Military history

Chapter Two

Hedgerow Fighting: July 1-24, 1944

WITHIN THREE weeks of the great success of D-Day the ugly word stalemate was beginning to be used. "We were stuck," Corporal Bill Preston remembered. "Something dreadful seemed to have happened in terms of the overall plan. Things had gone awry. The whole theory of mobility that we had been taught, of our racing across the battlefield, seemed to have gone up in smoke." And while the American progress was excruciatingly slow, the British and Canadians remained stuck in place outside Caen. Big attacks followed by heavy losses for small or no gains, reminiscent of 1914-18, weighed on every mind.

So did Hitler's vengeance weapon, the V-l. Used for the first time a few days after D-Day, the radio-controlled aircraft were coming down by the hundreds on London. They were a terror weapon of little military value, except to put an enormous strain on the British public. In June and July the V-ls killed more than 5,000 people, injured 35,000, and destroyed some 30,000 buildings. Worse, Allied intelligence anticipated that the Germans would soon have V-2s-the world's first medium-range ballistic missiles-in operation.

Naturally there was great pressure on the politicians to do something about the V-ls-a pressure that was naturally passed on to the generals. If nothing else, the public had to have a sense that somehow the Allies were hitting back. So big and medium bombers were pulled off other missions to attack the launch sites. Lieutenant James Delong of the Ninth Air Force, flying a B-26 on a strike against the sites in the Pasde-Calais area, described his experience: "These were very difficult targets to destroy since they consisted mostly of a strong steel launching ramp. They were difficult to hit since the usual hazy visibility and broken cloud cover made them hard to find, leaving seconds to set the bombsight. They were always well defended."

The inability to knock out the sites was disheartening to the bomber pilots, and the terror bombings continued. The sites would have to be overrun on the ground to be put out of action. But the Allied armies were a long way from them.

In early July, according to Eisenhower's chief of staff. General Walter B. Smith, and Deputy Supreme Commander Air Vice Marshal Arthur Tedder, Montgomery was asked to launch an all-out offensive to open the road to Paris. When Monty responded to Eisenhower's plea to get going, he promised a "big show" on July 9 and asked for and got support from four-engine bombers. The attack, however, failed, and on July 10 Monty called it off.

Commander Harry Butcher, Eisenhower's naval aide, reported that the Supreme Commander was "smouldering," as were Tedder and Smith. So was General George S. Patton, Jr, commander of the US Third Army, still in England awaiting its entry into the battle. At Eisenhower's request Churchill put pressure on Monty "to get on his bicycle and start moving." On July 12 Monty told Eisenhower that he was preparing for an offensive in six days, code name Goodwood. "My whole eastern flank will burst into flames," he said as he demanded that the full weight of all the air forces be thrown into the battle. Expectations of a breakthrough ran high.

On July 18 Goodwood began with what Forrest Pogue, the official historian of SHAEF, called "the heaviest and most concentrated air attack in support of ground troops ever attempted." Goodwood got off to a good start, thanks to the bombardment, but ground to a halt after heavy losses, including 401 tanks and 2,600 casualties. Montgomery called it off. The British Second Army had gained a few miles and inflicted heavy casualties, but there had been nothing like a breakthrough.

Montgomery was satisfied with Goodwood's results. Eisenhower was not. He muttered that it had taken more than 7,000 tons of bombs (about half of the explosive power of the Hiroshima bomb) to gain seven miles and that the Allies could hardly hope to go through France paying a price of a thousand tons of bombs per mile. Not to mention sixty tanks and 400 casualties per mile.

Tedder was so angry he wanted Monty fired. But this was not an option. Monty was popular with the British press and public and, more important, with the troops. Besides, he had accomplished what he insisted was his objective-to pin down German armour on the eastern flank so as to give the Americans an opportunity to break out on the west. And it was not his fault that no one knew how to use heavy bombers in an artillery role. Those 7,000 tons of bombs caused havoc, misery, and considerable destruction, but after the bombs stopped falling, most German soldiers were able to come up out of their dugouts and man their weapons.

Goodwood showed that there would be no breakthrough on Monty's front. It was too heavily defended, by a too skilful and well-armed and numerous enemy. As that also appeared to be the case on the American front, every Allied leader was depressed and irritable. After seven weeks of fighting, the deepest Allied penetrations were some 45 to 50 kilometres inland, on a front of only 15 kilometres or so, hardly enough room to manoeuvre or to bring in the US Third Army from England.

DURING THE four weeks of hard fighting since D-Day, the 82nd and 101st Airborne divisions took heavy casualties, close to 50 per cent overall, higher among junior officers. In the first week of July, when the 30th Division relieved the 82nd, Lieutenant Sidney Eichen reported that he and his men stared in shock and awe at the paratroopers who had inaugurated the battle a month earlier.

"We asked them, 'Where are your officers?' and they answered, 'All dead.' We asked, 'Who's in charge, then?' and some sergeant said, 'I am.'

I looked at the unshaven, red-eyed GIs, the dirty clothes and the droop in their walk, and I wondered. Is this how we are going to look after a few days of combat?"

Infantry in the line, advancing from hedgerow to hedgerow, also suffered brutally. In the 1st, 4th, 29th, and other divisions the turn-over in junior officers in the first month was almost total.

Major G.S. Johns of the 29th described a typical hedgerow action "with a machine gun being knocked out here, a man or two being killed or wounded there. Eventually the leader of the stronger force, usually the attackers, may decide that he has weakened his opponents enough to warrant a large concerted assault. Or the leader of the weaker force may see that he will be overwhelmed by such an attack and pull back. Thus goes the battle-a rush, a pause, some creeping, a few isolated shots, some artillery fire, some mortars, some smoke, more creeping, another pause, dead silence, more firing, a great concentration of fire followed by a concerted rush. Then the whole process starts all over again."

The Germans were able to inflict heavy casualties because they were on the defensive and also took advantage of their skill in warfare. Many of the German officers and NCOs were veterans of the Russian front, and nearly all were veterans of some battles, while this was the first for most of the GIs. The Germans were bolstered by a weapons system that was much better suited to hedgerow defence than the American weapons were to attack in such terrain.

The Germans had more mortars, and heavier ones, than the Americans. Their MG-42 machine guns fired 1,200 rounds a minute, the American counterpart less than half that. The handle on the German "potato masher" hand grenade made it easier to throw further. The Germans had the nebelwerfer, a multibarrelled projector whose bombs were designed to produce a terrifying wail when they flew through the air-sixty or seventy virtually simultaneously. The GIs called them Moaning Minnies. There was no American counterpart.

Then there was the panzer faust, which was far superior to the American bazooka. It did not have the range of a bazooka, but that hardly mattered in hedgerow country. It was operated by a single soldier and was so simple that no special training was required, while the bazooka required a trained two-man team. The panzerfausts bomb had greater penetrating power than the bazooka's.

In heavy artillery the Americans generally outgunned the Germans in quantity, but long-range gunnery wasn't effective in the close quarters imposed by the hedgerows. The German 88-without doubt the best artillery piece of the war, in the opinion of every GI-was a high-velocity, flat-trajectory weapon that could fire armour-piercing shells down the lanes and roads or be elevated and fire airburst shells against bombers. The shell travelled faster than the speed of sound; one heard it explode before one heard it coming.

But the American .50-calibre machine gun, mounted on tanks, had no equal in penetrating power, and the American M-l Garand was the best all-purpose military rifle in the world. Overall, however, GIs in Normandy gladly would have traded weapons with the Germans. Especially the tankers. There was a barely suppressed fury among American tankers about the inferiority of the Sherman tank (32 tons) to the German Panther (43 tons) and the Tiger (56 tons). German tanks had heavier armour, too heavy for the Sherman's 75-mm cannon to penetrate, while the Panther and Tiger, armed with 88s, easily penetrated the Sherman.

But one thing about the Shermans-there were a lot more of them than there were Panthers or Tigers. Quantity over quality and size was General Marshall's deliberate choice. He wanted more and faster (and thus lighter) tanks, in accord with American doctrine, which held that tanks should exploit a breakthrough, not fight other tanks. By the end of 1944 German industry would produce 24,630 tanks, only a handful of them Tigers. The British would be at 24,843. The Americans would have turned out the staggering total of 88,410 tanks, mainly Shermans.

For all their shortcomings the Shermans were a triumph of American mass production techniques. They were wonderfully reliable, in sharp contrast to the Panthers and Tigers. And GIs were far more experienced in the workings of the internal combustion engine than their opposite numbers. The Americans were infinitely better at recovering damaged tanks and patching them up. The Germans had nothing like the American maintenance battalions.

Indeed, no army in the world had such a capability. Kids who had been working at gas stations and body shops two years earlier had brought their mechanical skills to Normandy, where they replaced damaged tank tracks, welded patches on the armour, repaired engines. Even the tanks beyond repair were dragged back to the maintenance depot and stripped for parts. The Germans just left theirs where they were.

The American maintenance crews worked as they did back in the States rebuilding damaged cars-that is, the men on the shop floor made their own decisions, got out their tools, and got after the job. One of their officers. Captain Belton Cooper, commented, "I began to realize something about the American Army I had never thought possible. Although it is highly regimented and bureaucratic under garrison conditions, when the Army gets in the field, it relaxes and the individual initiative comes forward and does what has to be done. This type of flexibility was one of the great strengths of the American Army in World War II."

Besides numbers, the Shermans had other advantages. They used less than half the gasoline of the larger tanks. They were faster and more manoeuvrable, with double and more the range. A Sherman's tracks lasted for 2,500 miles; the Panther's and Tiger's more like 500 miles. The Sherman's turret turned much faster than the Panther's or Tiger's. The narrower track of the Sherman made it a much superior road vehicle. But the wider track of the Panther and Tiger made them more suited to soft terrain.

And so it went. For every advantage of the German heavy tanks, there was a disadvantage, as for the American medium tanks. The trouble in Normandy was that the German tanks were better designed for hedgerow fighting. If and when the battle ever became mobile, then the much despised Sherman could show its stuff.

NORMANDY HAD its wettest July in 40 years. One Marauder bomber unit, the 323rd Group, had seventeen straight missions scrubbed during the first two and a half weeks of July. Others fared little better.

There was nothing the Americans could do about the weather, but they could go after their problems in getting tanks into the hedgerow fighting. Experiments involved welding pipes or steel teeth onto the front of the Sherman tank. Lieutenant Charles Green, a tanker in the 29th Division, devised a bumper made from salvaged railroad tracks that Rommel had used as beach obstacles. It was incredibly strong and permitted the Shermans to bull their way through the thickest hedgerows. In the 2nd Armoured Division, Sergeant Curtis Culin, a cabdriver from Chicago, designed and supervised the construction of a hedgerow cutting device made from scrap iron pulled from a German roadblock. The blades gave the tank a resemblance to a rhinoceros, so Shermans equipped with Culin's invention came to be known as rhino tanks.

Another big improvement was in communications. After a series of experiments with telephones placed on the tank, the solution was to have an interphone box on the tank, into which the infantryman could plug a radio handset. The handset's long cord permitted the GI to lie down behind the tank while talking to the tank crew, which, when buttoned down, was all but blind. Many of the tank commanders killed in action had been standing in the open turret to be able to see. Now, at least, the tank could stay buttoned up while the GI on the phone acted as an FO.

These improvements and others have prompted historian Michael Doubler to write, "In its search for solutions to the difficulties of hedgerow combat, the American army encouraged the free flow of ideas and the entrepreneurial spirit. Ideas generally flowed upwards from the men actually engaged in battle." They were learning by doing.

First Army worked on developing a doctrine as well as new weapons for offensive warfare in the hedgerows. In late June the 29th Division held a full rehearsal of the technique it proposed. Attack teams consisted of one tank, an engineer team, a squad of riflemen, plus a light machine gun and a 60-mm mortar. The Sherman opened the action. It ploughed its pipe devices into the hedgerow, stuck the cannon through, and opened fire with a white phosphorus round into the corners of the opposite hedgerow, intended to knock out German dug-in machine gun pits.

White phosphorus was horror. Lieutenant Robert Weiss got caught in a German barrage of white phosphorus shells. He recalled the bursting of the shell, followed by "a snowstorm of small, white particles that floated down upon us. We looked in amazement, and eyes filled with instant terror. Where the particles landed on shirts and trousers they sizzled and burned. We brushed our clothing frantically, pushed shirt collars up. If any of the stuff touched the skin, it could inflict a horrible burn, increasing in intensity as it burrowed into a man's flesh. There was nowhere to hide, no place that was safe."

After firing the white phosphorus shells, the tank put systematic .50calibre machine-gun fire along the entire base of the enemy hedgerow. The mortar team lobbed shells into the field behind the German position. The infantry squad moved forward across the open field, using standard methods of fire and movement-throwing themselves to the ground, getting up and dashing forward, firing, moving. As they got close to the enemy's hedgerow, they tossed grenades over the side. The tank, meanwhile, came on through the hedgerow either on its own power or after backing out and placing explosives in the holes. Infantrymen could plug into the phone and spot for the tank crew as it fired at resistance points. The tactics worked, were far less costly in casualties, and were soon adopted, with variations, throughout the European Theatre of Operations (ETO).

THE ENEMY was fighting with the desperation of a cornered, wounded animal. The German infantry was stretched thin. The frontline divisions were getting one replacement for every eleven casualties. By mid-July the Wehrmacht in Normandy had lost 117,000 men and received 10,000 replacements. For the Germans, rations and ammunition flows were adequate, if barely, but medical supplies were gone and artillery shells were severely limited.

Knowing that if the Americans broke through, there was nothing between them and the German border, so the Germans fought even harder. Rommel continued to direct the battle even as he went over and over in his mind a search for some way to convince Hitler to step aside so that the war could be concluded while Germany still had some conquered territory to bargain with (as in 1918) and before Germany herself was destroyed.

On July 16 Rommel sent Field Marshal Giinter von Kluge an ultimatum for Kluge to pass on to Hitler. It was a two-and-a-half-page document. Rommel opened by observing that the ultimate crisis was coming soon in Normandy. The American strength in tanks and artillery grew each day. Meanwhile, the Wehrmacht replacements who were arriving were inexperienced and poorly trained, which made them particularly likely to panic when the Jabos appeared. Rommel concluded: "It is necessary to draw the political conclusions from this situation." His aides argued that he should cross out the word political. He did, and signed.

The next day the Jabos got him. A British fighter shot up his staff car, and Rommel had a serious head injury. On July 20, a group of conspirators tried to kill Hitler. Rommel went home to recover. Three months later he was forced to commit suicide because of the assassination plot, even though he had not been directly involved.

The conspiracy and Hitler's retaliation against the officer corps put a severe strain on the German army, but, amazingly, it was not split asunder. Throughout the Nazi empire, from Italy to Norway, from Normandy to Ukraine, officers of the Wehrmacht did their duty despite the turmoil created by the assassination attempt. And they acceded to the demand made by the Nazi party that henceforth the salute would be given with an extended arm and a "Heil Hitler," rather than bringing the hand up to the cap brim.

Corporal Adolf Hohenstein of the German 276th Division later said that the enlisted men convinced themselves that shortages of supplies and ammunition were the fruits of treachery by their own officers. Actually, it was the Jabos. There is no evidence that during the Battle of Normandy any German officer gave less than his full ability to sustain the men in the line.

They needed it. Corporal Hohenstein watched morale ebb in his squad:

"The lack of any success at all affected the men very badly. You could feel the sheer fear growing. We would throw ourselves to the ground at the slightest sound, and many men were saying that we should never leave Normandy alive."

As if the Jabos were not effective enough as it was, the Americans were constantly improving their ground-to-air communications system. Solutions came because of Major General Elwood "Pete" Quesada, CO of Ninth Tactical Air Force, who went to Bradley to explore new methods. For example, Quesada said, artillery units have forward observers who radio target information to the gunners. Why don't we equip planes and artillery units with VHF radios so that they can spot for each other? They tried and it worked.

Why not put radio sets in tanks so the tankers could talk to the pilots?

Quesada wondered. This too worked. So well, in fact, that by late July the radiomen on the ground could bring aircraft in as close as 500 metres. And it was an awesome amount of explosive a P-47 carried: two five-inch by four-foot missiles under each wing, plus two 500-pound bombs, plus 6400 rounds of .50-calibre shells.

Major Gerhard Lemcke of the 12th Panzer Division testified to the effectiveness of the American improvements in communication.

"Whenever a German soldier fired his panzerfaust," Lemcke complained, "all of the American tanks, artillery, mortars, and planes in the area concentrated their fire upon him. They would keep it up until his position was pulverized."

The US Army air-ground team in ETO continued to improve through to the end of the war. Its communication system was vastly superior to anything the Germans ever developed. Meanwhile, the Eighth Air Force B-17s continued to pound targets in France, particularly bridges and railroads, as did the Marauders of Ninth Air Force. But through July, 50 per cent of the missions for all planes in England and France had to be scrapped due to weather.

On the ground the Americans continued to advance, slowly but all along the front, except at St. Lo, the key crossroads city in lower Normandy. Outside St. Lo the 29th Division had been locked in a mortal embrace with the German 352nd Division since D-Day. In each division there was scarcely a man present for duty who had been there on D-Day.

To the defence of St. Lo the Germans devoted much of their strength, as Major Randall Bryant discovered in mid-July when he was walking across an orchard with his closest friend, Captain Charles Minton, beside him. The Germans laid on a TOT-time on target-an artillery shoot carefully coordinated to concentrate the fire of an entire battery or regiment on one spot at a precise moment. Bryant and Minton happened to be at the spot.

"Suddenly everything was exploding," Bryant related. "There was blood all over me, and a helmet on the ground with a head inside it. It was Minton's. Three young second lieutenants had just joined us, straight from the beach and Fort Benning. I had told them to sit down and wait to be assigned to companies. They were dead, along with six others killed and thirty-three wounded in a shoot that lasted only a matter of seconds."

General Charles Gerhardt, the CO, was under great pressure from Bradley to take St. Lo. So far he had already lost more men outside St. Lo than he had on Omaha Beach on D-Day. The 29th's rifle companies were close to 100 per cent replacements. But Gerhardt figured the Germans were in worse condition and ordered a general assault to take St. Lo, putting all his strength into it.

Major Tom Howie, a mild-mannered teacher of English literature before the war, led the 3rd Battalion of the 116th Regiment. Linked to the 2nd Battalion, he was to drive right on into St. Lo. On July 17, an hour before dawn, the attack began. Howie limited each platoon to two men firing their rifles, and then only in emergency. The others were to use their bayonets and hand grenades. The idea was to achieve surprise, infiltrating by squads without artillery preparation.

In the predawn attack the infantry broke through or passed through the German line and took the high ground just one kilometre from St. Lo. The road into the city was open. Howie called the company commanders to a conference to give them their objectives. "We had just finished the meeting," Captain William Puntenney, Howie's executive officer, recalled. "The Germans began dropping a mortar barrage around our ears. Before taking cover in one of the foxholes. Major Howie turned to take a last look to be sure all his men had their heads down. Without warning, one of the shells hit a few yards away. A fragment struck the major in the back and pierced his lung. 'My God, I'm hit,' he murmured, and I saw he was bleeding at the mouth. As he fell, I caught him. He was dead in two minutes."

Captain Puntenney took over just as a counterattack from the Fallschirmjdger hit the battalion. Using the new communications techniques, the 29th called in artillery and a fighter-bomber strike. It broke up the attack, and the men began the charge into St. Lo.

As they crested the hill and started the descent into the town, the Americans were shocked by what they saw. St. Lo had been hit by B-17s on D-Day and every clear day thereafter. The place was a lifeless pile of rubble in which roads and sidewalks could scarcely be distinguished. As they moved into the fringe of town, they began to draw fire from some Fallschirmjdger in a cemetery. A macabre battle ensued, rifle and machine-gun bullets smashing into headstones. Rhino tanks came up through the hedgerows in support and drove the Germans off. The men of the 29th dashed into the town, guns blazing. There was still hard fighting to go before the town was completely cleared of the enemy, but * finally St. Lo was in American hands.

At Gerhardt's insistence Howie's body was put on a jeep and driven into the town. Men from the 3rd Battalion draped the body with the Stars and Stripes and hoisted it on top of a pile of stones that had once been a wall in the Saint Croix Church, a block from the cemetery. GIs and some of the few civilians remaining in the town adorned the site with flowers. "It was simple and direct, no fanfare or otherwise," Lieutenant Edward Jones recollected.

The story caught on with the press. Life magazine featured "The Major of St. Lo." Howie was famous, too late to do him any good. But he and the other men of the 29th had captured the high ground in that part of Normandy, putting First Army in a position to launch an offensive designed to break through the German line and out of the hedgerow country.

For that offensive Bradley was making plans to use the Allies' greatest single asset-air power, every bomber and fighter bomber that could fly-in a crushing bombardment that would blast a hole in the German line.

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