Villers-Bocage, 13th June 1944

“…the decision was a very, very difficult one. Never before had I been so impressed by the strength of the enemy as I was by those tanks rolling by; but I knew it absolutely had to be and I decided to strike out into the enemy.”

Michael Wittmann, 13th June 1944

Background to the battle

In the wake of the D-Day landings on 6th June 1944, the Allies would make rapid progress inland in what would become the Battle of Normandy. In the days following the invasion Allied ground forces commander General Bernard Montgomery would initiate Operation Perch, with the target being the strategically important port city of Caen. With the beleaguered German forces now being squeezed on both fronts, a number of the premier units would find themselves leaving the Eastern Front and heading west. Among them would be the I SS Panzer Corps, which included Michael Wittmann’s 2. Kompanie of the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101).

Michael Wittmann photographed atop his Tiger in May 1944, a month before the attack on Villers-Bocage that would his enhance reputation even further
Michael Wittmann photographed atop his Tiger in May 1944, a month before the attack on Villers-Bocage that would enhance his reputation even further
Arguably one of the most iconic images of the Second World War, SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann prepares to take the battle to the Western Front
Arguably one of the most iconic images of the Second World War, SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann prepares to take the battle to the Western Front

By 12th June, Allied formations including the famous 7th Armoured Division (the “Desert Rats”) had reached the outskirts of the city. Having initially sliced through the fast-retreating German defences with relative ease, things would begin to slow down after a series of hard-fought battles near the town of Tilly-sur-Seulles – defended by the well-equipped Panzer-Lehr Division. Nevertheless, by the morning of 13th June the flanks of the Panzer-Lehr had been massively exposed – setting up the possibility of their being completely enclosed by the Allied forces.

Central to the Allied plan was the main road towards Caen, and the high ground located at Hill 213 (also known as Point 213); right in the middle of the path was the small, compact town of Villers-Bocage. Anticipating the move by the British, Waffen-SS divisional commander SS-Obergruppenführer “Sepp” Dietrich would order Wittmann and his Tigers to make their way to the area from their base camp in Beauvais.

Although the 101st would have a full theoretical strength of forty-five Tiger Is, Wittmann’s 2. Kompanie would arrive at the front after the five day drive to Villers-Bocage from their base near Beauvais with just five (or possibly six) fully serviceable vehicles.(1) The arduous 240-kilometre journey would be fraught with danger: apart from the mechanical problems that would take their toll on the Tigers en route, the constant threat from the air would mean it would take place mainly by night, with the threat of the dreaded fighter-bombers (Jagdbombers, or Jabos) constantly playing on the minds of the frazzled Panzer crews.

Arriving on 12th July, Wittmann’s Tigers positioned themselves south of Point 213 on the Villers-Bocage ridge close to the Vire-Caen road in support of both Panzer-Lehr and another Waffen-SS Panzer division, the 12th Hitlerjugend. Not far behind Wittmann’s group would be the Tigers of SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Möbius’s 1. Kompanie, with SS-Obersturmführer Hanno Raasch’s 3. Kompanie a further two days behind.

Led by Wittmann's Tiger Nr. 205, Tigers of the Second Company head towards the area surrounding the town of Villers-Bocage, June 1944
Led by Wittmann’s Tiger Nr. 205, Tigers of the Second Company head towards the area surrounding the town of Villers-Bocage, June 1944

The build up: Morning, 13th June 1944

On the morning of 13th June, the available LSSAH panzer unit commanders conferred with “Sepp” Dietrich as to what their plan of action would be. The general feeling was that the Allies were about to launch a massive thrust with the aim of outflanking Panzer-Lehr; it was concluded that the targets to secure would be Villers-Bocage and Hill 213, which was located close to the main crossroads north of the town. Thus the scene would be set for what was essentially a simple race for tactical supremacy, though nobody would be able to predict the events that were to follow. Wittmann suggested that his Tiger carry out a soft reconnoitre of the surrounding area, a plan to which his battalion commander instantly agreed.

Wittmann’s assigned role would be one of simply checking out enemy movement in the area around Villers-Bocage, which had been cited by Dietrich and Hitlerjugend commander SS-Oberführer Kurt “Panzer” Meyer as being essential to securing a crucial foothold in the area. Wittmann would set out towards Villers-Bocage at around 06:00, moving cautiously alongside a wooded area south of the Route Nationale (RN) 175 in order to avoid being spotted from the air. Unknown to him, the British had already set out earlier in the morning, and would already be on their way to Villers-Bocage with the intention of taking Hill 213 and securing the road to Caen.

While at his command post located some 150 metres from Hill 213, Wittmann encountered an Army sergeant who informed him of the presence of a number of unfamiliar vehicles in the vicinity. Wittmann spotted what looked like a never-ending convoy of British and American type vehicles casually rolling along the highway, heading out of Villers-Bocage towards Hill 213. It turned out that these vehicles were the lead element of a highly-trained British unit, the 4th County of London Yeomanry (4CLY, “Sharpshooters”), part of the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division – the renowned “Desert Rats”.

Equipped with both Mk. IV Cromwell cruiser tanks and M4A4 Sherman VC Firefly medium tanks, “A” Squadron 4CLY had positioned themselves east of the settlement. Meanwhile, 4CLY’s “B” Squadron had been stationed west of Villers-Bocage, overseeing the intersection with the road leading to the neighbouring village of Caumont with 4CLY’s Regimental Headquarters situated in the main street of Villers-Bocage itself. Directly behind “A” Sqn. would be A Company of the 1st Rifle Brigade, which was equipped with eight M5A1 half-tracks, four Mk. II universal and Loyd carriers and three Stuart M3A3 “Honey” light tanks.

The Allies had been completely unaware of the presence of the German Panzers in the area; the 4CLY’s commanding officer Lt-Colonel Arthur, the Viscount Cranleigh, had requested time to carry out a proper reconnaissance of the area but this was ignored as the order was issued to proceed regardless. Nevertheless, any lingering doubts would have been put aside after a trouble-free entry for the British column into Villers-Bocage, where they had been greeted by enthusiastic residents. Despite Cranleigh’s initial reservations the column would then press on towards Hill 213, unaware that their movement was being closely observed.

This rather enticing opportunity would provide Wittmann with something of a dilemma: he clearly felt that he could not allow this situation to escape him, yet any radio contact with HQ would have been instantly intercepted by the enemy. More crucially Wittmann would note that there were few German forces of substance in the immediate vicinity to provide any additional support, and that if left unchecked the British column would have had a clear and unobstructed route though to the town of Caen. The situation would make his mind up for him; there was little or no time for dithering.

With his own command Tiger 205 out of commission, Wittmann would have only five Tigers at his disposal: 221 (SS-Untersturmführer Georg Hantusch), 222 (SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Sowa), 223 (SS-Oberscharführer Jürgen Brandt), 233 (SS-Oberscharführer Georg Lötzsch), and 234 (SS-Unterscharführer Herbert Stief). Of these half-dozen vehicles, 233 would have track damage and SS-Obersturmführer Jürgen Wessel in 211 was not present, having departed for the front earlier in the morning to receive orders. It was at this moment that Wittmann decided to take action himself. He recalled that the decision would be a tough one, one that required split-second thinking:

“…the decision was a very, very difficult one. Never before had I been so impressed by the strength of the enemy as I was by those tanks rolling by; but I knew it absolutely had to be and I decided to strike out into the enemy.”

Leaving the infantry sergeant safely in his foxhole, Wittmann sprinted towards Stief’s Tiger 234 as it was the vehicle closest to him. The vehicle’s commander, who had previously been taking a short nap, was quickly dispatched to brief the remaining members of the platoon. The driver cranked up the engine. However, after rolling forward some twenty-five or so yards Wittmann sensed that something not quite right. SS-Rottenführer Walter Lau, Stief’s gunner, was not to know what he would miss out on as the next vital minutes unfolded. Without a moment of hesitation Wittmann leapt out and sprinted towards the next available Tiger – 222, that of of SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Sowa, which had by this time made its way out of the defile.

Which Tiger?

The turret number of the vehicle Wittmann would commandeer on the morning of 13th June 1944 has continued to be a subject of enthusiastic debate among historians of the battle; Sowa’s assigned vehicle at the time of the battalion’s formation had been 222, and it is this vehicle that has been cited by the majority of commentators as being the one Wittmann climbed into prior to his initial advance on Villers-Bocage.

The historian Daniel Taylor has presented a series of arguments that suggest the vehicle Wittmann took into Villers-Bocage might well have been SS-Untersturmführer Heinz Belbe’s Tiger Nr. 231, which had not been among the six serviceable Tigers listed by both Patrick Agte and George Forty in their studies of the battle. Others meanwhile have mentioned Tiger 212 – assigned to Wittmann’s former gunner Bobby Woll – which had also not been on the list of serviceable vehicles.

Kurt Sowa's Tiger 222, comandeered by Wittmann at Villers-Bocage
Kurt Sowa’s Tiger 222, comandeered by Wittmann at Villers-Bocage

There are a number of possible reasons for this, most of which stem from the (assumption?) that Sowa’s tank was in fact his assigned 222. It is fairly well-known that the Tigers were prone to mechanical failure, and as a result commanders had got used to what could best be described as “tank-hopping”. It could well have been that by this stage of the campaign Sowa’s assigned vehicle might itself have been undergoing maintenance, and that on the day of the attack on Villers-Bocage he may have been in command of Belbe’s 231 and not his designated vehicle. Thus, “Sowa’s Tiger”, which everyone who has written on the subject is agreed that Wittmann commandeered on the morning of 13th June, might have been 231 instead of 222. Or even 212 for that matter.

Somewhat frustratingly, it hasn’t helped that postwar researchers have not had the luxury of having any actual footage or photographs of Wittmann setting out for the N 175 on the morning of 13th June – and as a result this discussion will continue to rumble on without any real hope of a satisfactory resolution. Therefore instead of theorising too much on the what ifs, I have decided simply to assume that by “Sowa’s Tiger” Wittmann meant 222. Given that this vehicle would be among the six Tigers listed as being serviceable that morning, it is far more likely that this was the vehicle that had entered Villers-Bocage under Wittmann’s command.

Settled in the cupola of Tiger 222, Wittmann would give the order to his “new” driver – SS-Unterscharführer Walter Müller – to crank up the vehicle for an all out attack on the enemy formation. Also on board were his gunner Bobby Woll, loader SS-Sturmmann Günter Boldt, and radio operator SS-Sturmmann Günther Jonas.

There has also been some debate as to whether Woll had been on board Wittmann’s Tiger, but again with there being no solid evidence either way it is difficult to be absolutely certain. Some sources have pointed out that Woll had not been at the front at that time, but given the situation – had he been available – one could think of no better person to have manning the 88mm cannon for such a risky endeavour.

The order was issued for all the remaining Tigers to stand fast and host their positions; Sowa, whose vehicle had been commandeered by Wittmann moments earlier, would in turn take charge of Stief’s partially-abled 234, rolling it into a safe defensive position on the highway. The other vehicles at the ready were Hantusch’s 221 and Brandt’s 233. The time was now 08:35.

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    The Story of Michael Wittmann