Military history

Chapter 2

The Mystery of Villers-Bocage

Probably everyone who is interested in the employment of the Tiger tank is familiar with the countless portrayals of this action of the “most successful tank commander” of the war, SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann. Unfortunately, the vast majority is unaware that almost all of the accounts pertaining to it are completely incorrect! The conclusions drawn afterwards are also in pressing need of critical evaluation. It has been possible to do the latter for some time now since the events that transpired at Villers-Bocage have been verified down to the last detail.

Let us look at the events of 12 June 1944 …

It was intended for schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 to be staged for commitment on the left wing of the I. SS-Panzer-Korps. To this end, it was assigned a tactical assembly area directly east of Villers-Bocage. This coincided with the preparations of the British and the Canadians for Operation “Perch.” The objective of this operation was to move around Caen to the northwest and take possession of the Odon River. On the night before, heavy artillery fire was initiated. The arriving tanks had to change their assembly area three times. The 2nd Company occupied the southern foothills of Montbroq Hill with six tanks in a defile some 100 meters south of National Road 175. This was two kilometers east of Villers-Bocage and about 500 meters southwest of Hill 213. The eight tanks of the 1st Company were somewhat farther to the northeast in a tactical assembly area on the other side of the National Road.

Although the aforementioned defile provided good concealment, it did not allow all tanks to move out simultaneously to the side. In addition, one of the tanks—that of SS-Oberscharführer Lötzsch—had track damage and was not operational. At the very front was the tank of SS-Unterscharführer Stief, which had engine problems.

After the tanks had occupied their positions, SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann, the company commander, had left the location for the purpose of establishing contact with other elements and leading other tanks forward. He returned during the night. The crews were completely exhausted as a result of the night marches that had taken many days. On each tank, there was a crewmember who stayed on watch. During his shift, the other crewmembers rested. It was intended to conduct absolutely essential maintenance the next day.

Among other forces, the British 7th Armoured Division, the famous “Desert Rats,” had started to move out as part of Operation “Perch” at 0500 hours.

Here is what proceeded to happen …

A march group of the British 22nd Armoured brigade advanced in column along the road from Caen to Villers-Bocage. Still not deployed for combat, it stopped just before Point 213. Unnoticed, the brigade had exploited a gap between the 352. Infanterie-Division and the Panzer-Lehr-Division.

The commander of the 2nd Company received a report in the aforementioned defile alerting him that tanks—probably British—were moving on the road and heading east. From a vantage point, SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann was able to observe the enemy column. He jumped into the first tank. He told the commander, SS-Unterscharführer Stief, to go to the other tanks and alert them. The driver received orders from Wittmann to move out. After 20 to 30 meters, the crew was able to make Wittmann understand that the engine was not running properly. The company commander dismounted and ran up to the next vehicle that was approaching from out of the defile. It was Tiger 222 of SS-Unterscharführer Sowa. Wittmann had him dismount and took over the tank himself.

SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann attacked the lead elements of the British forces ahead of his company, which was still not ready to engage in combat. It was A Squadron of the 4th City of London Yeomanry and elements of the 1st Rifle Brigade. Firing in the direction of Caen, he initially knocked out a Cromwell and then a Firefly of A Squadron, which were already at Point 213. He then moved parallel to the road to Villers-Bocage, where he knocked out most of the 1st Rifle Brigade’s vehicles from pointblank range. These consisted of thirteen M3 halftracks, three Stuart reconnaissance tanks, two forward-observer Shermans, the Daimler scout car of the brigade’s intelligence officer, and the M3 halftrack of the brigade surgeon as well as more than a dozen Bren and Lloyd carriers (some belonging to the antitank battery).

At the edge of the town, he destroyed three of the four Cromwells of the regimental command group of the 4th City of London Yeomanry. He then moved by himself into enemy-occupied Villers-Bocage, where he was followed by the fourth Cromwell, which had designs on knocking him out from the rear. In the town, SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann was intercepted by tanks of B Squadron of the 4th City of London Yeomanry, including one which was dangerous for the Tiger—the Sherman Firefly. He turned around and headed for an exit point from the town. On his way back, Wittmann knocked out the Cromwell that had been following him. Although the Cromwell had fired two rounds from a distance of only 50 meters, both of them ricocheted off. A few hundred meters farther on, the Tiger was immobilized by an antitank round to its running gear. The crew abandoned the tank and fought its way back to the command post of the Panzer-Lehr-Division at Orbois-Sermentot.

The three remaining operational tanks of the 2nd Company took up position east of Villers-Bocage after their commander had taken off. South of the National Road, they knocked out two additional Cromwells (SS-Unterscharführer Sowa) and three Shermans (SS-Oberscharführer Brandt). In addition, approximately 230 soldiers surrendered.

Attack of the 1./schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101

Starting at 0800 hours, eight Tigers of the 1st Company under SS-Hauptsturmführer Möbius also attacked along the N 175 to Villers-Bocage. Five Cromwells located north of the town were abandoned by their crews without firing a shot. Several Panzer IV’s of the Panzer-Lehr-Division, which were in Parfouru-sur-Odon, also participated in the attack. Two Tigers and one Panzer IV advanced along the main street of Villers-Bocage, the Rue Pasteur. The trail tank—Tiger 112 of SS-Oberscharführer Ernst—was knocked out by a Firefly of B Squadron of the City of London Yeomanry, which fired through two corner windows. During the course of the further advance, the Panzer IV was knocked out by an antitank gun, when the tank changed position. The lead tank—Tiger 121 of SS-Untersturmführer Lukasius—was also knocked out from the rear by a Firefly. These three tanks were later set on fire by the British.

Five other Tigers advanced along roads farther to the south. One Tiger was knocked out in the Rue Emile Samson by an antitank gun. Two other Tigers were immobilized after being hit, one at the corner of Rue Jeanne Bacon and Boulevard Joffre by a 57mm antitank gun of the 7th Queens Lancers.

During the fighting in the village, SS-Unterscharführer Wendt’s 132 had remained on the outskirts of the town. That night, Tiger 132 took up position on Hill 213; four other Tigers of the 1st Company established positions south of Villers-Bocage. The 2nd Company went back to its positions in the defile parallel to the N 175.

The battalion lost three noncommissioned officers and seven enlisted personnel killed on this day. Three Tigers of the 1st Company were lost. It was intended to recover Wittmann’s tank in the village, but the recovery operation was never carried out. The British lost a total of twenty-six tanks, fourteen M3’s, eight Bren carriers and eight Lloyd carriers.

In the meantime, the remaining company of the battalion—the 3rd Company—reached Falaise.


On the next day, the commanding general of the I. SS-Panzer-Korps, SS-Obergruppenführer Dietrich, recommended SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann for the award of the Oak Leaves with Swords to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.

The decoration was awarded on 22 June 1944 along with a simultaneous promotion to SS-Hauptsturmführer. The following statements in the award recommendation are worthy of note:

• “Kompanie Wittmann … was … ready for combat … at Point 213”

• “Wittmann was unable to issue any more orders to his men, who were separated from him”

• “Eliminated … all vehicles in range … ” (in Villers-Bocage after he had to dismount due to his vehicle being immobilized)

• “Advanced once again on Villers-Bocage [after reaching the command post of the Panzer-Lehr-Division and] … employed it [meaning the 1./schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101]”

• The number of tank “kills” was listed as twenty-five.

So much for the facts.

When evaluating these events, we should not take the easy way out. The following should be considered:

• Wittmann was liked by his subordinates and recognized by his superiors. First in the Balkan campaign and then especially later on the Eastern Front, he had fought bravely and knocked out numerous enemy tanks with his assault gun and, later, his tank.

• The situation on the morning of 12 June 1944 was anything but clear.

• The decision to attack the enemy, who was about to effect a decisive breakthrough, was proper.

• The personal actions of Wittmann were dynamic and courageous.

Nonetheless, a number of critical questions are raised. The easiest thing to pass judgment on is the award recommendation submitted by SS-Obergruppenführer Dietrich. All of the statements cited above are false. The reader can easily determine for himself the number of “kills”: there were seven. Even if we were to count the forward-observer tanks that were “armed” with a dummy main gun made out of wood and the light Stuarts, the numbers still do not add up to twenty-five.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that a “serious threat” was turned back as a result of Wittmann’s courageous actions. Normally, the separate levels of the Knight’s Cross were awarded for individual deeds that “decided battles” and not for knocking out many enemy vehicles. We will come back to this later.

I would like to initiate my critical remarks with a series of observations that take into consideration the operational principles of armored forces.

• Tanks are to be displaced in an assembly area in such a manner that their freedom of movement is left as unrestricted as possible.

• The tactical leader always maintains detailed knowledge on the combat readiness of his vehicles and his crews.

• An area is to be secured in such a manner that the enemy cannot approach unnoticed.

• Tanks are always to be concentrated for an operation.

With regard to these points, the reader can draw his own conclusions from the events that are presented above.

It is difficult to assess after the fact whether there was enough time to wait for the remaining three tanks of the company to attain complete combat readiness. The fact that the tank of SS-Unterscharführer Sowa was able to follow out of the defile immediately indicates that it would have only taken a few minutes, however.

If the British had not been so ill prepared for combat and careless, Wittmann would have still been able to knock out several enemy vehicles. It is also highly likely, however, that he would have been stopped, at the very least through damage to his running gear. The engagement distances were so short that even the normally “toothless” Cromwell would have been able to achieve those types of hits.

Had Wittmann taken this into consideration, he might have then taken up a position to observe, wait for his tanks to close up and then move out against the enemy with considerably more combat power and mutual fire protection.

Even if several enemy tanks had continued on over Hill 213 in the direction of Caen, they would have run into the tanks of the 1st Company.

Beyond all discussion is Wittmann’s decision to move into an enemy-occupied built-up area all by himself. The reader is left asking what he intended to accomplish by doing that.

The attack into Villers-Bocage that followed by elements of the Panzer-Lehr-Division and almost all of the 1./schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 without infantry support also does not correspond to basic principles of armor employment: Built-up areas are to be bypassed by tanks as much as possible. Painful losses were suffered almost immediately.

In conclusion, it must be noted that the danger of a decisive breakthrough on the part of the British was deflected by the actions of the two Tiger companies (together with forces of the Panzer-Lehr-Division in some cases). The critical questions concerning how this was done remain, as does the point whether Wittmann’s actions were decisive to the fighting.

The Initial Losses of the 3./schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101

In the days that followed, there was additional fighting for Cahagnes involving schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101. Its 3rd Company closed up at Evrecy. This took place before the British had to temporarily call off their attack in the direction of the Odon.

In this situation, the counterattack of the battalion’s 1st Company in the areas between Villers-Bocage and Cahagnes on 14 June 1944 remained without effect under the concentrated fires of the enemy artillery (160 guns). The tank of SS-Obersturmführer Philipsen was hit and immobilized; it was repaired enough during the night to be able to move under its own power back to the German lines.

During the night of 15 June 1944, the 3rd Company was hit in its assembly area at Evrecy by a heavy bombing attack. SS-Sturmmann Ernst Kufner, a radio operator in the company at the time, wrote this firsthand account concerning the strike:

All at once, the trees were burning, the grass between the tanks, the buildings and church of Evrecy. Aircraft dropped phosphorous bombs first, then fragmentation bombs. I woke up the crews that were sleeping underneath the tanks. All of us jumped into the tanks. During a break, I heard the company commander cry out: “Start up! Get the tanks out of here!”

Our driver attempted to start the engine. The starter failed. We had to stay there with our tank. We could observe everything through our vision ports and had to watch as everything next to us and in front of us was burning.

It was twin-engine aircraft that were dropping their loads of bombs on us and on Evrecy. It lasted about 20–30 minutes, until everything was over. It took all our strength to open the tank’s hatches. When we had them opened, it was very quiet all around us. There was a layer of earth on the tank that was some 20 centimeters thick. The buildings in Evrecy were still burning. There was nothing to be seen or heard of our comrades.

We moved the tank—the starter was not defective after all—as far as the war memorial. After moving just 100 meters, the engine became hot. The cooling fans were plugged with dirt. Next to our location were bomb craters that were big enough that a Tiger could have fit inside them.

We looked for our comrades during the morning hours. As I recall, the assistant armorer showed up. His overcoat was in tatters. He had sought protection in a bomb crater and was lucky. We didn’t see any of our comrades from the trains any more.

The other Tigers were damaged and not operational. The Tiger of Untersturmführer Günther had received a direct hit and had burned out completely. There was nothing left of the crew except carbonized bits and pieces of uniforms, buttons and shards of bones.

The tank of the company commander, Obersturmführer Raasch, had been hit on the gun barrel. The three men in the turret were affected by it and all of them had burns; the driver and the radio operator were dead.

A third Tiger had moved into the open and crashed into a six- to seven-meter-deep defile after about 300 meters. This crew was also dead.

In all, there were 18 dead and 11 wounded in the company; the civilian population suffered 130 dead.


On the morning that followed, three Tigers of the 1st Company, including Tiger 132 of SS-Oberscharführer Wendt, attacked into the withdrawing British. Five enemy tanks were knocked out; SS-Oberscharführer Wendt’s tank was also knocked out at the Greland farm, but the crew was able to dismount.

On 16 June 1944, four Tigers of the 1st Company counterattacked at Cahagnes. Tiger 111 of the platoon leader, SS-Obersturmführer Philipsen, was set on fire by a hit from an antitank gun. The driver and the radio operator were killed; after bailing out, the platoon leader was also killed.

In the days that followed, the battalion was designated as a reserve and occupied positions on both sides of the Caen–Villers-Bocage road. It was possible to perform maintenance that was urgently needed.

On 22 June 1944, the award of the “Swords” to SS-Obersturmführer Wittmann was approved. As previously mentioned, he was simultaneously promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer. He was presented the award at Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden on 29 June 1944.

On 23 June 1944, several tanks of the 3rd Company under SS-Untersturmführer Amselgruber were in position on the N 175 and turned back a reconnaissance effort on the part of the British. Five enemy tanks were knocked out.

On 24 June 1944, SS-Unterscharführer Warnecke knocked out seven addition enemy tanks in his Tiger 332, while the latter were carelessly being refueled.

A Tiger that was recovered from Villers-Bocage was deemed incapable of being repaired. As of this date, the strength of the battalion had sunk from forty-five prior to the start of the decisive breakthrough efforts on the part of the British to thirty-four.

One of the many knocked-out vehicles was this Cromwell. The divisional insignia of the British 7th Armoured Division, the famed “Desert Rats,” can be seen in the middle of the front slope.

This map is marked with the standpoint from which the following photographs were taken. A5 shows the area where the lead elements of the 2nd Company had bivouacked. At A8, Wittmann turned onto what was then the main road. A2 and A3 show the view towards Hill 203 and away from it (towards Villers-Bocage). A9 shows the approach route of Tiger 222. A10 shows the present-day entrance to the village.

This view from Hill 213 in the direction of Villers-Bocage shows how the British probably imagined themselves concealed through the reverse slope and thus moved along the road without adequate security. It was along this road that Wittmann left behind a trail of destruction. This photograph shows the crossroads on the crest of Hill 213. The 1st Company of schwere SS-Panzerabteilung 101 had assembled in the area directly behind the crossroads to the viewer’s left. Note: SW = Southwest, NE = Northeast.

Views from Hill 213 (A3 above) in the direction of Villers-Bocage and towards Caen (A4 below). The 1st Company on the hill was not in a position to report the advancing British early. It was only able to report the arrival of the British lead elements on the hill. At that point, the 2nd Company reacted. A view to the east convincingly demonstrates what great opportunities the British would have had for an advance on Caen.

The start of the defile, where the 2nd Company was bivouacked (left). About 300 meters farther on, the woods opened up to the right (south) and offered good observation (right). The photograph below shows the last tank in the column. The restricted opportunities for movement can clearly be seen. The photograph to the right below shows the location of the lead elements of the company at the entryway to the main road leading from Villers-Bocage to Caen, which starts at the yield sign. It becomes clear that the wooded defile, which runs parallel to the main road, is on the other side of the hill. The British could not see Wittmann’s company. At the same time, the Tiger crews were not in a position to see the enemy armored vehicles in a timely manner. (BA)

Once he arrived on the main road, Wittmann initially oriented to the right in the direction of Hill 213 and knocked out several vehicles there before he turned around and moved along the British column in the direction of Villers-Bocage. The lower photograph shows the entrance to Villers-Bocage at the time. No experienced armor commander would enthusiastically enter that type of built-up area.

The entrance to Villers-Bocage is now marked by a traffic circle. In the background, the main road and Hill 213 can be seen. In 1944, the road led straight to the village. The lower photograph shows how the road into the village continues to drop off. Wittmann moved into the village along the main road, the Rue Pasteur, followed by a Cromwell. Wittmann knocked out the British tank—after he had turned—just beyond the curve in the road on the rise (light-colored bus).

This was the view that presented itself to Wittmann as he approached the center of the village. He was unable to see the Sherman Firefly at the end of the street, since it dropped again after about 400 meters. This is made clear when looking at the photograph below, which shows the main street from the viewpoint of the Firefly tank commander. The Firefly fired at Wittmann’s tank when it was on the rise, but the British tank missed the Tiger. At that short of a range, even a Tiger would not have had a chance.

After evading the dangerous Firefly, Wittmann encountered the Cromwell of Captain Dyas, whose tank had moved around the upper curve of the Rue Pasteur in the meantime. Despite the short range, his main gun proved ineffective, and Wittmann then knocked out Dyas’s tank. A short while later, a hit to Wittmann’s running gear immobilized his tank. (BA) The lower photograph shows the location of the Cromwell at the time (the same place where the rear car is parked).

After the conclusion of the fighting, two Waffen-SS soldiers stroll towards the Tiger that Wittmann had used for his bold attack. (BA) The lower photograph shows the same location today.

Three Cromwells, a Sherman Firefly and a 6-pounder set up an ambush position on city-hall square (mairie on the map). When the second Tiger rolled past, the Firefly opened fire. It missed, however, with its round going just over the Tiger. The Tiger continued rolling forward. It had started to traverse its turret to the left, when it was hit by the second round and destroyed. The lower photograph shows the knocked-out tank, Tiger 112. A while later, a Panzer IV attempted to roll past it, when it was hit from the rear and knocked out by the 6-pounder on city-hall square.

The same scene as viewed from the front. The lower photograph shows the same location on the Rue Pasteur today.

Tiger 121, moving ahead, was hit by the Sherman Firefly from the rear and continued rolling a few meters forward. It came to a stop by a butcher’s. It was later set alight by the British. (BA) The photograph on the left shows the same location today.

Looking to the left of Tiger 121 and down the street, we see the knocked-out Panzer IV and Tiger 122. Rubble caused by artillery shelling and several air attacks can be seen along the street. The rear deck of Tiger 121 is also covered with debris.

The above sketch has been taken from the excellent book by Henri Marie, Villers-Bocage, Normandy 1944 (Editions Heimdal, 2003). It shows the locations of the Tigers at the conclusion of the fighting and puts the reader in the position of being able to correctly place the photographs. The first action took place with Wittmann, when he moved down the Rue Pasteur from the west (right) into the middle of the village and then turned, when he received fire from a Sherman Firefly at the end of the street. Moving back, he knocked out a Cromwell at pointblank range and then became immobilized because of a hit to the running gear. The crew had to dismount and flee on foot. Shortly afterwards, the 1st Company of schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101, together with elements of the Panzer-Lehr-Division, attacked into the village.

This photo and the next two show a recovery operation conducted the next day with Tiger 232 towing Tiger 231 to the maintenance facility. The platoon leader, SS-Untersturmführer Hantusch, is seen in the motorcyclist’s overcoat. (BA)

This photograph and the next three show the tank wrecks after the British took back the village. Prior to that, a devastating aerial attack had destroyed much of Villers-Bocage. Only pieces of the Panzer IV can be seen. Apparently, the Germans had emplaced antitank mines prior to leaving. The British engineers used them to prepare Tiger 121 for demolition. (IWM)

This Tiger was knocked out at the intersection of Rue Emile Samson and Rue Jeanne Bacon—number 4 on the sketch map—by flanking fires from a British antitank gun.

The last to arrive in the area of operations was the 3rd Company and the battalion command section. Heavy camouflage against air attack is evident. Below and right: Tigers 008 and 009 can be seen refueling after arrival.

SS-Untersturmführer Günther’s tank after a devastating air attack. (IWM)

This photograph shows the village of Evrecy today and the ridgeline behind it. Farther to the viewer’s left, but not visible in the photograph, is Hill 112.

Tiger 111 of the platoon leader, SS-Obersturmführer Philipsen, knocked out by an antitank gun at Cahagnes on 16 June 1944. The driver, radio operator and the platoon leader were killed.

SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann being presented the award of the Swords to the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross at Hitler’s retreat at Berchtesgaden on 29 June 1944.

Wittmann, who was made into one of the best-known war heroes of the Waffen-SS, was used many times for propaganda purposes. In April 1944, he addressed the assembly-line workers at the Henschel Tiger plant in Kassel.

There are a number of propaganda images of Wittmann. In this one, he is seen standing next to his gunner, SS-Oberscharführer Woll, who had also received the Knight’s Cross, an unusual occurrence for a tank gunner. It is known that there were a number of officers and noncommissioned officers in the armored forces and antitank forces of the Army who had similar numbers of “kills” to their credit—in a few cases, even more—who were not recipients of the Knight’s Cross. But the legend of Wittmann being the “most successful” tank commander of World War II continues to this day. It is incontestable that he was a brave officer who was respected by his men, but he was also made into an “idol” by the leadership of the Waffen-SS.

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