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Bocage Busting pt. 1
"The Damndest Country I've Seen"
Steve Winter

Only yards beyond the beaches of D-Day lay 'bocage country' -- a crazy-quilt of small fields, narrow roads, and villages that blanketed the Cotentin Peninsula and enclosed Normandy in a rock-hard, 50-mile-wide belt. This devilish terrain came as a shock to Allied troops and stymied their breakout for two months.

Bocage

Cross-section of bocageBocage (pronounced 'buh-COZH') is the French term for what the Allied invaders called "hedgerows." The English term is highly misleading, because it conjures an image of the thin hedge surrounding grandma's garden. Bocage is something completely different. Bocage formed as farmers plowed up stones from their fields. Each stone was piled at the edge of the field to eventually become a wall. Over centuries, blowing dirt accumulated on the stone walls and buried them. Tangled brush and trees sprouted on the earth-and-stone mounds, and their roots bound the whole mass together into a barrier as tough as concrete. An enclosed field could be as large as several football fields or as small as a suburban back yard. The families who farmed this area grouped their homes together in central villages and 'commuted' to the surrounding plots.

Around and through the walled fields wound dirt roads, sometimes with narrow drainage ditches between the road and hedgerow. Few of these roads were wide enough for more than one vehicle. Some were closed in at the top by overarching trees that concealed traffic from aerial observation (though quick-moving vehicles raised dust that drifted upward in tell-tale plumes that drew artillery fire, giving rise to the admonition, "dust means death").

Tactical Problems

Omaha Beach at CollevilleAs far back as the first century B.C., Roman generals commented on the difficulty of carrying out military operations in this fragmented countryside. Those problems were all the worse for a mechanized army. American engineers estimated that a force advancing one mile across bocage would encounter 20 to 25 hedgerows. General Bradley called Normandy "the damndest country I've seen." Veterans of Pacific fighting declared it worse than Guadalcanal. The G.I.s in the field just called it "hedgerow hell." In many places, the hedgerows began directly beyond the beach, as can be seen in the aerial photo of the portion of Omaha Beach in front of Colleville.

Neither the Allies nor the Germans were prepared for the nightmare of fighting in bocage. No one had trained for it, and no one had any specialized equipment to deal with its challenges. Both sides complained that the terrain favored the enemy. The attackers' complaints turned out to be more correct -- the landscape was ideal for static defense.

Bocage presented three problems for both sides --

  1. It was terrible country for mechanized operations. Wheeled vehicles were limited to roads. Tracked vehicles could move off-road only with difficulty, and breaking through hedgerows exposed them to deadly attacks. Even foot soldiers could move only slowly, and infantry had to bear the brunt of the fighting.
  2. Visibility extended to the field in front of you and the hedgerows bordering it. Squads and platoons quickly lost contact with supporting units to their flanks and rear. Isolation led to uncoordinated movements, confusing orders, hesitation, and excessive caution.
  3. With combat occurring at ranges of 200, 100, or even 50 meters, close air and artillery support was impractical. Aircraft found it impossible to distinguish friend from foe. Every field looked the same, so advancing or retreating units lost track of where they were and couldn't give reliable grid coordinates. Unadjusted artillery fire could hit the calling unit as easily as the target, and spotting rounds were likely to land outside the spotter's line of sight, making adjustment impossible. Even when bombs and shells landed on target, the calling unit might be well within the danger zone from shrapnel and concussion. Stripped of heavy support, infantry was restricted to light weapons for firepower. Here the Germans had an advantage thanks to their superb (and plentiful) machine guns and mortars.

In calculating expected casualties and replacement rates, the British Army recognized three levels of combat activity -- quiet, normal, and intense. Bocage fighting was so deadly to infantry that, after only a few weeks of it, the Army had to create a fourth category -- double intense.

Advantage: Defense

The Germans discovered the defensive benefits of the hedgerow maze rapidly and turned them to their advantage. Bocage fighting played directly to their strengths -- small-unit initiative, quick reaction, and dogged defense.

German Defensive LayoutTheir defense was arranged in depth, and it was geared toward maximizing the terrain's disorienting, isolating effect against the attacker. Each field was turned into a small fortress that could be defended by a handful of men. Individual strong points were linked to those on their flanks and to even stronger fallback positions with hidden footpaths broken through the hedgerows, allowing quick displacement or reinforcement. Each field included prepared positions from which its weapons could aid the defense of neighboring fields. Foxholes and slit trenches were dug into the backsides of hedgerows to protect the defenders against Allied bombing and shelling, and because these opened toward German lines, they gave little cover to the advancing enemy when captured.

Machine guns provided the bulk of the defenders' point-blank firepower. Heavy and medium machine guns sited at corners and sides would pin advancing troops in the relatively open field. Once pinned, the enemy could be shot up by light machine guns set to graze at ground level, rifles and machine pistols, and mortars pre-sited onto the field (German mortars caused three-quarters of American casualties during the breakout). Machine guns were also placed so as to graze directly along the bases of hedgerows where advancing soldiers were likely to seek cover. Booby traps and mines linked to trip wires were constant dangers.

German commanders quickly noted that both US and UK troops were reluctant to press the attack once an objective was reached. As units advanced, they lost contact with the squads and platoons on their flanks. On reaching an objective, they would halt, dig in, and try to re-establish contact, even if German resistance was light. Once pressure was off the defenders, they could regroup and assess the situation. At that point, Allied units that pushed ahead of their support were easy targets for counterattacks from three sides, and German officers and NCOs were quick to pounce. Ground that was gained through hours of hard fighting could be lost with frustrating -- and deadly -- quickness.

The Offense Falters

This tough, interlaced defense was a grave obstacle to the Allies. The D-Day invasion itself was meticulously planned, but in the hyper-focus on that event, little attention was paid to what the invaders would encounter once the beach defenders were overcome. As a consequence, generals and colonels were largely unprepared, and majors and lieutenants were entirely unprepared, for the conditions that lay ahead.

The standard company tactic was to maneuver in two-up/one-back formation -- two rifle platoons advanced side-by-side while the third rifle platoon and weapon platoon followed in reserve, ready to reinforce or swing round in a flanking maneuver once the enemy's front line was pinned by the two forward platoons. Company commanders learned quickly that standard tactics didn't work in Normandy. The terrain was too dense for flanking maneuvers. Reserves following at safe distances were too far back to support the lead elements. Even the two leading platoons found it impossible to maintain communication and coordinate their efforts.

US infantry takes shelter behind hedgerowAttackers couldn't move through natural breaks in the hedgerows, because all such openings were covered by enemy weapons. The alternative was to cut through the thick vegetation -- which still meant emerging in the face of well-laid German fire. Open fields were killing zones where entire platoons could be pinned by machine guns and destroyed by mortars. To avoid the fields, soldiers had to creep painstakingly while hugging the hedgerows, where they were subject to grazing machine gun fire and constant risk from mines and snipers. Unable to rely on heavy support weapons or tanks, they had only their rifles, grenades, automatic rifles, and light mortars with which to suppress fire from a hidden, dug-in foe.

Commanders quickly lost control of their units. Frontages and unit boundaries were impossible to maintain. Attacks were funneled into predictable channels. Hedgerows curved and intersected in bewildering ways that left officers disoriented or heading in completely wrong directions.

Tanks were at an even greater disadvantage. If they clawed over hedgerows, they exposed their weak undersides to devastating antitank fire. If they stuck to roads, they drove into ambushes. Infantry and armor commanders who had never trained together failed to coordinate their actions. Tanks couldn't lead the attack and survive, but following behind the infantry left them useless.

Compounding all of these difficulties were the inexperience and inadequate training of Allied units. Victory in the hedgerows hinged on being relentlessly aggressive. The defenders were significantly outnumbered -- as much as 50:1 in some cases -- but their numbers were consistently, sometimes massively, overestimated because of the way the terrain magnified their effectiveness. Their small numbers, however, made them brittle. Capturing just one or two hedgerows could clear the way for decisive maneuvers. A handful of soldiers acting boldly could achieve more than a company pouring rifle fire into an impervious hedgerow.

On Friday -- the Allies find solutions, plus Axis & Allies Miniatures plunges into Hedgerow Hell …

… but if you're the impatient type, you can download four new Bocage maps right now!










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