Topography is Destiny: From the beaches to the bocage, Normandy’s terrain shaped the fortunes of battle

U.S. Army medics rush a wounded GI through Normandy’s bocage country. 

The ground upon which a battle is fought is one of the most important factors in determining the tactics used in that battle. Terrain always imposes its realities. Flat, open ground generally favors the attacker, but also the side with the most tanks. What soldiers call “compartmentalized terrain”—marshy ground or urban areas, for example—favors the defender. Gravity always gives an edge to whoever holds the high ground—an advantage modern technology can mitigate but not eliminate. Bad weather only compounds the effects of bad terrain. For soldiers, “key terrain” is any piece of ground whose seizure or retention confers a decisive advantage.

Amphibious invasions have their own peculiar tactical problems. Landing is only the first step. The far more difficult tactical challenge is moving off the beach and driving inland. A well-defended landing beach is a kill-zone; the longer first-wave forces stay there, the more troops will die and the likelier it is that the operation will fail. The only way to secure a beach for follow-on forces is to push inland as quickly as possible and eliminate the enemy firing positions trained on the landing zone. The enemy, of course, knows this and builds defenses designed to pin attackers on vulnerable ground as long as possible. 

That was the Allies’ immediate problem on June 6, 1944, and, as in any amphibious invasion, the solution was a function of the particular terrain: the topography of the beach, the exits off the beach, and the ground immediately behind the beach, at least within artillery range. Across the 60-mile stretch of the five D-Day beaches, none of these factors were uniform. The three British beaches—Gold, Juno, and Sword—are roughly similar in terrain, but Omaha Beach, to the west of Gold, is completely different, and Utah Beach, at the far west, is different still. That left the Allies with three distinct sets of terrain-tactical problems to solve simultaneously…

Read the rest of the story in D-Day: This Great and Noble Undertaking, World History Group’s latest special publication from the editors of World War II magazine. For a preview of its 70th anniversary coverage, see the Table of ContentsClick here to order online, or call 1-800-358-6327. 

 

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  1. Pointe du Hoc and Omaha Beach: Normandy Landing Sites - Passing Thru

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