1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

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magicdragon
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1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by magicdragon » 21 Jan 2010 23:07

The formidable barriers presented by the hedgerows and the military characteristics of the Bocage seem to have taken First Army by complete surprise. Despite Allied planners' awareness of the nature of the Bocage, American commanders had done little to prepare their units for fighting among the hedgerows. Preoccupied with the myriad problems of the D-Day landings, American leaders had failed to see the battlefield in depth and had paid little attention to the potential problems of hedgerow combat. As early as 8 June, General Bradley called the Bocage the "damndest country I've seen." General Collins of VII Corps was equally surprised by the nature of the hedgerow terrain and told General Bradley on 9 June that the Bocage was as bad as anything he had encountered on Guadalcanal. Brigadier General James M. Gavin, the assistant division commander of the 82d Airborne, best summarized the surprise of the senior American leadership: "Although there had been some talk in the U.K. before D-Day about the hedgerows, none of us had really appreciated how difficult they would turn out to be."
http://carl.army.mil/resources/csi/doubler/doubler.asp

It has always seemed curious to me that given the amount of planning that went into D-Day that the Allies did not prepare better for fighting in the Bocage. I accept that they did not anticipate spending that much time in the area, bypassing and moving on. However, on a basic level they could have easily carried out field modifications to a reasonable number of vehicles adding blades prior to D-Day. Even say 1 in 5 tanks would have helped. This would have offered them greater off-road options and tactical flexibility even if they anticipated moving through the area quickly?

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by Carl Schwamberger » 22 Jan 2010 03:02

I think if you dig into this battle or campaign you will find there are a number of ways the US infantry and tank battalions could have been better prepared. There are quite a few questions about the appropriateness of the training of the 29th Divsions infantry & the 90th Divsion as well. Neither had combat experince. Virtually all the independant tank battalions that supported the infantry in the Normandy battle had combat experience and again there seems to have been some thing wrong or lacking in their training. At least in some units.

As for the hedge rows specifically, it was also thought conventional infantryartillery tactics would suffice.

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Re: The Bocage

Post by Pips » 22 Jan 2010 09:44

The difficulty the Americans faced with the Bocage was due in large part to unfamilarity of that region of Normandy by the Planning Staff for Overlord. Bear in mind that back in those days (a la pre 1940) travelling around the countryside was not the norm, and only a select few had the money and wherewithal to afford such a luxury.

The hedges of Normandy were clearly evident through the overhead photographs taken by recon aircraft prior to the leadup to the invasion. The problem was that the Planning Staff, and by default everyone else involved, thought that the hedges were very similar to those found in the English countryide, ie small and thin. It simply wasn't a question asked by anyone to the French. In retrospect it was a glaring oversight.

What was not realised was that the Norman hedges had been created over centuries to protect the fields against the harsh Atlantic winds. The French bocage was typically much higher, with the base of the hedge often four to six feet of earth and rock, covered with another six to eight feet of tangled bushes, blackthorn and beech trees. They formed natural fortified walls, completely interlocked that stretched for miles along the coastal region and were almost twenty miles deep.

Until First Army had landed and started making their way inland no one, not General nor Private, knew what hell was instore for them. The remarkable thing is just how quickly First Army adapted and modified their tactics to take on the Bocage.

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by phylo_roadking » 22 Jan 2010 18:16

As for specialised vehicles - the Allies DID bring a suprising amount of construction and excavation vehicles with them - crawler/dozers, a variety of tank conversions etc. - with the intention of using them for clearing docksides, roadways, levelling ground for airfields etc., that COULD have been used to break through the terrain...the only problem being that the Germans defended the Bocage :D So it turned out it had to be AFVs that broke ground.

A lot of the "true" Bocage has now vanished, more than a mile back from the beaches in many locations the crowded landscape has been replaced by the open, levelled hedgrow-less expanse of "EU Farming Subsidy" bulk farming.

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by magicdragon » 22 Jan 2010 21:14

Thanks very for the replies

Excellent comments

Pips
Makes a very good comment about the how quickly the Yanks adapted - which was always a feature of how the US Army seemed to operate in WWII. But I find it hard to believe that in the British GHQ/Intelligence community there was anyone who had a spent a bit of time in Normandy - who might of suggested the Bocage as potential problem? This also throws up how much intel was asked for or offered by the Free French - did no one ask? You could have done a simple exercise of interviewing French military people with any local knowledge of any of the potential landing areas along the French coast about physical barriers inland. Did they not do a similar exercise when they made a public request for French holiday photographs taken before the war? All this tells the Germans is an invasion is coming

Carl Schwamberger
Good points about the training. Have you any ideas what type of training would have particularly appropriate for fighting in this type of environment?

phylo_roadking
Backs up the point that the Bocage in itself was not the only issue but the way in which the Germans set about defending it.

He also makes the interesting point that the Common Agricultural Policy has proven to be more effective then massed artillery fire!!!

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by RichTO90 » 22 Jan 2010 23:37

The events were more the result of a series of partly unrelated missteps that led to the problems.

1. All NEPTUNE planning was primarily focused upon the most difficult task, establishing the beachhead and building up a secure lodgment. Everything after that was viewed as a logistics exercise - how to bring the Allied preponderence to bear on the Germans.
2. The Allies were in fact aware of the hedgerows and their extent and some - Patton for example - had personal experience prewar travelling theough them. But since the widespread assumption was that the Germans would sensibly withdraw to the Seine once the Allied lodgment was established and the expected German counterattack defeated, little attention was given to the possibility of an extended campaign fought in the area (see 1).
3. The combat enablers (to use modern jargon) that would have been best suited to coping with the hedgerows once the advance inland stalled were the combat engineers. They were trained and equipped for just such a task as part of the combined arms team. But a secondary consequence of the Germans refusing to withdraw to the Seine was that the lodgment area quickly became overloaded with the result that communications maintenance became the primary task of the engineers rather than combat support. Maintenance of the beach exits, roads, bridges, and culverts in the limited road system present became paramount. Even the divisional engineer battalions rarely had more than one or two companies free for direct support of the infantry regiments, which was normally their primary task.

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by magicdragon » 23 Jan 2010 01:08

RichTO90

I did not know about the combat engineer problems.

The point I was trying to make right at the beginning is that I agree with you in that the Allies could quite reasonably have assumed that there would not be a long defensive battle - but fixing blades to tanks would have been useful i.e. to help bypass anti-tank guns covering roads. Even in a mobile fluid battle the Bocage would have presented a problem for which there was a partly technical solution.

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by phylo_roadking » 23 Jan 2010 01:21

but fixing blades to tanks would have been useful i.e. to help bypass anti-tank guns covering roads
Well, arguably tanks aren't supposed to bypass AT guns - that's what they've got HE for! :wink:

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by RichTO90 » 23 Jan 2010 01:37

magicdragon wrote:RichTO90

I did not know about the combat engineer problems.

The point I was trying to make right at the beginning is that I agree with you in that the Allies could quite reasonably have assumed that there would not be a long defensive battle - but fixing blades to tanks would have been useful i.e. to help bypass anti-tank guns covering roads. Even in a mobile fluid battle the Bocage would have presented a problem for which there was a partly technical solution.
Quite. And they did, by creating tankdozers. The first 100 kits arrived just prior to D-Day with 40 assigned to the Commonwealth under Lend-Lease. That left 60 for US units...and immediately about 15 were lost, most on OMAHA. The remainder proved to be extraordinarily valuable...and so in high demand, especially since additional kits were in high demand and short supply. As late as August the scale was under 5 per battalion. Worse they were so valuable for multiple roles and so scarce that commanders became reluctant to commit them in attacks where they would be forced to lead and so would likely be the first lost. Thus the development of the low-tech solutions - the various hedgrerow cutting devices. But, despite the hype, it is hard to see where they were decisive in the breakout - the breakout operations by 2nd and 3rd AD, which had the bulk of the Rhinos, was pretty much roadbound AFAICT. And the infantry divisions that actually executed the breakthrough had few Rhinos, some tankdozers, and quite a bit of experience in combined arms operations tailored to the bocage.

So a technical solution was found, but barely used. Part of the trouble may have been solved by more intense combined arms training...except there were limited facilities to do that in England, which meant that most training between divisions and their supporting tank battalions was pretty much non-existant. Of course if the training had occurred in the US, which had plenty of room and training areas the problems might have been mitigated, and all divisions did participate in corps and army exercises before deploying where they did practice some infantry-armor cooperation, but for efficiencies sake it turned out there was little guarantee that the divisions and tank battalions that trained together - even for just a few weeks - in the US would ever see each other again.

Again, it was multiple problems not easily solvable by a technical solution.

Cheers!
Richard Anderson
Cracking Hitler's Atlantic Wall: the 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers on D-Day
Stackpole Books, 2009.

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Re: The Bocage

Post by Aber » 23 Jan 2010 10:26

Pips wrote:The difficulty the Americans faced with the Bocage was due in large part to unfamilarity of that region of Normandy by the Planning Staff for Overlord. Bear in mind that back in those days (a la pre 1940) travelling around the countryside was not the norm, and only a select few had the money and wherewithal to afford such a luxury.

The hedges of Normandy were clearly evident through the overhead photographs taken by recon aircraft prior to the leadup to the invasion. The problem was that the Planning Staff, and by default everyone else involved, thought that the hedges were very similar to those found in the English countryide, ie small and thin. It simply wasn't a question asked by anyone to the French. In retrospect it was a glaring oversight.

What was not realised was that the Norman hedges had been created over centuries to protect the fields against the harsh Atlantic winds. The French bocage was typically much higher, with the base of the hedge often four to six feet of earth and rock, covered with another six to eight feet of tangled bushes, blackthorn and beech trees. They formed natural fortified walls, completely interlocked that stretched for miles along the coastal region and were almost twenty miles deep.

Until First Army had landed and started making their way inland no one, not General nor Private, knew what hell was instore for them. The remarkable thing is just how quickly First Army adapted and modified their tactics to take on the Bocage.
What is generally overlooked that there are similar hedges on the British side of the Channel in Devon and Cornwall, as the climate and the requirements of livestock farming for stock-proof hedges are similar. Units such as the Desert Rats who trained in flat open East Anglia have some excuse, but the US forces based in Devon and Cornwall should have had some preparation.

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by phylo_roadking » 23 Jan 2010 14:57

Not just Devon and Cornwall - there were large areas of agricultural land in postage stamp-sized fields and very narrow roads bounded by high "stone ditches" and topped by very thick hedgerows in Kent and Sussex in the hinterland immediately behind the coast in many places; this was the terrain that the Germans didn't know very much about the layout of in 1940 and their invasion preparations that Peter Fleming describes in Operation Sealion, the network of winding narrow roads where removing what few roadsigns there were DID make sense on the eve of invasion.

(Their knowledge of it was SO thin - and not successfully fleshed out by photo recce because of the "crowded" terrain) that IIRC Fleming recounts a story of one tactical objective being listed as a village name, whereas it was only the name of a PUB at a crossroads....and several miles away from where it was in reality, at that!)

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Re: The Bocage

Post by RichTO90 » 23 Jan 2010 15:43

Aber wrote:What is generally overlooked that there are similar hedges on the British side of the Channel in Devon and Cornwall, as the climate and the requirements of livestock farming for stock-proof hedges are similar. Units such as the Desert Rats who trained in flat open East Anglia have some excuse, but the US forces based in Devon and Cornwall should have had some preparation.
It may have been generally overlooked by some, but others have commented on that fact before. However, they were not divisional training areas, although some were cantonment areas. The divisional training areas were the same as those used by the British Army, primarily Salisbury and other, similar, ranges, and the assault training centers, which were designed for - you guessed it - amphibious assault training. IOW directed to the emphasis placed by NEPTUNE on securing a beachhead and lodgment area...getting troops ashore rather than fighting inland. It's unlikely that the farmers of Devon and Cornwall would have been very happy with tens of thousands of Yank soldiers mucking about their fields, running tanks over their hedges, destroying their roads, and so forth, or that the various ministries would have agreed, when their wee already perfectly good training areas in England for them to train in. To quite shamelessly steal from Peter Sellers "Use it!...that's what its bloody well for!" :lol: On top of that the American divisions had already completed their divisional training in the States, it was a requirement for deployment, so the not unreasonable general view was they were already trained and only needed the day-to-day soldiering required to keep their skills up.
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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by bf109 emil » 30 Jan 2010 09:37

IMHO showing the men and training for this would have perhaps cut down on casualties, but just as likely and word by the hundreds of thousands of troops training for this, a simple slip up, a person captured on d-day and interrogated, etc. would have turned months of planning, hundreds of hours of a phantom army schemes, numerous thousands of air sorties for deception all for not had the OKH got wind or a prisoner tortured or a careless radio operator or spy noting this specific training taking place...and reveal they where training for a specific terrain and training involved thousands of men, might have resulted in a tougher fight...the bocage was distinct and totally logistically located far from where the Allied forces and SHAEF set about going to deceive the Wehrmacht and OKH...

--IMHO training tens of thousands of men, for a certain area/local was more a threat then not training them and coping as they came to this obstacle for had it leaked...Germany would for certain know where the allied landing where to commence

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by dieseltaylor » 30 Jan 2010 11:11

Very valid point from bf109emil, one that I had not considered at all. The thread has revealed some little gems of information that make it a very interesting.

I have been keen on investigating the bocage and its myths for several years as it is an important factor in the Battlefront games CMBO and CMAK- and I am a student of physical geography and land usage.

The US Army was offered, pre-invasion, items from 79th Armoured - Hobarts Funnies, which could have made life much easier. Unfortunately, as in refusing the 17pdr, there was a certain arrogance in believing that good old American smarts would see them through. From Wiki:

Among the many specialist vehicles and their attachments were:

* Crocodile - A Churchill tank modified by the fitting of a flame-thrower in place of the hull machine gun. An armoured trailer, towed behind the tank, carried 400 Imperial gallons (1,800 litres) of fuel. The flamethrower had a range of over 120 yards (110 m). It excelled at clearing bunkers and it was a strong psychological weapon (see Flame tank).
* AVRE - Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers was a Churchill tank adapted to attack German defensive fortifications. The crew included two Royal Engineers who could easily leave and enter the tank through its side hatches. The AVRE had the main gun replaced by a Petard Spigot Mortar. This fired a forty pound (18 kg) HE-filled projectile (nicknamed the Flying Dustbin) 150 yards (137 m). The "Dustbin" could destroy concrete obstacles such as roadblocks and bunkers. This weapon was unusual in that it had to be reloaded externally - by opening a hatch and sliding a round into the mortar tube from the hull. AVREs were also used to carry and operate equipment such as:
o Bobbin - A reel of 10-foot (3.0 m) wide canvas cloth reinforced with steel poles carried in front of the tank and unrolled onto the ground to form a "path", so that following vehicles (and itself) would not sink into the soft ground of the beaches during the amphibious landing.
o Fascine - A bundle of wooden poles or rough brushwood lashed together with wires carried in front of the tank that could be released to fill a ditch or form a step. Metal pipes in the center of the fascine allowed water to flow through.
o Small Box Girder was an assault bridge that was carried in front of the tank and could be dropped to span a 30-foot (9.1 m) gap in 30 seconds.
o Bullshorn Plough. A mine plough intended to excavate the ground in front of the tank, to expose and make harmless any land mines.
o Double Onion two large demolition charges on a metal frame that could be placed against a concrete wall and then detonated from a safe distance. It was the successor to the single charge device Carrot.
* ARK - Armoured Ramp Carrier was a Churchill tank without a turret that had extendable ramps at each end; other vehicles could drive up ramps and over the vehicle to scale obstacles.
* Crab - A modified Sherman tank equipped with a mine flail, a rotating cylinder of weighted chains that exploded mines in the path of the tank.
* DD tank - from "Duplex Drive", an amphibious Sherman or Valentine tank able to swim ashore after being launched from a landing craft several miles from the beach. They were intended to give support to the first waves of infantry that attacked the beaches. The Valentine version was used only for training.
* BARV - Beach Armoured Recovery Vehicle. A Sherman M4A2 tank which had been waterproofed and had the turret replaced by a tall armoured superstructure. Able to operate in 9 foot (2.7 m) deep water, the BARV was intended to remove vehicles that had become broken-down or swamped in the surf and were blocking access to the beaches. They were also used to re-float small landing craft that had become stuck on the beach. Strictly speaking, Sherman BARV's were not 'Funnies' as they were developed and operated by the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers, not the 79th Armoured Division.
* LVT "Buffalo" - British version of the American LVT4: an armoured amphibious landing vehicle.
* Armoured Bulldozer - A conventional Caterpillar D8 bulldozer fitted with armour to protect the driver and the engine. Their job was to clear the invasion beaches of obstacles and to make roads accessible by clearing rubble and filling in bomb craters. Conversions were carried out by a Caterpillar importer Jack Olding & Company Ltd of Hatfield.
* Centaur Bulldozer, a Cromwell tank with the turret removed and fitted with a simple, winch operated, bulldozer blade. These were produced because of a need for a well-armoured, obstacle clearing vehicle that, unlike a conventional bulldozer, would also be fast enough to keep up with tank formations. They were not used on D-Day but were issued to the 79th Armoured Division in Belgium during the latter part of 1944.
* Canal Defence Light This was a powerful carbon-arc searchlight carried on several types of tank inside a modified turret. The name of the device was deliberately inaccurate in order to help keep it secret - its true purpose was to blind the defenders during a night attack and so help obscure attacking forces. An ingenious optical design allowed the light to flood out of a comparatively small slit in the armour, minimising the chance of damage by enemy fire. This was not used on D-Day, but was used during the attack on the Geilenkirchen salient to create indirect artificial daylight.


I do believe that some of those like the Onion and the Bullshorn Plough were later "invented" again by the US. The Cuilin plough particulalry being great propaganda when the Allied home front needed some good news. The Crocodile and AVRE I am sure in the very small fields of the bocage been very effective. It was rather that the Army with the gadgets was in the wrong sector - however on reflection at that stage of the war the US anti-tank capability was not so good either.

As it happens the fighting close to the beachheads minimised the Allies transport/supply movement and maximised the Germans so perhaps there was a silver lining for being under-prepared for the bocage.

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Re: 1944 Preparing for the Bocage - Should it have been better?

Post by RichTO90 » 30 Jan 2010 17:28

dieseltaylor wrote:The US Army was offered, pre-invasion, items from 79th Armoured - Hobarts Funnies, which could have made life much easier. Unfortunately, as in refusing the 17pdr, there was a certain arrogance in believing that good old American smarts would see them through.
Sorry, but I am afraid that is, to put it mildly, bollocks. :D In fact, it is the story passed from Hobart to Chester Wilmot postwar and is incorrect in virtually all particulars. I cover the mythology behind the "offer" and "refusal" in my new book, but briefly the "offer" was actually a request by ETOUSA that simply couldn't be fulfilled within the time constraints of the invasion schedule. As it was, the British Royal Engineer assault units were barely equipped in time for the invasion. To have enabled American forces to have been equipped on the scale found on the Commonwealth beaches would have required a reduction in the scale provided for the Commonwealth forces along with a reallocation of landing craft and simply wasn't going to happen.
From Wiki:
Always an excellent source. :lol:
Among the many specialist vehicles and their attachments were:

* Crocodile - A Churchill tank modified by the fitting of a flame-thrower in place of the hull machine gun. An armoured trailer, towed behind the tank, carried 400 Imperial gallons (1,800 litres) of fuel. The flamethrower had a range of over 120 yards (110 m). It excelled at clearing bunkers and it was a strong psychological weapon (see Flame tank).
Only six landed on D-Day on GOLD, none of which got into action. Had no effect on the bocage battles, but was effective versus fixed fortifications. Requested for use by American forces in February 1944.
* AVRE - Armoured Vehicle, Royal Engineers was a Churchill tank adapted to attack German defensive fortifications. The crew included two Royal Engineers who could easily leave and enter the tank through its side hatches. The AVRE had the main gun replaced by a Petard Spigot Mortar. This fired a forty pound (18 kg) HE-filled projectile (nicknamed the Flying Dustbin) 150 yards (137 m). The "Dustbin" could destroy concrete obstacles such as roadblocks and bunkers. This weapon was unusual in that it had to be reloaded externally - by opening a hatch and sliding a round into the mortar tube from the hull. AVREs were also used to carry and operate equipment such as:
o Bobbin - A reel of 10-foot (3.0 m) wide canvas cloth reinforced with steel poles carried in front of the tank and unrolled onto the ground to form a "path", so that following vehicles (and itself) would not sink into the soft ground of the beaches during the amphibious landing.
o Fascine - A bundle of wooden poles or rough brushwood lashed together with wires carried in front of the tank that could be released to fill a ditch or form a step. Metal pipes in the center of the fascine allowed water to flow through.
o Small Box Girder was an assault bridge that was carried in front of the tank and could be dropped to span a 30-foot (9.1 m) gap in 30 seconds.
o Bullshorn Plough. A mine plough intended to excavate the ground in front of the tank, to expose and make harmless any land mines.
Yep. More details may be found in my book on the numbers deployed on D-Day and their effectiveness.
o Double Onion two large demolition charges on a metal frame that could be placed against a concrete wall and then detonated from a safe distance. It was the successor to the single charge device Carrot.
None were ever used. The framework of the device was used however, to mount the "twin Boase Bangalore" designed to open gaps in the dunes. The most prominant result of its deployment was the death of Colonel Cocks, CO 5th Assault Regiment RE, who was killed when a German mortar round set off the Bangalores mounted on his AVRE, killing him and his Sergeant Major.
* ARK - Armoured Ramp Carrier was a Churchill tank without a turret that had extendable ramps at each end; other vehicles could drive up ramps and over the vehicle to scale obstacles.
Not deployed until late 1944.
* Crab - A modified Sherman tank equipped with a mine flail, a rotating cylinder of weighted chains that exploded mines in the path of the tank.
* DD tank - from "Duplex Drive", an amphibious Sherman or Valentine tank able to swim ashore after being launched from a landing craft several miles from the beach. They were intended to give support to the first waves of infantry that attacked the beaches. The Valentine version was used only for training.
The DD tank was used by American forces on D-Day and was the only item of special equipment requested by ETOUSA that was actually supplied for their use by British forces.
I do believe that some of those like the Onion and the Bullshorn Plough were later "invented" again by the US. The Cuilin plough particulalry being great propaganda when the Allied home front needed some good news. The Crocodile and AVRE I am sure in the very small fields of the bocage been very effective. It was rather that the Army with the gadgets was in the wrong sector - however on reflection at that stage of the war the US anti-tank capability was not so good either.

As it happens the fighting close to the beachheads minimised the Allies transport/supply movement and maximised the Germans so perhaps there was a silver lining for being under-prepared for the bocage.
The Onion was never used, the Bullshorn was ineffective and was apparently not used again after the ten deployed for D-Day. The Culin device was not a mineclearing device but was rather a specialized device for the bocage. In the end it was probably unneccessary and was rarely used. The Crocodile and AVRE were rarely used in the bocage since they had no more utility in that environment than a standard tank.

Unfortunately fighting close to the beachheads also increased the logistical problems encountered by the Allies. The constricted beachhead badly affected transportation and communications and limited manuever.

Cheers!
Richard Anderson
Cracking Hitler's Atlantic Wall: the 1st Assault Brigade Royal Engineers on D-Day
Stackpole Books, 2009.

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