Tim Saunders, Battle for the Bocage, Normandy 1944 (Pen & Sword, 2021)
It probably comes as no surprise to anyone familiar with the Normandy campaign in 1944 that the British struggled to reach their inland objectives on D-Day and beyond. But how and why that was the case requires careful explanation. In Battle for the Bocage, Tim Saunders narrates a detailed story of men learning to fight in a hostile and unfamiliar environment while under intense pressure.
Saunders makes the argument that the British army on D-Day was not as veteran as usually stated. Moreover, those men that had fought in the desert war were unprepared for what awaited them in Normandy. That is worth remembering as Saunders takes us into D-Day where chaos ensued on the beaches and the invading force slipped behind Montgomery’s ambitious timetable. As they overcame the beach defences and pushed inland into bocage country, the British met with congested narrow roads, snipers, anti-tank guns, well-placed machine-gun positions and numerous other obstacles, not to mention they were often facing SS troops with better tanks who were intent on counter-attacking at every opportunity. Saunders notes that the Germans had their problems too: command problems, poor deployment at times, mechanical issues, and general disarray as might have been expected when under incessant naval gunfire, artillery, and air attacks with bombs and rockets. Nevertheless, despite all that and considerable losses, the Germans maintained a capable defence for many days after D-Day. Both sides wore down, physically and psychologically, but Saunders highlights that the British could rest and recover while replacements entered the lines, luxuries not afforded to the Germans. The British also learned on the job, developing better tactics, but even then, by 19 June, when they captured Tilly, the British 50th Division was played out and Saunders’ narrative ends. Along the way, he covers notable events such as the actions at Tiger Hill and Essex Woods, and Wittman’s infamous, spectacular attack on a British column with Tigers on 13 June. Saunders’ book concludes with appendices for Orders of Battle, an extract from 8 Armoured Brigade’s Operation Order, a chronology of the 101st Schwere Panzer Battalion’s route to Normandy, a note on Tiger reliability, a Situation Report from 7th Armoured Division, and a comparison of British and German ranks.
Battle for the Bocage is a comprehensive account of the British army’s efforts on D-Day and the following fortnight as they became entangled in the Normandy hedges. Saunders narrates the action from top to bottom but with an emphasis on those doing the fighting. He deploys a wide range of sources and is ably supported by an array of excellent photographs and maps. There are times, however, where he becomes a commentator, letting his selected quotes do too much of the work. Moreover, Saunders sometimes drifts to include topics that distract from his narrative when a simple note would have sufficed. That said, anyone wanting to know about the British army in Normandy will find this a more than useful book.