Panzers, Monty, Mother Nature, and the Vikings

The landings on 6 June at Normandy were a complete operational surprise, and the deception plan was so effective that the Germans continued to believe the main invasion would come at Pas De Calais, even well into July. But the ruse wouldn’t last much longer, and most of the German’s reserves were already committed to containing the Allied lodgement.

In the east, Montgomery failed to take Caen on the first day for a variety of reasons, most of which weren’t his fault. The British troops faced the only panzer counterattack on D-Day, and that by their desert nemesis, the 21st Panzer Division. The terrain around Caen is all open fields and river valleys, and this made the counterattack particularly difficult, and Montgomery stopped the 21st Panzer from reaching the beachheads. Unfortunately, the reverse was also true, and Montgomery would launch no less than 6 separate army level offensives to try and take Caen over the next 6 weeks. To counter this, Field Marshal Von Rundstedt committed the bulk of the panzer reserves in the West to face them, including three of the best panzer divisions in the German military: the Panzer-Lehr, the veteran 2nd Panzer Division, and the fanatical 12th SS “Hitlerjugend” Panzer Division made up of Hitler Youth. The British Sherman, Churchill, and Cromwell tanks did not fare well against the Tiger, Panther, and Pzkfw IVs of the panzer divisions. Only British stubbornness and overwhelming material and airpower superiority allowed Monty to capture Caen on 10 July 1944, over a month later than planned.

Monty’s material superiority came at a cost to the other areas of the front because Mother Nature had a say-so. Just after D-Day, the great storm that Group Captain Stagg feared had finally arrived. On 9 June, “The Great Gale of 1944” did damage to the invasion force that the Luftwaffe could only dream of. Several ships were sunk, dozens were beached, all were damaged, and one of the two vital “Mulberry” artificial harbors was destroyed. This created a massive supply shortage for weeks in Normandy, and what supplies were on hand went to either Monty trying to take Caen, or to the Americans trying to capture Cherbourg: a deep water port on the Cotentin peninsula which could do much to alleviate the Allies supply problems. The US VII Corps captured Cherbourg on 26 June, but the Germans did “masterful” work wrecking the harbor. They did such a good job emplacing mines and boobie traps, destroying facilities, sinking ships in the channel, and ruining the docks that it would take three weeks for small ships to get through and eight weeks before it was safe enough for larger ships to unload. There would be no influx of supplies from Cherbourg and what supplies that did come through the one working Mulberry would go to Monty. This was unfortunate because the Americans in the center of the landing zone were facing something unexpected and ancient, and used to deadly effect by the Germans: the bocage, or Norman hedgerows.

Bocage was the French term for the hedge/tree walls that surrounded Norman fields. In the 9th century, Danish and Norwegian Vikings raided the area, and with the collapse of Charlemagne’s Empire, settled it. The better off Vikings established themselves at the mouths of the rivers, such as the Orne and the Seine, primarily in the east. They intermarried with the local population and the Franks named the area “Normandy”, or “Land of the Northmen”. West Normandy was settled by Viking farmers. However, this did not stop future generations of Danish and Norwegian Vikings from continuing to raid just because their forebears settled the area. The Vikings could no longer sail up the rivers to raid the French because of the Norman fortress towns such as Caen, Carentan, and Harfleur. So they beached on the coast and traveled overland to get around the Normans at the mouths of the rivers, frequently by raiding isolated farmsteads in the west and stealing horses and food. The Norman farmers, former Vikings themselves, knew this and combatted it by planting trees around their fields with thick thorny bushes at their bases. This forced the raiding Vikings onto predictable paths where they could be watched and ambushed. Over the centuries, the Norman farmers continued the practice. By the twentieth century, erosion, sunken roads, and a dropping water table exposed the roots of these hedgerows. This formed a four or five foot high impenetrable wall of packed earth and gnarled roots, covered with thorny bushes and topped with a line of thick trees. They couldn’t be climbed over, much less pushed through or seen through.

The bocage itself wasn’t deadly but the Germans used the hedgerows to great effect. They would ambush the Americans on the roads, just as the Normans did to the Vikings, and force them to breach the hedgerows to get around. Once the Americans went through the lengthy and difficult process of breaching the hedgerow walls, they would be met by another German ambush on the other side, usually machine guns and anti tank guns dug into the hedgerow in an opposite corner of the field. They easily covered the beautiful fields of fire that were the enclosed Norman farms. It would take Gen Omar Bradley and US First Army until 25 July, seven weeks after D-Day, to break out of the Norman Hedgerow country.

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