What was the worst thing about being a soldier assigned to the invasion of Normandy? Probably the beaches with Nazi machine guns raining hell down, right?
Well, some historians make a pretty good case that it was actually the French gardens and farms that spread throughout Normandy.
While American farms and yards are split by fences — split rail fences in the early days and mostly barbed wire by the World War II years — the farms in Normandy were split by ancient hedgerows.
Originally built by the Romans, the hedgerows were mounds of dirt raised in irregular patterns that served as fences between plots of land. Irrigation ditches with raised sides provided water to all the fields and animals.
Over the hundreds of years since the dirt mounds were raised, thick, tall growths of plants had turned the ditches into tunnels and raised virtual walls of up to 16 feet on top of the mounds.
Normandy, France, July 15, 1944. (Painting by Keith Rucco for The National Guard)
These wall of vegetation were thick and seemingly impossible to quickly cut through. And the hedgerows were everywhere, an aerial photo of a typical section of the battlefield showed over 3,900 hedged enclosures in less than eight square miles.
Each of these enclosures was a virtual fortress, and the Germans had spent months preparing their defenses. They practiced moving through the hedges, selected areas for machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and practiced firing from trees into nearby enclosures.
Perhaps most importantly, they had planted stakes near the most likely routes of American troops and had mapped the locations of the stakes by coordinates, allowing defenders to quickly and accurately call fire onto the advancing Allies.
Compounding the problem was the irregular shape of the enclosures. The rows weren’t laid out in a proper grid. Instead, they were roughly rectangular as a whole, but with a variety of sizes even among adjoining fields. And all of these fields were connected primarily by thin wagon trails that wound through the irregular enclosures.
All of this combined to form a defender’s paradise and an attacker’s hell. In the first days of the Battle for the Hedgerows, American troops would assault an enclosure at full speed, attempting to use velocity and violence of action to overwhelm the defenders. German machine guns pointed directly at these openings cut them down instead.
While the German defenses in the hedgerows greatly delayed the American advance, the Allies did eventually find a way to breakthrough. At first, armored and infantry units had worked largely independent of each other. The tanks had tried to stay on the move to avoid German anti-tank weapons and artillery while the infantry had slowed down to try and avoid ambushes.
But Sgt. Curtis Grubb Culin III, an armor soldier from New Jersey, figured out the fix. He welded a bar across the front of the tank and added four metal prongs across it. The prongs acted as plows and cutters, allowing the tanks to push through the hedgerows, destroying the obstacles without exposing any of the tanks’ weak points.
This allowed the tanks to cut new routes for the infantry while reducing their own vulnerabilities as well. The Allied soldiers began engaging in a true combined arms manner with tanks opening the way and infantrymen advancing just behind.
The infantry would help quickly knock out anti-tank weapons while the tanks could help destroy fortified machine gun nests and cut through hedgerow after hedgerow.
To see what the American GIs had to fight through, check out this video: