If you are a history buff, you will probably know many stories or details related to heroes or famous battles. Unfortunately, many times the actions related to some individual are also related to politics and all sorts of debates, which are not truly connected to the soldier’s will or intentions.
We all know that the German army from WW2 is the most stigmatized of all, and yes, we all know that some of its units made terrible things, no one denies that. But we must also state that a good part of the German soldiers was unaware of what was happening on a bigger scale, in each corner of Europe.
This is not an excuse, but more likely a statement related to the fact that many German soldiers entered the war as soldiers, and remained that way, respecting the conduct and the honor of a soldier. We must also admit that the German army was an incredible war machine and that among those soldiers, there were some unique characters.
This is the story of one of those special characters, a great warrior and incredible soldier, who went down in history as the most talented and successful tank commander of all times: Michael Wittmann.
The Panzer Ace
Michael Wittmann was born on April 22, 1914, in Dietfurt, Kingdom of Bavaria. He was a German tank commander enrolled in the Waffen-SS during the Second World War. He is considered a renowned “panzer ace”, meaning a highly decorated tank commander, and he is best known for his actions during the Normandy campaign, where he managed to score a victory which is more incredible than any silly “Fury” movie.
Wittmann was a very charismatic person, a figure surrounded by myth and admiration, coming even from his enemies. Before his “panzer ace” era, Michael served as a private, joining the Army in 1934. After two years as an NCO (non-commissioned officer), he joined the SS where he defined his military course, by joining a new division, the 1st SS-Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. There, he gained his driving knowledge and skills.
The young Wittmann was very enthusiast and extremely ambitious, willing to become a successful tank driver. His first experience in an armored vehicle was related to the command of an armored car and not a tank. Michael was deployed as the commander of a Sd.Kfz.232, a wheeled heavy armored car attached to a recon unit.
We must have in mind that the Leibstandarte SS was an elite unit, initially formed as a dedicated bodyguard unit for Hitler. The Leibstandarte Division had in its formation also others panzer aces, as Hannes Philipsen or Helmut Wendroff.
During the Polish campaign, Wittmann earned his colleague’s respect. After Poland, he followed dedicated training in Berlin and was attached to the SS-Sturm-Battery, which was related to the Sturmartillerie, or more clearly “the assault gun Battery” of the LSSAH. There, he operated the Sturmgeschutz III, and that was the context in which he showed his talent.
Wittmann proved his skills and courage during his service on the Sturmgeschutz III in the Balkans campaign. His division was eventually deployed on the Eastern Front, in order to sustain the German troops fighting there.
After a short time on the Eastern Front, Wittmann was awarded the Iron Cross Second Grade for his actions against enemy tanks. After only a few months, his Iron Cross became of first-class grade, after managing to destroy 6 Soviet tanks during a single engagement. During that period Michael was also wounded, but he refused to leave the battlefield, earning also a Wound Badge.
After some more training, Wittmann advanced in rank and was finally introduced to what would become his trademark weapon: the Tiger IV Panzer.
During 1943, Wittmann took part in the greatest tank battle in history, in the context of the “Operation Citadel” but best known as “The Battle of Kursk”. In this occasion, Michael Wittmann made a clear statement about his commanding skills in action: he managed to destroy 12 Soviet T-34 tanks on the first day of battle, reaching a final count of 30 tanks and 28 anti-tank guns destroyed until the end of the confrontation. He took part also in the Battle of Kharkov, where he rescued Helmut Wendorff and his team, who was surrounded by Soviet troops.
But Wittmann was not alone in his battle quest. Probably half of Wittmann’s success is related to Balthasar “Bobby” Woll, the aim-gunner of his tank crew. Woll had the incredible ability to shoot targets while the tank was in motion, even at high speed. Bobby was also a close friend for Michael, being the witness to Wittmann’s wedding.
The two had a special relation, and it is said that often Woll fired the shot few second before receiving the order from Wittmann, and this frequently made the difference between life and death for the German Panzer crew.
Wittmann reached an 88 destroyed tanks count, receiving for that the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross, which was awarded also to Bobby Woll. He gained the “Black Baron” nickname, as a reference to the Red Baron (Manfred von Richthofen) a WWI German Flying ace and was known for his honor in combat, after destroying a Soviet T-34 tank, ordered to his man to help the Soviet soldiers who were in flames.
What made him famous?
But the most famous action related to Michael Wittmann is the one from 1944, happened at Villers-Bocage, in France.
Wittmann had the mission to guard the town of Villers-Bocage, so he and other four Tiger tanks were stationed around the town, in order to enter in action, in case of any Allied movement around the city.
Even if Wittmann was expecting the Allied troops, they arrived sooner than he was expecting them. The British 7th Armored Division (also known as “The Desert Rats”) occupied Villers-Bocage without firing a single round. Wittmann soon realized that if the British column will continue the road, they will be spotted and overrun, so he decided to launch a surprise attack on them, and for that decision, he gained his spot in the war history.
Alone with his crew and tank, Wittmann attacked the rear of the British column, destroying 8 tanks and several half-tracked vehicles and anti-tank guns, causing a mass panic situation among the British. When an anti-tank gun located in the center of the town damaged his tank, he managed to escape together with all his crew. At the end of the day, Wittmann results were incredible: he took out of battle 14 tanks, two anti-tank guns, and 13 to 15 transport vehicles.
The Villers-Bocage episode transformed Wittman (and his crew) into a myth. It is said that the British put a bounty on his head, in order to compensate the shame suffered at Villers-Bocage.
Wittman was put in charge of a tankmen school located in Germany, and presented as a national hero. His figure was heavily used by the Nazi propaganda, but he refused all that, choosing to return to battle.
Wittmann died in battle on August 8, 1944, near the French town of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil. Many claimed his death, but even today isn’t clear what happened to the Tiger 007. Some are saying that he was hit during an RAF raid, others that he was taken out by the 1st Polish Armored Division. Recent studies state that the 007 Tiger took out by Joe Ekins, a British gunner from a Sherman Firefly.
The crew of the Tiger 007 tank was initially buried in an unmarked grave. In 1983, the German war graves commission located the burial site. Wittmann and his crew were re-interred together at the German war cemetery of La Cambe, plot 47—row 3—grave 120, in France.