THE WAR OF THE HEDGEROWS

After the fall of Cherbourg, Bradley led his troops back to a line between Carentan and Portbail, in order to thrust southwards. This new offensive, however, launched at the beginning of July in torrential rain, soon became bogged down. The Germans had received considerable reinforcements and had had plenty of time to establish entrenched positions of formidable efficiency ‑ like the units defending them. These included General Meindl’s parachutists and elements of the Das Reich and Götz von Berlichingen SS Divisions.

When the strategists drew up the plans for Overlord, they failed to pay enough attention to the particular nature of Normandy’s bocage landscape. The cumbersome American war machine was ill-suited to this maze of tiny enclosed fields and sunken lanes, which were far more favourable to guerrilla warfare. Lying in wait in the undergrowth, snipers armed with panzerschrecks (the equivalent of the American bazooka) picked off the tanks as they lumbered over the hedges, exposing their vulnerable undersides.

The support from tactical artillery and aviation which was normally so decisive was less useful here, because of the impossibility of pinpointing enemy positions with any degree of accuracy. The “war of the hedgerows” was above all an infantry battle in which the defender had the advantage. Plunged into a living hell, tens, if not hundreds, of GIs lost their lives in battles to capture a hedge that looked exactly the same as the last one they had taken and desperately similar to those they had yet to conquer.

Seven thousand GIs were killed or wounded during fighting to liberate the modest town of Sainteny, between Carentan and Périers. Ten thousand more were put out of action while fighting to capture first La Haye-du-Puits (July 8th), then Lessay (take a whole week later, despite being just eight kilometres away). One man lost for each metre won! Some companies were reduced to just a few dozen men. The losses were even more terrible in the slogging battle to take Saint-Lô, as the town was fiercely defended by a regiment of paratroops who held the hills to the north. When he entered the “capital of ruins” on July 18th, in the wake of the men of the 29th Division, one war correspondent described it as “the valley of the shadow of death”.

We’re advancing at a snail’s pace,” Bradley admitted. “The Germans are making us pay an exorbitant price for each paltry metre we gain.” Another American general added “this goddamn war may well last ten years!”

July 1944 was undoubtedly the blackest and the most difficult month for the Allies. According to their forecasts, they should have liberated Brittany and reached the Loire by D+60, but in the event they were still held in check along the Saint-Lô-Caen line. In more than three weeks the front had only advanced by a few kilometres, and losses had been heavy. At this rate, it would be another month before the Americans reached Coutances.