“I must go with them, for [Franz] Heurich can scarcely cope.”
Michael Wittmann, 8th August 1944
On 8th August 1944, the Allies would launch another heavy assault with the aim of sealing the pocket of resistance in the area around Falaise: Operation “Totalize”. At this time the recently promoted SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann and his company were attached to the 12. SS Panzergrenadier Division Hitlerjugend, a new division consisting of former members of the Hitler Youth and commanded by the legendary Kurt “Panzer” Meyer.
Buildup to the attack
Wittmann’s crew at this time consisted of SS-Unterscharführer Karl Wagner as gunner, SS-Sturmmann Günther Weber as loader, SS-Unterscharführer Heinrich Reimers as driver, and SS-Sturmmann Rudolf “Rudi” Hirschel as bow machine gunner and radio operator. The small Kampfgruppe had a complement of around sixty vehicles, and Wittmann had under his command only eight serviceable Tigers. This was compared to some six-hundred Allied tanks which had been organised for “Totalize”.
Wittmann’s platoon was earmarked to attack the town of Cintheaux, which stood on the RN 158 between Caen and Falaise, and to occupy the heights around Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil to the north which had been seized by British and Canadian units. Wittmann’s Tiger – the command vehicle with turret number 007 – would set out around 12:30, and after travelling a short distance encountered a team of Shermans belonging to the 4th Canadian Armoured Division, who were themselves advancing towards Cintheaux. Using the powerful 88mm guns, the team of seven advancing Tigers and one Panzer IV proceeded to smash the small formation of Canadian vehicles, desperate to push towards their objective.
According to a number of his colleagues Wittmann had been nervous that morning, and uncharacteristically indecisive. His foreboding proved justified. The last documented exchange involving Wittmann would take place in the early afternoon of 8th August, when he encountered SS-Oberführer Meyer. According to the former Hitlerjugend commander, he shook Wittmann’s hand before seeing him and his Kampfgruppe heading towards positions held by the 4th Canadian Armoured Division around Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil to the north-east. According to Meyer this encounter had taken place around 13:30, which conflicted slightly with some of the other later reports.(1)
What exactly happened next is still a matter of conjecture. From the various versions and reports that have been presented, Wittmann had found his Tiger surrounded on the outskirts of the woods outside the hamlet of Gaumesnil just north of Cintheaux, and would fall victim to an attack that both disabled the track mechanism and set it alight. According to all of the reports that have since become available, this had taken place at around 12:47 hours.
Wittmann makes his move
Wittmann’s Kampfgruppe consisted of his own command vehicle, and six other Tigers scraped together from the division’s dwindling supply of serviceable vehicles. There has been much debate about the turret numbers of the seven Tigers that had set out on the early afternoon of 8th August, and matters have not been helped by the fact that at the time the Germans had been desperate to make use of anything that moved. Damage to the Tigers and an increasing lack of reliability meant that commanders were often left playing musical chairs with their mounts, and parts from damaged vehicles were even put together.
The attack saw Wittmann’s 007 move north on the right side of the RN 158 out of Cintheaux. He was accompanied by signals officer Helmut Dollinger in the second command vehicle 009, and two vehicles from the 101st’s third company: 312 commanded by SS-Oberscharführer Peter Kisters and 314, a mount assigned to SS-Unterscharführer Otto Blase but commanded on that day by SS-Untersturmführer Willi Iriohn. Along with 007, these three vehicles were also hit.
Taking the left flank was Tiger 313 under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Hans Höflinger, 334 with Heinz von Westerhagen’s younger brother SS-Oberscharführer Rolf von Westernhagen, and the squad leader’s Tiger 304 commanded by SS-Hauptsturmführer Franz Heurich. Westernhagen would manage to escape intact, as did Heurich who had taken up a safer position to the rear. Höflinger’s mount meanwhile was disabled to the left of the RN 158, but all of the crew had been able to escape. In all, five of the seven Tigers were put out of action during the attack.
At 12:55 hours, Höflinger would report seeing Wittmann’s clearly damaged Tiger in a stationary position but still intact; however neither Höflinger nor the medical officer SS-Hauptsturmführer Dr. Wolfgang Rabe were able to reach their commander’s stricken vehicle, with both being forced to retreat. Dr. Rabe had witnessed the battle between Wittmann’s small squadron of Tigers and the enemy, in which he had seen a number of the Tigers take fatal hits; in a letter later written to Wittmann’s widow Hildegard, Rabe would describe the moment he had seen the turret being blown off her husband’s vehicle.
The separation of the turret of Tiger 007 from its hull was no doubt the result of an internal explosion caused by the on-board ammunition and burning fuel, probably caused by the initial disabling hit. No shell by itself could have achieved this result; the Tiger’s turret was so heavy that the resulting damage could only have been caused by a massive blast from inside the vehicle.
Missing in action
SS-Obersturmführer Max Wünsche would organise a search party later in the afternoon, with Wittmann’s comrades left hoping that the famed Tiger commander and his crew might have been able to escape from their stricken Panzer prior to the fatal, final explosion. But there was no positive news.
By the evening of 8th August 1944 the five men were all reported missing in action. It had been Michael Wittmann’s final battle.
Many continued to cling onto the vain hope that Wittmann might have survived and even ended up as a prisoner of the British, and more than a week later he was still classified MIA. Meanwhile, Wittmann’s commander von Westernhagen – whose tank Wittmann had taken into the battlefield on that fatal afternoon – had already visited Wittmann’s wife in Erbstdorf to confirm that her husband had indeed died a hero’s death on 8th August.
The detached turret of Wittmann’s tank was noted by divisional combat historian SS-Rottenführer Herbert Debusmann, and was later photographed by a local resident, M. Serge Varin. This is the only existing photograph of the wreckage of 007.
Michael Wittmann’s death on 8th August 1944 could have been easily avoided; he did not have to accompany the other Tigers, but did so nevertheless on account of the fact that Franz Heurich – newly promoted to the command of the 3rd Company – had lacked the necessary battlefield experience to lead the attack. Wittmann was supposed to have said “I must go with them, for Heurich can scarcely cope” – words that would have no doubt been etched on the minds of the survivors.
As ever, Michael Wittmann was there leading from the front, and on this occasion would perish in the field as a result. A soldier’s soldier to the last, he would not have had it any other way. That being said, one might also argue that Wittmann’s decision to lead his Kampfgruppe on open land against a concealed and well-drilled opponent was tactically suspect, even foolhardy and unbecoming of a commander with so much experience in the field. As well as Wittmann’s command vehicle, three other Tigers and a Panzer IV were left standing on the open ground between Cintheaux/Gaumesnil and Saint-Aignan.
The news of the loss of their beloved “Michel” sent shockwaves through the ranks of the Leibstandarte, from the ordinary soldier through to “Sepp” Dietrich himself. It no exaggeration to say that the day would prove to be one of the blackest in the history of the division.
The full story of what exactly happened to Michael Wittmann and his crew might perhaps never be known, although his legendary reputation has led to him being “claimed” by a number of Allied units that had been operating in the area at the time.
According to one source, Wittmann’s Tiger had found itself cornered by tanks of the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry, B Sqn, 144 Regiment Royal Armoured Corps and the 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment (The Sherbrooke Fusiliers) in the area around Cintheaux and Gaumesnil, while the Canadians have also claimed that the Panzer ace had been surrounded and destroyed by a platoon of Shermans belonging to their 4th Armoured Division. The Polish 1st Armoured Division would also stake a claim once it had been realised the one of the Tigers had been that commanded by Wittmann.
Elsewhere it has been postulated that Wittmann’s Tiger had fallen victim to an attack carried out by Allied airborne forces – supported by Serge Varin’s initial interpretation of the damage to the vehicle. The claim that Wittmann’s tank had been destroyed by an enemy Jabo was first made by the Germans themselves, possibly as part of an attempt to offset what was in their minds the outrageous idea that the all-conquering Tiger could possibly be overwhelmed by supposedly inferior enemy ground-based armour.
Further research has exposed the holes in many of these claims. The route taken by the Poles had taken them east of St. Aignan-de-Cramesnil, and moreover they did not cross their start line until 13:55 – more than an hour after Wittmann had first been reported missing. The claim made for the Canadian 4th Armoured can also be doubted in that their main thrust had taken place through the town of Rocquancourt to the north. The operations record book of 2 Tactical Air Force and the lack of any tank kill confirmation in the area on that day can be used to discount the claim that Wittmann’s Tiger had been destroyed from the air – although there had been confirmed tank kills in the nearby Argentan-Fliers-Falaise area.
From all of the evidence that has been presented, it appears that only two of those parties named can stake valid claims: the 1st Northants Yeomanry and the Sherbrookes.
The Story of Joe Ekins
In 1985 another story concerning Wittmann appeared concerning a then twenty-one year old Firefly gunner belonging to 3 Troop, A Squadron of the 1st Northants Yeomanry, Joe Ekins. According to the article by Ekins’ colleague Les Taylor in After the Battle magazine, Ekins’ Firefly No. 12 “Velikye Luki” – commanded by Sergeant Douglas Gordon and accompanied by a further three Shermans under the command of Captain Thomas Boardman – had encountered three Tigers on 8th August, one of which had been Wittmann’s 007.
Ekins had taken out the three Tigers with what was for him surprising ease, but was unaware of who had been in them until long after the end of the war. Investigations into the death of Michael Wittmann naturally brought up Ekins’ name, and before long he was being presented as the man who had destroyed Wittmann’s Tiger. Ekins himself happily went along with the story, even though the evidence was far from conclusive.
Unsurprisingly, the story of Joe Ekins made the pages of the British tabloids, first being reported in the Daily Mail in 2006(2) and then in the Daily Express in 2010.(3) Both articles contain little in the way of actual evidence, and beyond the fact that they mention Michael Wittmann are little more than scurrilous examples of character defamation. Wittmann is also described as the “Black Baron” – a name invented for him by postwar journalists – and his “Nazi” credentials have been exaggerated with the completely fictitious claim that Hitler had attended his wedding.
The Sherbrookes at Gaumesnil
As a counter to the claims made by those in support of Trooper Ekins, Canadian historian Brian Reid placed Wittmann’s Tiger some five hundred yards from the A Squadron of the 27th Canadian Armoured Regiment, the Sherbrooke Fusiliers – part of the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade – who had positioned themselves to the west of the RN 158 in Gaumesnil.
According to members of the Sherbrookes including its commander Major Sydney “Rad” Radley-Walters, one of their Fireflies had engaged a passing Tiger close to the RN 158, but that this Tiger had been at the time facing in the direction of the orchard where tanks of the 1st Northants Yeomanry had been deployed. The Canadians would have been in the perfect position to engage the Wittmann’s Kampfgruppe as they moved north towards the woods south of Saint-Aignan, and the resting place of Tiger 007 close to the road would suggest that it had been the first victim of what was effectively a two-pronged Allied attack.
After Wittmann’s vehicle had been put out of action the other Panzers would continue on their intended route, where they were subsequently engaged by the Fireflies of the Northants Yeomanry including Trooper Ekins – concealed in the wooded area south of Saint-Aignan.
The location of the damage to the hull of Tiger 007 is also a convincing indicator. The German vehicle had taken a clear hit to its left above the fuel tank, the side that would have been facing the Sherbrookes’ position as it passed close by. For Ekins to have inflicted such damage on the other hand, he would have needed to fire off a very lucky long-range shot at a distance of over a thousand yards.
Ekins’ claim to have taken out three Tigers on 8th August 1944 was more consistent with the final position of the three German vehicles that were abandoned north-east of Gaumesnil: Dollinger’s 009, Kisters’ 312 and Iriohn’s 314. While this does not entirely rule out the possibility that Wittmann may have been one of Ekins’ three victims, the laws of physics suggest that it would be been a bit of a stretch at best for the Firefly gunner to have landed such an accurate hit at such a distance. That said, the laws of physics can very often be contradicted by the intangible factor known as sheer luck.
Like any mystery however, even this isn’t conclusive enough to bring the discussion to anything close to a satisfactory conclusion. While it is clear that one of the four disabled Tigers east of the RN 158 had been taken out by the Sherbrookes, any written record of the kill would disappear with their RHQ vehicle which was destroyed shortly after the sighting. It was as if someone somewhere was deliberately trying to create an unfathomable, unsolvable riddle for post-war researchers.
The Sherbrookes versus Northants Yeomanry debate has taken on its own momentum that has rippled across the many discussion forums and bulletin boards dedicated to the subject, but while the Canadian evidence is marginally more convincing I have decided to leave it at that. Both claims are equally valid when taken in good faith and at face value, and there is no way proving things one way or the other. Quite simply, Wittmann’s Tiger could have been destroyed by any one, if not both, of these two parties.(4)
Was there a price on Wittmann’s head?
Some commentators such as the German historian Patrick Agte have suggested that the Allies had been “hunting” Wittmann and other Tiger aces, and that there had been a price on his head. In making this claim, Agte makes reference to a supposed bounty that had been placed against the capture of Leibstandarte divisional commander “Sepp” Dietrich.
While it is reasonable to entertain the idea that high-ranking and well-known personnel like Dietrich might well have been targeted as part of what Agte describes as a “degenerate practice”, it is unlikely that this would have been the case for a company-grade officer like Michael Wittmann, his domestic headline-making reputation notwithstanding.
The idea that Wittmann might have had a price on his head was emphatically dismissed by former Northants Yeomanry Captain Thomas (later Lord) Boardman:
“I knew nothing of Wittmann on the 8th August … I had no idea who was in command of the Tigers I met. Had I been told it was Wittmann, it would not have meant anything to me at that stage.”(5)
The most obvious counter to this argument is that when you saw a Tiger in the distance, you’d have no idea who was inside it – not that anyone would have cared. The most important thing would be to avoid or destroy it, knowing that if it managed to get off the first shot it mattered very little if the commander was an established ace like Michael Wittmann or a raw nineteen year old SS-Unterscharführer straight off the training ground.
While Wittmann may have been a household name in Germany, he was unknown to the Allied soldiers on the ground in Normandy. This is borne out by the fact that even Joe Ekins – the man later hailed as Wittmann’s conqueror – had no idea until long after the event.
In spite of all the evidence that has been presented, it appears that questions over Wittmann’s death will go on being asked, which is, given the fact that he has become something of a legendary figure in the history of modern warfare, rather fitting. This mystique has led to him being dubbed by some contemporary historians and journalists as “The Black Baron” – a clear reference to First World War air ace Manfred Freiherr von Richtofen, the “Red Baron”. Of course, unlike Richtofen Wittmann was not a Baron, but an ordinary man – a humble farmer’s son from Vogelthal.
In spite of all of the various claims and counter-claims, however, one thing is certain: the turret of Tiger 007 had been completely separated from the hull following an internal explosion, and there had been no survivors.
Michael Wittmann and his crew had initially been hastily buried nearby by a group of local civilians soon after the battle, and thanks to the research of Monsieur Jean Paul Pallud during 1981-82, the grave was finally discovered at Gaumesnil beside the main Caen-Falaise road (N 158). At the request of the German war grave commission (VDK), the bodies of five men were carefully disinterred, with Wittmann being positively identified by the dental prosthesis that he had worn following his facial injury in Russia. The identity discs belonging to Heinrich Reimers and Rudi Hirschel would be found with two of the bodies, and while the two remaining skeletons could not be positively identified they were assumed to be Karl Wagner and Günther Weber.
Having been identified as the crew of Tiger 007, the five bodies were then reburied at the nearby Soldatenfriedhof at La Cambe.
“Ein Soldat wie andere auch”