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Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101

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Viller-Bocage


Bernage, George  
The Panzers and the Battle of Normandy, 2000
p 82-106

Tuesday 13
June Reinforcements arrived
Wittmann at Villers-Bocage

 

After the defeat of the frontal attack by the British 50th Infantry Division and the 7th Armoured Divi­sion in the Tilly-sur-Seulles area, Montgomery deci­ded to outflank that obstacle to the west. In fact of the Panzer Lehr Division, the German front was ga­ping wide open. The breach was to be stopped by the 2nd. Panzer Division moving into the Caumont area as well as the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Divi­sion Götz von Berlichingen. Those two divisions which were to reinforce the western wing of the German armour were on the way but had not yet arrived in the line. Thus, on 12 June at midday, the staff of the British Second Army decided to seize the opportunity. A report by the 22nd Armoured Bri­gade (7th Armoured Division) summed up the deci­sion : "because of the difficult terrain and the resul­ting slow progress, it was decided that the 7th Ar­moured Division would attempt to turn the enemy position on the left of the American sector. The Americans were already to the north of Caumont and there was a chance of exploiting a success to­wards Villers-Bocage and if possible to occupy Hill 113." If successful, it was intended that the British armoured division would advance as far as Evrecy, followed by elements of the 50th Infantry Division and supported by a planned parachute drop by the Ist Airborne Division. Evrecy was only 3 km. to the south-west of Hill 112 which was destined to be bit­terly fought over during the coming weeks. On 12 June at 1600 hrs., according to its orders, a battle group of the 22nd Armoured Brigade moved off to­wards Villers-Bocage, but the vanguard clashed wi­th the German infantry supported by anti-tank guns near Livry. At 2200 hrs. that German strongpoint was eliminated but it was too late to continue the advance.

The Tigers to the rescue

In fact the I SS-Panzer-Corps had been informed of the threat but did not have the reserves to oppose it, except for the elements of its heavy tank batta­lion which were arriving during the evening of 12/13 June

The 101st SS heavy Panzer Battalion had been alerted to move on 6 June and actually got under­way in the early hours of 7 June. It had available 45 "E" model Tiger I's. The unit had its origins in the heavy tank company of the Leibstandarte Division which had been reformed in Italy during the sum­mer of 1943 and from 1 November of that year had been engaged on the Russian front. At the same ti­me a battalion of heavy tanks was being formed as from 19 July 1943, and in March 1944, the men of the 13th Section of the 1st SS Panzer Regiment were transferred to the new battalion, basking in the fresh glory of Untersturmführer Michael Witt- mann. After a period of training near Möns in Bel­gium, the battalion moved to the area of Gournay- en-Bray in the north-east of Normandy on 20 April 1944. Battalion HQ was at Crillon, the 1st Compa­ny at Saint-Germer-de-Fly, the second at Elbeuf- en-Bray and the third at Songeons.

The battalion commander was Sturmbannführer Heinz von Westernhagen (Tiger 007), the Ist Com­pany was commanded by Hauptsturmfuhrer Rolf Möbius (Tiger "105"), the second by Obersturmfüh­rer Michael Wittmann, and the third by Obersturm­führer Hanno Raasch (Tiger 305). The CO of the 4th Company (reconnaissance, engineers and anti­aircraft) was Obersturmführer Wilhelm Spitz and the workshop company came under Obersturmführer Gottfried Klein. Their boss, Stubaf. Von Westernhagen (known by his men as "Hein") was born on 29 August 1911 at Riga in Latvia and he joined the SS Verfugungstruppe on 1 October 1934 ha­ving been a Nazi party member since 1929 and of the Allgemeine SS (General SS) since 1932. He became an officer in the Sicherheitsdienst (security service) until he rejoined the army on 10 September 1938. After June 1942 he commanded the assault-gun company of the Ist SS-Pz.Div. (LSAH) and was at the time earmarked to command the 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion. During the 1943 summer offensive Zitadelle in Russia he was seve­rely wounded in the head on 6 July. Although for­mally nominated in command of the battalion from 5 August 1943, on account of his wound he was unable to take on his duties until he joined the unit at Möns on 23 February 1944. As far as the com­mander of the 2nd Company was concerned, Mi­chael Wittmann, was born on 22 April 1914 at Vo­gelthal in the Palatinate and joined the Leibstandar- te Adolf Hitler in 1937. After the campaign in Fran­ce he integrated the new assault-guns into the unit, and after the Balkan campaign he gained his first successes in Russia, being commissioned as a second lieutenant on 21 December 1942. At the beginning of 1943 he was transferred to the heavy tank company of the 1st SS Pz. Regt, although on­ly in command of a Panzer III (the "421"), but du­ring operation Zitadelle, still in the same company, he finally got his own Tiger (the "1331"). In the au­tumn of 1943 he returned to the fighting in the East and on 14th January 1944 he was decorated with the Knights' Cross for having destroyed 66 Soviet tanks. Two weeks later he was awarded the "Oak Leaves" to his medal having upped his score to 88. He was thus promoted to Obersturmführer (lieute­nant) and took over command of the 2nd Company which essentially was composed of the men of the old 13th Heavy Company, all experienced veterans of the battles in the East.

Thus at around three o'clock in the morning of 7 June, the battalion's Tigers passed through Gour- nay-en-Bray en route for the Seine, and reached Morgny later that morning. It was there that a war correspondent took the series of photographs (whi­ch became well-known) at around 10 o'clock. But, when they arrived at Andelys, the battalion staff were forced to realise that the bridge over the Sei­ne was unsuitable. This was an annoying situation which forced the battalion to head for Paris along the N14 road and caused a serious delay. The Ti­gers drove through Paris and staged a propaganda coup by roaring up the Champs Elysee to the Arc de Triomphe before continuing on to Versailles where they spent the night of 7/8 June : they were subjected to a hail of bombs and the workshop company registered the first losses. While the 3rd Company returned to Paris, the other two conti­nued their march to Normandy at dawn on 8 June. Two days later the 2nd Company had only got as far as Argentan where it was attacked by fighter- bombers before carrying on to Falaise. That eve­ning in spite of not having engaged in combat, the battalion had already suffered nine killed and eigh­teen wounded. The 2nd Company was followed by the 3rd and the whole battalion was dispersed. By the evening of 12 June the battalion's Tigers had still not reached Villers-Bocage. Hstuf. Rolf Möbius had reached the south of Caen with his 1st Company and during the night drove a further do­zen kilometres just to the north-east of Villers-Bo- cage, to the north of the N175 highway linking that place to Caen. He only had eight out of the four­teen Tigers available to his company, but was soon joined by Wittmann with a further six from the 2nd Company that had been able to reach the front. Artillery barrages forced him to move three times during the night until he finally took up a po­sition to the south of the N175, to the east of Mö­bius. Exhausted by the five days on the road, the men were unable to sleep that night.

 

13 June. Wittmann confronted an entire armoured brigade

That Tuesday, 13 June, at five o'clock in the mor­ning, the 7th Armoured Division restarted its ad­vance with its reconnaissance elements in the lead (8th Bn. Kings Royal Irish Hussars with 40 Crom­well tanks, 6 Fireflys, 5 Centaur anti-aircraft tanks plus 8 scout cars). They were followed by a tank battalion (the 4th County of London Yeomanry , "the Sharpshooters", equipped with 55 Cromwells, 6 Shermans, 11 Honey light tanks, 5 Centaur AA, 8 Humber armoured cars and the 22 Armoured Brigade HQ. Then came an artillery battery (5th Royal Horse Artillery with 23 Sexton self-propelled howitzers), an infantry battalion (1 /7th Queen's Royal Regiment with six 6pdr. anti-tank guns and six 3 inch mortars), a further tank battalion (5th Royal Tank Regiment with 42 Cromwells, 16 Sher­mans, 11 Honeys, 6 Centaurs and 8 Humber ar­moured cars), a battalion of motorised infantry (Ist. Bn. Rifle Brigade) and an anti-tank battery (the 260th). The battle group in the lead was followed by the rest of the division.. That same morning at 8 o'clock, Wittmann positioned his available Tigers to the south of the N175 : the tanks of Ustuf. Hantusch, (2nd Section commander), Uscha. Stief and Sowa and Oscha. Brandt and Lotzsch (the tracks of his tank were damaged). Ostuf. Wessel, the commander of the 1st Section was on the move and about to make contact with the others. Wittmann saw that the head of the British column was in the process of leaving Villers-Bocage and starting to advance along the N175 towards Caen and approaching Hill 213, near his few Tigers whi­ch were in position around Haut Vents and Mont- brocq, roughly 150 metres south of the road. "A" Squadron of the 4th CLY was already in a meadow below the hill with its Cromwell tanks. On the face of it there seemed to be little the few Tigers could do in the face of that British column of more than 200 tanks and numerous other armoured vehicles. But, while waiting for reinforcements the effect of surprise might make it possible to cause significant damage amongst the packed tanks, and at the ve­ry least, the wrecks of those destroyed would slow up the avdance.

If Wittman attacked towards Hill 213 he would thus isolate "A" Squadron of the 4th CLY from the rest of the British column. He therefore moved north to¬wards the main road with his Tiger which had an engine problem : all the tanks had been subjected to a severe trial during the long march by road and several had broken down and been left behind. His Tiger had had engine problems the whole way, so he jumped out and took over the one behind, that of Uscha. Sowa, whose place he took. It was 0805 hrs. (an hour later for the British) when Wittmann started his attack and this was how he described it later: "I could not collect my company together and it was necessary to act swiftly as I had to assume that the enemy had seen me and would destroy me on my start line. I set off in my tank, having given the other tanks in the company orders not to retreat but to stay where they were and hold their position. I thus surprised the English in the same way that they had surprised us. I first destroyed two on the right and then one to the left. Then I turned round to the left to get at the half-tracks in the centre of the regiment. I drove along the second half of the road and destroyed several armoured vehicles in front of me while on the move. There was unbelievable confusion among the enemy" (quoted in Tiger by P. Agte , Edns. Heimdal, p. 254). The following are the recollections of a tank commander of the 4th CLY, J-L Cloudsley-Thompson : "suddenly the "A" Squadron tanks caught fire and their crews abandoned them (...) Pat Dyas, the deputy commander, lined up his tank alongside mine. His forehead was bleeding. At that moment all the tanks in front of us were burning. Through the smoke I could make out the shape of a huge Tiger and I was not more than 25 yards away from it (22.875 metres). We loosed off several 75mm shells at it but they simply bounced off the massive armour plating of the Tiger. I fired with the 58mm mortar but on account of the smoke, they missed the Tiger which traversed its 88mm gun. Whoosh ! We were hit. I sensed a burning pain between my legs and was surprised to be wounded again. A jet of flame shot through the turret and my mouth was full of sand and burned paint. I yelled 'bail out' and jumped off the tank. As I was watching that my crew get out, suddenly a machine-gun opened up and I hit the dirt. The Tiger continued on and Dyas's Cromwell followed it down the street. (...) One heard a terrible racket from the centre of the village. I decided to get behind a wall behind the houses and try to find "B" Squadron. As we were moving off I saw Dyas on foot, a short distance away ; he was hoping to destroy the Tiger from behind. He encountered it again after it has destroyed the rest of the regimental staff. The Tiger fired again and the second driver and the gun-layer were killed, but Dyas and his driver were able to escape unharmed", (quoted by P. Agte, op. cit. p259-60).

What had happened? Michael Wittmann, leaving the head of "A" squadron of the 4th CLY, had driven down the main road leading into Villers-Bocage in his solitary Tiger, firing as he went. His first shell hit the last "A" Squadron Cromwell and then he poured 88mm shells and machine-gun rounds into the half-tracks and other vehicles of the Rifle Brigade, section after section at point blank range without ever bothering to correct his fire. From Landes to the entrance to Villers-Bocage there was a long column of tanks, half-tracks and other armoured vehicles in flames, with bodies littering the ditches. According to some eye-witnesses (see Tigres en Combat, Heimdal, p. 38-39). He was supported by another Tiger camouflaged under the apple trees of a small orchard behind the wayside cross, which was able to intervene without changing its position. This reinforces the opinions of those who maintain that the column was attacked from both ends simultaneously. If that were the case, it could have been the Tiger of Ostuf. Wessell.
When Wittmann arrived in the actual village he was confronted by the four Cromwell tanks of the HQ of the 4th CLY : they were level with the Lemonnier farmyard at the entrance to the village, including the tank of Captain Pat Dyas (see the earlier ac­count by J-L Cloudsley-Thompson). The first two Cromwells (those of Major Carr, deputy battalion commander and Lt-Col Cranley, the CO of the unit) were almost immediately knocked out by Wittmann while Captain Dyas took cover in the farmyard. Wittmann's Tiger continued along the main street of Villers-Bocage, the Rue Georges Clemenceau where he destroyed the two artillery observation Shermans of the 5th RHA (with dummy wooden guns) outside the Hotel Bras d'Or plus the armou­red car of the intelligence officer and the medical half-track. Then, when he arrived in his Tiger at the Place Jeanne d'Arc, the lead tank of "B" Squadron of the 4th CLY, a Sherman Firefly commanded by Sergeant Stan Lockwood, was waiting for him. On seeing the Tiger, 200 metres away, with its turret traversed to fire into a side street, the latter fired four 17 pdr. shells at it. One of them hit the hull, producing a jet of flame. Wittmann replied by bringing down half a house on top of the Sherman, but assuming the presence of other tanks turned round, his Tiger hardly damaged. But, at the bend ion the Rue Georges Clemenceau he found himself face to face with Pat Dyas's Cromwell which had in the meanwhile, moved out of the courtyard of the Lemonnier farm. Dyas fired two 75 mm shells at the Tiger without being able to stop it, but a single round from the 88 mm gun put the Cromwell out of action, killing two of the crew. Captain Dyas jumped out of the turret to use the radio in the Cromwell of the regimental sergeant-major, previously put out of action by Wittmann. He made contact with Lt-Col. Cranley who told him that the situation was desperate : the remaining tanks of "A" Squadron were under attack from the rest of the 2nd Company Tigers which had come to rescue Wittmann.
Rottenführer Lau recounted the engagement of the other Tigers : "the English tanks were advancing to the right in the direction of Caen and we could hear Wittmann firing along the road. I found myself without a tank commander in the turret, about 50 metres away from the road. I could see Uscha. So wa standing where Wittmann had left him and what with the roaring of the tank engines and the sound of firing, it was difficult to make myself understood, but I shouted at him - 'Come here, Kurt, I haven't got a tank commander'. With him on board we drove up to the road where to our left was just a vast tangle of wreckage which was difficult to make out through the smoke. To the right we could see two Cromwells in the process of turning round and we knocked them out. All around us there were English troops frantically running around. We left the road in the direction of a sunken lane in order to obtain a better view to be able to cover the area and stopped the engine as it was overheating. Then we saw several of our troops in the process of rounding up the English. A Russian auxiliary from our field kitchen particularly distinguished himself in that task (...) In the meanwhile about a hundred prisoners had been collected in an open garage in front of our tank and while the men from our support units were searching them for weapons, we unshipped the machine gun from the turret and placed it on the hull. Between thirty and sixty mi¬nutes later some Tigers arrived from the direction of Caen and advanced towards Villers-Bocage. As they passed in front of us we could read off their re-cognition numbers : "111", "112", "122", "131" - it was our 1st Company." (P. Agte, op.cit. p. 257/258).






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