|Bocage Busting pt. 2|
|The Allies Break Through|
Just a few weeks of bloody hedgerow fighting for minimal gains drove home the point to Allied commanders that their standard tactics were no good in Normandy. The US Army in particular was equipped and organized as a combined arms force that relied on maneuver and heavy firepower. Both of those elements were neutralized in bocage. Further attacks were pointless until new tactics could be devised to deal with the unique situation. There was no time to wait for new training manuals to be handed down from higher command. Individual units had to look for their own solutions.
The key problem was restoring mobility through the hedgerows. If tanks and infantry could advance together, the attackers might gain enough mobile firepower to recapture the advantage.
The first efforts in this direction involved using explosives to create breaches through the hedgerows for tanks to drive through. This proved impractical on a large scale because it either required too much explosive (100 pounds per breach if quickly placed) or took too much time (while engineers dug into the bank and packed in smaller, more efficient explosive charges).
Some units experimented with logs or heavy pipe attached to the front of a tank and rammed lengthwise into a hedgerow to create holes for the explosive. On July 11, 2d Battalion/116th Infantry/29th Infantry Division, supported by a company of combat engineers and a company of Sherman tanks equipped with rams, used this tactic in a combined arms attack north of Saint-Lo. Progress was slow and difficult, but after five hours of blasting through hedgerows, the battalion broke through the German defenses, seized a ridge behind the German line, and chewed up another mile of bocage before halting for the night. Infantry casualties were light, and no tanks were lost.
As part of that same push, 38th Infantry/2d Infantry Division, using tactics that differed in their specifics but followed the same principles, also broke through the enemy's positions and occupied key high ground.
Although the gains were modest, they were spectacular compared to everything that had been achieved up to that time. July 11 proved that the new tactics worked.
Before the tank-mounted rams could go into general use, they were replaced with 'hedge cutters'. These appeared independently, in slightly different forms, in several units. The best was the Culin hedge cutter developed by Sergeant Curtis Culin of the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron. It was made of iron girders salvaged from German roadblocks and beach obstacles. Sharpened girders were welded to the forward hull of a Sherman tank in a saw-tooth pattern. It wasn't a 'cutter' in the sense of a lawnmower or 'brush hog' but more of a plow. When a tank equipped with this device rammed a hedgerow, the girders speared into the rocks and roots binding the mound together and split them apart sufficiently for the tank to break through instead of climbing over. General Bradley was so impressed by the Culin hedge cutter that he ordered as many as possible to be made. By late July, 60 percent of First Army's Sherman tanks were equipped with them.
The biggest obstacle remaining was the difficulty of infantry-tank coordination. Radio communication wasn't an option, because each infantry company had only one radio that functioned on the same frequency as tank radios. At first, field phones were mounted on the tanks' rear decks and connected by wire to a second set in the turret. This worked, but using the outside phone required a soldier to stand behind the tank, where he was dangerously exposed to snipers and shrapnel. Instead, a spare connector box for the tank's interphone communication system was attached to the rear deck. A field radio handset with a long cord could be plugged into the box, allowing a foot soldier to talk with the tank's entire crew while lying safely behind cover or beneath the tank. Hand signals rounded out the communication system.
With these technical difficulties solved, only the tactics question remained.
"One Tank, One Squad, One Field"
One widely adopted new tactic was dubbed, "one squad, one tank, one field."
The attack team consisted of a Sherman tank equipped with hedge cutter, a rifle squad backed by a light machine gun or several BARs, and a 60mm mortar. To open the attack, the tank nosed up to the hedgerow barring the way into the field ahead. It fired white phosphorous rounds into the opposite corners of the field to destroy or mask dug-in machine guns or anti-tank weapons. While the mortar kept the defenders' heads down by lobbing high-explosive shells into the field behind the opposing hedgerow, the tank methodically carpeted the base and top of the hedgerow with machine gun and main gun fire. Covered by tank and mortar fire, the squad crossed its hedgerow and assaulted across the field, avoiding the side hedgerows which were likely mined and sited for grazing MG fire.
The greatest danger occurred when the infantry's advance blocked the tank's fire. At that point, the foot soldiers had to rush the enemy hedgerow and finish off the defenders with grenades and small arms fire at near hand-to-hand range. Then the tank plowed through the hedgerow, everyone advanced to the next barrier, and the process started all over again.
A refinement of this tactic involved two tanks. It was similar in most respects to the attack described above. Instead of parking at the center of the hedgerow, the support tank moved to an outside edge. The second tank broke through the hedgerow in the same area as the assaulting infantry and crossed the field with them. The assaulting infantry stayed toward the opposite side of the field from the support tank, allowing the tank to provide support fire longer. As the infantry and assault tank worked their way across the objective hedgerow, clearing defenders step-by-step, the support tank progressively narrowed its field of fire, keeping defenders pinned along the remainder of the hedgerow without threatening friendly soldiers. Once the hedgerow was captured, the assault tank became the support tank, and the support tank joined the infantry for the next assault.
Individual divisions added their own refinements to these tactics, but the pattern remained more-or-less constant. As long as tanks and infantry cooperated closely, they achieved success. When cooperation broke down, the German defensive system delivered bloody defeats. Even against the new machines and methods, the Germans had 50 miles of tangled bocage behind them, and they fought tenaciously over every mile.
The fighting in the bocage was almost unprecedented in its deadliness. Casualty rates approached those of the worst battles in World War 1. In two months of intense fighting, both sides suffered approximately equal casualties of roughly 100,000 soldiers each. Nearly all of these were riflemen, and given the nature of the battle, the best soldiers and leaders were often lost first. Both armies were forced to push men with little or no rifle training -- cooks, drivers, gunners, and clerks -- into the lines to maintain a semblance of fighting strength. In the US Army, fewer than 40 percent of the infantry replacements in Normandy were classed MOS 745, Rifleman.
Despite the long delay imposed on the Allies, the bloody nature of the bocage war ultimately worked against Germany. Early losses overwhelmed even the Allies' excellent replacement system, but those losses and more had been made up by the time the breakout occurred at the end of July. In contrast, the Germans had replaced only 12 percent of their infantry losses and received 17 tanks to replace the 225 that were lost. With no reserve and no significant obstacle to defend, the Wehrmacht had no choice but to surrender France to the advancing Allies and race headlong for the WestWall.
Bocage in Axis & Allies Miniatures
Four variant Bocage maps are available for Axis & Allies Miniatures. These are modifications of the original Able-2, Baker-1, Fox-2, and George-1 maps that came with the Starter Set or were posted on the web site. Hedgerows have been added to the maps to transform them into a semblance of the Normandy maze.
Rules and Scenarios
To recreate the nature of fighting in bocage, several variant rules are introduced to the standard Axis & Allies Miniatures rules. To get these rules, six new map arrangements, scenario adaptations, and four sample armies, download the Normandy in Miniature document.
Several excellent sources of background info are available free online:
Print sources include:
- Bando, Mark; Breakout at Normandy: The 2nd Armored Division in the Land of the Dead; Motorbooks International.
- Blumenson, Martin; Breakout and Pursuit; Center for Military History.
- Blumenson, Martin; Battle of the Generals; Center for Military History.
- Isby, David; Fighting in Normandy; Stackpole Books.
- Luttwitz, Freiherr Von; Fighting the Breakout: the German Army in Normandy; Motorbooks International.