“I will see him [Wittmann] in front of me until the end of my life, one of the scenes that stays in the memory – the word hero has since held a different meaning for me.”
Waffen-SS War Correspondent Herbert Reinecker
After a number of gruelling tours of duty on the Eastern Front and a series of hard-fought campaigns which had seen him become one of the most successful Panzer commanders of the war, SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann finally made his way westwards, saying goodbye to the desolate Eastern Front for the last time. He was now to face another challenge, a completely different set of conditions, and a new and arguably far more professional adversary.
A Hero’s Welcome
Wittmann’s return home in the Spring of 1944 was to be the beginning of a new chapter in what was already an illustrious career. Fêted by his comrades and fellow countrymen as a national hero, he was continually invited to partake in interviews with the press, and it was not uncommon to see photographs of the battle-hardened Panzer commander emblazoned across full-page newspaper spreads with richly-illustrated stories of his exploits on the Eastern Front filling up the columns. With the war having turned in favour of the Allies, Germany needed its heroes more than ever.
For the retiring and somewhat humble Wittmann, this sudden thrust into the limelight was sometimes all too much: he continually stressed that he was only doing his job, and that a number of equally brave and committed soldiers had fared little or no differently. Nevertheless, the propaganda machine continued to be infatuated with the twenty-nine year old Bavarian, and Wittmann finally decided to go along with the tide – if more for the fact that it helped to keep spirits up at home.
On the days of 15th and 16th February, accompanied by his nineteen year old fiancée Hildegard Burmester, Wittmann visited the Bavarian town of Ingolstadt – where after meeting his father he was hosted by city officials. No sooner had this engagement been completed the procession moved onto Wittmann’s home village of Vogelthal in the Oberpfalz, where he was given a celebratory reception by the mayor and the local population. More than a decade after he had left the family farm, Vogelthal’s most famous son had finally come home.
On 1st March 1944, Wittmann married his fiancée, whom he had first met the previous year whilst serving as a cadet at Bad Tölz. The wedding, held in the northern city of Lüneburg which was close to Hilde’s home town of Erbstdorf, was a quiet and dignified affair, attended by the two sets of families and a number of Wittmann’s comrades from the Leibstandarte.
Wittmann’s best man was none other than fellow Knight’s Cross holder Bobby Woll, who had served as a reliable gunner, comrade and friend during the bitter struggle on the Eastern Front. The Burghers of the city of Lüneburg were not shy in trumpeting their pride in their new resident: after the ceremony, the celebrated Knight’s Cross and Oakleaves winner was invited to sign the Golden Book of the city, with the enthusiastic local press providing extensive coverage of the event. Contrary to some of the more outrageous claims, Adolf Hitler was not among the guests.(1)
Following his wedding Wittmann would carry out a number of other public engagements, the most significant of which would be a much-publicised visit to the Tiger factory at the Henschel und Sohn works in the city of Kassel on 16th April. After an organised tour of the facility Wittmann had presented a short speech to the workers, commending them on their fine workmanship and providing them with plenty of encouragement to build more of these outstanding machines. Naturally, his speaking platform was the hull deck of a new Tiger I Ausf. E.
While all of this was going on, piles of letters were rapidly building up in Wittmann’s apartment, sent by hero-worshippers and well-wishers from across the Reich; it would very quickly get to the stage where like certain film stars and celebrities today, Wittmann could not walk down the street without being mobbed by armies of autograph hunters and enthusiastic youngsters.
While the Panzer aces could never match the gritty hard-bitten bearded heroism of the U-Boat men or the eye-catching glamour of their airborne contemporaries in the Luftwaffe, Wittmann’s reputation was massively enhanced by the work of the propaganda ministry at the time when Germany was desperate for heroes and battlefield role models. The SS leadership also lost no time in publicising the feats of the Leibstandarte’s most celebrated Panzer commander, and was keen to show that the men of the Waffen-SS were just as good if not better than their compatriots in the regular army.
Wittmann rejoins his comrades
At the end of April 1944, Germany’s most famous Panzer commander, accompanied by his new bride, made his way to Belgium and the city of Mons via Brussels. It was here on 22nd April that Wittmann was reunited with the remaining elements of his 13th Company, who were returning to the Belgian city from the Eastern Front. As the train drew into the station and the men saw their now famous commander, loud and joyous scenes ensued. This was to be a double celebration for Wittmann, as it was also his thirtieth birthday.
The following day Wittmann and his wife headed off to France and the region around the town of Gournay-en-Bray, located between Rouen and Beauvais – the plan being to organise accommodation for the company which to be assigned to the area. After making several enquiries, they finally decided on the Château Elbeuf, located some four kilometres west of Gournay-en-Bray. The château was empty save for the caretaker, with the surrounding woods offering excellent cover for the Tigers.
The Wittmanns and a team of five including Bobby Woll soon applied themselves to the task of cleaning up the rooms for their new occupants from the newly formed 2nd Company, 101st SS Panzer Battalion. Frau Wittmann quickly settled into the routine at Château Elbeuf; her time in France was to more than make up for the honeymoon which she and Michael had missed out on.
Despite the relative tranquility and the picturesque location, life was not to be a holiday for Wittmann and his new company: there was a battle to be fought, and for this a regimented training routine was set in place. Wittmann was respected by his men, to the point where he was even treated like a deity by some of the younger and more star-struck recruits; he was a strict taskmaster, but one who automatically garnered respect from his subordinates.
Despite his status as one of the picture-book heroes of the German armed forces, Wittmann still retained the level of humility that had always predisposed him to be a reliable leader of men throughout his career. Always willing to share his experience and expertise, the Bavarian farmer’s son would never forget his roots. The fact that he wore the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves at his throat made little difference to the way he treated those under his command – he was not only their leader but above all their confidante, their Kamerad.
The first thing that Wittmann and his colleagues noticed about their new surroundings was the level of vegetation and the presence of densely wooded areas – a massive difference from the wide open and seemingly endless plains of the vast Russian Steppes. The surroundings called for a completely different approach in terms of battlefield tactics, and a far more intense level of vigilance in the field. Every corner, hedgerow, wooded area or concealed road could contain a hidden sniper armed with specialist tank-killing equipment or an anti-tank gun, and each of these obstacles had to be observed and traversed with extreme caution.
Tactical decisions more often than not had to be made on the fly, and the Tiger crews were to soon realise that the lack of wide open spaces often compromised their ability to make use of the long-range 88mm main gun which had been a significant factor in the Tiger’s success in Russia and the Ukraine. Much of the fighting would take place in relatively enclosed battle zones, a situation where even the formidable Tiger could find itself vulnerable to the very effective Allied heavy weaponry. The Allies would also have almost complete air superiority, and as a result vehicles were ordered to drive fifty metres apart in case of attack.
The Allied landings in Normandy on 6th June 1944 were to set the scene for SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann’s return to action. Given their orders the following day, Wittmann’s unit and the refitted and rejuvenated 2nd Company quickly moved to the Normandy area from their base via Paris. The route they had to take was somewhat precarious, and the panzer crews’ worst fears were vindicated when the company soon found itself the victim of a number of air attacks. During the drive northwards, five men were killed, among them Unterscharführer Kurt “Quax” Kleber – the company’s first casualty of the campaign.
Of the Tigers damaged during the air attacks, one of those was that belonging to Bobby Woll, who was now an SS-Unterscharführer with his own vehicle – or not, as it now turned out. This was something of a blessing in disguise for Wittmann, who seized the chance to grab Woll as his gunner, leaving his unfortunate new crewman behind with the maintenance unit under the command of SS-Obersturmführer Stamm. By the night of 12th-13th June, Wittmann had arrived at the front near Bayeux, in the area surrounding the nearby village of Villers-Bocage.
As he took up his position south of the highway N175 at Montbrocq Hill, he would have only half a dozen serviceable Tigers at his disposal. And so began the build-up to what would be one of the most famous days in the history of armoured warfare – Wittmann’s assault on the town of Villers-Bocage.
The Battle of Villers-Bocage
What took place on the morning of 13th June 1944 in and around the Norman town of Villers-Bocage has since become one of the most significant feats of arms of the Second World War. On this otherwise ordinary day, Michael Wittmann would take it upon himself to seize the initiative, and almost single-handedly halt the British advance with his Tiger I. It was a feat that was to elevate Michael Wittmann’s stature in Germany even further, and much against his own quiet nature transform him into the hero that the bruised and battered Nazi leadership so desperately needed to boost flagging morale.
In a matter of hours, Wittmann and his colleagues had reduced an imposing array of British armoured vehicles into a mass of smoking rubble, with Wittmann himself accounting for more than two-dozen enemy vehicles including a dozen tanks. It was a dramatic, frenzied sequence of events that is covered in more depth here.
On his return back to base camp following his exploits in and around Villers-Bocage, Wittmann was warmly received by his divisional commander “Sepp” Dietrich, and would also earn the heartfelt thanks of the commander of the Panzer-Lehr, Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, who recommended the brave SS-Obersturmführer for the Swords to his Knight’s Cross and Oakleaves.
The hero of Villers-Bocage was presented with the Swords award on 22 June by “Sepp” Dietrich, and at the same time was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain), although three days later he would attend a second presentation with Hitler, this time at the Führer’s mountain retreat on the Obersalzberg.
Wittmann’s star was to ascend even further, as the stories of his heroics continued to capture the imagination and fire the hearts of the German nation. The modest young Tiger commander, much to his own profound embarrassment, had become the darling of the propaganda press – one can only wonder what it might have been like had he had the sort of media exposure available today. An insight into Wittmann’s personality and humility was best summed up by SS-Oberscharführer Herbert Reinecker, one of the many Waffen-SS War Correspondents who would be able to sit down and talk with him after the momumental events at Villers-Bocage:
Michael Wittmann was not the type of hero one usually imagined, he was almost pale and physically rather frail. He exuded something, a sort of solemnity, as if something was blowing against him, that revealed something of what had recently happened to him – of the event that still affected him no euphoria, rather deadly seriousness, the victory did not lift the burden from him – how ridiculously great must have been the stress he faced – no-one can hide that away. He embodied something: the humility of the victor. I still remember my strong feeling towards him, he was unbelievably likeable for his modesty… I will see him in front of me until the end of my life, one of the scenes that stays in the memory – the word hero has since held a different meaning for me.(2)
Following his being awarded the Swords and his promotion to SS-Hauptsturmführer, Wittmann travelled back to his new family home in Erbstdorf. During this short spell away from the front, he was offered an instructors post at the Panzer training school at Paderborn. Not wanting to be parted from his comrades at the front at this crucial stage in the conflict, Wittmann refused the offer. His opting to return to the front was met with relief by his unit and fellow Panzer commanders when he rejoined them back in Normandy at the beginning of July 1944: it would also prove to be a fateful decision.
Wittmann’s self-effacing nature, married to a solid sense of professionalism, was to define a character that was both admired and loved by his men. The desk job in Paderborn was never going to be for him; he belonged at the front, and would not have seen it any other way.
Despite his status as the Leibstandarte’s premier tank commander, Wittmann had never shirked from getting his hands dirty; it was said that he was probably the only recipient of the Knight’s Cross with Oakleaves and Swords to wear a fitter’s jacket, similar to that worn by the men in the workshop.
In fact, if one changed this field grey Waffen-SS cap to the navy blue of the Kriegsmarine and replaced the clean-shaven look with a little facial stubble, Wittmann could have easily been mistaken for a grizzled U-Boat skipper.
Wittmann becomes Battalion Commander
July and early August would see the Germans on the defensive, with the men of the LSSAH taking much of the heat: after having participated in the battle in and around the city of Caen, SS-Hauptsturmführer Wittmann was given command of the 101st SS Panzer Battalion on 10th July, after SS-Obersturmbannführer Heinz (“Hein”) von Westernhagen had sustained serious head injuries. The new battalion commander would hand over the command of the 2nd Company to his good friend SS-Obersturmführer Helmut “Bubi” Wendorff, and was introduced to his new Tiger – von Westernhagen’s command vehicle Nr. 007.
While many would have revelled in the position of battalion commander, the role did not suit Michael Wittmann at all. The emphasis on sitting at the rear of the column and directing tactics on maps rather than implementing them on the field was alien to him; while he undertook the tasks demanded of him with his usual professionalism, he made no bones about the fact that he missed being involved in the heat of battle with his men.
On 18th July, the famed British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery launched Operation “Goodwood”, an attempt to force the Germans towards the interior. The thrust southwards was preceded by a furious assault by over a thousand bombers, which peppered the German positions. British losses were high and Montgomery, who had earned his fame following his defeat of Erwin Rommel’s Afrika Korps at El Alamein in 1942, was forced with call an end to the attack two days later on 20th July.
During this period, the nineteen year old loader SS-Sturmmann Günther Boldt, who had been part of Wittmann’s heroic crew at Villers-Bocage, was killed after his Tiger was hit by enemy gunfire; he was one of many who would fall as the Allies’ campaign in Normandy began to gather momentum.
As July came to a close and the fighting became more intense, the 101st Battalion were increasingly caught right in the middle. The enemy would make full use of their air superiority, with the heavy bombers pounding the German positions day and night and the dreaded Jabos a constant threat for the Panzers. On 2nd August, Wittmann was deprived of the services of Bobby Woll, who was sent on medical leave with a head injury. The writing was on the wall, but still the redoubtable Wittmann refused to be disheartened. In a letter to his family, he wrote:
“…today every SS man knows, …that things at home are, if not worse, at least no better than they are for us at the front. We always have a chance of rest between hard days of fighting; however, the homeland must work every day without once being able to rest for several consecutive days… The company will make itself heard more and more often… to continue to do its utmost until victory is ours”.
At the beginning of the second week of August, the British launched another attack, Operation “Totalize”. It was here where SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann, hero of the Leibstandarte and the most successful tank commander of the war, would have his last roll of the dice.