Michael Wittmann was a legendary tank commander who died in the final years of war. On August 8, 1944, Kurt “Panzer” Meyer was driven in his car to Cintheaux, France, where the front line has been set. The Brits were pushing their attack, and Meyer was in command of the 12th SS Panzer Division Hitler Youth which was standing in the way of the enemy.
Hitlerjugend division was an elite SS Panzer group, whose members were mostly drawn from Hitler Youth organization. Highly motivated and well equipped, unlike the regular Wehrmacht units, they were committed several war crimes on their way to Normandy. They were fighting against Allied forces since June 7th, the day after the invasion, and have suffered heavy losses. Panzer Meyer was looking for an opportunity to return the favor to the enemy, and at Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil he thought he finally found it.
When they arrive at the sight, they saw complete chaos. The Germans were fleeing for their lives, and Meyer wanted to change the course of the battle. He exited his car and rallied the troops, and the German forces were back in order. After a while, he and Major Hans Waldmuller drove near the village of Gaumensnil and what they saw from the top of the barn shocked them. The British armored divisions were waiting for the continuation of the attack. They had it all – tanks, half-tracks and Bren carriers that spread from miles in the distance.
It was up to Meyer to stop the Brits, and he knew that the entire region could be lost should they breach the Nazi defenses. It was clear that he didn’t have enough troops to hold them off, so he attacked instead. It was a move in desperation, but Meyer was aware that he would delay the British attack, which could give enough time for the German enforcement to arrive. Meyer had about 20 tanks from SS Panzer Regiment 12, and those were Panzer IV models. However, to balance the odds, heavy Tiger tanks of the 2nd Company were used as well and Michael Wittmann was in command. Even though it seemed a good idea to Meyer, his orders would send Wittmann to his grave.
Who was Michael Wittmann?
Wittmann was born on April 22, 1914, just before the start of the World War I and he was just a son of a farmer. He served in the German Army for two years, and he enlisted in the SS. In the first months of the war, Wittmann served in the 1939 Polish campaign and the Balkan invasion in 1940. He became the sergeant in the Operation Barbarossa when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union. It didn’t take a long time for Germans to realize that Wittmann had a knack for destroying enemy tanks which is why he joined division’s Tiger tank company.
Tiger was one of the Hitler’s wonder weapons, intended to decisively tip the scales of war in German favor. The tank was a formidable opponent, armed with an 88-mm gun that could pierce anything Allied and Soviet forces could throw against it. Its frontal armor of 100mm meant that not many of its enemies’ tanks could do the same to it. Not everything was great about it, as it was extremely difficult to maintain in the field, it was considered a garage queen. It was also a gas-guzzler, which severely limited its usefulness. The Tiger was so notorious for its breakage that more of them were abandoned due to mechanical failures than they were destroyed by the enemy. He fought at the Battle of Kursk, the most famous tank battle of the World War II.
He received the Knight’s Cross for destroying more than 90 enemy tanks, and he became the commander of the famous company. The Germans moved their forces to Normandy to prevent the enemy invasion, and Wittmann was there as well. His Tiger Tanks caused serious damage to the Allied forces. In the battle near the French village of Villers-Bocage Wittmann’s Tiger was disabled by the British forces, but not before it destroyed a lot of tanks and antitank units. It was one of the most famous tank engagements in the history of warfare. In the span of 15 minutes, Wittmann and his crew destroyed 14 tanks, 15 armored personnel carriers, and two anti-tank guns. Nazi propaganda exploited the battle to its maximum, calling Wittmann panzer ace. For his efforts, he was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (the equivalent of the rank of captain) and awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords.
Operation Totalize and the Ambush
The city of Falaise was important for both sides, and the British offensive, called Operation Totalize, was a large action which involved a lot of Allied forces. The complex operation, which we will not study in greater details, went well for the Brits and Canadians who managed to pierce the German lines to a depth of six kilometers. Meyer and Hitler Youth were somewhere on the front lines, and the gap was felt. Remember those tanks and armed divisions Meyer saw from the top of the barn? They were waiting for an airstrike that was planned to completely destroy the Nazis.
At that time Wittmann was just a few minutes away, and he joined the two superiors as they were planning what to do next. As he was preparing for a counter-attack, Wittmann and the two other men saw the first enemy plane fly overhead, dropping the flares. That meant that they had to rush it. And they started moving towards the Allied forces in their tanks.
As they progressed, they were showered with artillery fire which couldn’t do much damage. Occasionally, they would stop to shoot at the Sherman tanks around 1,800 meters away. They managed to destroy some of them, and they continued moving northwest. However, Wittmann and his column of tanks were unaware that A Squadron of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry was to their northeast, hidden in the orchards. Meanwhile, Meyer watched the tanks move, and that was about the time when the bombing started.
In the orchards, Lieutenant James was leading the troops which consisted of three standard Shermans and one Firefly. The Firefly was a British version of the U.S. made Sherman tank. The main difference between Firefly and standard Sherman was a British QF (quick firing) 17-pounder gun mounted in the turret. It was one of the few weapons on Allied side that could reliably penetrate the front armor of German Panther and Tiger tanks. It allowed British armored units to hold their own against superior German units and was one of the most feared tanks fielded on the battlefield in the World War II. They did see Wittmann advancing, but they were waiting for Captain Boarman to arrive so that they could launch an attack. The Tigers were drawing closer, and they were at about 800m from James’ troops. Although Firefly was capable of destroying these tanks, the Shermans still had to wait for them to come closer. And so they waited. Everything was ready to start the attack. The Allied tanks adjusted their position to become more efficient, and they were waiting for the command. Firefly became exposed. After the first few shots, one of the Tigers was already in flames. However, instead of continuing, the Firefly withdrew to take cover within the trees, and it was a smart decision because the Germans missed.
The commander of the Firefly was injured, and he couldn’t command the tank. Instead of that, James decided to try his luck in the Firefly which was the best tank they had at that point. They adjusted the position and they were ready for another strike. The tank fired, and for a few moments, they didn’t know whether the shot was on target or not. It turns out that they hit the tank with Wittmann inside and thus ended the life of one of the greatest tank commanders.
However, the battle was far from over. The British forces continued to attack the German Tigers and managed to destroy them. The combat between the tanks is the complex one. Although the Germans had better tanks, they couldn’t do much damage when they were on the attack. Tigers were amazing when stationary and defending, and up to some point, Wittmann was definitely aware that he was going to his grave. As the war progressed, the German tanks had less and less success, especially in the Western front. Their losses were growing significantly, and they couldn’t do anything to stop the Allied forces that pushed the Nazis all the way back to Germany.
It remains a mystery who killed Wittmann and destroyed his tank. Although the British forces fired from proximity, the Canadian units were also nearby, and they may have been firing on the panzers. What we know is that it was the state of complete chaos and the name of the man who killed Wittmann will remain a mystery. Of course, this battle became more notorious after the war. The controversies have arisen years after WWII ended, but the war diary of the Northamptonshire Yeomanry summed the battle up: “Three Tigers in 12 minutes is not bad business.”