A Brief History
On June 13, 1944, during the Battle of Villers-Bocage, German tank ace Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann proved what could be accomplished by proper use of a superior weapon system when he directed his Tiger I tank against British armor (armour for you Brits), destroying an amazing 2 anti-tank guns, 15 armored personnel carriers, and 14 tanks! Only a week after the D-Day invasion of Normandy, France, the battle was an attempt by the British to break out of the Normandy beachhead and advance on the city of Caen.
A member of the dreaded SS (Schutzstaffel), Wittmann was probably an ardent Nazi party member and nationalist that would fight fiercely in the style of the Waffen (armed) SS, with brutal intensity and an unwillingness to admit defeat despite overwhelming odds. The German 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion had been brought to the Normandy battle area in reserve to hold the high ground in the area of Villers-Bocage to St. Lo in the vicinity of Caen. News of an American breakthrough nearby spurred British General Montgomery to order an attack while the Germans were reeling. The depleted German tank battalion had only about 15 battle weary tanks left after previous combat and attacks by Allied fighter bombers, but those tanks were the feared and respected Tiger I, boasting a highly effective 88mm gun that could penetrate any Allied tank from any direction, carrying a considerable load of 92 main gun rounds per tank. The Tiger I also was armed with 2 X 7.92mm machine guns and had armor as thick as 120mm (4.72 inches). The armor on the front of the Tiger I was virtually invulnerable to the short barreled 75mm gun on the standard Sherman M4 tank. Also in the area were another 15 or 20 German tanks in various states of repair or disrepair of the Panzer IV type.
The British attack consisted of a reinforced Brigade with 60 tanks at its disposal, of both the Sherman and Sherman Firefly variety (the Firefly was an up-gunned Sherman tank with a more effective “17 pounder” 76mm gun) and the Cromwell, a newer British design that unfortunately was equipped with the 75mm gun that was found lacking on the Sherman tank.
As the British column of vehicles advanced in the attack, Wittmann’s tank appeared suddenly and immediately destroyed the tail end tank. Wittmann turned his attention to the front of the column and drove down the length of the column at close range, perhaps only 50 to 80 meters away, blasting the British vehicles as he went, his Tiger tank shrugging off British rounds. Wittmann had gone ahead of his 4 other Tiger tanks, leaving them in a defensive position where they successfully defended their sector. Wittman proceeded to the British rear and continued his mayhem and destruction until heavy British fire finally knocked out the troublesome Tiger tank, but the Wittmann and his crew were able to bail out of the immobilized steel monster and escape back to German lines.
The British attack had been foiled, not solely by Wittman and his Tiger tank, but with the stalwart defense of the other German tanks and troops as well. The British had lost 27 tanks and 217 men killed or wounded, while the Germans had lost perhaps 6 Tiger tanks and an additional 2 to 9 tanks of other types.
Michael Wittmann had already earned a reputation as a “Tank Ace” prior to the Battle of Villers-Bocage and had been twice wounded and awarded the Knight’s Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords of the Iron Cross. Wittman was not to live much longer after the battle, dying in combat on August 8, 1944, still in the Normandy theater of operations. He was only 30 years old. Wittman died at the hands of British and Canadian tank gunners, soldiers he had troubled so grievously in the past. When his Tiger tank’s upper hull was penetrated by British anti-tank rounds, the ammunition stored in the Tiger blew up, incinerating the famous Tank Ace and his crew and blowing off the turret of the Tiger, a fate he had previously dealt out so often.
The Battle of Villers-Bocage is not by any means an accepted word for word tale of precise information, as with most battles there may have been some mistaken impressions and perhaps willful exaggerations for propaganda purposes. In spite of the possibility of Wittmann’s exploits being overstated, his actions that fateful day were no doubt incredibly brave, bold and successful, one of the great accomplishments in the history of warfare.
The Tiger I tank achieved legendary status during World War II, for both its seemingly invulnerable armor and its tremendously effective 88mm gun, but it was superseded by the Tiger II, or “King Tiger” or “Royal Tiger” (Königstiger in German) that had an incredible (for the time) 185mm of armor (7.3 inches) at its thickest point. Additionally, the Tiger II sported sloped armor, which increased the effectiveness against armor piercing rounds compared to the straight walled armor of the Tiger I. Alas, the German Army never had enough of either variety of Tiger tank, with only 1347 Tiger I’s built and another 492 Tiger II’s fielded. By comparison, the Allies produced over 49,000 Sherman tanks of all varieties and another 49,000 Soviet T-34 tanks! Against those kinds of numbers and facing total air superiority by the Allied air forces, the German armored forces had little chance for victory after the successful Normandy invasion. Brave Germans such as Michael Wittmann were fighting a hopeless battle. Even the mighty Tiger tanks needed fuel and ammunition, which the Germans found terribly hard to deliver in combat with constant attack from the air, as well as shortages in the production of parts as well as fuel and ammo.
Would the Germans have been better served by producing greater numbers of improved Panzer IV tanks and Panthers instead of devoting so much material and man hours to produce so few Tigers? The balance is tricky, and since the Germans could never hope to match Allied production numbers, perhaps a qualitative edge was the proper answer. Or perhaps no proper answer was truly available at all, and the Germans were doomed to fail from the start. Who knows?
Question for Students (and others): Have you ever heard of a more outstanding example of tank combat than that displayed by Michael Wittman in 1944? If so, please tell us in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Jentz, Thomas. Germany’s Tiger Tanks: Tigers At the Front. Schiffer+publishing, 2001.
Simpson, Gary. Tiger Ace: The Life Story of Panzer Commander Michael Wittmann. Schiffer Publishing, 1994.
The featured image in this article, a photograph by Scheck of Wittmann’s company on 7 June 1944 on Route nationale 316, en route to Morgny, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license. This image, Bild 101I-299-1804-07, was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the German Federal Archive (Deutsches Bundesarchiv) as part of a cooperation project. The German Federal Archive guarantees an authentic representation only using the originals (negative and/or positive), resp. the digitalization of the originals as provided by the Digital Image Archive.