Michael Wittmann’s first two years with the Leibstandarte had been relatively quiet. Most of his time had been spent on the exercise field or parade square, as well as partaking in ceremonial and guard duties. In their sharp black parade uniforms, these “asphalt soldiers” were ever present outside Hitler’s chancellery in Berlin, as well as at the Führer’s mountain retreat, the Berghof in Wittmann’s native Bavaria.
The campaigns in Austria and the Sudetenland in 1938 had provided a brief opportunity for Wittmann and his comrades to get away from these parade duties, but in reality they had been little more than extended training exercises. The following year, it was time for the real thing.
On 1st September 1939 German forces invaded Poland, and two days later war had been declared by Britain and France. German vehicles had been warmly welcomed into Austria and had encountered little resistance in Czechoslovakia, but there was no hope of a similar welcome in Poland. The Second World War had begun.
The short campaign in Poland, StuG III training, and relocation to Metz
At the time of the outbreak of hostilities the twenty-five year old Wittmann had been serving in the LSSAH’s armoured car platoon (Panzerspäh-Zug) after having undergone comprehensive training with the Sd. Kfz. 222 Spähwagen – first as a driver and then as a commander. The speed of the successful invasion meant that the young Bavarian’s first real taste of active combat during the opening offensive would be over as quickly as it had begun.
On his return from front-line duty in Poland Wittmann was assigned as a training NCO with the newly-formed 5th Company of the replacement battalion of the LSSAH, commanded by a fellow Bavarian, the burly SS-Hauptsturmführer Georg Schönberger.
Wittmann’s superiors had clearly spotted an emerging talent, and the young NCO wouldn’t let them down as he proved to be an able, patient and canny instructor. On 25th April 1940 Wittmann was transferred from the armoured scout company to a new assault gun (StuG) battery at the Jüterbog garrison near Berlin, where he was introduced to the impressive Sturmgeschütz III Ausf. A (StuG III).
Now wearing the smart field-grey uniform of the assault gun crews, Wittmann applied to himself to his new role as he had done before. The first task was to study and familiarise himself with the new vehicle; the StuG III was a well-thought out hybrid, an innovative machine consisting of a 75mm KwK (Kampfwagenkanone) main gun housed on the body of the highly successful Pz. Kpfw. III chassis.
Following the conclusion of the successful Blitzkrieg campaign in the West, the LSSAH took delivery of a number of new vehicles, which included half a dozen of the new StuG III assault guns. SS-Unterscharführer Wittmann would finally get the chance to have a closer look at one of these machines, and, after having examined it thoroughly, was determined to command one of them. His efforts paid off, and after consulting with his company commander he was offered the opportunity to train on the new system.
Having been assigned to the 1st Platoon and joining the unit on 16th July in Paris-Clamart, Wittmann moved to new billets in the Alsatian city of Metz. The next task was to select the three others who would make up his new crew.
The selection process was incredibly difficult, more so for the fact that with the StuG III being a new system there were very few men in the LSSAH who could claim to have had any prior experience of it. Eventually, and after much deliberation, Wittmann decided upon three experienced individuals: as his gunner, SS-Sturmmann Karl Brüggenkamp, an expert in the use of Panzer I and II systems; as his driver, SS-Untersharführer Philipp Fritz, and as loader, SS-Sturmmann Hermann Kneusgen.(1)
The StuG III training was both intense and highly realistic; all aspects, including a thorough workout in regards to field maintenance as well as in-depth tactical training, were covered. Wittmann and his crew had to familiarise themselves with every single inch of their vehicle, and had to be able to strip it down whenever and wherever necessary.
Such training was essential, as it was often necessary to carry out such procedures, and carry them out both quickly and safely, while out in the field. As far as tactical training was concerned, it was essential that all Armoured Fighting Vehicle (AFV) crews were aware of the infantry surrounding them; the realism of the training exercises was essential in helping to co-ordinate movement between AFVs and the supporting infantry, and fundamentally, to avoid the nightmare scenario of infantrymen being accidentally injured or killed.
Operation “Marita”: The LSSAH in the Balkans and Greece, April 1941
By the latter part of 1940 the StuG III training was complete, and Wittmann and his crew were itching for a piece of the action. The call finally came in April 1941, following the botched invasion of Yugoslavia by Italy and Mussolini’s resulting plea to Hitler for assistance. In early 1941, the Leibstandarte had been based in Romania and then Bulgaria as a training and instruction unit.
The Balkan campaign – Operation “Marita” – was launched on 6th April 1941, with the LSSAH providing a spearhead along with the 9th Panzer Division for the initial assault on the city of Skopje. In less than a week, Yugoslavia had been overrun, and the LSSAH stood at the ready to continue south towards their final objective.
The assault on Greece was to see the emergence of the Leibstandarte as a true fighting force, epitomised by individuals such as SS-Obersturmbannführer Kurt “Panzer” Meyer, the legendary hero of the audacious assault on the heavily fortified Klissura Pass.
Despite the poor terrain and even poorer visibility, Michael Wittmann and his StuG III crew played their part in this assault and the resulting push by the Leibstandarte towards Lake Kastoria, assisting in the successful capture of 12,000 men of the Greek 13th Division. The assault gun battalion was now known as the “Schönberger Battalion” after its commander, now an SS-Sturmbannführer.
The Greek capital Athens was finally captured at the end of April, and the campaign had only lasted as long as it did due to the combination of both the tenacity of the well-drilled and proud Hellenic Army and the testing conditions. In taking on the difficult and often treacherous mountainous terrain – the type of which had not been accounted for in the otherwise thorough training at Metz – SS-Unterscharführer Michael Wittmann was to add to his ever-increasing list of credentials.
Following the successful completion of this tiring three-week campaign, the LSSAH were assigned to western Czechoslovakia for refit, earning Wittmann and his comrades a more than well-deserved rest.
This idyll however would last for very long. Within just two months, the fiercest campaign ever known in the history of modern warfare had begun, a campaign that was to see the man who was to become the most successful tank commander in history really win his spurs – and begin his meteoric rise to the status of a legend.