The battle of the hedges, one of the Greatest Battles in History

by | 11 Nov 20 | Battles

The summer of 1944 witnessed terrible confrontations between the American and German armies in Normandy. For 11 weeks, in the Cotentin and then in the centre and south of La Manche, the American army, led by General Eisenhower, fought hard against the Reich troops. It was the battle of the hedges.

After D-Day, one of the greatest battles in history.

The night of June 5th-6th heralds the last hours of the Occupation of Normandy. Many American paratroopers jump on the Cotentin with the aim of the towns of Carentan and Sainte-Mère-Eglise. Their role is to open the way for American infantry and armor by securing key locations. US units leap into the darkness towards their mission as, hours later, troops arrived from the sea on Utah Beach join them. On the evening of June 6, the beaches were American, despite heavy losses.

The war then entered a second phase, which consisted in capturing the town of Carentan to ensure the junction between the bridgeheads of Utah and Omaha Beach. Eisenhower then intends to cut the Cotentin in two in order to isolate the region of Cherbourg. The Allies indeed need a strategic port as quickly as possible, to facilitate the disembarkation of their reinforcements and materials.

On 18 June 1944, the capture of Barneville-Carteret isolated the Cotentin and allowed the Allies to consider the capture of Cherbourg. The military port fell to the Americans a week later. The battle of the hedges, also known as the “hedge war”, began, one of the longest and most costly trials for the American soldiers.

Carentan, a key objective of the landing

Eisenhower always considered Carentan as the primary objective of the landing of June 6th, 1944. From then on, the General Staff engaged the maximum of resources and its elite troops in the battle for the city, which was an essential crossroads for logistics. The American assaults of the 101st Airborne Division on Carentan began on June 10th.

Two days later, the German army was forced to abandon the town. On 12 June, Carentan was liberated, but the next day, the German paratroopers who had been holding the town tried to retake it with the support of recently arrived SS armoured units. The assault finally failed, thanks to the tenacity of the American paratroopers, supported by armoured reinforcements.

The capture of Carentan allowed the American army to consolidate its positions and establish a line of defence in order to advance inland. After the capture of Carentan, the American army concentrates again on its main objective: Cherbourg.

Liberation of the city of Carentan

The tricolour flag flies over the soldiers of the 7th US Corps, after two days of battle to liberate the town of Carentan. Copyright: US National Archives.

From the bocage to the coast: objective Cherbourg

In the Allied strategy, the capture of a deep water port such as Cherbourg was essential. The direct supply of food, weapons, equipment, reinforcements and medical support from the United States depended on it. The port and the town of Cherbourg were only liberated on 26 June after difficult and trying battles. On the same date and according to the forecasts of the Allied Forces, the American army should already have been in Brittany and Mayenne. However, it took several more weeks before the port, sabotaged by the Germans and heavily bombed during the fighting, could be restored.

Cherbourg, 39,000 German prisoners - Photo US ARMY Archives
Cherbourg: 39,000 Germans are taken prisoner in Cherbourg. Here, a column on the road to Paris, at the foot of the Rouges-Terres rise, heading towards a prison camp. Copyright: US National Archives

The capture of La Haye-du-Puits

Once the Cotentin had been cut off, the American troops shifted their advance northwards to capture Cherbourg. But this respite on the initial front line allowed the Germans to reorganise, bring in reinforcements and establish a solid defensive network, from the coast through the marshlands to the bocage of St-Lô.

At the beginning of July, the American army tried to retake the town of La Haye-du-Puits. The town was a major road junction that seemed impregnable because it was fortified with mines, trenches and barbed wire. The assault was launched on 4 July and lasted almost a week. The Americans entered the town several times but were repulsed each time after terrible fighting.

It was only after massive American artillery bombardment and a joint advance by armoured vehicles and infantry that the town fell into American hands. On 9 July, the town of La Haye-du-Puits was finally free but in ruins.

Battle of the Hedges: La Haye du Puits, July 1944 - Photo US National Archives
La Haye-du-Puits : July 4th 1944 : the men of the 315th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division, are withdrawing along the road from Barneville to La Haye-du-Puits. Copyright : US National Archives

Dying for Saint-Lô

The conquest of Saint-Lô was entrusted to the 19th corps of the 1st American army, under the command of General Corlett. Aerial bombardments were launched on the town the day after D-Day. It was left for dead and looked like a veritable field of ruins. Many civilian victims were to be deplored. Solidly installed on the high points of the city, the Germans were difficult to reach. Their units were strong, coming from the 3rd Parachute Division and an experienced infantry division.

This battle is in a way the symbol of the battle of the hedges, which paralysed the Americans since the beginning of July, in a Norman bocage that they did not know but that the enemy exploited to his advantage. On 16 and 17 July, hard fighting was engaged for the capture of Saint-Lô, which led on 18 July to the progressive withdrawal of the German army.

It was not until 25 July that Saint-Lô was entirely in American hands, thus preventing German reinforcements from coming from Brittany to feed the front.

Saint-Lo Capital of ruins National Photo US archives

A month in the hell of the bocage

The “Norman Jungle”, the bad surprise of the battle of the hedges

At the beginning of July 1944, the Americans having taken Cherbourg, a new phase of the Battle of the Hedges began, from the marches of the Cotentin to the centre of the Manche department. For three weeks, extremely deadly fighting raged. Numerous losses on both sides were suffered. The American troops were confronted with the Normandy bocage, an inextricable network of sunken roads, small fields bordered by dense hedges, landscapes so unexpected that the whole area gave its name to the battle: the hedge war. Unlike the Caen region, which was mainly made up of large plains, the Manche was dominated by the hedgerows of the bocage, which did not make it easy for the troops to advance and even less easy for the armoured vehicles to manoeuvre. On the other hand, it was an ideal terrain for the defenders who used every field and every hedge as a rampart and caused very heavy losses to the Americans.

The hedge-cutter: the way out of the bocage

In their strategies, the Americans did not pay enough attention to the configuration of the bocage, comparable to a jungle from a military point of view. Machines, and especially tanks, did not adapt well to the small fields enclosed by hedges and to the sunken paths. In order to overcome these obstacles, the support of armoured vehicles was nevertheless essential. Unfortunately, it is difficult for tanks to manoeuvre, as the hedges are so dense. But as the tanks began to move, they were forced to expose their almost unarmoured bellies to the enemy, making them ideal targets for German anti-tank weapons. Day after day, the charred wrecks of Sherman tanks accumulated in the bocage, which seemed increasingly impassable to the GIs.

To solve this problem, one man came up with an ingenious system. Sergeant Curtis G. Culin developed the ‘hedge-cutter’ device. He first collected ‘Czech hedgehogs’, an assembly of steel beams laid out by the Germans on the beaches to counter the landing of barges. He then dismantled these beams, welded them together and added huge teeth to make a kind of harrow, capable of breaking through the hedge. Finally, he fixed his ingenious system to the front of the tanks so that they could now cross the hedges without going over them but by crossing them. A large number of tanks will be equipped with this system from mid-July, shortly before the launch of Operation Cobra.

Hedge-cutter Photo National archives US

Cobra and Lüttich, the two great offensives of summer 1944

“Operation Cobra” revives the war of movement

By mid-July, the American advance was bogged down in the Normandy bocage and the Battle of the Hedges. Everywhere the enemy put up fierce resistance, sometimes blocking an American battalion with just a handful of men for a day. The General Staff, aware of this stalemate in the battle, decided to strike a blow by mounting an operation to relaunch the war of movement and get out of the bocage. On 25 July, Eisenhower launched Operation Cobra. 1,500 B-17 and B-25 bombers dropped more than 3,000 tonnes of bombs on an isolated sector of the front, north of Saint-Lô. This intense bombardment aimed to open a breach through the German lines in order to break through the front line definitively, to finally take the direction of Brittany. Normandy would thus be liberated in its entirety.

After a hesitant start, Marigny, Saint-Gilles and Canisy fell to the Americans. Operation Cobra was soon a success. Between 28 and 30 July, the towns of Coutances, Granville and Avranches were liberated and the American advance was lightning fast. The German army, caught in a hurry, abandoned its positions and withdrew. Delayed fighting took place south of Coutances, which allowed the Germans to save some of their best units, but they abandoned all their heavy equipment. Despite the many losses it caused, Operation Cobra was a real success.

Operation Cobra Coutances Photo US National Archives
Operation Cobra: American infantrymen and Sherman M4 tanks of the 4th US Armored Division passing through the town of Coutances during Operation Cobra. Copyright: US National Archives

“Lüttich”: when the German army plays its last card

Nothing seems to be able to stop the forward march of American mechanised units from now on. One person alone embodies this enthusiasm and this fierce temperament, General Patton. On 31 July, he committed his armoured divisions to the road to Brittany, passing through the Pontaubault Narrows. However, this area around Avranches remained fragile, as the American forces were far from the bulk of their troops. Hitler then tried to bring down his last trump card in a daring counter-offensive. He assembled several armoured units, mainly from the SS, and the infantry, then on 7 August 1944, he launched “Operation Lüttich”. Its aim was to isolate the 1st and 3rd American armies by cutting Patton off from his reserves with a vast armoured offensive, from the Mortain region towards Avranches. This offensive shook the American troops at first but did not last, thanks to the sending of several divisions as reinforcements and to the support of the air force which made a carnage among the German armoured vehicles.

The losses suffered by the German soldiers affected them too much, the air superiority of the Allies put a definitive end to the offensive. Hitler’s audacious gamble had failed, the troops withdrew and the Germans were at the beginning of the end.

On 15 August, the noise of the battle ends in the Channel. A week later, the Falaise pocket closed, encircling tens of thousands of Reich fighters, putting an end to the battle of Normandy. On 25 August, Paris was liberated, but it took two and a half months of fierce fighting in the Normandy bocage before this liberation could be celebrated!

A platoon of light tanks enters Avranches Photo US National Archives
A platoon of Stuart light tanks enters Avranches on the RN176 Copyright: US National Archives

The end of a bloody battle

The military power of the Allied Forces finally overcame its adversary, but at the cost of immensely heavy losses. Compared to the forecasts announced, the Allied General Staff had to admit that the initial objectives had been significantly delayed. A series of errors, but above all the stubbornness of the German resistance and its ability to exploit the Normandy bocage, got the better of Eisenhower and his generals’ plans.

It was finally Operation Cobra that put an end to the battle of the hedgerows and allowed the GIs to finally get out of the bocage and restart the war of movement. All those weeks spent in the “hell of the hedgerows” nevertheless showed the importance of the air force which was able to support the troops on the ground and get them out of delicate situations.

Artillery also played a vital role in shelling German positions, while armour provided the support the troops needed.

As in the Great War, the real hero remained the infantryman, the simple soldier of the infantry, confronted day after day with the green hell. The ‘Battle of the Hedges’ was thus the first step in a greater enterprise, that of the total liberation of Europe.

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