Nearly two months ago, the world’s eyes turned to the west coast of France for the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in World War II. Many believe that single day was the battle of Normandy, that by June 7, 1944 the beachhead was secure and the war all but won.
But the story of the Battle of Normandy is a much more difficult story than that; and while tens of thousands of people gathered for the anniversary of the beginning of the battle, it’s likely very few will be there this Friday for the anniversary of the end of the battle.
“But wait,” you say. “I saw ‘Saving Private Ryan.’ They won the beaches by the end of the day!”
The beaches were only the beginning. And in some ways, taking the beaches was the easier – but by no means easy – part.
As the U.S. Army began mapping out a cross-channel invasion of France, planners correctly put a ton of time and effort into solving the problem of how to get on the beaches, up the cliffs, and across the marshes.
What they gave far, far less attention to was what came next: Hedgerows. In the eyes of the planners, hedges couldn’t possibly be a problem. Bushes? We’re not going to have a problem with bushes? This is the United States Army.
But the hedgerows of Normandy are unlike anything most Americans can imagine, earthen embankments anywhere from 4 to 8 feet high. Trees grow along the tops, and brambles are planted on all sides – nature’s barbed wire, to keep the region’s legendary dairy stock contained.
Nor were the fields of hedgerow country in the nice rectangular field shapes we’re used to in the land of the Northwest Ordinance. Plots were often an acre or less, and the hedges enclosed irregular field shapes a millennia old. Essentially, Normandy was a crooked maze of small, razor-topped earthen walls.
The hedgerows were inherently favorable to defenders, and difficult to attack. Defenders could dig into well-concealed positions, and wait for offensive forces to first break through the other side of the enclosed field, carefully aim their fire, and then open up on attackers as they spilled into the flat, open field in the middle.
“This was wicked fighting terrain – full of hedgerows, which the Jerry manned with automatic weapons, freely interspersed with riflemen,” wrote Lt. Col. Henry Neilson of the 331st Infantry Regiment. “Observation was limited to the next hedgerow and usually the first inkling you had of the Jerry’s whereabouts was a rifle shot or a burst from a machine pistol, bagging one of or more of our men.”
There were no shortcuts to attack the hedgerows; at least, not at first. Casualties were so heavy for the 2nd and 3rd battalions that they couldn’t hold the land they had gained. Officers and men fell by the score. The 331st Regiment would go through six commanding officers in six days in early of July. On July 4 – Independence Day - about 150 of the 200 men of E Company would be killed and most of the survivors, badly injured.
The carnage in the hedgerows would continue through the month of July. Finally, on July 26, 1944, a massive breakout operation shook the American forces free of the hedgerows, out of Normandy, and storming into the rest of France. The price, however, was monstrous.
On D-Day, about 4,500 Americans were killed or injured in taking the beaches. In the period between June 7 and July 24, there were 52,000 more casualties. It is wonderful that we remember the men who took the beaches each June – but perhaps we should consider what came after, too.