Battle of Villers-Bocage
I had no time to assemble my company; instead I had to act quickly, as I had to assume that the enemy had already spotted me and would destroy me where I stood. I set off with one tank and passed the order to the others not to retreat a single step but to hold their ground.
MICHAEL WITTMANN (1914-1944), proud son of the Bavarian village of Vogelthal and winner of the coveted Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords, has to go down as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, exponent of the art of armoured warfare in the modern era.
During his many campaigns both on the Eastern front and in the West, Wittmann was to make a name for himself with his exceptional skill and bravery, and was highly respected both by friend and foe alike. While his skill had been recognised on the harsh battlefields on the Eastern Front, his exploits during the Normandy campaign of 1944 – and the famous assault at Villers-Bocage – were to elevate him to the status of a legend.
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.
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.
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.
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:
“…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.”
Michael Wittmann, 13th June 1944
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.
The number of the vehicle Wittmann commandeered that morning is a subject of enthusiastic debate;
Mechanical failure tank commanders got used to Tank hopping
Wittmann gave the command to crank up the vehicle for an all out attack on the enemy formation. The order was issued for all the remaining Tigers to stand fast and host their positions; The time was now 08:35.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. With one of the drive sprockets damaged by the shell, Wittmann’s vehicle ground to a halt in front of the Huet-Godefroy clothes store. Knowing that further resistance was impossible, Wittmann and his crew exited their vehicle in the hope that it might be later retrieved, and succeeded in making their way some fifteen kilometers on foot back to the HQ of the Panzer Lehr Division at Chateau d’Orbois, where Wittmann provided a thorough briefing on the situation. Later that day, tanks belonging to the Panzer Lehr initiated their own counter-attack, accompanied by the 1st Company of the 101st LSSAH led by SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Möbius. By this time the element of surprise had been lost, however; there was to be no repeat of that morning’s rout.
In all, Wittmann’s own calculations amounted to a roll call of some twenty-one enemy tanks and an unspecified number of half-tracks, troop carriers and Bren gun carriers; in what what one of the most astonishing feats of arms during the war, he had more or less single-handedly prevented the British advance. Naturally, the German propaganda agencies had a field day, and bloated kill figures were naturally thrown about: Wittman was initially credited with the single-handed destruction of 27 of the 30 British tanks that had been destroyed. Ever after a more sober analysis however, Michael Wittmann’s achievement at Villers-Bocage still stands out as highly significant in the annals of armoured warfare; in one short sortie his Tiger had destroyed a staggering twenty-seven enemy vehicles, including a dozen tanks – five Cromwells, two Sherman Fireflies, three Stuarts, and two commands vehicles, one a Cromwell and the other an M4A4 Sherman.
In all some thirty British tanks were destroyed in and around Villers-Bocage on the morning of 13 June, as well as an unspecified number of other vehicles. On the German side eleven tanks were knocked out or disabled, among them six Tigers including Wittmann’s Nr. 222. Three of these six vehicles were later salvaged and repaired. While Michael Wittmann may not have won the battle single-handedly as the German propaganda bulletins at the time suggested, his bold and instinctive action was without doubt the catalyst for an action that had driven the enemy out of Villers-Bocage and left them reeling and on the defensive; it was one of the very few occasions on which the Germans would have any sort of ascendancy during these last two years of the war.
The British units had suffered considerably in the initial attack but had held the town with its vital crossroads. The Germans broke contact, but later managed to execute several strong counterattacks on Villers and the hold of the 7th Armored Division elements was tenuous.
Support for the British was available from several sources. An accompanying US artillery forward observer called in very heavy and accurate artillery fire to break up one German attack. Several uncommitted infantry brigades were available and could have been used to reinforce Villers-Bocage, but the British commander on the scene (Hinde) did not request help. The Division commander George Erskine, could have requested these brigades, but did not. Neither the Corps commander, Gerard Bucknall, nor the Second Army commander Dempsey reinforced the units at Villers-Bocage. At 1600, the acting commanding officer of the 4th CLY ordered a retreat of his forces from the town.
The withdrawal from Villers-Bocage ended British hopes of unhinging the German front south of Caen. Historians feel that a great opportunity had been lost through poor execution of the plan. Dempsey later remarked that “the whole handling of that battle was a disgrace”.
Both Erskine and Bucknall were relieved of command in early August, after another failure to capture Villers Bocage and Aunay during Operation Bluecoat. Brigadier Hinde and the Commander, Royal Artillery of 7th Armoured Division were also removed.
The British losses in the battle were:
8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars: a number of Stuarts
4th County of London Yeomanry: 8 Cromwells, 4 Sherman Fireflies, 3 Stuarts, 1 Half-track vehicle, 3 Scout cars,
Rifle Brigade: 9 half-track vehicles, 2 Bren gun-carriers, 4 Carden-Loyd Carriers
5th Royal Horse Artillery: 2 Cromwell, 1 Sherman.On the German side, only 6 Tiger tanks were put out of action (of which 3 were later repaired) and 5 Panzer IVs.
The Propaganda of Villers-Bocage
German propaganda throughout the Second World War tended to elevate individual fighters to ‘hero’ status. The events at Villers-Bocage were thus ascribed almost entirely to Wittmann who was given credit for 27 of the 30 destroyed British tanks. Postwar, hobbyist interest in Wittman has not waned. It must be pointed out that Wittman’s Tiger tank greatly outclassed the British vehicles he faced in firepower and armor. However, it is also true that in the close quarters of this battle, the British 17-pounder was capable of defeating the armour on Wittman’s tank. Even the towed 6 pounder and 75 mm guns on the Cromwells and Shermans could under ideal conditions. It may be concluded that the real reason for Wittman’s success was not so much technical superiority or individual skill, but poorly executed tactics and battle procedure on the part of the 7th Armoured Division.
Michael Wittmann and his crew was killed in action on August 8th of 1944, at Gaumesnil near Cintheaux and were buried in an unmarked grave. In March of 1983, the unmarked field grave of Tiger #007′s crew was discovered during the construction of the road and was excavated. It was possible to identify the remains by Wittmann’s dental records and Heinrich Reimers’s (driver) identification tag. Wittmann and his crew was then officially buried in the German Military Cemetery of “De La Cambe” in Normandy, France.
Finally in 2006, it was proven that Wittmann’s Tiger was destroyed by British Sherman VC “Firefly” commanded by Sergeant Gordon (gunner – Trooper Joe Ekins) from 3rd Platoon, “A” Squadron, 33rd Armored Brigade of 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry.
British Sherman VC “Firefly” armed with 17 pounder gun was capable of penetrating Tiger’s armor at range of 800m. The force of explosion blew off the turret, which landed upside down away from the hull.
Another version is that Wittmann was killed by the fire from a Canadian regiment, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment, which was in the same area as the Northamptonshire Yeomanry.
The current approach to the engagement and question to “who killed Wittmann” is that it was both the British and Canadian forces, which destroyed the three Tigers led into the attack by Wittmann.
SS-Haupsturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann was the most successful tanker ace of World War II. His friends said that Michael Wittmann was quiet man even during combat and that he had 6th sense, to know where and how to engage the enemy. Wittmann commanded excellent crews, who were able to fully cooperate with him and anticipated his orders. Wittmann was highly admired by his comrades and very highly thought of by his superiors. Michael Wittmann represents a real hero who fought to the bitter end for his Fatherland. Wittmann’s personal bravery is unquestionable and his place in military history thoroughly deserved. He has been called the “Black Baron” in reference to the “Red Baron” World War I fighter ace – Manfred von Richthofen.
Despite being a Nazi, Michael Wittman was perhaps the greatest and most daring tank commander the world has ever seen. During his career, he recorded 138 tank kills, 132 anti-tank gun kills, and destroyed hundreds of trucks, carriers, artillery, and errant sportscars. There’s even a report that he fired his tank gun at a Russian submarine once,
He was an accomplished commander, a skilled tactician, and a worthy adversary for Allied forces on both sides of the European Theater.
The Battle of Villers-Bocage (June 13, 1944) was an unusual clash between the British and Germans in Normandy, France during World War II.
Early on 13 June, elements of an armoured regiment (the British term “armoured regiment” is equivalent to a tank battalion in other armies) and Motor battalion (mechanized infantry) of 7th Armoured Division approached the town of Villers-Bocage from the northwest. German tank commander Michael Wittmann had a small force of six tanks nearby. In one of the more aggressive small-unit actions of the war, he charged his vehicle into the British column, splitting it and then engaging the British forces at very short range before passing along and across the British line into the village. The other tanks of his small unit added to the British vehicle losses, which were heavy.
The significance of the battle lies in the lost opportunity to take Caen early in the Normandy campaign. Caen had been a D-Day objective of the British 2nd Army. Seizure of Caen, combined with the small bridgeheads across the Orne taken by the British Airborne troops on D-Day, would have given the Allies a much stronger position on the eastern flank in Normandy.
For nearly a week after the June 6, 1944 D-Day landings in Normandy, the Allies had pushed inland in the Battle of Normandy. West of Caen, a strong push towards Caumont-l’Éventé by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division forced the German 352nd Infantry Division back, exposing the flanks of the Panzer Lehr Division. A quick exploitation of this gap presented an opportunity for the Allies to make German defences in Normandy untenable.
Field Marshal Montgomery, conscious of this opportunity, launched Operation Perch, an attempt by the British 7th Armoured Division (the Desert Rats) to circle around the Panzer Lehr Division and make a surprise attack on their rear. The hamlet of Villers-Bocage lay in the path of this movement, sitting at the hub of a road net that led northeast towards Caen; if the town (and the high ground nearby at Point 213) could be taken and held, British armour would be able to push northeast behind the German front, with a possible exploitation to Caen.
The British were unaware that elements of the 2nd Heavy Tank Company of the Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 (101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion), led by Michael Wittmann had received orders to take and hold point 213, which was above the crossroads at Villers-Bocage. After having reached it during the night to avoid detection by Allied aircraft, Wittmann’s force of five heavy Tiger tanks and a Panzer IV medium tank were sited approximately 150 meters south of RN 175. The British force sent to take Villers-Bocage and Point 213 consisted of a reinforced tank squadron (company) and an infantry company of a Motor battalion; approximately 200 armored vehicles.
Villers-Bocage and Point 213 were unoccupied as the battle opened and both sides raced to take the high ground, and thus the tactical advantage. While the British forces arrived in the town of Villers-Bocage first, Wittman’s force gained point 213 and could observe the British movements.
The British in the town suffered from poor tactical deployment and were initially crowded by cheering civilians happy about their apparent liberation. The four tanks of the tank squadron’s command group parked and the crews dismounted. The men and vehicles of the battle group did not form an all-around defence as doctrine demanded, security was poor and no proper reconnaissance of Point 213 was done. A combined tank and infantry force was finally sent out of the village to take Point 213.
Wittmann watched the column of the 4th County of London Yeomanry leave Villers-Bocage and advance on his tanks on Point 213, nose to tail through a sunken road. The lead squadron halted on the road without deploying into a defensive position, allowing the halftracks and carriers of the accompanying infantry to pass. In the face of unreconnoitered terrain, this was a colossal mistake.
Wittmann saw his opportunity and decided to attack with one tank between Point 213 and Villers-Bocage, cutting off “A” Squadron of the 4th CLY and ordered his accompanying two operational tanks to hold their position. Wittmann counted on the effect of surprise to inflict the greatest possible losses on the British while waiting for reinforcements. Describing his actions Wittmann later said, “I had not been able to gather my company. I had to act very quickly because I must suppose that the enemy has already located us and intends to destroy us at the starting position. I left with my tank. I ordered the two other tanks to move back at once but to hold the terrain.”
At 0900 Wittmann’s Tiger attacked. A few minutes later, in the direction of Caen, he destroyed three tanks; a Sherman Firefly and a Cromwell tank on the right and another tank on the left, proceeding to Villers without pause and attacking the lightly armored vehicles of The Rifle Brigade. During this engagement, he destroyed nine half-track vehicles, four Carden Loyd Carriers, two other carriers, and two 6-pounder anti-tank guns, then destroyed three Stuart light tanks and one half-track vehicle. Entering Villers-Bocage alone, he destroyed three of the four Cromwells in position at the top of the Lemonnier farm.
He followed Clémenceau Street where his tank destroyed two Sherman command tanks of the 5th Royal Horse Artillery before knocking out another scout car and half-track. As Wittmann arrived at the Jeanne d’Arc square, he ended up opposite the Sherman Firefly of Sergeant Lockwood of “B” Squadron. The Firefly, whose 17-pounder was the only Allied main tank gun capable of defeating the frontal armour of a Tiger in most circumstances, fired four shells at Wittman. One hit the hull of the Tiger, which returned fire and knocked down a section of wall on the Sherman. Wittmann then made a half-turn, his tank lightly damaged, and returned down Clémenceau Street. The Cromwell tank of Captain Dyas that had not been destroyed, confronted him, firing two 75 mm shells, failing to harm the Tiger. Wittmann put the Cromwell out of action with one shot.
As Wittmann proceeded on the road leaving Villers-Bocage, his left track was hit by a 6-pdr shell, forcing him to stop on the street in front of the Huet-Godefroy store. Wittman engaged targets in range. Thinking that the Tiger might be salvaged and repaired later, Wittmann and crew abandoned the tank without destroying it, leaving the area on foot but without weapons.
They ended up joining the headquarters of the Panzer Lehr Division, nearly 7 kilometres away. Consequently, 15 Panzer IV’s of IInd Battalion of the 130th regiment left Orbois in the direction of Villers-Bocage under the command of Captain Helmut Ritgen with the aim of blocking the exits to the North. Before reaching their objective, they came under the fire of British anti-tank guns and their advance was blocked. Fritz Bayerlein, commander of Panzer Lehr, ordered the Panzer IVs to fall back and regroup at Villers-Bocage. The tanks took the direction of the castle of Parfouru on Odon, where, after repairs were made to the 14 survivors, they attacked under the command of Hannes Philipsen; four tanks from the south and ten by Clémenceau Street. Each of the two groups lost two tanks.
Wittmann was then brought back in his Schwimmwagen to Point 213, where he joined with Karl Mobius, commander of the 1st Company and discussed the second attack that the 101st Abteilung was about to deliver. The tanks of the 1st Company entered the city along the d’Evrecy Road and joined those of Panzer Lehr at the marketplace in order to coordinate their offensive. The forces were distributed so as to occupy the city from the Pasteur Street towards the Jeanne d’Arc square, on Saint-Germain Street, on Emile Samson and towards the crossroads of Jeanne Bacon Street and Joffre Boulevard. However, British resistance was by now organized as the Germans had lost surprise. One 6-pounder anti-tank gun of the 1/7th Queen’s, placed in Jeanne Bacon Street, managed to score hits on three Tigers of which only one could be repaired.