SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann

Michael Wittman photographed one month prior to Operation Overlord.

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.

  • Born – 22 April 1914 – Vogelthal, Kingdom of Bavaria, German Empire.
  • Death –  8 August 1944 – Aged 30 – near Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil, Normandy, German-Occupied France.
    • Buried – La Cambe German War Cemetery.
  • Branch of Service –
    • Total Service – 1934–44.
      • Heer – 1934-36.
      • Waffen-SS -1936-44.
  • Rank – SS-Hauptsturmführer.
    • Service Number – SS #311,623.
  • Wars – World War II

He was credited with the destruction of 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns, along with an unknown number of other armored 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.

Michael Wittmann.

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Wittmann as a young Wehrmacht soldier, 1935.

Early History

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 kilometers 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 percent 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 afterward 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.

On March 1, 1944, SS Obersturmführer Wittmann married his great love Hildegard “Hilde” Burmester, the war ceremony took place in Lüneburg. Hilde remarried after the war, but held the memory of her first husband, even at meetings of the traditional associations, in the highest honor.

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 center. 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 armored 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.

Tiger I 007 was actually from Westernhagen’s command tank but he was ill at the time, and Michael Wittmann took over the vehicle on July 13, 1944. Three weeks later, he fell in it.

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.

Personality and Traits

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.

Michael Wittmann in the RAD.

Status

Wittmann became a cult figure after the war thanks to his accomplishments as a panzer ace in the portrayal of the Waffen-SS in popular culture. Historians comment that “the Wittmann legend [has] become well-established” and “continues to stimulate huge public interest”.

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 describes the German struggle in Russia. 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 are present in the book, showing the humanity 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 armored warfare”, “one of the most devastating single-handed actions of the war”, and “one of the most devastating ambushes in British military history”.  One historian has stated that the ambush Wittmann launched has cast a shadow over the period between D-Day and 13 June in historical accounts.

Wittmann achieved 120 tank kills 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. German documents from 1944 stated that Allied technology had caught up with the Tiger I. Wittmann’s fate reflected that new reality after being transferred to France, his crew only lasted two months and was destroyed by a British medium tank, the up-gunned Sherman Firefly.

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 German propaganda reports contended that Allied aircraft struck Wittmann’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.  This contention has been claimed 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. These were examined and the claims were dismissed 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 panzer. Veteran and historian Ken Tout, a member of the same unit, published a similar account crediting Ekins.  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. Historians have supported this position, and it became the widely accepted version of events. Of course, this is many years after the fact in which Wittmann has already risen to his celebrity status so this claim is also suspect.

Another historian stated 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 the Tigers. The British tanks were between 1,000 meters (1,100 yds) and 1,200 meters (1,300 yds) away from the German line of advance, whereas the Canadian squadron was around 500 meters (550 yds) away. It is argued 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. It also relies on H. Holfinger’s account of the engagement to support this 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, it was concluded 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.

The panzer crew’s grave.
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