Commentary: In the immediate aftermath of D-Day the Allies fought through Normandy. And the fight here was tough. Much tougher than the Allied commanders had believed it would be. The high hedges – part of what was known as ‘bocage’ country – offered ideal cover for the German defenders. And several weeks after the Allies had landed, key objectives – which were supposed to have been taken in the first twenty four hours – still remained in enemy hands.
Antony Beevor: One has to remember that the battle of the bocage and the way that they had to advance south towards the Périers-Saint-Lô road, which was going to be their start line for Operation Cobra - the final breakthrough and breakout - all of that was a very bloody business. I mean, the Germans themselves described it as a ‘dirty bush war’, and it was. And neither the British nor the Americans were really prepared for that fighting in the bocage.
Words of Joseph Argenzio (US soldier): It was horrendous. They had us pinned down and you couldn’t get through the hedgerows. But the hedgerows, they had everything. They had it down to a science – how to defend them and where to drop the mortars in on us, how to bring their tanks around hedges.
Words of Edwin Bramall (King’s Royal Rifle Corps): June, hot weather, stinking to high heaven. I turned to my mate, I says, ‘I can’t take much more of this.’ He said, ‘I feel the same way, but we’ve got to hold it together.’ But that’s the way you get, you know. You’re scared that the next time it’s going to be you. Because every time they send over a salvo they get somebody.1
Commentary: The battle fought here in the middle of June, around Villers-Bocage in the centre of Normandy, epitomized the problem the Allies faced. One small German defensive unit destroyed a dozen British tanks in a quarter of an hour.
Michael Wittman (Waffen SS Heavy Tank Battalion): I first knocked out two tanks from the right of the column, then one from the left. I knocked out every tank that came towards me. The enemy was thrown into total confusion.2
Antony Beevor: And I think it’s very striking that almost throughout the Cold War NATO armies were always taken to Normandy to be shown: this is how we’re going to hold back the Russians. I.e. we’re going to learn from the German lessons - the lessons actually which the Wehrmacht had learnt on the eastern front - with small groups, which were mixed groups often of, say, an assault gun, a few tanks, groups of infantry and pioneers, or whatever, fighting together, often in improvised groups, always managing to inflict casualties, pull back, inflict more casualties.
Commentary: But eventually the superior fire power of the Allies overcame German resistance and in Operation Cobra the Americans pushed forward and cut through German lines. By the end of July most of the Allies were free of the country of the bocage. The Germans, who had lost 200,000 dead and wounded in the battle for Normandy, started to surrender in droves.
Wartime archive narration: Thousands of German prisoners were filtered to the rear to wait until we had time to evacuate them.
Antony Beevor: It was a curious campaign because everyone imagined that the battle of France would be the most awful, long battle which would destroy part of France. Well Normandy, in fact, became the martyr for France. I mean, the destruction in Normandy was appalling, but the rest of France was virtually saved.
Wartime archive narration: This is John McVane in Paris. Those bells you can hear are the bells of Notre Dame cathedral, and they’re ringing a chime of thanksgiving that French troops have entered the city.
Commentary: On the 25th August 1944 the Allies entered Paris in triumph. The capital of France was liberated, after more than four years of occupation. But for the Allied troops who marched down the Champs Elysées in triumph, this was just the start of the fight towards Hitler’s Germany.
1 D-Day to Berlin, Episode 1, ‘The Struggle to Break Out’, Andrew Williams (producer), Laurence Rees (executive producer), BBC, 2005