Blagg: Nightmare just beginning
It was interesting, and sobering, to watch the various memorials to the D-Day landings on Normandy back in June of 1944. Dignitaries went to ceremonies honoring the dead and soldiers of different nations who had participated were asked, once again, to remember the hours they spent in fear as they rushed out of their landing craft in the face of withering German firepower.
Military historians will tell you that although the battles on the beaches capture modern imagination, it was actually the weeks after D-Day that took the greatest toll of Allied lives.
Once ashore, American, British, Canadian and Free French forces had to make their way inland through what is probably the worst landscape for an attacker that can be imagined.
The “bocage” country was tailor-made for the defending Germans. Centuries of French farmers had marked the boundaries between their small fields with hedges of hawthorn, brambles, vines, and small trees. Over the years, the hedges had accumulated a dirt base varying in thickness from 1 to 4 or more feet and in height from 3 to 12 feet.
These “hedgerows” provided perfect cover for defenders and kept Allied tanks from moving off road. Any tank attempting to push through a hedgerow usually reared up, exposing its vulnerable belly armor to anti-tank weapons such as the German Panzerfaust rockets.
After a nightmarish month of fighting from field to field, a sergeant in the 2nd Armored Division named Curtis G. Culin came up with a method of breaching the hedgerows. He used scrap steel from the German beach obstacles to weld a series of teeth on the front of a Sherman tank. The teeth cut through the hedgerow roots and allowed the tank to burst through without rearing up.
The invention was instantly adopted by the Army, allowing the tanks to provide firepower badly needed by the infantry. But the fighting was still intense and costly, and it wasn’t until the open landscape inland was reached that we were able to break out and drive deep into occupied France.
To give an idea of the cost of this battle, the 12,000 men of the 82nd Airborne Division, who jumped or rode gliders into France on the first day of the invasion, suffered some 1,260 casualties on D-Day. That includes those who died in aircraft shot down, in glider crashes, or who jumped into flooded terrain or suffered chute failures, as well as those who were killed in combat after they landed.
The division was relieved after 33 days, and lost 5,250 men — some 43 percent — killed, wounded or captured.
The D-Day landings in Normandy were a huge gamble, which could have resulted in a horrible defeat for Allied forces. Going ashore on the five beaches and then driving inland while facing veteran German forces required grit and determination and sacrifice.
Honoring the men and women who made that victory possible is the least we can do, and I was glad to see the major effort that was made this year — something that is increasingly important as the number of veterans dwindles over time.
Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.