The Eastern Front, 1943-44
The Final Return to Russia
By the time Michael Wittmann had arrived in Russia for what would be the third and final time, the military situation had gone from bad to worse for the German leadership. Khar'kov had been retaken by the Soviets, and the Red Army was now storming relentlessly through the Ukraine and on towards Germany itself. Wittmann's company was assigned to a new force given the task of capturing the town of Brusilov, west of Kiev in the Ukraine. On 13 November, in the face of overwhelming odds, he and his crew were able to destroy more than two dozen Russian vehicles and anti-tank guns. Despite this show of skill and bravery, it was becoming more and more obvious that this would not be enough to deal with the relentless flow of Soviet armour.
21 November was to see plenty of drama, with Wittmann deciding to take command of his Tiger in spite of his suffering from a high temperature. Despite being unable to function at one hundred percent, the man who was quickly becoming a talisman for his colleagues knew that he had to be seen to be out in the thick of the action - nothing else would do. His gunner that day, SS-Sturmmann Bobby Warmbrunn, was to destroy a total of thirteen T34s and seven of the hated anti-tank guns. According to other reports, Wittmann also suffered a close scrape following a man to man encounter with the crew of an enemy vehicle: after taking out two of the three Russians, the third managed to get a shot in, the bullet tearing through Wittmann's chin. In spite of this, the adrenalin was enough to see the brave panzer commander ignore the pain and get an accurate burst at the third Russian crewman with his MP-40.
The following months were to see the now familiar advance of generals mud and winter, although not before the Germans were celebrating an audacious advance during the first two weeks of December orchestrated by the legendary SS-Sturmbannführer Jochen Peiper, whose formation had charged some twenty-five miles, smashing a hole in the enemys defences and capturing thousands of enemy prisoners and numerous pieces of artillery. During the first day of this action - which was to see Peiper awarded the Oak Leaves to his Knight's Cross - Wittmann destroyed three T34s and an anti-tank battery near the town of Tortschin. The latter action was particularly noteworthy; in the words of SS-Sturmmann Walter Lau, Wittmann "blasted the enemy with furious barrages of gunfire, crashed through the position and positioned himself astride the enemy's supply road like a wolf in a herd of sheep. He placed his fiery mark on the road, smashing long lines of Soviet vehicles into junk and causing mass confusion among the Soviets".
Wittmann's Tiger S04, December 1943. Not the base dark yellow colour painted over with winter camouflage whitewash. The markings on the 88mm gun signify the 88 victims that Wittmann had claimed up to the time of his being awarded the Knight's Cross in January 1944.
Three days later on 9 December Wittmann's Tiger, accompanied by two other vehicles, was ambushed by twenty Soviet tanks in the vicinity of the town of Meshiritschka. Although surprised, the Tigers quickly turned the tables, with Wittmann's gunner Bobby Woll destroying six of the T34s with the powerful 88mm gun. The success of these actions were to lead to a new surge of confidence among the men of the Tiger Company as the year came to an end, although there was to be no respite for the men of the Tiger comoany and their fearsome machines. During the battles around Berdichev at the end of December, Wittmann was assigned to the post of company commander. On 2 January 1944, he had twelve Tigers under his command. The turn of the year was also to witness emergence of a more fearsome Soviet weapon, the T34/85 - a regenerated T34 now armed with a massive 85mm main gun.
The next notable action undertaken by the company's new commander took place during the night of 7/8 January, in and around the town of Sherepki. Engaging the enemy head-on in his own inimitable style, Wittmann and his crew knocked out a trio of enemy tanks and an anti-tank gun, with gunner Balthasar Woll proving himself to be a master of his craft once more. The Sherepki action was to prove to be the catalyst for what turned out to be a successful defensive action by the Leibstandarte, with a total of thirty-three T34s and seven enemy assault guns destroyed.
The following day, Wittmann once more spearheaded the defensive counterattack, claiming a further six victims as he almost single-handedly routed the enemy and halted their attack. Having now claimed an astonishing total of sixty-six victims in less than six months, the tales of Wittmann's exploits had finally reached ears beyond those of his company.
Wittmann finally joins the élite
Following the two intense days of combat on 8 and 9 January 1944, which had seen the destruction of nine enemy panzers and an anti-tank gun, on 10 January Wittmann was finally recommended by divisional commander SS-Oberführer Theodor "Teddi" Wisch for the prestigious Ritterkreuz, the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross. The official recommendation read as follows:
SS-Untersturmführer Wittmann, platoon commander 13.(s)/SS-Pz.Rgt. 1 LSSAH, has himself destroyed 56 tanks in the period July 1943 to 7.1.1944, including several KVI, KVII, General "Sherman", the rest were T34s. During a penetration near Sherepki by a Russian tank brigade on 8.1.1944 he and his platoon succeeded in stopping the attack and he himself knocked out 3 T34s and 1 assault gun.
On 9.1.1944 he destroyed another 6 T34s during a penetration by enemy tanks and raised his total of tanks destroyed to 66. He once again demonstrated exceptional bravery in meeting and smashing the Russian tank attack.
Signed Wisch, SS-Oberführer and Divisional Commander
Between his being recommended for the Knight's Cross on 10 January and receiving the award four days later, SS-Untersturmführer Wittmann embarked on a what can only be described as a victory celebration of destruction. Over this short period, Wittmann's Tiger knocked out an astonishing twenty-two enemy tanks, which took his total to eighty-eight enemy tanks destroyed. Over 12 and 13 January alone, Wittmann and his crew knocked out a phenomenal sixteen T34s and three anti-tank guns.
In what was a highly successful series of missions, the only moment of bad luck that took place was when Wittmann lost a front tooth in a freak accident in a Schwimmwagen - though other sources have stated that he had lost the tooth by hitting his head against the cupola of his Tiger after it had driven over an obstacle.
Left: The certificate awarded to Michael Wittmann that accompanied his Knight's Cross, dated January 14, 1944. Right: Wittmann joins the ranks of the Ritterkreuzträger.
The story was not all about Wittmann, however: a successful Tiger not only needed a talented commander but also a well-knit, disciplined and skillful crew. Wittmann himself acknowledged that his outstanding record could never have been achieved without his gunner, the crackshot Saarlander Balthasar "Bobby" Woll, who during his short career as a Tiger gunner had destroyed a total of eighty enemy tanks. Following the actions of 12 and 13 January Woll was also nominated for the Knight's Cross. Both Wittmann and Woll were awarded their Knight's Crosses on 14 January, by divisional commanader "Teddi" Wisch.
SS-Untersturmführer Wittmann (far left) and his successful Tiger I crew after his receipt of the Knight's Cross, 14 January 1944. From left to right: Wittmann, SS-Rottenführer Balthasar 'Bobby' Woll, SS-Panzerschütze Werner Irrgang (radio operator), SS-Panzerschütze Josef 'Sepp' Rößner (loader) and SS-Sturmmann Eugen Schmidt (driver). Woll, like his commander, also wears the Iron Cross First Class, Wound Badge in Black and the Silver Panzer Assault badge, awarded for twenty-five successful engagements. The three other members of this highly talented crew are all decorated with the Iron Cross First Class and Panzer Assault badge. The rings marked on the gun indicate the total number of tank kills, which at the time of this photograph stood at 88.
By this time, Wittmann's tank-busting exploits were becoming headline news in Germany, and by the end of the month he had claimed his 100th kill. On 30 January, he was sent a telegram from Hitler's headquarters, which confirmed the award of the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross:
In gratitude for your heroic action in the battle for the future of our countrymen, I award you the Oakleaves to the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross as the 380th soldier of the German Wehrmacht.
Left: Untersturmführer Wittmann receives the Oakleaves to his Knight's Cross from Adolf Hitler, 2 February 1944. Right: A portrait of Wittmann wearing the Knight's Cross with Oakleaf cluster, shortly after his promotion to Obersturmführer.
In addition to his being awarded the coveted Oakleaves, Wittmann was also promoted to the rank of Obersturmführer, a promotion which some could argue was long in coming. On 15 February, following the hospitalisation of Heinz Kling, he was appointed commander of 2. Kompanie of the schwere (heavy) SS Panzer Abteilung 101. By now he had become the most successful tank commander of the war, a hero worshipped by millions of his countrymen and women, a representation of the 'last hope'. This was more than true with regard to the 35,000 or so embattled troops that lay surrounded in the Tscherkassy pocket, who were eventually evacuated after an audacious attack by the LSSAH and 'Das Reich', during which Wittmann was to claim another nine victims. This was to be the last he would see of the Russian Front, with the LSSAH was evacuated for rest and refit in Belgium. In the struggle that was to follow, Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann was to be elevated from being a mere hero to a legend in his own right.