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Normandy After D-Day: June 7-30, 1944

Tank-Infantry Cooperation

Converted for the Web from "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose

American Army tactical manuals stressed the need for tank-infantry cooperation. But in Normandy, the tankers didn't want to get down on the sunken roads, because of insufficient room to traverse the turret and insufficient visibility to use the long-range firepower of the cannon and machine guns. But staying on the main roads proved impossible; the Germans held the high ground inland and had their 88mm cannon sited to provide long fields of fire along highways. So into the lanes the tanks perforce went. But there they were restricted; they wanted to get out into the fields. But they couldn't. When they appeared at the gap leading into a field, presited mortar fire, plus panzerfausts (handheld antitank weapons), disabled them. Often, in fact, it caused them to "brew up," or start burning -- the tankers were discovering that their tanks had a distressing propensity for catching fire.

So tankers tried going over or through the embankments, but the hedgerows were proving to be almost impassable obstacles to the American M4 Sherman tank. Countless attempts were made to break through or climb over, but the Sherman wasn't powerful enough to break through the cementlike base, and when it climbed up the embankment, at the apex it exposed its unarmored belly to German panzerfausts. Further, coordination between tankers and infantry was almost impossible under battle conditions, as they had no easy or reliable way to communicate with one another.

Lt. Sidney Salomon of the 2nd Ranger Battalion, one of the D-Day heroes, found that out on June 7. He was leading the remnants of his battalion, which had come ashore on the right flank at Omaha and been involved in a day-long firefight on D-Day, westward along the coastal road that led to Pointe-du-Hoc. Three companies of the 2nd Rangers had taken the German emplacement there, and destroyed the coastal guns, but they were under severe attack and had taken severe casualties. Salomon was in a hurry to get to them.

But his column, marching in combat formation, began taking well-placed artillery shells. To his right, Salomon could see a Norman church, its steeple the only high point around. He was certain the Germans had an observer spotting for their artillery in that steeple. Behind Salomon a Sherman tank chugged up, the only American tank to be seen. It was buttoned up. Salomon wanted it to elevate its 75mm cannon and blast that steeple, but he couldn't get the crew's attention, not even when he knocked on the side of the tank with the butt of his carbine. "So I ultimately stood in the middle of the road directly in front of the tank, waving my arms, and pointing in the direction of the church. That produced results. After a couple of shots from the cannon and several bursts from the .50-caliber machine gun, the artillery spotter was no more."

Salomon's daring feat notwithstanding, it was obvious that the Army was going to have to work out a better system for tank-infantry communication than having junior officers jump up and down in front of American tanks. Until that was done, the tanks would play a minor supporting role to the infantry, following the GIs into the next field as the infantry overran it.

The U.S. First Army had not produced anything approaching a doctrine for offensive action in the hedgerows. It had expended enormous energy to get tanks by the score into Normandy, but it had no doctrine for the role of tanks in the hedgerows. In peacetime, the Army would have dealt with the problem by setting up commissions and boards, experimenting in maneuvers, testing ideas, before establishing a doctrine. But in Normandy time was a luxury the Army didn't have. So as the infantry lurched forward in the Cotentin, following frontal assaults straight into the enemy's kill zones, the tankers began experimenting with ways to utilize their weapons in the hedgerows.

Copyright © 1997 by -Tubbs, Inc. Afterword copyright 1998 by Ambrose-Tubbs, Inc. Converted for the Web with the permission of Simon & Schuster.

Click to Amazon to purchase "Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army From The Normandy Beaches, To The Bulge, To The Surrender Of Germany" by Stephen E. Ambrose.

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