The hedgerow Hell, one of the Greatest Battles in History

by | Nov 12, 2020 | Battles

The summer of 1944 witnessed terrible clashes between the US military and the German army in Normandy. For 11 weeks, in the Cotentin, then in the center and in the south of the Manche, the American army, led by General Eisenhower, fought hard against the troops of the Reich. The staff’s objective is to liberate Normandy and move towards Brittany and Mayenne, then towards eastern France. Sadly, nothing is going to turn out the way the Allies expected.

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 June 18, 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 “war of the hedges” then begins, one of the longest and most expensive tests for American combatants.

Carentan, essential 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 city. On June 12th, Carentan was liberated, but the next day the German paratroopers who held the town attempted to retake it with the support of recently arrived SS armored units.

The assault was ultimately unsuccessful, thanks to the tenacity of the American paratroopers, supported by the armored reinforcements. The capture of Carentan allows the US military to consolidate its positions and establish a line of defense in order to advance inland. After the capture of Carentan, the US military returned to its primary objective: Cherbourg.

Liberation of the city of Carentan
The French flag flies above the soldiers of the 7th American Corps, after two days of battle to liberate the town of Carentan. Copyright: US National Archives.

From fields to the coast: objective Cherbourg

In the strategy of the Allies, the capture of a deep water port such as Cherbourg is essential. The direct supply of food, weapons, equipment, reinforcements and medical support from the United States depends on it. The port and the city of Cherbourg were not liberated until June 26th after difficult battles. On the same date and according to the forecasts of the Allied Forces, the American army should already have been in Bretagne and Mayenne. However, it takes several weeks before the port, sabotaged by the Germans and heavily bombarded during the fighting, is repaired.

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 Montée des Rouges-Terres, is heading towards a prison camp. Copyright: US National Archives

The Capture of La Haye-du-Puits

Once the cut of the Cotentin was made, the American troops inflect their advance northward, to capture Cherbourg. But this respite on the initial front line allowed the Germans to reorganize, bring in reinforcements and establish a solid defensive network, from the coast through the marshland to the bocage of Saint-Lô.

In early July, the US military attempted to retake the city of La Haye-du-Puits. This city is a major road junction which seems impregnable since it is fortified by mines, trenches and barbed wire. The assault began on July 4th and lasted nearly a week. The Americans entered the town on several occasions but were repulsed each time after terrible fighting.

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

Battle of the Hedges: La Haye du Puits, July 1944 - Photo US National Archives
La Haye-du-Puits: July 4, 1944: it is the withdrawal for these men of the 315th Infantry Regiment, 79th Infantry Division, who take 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 city the day after the D-Day landings. The city is left for dead and looks like a real field of ruins. Many civilian casualties are to be deplored. Firmly installed on the high points of the city, the Germans are difficult to reach. Their units are strong, coming from the 3rd Parachute Division and an infantry division with solid experience.

This battle is in a way the symbol of the war of the hedgerows, which paralyzes the Americans since the beginning of July, in a Norman grove they do not know but which the enemy exploits to their advantage. On July 16th and 17th, heavy fighting ensued for the capture of Saint-Lô, which led on July 18th to the gradual withdrawal of the German army.

It was not until July 25th that Saint-Lô was entirely in American hands, thus preventing German reinforcements from coming from Bretagne to supply 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 began, starting from the Cotentin towards the center of the Manche department. For 3 weeks, extremely deadly fighting rages on. Many losses on both sides are to be deplored. The American troops are confronted with the Norman grove, an inextricable network of sunken lanes, small fields bordered by dense hedgerows, landscapes so unexpected that the whole gives its name to the battle: the battle of the hedgerows. Unlike the Caen region, which is mainly composed of large plains, the Manche is dominated by the hedgerows of the bocage, which does not facilitate the progress of the troops and even less the maneuvers of the armored vehicles. On the other hand, it is an ideal ground for the defenders who lean on every field, every hedge like a bulwark and cause very heavy losses to the Americans.

The hedge-cutter : the solution to get out of the bocage

In their strategies, the Americans did not pay enough attention to the configuration of the bocage, which is militarily comparable to a jungle. Machines, and tanks in particular, do not adapt well to small fields enclosed by hedgerows and sunken lanes. In order to overcome these obstacles, the support of the armor is nevertheless essential. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the tanks to maneuver, the hedgerows are so dense. It is therefore necessary to consider crossing them, but as the tanks begin their movement, they are forced to expose the belly of their vehicles to the enemy, almost devoid of armor, thus constituting an ideal target for German anti-tank weapons. Day after day, the charred wrecks of Sherman tanks accumulate in the grove that seems increasingly impassable to the GI’s.

In order to solve this problem, a man imagined an ingenious system. Sergeant Curtis G. Culin develops the device of the “hedge-cutter”. He first collects “Czech hedgehogs,” an assembly of steel joists placed by the Germans on the beaches to counter the landing of the barges. He then separates these beams, welds them together and adds huge tines to make a sort of harrow, capable of breaking down the hedgerows. Finally, he attaches his ingenious system to the front of the tanks so that they can now cross hedgerows without going over them but through them. A large number of tanks will be equipped with them by mid-July, shortly before the launch of Operation Cobra.

Hedge-cutter Photo National archives US

Cobra and Lüttich, the two great offensives of the summer of 1944

“Operation Cobra” Relaunches War of Movement

In mid-July, it is clear that the American advance was bogged down in the Norman grove and the hedge war. The enemy offers fierce resistance everywhere, sometimes blocking an American battalion with just a handful of men for a day. The General Staff, aware of this stagnation of the battle, decides to strike a blow, by mounting an operation to relaunch the war of movement and get out of the grove. On July 25th, Eisenhower launched Operation Cobra. 1,500 bombers (B-17 and B-25 type) dropped more than 3,000 tonnes of bombs on an isolated sector of the front, north of Saint-Lô. This intense bombardment aims to open a breach through the German lines in order to pierce the front permanently, 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 into the hands of the Americans. Operation Cobra is soon to be a success. Between July 28th and 30th, the cities of Coutances, Granville, Avranches are liberated, the American progression is dazzling. The German army gained speed, gave up its positions and fell back. Delayed battles took place south of Coutances, which enabled the Germans to save some of their best units, but abandoning all heavy equipment. Despite the many losses it caused, Operation Cobra has been a real success.

Operation Cobra Coutances Photo US National Archives
Operation Cobra: American infantry and Sherman M4 tanks from 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 advance of the American mechanized units from now on. One character, alone, embodies this enthusiasm and go-getter temperament, General Patton. From July 31, he engages his armored divisions on the road to Brittany, passing through the goulet of Pontaubault. However, this area around Avranches remains fragile, as the US forces are far from the main body there. Hitler then tries to destroy his last trump card, in a daring counter-offensive. He brought together several armored units, mostly from the SS, and the infantry, then on August 7, 1944, he launched “Operation Lüttich”. Its aim is to isolate the 1st and 3rd American armies by cutting Patton off from his reserves with a large armored offensive, from the region of Mortain towards Avranches. This offensive upset the American troops at first but did not last, in particular thanks to the sending of several divisions in reinforcement and to the support of the air force which caused carnage among the German tanks.

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 bet has failed, the troops are withdrawing.

On August 15th, the rumor of battle ends in la Manche. A week later, the Falaise pocket closed again, encircling tens of thousands of Reich fighters, putting an end to the Battle of Normandy. On August 25th, Paris was released, but it took two and a half months of fierce fighting in the Normandy countryside before celebrating this deliverance!

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

The end of a deadly battle

The military might of the Allied Forces eventually defeated its adversary, but at the cost of immensely heavy losses. Compared to the forecasts announced, the Allied General Staff must recognize significant delays in relation to its initial objectives. A series of mistakes but above all the stubbornness of the German resistance and its ability to exploit the Norman grove got the better of Eisenhower’s plans and his generals.

Ultimately, it was Operation Cobra that ended the battle of the hedges and allowed the GI’s to finally emerge from the grove and re-launch the war of movement. All these weeks spent in “the hell of the hedgerows” have nevertheless shown the importance of the air force, which has been 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 armor provided the support the troops needed.

As during the Great War, the real hero remained the infantryman, the simple infantry soldier, confronted day after day in the green hell. The “battle of the hedgerows” was thus the first step in a larger enterprise, that of the total liberation of Europe.

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