Villers Bocage, 13 June 1944
Background to the battle
Following the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, the Allies had made rapid progress inland in what had become the Battle of Normandy. By 13 June, a full week after the beach landings, Allied formations including the famous 7th Armoured Division (the 'Desert Rats') had reached the vicinity of the city of Caen, slicing through the fast-retreating German defences in the process. This smooth action was made easier with the massive air superiority held by the Allies, and by the morning of 13 June the flanks of the Panzer Lehr Division had been massively exposed - setting up the possibility of their being completely enclosed.
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 path lay the small, compact town of Villers-Bocage. The Allies were completely unaware of the presence of the 101st LSSAH in the area, among which was Michael Wittmann and his Tiger I; 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 push on regardless. This decision to press on was to have dire consequences.
The build up: Morning, 13 June 1944
On the morning of 13 June, the LSSAH panzer unit commanders conferred with divisional commander Obergruppenführer '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 was set for what was essentially a simple race for tactical supremacy; nobody was able to predict the events that were to follow. In his typically selfless way, Wittmann suggested that his Tiger carry out a reconnoitre of the surrounding area, a plan to which his battalion commander instantly agreed.
Wittmann's role was one of simply checking out enemy movement in the area around Villers-Bocage, which had been cited by Dietrich as being essential to securing a crucual foothold in the area. Wittmann set out towards Villers-Bocage at around 6am, moving cautiously alongside a wooded area in order to avoid being spotted from the air.
Led by Wittmann's Tiger Nr. 205, Tigers of the Second Company head towards the area surrounding the town of Villers-Bocage, 13 June 1944.
While at his command post some 150 metres from Hill 213, Wittmann encountered an Army sergeant who informed him of the presence of a number of unfamiliar vehicles. Wittmann spotted what seemed like a never-ending convoy of British and American type vehicles 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 (CLY) ("Sharpshooters"), part of the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, the renowned 'Desert Rats'.
Equipped with both Cromwell and M4A4 Sherman Firefly tanks, 'A' Squadron 4CLY had positioned themselves east of the village; meanwhile, 'B' Sqn. 4CLY had been stationed west of Villers, overseeing the intersection with the road leading to the neighbouring village of Caumont. 4CLY's Regimental Headquarters was situated in the main street of Villers-Bocage itself. Directly behind 'A' Sqn. were the 1st Rifle Brigade, which was equipped with a dozen M3 half-tracks and three Stuart M5A1 'Honey' light tanks.
Map of Villers-Bocage and the surrounding area.
This rather enticing opportunity provided 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. More crucially Wittmann noted that there were few German forces of substance in the immediate vicinity, and that the British column would have had a clear and unobstructed route though to the town of Caen. He himself had only six serviceable Tigers at his disposal: these were numbers 211 (commanded by SS-Ostuf. Jürgen Wessel), 221 (SS-Ustuf. Georg Hantusch), 222 (SS-Uscha. Kurt Sowa), 223 (SS-Oscha. Jürgen Brandt), 233 (SS-Oscha. Georg Lötzsch, and 234 (SS-Uscha. Herbert Stief); of these six vehicles, 233 had track damage and SS-Ostuf. Wessel was not present, having departed for the front to receive orders. It was at this moment that the enterprising panzer ace decided to take action himself. He recalled that the decision was 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 Nr. 234 as it was the vehicle closest to him. The vehicle's commander, who had previously been taking a short nap, was quickly despatched 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 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, that of of SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Sowa, which had by this time made its way out of the defile.
The number of the vehicle Wittmann commandeered that morning is a subject of enthusiastic debate; Sowa's assigned vehicle at the time of the battalion's formation had been Nr. 222, and it is this vehicle that has been cited by the majority of commentators as being the one Wittmann climbed into on the morning of June 13 prior to advancing on Villers-Bocage. However, the historian Daniel Taylor has presented a series of arguments that suggest the vehicle Wittmann took into Villers-Bocage might well have been SS-Ustuf. 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. There are a number of possible reasons for this, most of which stem from the (assumption?) that Sowa's tank was in fact Nr. 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 time in the campaign Sowa's assigned vehicle might have been undergoing maintenance, and that on the day of the attack on Villers-Bocage he may have been in command of Nr. 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 13 June, might have been Nr. 231 instead of Nr. 222.
Wittmann gave the command to his 'new' driver, SS-Uscha. 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 Sturmmann Günter Boldt, and radio operator Sturmmann Günther Jonas. The order was issued for all the remaining Tigers to stand fast and host their positions; Kurt Sowa, whose vehicle had been commandeered by Wittmann moments earlier, now in turn took charge of Stief's 234, rolling it into a 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.