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Michael wittman villers bocage

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Background to the battle

Following the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, the Allies had made rapid progress inland in what had become the Battle of Normandy. By 13 June, a full week after the beach landings, Allied formations including the famous 7th Armoured Division (the 'Desert Rats') had reached the vicinity of the city of Caen, slicing through the fast-retreating German defences in the process. This smooth action was made easier with the massive air superiority held by the Allies, and by the morning of 13 June the flanks of the Panzer Lehr Division had been massively exposed - setting up the possibility of their being completely enclosed.
Central to the Allied plan was the main road towards Caen, and the high ground located at Hill 213 (also known as Point 213); right in the path lay the small, compact town of Villers-Bocage. The Allies were completely unaware of the presence of the 101st LSSAH in the area, among which was Michael Wittmann and his Tiger I; commanding officer Lt-Colonel Arthur, the Viscount Cranleigh, had requested time to carry out a proper reconnaissance of the area but this was ignored as the order was issued to push on regardless. This decision to press on was to have dire consequences.

The build up: Morning, 13 June 1944
On the morning of 13 June, the LSSAH panzer unit commanders conferred with divisional commander Obergruppenführer 'Sepp' Dietrich as to what their plan of action would be. The general feeling was that the Allies were about to launch a massive thrust with the aim of outflanking Panzer Lehr; it was concluded that the targets to secure would be Villers-Bocage and Hill 213, which was located close to the main crossroads north of the town. Thus the scene was set for what was essentially a simple race for tactical supremacy; nobody was able to predict the events that were to follow. In his typically selfless way, Wittmann suggested that his Tiger carry out a reconnoitre of the surrounding area, a plan to which his battalion commander instantly agreed.

Wittmann's role was one of simply checking out enemy movement in the area around Villers-Bocage, which had been cited by Dietrich as being essential to securing a crucual foothold in the area. Wittmann set out towards Villers-Bocage at around 6am, moving cautiously alongside a wooded area in order to avoid being spotted from the air.

Tigers head towards Villers-Bocage

Led by Wittmann's Tiger Nr. 205, Tigers of the Second Company head towards the area surrounding the town of Villers-Bocage, 13 June 1944.

While at his command post some 150 metres from Hill 213, Wittmann encountered an Army sergeant who informed him of the presence of a number of unfamiliar vehicles. Wittmann spotted what seemed like a never-ending convoy of British and American type vehicles rolling along the highway, heading out of Villers-Bocage towards Hill 213. It turned out that these vehicles were the lead element of a highly-trained British unit, the 4th County of London Yeomanry (CLY) ("Sharpshooters"), part of the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the renowned 'Desert Rats'.

Equipped with both Cromwell and M4A4 Sherman Firefly tanks, 'A' Squadron 4CLY had positioned themselves east of the village; meanwhile, 'B' Sqn. 4CLY had been stationed west of Villers, overseeing the intersection with the road leading to the neighbouring village of Caumont. 4CLY's Regimental Headquarters was situated in the main street of Villers-Bocage itself. Directly behind 'A' Sqn. were the 1st Rifle Brigade, which was equipped with a dozen M3 half-tracks and three Stuart M5A1 'Honey' light tanks.

Villers-Bocage

Map of Villers-Bocage and the surrounding area.

This rather enticing opportunity provided Wittmann with something of a dilemma: he clearly felt that he could not allow this situation to escape him, yet any radio contact with HQ would have been instantly intercepted. More crucially Wittmann noted that there were few German forces of substance in the immediate vicinity, and that the British column would have had a clear and unobstructed route though to the town of Caen. He himself had only six serviceable Tigers at his disposal: these were numbers 211 (commanded by SS-Ostuf. Jürgen Wessel), 221 (SS-Ustuf. Georg Hantusch), 222 (SS-Uscha. Kurt Sowa), 223 (SS-Oscha. Jürgen Brandt), 233 (SS-Oscha. Georg Lötzsch, and 234 (SS-Uscha. Herbert Stief); of these six vehicles, 233 had track damage and SS-Ostuf. Wessel was not present, having departed for the front to receive orders. It was at this moment that the enterprising panzer ace decided to take action himself. He recalled that the decision was a tough one, one that required split-second thinking:


"...the decision was a very, very difficult one. Never before had I been so impressed by the strength of the enemy as I was by those tanks rolling by; but I knew it absolutely had to be and I decided to strike out into the enemy."

Leaving the infantry sergeant safely in his foxhole, Wittmann sprinted towards Stief's Tiger Nr. 234 as it was the vehicle closest to him. The vehicle's commander, who had previously been taking a short nap, was quickly despatched to brief the remaining members of the platoon. The driver cranked up the engine. However, after rolling forward some twenty-five or so yards Wittmann sensed something not quite right. SS-Rottenführer Walter Lau, Stief's gunner, was not to know what he would miss out on as the next vital minutes unfolded. Without a moment of hesitation Wittmann leapt out and sprinted towards the next available Tiger, that of of SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Sowa, which had by this time made its way out of the defile.

Which Tiger?

The number of the vehicle Wittmann commandeered that morning is a subject of enthusiastic debate; Sowa's assigned vehicle at the time of the battalion's formation had been Nr. 222, and it is this vehicle that has been cited by the majority of commentators as being the one Wittmann climbed into on the morning of June 13 prior to advancing on Villers-Bocage. However, the historian Daniel Taylor has presented a series of arguments that suggest the vehicle Wittmann took into Villers-Bocage might well have been SS-Ustuf. Heinz Belbe's Tiger Nr. 231, which had not been among the six serviceable Tigers listed by both Patrick Agte and George Forty in their studies of the battle. There are a number of possible reasons for this, most of which stem from the (assumption?) that Sowa's tank was in fact Nr. 222. It is fairly well-known that the Tigers were prone to mechanical failure, and as a result commanders had got used to what could best be described as 'tank-hopping'. It could well have been that by this time in the campaign Sowa's assigned vehicle might have been undergoing maintenance, and that on the day of the attack on Villers-Bocage he may have been in command of Nr. 231 and not his designated vehicle. Thus, Sowa's Tiger, which everyone who has written on the subject is agreed that Wittmann commandeered on the morning of 13 June, might have been Nr. 231 instead of Nr. 222.

Wittmann gave the command to his 'new' driver, SS-Uscha. Walter Müller, to crank up the vehicle for an all out attack on the enemy formation. Also on board were his gunner Bobby Woll, Loader Sturmmann Günter Boldt, and radio operator Sturmmann Günther Jonas. The order was issued for all the remaining Tigers to stand fast and host their positions; Kurt Sowa, whose vehicle had been commandeered by Wittmann moments earlier, now in turn took charge of Stief's 234, rolling it into a defensive position on the highway. The other vehicles at the ready were Hantusch's 221 and Brandt's 233. The time was now 08:35.

The Battle Begins: Wittmann's Demolition Derby

Following his return from Villers-Bocage later in the day, Michael Wittmann was to play down the action - describing it as a simple drive along the column. In reality, it was far from this simple an exercise, though by the same token it was nowhere near as expansive as the later German propaganda reports projected. Seeing the seemingly never-ending British column straight ahead, Wittmann directed his Tiger head-on towards the RN 175 and the stationary vehicles of 'A' Sqn. 4CLY, braving a heavy barrage of fire.

Had it been any other man than Wittmann, and had he been commanding any other vehicle that the powerful Tiger I, the attack would have been seen as bordering on the suicidal. But Wittmann was both faster and more wily than the enemy; the Tiger rolled on relentlessly while enemy shells simply bounced off its thick armour plate. The first enemy vehicles Wittmann encountered were the two at the rear of the column, a Cromwell and a Sherman Firefly; by disabling these two tanks Wittmann had blocked off the exit for the remaining vehicles, which in turn allowed him to make it next move which was to head back up the column towards Villers Bocage. Meanwhile, two further Tigers from Wittmann's company made their way up to Hill 213.

As Wittmann's Tiger charged relentlessly towards them, the 'A' Sqn. crews - who had at the time been quietly enjoying a cup of tea and a cigarette at the side of the road - found themselves caught completely by surprise. They had little or no time to return to their vehicles, let alone manoeuvre them into any sort of position where they could have taken on the fearsome Tiger. Scattering and running for the nearest protection, the British crewmen abandoned their stricken vehicles, some of which still had their engines running. The Tiger's loader, SS-Sturmmann Günther Boldt, had to work like a man possessed to keep with this tremendous rate. Woll then grabbed his MG34, peppering the scout car which had been standing next to the head half-track with a hail of bullets.

Villers-BocageVillers-Bocage

The trail of destruction left behind by Wittmann's Tiger outside the town of Villers-Bocage, 13 June 1944.

While the bow machine gunner's relentless MG34 fire prevented any of the British crewmen from emerging from their hiding places, Wittmann turned his attention to the array of vehicles conveniently lined up along the side of the road. Two Cromwells and a Firefly were knocked out, before the fearsome 88mm KwK was turned on the first of the lighter tracked vehicles belonging to the 1st Rifle Brigade. On noting the ease by which these vehicles were destroyed, the remaining number were taken out with heavy fire from the pair of MG34s operated by Woll and bow gunner SS-Sturmmann Jonas. In all, by now a staggering fifteen vehicles and two 6-pounder anti tank guns were reduced to burning wrecks. Wittmann's Tiger now headed down Rue Georges Clémenceau towards the town of Villers Bocage itself, destroying three M3 Stuart 'Honey' light tanks belonging to the reconnaisance troop along thw way.

Villers-Bocage Town Centre

Map of Villers-Bocage Town Centre. The dotted lines mark the path of the approach route taken by the Panzers of the 101st, and the red 'x' marks the point where Wittmann abandoned his Tiger following its being hit by a 6-pdr anti-tank shell.

Wittmann's Tiger enters the town

On entering the Villers Bocage, Wittmann encountered the four vehicles belonging to Regimental HQ. Three of these tanks were quickly taken out, including the two decoy command vehicles - Wittmann of course was not to know that these vehicles were not armed. Woll then slammed another 88mm shell into the scout car belonging to the RHQ Intelligence Officer, with the panicking infantry being showered by deadly shrapnel. Wittmann himself then grabbed the MG34 mounted on his cupola, and joined his gunner in razing the remaining half-track, that belonging to the medical officer. The disabled vehicle was blown into the middle of the road, preventing any throughway.

Not content with this, Wittmann relentlessly continued his advance, rolling westwards on the gently sloping road towards the centre of Villers-Bocage. Only a small number of enemy vehicles had managed to escape the initial barrage, among them the remaining Cromwell of the Regimental HQ of the 4th CLY commanded by Captain Patrick Dyas - who had intelligently backed his vehicle into a secluded side street. By this time 'B' Sqn., located west of Villers, had been alerted to the Tiger's presence.


The one-sided duel with Pat Dyas

As Wittmann's Tiger now moved cautiously towards the centre of town, it passed the side street where the Cromwell of Captain Dyas had been lurking; shortly after seeing the German vehicle rumble past up Rue Georges Clémenceau (today Rue Pasteur), Dyas rolled out after it, a scene witnessed by Lieutenant John L. Cloudsley-Thompson, whose own command vehicle had been one of the the three Cromwells 'brewed up' by Wittmann's Tiger. As Cloudsley-Thompson nervously watched Dyas slowly follow Wittmann up the road, Wittmann's next encounter was with a Sherman Firefly belonging to 'B' Sqn., commanded by Sergeant Stan Lockwood which had turned into Rue Georges Clémenceau from the Place Jeanne d'Arc. Having sustained a light hit from the 17-pdr cannon of Lockwood's Firefly, Wittmann half-turned into a section of wall, causing the rubble to fall down upon the British vehicle.

Amid this confusion Captain Dyas, who had up to this point kept his Cromwell at a safe distance in following Wittmann's Tiger, seized the opportunity to have a crack at his much larger adversary. The brave Dyas did manage to get two 75mm shots off against the massive German vehicle, but instead of claiming his prize he saw both shells bounce harmlessly off the Tiger's thick armour. Dyas was not to get a second chance; with Wittmann now aware of the danger the Tiger's massive gun quickly turned itself on the now helpless and exposed British vehicle, and an accurate shot from Woll succeeded in blowing Dyas clean out of his cupola, leaving him dazed but unhurt. His gunner and driver were not so fortunate, however.

A knocked-out Cromwell, Villers-BocageWittmann's Tiger, Villers-Bocage

Left: The wreck of a British Cromwell tank knocked out by Wittmann's tiger inside the town of Villers-Bocage. Right: Wittmann's Tiger on the shattered streets of Villers-Bocage, having been knocked out by a British anti-tank gun. The men in the foreground are part of the attached Leibstandarte Panzergrenadier Division.
Huet-Godefroy: Exit and escape
Having turned away from the threat posed by the advancing Cromwells of 'B' Sqn. to the west, Wittmann passed Dyas's burning vehicle and headed back down Rue Georges Clémenceau, whereupon his Tiger was struck on the tracks - its weakest point - by a shell from a British 6-pdr anti-tank gun located in a small side alleyway. Given the earlier exchanges with far heavier Allied weaponry, that the mighty Tiger was disabled by the comparatively lightweight 6-pdr was more than ironic.

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