The Armoured Campaign In Normandy

Armoured campaign cover

Beginning with the D-day landings, this is a brutally frank appraisal of the planned use and actual results of the deployment of armour by both German and Allied commanders in the major tank battles of the Normandy campaign including operations Epsom, Goodwood, Cobra and Totalize.

The Armoured Campaign in Normandy is a critique of Montgomery’s plans to seize territory and break out and describes how they failed in the face of German resistance.

It details the poor planning and mistakes of British senior commanders and how the German Army’s convoluted chain of command contributed to their own defeat; these were decisions taken which cost the lives of the tank crews of both sides ordered to carry them out.

Official reports, war diaries, after action reports, letters, regimental histories, memoirs of generals and recollections of tank men are used to tell the inside story of the campaign from an armour point of view to give a different but detailed perspective of the Normandy campaign from the men who fought in it.

The bocage countryside was unlike anything the US Army had operated in before and proved to be a formidable obstacle to the separate infantry, tank and artillery units. Not only were the hedgerows themselves obstacles but the German soldiers effectively utilised them to form a series of strong defensive positions by burrowing into the earthen banks at the base of the hedge to make shelters and firing slits.

These shelters were then covered with tree branches and soil so as to make them virtually impenetrable to American artillery fire. Machine guns, some of them operating remotely, were fired on fixed arcs from positions in the hedgerows to cover the open field and flanking hedgerows.

Observers for artillery and mortar batteries climbed trees in the hedgerows behind those being attacked to call down fire on the attackers. Where available, well-camouflaged tanks were positioned about zoyds apart as close as possible to the hedgerows and used as armoured fortifications with a squad of panzergrenadiers nearby for protection.

Provided the Americans could not outflank such positions, they were almost indestructible and were only vulnerable to a direct hit by a large calibre artillery shell. Anti-tank guns were set up to cover the only gaps in the hedgerows that allowed vehicles to enter the fields and thus eliminate any attempts to outflank a position.

Throughout June and the first half of July, most American infantry and armoured officers gained first—hand experience of the bocage and studied the problem of fighting in the hedgerows. The challenge was to combine the mobility and firepower of the separate arms so as to create a combined team that could rapidly fight its way through the hedges of successive fields.

An example of the scale of the problem is described in this report from the history of the 17th SS Panzer Division:

“At a range of 400-500 metres, an American tank cut a hole in the wall and hedgerow with its cutting spade. The tank commander went into a well-concealed firing position with his tank. An American tank drove through the gap, exhibiting no apparent concern, and out into the meadow. Three more of the same followed. As the fifth one showed itself in the gap, the right moment had come for the tank commander. The first round from his 75mm gun tore the turret off the American. The American tank stayed there, burning, and blocked the gap. The other four then fired in every direction, except at our panzer. Before they had figured out where their enemy was, the tank commander had knocked them all out.“

An obvious part of the solution was the need for infantry and tanks to work closely together in order to mutually support each other and harness the firepower of the tank’s machine guns and main armament. The infantry had to protect the tanks so that the tanks could engage and neutralise enemy fire directed at them. The tanks provided a mobile platform for both machine guns to suppress enemy defences (thus allowing their own infantry to manoeuvre) and for the 75mm cannons to fire high explosive shells at enemy positions and anti-tank guns as a form of mobile artillery.

For the tanks and infantry to work together more effectively, problems of communication had to be overcome. In the din of battle and the noise of the operating tanks themselves, it was difficult for the infantry to communicate with the tanks, which in any case were often closed up. One infantry ofiicer fired his pistol at the turret of a tank in order to get its attention, and when the tank commander opened his hatch, he was promptly shot by a sniper in a nearby tree. Hand signals were not very efficient and so telephone handsets were provided on the rear deck of tanks for the infantry to talk to the crew inside via the tank’s intercom system.

Radio communications were also improved with more radio sets being issued to the infantry. A practice that worked well was for an infantry officer to ride in the command tank of the supporting armoured unit while in radio contact with his own infantry so that tanks could quickly be directed to where they were required.

The Allied air superiority allowed the artillery units of the infantry division to make liberal use of spotter planes above the battlefield, which quickly allowed heavy and accurate artillery fire to be provided when required. Again, extra radios and communication links (especially VHF radios) between the ground and the air facilitated this process.

Improved tank/infantry cooperation was, however, only part of the problem. A means of physically forcing access to the fields through the hedgerows where the Germans were not expecting an attack was needed to outflank German positions. The most successful way to force a gap in the hedgerows was with bulldozers, but as these were not plentiful or heavily armoured and were prone to breaking down, other methods were experimented with.

One of these was to use explosives buried in the base of the hedgerow; this method, although often successful in creating a gap when the correct amount of explosive was used, still signalled the Germans as to the direction of the coming attack. The transport and placement of the explosives could also be a hazardous process for those men involved if under German mortar or artillery fire. As it was time consuming to bury sufficient charges, two steel prongs were welded to the front of an M4 tank to make holes in the earthen bank into which the explosive charges could be quickly inserted. It was then found by accident that an M4 tank with these prongs could force a gap completely through the hedge without the front of the tank rising up and exposing the thinly armoured underside of the tank to enemy fire.

Various types of hedge cutters were devised by different units and fixed to the front of M4 tanks to enable a tank to ram a hedgerow and smash its way through a small section to make a gap to allow the entry of a waiting platoon of tanks into the field. The most famous and effective device was that devised by Sergeant Culin of the 102nd Cavalry Reconnaissance Squadron in the 2nd Armored Division. Hundreds of Culin’s device and other designs utilising similar metal forks and blades were hastily manufactured and welded to M4 tanks in time for Operation Cobra.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Phil Goodwin August 5, 2015 at 7:37 pm

Still nothing on the 14th Army in Burma…..or have I missed it?…..the Burma campaign never seems to get a mention.

anne mcaulay bogle August 5, 2015 at 12:14 am

My gran and grandfather were bombed in kitchener street. They and their 9 children made their way to Houston where they squatted in a vacant house. Supported by the local people they made it to the end of the war. By that time my dad, youngest of the nine was 9 years old. My mother was local to Houston and met my Dad at primary. They were gping together agef 15. lots more to tell. x

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