One of my favourite wargames periods is the Battle for Normandy in 1944, particularly the bit of it that involves British forces. I have spent many weeks in Normandy over the years and have visited many of the sites of famous (or not so famous) actions. One of my favourite ways to spend a day out is to cycle round the countryside with a battlefield guidebook in hand.
Perhaps the defining feature of the Normandy campaign, the main thing that differentiates it from all other WWII campaigns, is the bocage, the close packed terrain with distinctive hedges that’s found all over Normandy. It’s a common misconception among wargamers that this terrain was only found in the American sector of the battle. This is just not true, the sector fought over by British and Commonwealth troops has many areas of bocage, though it is not as extensive as it was in the American sector and there were many wide open spaces in the British sector. There’s also bocage to be found in Brittany, in the Vendee, and the terrain in some parts of South West England is very similar indeed.
What is the bocage
In 1944 the US Army produced a pamphlet called Combat Lessons Number 4. A publication produced to “give our officers and enlisted men the benefit of the battle experiences of others”. It includes an article entitled “Fighting in Normandy” which includes the following description of the bocage country.
“The terrain in the area selected for the initial penetration of French soil was generally level or gently sloping. However, it was broken up into a “crazy quilt” pattern of small fields separated by “hedgerows.” These consisted of an earthen mound or wall 8 to 10 feet in width and 4 to 6 feet in height, covered with a scrub undergrowth.”
And the following diagram
Captain Michael D Doubler,(1988) Busting the Bocage: American Combined operations in France 6 June – 31 July 1944, Combat Studies Institute (available at 1.usa.gov/AmeToa ) wrote:
The hedgerows are sturdy embankments, half earth, half hedge. At their base, they resemble dirt parapets and vary in thickness from one to four feet, with heights that range from three to fifteen feet. Growing out of this earthen wall is a hedge that consists of small trees and tangles of vines and brush. This vegetation has a thickness of between one to three feet and varies in height from three to fifteen feet.
In other pages on this site I have some pictures taken in the bocage country in 1944 and others taken recently on several visits I’ve made to Normandy. Take a look at them and you’ll see a good many examples of these earthen banks covered with vegetation.
What you won’t see is anything looking like the models of dry stone walls with hedges growing out of them, what I call Mocage , that are passed off as bocage hedges on so many wargames tables.