A GENERAL OFFICER WRITES as follows of the fighting in July:
“I doubt if anyone who ever ducked bullets and shells in the hedgerows, waded through the mud on foot, and scrambled over the hedgerows never knowing when he might find himself looking into the muzzle of a German tank gun, will look back on those days with any remembered feeling other than of the deadly unrelenting fatigue and danger. Except when the Germans counterattacked, there was so little result to show for so much suffering; just a few hedgerows gained, each one just like those already behind and those still to take.”
There had been nothing glamorous about First Army's painful battle through the hedgerows. With use of air power limited by weather, and the effectiveness of tanks reduced by the terrain, the fighting came down to a matter of the artillery bludgeoning and the infantry pushing through an endless series of defended fields and orchards. In this close country, with so much cover and concealment, there was endless opportunity for superior forces to be tied down by a handful of resolute enemy snipers. In modern warfare, with modern weapons, battles are fought ordinarily at such ranges that opposing forces may seldom see each other. Here, in Normandy, bitter actions were often fought by units only 50 to 100 yards apart, with tanks and self-propelled guns in the front lines. But, even so, the American and German troops might not see each other in the course of a day's fight-except for the bodies left behind in a withdrawal. Whole squads, as well as individual snipers, could hide in the leafy embankments, and there was opportunity for use of daring tactics, such as might have been used in Indian fighting, by patrols and scouts on either side. A soldier story-not authenticated, but wholly plausible-relates the experience of an officer who joined a unit up front as replacement, in the course of the battle. After inspection of the outpost line, he came back to the company CP to complain that there was no contact with the enemy; the Germans must have retired. A guttural voice, using cultured English accents, immediately spoke from the hedgerow above the CP dugout: "Evidently the Herr Lieutenant is a recent arrival."
For most of the American soldiers, it had been a thankless, miserable, disheartening battle. It was, perhaps, particularly hard on fresh divisions, coming into their first action with the zest and high morale born of long training and of confidence in their unit. Many units were- or felt they were-wrecked by the losses that hit them in the course of a few days' fighting, wiping out key men, sometimes nearly all company officers in a battalion, or sergeants in a company. The close ties within a unit, built up by long association, were broken irreparably; new officers and new men had to be assimilated in the midst of battle, sometimes on a wholesale scale. Yet the shock was met and surmounted; units that lost 30 percent of strength or more in a week, were kept in line and went on fighting.
The losses taken by XIX Corps units in the advance to St-Lo were representative of those suffered by all First Army divisions engaged in the
Battle of the Hedgerows. From the opening of the offensive on 7 July through the 22d of that month, the 30th Division had 3,934 casualties; the 29th’s ran to 3,706; the 35th’s were 2,437. If the figures of the 2d Division for its two days' battle at Hill 192 are included, and those of the 3d Armored Division, the total comes to nearly 11,000 killed, wounded, and missing. These losses were taken for gains of three to seven miles on the corps front.
Nor do the mere figures tell the whole story. An officer who fought with the 30th Division comments on their losses as follows:
The people who do the actual advancing to close with the enemy are the rile platoons, 81 of them (in a division), each with a T/0 strength of about 40 men. These are the men who do the scouting, the patrolling, the flank protection, the front-line work. The battles progress no faster than they do. Now the aggregate strength of these 81 platoons is about 3,240 men. I hazard a guess that at least 75 percent of the total casualties were in the rifle platoons, or a total of about 2,950 (30th Division). This figure is 90 percent of the rifle platoon strength. Possibly the actual figure was less than this, but I do know that the great bulk of casualties was in the rifle platoons. In two weeks' time there must have been at least a 75 or 80 percent turnover in these platoons. This had two effects. First, during a day's combat the squads and platoons would lose some of their men. They consequently had fewer men for patrols, for fire support, and for guard at night. Second, in order to fill the ranks, the replacements were sent up to their squads without any satisfactory pre-battle orientation. The squads never had a chance to get really organized and worked into a reasonable team. Casualties among these raw recruits were relatively high. From the view- point of these boys, things were really rather dismal, and had a natural tendency to discourage that dash and self-sacrificing spirit which one sees in the movies and the picture books.
The cost of the offensive was more apparent to the soldiers of First Army than were the gains. The original objectives set by Army had not been attained except in the St-Lo area, where the distance to the objective was least. Nevertheless, the ground won was sufficient for General Bradley's main purpose. Whatever the hopes at the start, the Battle of the Hedgerows evolved into an effort to win jump-off positions for a great break-through effort: by 18 July, suitable positions had been won. VII and XIX Corps had fought past the area of marshes and river where maneuver room was limited, and were firmly set in the higher, more favorable country near the St-Lo-Periers highway. Here, from the front won by the 9th and 30th Divisions, the opening blow could be launched. And the gains made east of the Vire by XIX Corps, while not used for a breakthrough base, would be of essential value to the main effort. On the one hand, the loss of St-Lo deprived the enemy of a main road center, weakened his chances to meet the forthcoming drive by maneuver from the east, and forced him to guard against a possible further attack up the right bank of the Vire; on the other hand, our capture of St-Lo and the high ground around it gave First Army solid protection on the left flank of the planned zone of breakthrough.
The fruits of the Battle of the Hedgerows were thus to be realized in Operation COBRA. Buildup, regrouping, and other preparations for that decisive offensive were well under way by the middle of the month, and the original target date was 18 July. Weather forced postponements and gave the enemy a breathing spell; the days from 18 to 22 July were marked by rains that were outstanding even in that wet month, turning the battle zone into a quagmire and postponing the jump-off. But on 25 July the armor, infantry, artillery, and air power assembled for COBRA began the attack that broke through to Marigny and St-Gilles, opening the way for the destruction of Seventh army in the Campaign of France.
The Battle of the Hedgerows contributed to this success in other ways than by gain of important tactical ground. First Army's losses were heavy, but, relatively, the German Seventh army had suffered much more. Many of its units, like the mixed battle groups composing the 352d Division, were exhausted to a point where they could no longer be counted on for sustained effort. None
of them could be withdrawn from the front. By keeping pressure on the whole line from the coast to Berigny, General Bradley had not only prevented the enemy from regrouping, but had worn down his last immediate reserves for use against a breakthrough. Enemy armor, especially, had been committed to the line in driblets and used up in the hedgerow battles. German strength on the whole Seventh Army sector was strained to the breaking point.
No better evidence for this could be found than in the pages of Seventh Army’s War Diary. Its commander was well aware that the American army could launch a blow in greater strength than the Germans had yet faced. He suspected that before 20 July plans for such an offensive were under way, and even predicted that the likely sector was the area between Periers and St-Lo. He judged (on 20 July) that the position of the German MLR was not favorable for defense, except on the Lessay sector. But, with all this, there was little that SS General Houser could do to meet the expected crisis. His losses in the July battle, unlike the American losses, had not been compensated by
replacements; Seventh Army even found it worthy of note when a replacement group of 180 men reached the front. His supply situation was so bad that, to take artillery ammunition as one index, shortages were predicted on 20 July in several important categories-and German expenditure was bitterly contrasted to the American in ratios of 1 to 10 or even 20. Air support was almost nonexistent, and this affected both the combat and the supply situation. At a conference on 20 July with Field Marshal Kluge, the Seventh Army commander requested that German air combat the "particularly obnoxious artillery observation planes, and the heavy bombers and fighter bombers, at least once in a while" as a needed boost for troop morale.
On 21 July the War Diary reads: “After the capture of St-Lo the enemy discontinued his attack for the time being. Since then there has been a striking silence all over the Army area both day and night which suggests enemy movements behind the front-it is expected that the enemy will launch another large-scale attack west of the Vire."
|CC B||Combat Command B|
|LD||Line of Departure|
|MLR||Main Line of Resistance|
|T/O||Table of Organization|
page updated 4 October 2002
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