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Posted on May 13, 2010 in Armchair Reading

CDG 39 – Bocage Busting! Normandy 1944

By Andrew H. Hershey

July 1944. American infantrymen dash across a hedgerow-bordered lane near St. Lo. A knocked-out German Panther tank sits in the foreground. National Archives.It is July 1, 1944. You play the role of Brig. Gen. Norman D. "Dutch" Cota, assistant commander of the 29th Infantry Division. Your mission is to divine a small unit tactical plan for the division’s attack on Saint-Lo, an important road junction whose seizure is key to the Allied effort. Bocage busting—overcoming the stiff German defenses keeping the Allies bottled up in Normandy’s formidable maze of hedgerows—has proven extremely difficult. Thus for the 29th’s Saint-Lo attack to succeed, the plan you develop must offer a way for the division’s companies to break through the bocage.

Bocage hedgerows are stout walls of earth and tangled roots of vegetation developed over centuries. At the base of the hedgerows are dirt embankments some 3 to 5 feet thick and 6 to 9 feet high. In places, the trees growing from them grow 15 feet tall. The bocage borders farmers’ irregularly shaped rectangular fields, approximately 200 x 400 yards each. The only openings are where small, wooden gates allow passage of farm carts and animals.

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Field Marshall Erwin Rommel’s German infantry have constructed dugouts and rifle pits that allow them to sweep the fields with devastating fire, and their mortars are pre-registered on the center of the fields. Tank-killer crews with panzerfausts and powerful 88mm bazooka-like panzerschrecks are positioned to deal with Allied armor. The German positions are expertly camouflaged and often protected from mortar or artillery rounds.

A network of narrow, unpaved roads cut through the bocage maze and have the appearance of sunken roads due to the thick hedgerow banks on either side. A single German anti-tank gun can dominate a road.

You have 10 days before the scheduled attack on Saint-Lo to develop a tactical plan and train your officers and men to carry it out. Nobody said your job would be easy. Right now, your division commander, Maj. Gen. Charles Gerhardt, and XIX Corps commander Maj. Gen. Charles H. Corlett have asked you to brief them on the options you are considering.

Course of Action One: Fort Benning Solution
Each company will attack a hedgerow-bordered field, using two platoons up front to move through any natural gaps and weak points. The third platoon will follow behind. After an artillery barrage, and with supporting small arms fire from adjacent hedgerows, the two lead platoons will traverse the open field using fire and maneuver tactics to seize the southernmost hedgerow. The third platoon will clear the eastern and western hedgerows of any surviving defenders. This approach will be repeated in subsequent fields.

The advantage of this plan is it puts the mass of infantry up front while giving company commanders flexibility in their use of the third platoon as the situation develops. These are the tactics the US Army has used successfully from North Africa on, so the officers and men are already familiar with them.

Unfortunately, so are the Germans by now, and their defenses may have been planned specifically to deal with this tried-and-true method.

Course of Action Two: Mixed Teams
Each company will form mixed teams comprised of an infantry platoon, combat engineers and an M-4 Sherman tank with "steel teeth" welded onto its front for cutting through the bocage. After the tank breaches a northern hedgerow—which admittedly will take some effort—the engineers will widen the opening with explosives. The Sherman will position itself in the widened breach to deliver suppressive fire. Forward observers standing on its back deck will call in mortar fire on identified and suspected enemy positions. The infantry will take advantage of this suppressive fire to attack across the field and seize the southern hedgerow. Then the Sherman will move up, and the process will begin again.

To prevent the enemy from divining where the attacks will come, artillery will fire 20-minute barrages, shifting several times across the entire front.

This plan allows your men to get through the hedgerows at points other than the ones the German guns are trained on, but it is complicated. You may not have enough time for the different groups to adequately train together.

Course of Action Three: Run and Gun
Each company will form three infantry-armor teams in which infantrymen will pile aboard M-4 Sherman tanks, race down the north-south roads, then swing east and west to take the enemy from the rear. Dismounted infantry will follow to mop up surrounded Germans and eliminate stubborn bypassed defenders. No artillery barrages will precede the attack, in order to preserve the advantage of surprise, but the big guns will be on call whenever you need them.

This utilizes the superior mobility of the US Army and avoids crossing open fields with your initial assaults. It is true that one anti-tank gun can knock out a lead tank and stall the operation, but that’s why you’re placing infantry aboard. They can dismount to engage anti-tank teams or call in observed artillery fire.

Your commanders want your decision by 6 p.m., just hours away. Which of these options will you choose? Or might a fourth, better option be forming in your mind?

Click here to download the pdf of Command Decision Game # 39, Bocage Busting! Normandy 1944, and submit your solution.

2 Comments

  1. I would choose COA 2 for the option of assault. Being given ten days is adequately enough to train the various personnel under my command to work as effective assault teams. Its a matter of fighting on our terms, not the Germans. COA 1 & 2 works to the advantage of the defending Germans in such an environment. I would certainly cover obvious natural gaps and weak points if i was the defending force. Even the chance of flanking and being behind a defending force in a ‘run & gun’ option isn’t something easy in bocage country.

  2. I would Opt for a fourth COA in which spotters infiltrate and mark down the locations of enemy mortars and fire teams so that the tank/rifle teams could enter the fields knowing the locations of the enemy. Additionall, low-level bombers and attack aircraft would pound these positions in conjunction with artillery until the troops entered the fields, at which point the artillery barrage would lift and the troops would rush the enemy positions with grenades and submachine guns.

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