The “Battle of the Hedgerows”

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)
Corps 1
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.
























































































































































As a result, the Americans suffered dreadful losses: between 3 and 14 July 1944, Middleton’s VIII Corps advanced six miles at a cost of 10 000 men, or one man per yard gained. Collins’s VII Corps fared no better, with 7 000 US soldiers being killed between 4 and 9 July. During the first two weeks of July, Bradley’s First Army lost a total of 40 000 men, 90% of them infantrymen. But the bloodshed was equally high on the German side, with a number of battalions of the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division Götz von Berlichingen losing two-thirds of their men. It is true that the losses on the American side were replaced, but the new arrivals were often inexperienced. In all, nearly half of US troops had never seen combat before Normandy. Losses among these soldiers who had their baptism of fire in the hell of the hedgerows were considerably higher than for experienced soldiers. In addition to the physical wounds came the psychological ones: the brutality of this war, the unique conditions in which it took place, fatigue, fear and the constant presence of death were such that neuropsychiatric disorders alone represented 12% of admissions to US field hospitals in Normandy.




















Meanwhile, on the German side, reinforcements were far lower than the losses, as noted by General Rommel in his report to Hitler of 17 July 1944: “Regarding the losses we have sustained: 97 000 men, including 2 360 officers, i.e. 2 500 to 3 000 men per day; the reinforcements received to date have been only 10 000 men, and of those only 6 000 have so far reached the firing line. Our material losses are huge and have been replaced only in a reduced proportion; for instance, we have received a total of 17 tanks to replace the 225 tanks lost.” That very day, Rommel was seriously wounded when his car was attacked by an Allied aircraft. Like most German generals, he sensed the collapse of the Wehrmacht in the West. In the end, it was Operation Cobra, a large-scale offensive carried out from 25 to 31 July 1944, that enabled the First United States Army to break free from the bocage.


























































































  • Aerial view of the Normandy bocage and its characteristic landscape of hedgerows. Copyright private collection

  • A German paratrooper and his MG 42 machine gun, in Normandy, summer 1944. Copyright Bundesarchiv

  • An American GI rests near Saint-Lô, summer 1944. Copyright US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

  • Copyright US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

  • A Sherman M4 Rhino tank fitted with a device for cutting through hedges. Copyright US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

  • 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)

  • Three US soldiers advance along a hedgerow typical of the Normandy bocage, June/July 1944. Copyright US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

  • An American patrol on a country lane in Normandy, June/July 1944. Copyright US National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)