|Nickname(s)||The Black Baron|
22 April 1914|
Vogelthal Kingdom of Bavaria German Empire
|Died||8 August 1944
Between the towns of Cintheaux and St. Aignan de Cramesnil near the farm of Gaumesnil
|Buried at||La Cambe German war cemetery (reinterred)|
|Years of service||1934–44|
|Unit||1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler and Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101|
|Awards||Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords|
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.
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 22 April 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 30 October 1934 he joined the German Army. He was assigned to the 19th 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 5 April 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. Wittman also joined the Nazi Party.
Second World War
His first experience in action came in the Polish Campaign, followed by the Battle of France as a commander of one of the new self-propelled assault guns, the Sturmgeschütz III Ausf. A. The Greek campaign - Operation Marita - was launched on 6 April 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 Greece had fallen to the III Reich's panzer divisions, and Wittmann and his unit were withdrawn to refit in Czechoslovakia.
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. Attached to the 1st SS-Panzergrenadier Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler Wittmann's platoon of four remaining Tigers reinforced the division's reconnaissance battalion to screen the division's exposed left flank. His four Tigers destroyed a number of Soviet tanks, his tank at one point surviving a collision with a burning T-34. Wittmann's driver backed away from the T-34 and observed as its ammunition exploded. On 14 January 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 Zitadelle 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 January 1944 (p. 213)
66 kills on 9 January 1944 (p. 181)
88 kills on 13 January 1944 (p. 213)
114-117 kills on 29 January 1944 (p. 185)
Over half his total was 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 as a corps asset, and was never permanently attached to any division or regiment. By this point, Wittmann was in command of the battalion’s second company and held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer (first lieutenant). On 7 June, following the Allied Invasion of Normandy, the battalion was ordered to move from Beauvais to Normandy. The move, covering roughly 165 kilometres or 103 miles[dubious ], took five days to complete.
Due to the Anglo-American advance south, from Gold and Omaha Beach, 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 ordered the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, his only reserve, to position itself behind the Panzer-Lehr-Division and 12th SS Panzer 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 in the area of Villers-Bocage. Nominally composed of 12 tanks, Wittmann’s company was 50 per cent understrength due to losses and mechanical failures. During the night, the area came under heavy naval artillery fire. Fearing his force had been spotted, Wittman relocated his company three times.
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 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 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 bursting 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 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 dueled 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.[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.
Historians and Wittmann’s superiors are generally impressed by his achievements on the day. Historian Stephen Badsey has stated that the ambush Wittmann launched has cast a shadow over the period between D-Day and 13 June in historical accounts. However, German tank commander and historian Wolfgang Schneider is not as impressed. In analyzing Wittmann’s actions at Villers-Bocage, he called into question Wittmann's tactical ability. Schneider claims "a competent tank company commander does not accumulate so many serious mistakes". He highlights how Wittmann dispersed his forces in a sunken lane with a broken down tank at the head of the column thereby hampering the mobility of his unit. The solitary advance into Villers-Bocage, was heavily criticized as it breached "all the rules". No intelligence was gathered, and there was no "centre of gravity" or "concentration of forces" in the attack. Schneider argues that due to Wittmann's rash 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." He concludes that, had a properly prepared assault been launched, involving the rest of his company and the 1st Company, far greater results could have been achieved. Finally, Schneider comments that "thoughtlessness of this kind was to cost [Wittmann] his life ... during an attack casually launched in open country with an exposed flank."
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 signaled the next phase of the attack. Unaware of why the Allied forces had halted, Kurt Meyer, of the 12th SS Panzer Division, ordered elements of his command to counterattack and recapture the high ground. Wittmann decided to participate in this attack, as he believed the company commander – who was supposed to lead the attack – was too inexperienced.
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 the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, and B Squadron 144 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 resulting in a fire that 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, either with help of veterans or from the author of Panzers in Normandy – Then and Now, located the burial site. Wittmann and his crew were then reinterred together at the German war cemetery of La Cambe in France.[page needed]
An unusual amount of speculation, for such a junior officer, has surrounded the death of Wittmann. While he was a household name in Germany, he was not known to Allied forces at the time and was not singled out during the battle.
Following the war, claims were made by or for the following units as being the ones responsible for Wittmann’s demise: 1st Polish Armoured Division, the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, the 144 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps and the RAF Second Tactical Air Force. The historian Brian Reid has examined these various claims and dismissed them. Examination of the armoured divisions' war diaries revealed that they were too far north and played no role in defeating the German counterattack. While the 144 RAC did take part in the battle, they were positioned around Cramesnil. That position, Reid argues, placed them out of effective range of the attacking Tigers. During the battle, this regiment initially claimed destroying two Tiger tanks, although the commanding officer later changed this to one Tiger and one Panzer IV destroyed.
An issue of much controversy is the claim that a RP-3 rocket, fired from Allied aircraft, struck the tank and destroyed it. This position originated with German propaganda, which stated Wittmann had fallen in combat to the "dreaded fighter-bombers". This position was further enhanced, post-war, by the French civilian Serge Varin who took the only known photograph of the destroyed tank. Varin stated he found an unexploded rocket nearby and claimed to have seen no other penetration holes in the tank. Reid dismisses this explanation through personal and archive evidence. The logs of the RAF Second Tactical Air Force make no claim of engaging or destroying tanks in the area, at the time of the battle. He notes "...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." This position is further supported by Kurt Meyer, who remarked on the Allied failure to use their tactical fighters during the counterattack, the men of Wittmann’s unit who stated they did not come under air attack, and British and Canadian tank crews who also dismiss that aircraft helped halt the German attack.[Note 2]
In 1985, issue 48 of After the Battle Magazine was published. In an article on the battle, Les Taylor – a member of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry during the war – claimed that fellow yeoman Joe Ekins was the man responsible for the demise of Wittmann. Historians have supported this position, and it became the most widely accepted version of events. Stephen Hart provides additional details. He states that a Sherman Firefly, of 3 Troop, A Squadron, under the command of Sergeant Gordon and with Joe Ekins manning the main gun, were positioned in a wood called Delle de la Roque to the south of Cramesnil, and on the right flank of the advancing Tiger tanks. At approximately 12:47, they engaged the advancing German tanks halting their attack and killing Wittmann. Veteran and historian Ken Tout, who was a member of C Squadron 1NY during Totalize, published a postwar account of the battle in which he credited Joe Ekins. In 2000, when researching A Fine Night for Tanks, he interviewed former members of A Squadron, Sherbrooke Fusiliers. Following this research, he acknowledged other units had aided in repelling the German counterattack "and did not claim Wittmann specifically for the Northamptonshire Yeomanry."
Brian Reid discusses another possibility. On the left flank of the advancing German tanks, positioned in the chateau grounds at Gaumesnil, was A Squadron, The Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment, 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade, commanded by Major Sydney Radley-Walters. Their position was parallel with Delle de la Roque. The Canadians had created firing holes in the property’s surrounding walls and, based on verbal testimony, engaged German tanks (including Tigers) advancing up the main road towards their position and Hill 112 to the north. The British tanks were between 1,000 metres (1,100 yd) and 1,200 metres (1,300 yd) away from the German line of advance, whereas the Canadian were around 500 metres (550 yd) away. The firing angle, from the Canadian position, coincides with the damage to Wittmann’s tank. Therefore, Reid argues that due to the proximity of the Canadians to the Germans, members of the Sherbrooke Fusiliers are more than likely responsible for Wittmann's death.[Note 3]
On 1 March 1944, Wittmann married Hildegard Burmester in Lüneburg.
Summary of SS career
- SS number: 311,623
Dates of rank
- SS-Mann: 1 April 1937
- SS-Sturmmann: 11 November 1937
- SS-Unterscharführer: 20 April 1939
- SS-Oberscharführer: 9 November 1941
- SS-Untersturmführer: 21 December 1942
- SS-Obersturmführer: 30 January 1944
- SS-Hauptsturmführer: 21 June 1944
- Iron Cross (1939)
- SS Honour Ring (unofficially called "Totenkopfring")
- Sword of honour of the Reichsführer-SS
- Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords
- Knight's Cross on 14 January 1944 as SS-Untersturmführer and platoon leader in the 13.(schwere)/SS-Panzer-Regiment 1 "Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler"[Note 4]
- 380th Oak Leaves on 30 January 1944 as SS-Untersturmführer and platoon leader in the 13.(schwere)/SS-Panzer-Regiment 1
- 71st Swords on 22 June 1944 as SS-Obersturmführer and chief of the 2./schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101
- Wound Badge in Black (20 August 1941)
- Panzer Badge in Silver (21 November 1941)
- Eastern Front Medal (1942)
- Sudetenland Medal (1938)
- Anschluss Medal (1938)
- Soldier's Cross Of The Order Of Bravery 4th Class 2nd Grade (Tsardom Of Bulgaria) (1941)
- Mentioned in the Wehrmachtbericht on 13 January 1944
- SS Long Service Award
|Date||Original German Wehrmachtbericht wording||Direct English translation|
|13 January 1944||SS-Untersturmführer Wittmann in einer SS-Panzerdivision schoß am 9. Januar an der Ostfront mit seinem "Tiger"-Panzer seinen 66. feindlichen Panzer ab.||SS-Untersturmführer Wittmann in a SS-Panzerdivision on January 9 destroyed his 66th enemy tank with his "Tiger"-tank on the Eastern Front.|
Bobby Woll - Wittmann's gunner for a long period of time.
- 5 Cromwell tanks, 1 Sherman Firefly, 3 M5 Stuarts, 1 Sherman OP tank (OP tanks had a dummy gun in place of the main cannon) and, 1 Cromwell OP.
- The members of Wittmann’s unit: Alfred Bahlo, Hans Dollinger, Hans Höflinger and Doctor Rabe. The Allied tank crew: Captain Boardman, Trooper Ekins and Major Radley-Walters
- Reid provides an entire appendix to Wittmann’s death. This includes a topographical map of the engagement, diagrams of the tank and the location of the shell strike on the Tiger.
- According to Scherzer as SS-Untersturmführer of the Reserves and platoon leader in the 13.(schwere)/SS-Panzer-Regiment 1.
- Reid, p. 412
- Reid, p. 416
- Kurowski, p. 125
- Reid, pp. 410–430
- Patrick Agte, Michael Wittmann and the Waffen SS Tiger commanders of the Leibstandarte in World War II, Volume 1, Stackpole Books, 2006
- Tim Ripley (2004). The Waffen-SS At War: Hitler's Praetorians 1925-1945. Zenith Imprint. p. 150. ISBN 0-7603-2068-3. Retrieved 18 February 2011.
- Reynolds, p. 30
- Forty, p. 61
- Forty, p. 57
- Reynolds, pp. 80, 99
- Buckley (2006), p. 59
- Weigley, pp. 109–110
- Taylor, p. 9
- Reynold, pp. 99–100
- Reynolds, p. 100
- Taylor, pp. 17–18
- Agte, p. 194
- Buckley (2004), p. 24
- Wilmot, p. 308
- Forty, p. 47
- D'Este, p. 177
- Neillands, p. 221
- Buckley (2004), p. 25
- Forty, p. 58
- Taylor, p. 38
- Reynolds, p. 103
- Taylor, p. 18
- Taylor, p. 19
- Forty, p. 60
- Taylor, p. 23
- Taylor, p. 24
- Forty, p. 137
- Forty, p. 62
- Taylor, p. 30
- Forty, p. 64
- Forty, p. 65
- Taylor, p. 33
- Forty, p. 74
- Forty, p. 134
- Meyer, p. 236
- D'Este, p. 719
- Hastings, p. 157
- Beevor, p. 190
- Buckley (2007), p.48
- Marie, p. 159
- Reid, p. 410
- Hart, pp. 52–69
- Agte, pp. 258–266.
- Reid, pp. 52–69, 414
- Reid, p. 427
- Reid, pp. 411–412
- Reid, pp. 418–20
- Reid, pp. 426–429, sourcing his information from:
PRO, Air 25/709, 84 Group RAF Operations Record Book August 1944, p. 8 Serial 18, 8 August 1944
PRO, Air 25/698, 83 Group RAF Operations Record Book August 1944
PRO, 2 TAF Operations Record Book, Sheet 28, 8 August 44
PRO, 83 group Operations Record Book, 8 August 1944
- Reid, p. 429
- Reid, pp. 415, 421–3, 425–6
- Reid, p. 414
- Hart, pp. 60, 65
- Reid, pp. 423–4
- Agte, p. 206.
- Fellgiebel 2000, pp. 450, 508.
- Scherzer, p. 793.
- Fellgiebel 2000, p. 77.
- Fellgiebel 2000, p. 43.
- Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 3, p. 10.
- Forty, p. 66.
- Reid, p. 413
- Reid, pp. 427–428
- Agte, Patrick (2000). Michael Wittmann erfolgreichster Panzerkommandant im Zweiten Weltkrieg und die Tiger der Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (in German). Deutsche Verlagsgesellschaft Preußisch Oldendorf. ISBN 3-92072-218-3.
- Fellgiebel, Walther-Peer (2000). Die Träger des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939–1945 – Die Inhaber der höchsten Auszeichnung des Zweiten Weltkrieges aller Wehrmachtteile [The Bearers of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939–1945 — The Owners of the Highest Award of the Second World War of all Wehrmacht Branches] (in German). Friedberg, Germany: Podzun-Pallas. ISBN 978-3-7909-0284-6.
- Hart, Stephen A (2007). Sherman Firefly vs Tiger: Normandy 1944. Osprey Publishing. ISBN 1-84603-150-8.
- Forty, George (2004). Villers Bocage. Battle Zone Normandy. Sutton Publishing. ISBN 0-7509-3012-8.
- Kurowski, Franz (2004). Panzer Aces: German Tank Commanders of WWII. Stackpole Books. ISBN 0-8117-3173-1.
- Lefevre, Eric; R. Cooke (translator) (1983). Panzers in Normandy: Then and Now. After the Battle. ISBN 0-900913-29-0.
- Reid, Brian (2005). No Holding Back: Operation Totalize, Normandy, August 1944. ISBN 1-896941-40-0.
- Marie, Henri (2003). Villers Bocage, Normandy 1944. Heimdal. ISBN 2-84048-173-1.
- Scherzer, Veit (2007). Die Ritterkreuzträger 1939–1945 Die Inhaber des Ritterkreuzes des Eisernen Kreuzes 1939 von Heer, Luftwaffe, Kriegsmarine, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm sowie mit Deutschland verbündeter Streitkräfte nach den Unterlagen des Bundesarchives [The Knight's Cross Bearers 1939–1945 The Holders of the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross 1939 by Army, Air Force, Navy, Waffen-SS, Volkssturm and Allied Forces with Germany According to the Documents of the Federal Archives] (in German). Jena, Germany: Scherzers Miltaer-Verlag. ISBN 978-3-938845-17-2.
- Taylor, Daniel (1999). Villers-Bocage Through the Lens. After the Battle. ISBN 1-870067-07-X.
- Die Wehrmachtberichte 1939–1945 Band 3, 1. Januar 1944 bis 9. Mai 1945 [The Wehrmacht Reports 1939–1945 Volume 3, 1 January 1944 to 9 May 1945] (in German). München, Germany: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag GmbH & Co. KG. 1985. ISBN 978-3-423-05944-2.
- After the Battle Magazine (1985). Issue 48: Germany Surrenders. After the Battle Magazine. After the Battle.
- Krätschmer, Ernst-Günther (1999). Die Ritterkreuzträger der Waffen-SS (in German). Coburg, Germany: Nation Europa Verlag GmbH. ISBN 3-92067-743-9.
- Tout, Ken (2002) . A Fine Night for Tanks: The Road to Falaise. Sutton Publishing Ltd. ISBN 0-7509-3189-2.
- Tout, Ken (2007). By Tank - D to VE Days. Robert Hale Ltd. ISBN 0-7090-8148-0.
- Helden der Wehrmacht - Unsterbliche deutsche Soldaten (in German). München, Germany: FZ-Verlag GmbH. 2004. ISBN 3-924309-53-1.
- Michael Wittmann in the German National Library catalogue
- Hamby, Alan. "Tiger I Information Center: Tiger Aces".
- Joshua, Rick D. "Panzerace.net". Website dedicated to Michael Wittmann.
- Parada, George. "Achtung Panzer". Profile of Michael Wittmann.
- Tipton, Jim. "Find A Grave". The grave of Michael and his crew.
- Verlag, Meyer. "Wittmann at Gaumesnil".