American GIs advance through a gap in the hedge made by a Rhino tank. Normandy, June/July 1944 Copyright US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)
The “Battle of the Hedgerows”
The “Battle of the Hedgerows” took place in July 1944 in the Normandy bocage, countryside characterised by small fields, high hedges and sunken lanes. It pitted General Bradley’s First United States Army against General von Choltitz’s LXXXIV Corps, in conditions made all the more difficult by heavy rain and water-logged ground. In the weeks following the landings, the US Army advanced swiftly through Normandy and, at the end of June, took Cherbourg, the “liberation port”, which had a crucial role to play in Allied provisioning. Bradley then intended to head due south, away from the Cotentin Peninsula and onto terrain more favourable to the manoeuvring of tanks.
America’s very real material superiority over the Wehrmacht was increasing by the day, so that by mid-July it had three times as many men, five times as many tanks and total domination of the skies, prompting hopes of a quick departure from this area of barely penetrable marshland at the base of the Cotentin Peninsula. But it was not to be so. On the one hand, due to persistent bad weather and very low cloud cover, air support was of little use. On the other, with its small, enclosed fields, hedges the height of a tank, crowned with thorns and brambles, making them impenetrable and impassable, and drainage ditches that made perfect communication trenches, the bocage provided a formidable natural defence for the Germans. What’s more, July 1944 was particularly wet, turning the fields into a quagmire in which the American tanks got bogged down, so that they were easy targets for German tank destroyers armed with their formidable Panzerfaust or Panzerschreck. Within this maze of vegetation, the Germans laid out a system of defences on the ground, made up of minefields and machine-gun and mortar nests, all perfectly concealed. The Americans were surprised to find such dense, high hedges, so different from those they had seen in their training in the south of England. General Collins said that the bocage was as bad as anything he had encountered in the jungle of Guadalcanal. The terrain gave a distinct advantage to the defenders, many of whom were seasoned combatants belonging to elite units like the paratroop divisions and SS.