerow country. They could walk down the road, which always makes the leading men feel practically naked (and they are). They could attempt to get through gaps in the corners of the hedgerows and crawl up along the row leading forward, or rush through in a group and spread out in the field beyond. This was not a popular method. In the first place often there were no gaps, just when you wanted one most. And in the second place, the Germans knew about the gaps before we did and were usually prepared with machine-gun and machine-pistol reception committees. The third method was to rush a skirmish line over a hedgerow and then across the field. This could have been a fair method if there had been no hedgerows.

American tactics tended to rely on ‘marching fire’ as infantry advanced, which meant constant firing at any likely enemy positions ahead. The amount of ammunition used was truly staggering as a result. The Germans needed to be more efficient. Tied to a tree, a German rifleman would wait for the infantrymen to pass, then shoot one of them in the back. This prompted the others to throw themselves flat in the open, and German mortar teams would then shell them with air-bursts as they lay there with the full length of their bodies exposed. Aid men who went to help the wounded were shot down deliberately. Quite often a single German would emerge with his hands up to surrender, and when some Americans moved forward to take him prisoner, he would throw himself sideways and hidden machine guns would shoot them down. Not surprisingly, few American soldiers took prisoners after such incidents.

Usually we could not get through the hedge without hacking a way through. This of course took time, and a German machine gun can fire a lot of rounds in a very short time. Sometimes the hedges themselves were not thick. But it still took time for the infantryman to climb up the bank and scramble over, during which time he was a luscious target, and when he got over the Germans knew exactly where he was. All in all it was very discouraging to the men who had to go first. Of course the Germans did not defend every hedgerow, but no one knew without stepping out into the spotlight which ones he did defend.

It was difficult to gain fire superiority when it was most needed. In the first place, machine guns were almost useless in the attack because about the only way they could be used was to fire from the hip. If you set them up before the advance started, they had no field of fire and could not shoot the enemy. If you carried them along until you met the enemy, still the only way to get them in position was to set them up on top of a hedgerow bank. That was not good because the German was in the next bank and got you before you set the gun down. Anyway, it had to be laid on the bank, no tripod, just a gun barrel lying unevenly on its stomach. On the other hand the Germans could dig their guns into the banks in advance, camouflage them, and be all set to cover the roads, trails, and other bottlenecks our men had to use.

The artillery was the major fire support weapon. But it suffered certain handicaps. In the first place it had to be adjusted from the front line by forward observers. These sometimes had difficulty knowing just where they were, and the trees frequently delayed adjustment because of the short vision. If you found the enemy in the next hedgerow he was frequently less than 100 yards from you, and that was too close for artillery fire, particularly since short rounds would probably burst in the trees over your men in your own hedgerow. If the enemy was two or more hedgerows ahead of you, that wasn’t so good either, because the mere delay in getting to him through that last hedgerow just in front of him gave him time to rise up and smite you after the artillery lifted. The mortars were effective providing you knew just what to shoot at and where it was, but the infantryman still had the delay and exposure of getting through the last hedgerow.

The Germans, being on the defensive, profited by these minor items of the terrain. They could dig in, site their weapons to cover the approaches, and prepare tunnels and other covered exits for themselves. Then when our men appeared, laboriously working their way forward, the Germans could knock off the first one or two, cause the others to duck down behind the bank, and then call for their own mortar support. The German mortars were very, very efficient. By the time our men were ready to go after him, the German and his men and guns had obligingly retired to the next stop. If our men had rushed him instead of ducking down behind the bank, his machine gun or machine pistol would knock a number off. For our infantrymen, it was what you might call in baseball parlance, a fielder’s choice. No man was very enthusiastic about it. But back in the dugout I have often heard the remark in tones of contempt and anger: “Why don’t they get up and go?

The Americans were unprepared for the density of the bocage, with the height of the trees in the hedgerows and the solid high banks in which they grew. They had assumed when training that the hedgerows were like those in southern England. General Collins of VII Corps told Bradley that the bocage was as bad as anything he had encountered on Guadalcanal. And Bradley himself called it ‘the damnedest country I’ve ever seen’. Even the British Army had failed to listen to Field Marshal Brooke’s warnings. He had had experience of this countryside during the retreat of 1940 and foresaw the difficulties for the attacker.

Fresh troops especially were disorientated and spooked by the impossibility of sighting the enemy as they advanced across the small, enclosed fields. They forgot the basic lessons of infantry training. Their instinct, when bracketed by German artillery or mortar fire, was to throw themselves flat or run back to safety, rather than charge forwards, which was far less dangerous. A shot from a single German rifleman in a tree all too often prompted a whole platoon to drop to the ground, where they offered a much easier target. The Germans were adept at provoking this deliberately, then rapidly firing a barrage of mortar rounds on to them as they lay in the open. ‘Keep moving if you want to live’, was the slogan adopted by Bradley’s headquarters in a general instruction. Officers and non-coms were told that they must not throw themselves to the ground, because the rest of the platoon would follow their example. Aggressive action led to fewer casualties because the Germans were rattled if you kept coming at them. And the importance of ‘marching fire’ was continually emphasized. This meant firing constantly at likely hiding places as you advanced, rather than waiting for an identifiable target.

Soldiers were advised to lie still if wounded by a sniper. He would not waste another round on a corpse, but would certainly fire again if they tried to crawl away. German snipers concealed in trees often tied themselves to the trunk so that they would not fall out if wounded. Quarter was never given to a sniper on either side. Another favourite hiding place in more open country was in a hayrick. That practice, however, was soon dropped when both American and British soldiers learned to fire tracer bullets to set the rick aflame, then gun down the hidden rifleman as he tried to escape.

German marksmanship was seldom good, mainly due to lack of practice on the ranges while they were working on the Atlantic Wall. But the fear inspired in American soldiers was out of all proportion to the number of casualties inflicted. Three times as many wounds and deaths were caused by mortars as by rifle or machine-gun fire. Most German units had very few trained snipers with telescopic sights, but that did not stop the conviction of frightened infantrymen that every concealed rifleman was a ‘sniper’. ‘The sniper menace ought not to be exaggerated,’ the headquarters of the First US Army insisted in a circular. Snipers should be dealt with by snipers and not by ‘indiscriminate fire’. Similar fears turned every German tank into a Tiger and every German field gun into an 88 mm.

Like the British on the Caen front, the Americans found that the Germans were brilliant at camouflage and concealment. Fresh branches were cut to hide guns and armoured vehicles from aircraft as well as on the ground. Their soldiers were made to cover up the tell-tale track marks of armoured vehicles, even by trying to make the flattened grass or corn stand up again. And the German infantry did not just dig foxholes. They dug themselves in like ‘moles in the ground’, with overhead cover against artillery treebursts and tunnels under the hedgerow. The small opening on to the field provided the ideal aperture from which to scythe down an advancing American platoon with the rapid fire of an MG 42.34

On the eastern front the Germans had learned from Soviet bombardments how to minimize their losses in defence. They applied these lessons to good effect in Normandy. Their front line was no more than a light screen of machine-gun positions. Several hundred yards further back, a rather more substantial line of positions was prepared. Then a third line, even further back, would include a force ready to counterattack immediately.

The Germans knew well that the best moment to catch British or American troops off guard was just after they had taken a position. More casualties were usually inflicted at this moment than during the original attack. Allied soldiers were slow to dig in afresh and often would just make use of the German foxholes or slit trenches. These would be booby-trapped in many cases, but always they would be pre-registered as targets by the supporting German artillery battalions, ready to fire the moment their own men pulled out. Time and again, Allied troops were caught out. Exhausted from the attack and complacent from success, soldiers did not find the idea of frantically digging a new foxhole very appealing. It took a long time and many unnecessary deaths for British and American infantry to learn to follow the German Army dictum that ‘sweat saves blood’.

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