SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann

Michael Wittman photographed one month prior to Operation Overlord.

 Michael Wittmann

Michael Wittmann (22 April 1914 – 8 August 1944) was a German Waffen-SS tank commander during the Second World War. Wittmann rose to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) and was a Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross holder.

He was credited with the destruction of 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns, along with an unknown number of other armoured vehicles, making him one of Germany’s top scoring panzer aces, together with Johannes Bölter, Ernst Barkmann, Otto Carius and Kurt Knispel who was the top scoring ace of the war with 168 tank kills.

Wittmann is most famous for his ambush of elements of the British 7th Armoured Division, during the Battle of Villers-Bocage on 13 June 1944. While in command of a single Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger he destroyed up to 14 tanks and 15 personnel carriers along with 2 anti-tank guns within the space of 15 minutes.

The circumstances behind Wittmann’s death have caused some debate and discussion over the years, but it had been accepted that Trooper Joe Ekins, the gunner in a Sherman Firefly of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, fired the round that destroyed his tank and killed Wittmann and his crew. However, in recent years, some historians have suggested that members of the Canadian Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment may have been responsible instead.

Early Life

Michael Wittmann was born on 22 April 1914 in Vogelthal, Bavaria, Germany. In 1934–1936 he served in the German Army. In October 1936, Wittmann joined the SS. On 5 April 1937, he was assigned to the regiment, later division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). A year later, he participated in the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Sudetenland and joined the Nazi Party.

Wittmann receiving the Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross from Adolf Hitler.

World War II

Eastern Front

Wittmann’s unit was transferred to the Eastern Front in the spring of 1941, for Operation Barbarossa, the planned invasion of the Soviet Union. Wittmann was assigned to the SS Panzer Regiment 1, a tank unit, where he commanded a StuG III assault gun/tank destroyer as well as a Panzer III medium tank. By 1943, he commanded a Tiger I tank, and by the Battle of Kursk (Operation Citadel), he was a platoon leader. Attached to the LSSAH, Wittmann’s platoon of four Tigers reinforced the division’s reconnaissance battalion to screen the division’s left flank. His four Tigers destroyed a number of Soviet tanks, his tank at one point surviving a collision with a burning T-34.

On 14 January 1944, Wittmann was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross. The presentation was made by his divisional commander SS-Oberführer Theodor Wisch who nominated him for the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves. Wittmann was awarded the Oak Leaves on 30 January for the destruction of 117 tanks, making him the 380th member of the German armed forces to receive it. Wittmann received the award from Adolf Hitler personally at the Wolf’s Lair, Hitler’s headquarters in Rastenburg, on 2 February 1944.

Wittmann’s company, 7 June 1944, en route to Morgny. Wittmann is standing in the turret of Tiger 205.

Normandy

In April 1944, the LSSAH’s Tiger Company was transferred to the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101. This battalion was assigned to the I SS Panzer Corps as a corps asset, and was never permanently attached to any division or regiment. Wittmann was appointed commander of the battalion’s second company, and held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer. On 7 June, following the Allied Invasion of Normandy, the battalion was ordered to move from Beauvais to Normandy. The move, covering roughly 165 kilometres or 103 miles, took five days to complete.

Due to the Anglo-American advance south from Gold and Omaha Beaches, the German 352nd Infantry Division began to buckle. As the division withdrew south, it opened up a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) wide gap in the front line near Caumont-l’Éventé. Sepp Dietrich, commander of 1st SS Panzer Corps, ordered the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, his only reserve, to position itself behind the Panzer Lehr Division and SS Division Hitlerjugend. This position would protect the open left flank which was developing. Anticipating the importance the British would assign to the high ground near Villers-Bocage, Wittmann’s company was positioned near the town.  Late on the 12th, Wittmann’s company arrived at an area in the vicinity of Villers-Bocage. Nominally composed of twelve tanks, Wittmann’s company was 50 per cent understrength due to losses and mechanical failures.

The following morning, the lead elements of the British 7th Armoured Division entered Villers-Bocage. They had been given the objective of exploiting the gap in the front line, seizing Villers-Bocage, and capturing the nearby ridge (Point 213) to attempt to force a German withdrawal. The British arrival surprised Wittmann, as he had not expected them so soon. He reported afterwards that he had no time to assemble his 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.” Having given instructions for the rest to hold their ground, he set off with one tank.

At approximately 09:00, Wittmann’s Tiger emerged from cover onto the main road, Route Nationale 175, and engaged the rearmost British tanks positioned on Point 213, destroying them. Wittmann then moved towards Villers-Bocage, engaging several transport vehicles parked along the roadside; the carriers burst into flames as their fuel tanks were ruptured by machine gun and high explosive fire. Moving into the eastern end of the town, he engaged a number of light tanks followed by several medium tanks. Alerted to Wittmann’s actions, light tanks in the middle of the town quickly got off the road, while medium tanks were brought forward. Wittmann, meanwhile, had destroyed an additional British tank, two artillery observation post (OP) tanks,followed by a scout car and a half-track.

Accounts differ as to what happened next. Historians record that, following the destruction of the OP tanks, Wittmann dueled briefly without success with a Sherman Firefly before withdrawing. The Tiger is then reported to have continued eastwards to the outskirts of the town before being disabled by an anti-tank gun. However, Wittmann’s own account contradicts this; he states that his tank was disabled by an anti-tank gun in the town centre. In less than fifteen minutes, thirteen or fourteen tanks, two anti-tank guns, and thirteen to fifteen transport vehicles had been destroyed by the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, the vast majority attributed to Wittmann. He played no further role in the Battle of Villers-Bocage.  For his actions during the battle, Wittmann was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer, and awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords.

The German propaganda machine swiftly credited Wittmann, by then a household name in Germany, with all the British tanks destroyed at Villers-Bocage. Wittmann recorded a radio message on the evening of 13 June, describing the battle, and claiming that later counter-attacks had destroyed a British armoured regiment and an infantry battalion. Doctored images were produced; three joined-together photographs, published in the German armed forces magazine Signal, gave a false impression of the scale of destruction in the town. The propaganda campaign was given credence in Germany and abroad, leaving the British convinced that the Battle of Villers-Bocage had been a disaster, when in fact its results were less clear-cut. The Waffen-SS may have fought with distinction during the Battle of Kursk, but could not match the army’s success, hence Sepp Dietrich’s attempts to manufacture a hero out of Wittmann.

Photograph of the wrecked Tiger 007, taken by French civilian Serge Varin in 1945, still in the field near Gaumesnil where it had been stopped a year before.

Death

On 8 August 1944, Anglo-Canadian forces launched Operation Totalize. Under the cover of darkness, British and Canadian tanks and soldiers seized the tactically important high ground near the town of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil. Here they paused, awaiting an aerial bombardment that would signal the next phase of the attack. Unaware of the reason the Allied forces had halted, Kurt Meyer, of the SS Hitlerjugend Division, ordered elements of his command to counterattack and recapture the high ground.

Wittmann led a group of seven Tiger tanks, from the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, supported by additional tanks and infantry. His group of Tigers, crossing open terrain towards the high ground, was ambushed by tanks from A Squadron 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, A Squadron Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, and B Squadron 144th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps. During the ambush, anti-tank shells – fired from either the British or Canadian tanks – penetrated the upper hull of Wittmann’s tank, igniting the ammunition. The resulting fire engulfed the tank and blew off the turret. The crew of the destroyed tank were buried in an unmarked grave. In 1983, the German war graves commission located the burial site. Wittmann and his crew were reinterred together at the La Cambe German war cemetery in France.

Grave of Michael Wittmann, La Cambe Cemetery, France.

Writing

Wittmann is often featured in the books on the battles in Normandy. Several websites are dedicated to him, along with books written by authors such as Patrick Agte and Franz Kurowski. The former is an author and publisher affiliated with the Waffen-SS lobby group HIAG, while the latter is a prolific author who wrote non-peer reviewed wartime chronicles of highly decorated Waffen-SS men.

Status

Wittmann became a cult figure after the war thanks to his accomplishments as a “panzer ace” (a highly decorated tank commander) in the portrayal of the Waffen-SS in popular culture. The historian Stephen Hart comments “the Wittmann legend [has] become well-established” and “continues to stimulate huge public interest”. Military historian Steven Zaloga refers to Wittmann as “the hero of all Nazi fanboys” and discusses the popular perception of a tank versus tank engagement as an “armoured joust”—two opponents facing each other—with the “more valiant or better-armed [one] the eventual victor”. He contends that perception is nothing but “romantic nonsense”. Most of the successful tank commanders were indeed “bushwackers”, according to Zaloga, having a battlefield advantage rather than a technical one: a tank crew that could engage its opponent before the latter spotted it often came out on top.

Wittmann’s career as a “panzer ace” is described by Kurowski in his 1992 book Panzer Aces. A veteran of the Eastern front (as a member of a propaganda company), Kurowski is one of the “gurus” of the Eastern Front, according to historians Ronald Smelser and Edward Davies. In their definition, gurus are: “authors, have picked up and disseminated the myths of the Wehrmacht in a wide variety of popular publications that romanticize the German struggle in Russia”.

Smelser and Davies describe Kurowski’s version of the war on the Eastern Front as “well-nigh chivalrous”, with German troops “showing concerns for the Russian wounded, despite the many atrocities” of the Soviets against the Germans. In one of Kurowski’s accounts, Wittmann takes out eighteen tanks in a single engagement, for which Dietrich, the commanding officer, presents him with an Iron Cross and inquires whether Wittmann has a request. Without hesitation, Wittmann requests assistance for a wounded Russian soldier that he has spotted. Many similar acts of “humanity” are present in the book, amounting to a distorted image of the German fighting men.

Michael Wittmann.

Assessment as Panzer Commander

Some historians and authors of the late twentieth-century found Wittmann’s actions at Villers-Bocage impressive, describing his attack as “one of the most amazing engagements in the history of armoured warfare”, “one of the most devastating single-handed actions of the war”, and “one of the most devastating ambushes in British military history”. Historian Stephen Badsey has stated that the ambush Wittmann launched has cast a shadow over the period between D-Day and 13 June in historical accounts.

German tank commander and historian Wolfgang Schneider is not as impressed. In analyzing Wittmann’s actions at Villers-Bocage, he called into question his tactical ability. Schneider states: “a competent tank company commander does not accumulate so many serious mistakes”. He highlights how Wittmann dispersed his forces in a sunken lane with a broken down tank at the head of the column thereby hampering the mobility of his unit. The solitary advance into Villers-Bocage was heavily criticized as it breached “all the rules”. No intelligence was gathered, and there was no “centre of gravity” or “concentration of forces” in the attack. Schneider argues that due to Wittmann’s rash actions: “the bulk of the 2nd Company and Mobius 1st Company came up against an enemy who had gone onto the defensive”. He calls Wittmann’s “carefree” advance into British-occupied positions “pure folly”, and states that “such over hastiness was uncalled for.” He concludes that, had a properly prepared assault been launched, involving the rest of his company and the 1st Company, far greater results could have been achieved. Finally, Schneider opines that: “thoughtlessness of this kind was to cost [Wittmann] his life … during an attack casually launched in open country with an exposed flank.”

Historian Sönke Neitzel describes Wittmann as the “supposedly successful” tank commander of the World War II and attests to “hero worshiping” around Wittmann. According to Neitzel, numbers of successes, by highly decorated tank commanders, should be read with caution as it is rarely possible to determine reliably, in the heat of battle, how many tanks were destroyed by whom.

Historian Steven Zaloga credits Wittmann with “about 135” tank kills, and points out that Wittmann achieved 120 of these in 1943, operating a Tiger I tank on the Eastern Front. Having advantages both in firepower and in armor, Tiger I was “nearly invulnerable in a frontal engagement” against any of the Soviet tanks of that time, and Wittmann thus could destroy opposing tanks from a safe distance. Zaloga concludes: “Most of the ‘tank aces’ of World War II were simply lucky enough to have an invulnerable tank with a powerful gun” (quotation marks in the original). German documents from 1944 stated that Allied technology had caught up with the Tiger I, and that: “no longer can it prance around, oblivious to the laws of tank tactics”. Zaloga believes that Wittmann’s fate reflected that new reality: after transfer to France, his crew only lasted two months, and was destroyed by a British medium tank, the up-gunned Sherman Firefly.

Writing in 2013, British historian John Buckley criticised the accounts which many historians continue to provide of the fighting around Villers-Bocage. Buckley argued that by wrongly attributing the entire German success to Wittmann, “many historians through to today continue to repackage unquestioningly Nazi propaganda”.

Speculation Surrounding Death

For such a junior officer, an unusual amount of speculation has surrounded his death, both as to its cause and the party responsible. Agte states that “the English” could have possibly placed a bounty on Wittmann. This is contradicted by Allied records and the fact that, according to the testimony of the Allied troops involved, he was not singled out during the battle. Contemporaneous Nazi propaganda reports contended that Allied aircraft struck Witmann’s tank, stating that he had fallen in combat to the “dreaded fighter-bombers”. In a post-war account, the French civilian Serge Varin, who took the only known photograph of the destroyed tank, claimed that he found an unexploded rocket nearby, and that he saw no other penetration holes in the tank. Historian Brian Reid dismisses this contention as relevant RAF logs make no claim of engaging tanks in the area at that time. This position is supported by the men of Wittmann’s unit who stated they did not come under air attack, and by British and Canadian tank crews who also dismiss any involvement by aircraft to help halt the German attack.

Following the war, claims were made by or for the following units as being responsible for Wittmann’s death: 1st Polish Armoured Division, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the 144th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps, and the RAF Second Tactical Air Force. Reid examined these claims and dismissed them based on the units’ war diaries.

In a 1985, issue of After the Battle Magazine, Les Taylor, a wartime member of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, claimed that fellow yeoman Joe Ekins was responsible for the destruction of Wittmann’s tank. Veteran and historian Ken Tout, a member of the same unit, published a similar account crediting Ekins. Historians have supported this position, and it became the widely accepted version of events. According to Hart, Ekin’s unit was positioned in a wood on the right flank of the advancing Tiger tanks. At approximately 12:47, they engaged them, halting the attack, and killing Wittmann.

Reid discusses the possibility that Sydney Valpy Radley-Walters’ A Squadron of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, positioned on the left flank of the advancing German tanks, was responsible instead. Situated on the grounds of a chateau at Gaumesnil, the unit had created firing holes in the property’s walls and, based on verbal testimony, engaged the advancing German tanks, including Tigers. The British tanks were between 1,000 metres (1,100 yd) and 1,200 metres (1,300 yd) away from the German line of advance, whereas the Canadian squadron was around 500 metres (550 yd) away. Reid argues that due to the Canadians’ proximity to the Germans, and the firing angle, their troops more than likely can be credited with the destruction of Wittmann’s tank. Reid also relies on H. Holfinger’s account of the engagement to support his thesis ; Holfinger was in a Tiger approximately 250 meters behind Wittmann and he indicates that Wittmann’s Tiger was destroyed at 12h55. Ekin’s crew was credited with the destruction of 3 Tigers, at 12h40, 12h47 and 12h52, Wittmann’s tank being probably the one destroyed at 12h47. Considering Holfinger’s account, Reid concludes that the Tiger destroyed at 12h47 could not be that of Wittmann; he also notes that the circumstances surrounding the fate of the Tiger destroyed at 12h52 exclude the possibility that it could have been Wittmann’s .

 

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