First Action in the Hedgerows of Normandy

Thursday, September 4th, 2014

Gen. DePuy explains his first action in the hedgerows of Normandy, when he was a young captain:

Most of Normandy consists of small fields — pastures and gardens — surrounded by sunken roads and divided by hedgerows. Let me say something about our first attack. We were astride the road to Gourbesville near Amfreville. The regimental plan was to attack with one battalion on each side of the road, and one battalion, the 2nd Battalion, in reserve. The 1st Battalion was on the left. We attacked straight ahead with two companies up and one in reserve to follow in center of sector. Each of the forward companies lined up two platoons abreast with two squads on line in the most classic formation out of the book. The artillery preparation was fired with the 105mms in fairly close along the hedgerows and the 155mms a little deeper. The mortars fired at the first hedgerow.

After about 10 minutes of fire the battalion moved forward. When the lead companies crossed the second or third hedgerow they came under very heavy small arms fire and were caught in an open field. I do not believe that any of our troops fired their weapons after the first few minutes. When the attack stopped the Germans threw a heavy barrage of mortar fire into the first and second small fields between the Line of Departure and the forward line of troops. Casualties were very heavy. We had walked into his killing ground. After 30 minutes the lead companies came back to the second hedgerow and that was it. The other battalion had only slightly more success
but was also repulsed. An effort to move the reserve company around the left flank resulted in a single file movement up a sunken road into some German machine gun fire which terminated the first attack of the 1st Battalion, 357th Infantry — all in all, a dismal affair.

For five more days the regiment continued its attack toward Gourbesville. On the 14th of June, at 2020 hours, elements of the 3rd Battalion worked around the right (north) flank and entered the town, but were forced out the next day. By 2240 on the 15th, the 3rd Battalion had recaptured Gourbesville. This was the first substantial objective seized by the regiment. But, it cost the lives of hundreds of brave junior officers and soldiers. This was a great bloodletting without much to show in return. Consideration was given to the idea of breaking up the division and using it as replacements but fortunately, that course was rejected and the division eventually pulled itself together through on-the-job training and the slow emergence of fighters and leaders through a process of seasoning and natural selection.

A lot of work was done on trying to analyze the way the Germans defended. We finally did figure it out. The Germans would assign a squad to a terrain compartment. In other words, one series of hedgerowed fields like checkerboards. The Germans would put about two men on the first hedgerow, usually near the corners. The next hedgerow back would be their main position, and the third hedgerow back would be their reserve position. So, when you started the attack, the first two guys would knock off one or two of the attackers and slow things down. Then you had to go over the top of that hedgerow in the face of the main position. You suffered more casualties, and normally, that ended the attack.

The troops would straggle back, and you would end up taking just one hedgerow. That was typical. Now, if you happened to carry the second hedgerow, the whole German squad would drop back to the third one. As far as we were concerned, we rarely ever took the third hedgerow. Eventually, what we tried to do was to figure out how to suppress this system with indirect fire. We put the 60mms on the first hedgerow, the 81mms on the second hedgerow, the 105mms on the third hedgerow and the 155mms back on the roads and reserve areas — and then we tried to ensure that the attack would have enough impetus to simply carry through the whole thing. Toward the end of the campaign, we made one or two such attacks successfully.

But, what we finally learned, which is what all seasoned soldiers finally learn, is not to attack them where they are. The way we cracked those positions was simply by finding a hole somewhere around the flank. Find a hole, get through that hole and get in their rear, and then the whole bloody thing would collapse. Then you’d have them in the open. That’s the kind of thing I wished we had learned during the two years we were training in the United States and during the three months we were training in England.

I wish someone had told us that simple fact — don’t attack them where they are strong, but try to find a weak spot and go through the weak spot. Of course all of this was in the field manuals, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t transmitted to us, or perhaps more honestly, it didn’t sink in. We learned it the hard way and from then on, until the end of the war, all of the good commanders fought their battles by looking for a way around the enemy; they practically never went straight forward. Every time we had to go straight forward, we took high casualties as, indeed, we will in our Army today, if we train our people to take the hill straight on. The thing to do is to go around and behind the enemy, and then they will have to come out.


  1. I was astounded by this segment:

    Colonel “X” was a strange case. He seldom ventured outside the command post. On operational matters he was simply not involved. He left that entirely up to me and I always talked to the battalion commanders before orders were issued. Colonel “X” spent considerable time standing before the map board coloring the forests green, the rivers blue, the towns black, and the fields brown. The operations sergeant kept him supplied with crayons. Eventually he was relieved. The regiment barely noticed his presence.

  2. Toddy Cat says:

    Every army seems to have to re-learn the “no frontal attacks” rule in the early days of every war, and learn it with their own blood. No wonder Liddell-Hart and all the other “indirect approach” guys were always so worked up.

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