The World War II Photo of the Week
for 20 August 2001
|Hell in the Hedgerows ...
The best defensive positions the Germans had in Normandy weren’t put there by Rommel, but rather by Celtic farmers more than a thousand years before the battle in the form of ancient hedgerows [above, a rough track cuts between two atypical hedgerows in this modern view (from the Webmaster's collection)]. Between the invasion beaches and the city of St. Lo lay 20 miles of what General Bradley called "the damndest country I’ve ever seen" the French called it the bocage, otherwise known as "hedgerow country." This terrain is almost impossible to picture without actually seeing it, a painful lesson the Allies soon learned in their attempts to move inland from the beachhead during June/July 1944. The bocage consists of small, irregularly shaped fields, measuring only about 200 by 400 meters, enclosed by ancient, overgrown hedges that grow from earthen mounds flanked by drainage ditches. The hedgerows grow up to 15 feet high, limiting visibility to one field at a time, and they are impenetrably dense even for tanks (in the photo at left, GIs peer around the ends of two hedgerows and survey the field beyond). They form a thousand square miles of tough patchwork terrain, connected by a network of dirt roads sunken far below field level by centuries of use. The towering hedges shade these lanes, further decreasing visibility. Using the ideal camouflage and concealment of the bocage to best advantage, the Germans dispersed small, heavily armed antipersonnel and antitank units through it, dug in at the bases of the hedgerows and nearly invisible to the oncoming Americans. In these ideal defensive positions, small German units sometimes repulsed attacking forces five times as large. Most of the vicious small-unit fighting in the Normandy campaign took place on roads like that pictured above, at distances of less than 300 yards (sometimes it must have felt like a firefight in a dimly lit house). Any tank that took to the sunken roads between fields was in serious danger; often it couldn't turn around or traverse its gun in such a tight space. Attempting to climb over the embankment between fields exposed the tank’s underbelly to antitank weapons. Up on the main roads there could be, and probably was, an 88-millimeter gun around the next bend, and the Germans fortified the stoutly built stone houses of the villages along those roads, so it was dangerous to move at all. Tanks and troops remained equally vulnerable in the bocage until the Allies developed tactics to enhance mobility and improve tank-infantry cooperation.It was Sgt. Curtis Culin of the U. S. 2nd Armored Division who, by all accounts, invented the Hedgerow Cutter (aka the "Rhino"), a device that proved critical to the success of the Allies in breaking out of the bocage. Using angle iron cannibalized from German beach obstacles (or from a roadblock, depending on which story you read), Culin fashioned and then welded four large steel "tusks" to the snouts of a Sherman tank. The principle was simple: the iron blades would rip huge holes in the hedges for tanks and infantry to pour through. After a successful test, General Omar Bradley ordered more than 200 Shermans to be equipped with Culin's "tusks." On July 18, 1944, six weeks after the D-Day invasion, the Americans took St. Lo, setting the stage for the eventual breakout from Normandy. In those six weeks the 29th Division alone lost more than 3,000 men; for the month of July up to that point, 12 American divisions advanced just seven miles at a cost of 40,000 casualties. By the time St. Lo fell, the German army in Normandy had suffered 100,000 casualties, and the American First Army matched that awful figure two weeks later. Nearly 10 percent of the American casualties were battle-fatigue cases brought on by the terror and exhaustion of the grinding hedgerow battle.
Lieutenant William Arendt described hedgerow combat in his book Midnight of the Soul: "In my opinion, hedgerow fighting is the toughest in the world, with the possible exception of close-contact, jungle warfare. Traditionally, the attacker needs a 3 to 1 advantage; the Germans showed they could defend successfully in the Normandy bocage country against a 5 to 1 ratio, and the reasons are simple. Each hedgerow is easily defended; hedgerows running at right angles to line of attack offer good retreating shelter to where another defense line can be set up, sometimes even at the next hedgerow; heavy equipment, such as tanks, are virtually useless and artillery is handicapped because of the closeness of the fighting troops. We were fighting for 100 yards at a time." Below, an aerial photograph of Hill 192, a German strongpoint northwest of St. Lo, provides an excellent visualization of the general characteristics of bocage country: small fields diced by thick
hedgerows and criss-crossed by small roads.