The exploits of Germany’s top panzer ace. Michael Wittmann.
Michael Wittmann was soon to become the most famous Tiger tank commander in the Waffen-SS for his exploits at Villers-Bocage.
The plan for Operation Perch in June 1944 was for the British 7th Armoured Division to break through at Villers-Bocage to trap the Panzer Lehr and Hitlerjugend Divisions.
One of the most individually destructive vehicles of the legendary ‘Tiger Tank’ weapons’ system. This is SS-Unterscharführer (Sgt.) Kurt Sowa’s final series PzKpFw Tiger Ausf. E of 2.Kompanie, 2.Zug, schwere SS Panzer Abteilung 101, Normandy, June, 1944. On June 13 this vehicle was borrowed by the 2.Zug’s Commanding Officer, SS-Obersturmführer (1st Lt) Michael Wittman for a reconnaissance mission north of Villers-Bocage, that brought him immortal fame after it turned into an almost single-handed fight against 4th County of London Yeomanry. Unlike Wittman, Sowa’s Tiger survived the fighting in Normandy and crossed the Seine intact only to be finally destroyed during the Battle of the Bulge, near a bridge at Stavelot.
The path of Wittmann’s Tiger in the main street of Villers-Bocage.
With the Canadians and British stalemated in front of Caen by the stalwart defence of the Hitlerjugend Division, General Montgomery decided to exploit the gap in the German front. He resolved that this would best be done on the exposed Waffen-SS division’s left flank. The Panzer Lehr Division was moving into place next to the Hitlerjugend after something of a long delay, but in turn its left flank was also exposed, and the Germans had not yet been able to establish a continuous front between the divisions shielding Caen and units fighting the Americans in the western part of Normandy.
Montgomery’s answer was Operation Perch. The fresh British 7th Armoured Division was launched southwards around the open left flank of the Panzer Lehr Division on 12 June. Its mission was to outflank the Panzer Lehr, then swing around behind it and drive hell for leather through Villers-Bocage towards Caen, trapping both the Hitlerjugend and Panzer Lehr Divisions. On paper, the plan was very sound; indeed, it was straight out of the Blitzkrieg school of tactics. The execution was flawed, however, and the famous Desert Rats soon found their nemesis in the shape of a single, determined Waffen-SS Tiger I tank commander.
The 55-tonne (54-ton) Tiger I tank had been in service with the Waffen-SS since late 1942. It had first seen action with devastating effect during the heavy fighting around Kharkov on the Eastern Front in February and March 1943. With its 88mm cannon, the Tiger could easily punch through the armour of Soviet T-34s and Allied 5hermans at more than 1500m (1640yd) range. At first the Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions had each been assigned a Tiger I company of some 15 tanks, although the Tiger’s notorious unreliability meant that it was often the case that only half of a company’s tanks were operational at anyone time. These tanks had been used as spearhead units during the Battle of Kursk in July 1943.
As a result of the expansion of the Waffen-SS panzer corps in the summer of 1943, it was decided to remove the divisional Tiger companies and form two corps-level heavy tank battalions. These were nominally to have three Tiger I companies, each with 14 tanks each. The continued commitment of the Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf on the Eastern Front through the winter of 1943, and into the spring of 1944, meant the two new battalions were not ready for action until just before the invasion of France. The 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion itself was assigned to support I SS Panzer Corps, and the 102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion worked for the sister corps. They were to provide each of the Waffen-SS corps with a hard-hitting strike force, or a reserve counter-punch.
The 101st SS Battalion had been ordered to Normandy immediately after the Allied invasion, but persistent Allied air raids delayed the advance of its 37 operational tanks. It arrived in I SS Panzer Corps’ sector west of Caen on 12 June, just as the Panzer Lehr Division was taking up position alongside the Hitlerjugend Division.
One of its companies, under the command of 30-year-old SS-Oberstürmführer Michael Wittmann, was posted behind the army division and was to be used only as a reserve force. Wittmann was, by June 1944, one of the most highly decorated German tank commanders of the war, boasting the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves. His kill tally ran to an astronomical 119 tanks, almost all of which were claimed during a particularly successful year serving with the Leibstandarte’s Tiger company on the Eastern Front.
Operation Perch got under way during the afternoon of 12 June, with the 22nd Armoured Brigade leading the way. All went well until a single German antitank gun knocked out a British Stuart tank near the village of Livery. Rather than pressing on to exploit the open German flank during the light summer evening, the British commander, Major-General Bobby Erskine, chose to halt for the night. This was turning into no British Blitzkrieg.
Wittmann on the rampage
Suitably rested, the 7th Armoured Division started out for Villers-Bocage at first light on 13 June and, by 08:00 hours, its advance guard – the task of which had been assigned to the Cromwell tanks of the 4th City of London Yeomanry “Sharpshooters” (4 CLY) – was passing through the town. Another tank unit, the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, a motorized infantry battalion from the Rifle Brigade, as well as assorted antitank and artillery, were in or around the small Norman town -under the command of the 22nd Armoured Brigade. 4 CLY’s A Squadron halted on a prominent hill feature to the east of the town in order to have a rest and brew some tea!
Watching from a nearby wood was Wittmann, who famously replied when he heard his gunner, Bobby Woll’s, comment, “they are acting as If they’ve won the war already” with the retort: “We’re going to prove them wrong.”
Wittmann ordered his remaining operational Tigers and a Panzer IV from the Panzer Lehr Division to stay behind in their hide while he went on a quick reconnaissance mission into the town. He moved south of the British column which was strung out along the Caen road and, unobserved, was able to penetrate into the town. Four Cromwell tanks of the 4 CLY headquarters troop were parked in the main street, with their crews dismounted, making tea or carrying out minor repairs. Wittmann caught them totally by surprise and three of the British tanks were immediately destroyed as he rampaged along the street. One of the tanks was saved by a quick-thinking driver who slammed his vehicle into reverse and backed into a garden.
Cruising down the main street of the town, Wittmann drove past this tank and soon found himself confronted by the whole of 4 CLY’s B Squadron. After exchanging several shots with the British tanks, including a 17-pounder-armed Sherman Firefly, Wittmann backed oft reversing away and then turning around. His intention was to rejoin his other Tigers but, driving back down the main street, Wittmann found himself head-to-head with the surviving Cromwell tank that had come out to fight him. The two tanks traded rounds at almost pointblank range. Two British 75mm rounds bounced off the front of Wittmann’s Tiger, until one of Woll’s 88mm shells found its mark, destroying the British tank. Running short of ammunition, Wittmann pulled back and rejoined the rest of his company. After they had re-stocked on 88mm rounds, the company set upon the 4 CLY’s A Squadron with a vengeance.
Unobserved by the British, Wittmann’s Tigers were able to approach their unsuspecting prey from behind. First of all, they knocked out a M3 halftrack at the rear of the British column. This decisive action effectively trapped the British in a sunken road where, unable to move, their tanks and a range of other vehicles were little more than sitting ducks to their German attackers. After first dealing with the Sherman Fireflys – which alone could threaten the Tigers – Wittmann’s tank, helped by the Panzer IV, just drove along the column, picking off the enemy’s vehicles one by one. By 10:30 hours, the 4 CLY battle group had virtually ceased to exist. The surviving troops on Point 213 surrendered at 13:00 hours.
Wittmann alone had accounted for 23 armoured vehicles, out of a total kill of 20 Cromwells, 4 Sherman Fireflys, 3 Stuarts, 3 artillery observer tanks, 16 Bren Gun carriers, 14 M3 halftracks and 2 6-pounder antitank guns. More than 100 British soldiers had been captured and some 62 had been killed. The commanding officer of the 4 CLY, the Viscount Cranley, was later found to be hiding in a wood when German infantry swept the area for prisoners, and he too was captured.
As his tanks were finishing off A Squadron, Wittmann now decided to go after the remainder of the British force in Villers-Bocage itself. 4 CLY’s remaining B Squadron had responded to calls for help from its comrades trapped on Point 213, but its men had found the route blocked by the knocked-out Cromwells and a steep railway embankment. A troop of four Cromwells and a Sherman Firefly were then sited in an ambush position in the main square in order to trap any German tanks that might try to push down the main street again for a second attack. A 6-pounder antitank gun was also positioned to fire into the side armour of any tanks which were seen to be driving past the square of the town.
The British strike back
Unaware of the “Tiger trap” that had been set for him, Wittmann set off into the town, with one of his Tigers and the Panzer IV in close support. The British tanks let Wittmann’s Tiger pass by, then the 6pounder opened up, striking the armoured monster in its vulnerable side armour. A Cromwell got the following Tiger with a similar shot and British infantry with PIAT bazookas opened up as well. The Panzer IV decided to beat a hasty retreat and, blasting at houses known to contain British infantry as it went, the tank turned and retreated at full speed down the main street of the town.
At this point the Sherman Firefly pulled out of the square and planted a 17-pounder shell in the engine of the escaping Panzer IV. The German crews bailed out of their tanks and took cover in the now-ruined street. In the ensuing confusion, they were able to make good their escape. To prevent the Germans from recovering their damaged tanks in order to use them later on in the conflict, British troops stuffed petrol-soaked blankets in the tanks’ vision ports and set them on fire.
Wittmann now walked more than 7km (4.3 miles) to the headquarters of the Panzer Lehr Division. At these headquarters, he briefed the divisional operations officer on the action in Villers-Bocage. He was given command of a company of 15 Panzer IVs and ordered to clear the town of all British troops.
The remainder of Wittmann’s tanks – as well as other Tigers from 101st Battalion’s 1st Company – had already joined in the fight when he arrived back at the town at about 13:00 hours. The 1st Company Tigers led the attack into the main street of the town. In the meantime, a Kampfgruppe of infantry from the Panzer Lehr Division joined the attack.
British infantry had now reinforced the town and, at the mercy of this strengthened force, the German tanks were met by a hail of PIAT bazooka rounds. Antitank grenades – which the British dropped from upper storeys – were to account for at least one of the four Tigers and one Panzer IV destroyed in the battle.
The Tigers which had survived the battle now pulled back, with this action leaving the remainder of the fighting to the Panzer Lehr infantry. By 17:00 hours, an exhausted General Erskine gave the order for the 22nd Brigade to pull out of Villers-Bocage. The battered remnants of this force were to take up their positions on a hill to the east. However, they were given no respite and were pressed closely during the night by the German troops. By the following morning, the Germans had severely dented the British force’s morale and had managed to inflict more than 100 casualties.
The Germans continued to press forward, with the 101st SS Battalion’s Tigers supporting elements of the 2nd Panzer Division. The men of these units were now arriving in accordance with orders, determined to give their full support to their comrades on the Normandy Front.
Desert Rats withdraw
A full-scale withdrawal of the 7th Armoured Division was now ordered by a panicked Montgomery. The commander was haunted by visions of his once elite division being cut off behind German lines where it would be left to an uncertain fate. Accordingly, at 14:00 hours, more than 300 RAF heavy bombers started raining 1727 tonnes (1700 tons) of bombs on Villers-Bocage to cover the withdrawal of the Desert Rats. A total count of one Waffen-SS Tiger was destroyed and three damaged in this massive airborne raid. The action would also leave 29 Tiger crews as casualties.
Still the Germans pressed the retreating British and, when the 2nd Panzer’s reconnaissance battalion hit the 7th Armoured in the flank, Erskine called in fire from 160 British and American heavy guns to allow his men to break contact. One Tiger was knocked out in this fighting. By nightfall on 14 June, the 7th Armoured Division was back at its start-line of two days earlier. It would go down in the annals of history as the unit which suffered the first major Allied defeat of the entire Normandy campaign.
Instead of being a Blitzkrieg, Operation Perch had ended as a shambolic retreat. The materiel losses on the British side were not great and numbered less than 50 tanks. However, during the action, a whole divisional attack had first been thwarted and then decisively thrown back.
Credit for this achievement must surely go to Wittmann, who saw the danger posed by the 22nd Armoured Brigade and was responsible for striking the decisive blow. It was his intervention which gave the Panzer Lehr Division’s commander the redoubtable Fritz Bayerlein – the time he needed to mobilize the counterattack force which was eventually strong enough to drive back the famous Desert Rats.
Getting Rommel out of Caen
In recognition of his efforts during Operation Perch, on the recommendation of Bayerlein, Wittmann was rewarded with Swords to his Knight’s Cross by a grateful Führer. The celebrated Waffen-SS officer was also promoted to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer. Smarting in his field headquarters, Montgomery was now preoccupied with devising his next offensive to prise Rommel’s men out of Caen. The Hitlerjugend would again be the target.