In the footsteps of Michael Wittmann, Villers Bocage 2016

 On a Normandy morning 72 years ago one of the most famous, controversial and extraordinary tank actions took place. Obersturmfuhrer Michael Wittman of the heavy tank battalion of the 1st SS Panzer division Liebstandarte Adolf Hitler, in the formidable Tiger 1 took on the  British 7th armoured division and destroyed numerous armoured vehicles before being immobilized. He and his crew managed to escape through the chaos and confusion and made it back safe to German lines.
The story is widely known, and has been re-told by historians, professional and amateur in far more detail than I can offer here. I will include links to good references at the bottom of this article.
In short the already famous and highly decorated Wittman having recently arrived in Normandy with his unit was made aware of a large number of British vehicles (A sqd CLY and A coy 1st rifle brigade) on RN175, he commandeered a working Tiger 1 and after deploying his forces (two more tigers) he moved up to engage the British.

The German Tigers engaged the British at point 213 knocking out 5 tanks including the up-gunned British “firefly”variant of the Sherman. His initial shot had destroyed a Cromwell tank on the road blocking it, after this initial encounter Wittman moved forward and engaged the British infantry, he travelled the length of column destroying vehicles with the monstrous 88mm main gun. The British infantry bravely engaged with piat launchers and tried to get their 6-pounder anti-tank guns set up but it was a disaster. The British lost 8 half tracks, 4 carriers and two AT guns.

Wittman then continued on down the RN 175 where he destroyed three stuart light tanks by the cross roads.
Wittman then bravely (or recklessly) moved into the town of Villers Bocage, while the British desperately manoeuvred into safer positions. Wittman travelled the length of the high street destroying observation and HQ tanks before reversing after being engaged by a Firefly Sherman. On his retreat he destroyed the Cromwell of Cpt Dyas who was (very bravely) stalking the Tiger to attempt a shot on it’s weaker rear armour. Wittman’s Tiger was disabled by a 6-pounder at the junction  to Tilly sur Seulles . Wittman and his crew escaped on foot 6km cross-country to the Panzer Lehr HQ.

In fewer than 15 minutes, 13–14 tanks, two anti-tank guns and13–15 transport vehicles had been destroyed by the 2nd Company, schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung, many by Wittmann.

In fairness to the British, Cromwells and Stuarts could not possibly do well against a Tiger 1, the 17pdr gun from a Firefly variant could destroy a Tiger yet they were in short supply. Indeed the 6pdr gun stopped Wittman by striking the tracks, the crew were unharmed and the tank capable of firing. The British had made a tactical mistake in exposing themselves (which the commander recognised) then they were ambushed by a technologically superior opponent who attacked with striking audacity.

Later that afternoon after Panzer grenadiers had forced the British off point 213,  the Germans  assaulted Villers Bocage without infantry support, in an attempt to dislodge the British. Now it was the turn of the British to inflict a nasty reverse on German armour. The German armour assaulted in a line through the streets of the town, driving slowly to attempt to detect ambush. As might be be expected the British infantry had indeed fortified the town after Wittmans attack and had set up anti-tank defences. The British had a Firefly Sherman under Lt Cotton, several Cromwells, a six pounder AT gun and infantry with piats. The German Panzer Lehr and SS heavy panzers advanced with Panzer IVs and Tigers.

In short order the Germans lost 6 Tigers and several (3) Panzer IVs. The British held on to Villers Bocage for several more hours until infantry, mortar and artillery forced them out of their positions. The Germans managed over the next few days to force the British back to their original positions. As was to become all too familiar the allies bombed Villers Bocage almost flat on the 30th of June.

Lt Cotton was awarded the Military cross and Sgt Bramall the military medal for their actions while Wittman was promoted to Haupsturmfuhrer and received the swords to his knights cross with oakleaves.
Wittman’s single handed assault on the 7th armoured has gone down in history and today remains controversial. Was it a vain glorious and costly (he lost a precious tiger) assault or a vital check on the advance of British armour. Are modern writers like Beevor and Hastings simply parroting Nazi propaganda when they talk of Wittman checking the armoured advance?

Hastings and Reynolds lay the blame for the debacle on the senior British commanders (who were sacked) a lack of drive, determination and some very poor tactical decisions allowed the Germans to check and then reverse British forces. Although the Tiger was a formidable vehicle it was the failures of British command that caused the defeat at Villers Bocage: “the whole handling of that battle was a disgrace” (Gen. Dempsey).

 The eagle-eyed will notice that I visited the site the day after the 72nd anniversary of the first stage of the battle of Villers Bocage. I had planned to go there on the 13th but instead could only get there on the 14th. I will do another post about the positions of the various knocked out tanks in the next week as it will require a fair bit of image manipulation.
The town itself was virtually destroyed during the war, though the side streets may carry some of their original flavour as they compare well with photos taken in 1944. There is frustratingly little in the town to commemorate this controversial battle. There is a small memorial at the junction (now roundabout) to Tilly Sur Suelles and a battle marker by the Mairie .

From contemporary photos it is possible to see that the the roads have been widened in the town proper.  The town is an uncharacteristically busy place for Normandy and it might be best for the visitor to park up by the Tourist Information office.

We passed through the town to the ambush site by point 213, this is easily achieved by following the D675. The point where the Tigers laagered is just west of the electricity station opposite a bus shelter. Point 213 itself commands a very large view, but down by the positions of A company 1st rifle brigade there is no-where I could see to pull over and park, so a short walk along a busy road made be needed. All points were easy to find, and driving though busier than usual was very easy.
Villers Bocage is fairly close to many other Allied sites, especially the sites associated with “GOLD” beach, and is well worth a visit though probably does not offer more than an hour.
The town itself is situated on a long slope and visiting it helped me appreciate how the British were able to use the lie of the land to mount such an effective ambush, I was also made aware of how rash it was to use point 213 as the site for an O-group without and effective reconnaissance or sentry.

Well worth a visit, an nice bit of investigation, and at a great price…free! Oh and it’s incredible to move in the tank treads of a Panzer Ace however overblown his exploits.

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