Shortly after fighting ashore and in the iair drop zones on D-Day, the Allies quickly discovered a new enemy awaiting them: bocage.
Lacing the Normandy countryside, bocage was a tight overgrown network of hedgerows of shrubbery, stone walls and copses of trees lining the rural French fields. All but impassable by Allied armor and difficult to fight through for infantry, bocage slowed the push inland and delayed the taking of key objectives. It was only through the quick-thinking and inventiveness of the Allies that new tactics were hastily developed. To free-up the passage of tanks, hedgerow cutters were welded to the front of armored platoons and demolition crews blasted gaps to continue the forward march. Fighting amidst the bocage would prove to be deadly for both sides, as recounted in the 1988 paper by Captain Michael Doubler. It’s required reading for anyone interested in the tactics of bocage warfare.
This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, four of us got together to slog it out in the bocage tabletop of a Breakthrough Mission as provided in the Flames of Wars rules. The mission scenario calls for use of the Mobile Reserves rule for the defenders and the Delayed Reserves rule for the attackers. The Germans chose to field a 1250-point Fallschirmjager company backed with heavy machine guns, a Nebelwerfer rocket battery, Stugs and Pak 40 anti-tank guns plus a 1250-point tank company armed with mechanized infantry, Panzer IVs, Stugs and one imposing Tiger tank. We Americans also fielded two companies beginning with a 1250-point rifle company with three infantry platoons, Shermans, a weapons platoon of light machine guns and mortars and a P-47 Thunderbolt for air support. The other US company was pulled from the 82nd Airborne with a Priest mobile artillery battery and Stuart light tanks. To aid in navigation of bocage, the US armor were outfitted with hedgerow cutters. The Germans had six turns to take an objective and it would be the Americans’ job to stop them.
The table was laid out thick with bocage surrounding a small village and a nearby farm. Americans rolled as the defenders meaning all our mobile units — all the tanks and artillery we had — were going to be held off the board as reserves. I hid all my rifle platoons in the town’s buildings and stuck the machine guns and mortars in the field between the Germans and their nearest objective. In the opposite corner, the Airborne platoons deployed near the farm hoping to camp out on the German objectives for the duration of the game.
As the attackers, the Germans deployed in their assigned corner of the table. Their rocket battery, anti-tank guns, heavy machine guns and the majority of their infantry dug into the field outside of the town. The large tank company deployed in the adjacent field. Held off-table was a Stug and a Fallschirmjager platoon, hoping for the a delayed reserves roll beginning on the third turn to put them right on top of one of their objectives at the opposite corner.
As the attackers, the Germans got the first turn, quickly pressing their armor toward the center of the table while the rocket battery, heavy machine guns and anti-tank cannons poured fire into the town, pinning one US platoon. Reserves failed to arrive on the first US turn and the P-47’s first run came up empty. As per the plan, the US Airborne pushed into the farm buildings to hold the nearest objective.
In the second turn, the Germans continued to light up the town with the US companies pinned in the buildings. A Stug opened fire down a lane but the Americans avoided being hit. US bazooka teams moved into the barn at the edge of town and took shots on the a German Stug and approaching half tracks but to no effect. The US machine gunners attempted to fire and then assault the nearing Germans but were thwarted by the thick bocage and failed terror test against a nearby Panzer. The Thunderbolt once again on did nothing its second run while the Airborne units at the farm ran across the road into the treeline, securing the second German objective.
In turn three, the German players thankfully failed their first attempt at calling in reserves. Pressing on, German half tracks raced through the town toward the American weapons platoon which took heavy casualties and lost the machine gunners to fire from both sides. Stugs and artillery continued to pound the American rifle platoons in the town. At the top of their turn, the Shermans arrived and made a hasty path to cut a hole in the bocage standing between the rest of their reserves and the nearby road.
Things really heated up in turn four as the Germans rolled on their first reserved Stug platoon near one of the objectives and the awaiting US Airborne. German infantry and Panzers pushed into the next field, knocking out the US mortars and eliminating their first platoon. The Americans pulled in the rest of their reserves but immediately created a bottleneck of Shermans and Stuarts as paths were cleared through the bocage. The P-47 came in hard on the Germans in the field, knocking out several units and destroying a Panzer. Finally, the fearless Airborne did what they’re trained to do and burst from the treeline to assault the newly-arrived Stug platoon. Two Stugs were destroyed and the third fled the field after a failed morale test. The objective was still held by the Americans but things were looking dicey with Germans coming in from all sides.
The fifth turn started with the final German reserve platoon arriving amid their burning tanks and assaulting the US Airborne. Through a series of attacks and counterattacks, the two groups whittled each other down. The Germans were eventually ground down to two remaining stands, lost their morale check and were destroyed. The victory for the Americans was short-lived, however, and the heavily-damaged Airborne platoon also failed a morale save and likewise fled the battle. With the game nearing it’s end, a Sherman was destroyed and blocked the road. All the US armor and artillery was effectively shut-out of the game. As the Germans covered an objective, the American P-47 made one final run to force a German morale check but to no avail. The Germans had won the day.
There were a number of things that had gone wrong for the Americans. The rifle platoons never got out of the town, contributing almost nothing to the battle. Had they hauled their way toward the forest in the middle of the board, pressure would been greater on one of the objectives. The restrictions on the reserves also hurt the Americans, with nearly half their force never getting a chance to get in the fight. The US Airborne were typically deadly in their assaulting enemy armor and ground troops and proved to be the one positive for the Allies. On the German side of the table, much of its large armor platoon, including the Tiger, was sidelined for much of the battle as they navigated the hedgerows and roads.
The game was a new experience for one of the German players who typically games in the wide-open spaces of the Northern Africa theater from earlier in the war. As in 1944, bocage played the role of a third unmovable enemy on the table. The bocage was frustrating for all players but this time sided more with the Germans in their breakthrough victory.