A lot of horrible things happen in a war— surprise bombings, gas attacks, probably a shower of bullets. It could’ve been any of those during the invasion of Normandy but what made it hell for the soldiers were the little French farms that welcomed them: the hedgerows.

D-Day Invasion

The Battle of the Normandy was the Allies’ operation to invade Western Europe that the Germans occupied. About 160,000 troops crossed the English channel on the first day of the invasion. The Allied forces failed on the first day (more of that later on) but eventually succeeded after capturing the port at Cherbourg.

Hedgerows

The hedgerows in the French countryside. Photo from The Platers Aid

The farms in Normandy were divided by ancient hedgerows. They are fences or boundaries “formed by a dense row of shrubs or low trees. Hedgerows enclose or separate fields, protect the soil from wind erosion, and serve to keep cattle and other livestock enclosed.” It is said that the Romans started the practice before the 18th century. They often included stone walls as well that farmers had dug up out of the soil to prepare the fields for crops.

Hedgerows in the D-Day Invasion

Hedgerows, however, served an entirely different purpose during WWII. When the allies arrived in June 1944, they were welcomed by these walls of vegetation as high as 16 feet on top of the mounds. Cutting through them seemed impossible. As per Battle of Normandy Tours, it “made defense easier and attack more difficult. The Germans had used the previous two weeks of inaction to construct strong defenses, and when the American Army resumed its attacks south, they soon ran into stiff resistance.” We’re talking about some 3,900 hedge enclosures in an eight-square-mile area.

You see, for the Allied troops to make an effective attack, they had to survey and see the whole terrain, if not the majority of it. Without that, they wouldn’t be able to make a proper course of action. The irregular hedges made it hard for them to see the whole situation, as well as lines of fire.

On the second day of the Normandy invasion along hedgerows near Sainte-Mère-Eglise, dead German soldiers and their equipment fill a ditch while a wounded American is being treated nearby. Sainte-Mere-Eglise in WWII by Philip Barnett/Pinterest

Meanwhile, this was a great advantage for the German who practiced moving through these hedges. According to DDay Overlord, “On the other hand, the soldier in a defensive position is in a strong position if he has taken into account the characteristics of the terrain. The Germans know the Norman hedgerow because it has been occupied for nearly four years. The maneuvers multiplied in Normandy, and the teachings for the Wehrmacht and the armored divisions were legion. Soldiers and tank leaders learned to take advantage of the terrain to camouflage their positions as best they could.

On the one hand, they flooded a large part of the land to the south and southwest of Veys Bay. On the other hand, they judiciously avoided touching the hedges which form a natural wall. Only hedges in the near support points are cut for obvious reasons of observation and fire opening capacity.”

On the first day of the invasion, the American troops tried to assault these enclosures at full speed in hopes that their velocity and violence would work. They were met with murderous German machine-gun fire, mortars, and dug in fighting positions.  If the Germans could be flanked or displaced, they would simply retreat to the next raised section of the field and resume fighting. American tanks climbing the mounts would expose their bellies and flanks to Panzerfaust anti-tank rounds if they could even climb the often steep angle of the raised borders at all. Most were about 15 feet high.

Rhino Tank

A Sherman ‘Rhino’ variant, modified to cut through the hedgerows of the bocage countryside, Normandy 1944.

These hedgerow fortresses proved to be deadly and effective in slowing down the Americans, but not for long because Sgt. Curtis Grubb Culin III soon figured out a way to breach these barriers. He came up with the “Rhino Tank,” Allied tanks welded a steel beam to the front of their tanks, and added four metal prongs across it that served as the “tusks.” These tusks made it possible for the Allies to plow and cut through the hedgerows and create a path for the infantrymen.  Several Shermans could create openings in the wall and bring cannon and machine fire onto the defenders of the wall across from them. It was a joint effort of men and machine— the infantry could pour through these openings to eliminate anti-tank weapons while the tanks were used to cut through hedgerow after hedgerow and destroy nests of machine guns. These tusks were made from steel beams used by the Germans to create anti-tank obstacles called “Czech hedgehogs” on the Normandy beaches.

In August 1944,  three months into the invasion, the allied armies were finally able to break out of the Normandy beachhead and begin driving the Germans back across the Rhine.

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