All About Michael WITTMANN
All About Michael Wittmann…
Michael Wittmann (April 22, 1914 – August 8, 1944) was a German Waffen-SS tank commander during the Second World War. Wittmann would rise 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 Cariusand 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 historically accepted that Trooper Joe Ekins, the gunner in a Sherman Firefly, of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry was his killer. However, in recent years, some commentators have suggested that members of the Canadian Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment may have been responsible instead.
Early life and career…
Michael Wittmann was born on April 22, 1914 in the village of Vogelthal in the Oberpfalz region of Bavaria. He was the second son of local farmer Johann Wittmann and his wife Ursula. In February 1934, Michael joined the Volunteer Labour Service, the FAD (what later became the RAD) and on October 30, 1934 he joined the German Army. He was assigned to the 19. Infantry Regiment based at Freising by Munich, eventually reaching the rank of Gefreiter (lance-corporal). In October 1936 the 22-year-old Wittmann joined the Allgemeine-SS. On April 5, 1937, he was assigned to the premier regiment, later division Leibstandarte-SSAdolf Hitler (LSSAH) and was given the rank SS-Mann (private). A year later, he participated in the occupation of Austria and theSudetenland with an armoured car platoon.
Second World War…
His first experience of action came in the Polish Campaign, followed by the Battle of France as a commander of the new self-propelled assault guns, the Sturmgeschütz III Ausf. A. The Greek campaign – Operation ‘Marita’ – was launched on April 6, 1941. Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) captured the Greek capital and formed the spearhead, alongside the 9th Panzer Division, which punched through the Greek countryside. After three weeks of campaigning, Nazi Germany had conquered Greece. Wittmann and his unit were sent to Czechoslovakia for a refit.
The rest would not last long, however, as Wittmann’s unit was soon dispatched to the Eastern Front to participate in the invasion of the Soviet Union. He initially served as a commander of a StuG III assault gun. He was assigned for both officer and tank training in the winter of 1942–43.
Returning to the Eastern Front as a newly commissioned officer, Wittmann was reassigned to the SS Panzer Regiment 1, a tank unit with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer (second lieutenant), where he commanded a Panzer III tank. By 1943, he commanded a Tiger, and by the time of the Battle of Kursk (Operation Citadel), he was a platoon leader. On January 14, 1944, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Crossand on January 30, the Oak Leaves for his continued excellence in the field. By this time, he had destroyed 88 enemy tanks and a significant number of other armoured vehicles. In Agte’s book on Wittmann (Michael Wittmann And The Tiger Commanders Of The Leibstandarte) it calculates his kills thusly: In the 5 days of Zittadelle Wittmann destroyed ‘at least’ 30 tanks.(page 100) ‘destroyed 13 T34’s’ on 21 November 1943 (page 130) 56 enemy tanks in the period July 1943-7/1/44 (page 158) In summary:
56 kills on 7/1/44 (page 213)
66 kills on 9/1/44 (page 181)
88 kills on 13/1/44 (page 213)
114-117 kills on 29/1/44 (page 185)
It would seem over half his total were claimed in a three week period in January 1944.
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 and was never permanently attached to any division or regiment within the corps. Wittmann commanded the 2nd Company of the battalion and held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer (first lieutenant). Following the Allied Invasion of Normandy, the battalion was ordered to move from Beauvais to Normandy on 7 June, a move that was completed on 12 June after a five day road march.
Due to the Anglo-American advances from Gold and Omaha Beachs, the German 352nd Infantry Division began to buckle; as it withdrew south, it opened up a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) wide gap in the German lines near Caumont-l’Éventé. Sepp Dietrich ordered his only reserve, the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, to position itself behind the Panzer-Lehr-Division and 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend to cover his open left flank. Anticipating the importance the British would assign to the high ground near Villers-Bocage, Wittmann’s company was positioned near the town.
The British 7th Armoured Division was ordered to exploit the gap in the German lines and capture Villers-Bocage and a nearby ridge, Point 213. The British occupied the town and ridge during the morning of 13 June. Wittmann’s company consisted of five tanks, of which two were damaged. He was surprised to discover the British in the Villers-Bocage area much sooner than had been expected.He later stated:
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.
At approximately 09:00 Wittmann’s Tiger emerged from cover onto Route Nationale 175 and engaged the rearmost British tanks on Point 213, destroying them. Wittmann then moved towards Villers-Bocage engaging several transport vehicles parked along the roadside, the carriers bursting into flames as their fuel tanks were ruptured by machine gun and high explosive fire. Moving into the eastern end of Villers-Bocage, Wittmann 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 accounted for a further 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 briefly duelled without success against 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.Wittmann’s own account, however, contradicts this; he states that his tank was disabled by an anti-tank gun in the town centre.
In less than 15 minutes, 13–14 tanks, two anti-tank guns and 13–15 transport vehicles had been destroyed by the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, the vast majority attributed to Wittmann. Wittmann would however play no further role in the Battle of Villers-Bocage. For his actions during the battle, Wittmann was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) and awarded Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
Historian Wolfgang Schneider calls into question Wittmann’s tactical ability, claiming „a competent tank company commander does not accumulate so many serious mistakes”. Schneider also criticises Wittmann’s disposition of his forces before the battle by having his Tigers position themselves in a sunken lane with a vehicle with engine trouble at the head of a stationary column thereby hampering mobility of his unit. It also risked blocking the entire company. However, Schneider saves his real opprobrium for Wittmann’s solitary advance into Villers-Bocage. Although he acknowledges Wittmann’s courage, he points out that such an action „goes against all the rules”. No intelligence was gathered beforehand, and there was no „centre of gravity” or „concentration of forces” in the attack. Schneider claims that because of Wittmann’s actions, „the bulk of the 2nd Company and Mobius 1st Company came up against an enemy who had gone onto the defensive”.He calls Wittman’s „carefree” advance into British-occupied positions „pure folly”, and states that „such over hastiness was uncalled for”. Schneider goes on to surmise that if Wittmann had properly prepared an assault involving the rest of his company and the 1st Company, far greater results could have been achieved. He concludes with the belief that „thoughtlessness of this kind was to cost [Wittmann] his life on August 9, 1944, near Gaumesnil, during an attack casually launched in open country with an exposed flank.”
Following the Battle of Villers-Bocage, Adolf Hitler requested that Wittmann become a tank instructor, but he refused. In response, Hitler forbade Wittmann to take part in action again. On 10 July, Wittmann took over command of the battalion as the commanding officer was sent on sick leave.
Wittmann was killed on 8 August 1944 while taking part in a counterattack ordered by Kurt Meyer, of the 12th SS Panzer Division to retake tactically important high ground near the town of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil. The town and surrounding high ground had been captured a few hours earlier by Anglo-Canadian forces during Operation Totalize. Wittmann had decided to participate in the attack as he believed the company commander who was supposed to lead the attack was too inexperienced.
A group of seven Tiger tanks from the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, supported by several other tanks, was ambushed by tanks from A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, A Squadron, the Sherbrooke Fuisilier Regiment, and B Squadron, the 144 Royal Armoured Corps.
The killing shots have long been thought to have come from a Sherman Firefly of ‘3 Troop’, A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry (commander – Sergeant Gordon; gunner – Trooper Joe Ekins), which was positioned in a wood called Delle de la Roque on the advancing Tigers’ right flank at approximately 12:47.
It appears the shells penetrated the upper hull of the tank and ignited the Tiger’s own ammunition, causing a fire which engulfed the tank and then blew off the turret.
For such a junior officer, there has been quite a lot of speculation surrounding how he died. At the time of his death, although the majority of Allied soldiers had never heard of him,Wittmann had become a household name within Germany.
In 1985, issue 48 of After the Battle Magazine was published, containing an article on the last battle of Michael Wittmann. In this issue, Les Taylor, another member of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry during the war, stated that Joe Ekins was the man who was responsible for the death of Wittmann.
The 1st Polish Armoured Division, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the 144 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps and the RAF Second Tactical Air Force have also been the subject of claims to have killed Wittmann. No Holding Back, a book by Brian Reid on Operation Totalize, contains an entire appendix devoted to the death of Michael Wittmann, in which these claims are completely discredited.
Examination of the armoured divisions’ war diaries revealed that they were too far north of St. Aignan de Cramesnil to have taken any part in the defeat of the German armoured counterattack. Investigation also ruled out the 144 Royal Armoured Corps; although they did take part in defeating the counterattack, they were positioned around Cramesnil and therefore out of effective range of Wittmann’s tank. The regiment did originally claim that they destroyed two Tigers during this German counterattack. However, their commanding officer changed this claim to one Tiger and one Panzer IV destroyed, post-battle.
The main source of controversy surrounding Wittmann’s demise comes from the claim that he was killed when an RP-3 rocket from a Royal Air Force Hawker Typhoon struck his tank.
This myth, originating in German propaganda, stated Wittmann had fallen in combat to the dreaded fighter-bombers. This was further enhanced when a French civilian, Serge Varin, who took the only known photo of the destroyed Tiger, stated that in his opinion the tank had been destroyed by an air attack. He said he had found an unexploded rocket nearby and could not see any other penetration holes, other than the one on the upper hull. However, some accounts describe this as an exit hole and state the engine was intact and not damaged from any explosion.
Brian Reid has also discredited this explanation after examining the logs of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force. Reid notes that they made no claim of engaging or destroying any tanks in the area during the battle. He concludes:
„…no tanks were claimed destroyed or damaged in the forward areas by immediate support aircraft”
„…the only tanks claimed were by Typhoons on armed reconnaissance missions in areas away from the actual battle. Therefore Wittmann and his crew almost assuredly did not fall victim to an attack from the air.”
Reid also notes that Kurt Meyer, the divisional commander of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitlerjugend who had ordered the Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 to counterattack,
„…made a point of remarking on the Allies’ failure to use their tactical fighters on the morning of August 8.”
There is also no evidence to support any other aircraft outside of the Second Tactical Airforce attacked the tank.
The final piece of evidence, which rules out air attack upon the attacking German tanks, comes from eyewitness testimony. German tank crews and other members of the Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101, such as Alfred Bahlo, Hans Dollinger, Hans Höflinger and Doctor Rabe, along with Allied tankers such as Captain Boardman, Trooper Ekins and Major Radley-Walters have all stated in interviews (as well as other media such as letters) that the Tiger tanks came under tank attack only and do not mention any air attacks.
The most recent claim…
After discrediting the main claimants other than Joe Ekins, Brian Reid then discusses another possibility, as there was another armoured regiment much closer to Wittmann’s tank. A Squadron of The Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, commanded by Major Sydney Radley-Walters, was positioned in the chateau grounds at Gaumesnil. This area, south of Hill 112, is parallel with the Delle de la Roque woods and the location of Joe Ekin’s Firefly. The regiment at this time was made up of several Sherman III and 2Sherman VC, whose tankers had created firing holes in the property’s wall. From this position, based on verbal testimony of the Canadian tankers, they engaged several tanks (including Tigers) and self-propelled guns driving up the main road and across the open ground towards Hill 112.
Reid puts forth the opinion that, with the range Joe Ekins would have to fire over to hit Wittmann’s tank, the proximity of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment to the tank, no other evidence to suggest anything other than tank-to-tank combat, that the latter are most likely responsible for Wittmann’s death. Because of changes in land use from orchards to ploughed fields since 1944, it is problematic to establish the exact location of Ekin’s Firefly at the beginning of the engagement and even more difficult to know the position of the claimed kill shot as Ekins’ tank moved during the engagement. At a minimum, the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry was positioned over 1,000 metres (1,100 yd) away, possibly as much as 1,200 metres (1,300 yd), while the Canadian tanks were only around 500 metres (550 yd) away. Recent field studies that located the exact position of the Sherbrooke tanks puts the range at less than 150 yards (140 m) and the firing angle from their position behind the Chateau’s now removed east wall coincides exactly with the damage area to Wittman’s Tiger in the left rear engine compartment. There are no official Canadian records to back up this position due to the Regimental Headquarters halftrack being destroyed by a stray USAAF bomb.
Ken Tout, who at the time of Operation Totalize, was a member of C Squadron of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, published a postwar account of the battle and of Wittmann’s demise. Tout credited Joe Ekins at that time. However, when researching his new book on the subject, he interviewed former members of A Squadron, Sherbrooke Fusiliers. In this book, for the first time, he does not claim Wittmann for the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and acknowledges that other regiments were in the area at the time and had engaged the attacking Tigers.
With the Tigers caught in a crossfire between the Northamptonshire Yeomanry and the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment, it is understandable that both regiments claimed to have destroyed his tank. The significant hole in the belief that Ekins was Wittman’s killer is that, if Wittman’s Tiger was one of three Tigers engaged and destroyed by Ekins that afternoon – a truly remarkable feat of tank gunnery, who then is responsible for one of the three Tigers nearest to where Ekins fired from. He killed three Tigers and if one was Wittman’s, someone else had to engage and kill one of these three destroyed Tigers within 800 yards (730 m) of Ekins position. There is no record or claim by any other Allied tank for any of these three Tigers.
In the appendix of “No Holding Back”, devoted to Wittmann’s demise, there is a topographical map of the engagement, diagrams of the tank and the location of the shell strike.Using this and Google Earth, it is quite easy to re-create the engagement scenario and measure the distances involved, an exercise that strongly supports the Canadian claim.
Christie included an interview with Sherbrooke Fusiliers’ commanding officer, retired-General Sidney Radley-Walters, who heard Wittmann’s tank violently explode and watched it hurl its turret into the air, all the while smoking fiercely from a shot made by one of his squadron’s Shermans. The fatal shot had shattered the Tiger’s left track and ignited its fuel and ammunition, thus blowing the turret completely off its hull only a few moments later. He was not sure which of his tanks fired the shot, as it was the middle of a fierce German counterattack and there were other enemy armoured vehicles coming down the main roadway, immediately in front of his position and leading to the German stronghold a mile or so further south (up the roadway to his right at Cintheaux), but there is no other even vaguely reasonable conclusion to be reached.
Compounding Radley-Walters’ difficulty in assigning Wittmann’s kill to any particular crew in his squadron were the untimely deaths of several of his men in combat over the next few days and, both paradoxically and incredibly, the destruction of the regiment’s records the very next day when the Americans accidentally dropped a bomb destroying the one halftrack that may have carried the evidence.
No one on the Allied side knew it was Wittmann who had been killed until many years after the war. Indeed, everyone involved on the Allied side was completely unaware of Wittmann’s reputation in wartime Germany.
The German war graves commission, either with help of veterans from the s.SS-Pz Abt. 101 or from the author of Panzers in Normandy – Then and Now, located Wittmann and his crew’s unmarked grave in 1983. They were then reinterred together at the German war cemetery of La Cambe in France.