Michael Wittmann (April 22, 1914 - August 8, 1944) was a German SS-Hauptsturmführer during World War II. Wittman's crews (chiefly gunner Balthasar "Bobby" Woll, also a Knight's Cross holder) are credited with the confirmed destruction of 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns, along with an unknown number of other armoured vehicles. Together with Johannes Bölter, Ernst Barkmann, Otto Carius and Kurt Knispel (the top scoring German panzer ace of the war with 168 confirmed tank kills), he is considered to be one of the greatest tank commanders in history.
He is famous for his ambush of elements of the 4th County of London Yeomanry, British 7th Armoured Division, during the Battle of Villers-Bocage on June 13 1944. While in command of a single Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger he destroyed between 10 and 11 tanks, 2 anti-tank guns and 13 personnel carriers within the space of 15 minutes.
The circumstances behind Wittmann’s death have caused some debate and discussion over the years, but it has been generally accepted that Trooper Joe Ekins in a Sherman Firefly commanded by Sergeant Gordon 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 instead been responsible.
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 Labor 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. 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 and was given the rank SS-Mann. A year later, he participated in the invasion of Austria and the Sudetenland with an armoured car platoon.
Returning to the Eastern Front as a newly-commissioned officer, Wittmann was reassigned to a tank unit with the rank of SS-Untersturmführer, 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 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. Wittmann left the Leibstandarte, as the Tiger company of the division was used as the nucleus of a new Waffen-SS heavy tank battalion, Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101. This new formation was part of the I SS-Panzerkorps and was not permanently attached to any division or regiment.
By the time he was posted to France, in the late spring of 1944 following the Allied D-Day invasion, Wittmann held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer. His most famous exploit during the Normandy campaign was his ambush of the lead elements of the 7th Armoured Division's 22nd Armoured Brigade, which brought about the Battle of Villers-Bocage on June 13, 1944.
During the opening phase of this battle, within a 15 minute period, he is credited with the destruction of between 10 and 11 tanks, 2 anti-tank guns and 13 personnel carriers. Historians have claimed that Wittmann's attack ended after he had withdrawn from the town following an unsuccessful duel with a Sherman Firefly. A British tanker claimed he was responsible for denting the driver visor on the Tiger tank, during the unsuccesful duel with the Firefly, and that this forced Wittmann to withdraw his tank. Wittman's Tiger is then said to have continued eastwards, out of town, before being disabled by a British 6 Pounder anti–tank gun. Wittmann's own account contradicts this sequence of events. He states that his tank was disabled in the town centre and photographic evidence, taken after the event, of the Tiger tanks knocked out in Villers-Bocage corroborates this position.
Wittmann did not take part in the fighting throughout the rest of the morning nor the afternoon, although German propaganda claimed he did and credited him with the destruction of nearly all the British losses. For his actions at Villers-Bocage Wittmann was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer, was awarded Swords to his Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and had his story appear in Das schwarze Korps (the German Panzer forces magazine).
Michael Wittmann was killed on August 8 1944 while taking part in a counterattack to retake Hill 122, near the town of St. Aignan de Cramesnil. The town and surrounding high ground had been captured a few hours previously by Anglo-Canadian forces during Operation Totalize.
A group of seven Tiger tanks from the 3rd Company and HQ Company, Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 supported by several Panzer IV and Stug IV were ambushed by tanks from A Squadron, 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, 33rd Armoured Brigade, A Squadron, the Sherbrooke Fuisilier Regiment, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade and B Squadron, The 144 Royal Armoured Corps, 33rd Armoured Brigade.
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 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.
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, Mr. 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 time frame of 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 8 August.
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 during this battle.
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 Sidney 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 2 Sherman 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. The 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry was positioned over 1000 metres away, while the Canadian tanks were only around 500 metres away. There are no official Canadian records to back up this position due 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 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. However it is still generally accepted that Joe Ekins was Wittmanns killer.
In the appendix of “No Holding Back”, devoted to Wittmann’s demise, there is topographical map of the engagement, diagrams of the tank and the location of the shell strike.
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.
Historian Wolfgang Schneider has questioned the competence of Michael Wittmann, stating, "A competent tank company commander does not accumulate so many serious mistakes as Wittmann made". While other historians have praised Wittmann for his actions at Villers-Bocage, Schneider has criticised the solitary advance of Wittmann into Villers-Bocage. He states that, while it may "seem brave", he notes that "it goes against all the rules". Not only was intelligence not gathered, there was "no centre of gravity" or "concentration of forces" and 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 sums up "The carefree advance of a single panzer into a town occupied by the enemy is pure folly" and states elsewhere that "Such overhastiness was uncalled for". Had Wittmann waited to regroup with elements of his company and the 1st Company, "Such action would have been more effective". He ends, "Thoughtlessness of this kind was to cost [Wittmann] his life on August 9th 1944, near Gaumesnil, during an attack casually launched in open country with an exposed flank.”
On March 1, 1944, Wittmann married Hildegard Burmester in the town of Lüneburg.