Richard Atkinson: The Guns at Last Light:
WEST of Bayeux, the Norman uplands displayed the gnarled visage that had been familiar to Celtic farmers even before the Romans marched across Gaul. Over the centuries ten thousand tiny pastures had emerged from the limestone and pre-Cambrian schist, girdled by sunken lanes the width of an oxcart and enclosed with man-high hedgerows of thatched hawthorn roots, raspberry bushes, lupine, violets, and greasy mud. The sylvan noun for this terrain—“bocage,” defined as a grove, or “an agreeably shady wood”—belied the claustrophobic reality of what one infantryman would call “the Gethsemane of the hedgerows.”
To Pacific veterans like General Collins, this jungly corner of France resembled Guadalcanal. “I couldn’t imagine the bocage until I saw it,” Omar Bradley would say after the war. That failure of imagination was in fact a failure of command: Allied generals had been amply forewarned, and even Caesar had written of hedgerows that “present a fortification like a wall through which it was not only impossible to enter but even to penetrate with the eye.” More recently, an August 1943 military study on French topography included two dozen photographs of “Norman bocage”; in mid-April, a First Army report described “embanked fields interspersed with thickets” and advised that tactics for fighting “through bocage country should be given considerable study.” Aerial photos of an eight-square-mile swatch revealed some four thousand hedged enclosures.
Yet, as in the amphibious assaults on North Africa and Sicily, planners preoccupied with gaining the hostile shore devoted little thought to combat beyond the dunes. “We were rehearsed endlessly for attacking beach defenses,” a battalion commander later wrote, “but not one day was given to the terrain behind the beaches, which was no less difficult and deadly.” Now that difficult, deadly terrain played hob with First Army’s timetable. As Rommel had predicted, American troops cut the Cotentin Peninsula early on June 18, after two regiments from the 9th Infantry Division lunged west to the sea near Barneville. Three divisions abreast in Collins’s VII Corps then began clawing north toward Cherbourg, thirteen miles distant. In the south, the 29th Division commander on June 17 reported, “I feel we’ll be getting to St. Lô before long.” Alas, no: although barely five miles from the American line, that linchpin town would remain out of reach for another month.
Tank companies now reported that to advance 2,500 yards typically required seventeen tons of explosives to blow holes through nearly three dozen hedgerows, each defended like a citadel parapet. “Each one of them was a wall of fire,” a soldier in the 30th Infantry Division wrote, “and the open fields between were plains of fire.” An officer noted that “the enemy can be ten feet away and be undetected. He can fight up to spitting range.” That intimacy neutralized Allied air and artillery advantages. “There were snipers everywhere,” Ernie Pyle reported, “in trees, in buildings, in piles of wreckage, in the grass. But mainly they were in the high, bushy hedgerows.”
A sliding scale of rewards awaited the proficient German sniper, according to a SHAEF document: “10 corpses—100 cigarettes; 20 corpses—20 days’ leave; 50 corpses—Iron Cross 1st Class and wristwatch from Himmler.” Enemy panzers, artillery, and savage small-arms fire made western Normandy ever more lethal. The poet-infantryman Louis Simpson described the “short, velvet bursts” of German machine pistols, and added: “The purr of the bullets is wicked.” A soldier hesitant to cross an open pasture to a farmhouse wrote, “I lie in the grass pondering whether to take the chance. Yes-no-yes-no.” In this “land of great danger,” as Pyle called it, no weapon was more feared than the mortar—described by one soldier as “a soft siffle, high in the air, like a distant lark, or a small penny whistle, faint and elf-like, falling.” Mortar fragments caused 70 percent of the battle casualties among four U.S. infantry divisions in Normandy; radar that could backtrack the parabolic flight of rounds to the firing tubes would not be battle-ready for months.
Close combat heightened the animal senses; like many riflemen, Simpson sniffed for a smell “we have come to recognize as Germany—a compound of sausage and cheese, mildewed cloth, and ideas. Some ideas stink. Every German hole … exudes the smell of their philosophy.”
French civilians waving white strips of don’t-shoot cloth scurried to their chicken coops during lulls, gathering eggs that they sold to GIs for the equivalent of eight cents apiece. Soon even the henhouses were blown to smithereens, birds “plastered to the walls like pats of mud.” Almost 400,000 buildings in Normandy would be demolished or badly damaged. Livestock casualties included 100,000 cows; bulldozers buried them by the herd, as stiff-legged as wooden toys. Many towns were beaten to death—“as if somebody had pulled them down with a gigantic rake,” in one description; pilots reported smoke tinted red from pulverized brick. In St.-Sauveur “there was not a building standing whole,” Don Whitehead reported. A medic told his family in Indiana of a smashed village “deserted and silent. Not the silence that you know, but a more profound and depressing silence.”
Each contested town, like each hedgerow, added more dead, wounded, and missing to a tally that in OVERLORD’s first fortnight exceeded eighteen hundred each day for the U.S. First Army alone, or one casualty every forty-seven seconds. A French nurse told her diary of wounded men “white as sheets, their nostrils tight, their eyes rolled back. Wide bleeding lacerations, shattered limbs, internal injuries, faces in shreds.” Sharp spikes in combat exhaustion—a term coined in Tunisia to supplant the misnomer “shell shock”—reflected the stress of bocage combat; by mid-July, such neuropsychiatric cases would account for one of every four infantry casualties in 21st Army Group, with the worst of them “crouched down like hunted animals” in battalion aid stations. First Army by early August would also investigate more than five hundred cases of suspected “S.I.W.”—self-inflicted wounds—typically a gunshot to the heel, toe, or finger.
“A fine division was burned up taking the village of La Haye–du–Puits,” one lieutenant colonel wrote. “There are 100 such villages between here and Paris. Have we 100 divisions to expend on them?” There was nothing for it but to pound away. “Things are always confusing and mysterious in war,” Pyle wrote. “I squatted there, just a bewildered guy in brown, part of a thin line of other bewildered guys.” Captain Keith Douglas, a British veteran of North Africa and perhaps the most poignant poetic voice of the Second World War, had written of killing the enemy, “How easy it is to make a ghost.” And how easy to become one: Douglas died south of Bayeux, slain by a mortar splinter so fine that his body appeared unblemished. “I buried him close beside the hedge near where he was killed,” a chaplain wrote. “Being quite alone and reading the brief Order of Service over the grave affected me deeply.”