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Monday, February 9, 2015

Interview with Ron Shannon, Author of The Hedgerows of June

The Hedgerows of June is a suspenseful historical romance centering around the hotly contested Saint-Lô, France, in 1944. A British spy, and American expat, and a French Resistance operative must reunite children with their parents in this war-torn landscape while keeping their own secrets and resisting their own passions. 

Today I'm pleased to host the author of this irresistible adventure, Ron Shannon.

JK: Can you fill us in on the historical background of The Hedgerows of June? What was happening before the story begins?

RS: By late June, 1944, the Allies had taken the beaches of Normandy. The Americans had driven the Germans from the port city, Cherbourg, but not without heavy cost on both sides. The next American objective was to take the town of Saint-Lô, the transportation hub for this part of occupied France. The Germans were determined to defend Saint-Lô because they were convinced it would be the key to the Allies’ victory. The American inland attack would take place in the most inhospitable terrain of Normandy, an area known as the hedgerows.

JK: The Hedgerows?

RS: The Hedgerows are not what we think of when we think of hedges. They are not the hedge plants that are pruned and trimmed into precision cuts.

JK: So it wasn't a garden. Where exactly did the Allies find themselves?

RS: It’s difficult to describe what the Americans encountered as soon as they started their inland attack. This farmland has been around for a millennium or more. The landscape consists of fields bordered by grey rock. Think of a pile of rock running along all four sides of each field. These rock rows are about three feet wide. Growing up through this rock is a mixture of small trees, shrubs, grass and weeds that have grown from three to fifteen feet high. It creates what the French call bocage, an enclosed field with only one narrow entrance.

JK: Are there any roads in this maze?

RS: The roads running alongside the hedges are very narrow, between four or five feet wide. They're dirt roads with deep ruts from the traffic of horse-drawn wagons to and from the fields.

JK: How did they transport equipment through there?

RS: Getting equipment down the roads was difficult to impossible. But the difficulties didn’t end there. The summer of 1944 was the wettest summer since 1900. The weather was miserable and the roads were not dirt. They were mud.

JK: Wow. Misery makes for a great setting. What additional challenges did you give the characters?

RS: The characters in The Hedgerows of June are faced with the same problems as the American Army. They must get from a small town on the edge of the Hedgerows to Saint-Lô.

JK: They aren't going into battle?

RS: Not battle, but the war is all around them. It’s like background noise, small gunfire, explosions, and American fighter planes. The characters are trying to stay one step ahead of the Americans, but they are running into the face of the waiting Germans. That’s trouble because the German Army wants their precious cargo—the four children they must get to Saint-Lô.

JK: Where are the Germans?

RS: The Germans are taking up defense positions in the hedges. That means they are finding places to hide in the thick vegetation. The attacking Americans will not be able to hide if they are expected to move forward. They will be wide open.

JK: How can the Americans possibly overcome this no-win situation?

RS: The Americans had no experience with his type of terrain. To say they weren't prepared is an understatement. It would require cooperation between their armor and their infantry, something they were not trained to do.

JK: Did the Americans have any advantage?

RS: Not necessarily. The Germans were experienced. They had knowledge of the terrain and the benefit it offered them to defend the region. They were also very loyal and in some cases the most fanatical soldiers in the field.

JK: Were the Americans were better equipped?

RS: Again, not necessarily. At this point in the war, the German Air Force was pretty much nonexistent. The Americans did have an air force, but remember this is the wettest summer since 1900. The miserable weather made it impossible to fly for either reconnaissance or attack. The German soldier feared the American planes, but the bad weather kept the planes on the ground. The Germans lacked heavy artillery in Normandy, but they had guns. I mention one of their guns in the novel, a rocket launcher, an odd looking thing nicknamed “Moaning Minnie.”

JK: Weren’t there paratroopers, too?

RS: Paratroopers did land behind enemy lines in advance of the attacking Americans, but they were unable to hold their positions. Many of these paratroopers were lost. My story includes a confrontation with a small group of paratroopers. It is a graphic scene that changes one of the main characters. It brings her face-to-face with the horror of this war and how the Germans defended the bocage.

JK: How did the Americans get through in the end?

RS: You can imagine how difficult it was for the Americans to launch their attack into the Hedgerows. Soldiers did use the roads, but tanks were another story. Getting into the fields presented a problem. My characters were forced to crawl into the fields. They were wide open if Germans were hiding in the hedges. The same was true for the American soldier. At first the Americans used dynamite to blast a hole in the hedgerows, but obviously an explosion did not go unnoticed by the Germans. Someone came up with the idea of turning the tanks into plows. They retrieved steel from the traps and blockades used by the Germans to defend the beaches. The Americans welded the steel to the front of the tanks. They literally plowed their way into the fields. American soldiers quickly learned how to use the tanks as shields against enemy fire.

JK: Do your characters encounter all these techniques?

RS: The war catches up to the characters and they are introduced to techniques used on both sides. The war in the hedges is a series of skirmishes between small units as the Americans make their way across this implausible battleground. As I mentioned before, these skirmishes hang in the air like background noise. At times the background noise takes on a life of its own. In one scene, Chris is listening to distant gunfire. He is a musician and he compares it to a call, followed by an answer. It’s small arms fire shared by men in a land that doesn’t care about who they are or why they fight. The land, the bocage, will be there long after they are gone and their causes are forgotten. Or at least that is what Chris determines from what he hears.

JK: Where does it all come together?

RS: The characters’ destination is Saint-Lô. That is the town the Americans want to conquer and that is the town the Germans are determined to defend.

JK: What is the result of the historical Battle of Saint-Lô?

RS: The Americans manage to push back the Germans, but the tenacious Germans do not lose their will to fight. The skirmishes are fierce and bloody. I’ve seen pictures of roads and fields littered with the bodies of soldiers from both sides. Thousands of casualties occur during July of 1944. The Germans are outnumbered and many German soldiers are taken prisoner, but the defenses into Saint-Lô are tight. The Germans are obsessive.

JK: July?

RS: July. I know the title mentions June. That is when the journey and the adventure begin. I didn't adhere to the timeline of the battle. The battle started on July 1, 1944, and Saint-Lô was taken by the middle of August. Even getting into the city was a challenge. The American fighter planes managed to attack. Bombs were dropped; heavy artillery was used as the city crumbled into ruins. The only structure that survived was the church. The city was rebuilt later.

JK: Is the battle important in The Hedgerows of June?

RS: Yes. The battle for the city brings the characters into town. They're seeking further escape, but they're caught in the war. What happens determines the future of the characters.

JK: How?

RS: This is, among other things, a story about bravery and about accepting your true identity.

JK: So, without spoiling it, the characters survive?

RS: Well, it’s also a romance and a love story. What do you think?

The Hedgerows of June is available at Amazon.

Find author Ron Shannon on Facebook.