The Article in the Mail Online, 3rd June 2009: A Rebuttal

On Wednesday 3rd June 2009, an article was written in the Mail Online – the Internet arm of the tabloid Daily Mail – by one Peter Allen, following a short discussion between me and his colleague Tom Harper on the afternoon of Friday 22nd May 2009. As it happens, the interview would turn out to be pretty pointless as my measured responses to all of the familiar arguments would not actually be quoted in the final article, with the Mail embarking on a rather familiar strategy of misinterpretation and misinformation instead.

Daily Fail

When I had what had been a fairly cordial discussion with Harper in May, he made it clear that the source of the story was a French journalist; I would find this slightly dubious, given that the one time mayor of Villers-Bocage had himself written a well-received book on Wittmann’s exploits on 13th June 1944 and that the French had no particular axe to grind to grind about Wittmann, the I. SS Panzerkorps or the Leibstandarte’s 101st Panzer Battalion. However I had no reason to cast doubt on Harper’s integrity: here was a writer who had only recently won the Young Journalist of the Year award at the British Press Awards. (I would later find out that Harper had been unceremoniously turfed out of United Kingdom Independence Party’s headquarters for posing as an intern under a false name with the aim of digging up dirt).

The final clue only slotted into place when I saw Peter Allen’s name – and concluded that it was he, the Mail’s French correspondent, who was in all likelihood the original “source” of this apparently ground-breaking (non-)story. It is fair to make the assumption that the article had probably been finalised long before I had my chat with Mr. Harper; I just wish I had not been so friendly and accommodating.

Rather than treating the subject with the precision and care it clearly demanded, the writer’s objectives would be made abundantly clear when examining the rather dramatic title “Nazi souvenirs on sale in London ahead of D-Day anniversary”. It was pretty clear without even bothering to read any further that this drivel was an article that had nothing to do with Michael Wittmann, the panzerace.net website, or even reality. While the lurid-sounding headline was clearly created to include the Mail’s favourite words – “Nazi” and “Hitler” – the article itself was a narrative that could have been constructed by an eight year-old, peppered with a curious mélange of distorted quotes and snippets of deliberate misinformation – the trademarks of the tabloid hack.

Just reading the article is more than a little surreal; below is a point-by-point rebuttal I released shortly after its publication.

Nazi souvenirs glorifying an infamous Panzer commander who massacred scores of British soldiers are being sold in London in time for the 65th anniversary of D-Day.

“Infamous”? To qualify for such a title, you have to be fairly well-known. Michael Wittmann, however, is relatively unknown outside of a fairly small circle of military historians and armoured warfare enthusiasts.

The use of the term “massacre” is also rather unfortunate – unless, of course, this so-called “journalist” is suggesting that a tank commander proving his worth in the field of battle against an armed foe is a war criminal. If this is indeed the case, then by the same twisted logic any soldier at any time who has taken the life of an enemy combatant is guilty of murder.

“In time” for the 65th anniversary of D-Day? The t-shirts have been selling for over four years, and this would of course have included the 62nd, 63rd and 64th anniversaries of D-Day. As well as the 65th, 66th, 67th and 68th anniversary of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. And the cats’ 7th, 8th and 9th birthdays.

They include a grossly offensive T-Shirt showing SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann climbing into his Tiger tank in June 1944.

I can think of far more “grossly offensive” designs that are on general sale in high street stores, including images of the nefarious Communist revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. The t-shirt design features a tank commander sitting atop his vehicle – there is no political iconography. If anything, the design is deliberately understated and could easily pass for the sort of thing worn by a heavy metal fan.

Which I admit is not such a good thing.

Oh, and in the featured photo Wittmann is not “climbing into his tank”; he is merely sitting on the turret. Not only is Mr Allen bereft of any knowledge of this subject, but his observational skills are also rather suspect.

At the time the ruthless Nazi had just destroyed as many as 15 British tanks and 13 armoured personnel carriers in less than half an hour

Michael Wittmann’s action at Villers-Bocage was a legitimate act of war, which has been recognised by a number of military experts. The above statement is clearly from someone who has no actual knowledge of the subject, in that apart from anything else the figures appear to have been plucked out of nowhere.

It should also be pointed out that like many front-line members of the Waffen-SS, Michael Wittmann was not an enthusiastic member of the Nazi party, joining only in March 1938 – almost a year after he had enlisted in the SS. His membership number 5508244 is cited in his official service record, but without an accompanying date.

Unlike those who had enthusiastically joined the party early on, it would appear that Wittmann’s joining the NSDAP was little more than a rubber stamp requirement. Had he been an enthusiastic Nazi, he would have joined as soon as he was able in early 1930s, and almost certainly when joining the radicalised FAD/RAD. This makes the suggestion that Wittmann was a Nazi – “ruthless” or not – completely baseless. Of course, acknowledging such a fact would not make for such a dramatic article.

The PanzerAce fan club, based in north west London, is selling the £13.99 shirts along with a long list of other momentoes to a fighting force known for committing some of the most heinous crimes in military history.

There is no “Panzer Ace fan club”. The site is a recognised and extensive historical resource with a discussion forum where WW2 history buffs and general armoured warfare enthusiasts can talk about the subject.

As well as Britain, all are being distributed across European countries including Germany and France, with local police fearing neo-Nazis may try to wear the T-shirts during the June 6th D-Day anniversary commemorations on Saturday.

“Distributed”… I do not sell and have never sold items to either Germany or France, but have sold them to individuals in a number of countries around the world. The Michael Wittmann t-shirt has been sold to military enthusiasts as far afield as the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan, China, India, Thailand and Malaysia. I seriously doubt that any of these people will be making their way over to France to disrupt any commemorations that may be taking place.

The very idea that neo-Nazis may be seen on the streets of France wearing the Michael Wittmann t-shirt is nothing short of laughably absurd. For one, your common or garden neo-Nazi is not likely to even know who Michael Wittmann was, and I am almost certain that if they wanted to make a fashion statement they’d choose to wear something a little less understated.

A spokesman for police in the French city of Caen – objective of British troops on D-Day – said: “We consider such souvenirs to be grossly inflammatory and will move to arrest anyone caught wearing them in public”.

Well I would wish them good luck, because they are not going to find anyone. In fact, I’d recommend they sit back, have a coffee and a pain au chocolat, and enjoy what should be a quiet day. Shame on the journalist who wasted that police spokesman’s time informing him of a non-event; that is of course assuming that the statement is in fact true and wasn’t elicited over a pastis at the end of a busy day.

I wouldn’t dare suggest that this “statement” from an unknown spokesman might be a complete invention, but then stranger things have happened in the murky world of tabloid journalism.

The PanzerAce souvenirs also include CDs of Panzer and Waffen SS marching songs, as well as pint glasses commemorating such barbarous divisions as Das Reich (“The Empire”) and Totenkopf (“Death’s Head”).

Excellent use of Babelfish there. Of course, it is very easy to write an article on a subject like this and throw in terms like “barbarous” without actually understanding anything about the subject matter.

Das Reich atrocities included the murders of 642 French civilians in the village of Oradour-sur-Glane on June 10th 1944.

An atrocity documented, discussed and accepted in plain English on the site, which I assume this so-called “journalist” has never read. I can only assume that the clear and obvious disclaimers have been similarly ignored.

Wittman was a member of the notorious Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, which was also found guilty of numerous war crimes during the Nuremburg Trials at the end of the Second World War.

From the misspelling of both “Wittmann” and “Nuremberg”, I can happily say that my original text was not copied and pasted.

The Nuremberg trials drew a number of conclusions that were motivated by politics and feelings that were running high at the time. The American historian George Stein – who was far from being a Nazi sympathiser – discovered that during the postwar de-nazification trials it was revealed that some 99% of the membership of the Waffen-SS were free from any personal guilt.

The suggestion that the Waffen-SS was a “criminal organisation” based on the horrid actions of a few of their number would be akin to making the absurd suggestion that the US military was a “criminal organisation” due to the excesses committed at Abu Ghraib.

Yet PanzerAce sales literature describes Wittman as a “matchless warrior, who like many others in the Waffen-SS has been posthumously tarred with the sweeping brush wielded at the Nuremburg court”.

“Sales literature”? Further proof that this article is not worth the paper it is printed on.

Based on the statement I made to the previous point, the above quoted statement holds. Michael Wittmann excelled on the field of battle, had no involvement in criminal activity, and deserves to be recognised for his feats in the field of armoured combat.

The Fan Club is run by Rick Joshua, a self-styled ‘amateur historian’ who describes himself as “The Panzerkommandant” (Panzer Commander).

I would consider myself an “amateur” historian because I write the sites due to my interest in military history as opposed to the sole purpose of making money – as opposed to a certain breed of gutter press journalist. “Der Panzerkommandant” was my nickname on the discussion forum.

He and his French girlfriend Caroline Godart live together in a suburban house in West Drayton, greater London. Joshua, who also collects stamps and likes watching rugby, is obsessed with the Waffen SS, and Wittmann in particular.

If I am “obsessed” with the Waffen-SS, I would like some explanation for my site on the U-Boat commander Günther Prien – which is even larger and more extensive than Panzer Ace. I have an interest in military aces, and it is a known fact that the Axis powers produced a number of them on land, sea and air. It is true that I collect stamps and enjoy rugby – though this could have been concluded by reading my biography on the site.

As a student in the 1990s he frequently produced papers defending the elite Nazi units, writing: “To simply cast them aside as criminals is as much an insult to one’s own intelligence as it is to the many brave men who perished wearing the colours of the Waffen-SS.”

“Frequently produced papers” – a false statement that I wish were true in that I could have used it to try and cast off the mantle of “amateur” historian. I wrote one piece, a dissertation in 1994 entitled “Tarnished Warriors”, which is available on the website unexpurgated. It covers every aspect of the Waffen-SS, from its formation and military exploits through to a balanced discussion of the crimes some of its units committed during the Second World War, particularly on the Eastern Front.

“Many of those who joined had been members of a lost generation, young men in a Germany that had been subjected to systematic humiliation by the Allied powers.”

Ah, a direct quote from the website. This is based on the fact that regular members of the Waffen-SS – soldiers like their compatriots in the regular Army – were for long time denied a standard military pension. This is while members of the regular Army that might have themselves been implicated in war crimes were receiving aid from the German state.

In numerous recent web postings about Wittmann, Joshua pays particular attention to Nazi victories against the British. Wittman’s record-breaking attack on Villers-Bocage, in Normandy, northern France, decimated the ranks of the 4th County of London Yeomanry, part of the 7th Armoured Division.

At no point would I have suggested that Wittmann “decimated” the 4th CLY.

There is no particular attention given to Wittmann’s victories against the British; the site also discusses at length the campaign in the Balkans and Greece and his two postings to the Eastern Front. The feat of arms for which he became famous however – to military historians at least – was the attack at Villers-Bocage. Which was, to state again, a legitimate act of war.

Glorying in the slaughter perpetrated by Wittmann, Joshua writes: “In what was one of the most astonishing feats of arms during the war, he had more or less single-handedly prevented the British advance.”

This is not “glorying any slaughter”, but a simple statement of the facts – which would also be the conclusion of any competent military historian, amateur or otherwise. There is this curious problem in that tabloid journalism and objective history are not exactly the most cooperative bedfellows: one manipulates the facts for the purpose of creating a headline, while the other simple deals with the facts and presents them in an unbiased fashion.

It turned Wittmann into a national hero in Adolf Hitler’s Germany, with the Fuhrer summoning him to Berlin a few days later to personally present him with the Swords to his Knight’s Cross medal.

This is the only truth so far in this scurrilous and badly-written article.

Wittmann was finally killed on August 8th 1944 after being ambushed by a British and Canadian force. The Sherman tank shells which destroyed Wittmann’s Panzer were fired by 20-year-old Joe Ekins, a gunner in the 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry.

The debate is still out on this one, as a Canadian military historian has suggested that Wittmann’s Tiger was destroyed not by Ekins but by a Canadian vehicle belonging to the Sherbrooke Fusiliers. But then this would be of no consequence to two-bob hacks that care less about truth and military history than churning out baseless propaganda with lurid and meaningless headlines.

At least you got the date correct, though. Kudos.

Now 85, Mr Ekins lives in Rushden, Northamptonshire. Wittmann is buried in the Soldatenfriedhof (military cemetery) at La Cambe in Normandy, near Bayeux.

I don’t think these facts can be doctored too much, though I have to admit being slightly surprised at there being no righteous indignation that the graves of “Waffen-SS killers and war criminals” should be cared for in the same way as all of the cemeteries containing all the other young men who died in the fields of Normandy.

Prince Charles, Prime Minister Gordon Brown, American President Barack Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy will all be in Normandy on Saturday to commemorate the sacrifice of thousands of Allied troops who poured into Nazi-occupied France on June 6th 1944, heralding final victory in the Second World War.

If someone does actually turn up in a Panzer Ace t-shirt to throw a rotten tomato at Mr Brown, I will choose to deny any responsibility.

Defending the Nazi souvenirs, Mr Joshua said: “They are of great historical interest.”

Indeed. But they are far more interesting to military enthusiasts and those interested in military history as opposed to fringe elements that may be interested in political tub-thumping. Or journalists looking for a non-story, for that matter.

The original Daily Mail online article can be found here. Just in case they remove the evidence at some point, you can also view a screenshot of the page taken on 17th April 2014.

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    The Story of Michael Wittmann