The Bocage Myth: Allied Planners Did Not Leave Out the Norman Hedgerows in Planning D-Day

Last week I received a phone call at work from FOX News in Washington D. C. They wanted to send a crew up here to look at the items we hold concerning the D-Day landings that occurred on June 6, 1944. That very same day, a box of items was found in our classification vault. The box was from the Arthur S. Nevins Collection. Nevins was Eisenhower’s assistant in the War Plans Division, on the Army’s General Staff, and a close friend of the Supreme Commander. The documents within the box include a document from June 5, 1944, seventy years ago today, detailing how the Allied Commanders met in the early hours of the morning to discuss Operation OVERLORD. This was one meeting in a long series regarding the execution of the invasion of Normandy, and featured great concern over “chancey” weather conditions. The document pictured here are pages 1 and 2 of the original copy of the memorandum of record detailing the final Commanders’ Meetings, which occurred on June 4, 1944, at 9:30 PM, and again on June 5, 1944, at 4:15am.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

For decades now it has been almost taken as gospel that Ike and the rest of the Allied planners completely failed in even noticing the bocage, the notorious Norman hedgerows that held up the US Army inland during the Normandy campaign. The bocage slowed the Allied assault down for the rest of June and the better part of July, until Bradley’s Operation COBRA began a breakout of that bitterly contested French countryside towards the end of July 1944. COBRA was a success, but many Americans had died fighting in the small country lanes of Normandy. Immediately and now for decades afterward, the blame was laid at the feet of men like Eisenhower, Bradley, and their staffs.

Interestingly, also within Nevins’ collection is a photo, map, and some documents pertaining to the bocage:

A map showing the locations of the bocage countryside.  From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI

A map showing the locations of the bocage countryside. From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

An aerial photograph from the Nevins Collection, showing just some of the hundreds of hedgerows the Americans had to contend with in June-July 1944. Photo by Guy Nasuti

An aerial photograph from the Nevins Collection, showing just some of the hundreds of hedgerows the Americans had to contend with in June-July 1944.

Included within that same folder is a typed report on the forests and bocage. I’m including a photo of the document (as well as a close-up of the same page) which discusses the bocage and how they may or may not be useful to the men that had to do the fighting in the fierce French foliage. In my estimation, the planners did not leave out the bocage, but perhaps in typical military thinking, just figured they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. England also has hedgerows, although they are quite different from the ones in France. The English hedgerows were typically smaller and not as thick as the French bocage. American troops had conducted training in these smaller English hedgerows, but it took good ‘ol American ingenuity to cut through the denser ones in France as the GIs also had to learn how to launch attacks against Germans making good use of the bocage.

I have not come across any evidence showing the Allies totally ignored the bocage, so where did this long-held belief of negligent military intelligence come from (other than the oft-mocked oxymoron “military intelligence” itself)? Surely Allied operatives and French Resistance members on the scene relayed information on Normandy’s terrain back to England before the invasion. Was it then just a fundamental misunderstanding on how large these formations could be? Some confusion is obvious from a statement within the report itself, and I quote: “It is difficult to judge whether such terrain favors defending or attacking infantry.” So in some ways, perhaps, the Allies did not know what the French bocage was all about. But to state they missed it or ignored it is completely false. In any case, the Germans once again made great and strong defenses from the hedgerows, as they had the bombed-out abbey at Monte Cassino, and as they would again later in the Hurtgen Forest, making the Allies pay dearly in blood for every square-inch of ground gained during the war.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

From the Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

And a close-up of the same document:

Close-up of the document detailing the bocage in the French countryside of Normandy.  Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

Close-up of the document detailing the bocage in the French countryside of Normandy. Arthur S. Nevins Collection, USAMHI.

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4 comments on “The Bocage Myth: Allied Planners Did Not Leave Out the Norman Hedgerows in Planning D-Day

  1. David Navarre says:

    Guy, have you visited Normandy and seen the remaining actual hedgerows? 12-20 feet wide at the base, 6-10 feet high, with dense, entangling underbrush. Saying that tanks could penetrate most hedgerows is wildly inaccurate. Even when specially equipped, the tanks still had to judicious in their choices. If you have time to travel, we can set you up with the right guides to hire and the right house to rent.

  2. I have often wondered why the Bocage seemed to catch the Allies by surprise. Surely you had to have first-hand accounts from those who had been to France, those who have fled the region to England as well as the Maquis to communicate how thick the Bocage was to Allied Intelligence. Aerial reconnaissance could show you the Bocage but not in a 3-D view to gauge how thick and tall it was. Thankfully Yankee ingenuity helped us penetrate the Bocage but give the German credit for using it as cover for a well-executed defense that kept the Allies bogged down in Normandy until the breakout in late July with Operation Cobra.

    • navyphoto22 says:

      That is pretty much my argument as well. And the documents show that the Allies did know about the bocage. I just don’t think they knew the extent of them (height, width, and that kind of thing). At one instance in the document about the bocage, the planners state they are unsure whether the hedgerows will be used better for offense or defense. I think the Germans, being the defenders, made great use of them, as they often did defending anything. The attacking Americans had to improvise tactics on-the-spot for fighting in that terrain.

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