US infantry v Fallschirmjäger in the ‘bocage’

Three US soldiers advance beside a typical thickly grown hedge in the bocage.
Three US soldiers advance beside a typical thickly grown hedge in the bocage.

In Normandy the US First army had pushed across the base of the Cotentin peninsula and were moving on Cherbourg where it was hoped the Allies would gain the advantage of a major sea port.

The terrain was dominated by the French ‘bocage’ or box country. Here the small fields and narrow country lanes were surrounded by dense hedges built on earthen banks. This was ideal defensive territory, especially in the thick summer foliage, and the Germans exploited it fully.

Sergeant Bob Slaughter had survived the carnage of Omaha but he and the men of the 116th Infantry had plenty more horrors to face up to. They were still in the thick of the action. On 14th June they captured Couvain and this was just one episode amongst many that Slaughter describes:

The sight of another terrible death that occurred at this time haunts my dreams to this day. My squad and I were digging a machine gun emplacement behind a scrubby hedgerow. We had just finished fixing the camouflage when I happened to see a junior officer with field glasses scanning the front. I could tell he was a newly arrived replacement. His uniform and equipment were relatively new and unworn.

The sharp report of an 88mm fired from nearby sent me diving. At the same time, the high explosive missile hit the lieutenant’s upper torso. The 2nd Squad and I were splattered with gore as the spotter was blown backward, minus his head. Number two gunner Private First Class Sal Augeri vomited, and I nearly did, too.

The dreaded German sniper was almost as highly respected as the 88. Sharpshooters gave no warning, taking careful aim with sniper-scoped Mausers. The receiving end would hear the sharp crack and instantaneous whine of the bullet. If you heard the report of the bullet leaving the muzzle, it wasn’t for you.

German snipers nearly always aimed for the head if it was visible and in range. Most infantrymen never removed their helmets except when they shaved. I confess that I slept in mine. The 8mm bullet could easily pass through the helmet, through the head, and out the other side with enough energy left to do more damage.

I saw men get hit between the eyes or just above the ears, which killed them instantly. If the bullet missed the helmet, the entry hole was usually neat and showed only a small trickle of blood. But after the steel-jacket bullet hit the helmet or skull, the bullet flattened, causing the exit wound to shatter the other side of the head away.

The 1st Battalion advanced toward Couvains from the west, double file, marching cautiously down a sunken dirt road just wide enough for a horse cart. We were flanked by hedgerows four to five eet high, and covered with a canopy of overhanging foliage.

Intermittent mortar and artillery rounds were coming in ahead, which kept us on our toes. German communication trenches two feet wide and three feet deep were dug along on both sides of the road. These shallow ditches protected enemy communication wire from being cut by artillery.

As we moved closer to town, the foliage overhead thinned enough to reveal the steeple of the Catholic church, the first edifice we saw as we approached. The closer we got to the steeple, the more accurate the 88mm and mortar fire. Suddenly, the banshee scream of an 88mm shell sounded as if it had my number written all over it. Sh-boom!

I dove headfirst into the left ditch, losing my helmet and almost my neck. Somehow the exploding shell missed hitting anyone; we were keeping a space between men.

Picking myself up to brush off my uniform, I saw a strange and shocking sight. On the edge of the ditch lay a German forearm. Part of the uniform sleeve was there, with the elbow, arm, hand, and all fingers intact. I wondered what had happened to the rest of that poor bastard. I never did find out.

I climbed back on the path, shaken but unscathed. Within minutes, I had another surprise. As I approached an opening on the right side of the hedgerow, I heard someone moaning.

Crawling carefully through the opening, I came face-to-face with a young German paratrooper, who had been hit by a large chunk of shrapnel. He had a very serious upper thigh wound, and his left trouser leg was bloody and torn.

This was my first encounter with the enemy up close. The German paratrooper is a fierce and fanatical warrior, easily distinguishable by his round helmet and baggy smock. My first reaction was to put him out of his misery and keep going.

In fact Slaughter responded to the pleas of the young German , who he realised was about the same age of him, and applied a tourniquet and first aid.

See Omaha Beach and Beyond: The Long March of Sergeant Bob Slaughter

 German Fallschirmjäger or paratrooper with MG 42 machine gun in Normandy 1944.
German Fallschirmjäger or paratrooper with MG 42 machine gun in Normandy 1944.
A US army patrol in one of the narrow country lanes in Normandy.
A US army patrol in one of the narrow country lanes in Normandy.

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