Michael Wittmann (April 22, 1914 – August 8, 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 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-SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) and was given the rank SS-Mann (private). A year later, he participated in the occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland 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 Battle of Kursk (Operation Citadel), he was a platoon leader. In the Battle of Kursk, a Tiger I commanded by Michael Wittmann survived a collision with a T-34. Wittmann's driver was able to back away from the T-34 which was destroyed when its ammunition exploded. On January 14, 1944, he was awarded the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross and 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.(p. 100) 'destroyed 13 T34's' on 21 November 1943 (p. 130) 56 enemy tanks in the period July 1943-7/1/44 (p. 158) In summary:
56 kills on 7/1/44 (p. 213)
66 kills on 9/1/44 (p. 181)
88 kills on 13/1/44 (p. 213)
114-117 kills on 29/1/44 (p. 185)
It would seem over half his total were claimed in a three-week period in January 1944.
Michael Wittman photographed one month prior to Operation Overlord
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 of a little over 165 kilometres or 103 miles. It took five days for Wittman and his company to complete the journey, with the unit arriving on 12 June.
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.
The wreckage of the British transport column, and an anti-tank gun, that Wittmann engaged.
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.[Note 1] 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 ... during an attack casually launched in open country with an exposed flank."
Photograph of the wrecked Tiger 007, taken by French civilian Mr. Serge Varin in 1945, still in the field near Gaumesnil where it had been stopped a year before.
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.[Note 2]
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.