Breakout: 60

After D-Day, the Allies found themselves slugging it out with the Germans in a nearly static attrition battle, for weeks. The Germans were, as usual, displaying a horrendous capacity to defend, and to counter-attack if they found an opening, extracting a high blood-price for every bit of ground. The Allied lodgment was sealed off, bottled up by the Germans. Montgomery’s attempt to breakout, GOODWOOD, had only served to litter the field with the scorched wrecks of one third of Britain’s armored strength on the continent. The Americans got to try next. July 25 was a carpet bombing of the German positions in front of the Americans, followed by a ground attack. By 60 years ago today, the Americans had pushed aside the German resistance in their path and the German defensive position was beginning to unravel. Patton arrived to take command of Third Army, and his moment and his Army’s moment on the stage of history began in earnest. Third Army broke through at Avranches on August 1. The wild ride which followed pushed the Germans out of France. (Short summaries of events here and here. Good timeline here.)

We celebrate D-Day, and rightly so. We should not forget that the weeks following were harsh and thankless and at times seemingly hopeless, and many feared that a stalemate was in the making. We should not forget those hard and bloody days endured by the Allied armies, nor the spectacular race across France which ensued when the Germans finally cracked.

(A recent, brilliant book on the Normandy campaign is Clash of Arms: How the Allies Won in Normandy by Russell A. Hart. This book is so good I’d like to do a post just on it. But I’ll probably never get to it. Reviewed here, and here (scroll down) and here.) (I also recently read Military Power : Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle by Stephen Biddle, which is an extraordinary book, which I really must write about here at some point. It is not really on topic, though it does have a chapter on the GOODWOOD battle. While I’m digressing, see also Biddle’s Afghanistan and the Future of Warfare to get an idea of his intellectual approach and rigor.)

Another Update

A thought occurs to me. Has anyone considered the analogy of the failure to plan for the hedgerows, since everyone was focused on getting ashore on D-Day which they really should have known about, and which really was a terrible error, — and the failure of planning for postwar Iraq, since everyone was thinking of a harder campaign with many more civilian casualties, possible use of gas by Saddam, millions of refugees, protracted urban combat in Baghdad, etc.? Did anyone think the proper response was to fire Montgomery or Eisenhower, or for that matter to vote for Dewey instead of FDR in the November 1944 election as a result of this planning failure? I think there is an analogy here … .


The expert on the hedgerows and dealing with them is Michael D. Doubler. This is from his book Busting the Bocage: American Combined Arms Operations in France, 6 June–31 July 1944:

The formidable barriers presented by the hedgerows and the military characteristics of the Bocage seem to have taken First Army by complete surprise. Despite Allied planners’ awareness of the nature of the Bocage, American commanders had done little to prepare their units for fighting among the hedgerows. Preoccupied with the myriad problems of the D-Day landings, American leaders had failed to see the battlefield in depth and had paid little attention to the potential problems of hedgerow combat. As early as 8 June, General Bradley called the Bocage the “damndest country I’ve seen.” General Collins of VII Corps was equally surprised by the nature of the hedgerow terrain and told General Bradley on 9 June that the Bocage was as bad as anything he had encountered on Guadalcanal. Brigadier General James M. Gavin, the assistant division commander of the 82d Airborne, best summarized the surprise of the senior American leadership: “Although there had been some talk in the U.K. before D-Day about the hedgerows, none of us had really appreciated how difficult they would turn out to be.”

But don’t think the problem was solely the terrain:

Even though the hedgerows were serious impediments to offensive operations, the primary obstacle holding up the American advance was the German defense. As First Army fought its way inland, it discovered that the German Army was well prepared and adept at defending the hedgerow country. The German defense was organized in depth and designed to destroy the coordination and momentum of American attacks while exploiting the defensive advantages of the hedgerows.

It was the German’s tactical skill that transformed this difficult terrain into a maze of death for the Americans. Our people also suffered from relative inexperience, compared to the battle-hardened Germans, many of whom had learned all their tricks in years of fighting on the Russian Front. “Bad terrain and the Germans’ tactical proficiency were not the only conditions hampering operations. American commanders observed many defects in the training and effectiveness of their troops.”

The Americans learned quickly, and innovated quickly, in particular devising metal “tusks” for their tanks that could chop through the hedgerows. So while the unusual terrain was a serious problem, at least as much was the disparity in experience and skill between the armies. Doubler describes the learning process and the American army in the ETO as a dynamic, learning organization in his excellent book Closing With the Enemy: How Gis Fought the War in Europe, 1944-1945, which I very highly recommend.

19 thoughts on “Breakout: 60”

  1. The battle to break out of Normandy was quite an ordeal indeed when you consider the Germans bottled up the Allies for 2/3 months after D-Day. The biggest blunder was not taking into account the hedgerows. Allied recon flights couldn’t see them because they’re vertical, and our GI’s paid a high price. After you clear out each plot of land enclosed by a hedgerow, you’ve got another nasty nest to clear out.

  2. I doubt they couldn’t see them. Daytime photos shows them everywhere and from the shadows, you can see they are obstacles although how hard they might be is not obvious. Second, hedgerows as old and tough as the French one existed on the other side of the Channel. (The ones in some parts of Ireland are amazing natural walls; SUVs crash in them and simply fold). Moreover, the Allies had French and British agents in the area.

    This could be one of those lack of imagination things; it’s right there under your nose and nobody sees it until it’s in their way. Given the extraordinary amount of detail logistical work required to do everything else, it’s not surprising. But also very humbling.

  3. I think it was the law of unintended consequences. I remember reading (probably in von Mellenthin, but maybe Lidell-Hart or even a Patton biography) that in fact we knew about the hedgerows and had checked that tanks could get over them. However we didn’t notice how thoroughly they exposed their underbelly doing so. By timing the shot based on where and how the hedgerow started moving, even the 37mm AT integral to low level German infantry units could penetrate.

    Matya no baka

  4. I love the solution though, they took the leftover metal scraps from the tank obstacles the German put up (plenty available everywhere) and afixed them to the front of Sherman tanks. Then plow through the hedgerow with the tank, spray the enclosure with fire, and let the following infantry mop up what’s left. American improvisation at its finest.

  5. If I remember correctly, they could see them, but due to the photographs being vertical, they didn’t take into account how high and dense the hedgerows are. A snafu with real consequences.

  6. The dust cloud component dropped around the tanks, the disparity in color temperature in the image’s vareous components and the classic gausian blur edge softening in the dropshadow under the tank’s front, which is also too geometric and consistant in it’s solidity to be a real shadow. Oh but listen to me rabbit on! Who’s for a cuppa?

  7. I’m with Amos, it’s clearly a CAD or paint-by-Photoshop job. Note also the photographer’s improbable location, the oversaturated color, the blurred tank treads but not aircraft, and the propellers, which should look like scimitars or blurred sticks rather than discs.

  8. Americans are very good at solving problems in the field. We are truly a nation of engineers.

    I’m surprised though that very few credit the fact that our spectacular successes in the Iraq war caused the subsequent failures.

    Suppose the post war infrastructure was in train to arrive 2 months after the battle started (for a battle expected to last two months to six months). Then the battle is over in three weeks.

    That will certainly strain the plans. As much or more than failure. So it may be we were hurt because we were much better than we thought possible.

    No plan survives contact.

  9. Also note the hedgerow clippers on the tank. Those were not seen until a week or three after the landing.

  10. The extraordinary field engineering skills of WWII soldiers were developed on the farms of the depression. Those poor farm boys had to keep all kinds of machinery running with a can do / make do attitude and not much else.

  11. good point Fred. also the American “car” culture helped tremendously. Aside from the mass production wonders of Detroit, which gets most of the press, plenty of GI’s over there were already accustomed to working on cars, working at gas stations, etc. When a German tank/truck breaks down, it’s usually left for dead and abandoned. It’s also usually behind U.S. lines, so they can’t get to it. But the U.S. army in the field had tremendous repair, maintenance, and support networks. When a sherman gets hit or breaks down, chances are it’s recycled and put back into action within a few days. That was a key ingredient in Germans constantly being overwhelmed by U.S. tanks.

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