16

The Battle of the Bocage

After the fall of Cherbourg at the end of June, Bradley’s First US Army prepared to push south. In the west at the base of the peninsula, the 79th Infantry Division, the 82nd Airborne and the unhappy 90th Division stretched across marshland. They faced most of Choltitz’s LXXXIV Corps, by now well entrenched on the wooded hills to their south. The 4th and 83rd Infantry Divisions south of Carentan were also in low-lying marshland. There they faced the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division Götz von Berlichingen and the 353rd Infanterie-Division.

To the east on the Saint-Lô front were the 30th, the 35th and the 29th Infantry Divisions already in bocage country. So were the 2nd and 1st Infantry Divisions around Caumont, running up to the British sector. They faced Meindl’s II Paratroop Corps. Although Geyr and Guderian objected bitterly to the splitting of divisions, the Germans operated very effectively in defence, with their Kampfgruppen, or battlegroups of infantry, assault guns and engineers.

The American campaign began on 3 July, when VIII Corps, commanded by Major General Middleton, attacked on the west flank. In that unusually wet summer, they set off under a heavy downpour. American soldiers, sick of the chill and damp of British weather during their months of training, had expected the French climate to be more benign. Low cloud ruled out air support and the rain was too thick to allow accurate observation for the artillery. The 82nd Airborne seized its objective, Hill 131, north of La Haye-du-Puits, by early in the afternoon, but the rest of the offensive became bogged down. The 82nd waited with impatience for the other two divisions to come level. The Germans had different problems. A battalion of Volga Tartars ‘immediately deserted to the enemy’. AnotherOst battalion surrendered to the 82nd at the first opportunity and a third with the 243rd Infanterie-Division to the west also defected.

Next day, on the eastern side of the marshes around the River Sèves, the American VII Corps sent the 83rd Division into the attack on the Sainteny sector. To celebrate the Fourth of July, an order went out that every field gun along the front should open fire exactly at midday. Some units also fired red, white and blue smoke signals. The recently arrived 83rd had relieved the 101st Airborne at the end of June. They had been sent out on night patrols ‘to gain experience and confidence’ and reduce the effect of ‘nervous and trigger happy’ troops. But soldiers returning to their own lines found themselves being fired at ‘promiscuously’ by anxious sentries. The paratroopers of the 101st had saturated the newcomers ‘with tall tales about the toughness and fighting ability of Jerry’. The fight for Sainteny proved a bloody baptism. The 83rd Infantry Division suffered 1,400 casualties. They had a lot to learn, as they heard from the few Germans they had taken. ‘The prisoners we captured,’ a sergeant reported, ‘told us we were green troops, because they knew every move we were going to make. They saw us light cigarettes and heard us clanking metal against metal. If we use basic principles, we will live longer.’ The Germans, on the other hand, were keen to take Allied prisoners if only to get hold of their excellent maps, which they themselves lacked.

Two days later, on 6 July, the 4th Infantry Division joined the attack south-westwards. After its hard fighting on the advance to Cherbourg, General Barton remarked, ‘We no longer have the Division we brought ashore.’ This was hardly an exaggeration. The division had suffered 5,400 casualties since coming ashore and had received 4,400 replacements. So many officers had fallen that divisional staff officers were sent back into combat units.

The American attack was hemmed in by the marshes along the River Sèves on the west and those along the River Taute to the east. This made it impossible to outflank German positions and much of the ground was too boggy for tanks. The 37th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment from the Götz von Berlichingen had a perfect bottleneck to defend. But even the SS panzergrenadiers complained that with the rain and the high water table they were getting foot-rot, with two feet of water in their foxholes.

The young SS panzergrenadiers were also unused to the food. There was plenty of milk, butter and steak, but no bread or noodles. Just over a week before the American attack started, they had received mail for the first time since the invasion. After the costly battle for Carentan, many letters had to be returned to families and sweethearts in Germany with the official stamp on the envelope: ‘Fallen for Greater Germany’. That day also saw the arrival of leading detachments from the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich, battered from its protracted trek north.

Although the attack in the far west went slowly at first, the Germans suffered a war of attrition under the relentless battering of American artillery. Even a surprise attack on 6 July by part of the SS Das Reich against the American advance into the Forêt de Mont Castre was rapidly smashed by artillery. With every priority awarded to the Caen front, the German LXXXIV Corps received little in the way of reinforcements and equipment to replace their losses. Wehrmacht losses in Normandy up to 25 June had reached 47,070 men, including six generals. Yet their effectiveness in defence provoked a bitter admiration among their opponents. ‘The Germans haven’t much left,’ one American officer said, ‘but they sure as hell know how to use it.’

The constant pressure maintained by the Americans meant that Choltitz had no opportunity to pull units back to rest and reorganize. His only reserve was a single battlegroup made up of elements from the Das Reich and the 15th Paratroop Regiment. Choltitz estimated that his corps lost up to a battalion and a half of men per day from American artillery fire and air attack. He regarded the order from OKW that there should be no withdrawal as grotesque. So, with Hausser’s agreement, he sent back false reports to conceal minor withdrawals. Hausser’s Seventh Army headquarters warned Rommel that a collapse on the far western flank was becoming a distinct possibility due to American artillery and air power. Constant attacks on rail and road links made it very hard for the Germans to resupply their own forces on the Atlantic side with artillery shells.

Choltitz’s men, most of whom had been in action for just over a month, were exhausted. ‘After having been without sleep for three days,’ an Obergefreiter with the 91st Luftlande-Division wrote home, ‘I could sleep through for 10 hours today. I am sitting in the ruins of a bombed-out farmhouse that must have been really large before it met its fate. It is a dreadful scene: cattle and poultry are lying about, killed by blast. The inhabitants have been buried next to it. Our Russians are sitting amidst the rubble, having foundSchnapps, and are singing Es geht alles vorüber(“Everything will pass”) as well as they can. Oh, if only this could be over and done with and humanity would see reason. I cannot come to terms with this confusion and this cruel war. In the east it affected me less, but here in France it just won’t register. The only good thing here is that there is enough to eat and drink . . . The foul weather continues and is a real hindrance. Yet it doesn’t hinder the war, except for reducing the number of enemy aircraft. At last we now have flak so the Americans won’t see their flying as quite as much of a sport as they did in the first weeks of the invasion. That was just dreadful.’

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The Germans expected the main American attack to come down the west coast, since it was clearly the most weakly defended sector. But Bradley saw the town of Saint-Lô as his main objective. He considered its capture as essential ‘to gain suitable terrain from which to launch Operation Cobra’. Cobra would be the massive attack southwards to break out of the bocage and sweep down into Brittany. But first they had to push the Germans south of the Bayeux-Saint-Lô road, and also clear the start-line for the operation along the road from Saint-Lô to Périers.

On the foggy and overcast morning of 7 July, the battle for Saint-Lô began with the attack of the 30th Infantry Division to clear the German defenders west of the River Vire. They had to cope with marshland and the hedgerows of the bocage as well as the steep banks of the Vire itself. Bradley, frustrated at the slowness of their advance, decided to send in the 3rd Armored Division in an attempt to speed things up.

It went into action that night, with forty-five vehicles an hour crossing the Vire to attack towards Saint-Gilles, west of Saint-Lô. But next day, the operation proved to be over-ambitious. The 30th Division had not cleared the area and the two divisions soon became mixed up, as their movements had not been coordinated in advance. The 3rd Armored Division’s three task forces found themselves advancing field by field, rather than sweeping through in the manner which Bradley had envisaged. They had received a bloody introduction when twelve Shermans had been knocked out almost as soon as they emerged through a gap in a hedgerow. American tank ammunition, besides having less penetrative power, also gave off much more smoke than the German, which put them at a severe disadvantage in hedgerow fighting. Yet there was often the odd German soldier desperate to surrender. A combat engineer with the 3rd Armored began to urinate into a thick bush on the edge of an orchard. To his alarm, a soaked German emerged. He grabbed his rifle, which he had leaned against a tree trunk, but the German was extracting from his wallet photos of his wife and children in an attempt to persuade him not to shoot him. He kept saying, ‘Meine Frau und meine Kinder!

Further German attacks from the west indicated that a Kampfgruppe of the 2nd SS Panzer-Division Das Reich had been diverted to the sector. Aerial reconnaissance also spotted a large armoured force approaching from Le Bény-Bocage, nearly twenty miles south-east of Saint-Lô. Ultra intercepts suggested that this was almost certainly part of the Panzer Lehr Division, transferred from the Caen front. Two squadrons of P-47 Thunderbolts were sent to intercept them.

On 9 July the intermittent rain continued, hampering air reconnaissance and fighter-bomber strikes. The hapless infantry was also soaked and covered in mud when it renewed the attack at 07.00 hours. It soon became clear, however, that the Germans were planning a counterattack with the arrival of the Panzer Lehr. That morning reports went back that ‘a lot of tanks’ were coming up round the west side of Saint-Lô. Bazookas and anti-tank guns were rushed up to the forward troops and the corps artillery made ready, but the Americans did not halt their advance.

Chaos followed when the leading Shermans of Combat Command B reached Pont-Hébert and misread their maps. Instead of turning south, they turned north back up the main road to Saint-Jean-de-Daye. This brought them up against the advancing 30th Division, which had been warned to expect an attack by enemy tanks. In fact it was the 823rd Tank Destroyer Battalion and some self-propelled anti-aircraft guns which sighted the lost column and engaged them immediately. The two leading Shermans were knocked out and a fierce firefight developed, which caused panic among the untested infantry of the 30th Division as rumours spread of a major breakthrough by German panzers. It took some time to sort out the ‘terrible mess’, turn the 3rd Armored Division tanks south and bring up fresh troops to stabilize the line either side of the Pont-Hébert road.

The day had not gone well for the right flank either. The 120th Infantry Regiment and the 743rd Tank Battalion ran into a well-prepared ambush of Panther tanks and panzergrenadiers from the Das Reich. Waffen-SS grenadiers attacked the American tanks at close quarters, some even trying to climb aboard, as the commanders fought them off with heavy machine guns mounted on top of the turrets. A battalion of the 120th Infantry was almost surrounded and nearly broke ‘because of the element of panic which began to sweep through relatively green troops’. The reserve and rear echelons gave way to their fear, which ‘precipitated a frantic retreat northward by all kinds of vehicles, armored and otherwise’.

Only the energetic actions of officers and NCOs kept the front companies from running. The Americans had lost a total of thirteen Shermans. Their infantry had also suffered twice the losses of the Germans that day. Only prodigious support from their corps artillery, which had fired nearly 9,000 rounds since dawn, averted a complete disaster.

On 10 July, VII Corps, between the marshes and the River Taute, made another effort to advance south-west astride the Carentan-Périers road. Some local successes were achieved, but it was still impossible to break through the bottleneck. The 83rd Division had taken four days of hard fighting to advance about a mile. An officer in the 4th Division described it as a ‘bitter week of pure grimness for the infantry’ as they fought in the marshes from island to island ‘in this abominable country’, sometimes ankle deep, sometimes wading through water with their rifles above their heads. The men were exhausted: ‘As soon as one of us sits down he falls asleep or drops into a stupor.’ German military professionalism also made it hard for the Americans to estimate enemy casualties. The Germans pulled back their dead at night and took them with them whenever they retreated.

General Barton, the commander of the 4th Division, wrote, ‘The Germans are staying in there just by the guts of their soldiers. We outnumber them 10 to 1 in infantry, 50 to 1 in artillery and an infinite number in the air.’ He wanted unit commanders to convince their men ‘that we have got to fight for our country just as hard as the Germans are fighting for theirs’.32 One report on interviews with prisoners of war stated that the Germans ‘have no regard for the fighting qualities of the average American’. Rangers and airborne troops were respected. The Germans were deeply indoctrinated by propaganda. One prisoner, a nineteen-year-old Hitler Youth from the 17th SS Panzergrenadier-Division, was convinced that the Americans were in a desperate state, that German forces had retaken Cherbourg and that Germany would destroy the western Allies and then defeat the Red Army.

To create hatred, the German equivalent of Soviet commissars, the National Socialist Leadership Officers, emphasized the destruction of German cities and the killing of German women and children by ‘terror attacks’. Their basic theme was that the Allies intended to wipe out ‘the German race’. Defeat would mean the annihilation of their Fatherland. Their propaganda leaflets addressed to Allied troops demanded, ‘What do you want to do in Europe? To defend America? . . . To die for Stalin - and Israel?’ This was all part of a basic Nazi theme that ‘Amerikanismus’ allied the ‘Jewish plutocrat’ of the United States with the ‘Jewish Bolshevik’ of the Soviet Union.

Even German soldiers who wanted to give up were afraid to do so. Nazi propaganda persuaded them that they would not be safe in an England bombarded by the new secret weapons. ‘Captivity is also a tricky matter,’ wrote an Obergefreiter. ‘Some would go, but they fear the V2 and V3.’ Three days later he wrote home, still preoccupied by the dangers of surrender if Germany really were to win the war. ‘I spoke to a veteran of the eastern front today. He said that it was hard in the east, but it was never like it is here.’ If a German soldier ‘deserts to the enemy . . . The family receives no support and if we were to win the war, the Landser must be handed over and he will have to see what will happen to him.’

As in all armies, the combat performance of American troops in every battalion varied greatly. During the bocage battles, some GIs began to get over their terror of German panzers. Private Hicks of the 22nd Infantry with the 4th Division managed to destroy three Panthers over three days with his bazooka. Although he was killed two days later, confidence in the bazooka as an anti-tank weapon continued to increase. Colonel Teague of the 22nd Infantry heard an account from one of his bazooka men: ‘Colonel, that was a great big son-of-a-bitch. It looked like a whole road full of tank. It kept coming on and it looked like it was going to destroy the whole world. I took three shots and the son-of-a-bitch didn’t stop.’ He paused, and Teague asked him what he did next. ‘I ran round behind and took one shot. He stopped.’ Some junior officers became so excited by the idea of panzer hunts that they had to be ordered to stop.

In five days of marsh and bocage fighting, however, the 22nd Infantry suffered 729 casualties, including a battalion commander and five rifle company commanders. ‘Company G had only five non-coms left who had been with the company more than two weeks. Four of these, according to the First Sergeant, were battle exhaustion cases and would not have been tolerated as non-coms if there had been anyone else available. Due to the lack of effective non-coms, the company commander and the First Sergeant had to go around and boot every individual man out of his hole when under fire, only to have him hide again as soon as they had passed.’

East of the Taute, the 9th and 30th Divisions of XIX Corps nervously awaited the coming of the Panzer Lehr Division. A lack of air reconnaissance on 10 July due to bad visibility had allowed the Panzer Lehr to move unhindered to its assembly areas that evening. The German plan was to force the two divisions back over the Vire Canal and then attack all the way up to Carentan. Panzer Lehr had started as the best equipped and most highly trained of all German formations in Normandy, but it had lost over two-thirds of its strength fighting the British on the Caen front.33

Bayerlein’s men were also exhausted, having never been pulled out of the line for a rest. When he had protested to Seventh Army headquarters, he was told not to worry because the Americans were poor soldiers. Bayerlein then warned Choltitz that the Panzer Lehr ‘was not in a position to make a counterattack’. Choltitz apparently retorted that he was a liar, ‘like all panzer commanders’, and that he must attack anyway.

Bayerlein was not exaggerating about the state of his division when it left the British sector. Geyr von Schweppenburg had written, ‘Because of its exhausted condition, the division was regarded by I SS Panzer Corps as being in a critical situation’. Bayerlein had no option but to divide his remaining tanks, panzergrenadiers and artillery into three battlegroups. The strongest would attack from Pont-Hébert, the second up the road from Coutances towards Le Dézert, and the third from the Bois du Hommet towards Le Mesnil-Véneron.

During the night of 10 July, American infantry in forward positions reported the noise of tanks, and in the early hours of 11 July, Panzer Lehr units began to attack in the wooded hills south of Le Dézert and against a battalion of the 120th Infantry on Hill 90 near Le Rocher. Although individual Mark IV tanks broke into the American positions, bazooka teams dealt with them quite promptly in isolated actions.

The German attack from Pont-Hébert along the west bank of the Vire was also beaten off with bazookas and the assistance of tank destroyers. A task force from the 3rd Armored Division arrived to help, but six of its tanks were hit by German assault guns firing from the east bank of the River Vire. On the other flank, the 9th Division brought in reinforcements and tank destroyers. At 09.00 hours on 11 July, American fighter-bombers were diverted from another mission to attack Panzer Lehr armoured vehicles advancing north-east on the Le Dézert road.

A few miles to the west, other groups of tank destroyers managed to ambush Panthers as they approached. Even though several rounds were often needed to knock out a Panther completely, the tank destroyer crews fought with impressive self-control. Altogether, they destroyed twelve Panthers and one Mark IV. The Panzer Lehr offensive came to a complete halt after the central Kampfgruppe was sighted south of Le Dézert and then bombarded by 9th Division artillery and attacked by P-47 Thunderbolts and P-38 Lightnings. The Panzer Lehr had been badly mauled, losing twenty tanks and assault guns as well as nearly 700 men.

Bayerlein blamed his men’s exhaustion and the unsuitability of the Panther Mark V among the hedgerows, which reduced its principal advantage of firing at long range. With its long barrel, the turret was also hard to traverse. Perhaps more to the point, the American troops involved had shown great courage and determination. There had been little sign of the panic which occurred two days earlier. At the same time, the weakened Panzer Lehr was nothing like the SS panzer divisions facing the British.

This brief outline cannot convey the reality of fighting in the bocage. The Germans described it as a ‘schmutziger Buschkrieg’ - a ‘dirty bush war’ - but they acknowledged that the great advantage lay with them, the defenders. Fear aroused by fighting in the bocageproduced a hatred which had never existed before the invasion. ‘The only good Jerry soldiers are the dead ones,’ a soldier in the 1st Infantry Division wrote home in a ‘Dear Folks’ letter to his family in Minnesota. ‘I’ve never really hated anything quite as much. And it’s not because of some blustery speech of a brass-hat. I guess I’m probably a little off my nut - but who isn’t? Probably that’s the best way to be.’ Yet there were unspoken limits to the savagery of the fighting. Neither side made dumdum bullets, knowing full well that the other would retaliate in kind.

The Americans were unprepared for the density of the bocage, with the height of the trees in the hedgerows and the solid high banks in which they grew. They had assumed when training that the hedgerows were like those in southern England. General Collins of VII Corps told Bradley that thebocage was as bad as anything he had encountered on Guadalcanal. And Bradley himself called it ‘the damnedest country I’ve ever seen’. Even the British Army had failed to listen to Field Marshal Brooke’s warnings. He had had experience of this countryside during the retreat of 1940 and foresaw the difficulties for the attacker.

Fresh troops especially were disorientated and spooked by the impossibility of sighting the enemy as they advanced across the small, enclosed fields. They forgot the basic lessons of infantry training. Their instinct, when bracketed by German artillery or mortar fire, was to throw themselves flat or run back to safety, rather than charge forwards, which was far less dangerous. A shot from a single German rifleman in a tree all too often prompted a whole platoon to drop to the ground, where they offered a much easier target. The Germans were adept at provoking this deliberately, then rapidly firing a barrage of mortar rounds on to them as they lay in the open. ‘Keep moving if you want to live’, was the slogan adopted by Bradley’s headquarters in a general instruction. Officers and non-coms were told that they must not throw themselves to the ground, because the rest of the platoon would follow their example. Aggressive action led to fewer casualties because the Germans were rattled if you kept coming at them. And the importance of ‘marching fire’ was continually emphasized. This meant firing constantly at likely hiding places as you advanced, rather than waiting for an identifiable target.

Soldiers were advised to lie still if wounded by a sniper. He would not waste another round on a corpse, but would certainly fire again if they tried to crawl away. German snipers concealed in trees often tied themselves to the trunk so that they would not fall out if wounded. Quarter was never given to a sniper on either side. Another favourite hiding place in more open country was in a hayrick. That practice, however, was soon dropped when both American and British soldiers learned to fire tracer bullets to set the rick aflame, then gun down the hidden rifleman as he tried to escape.

German marksmanship was seldom good, mainly due to lack of practice on the ranges while they were working on the Atlantic Wall. But the fear inspired in American soldiers was out of all proportion to the number of casualties inflicted. Three times as many wounds and deaths were caused by mortars as by rifle or machine-gun fire. Most German units had very few trained snipers with telescopic sights, but that did not stop the conviction of frightened infantrymen that every concealed rifleman was a ‘sniper’. ‘The sniper menace ought not to be exaggerated,’ the headquarters of the First US Army insisted in a circular. Snipers should be dealt with by snipers and not by ‘indiscriminate fire’. Similar fears turned every German tank into a Tiger and every German field gun into an 88 mm.

Like the British on the Caen front, the Americans found that the Germans were brilliant at camouflage and concealment. Fresh branches were cut to hide guns and armoured vehicles from aircraft as well as on the ground. Their soldiers were made to cover up the tell-tale track marks of armoured vehicles, even by trying to make the flattened grass or corn stand up again. And the German infantry did not just dig foxholes. They dug themselves in like ‘moles in the ground’, with overhead cover against artillery treebursts and tunnels under the hedgerow. The small opening on to the field provided the ideal aperture from which to scythe down an advancing American platoon with the rapid fire of an MG 42.34

On the eastern front the Germans had learned from Soviet bombardments how to minimize their losses in defence. They applied these lessons to good effect in Normandy. Their front line was no more than a light screen of machine-gun positions. Several hundred yards further back, a rather more substantial line of positions was prepared. Then a third line, even further back, would include a force ready to counterattack immediately.

The Germans knew well that the best moment to catch British or American troops off guard was just after they had taken a position. More casualties were usually inflicted at this moment than during the original attack. Allied soldiers were slow to dig in afresh and often would just make use of the German foxholes or slit trenches. These would be booby-trapped in many cases, but always they would be pre-registered as targets by the supporting German artillery battalions, ready to fire the moment their own men pulled out. Time and again, Allied troops were caught out. Exhausted from the attack and complacent from success, soldiers did not find the idea of frantically digging a new foxhole very appealing. It took a long time and many unnecessary deaths for British and American infantry to learn to follow the German Army dictum that ‘sweat saves blood’.

Fighting against the Red Army had taught German veterans of the eastern front almost every trick imaginable. If there were shell holes on the approach to one of their positions, they would place anti-personnel mines at the bottom. An attacker’s instinct would be to throw himself into it to take cover when under machine-gun or mortar fire. If the Germans abandoned a position, they not only prepared booby traps in their dugouts but left behind a box of grenades in which several had been tampered with to reduce the time delay to zero. They were also expert at concealing in a ditch beside a track an S-Mine, known to the Americans as a ‘Bouncing Betty’ or the ‘castrator’ mine, because it sprang up when released to explode shrapnel at crotch height. And wires were strung taut at neck height across roads used by Jeeps to behead their unwary occupants as they drove along. The Americans rapidly welded an inverted L-shaped rod to the front of their open vehicles to catch and cut these wires.

Another German trick when the Americans launched a night attack was for one machine gun to fire high with tracer over their attackers’ heads. This encouraged them to remain upright, while the others fired low with ball ammunition. In all attacks, both British and American troops failed to follow their own artillery barrage closely enough. Newly arrived troops tended to hang back on the assumption that the enemy would be annihilated by the bombing or the shellfire, when in fact he was likely to be temporarily concussed or disorientated. The Germans recovered rapidly, so the moment needed to be seized.

Tanks supporting an attack were used to put down a heavy curtain of machine-gun fire at all likely machine-gun positions, especially in the far corners of each field. But they also caused a number of casualties to their own infantry, especially with the bow machine gun firing from a lower level. Infantry platoons often used to yell for tank support, but sometimes when their armour appeared uninvited, they were indignant. The presence of tanks almost always attracted German artillery or mortar fire.

The Sherman was a noisy beast. Germans claimed that they always knew from the sound of tank engines when an American attack was coming. Both American and British tank crews had many dangers to fear. The 88 mm anti-aircraft gun used in a ground role was terrifyingly accurate, even from a mile away. The Germans camouflaged them on a hill to the rear so that they could fire down over the hedgerows below. In the close country of the bocage, German tank-hunting groups with the shoulder-launched Panzerfaust would hide and wait for a column of American tanks to pass, then fire at them from behind at their vulnerable rear. Generalleutnant Richard Schimpf of the 3rd Paratroop Division on the Saint-Lô front noted how his men began rapidly to gain confidence and lose their panzerschreck, or fear of tanks, after disabling Shermans at close quarters. Others would creep up on tanks and throw a sticky bomb, like the Gammon grenade which the American paratroopers had used to such effect. Some would even climb on to the tank, if they could approach unseen, and try to drop a grenade into a hatch. Not surprisingly, companies of Shermans in thebocage did not like to move without a flank guard of infantry.

Germans often sited an assault gun or a tank at the end of a long straight lane to ambush any Shermans which tried to use it. This forced tanks out into the small fields. Unable to see much through the periscopes, the tank commander had to stick his head out of the turret hatch to have a look, and thus presented a target for a rifleman or a stay-behind machine gun.

The other danger was a German panzer concealed in a sunken track between hedgerows. Survival depended on very quick reactions. German tank turrets traversed slowly, so there was always the chance of getting at least one round off first. If they did not have an armour-piercing round ready in the breech, a hit with a white phosphorus shell could either blind the enemy tank or even panic its crew into abandoning their vehicle.

In the fields surrounded by hedgerows, tanks were at their most vulnerable when they entered or left a field by an obvious opening. Various methods were tried to avoid this. The accompanying infantry tried Bangalore torpedoes to make breaches in a hedgerow, but this was seldom effective because of the solidity of the mound and the time needed to dig the charge in. Engineers used explosive, but a huge quantity was required.

The perfect solution was finally discovered by Sergeant Curtis G. Culin of the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance with the 2nd Armored Division. Another soldier came up with the suggestion that steel prongs should be fitted to the front of the tank, then it could dig up the hedgerow. Most of those present laughed, but Culin went away and developed the idea by welding a pair of short steel girders to the front of a Sherman. General Bradley saw a demonstration. He immediately gave orders that the steel from German beach obstacles should be cut up for use. The ‘rhino’ tank was born. With a good driver, it took less than two and a half minutes to clear a hole through the bank and hedgerow.

One of the most important but least favourite pastimes in the bocage was patrolling at night. A sergeant usually led the patrol, whose task was either to try to capture a prisoner for interrogation, or simply to establish a presence out in front in case of surprise attacks. German paratroopers on the Saint-Lô front used to sneak up at night to lob grenades. Many stories were elaborated around night patrols. ‘I talked to enough men,’ wrote the combat historian Forrest Pogue, ‘to believe the tale of a German and an American patrol which spent several days under a gentleman’s agreement visiting a wine cellar in no-man’s land at discreet intervals.’ He also heard from one patrol leader that his group had ‘reported itself cut off by the enemy for three days while they enjoyed the favors of two buxom French girls in a farmhouse’. But even if true, these were exceptions. Very few men, especially those from the city, liked leaving the reassuring company of their platoon. American units also used patrolling to give newly arrived ‘replacements’ a taste of the front line. But for a sergeant in command of some terrified recruits ready to shoot at anything in the dark, a night patrol was the worst task of all.

American military bureaucracy handled the whole ‘replacement’ system with a brutal lack of imagination. The word itself, which suggested the filling of dead men’s shoes, was ill-chosen. It took several months before the term was changed to ‘reinforcement’. But the basic problem remained. These new arrivals were poorly trained and totally unprepared for what lay ahead. ‘Our younger men, especially there placements who came up when I did,’ reported a lieutenant in the 35th Division, ‘were not real soldiers. They were too young to be killers and too soft to endure the hardships of battle.’

‘Practically all of the replacements,’ stated a report from the 4th Infantry Division, ‘had come direct from replacement training centers.’ They had received no unit or field training and, unlike those prepared in England for the invasion, they had never been put under overhead artillery fire. ‘A great many of those furnished as specialists had never been trained in their official speciality. A good many of the infantry replacements had not been trained as combat infantry . . . I have found men trained as mail orderlies, cooks, officers’ orderlies, truck drivers etc., for periods ranging from six months to a year, who had been sent over, assigned to a combat unit, and thrust into combat within 24 hours . . . These men were definitely inadequately prepared, both psychologically and militarily, for combat duty.’ The only chance that the division had to train them was during the much needed periods of rest: less than six days out of the forty since it had landed on Utah. It was an impossible task. Having suffered 7,876 casualties since landing, the 4th had received 6,663 replacements.35 The majority of suicides were committed by replacements. ‘Just before they went across to France,’ an American Red Cross woman recorded, ‘belts and ties were removed from some of these young men. They were very, very young.’

Replacements joined their platoon usually at night, having no idea where they were. The old hands shunned them, partly because their arrival came just after they had lost buddies and they would not open up to newcomers. Also everyone knew that they would be the first to be killed and doomed men were seen as somehow contagious. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy, because replacements were often given the most dangerous tasks. A platoon did not want to waste experienced men.

Many replacements went into shock as soon as they came under fire. Aid men found themselves having to act as counsellors to replacements curled in terror at the bottom of their foxholes. These boys were convinced that they were under direct fire because of the intense vibrations in the earth from shells landing some distance away. The aid men had to try to persuade them to stick their heads out of the hole to see that they were not in immediate danger.

Whenever the company advanced, a guide sergeant was placed in the rear of the platoon to grab any of them who panicked. Replacements were also the most likely to try to escape the front line by resorting to a self-inflicted wound. They usually shot themselves in the left foot or left hand. The cleverer ones used a sandbag or other material to prevent tell-tale cordite burns around the entry point, but the pattern of left foot and left hand was so obvious, as General George Patton observed, that there was ‘a high probability that the wound was self-inflicted’. Those who took this way out were sectioned off in special wards in hospitals as if cowardice was infectious. As soon as they were discharged, they faced a sentence of six months in the stockade.

The real heroes of the bocage were the aid men. They had to tend the wounded in the open and try to evacuate them. Their only defence was a Red Cross brassard, which was usually respected, but often not by snipers. Aid men did not expect much help from the fighting soldiers, who were told to keep going even when a comrade was hit. ‘Riflemen must leave first aid assistance to the medics,’ stated an instruction from Bradley’s headquarters, giving an example of a particular incident. ‘Four replacements were killed and eight wounded in this company through attempting to render first aid to a fallen comrade.’

An aid man with the 30th Infantry Division recorded his experiences: ‘To get down fast you needed to learn to buckle your knees and collapse rather than make a deliberate movement to the prone position.’ He wrote of the ‘light of hope’ in the eyes of wounded men when he appeared. It was easy to spot those about to die with ‘the grey-green color of death appearing beneath their eyes and fingernails. These we would only comfort. Those making the most noise were the lightest hit, and we would get them to bandage themselves using their own compresses and Sulfa [powder].’ He concentrated on those in shock or with severe wounds and heavy bleeding. He hardly ever had to use tourniquets, ‘since most wounds were puncture wounds and bled very little or were amputations or hits caused by hot and high velocity shell or mortar fragments which seared the wound shut’.

His main tools were bandage scissors to cut through uniform, Sulfa powder, compresses and morphine. He soon learned not to carry extra water for the wounded but cigarettes, since that was usually the first thing they wanted. They were also lighter to carry. Shellbursts in oak trees killed many, so he searched around for wounded and corpses whenever he saw branches on the ground. Work parties took the bodies back to Graves Registration. They were usually stiff and swollen, and sometimes infected with maggots. A limb might come off when they were lifted. The stench was unbearable, especially at the collection point. ‘Here the smell was even worse, but most of the men working there were apparently so completely under the influence of alcohol that they no longer appeared to care.’

He once had to fill out ‘Killed in Action’ tags for a whole squad wiped out by a single German machine gun. And he never forgot an old sergeant who had died with a smile on his face. He wondered why. Had the sergeant been smiling at that instant of death, or had he thought of something while dying? Tall big men were the most vulnerable, however strong they might be. ‘The combat men who really lasted were usually thin, smaller of stature and very quick in their movements.’ Real hatred of the enemy came to soldiers, he noticed, when a buddy was killed. ‘And this was often a total hatred; any German they encountered after that would be killed.’ He even noted how sentimental GIs from farming communities would cover the open eyes of dead cows with twists of straw.

There was a marked divide between farm boys and city boys who had never been in the countryside. A soldier from a farm caught a cow, tied her to the hedgerow and began to milk her into his helmet. The city boys in his platoon came over and watched in amazement. They were also impressed when he put dried weed and branches out in front of their positions so that Germans could not creep up at night silently to throw grenades.

US Army medical services in Normandy were almost overwhelmed at times by cases of combat exhaustion, otherwise known as battle shock. At first, nobody really knew how to deal with this massive problem. The neuro-psychiatrist of the 29th Infantry Division, Major David Weintrob, recorded with cynical amusement that he was sent into action with ‘a sphygmomanometer, a set of five tuning forks, a percussion hammer and an ophthalmoscope’.

By 18 June, all his tents had been filled with soldiers suffering combat exhaustion. The flow eased in a quieter period from 21 June to 10 July, with an average of only eight cases a day. But from the morning of 11 July, with the offensive to seize Saint-Lô, ‘the rains came’, as Weintrob put it. There were anything between thirty-five and eighty-nine admissions a day. He had to listen to ‘visions of 88s to the right of him; 88s to the left of him; 88s on top of him’. Nearly half of the combat-exhaustion casualties were replacements who collapsed after less than forty-eight hours in the front line.

Weintrob had so many cases that he had to pass most on to the First Army Exhaustion Center, which soon became overwhelmed itself and ‘bluntly refused to accept any but the very acute battle psychoneuroses’. This influx - ‘the great majority of cases were those of extreme physical exhaustion with mild anxiety states’ - enabled Weintrob to persuade their commander, General Gerhardt, to allow him to set up a new system. The diminutive but belligerent Gerhardt, who had invented the divisional battle-cry ‘Twenty-nine, let’s go!’, was won over by Weintrob’s argument that he could get many more men back into the firing line this way.

Weintrob had fifteen medical assistants covering ten large ward tents and eight pyramidal tents. Patients arrived from the forward casualty clearing stations. They received twenty-four hours’ rest and light sedation. On the second day, they were cleaned up and given new uniforms. A psychiatric examination took place on the third. The most acute cases were evacuated rearwards. Weintrob divided the rest into three categories: fit for an immediate return to duty after a short rest, suitable for the new training programme, or to be classified as unfit for further combat duty. He recognized that there were some men who would never be able to cope with the stress of combat. They would simply be a danger and a hindrance to the rest.

Weintrob first set up what became known as the ‘Hot Spot Spa’, which was basically an ‘out and out rest camp’, with movies shown daily and ball games. But this became much too attractive, and soon many men who felt in need of a break started to fake combat-exhaustion symptoms. So he instituted a new programme with weapon training, target practice and road marches to rebuild military confidence. This was run by non-coms recovering from light wounds. The programme also helped him assess borderline cases. Out of 1,822 cases (an eighth of the total non-fatal battle casualties), 775 men were returned to duty. Just over half, 396 men, were still in combat after fourteen weeks. Weintrob estimated that ‘a man who has broken down psychologically on two occasions is lost as an efficient combat soldier’.

Quite clearly the vulnerability of replacements was the most urgent problem to tackle. Weintrob and Major G. B. Hankins, who ran the training programme, urged Gerhardt to change the system. Instead of sending replacements forward to a platoon during darkness on the day they arrived, they should be held back and put into the training programme until the regiment to which they were allotted came back into reserve. This would allow the opportunity to train them with machine-gun and artillery fire going overhead and explosions set off around them to simulate shellbursts. Replacements also needed to be integrated better. They should be given the division’s blue and grey patch to wear on their uniforms before they joined their platoons. Almost all of Weintrob’s innovations were later brought into general use by the US Army by that autumn.

German officers, on the other hand, would have shaken their heads in amazement. Their hard-pressed divisions in Normandy never had the luxury of a few days’ training behind the lines. New soldiers arrived at the point of a boot. And if they shot themselves through the hand or foot, they were executed. The Obergefreiter with the 91st Luftlande-Division wrote home on 15 July to say that ‘Krammer, a capable and brave lad, stupidly shot himself through the hand. Now he is to be shot.’ Their only hope was for ‘a niceHeimatschuss’, a wound severe enough for them to be sent home. Both British and American psychiatrists were struck by the ‘apparently few cases of psychoneurosis’ among German prisoners of war. They wondered whether this was because the German military authorities refused to acknowledge the condition or whether eleven years of Nazi propaganda had prepared their soldiers better for battle.

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