Michael Wittmann was part of the German Army from 1934 to 1936. He enlisted in the SS in October 1936.
On April 5, 1937, he was appointed to the regiment, the future division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH). In the following year, he took part in the annexation of Austria and the occupation of Sudetenland. He also became a member of the Nazi Party.
In the spring of 1941, Wittmann’s unit was sent to the Eastern Front for the proposed invasion of Soviet Union, codenamed Operation Barbarossa. He was placed with the SS Panzer Regiment 1, a tank unit, where he was in charge of a StuG III assault gun/tank destroyer along with a Panzer III medium tank.
By 1943, he was made the commander of a Tiger I tank, and by Operation Citadel, the Battle of Kursk, he had become a platoon leader.
As part of the LSSAH, Wittmann's platoon of four Tigers served as reinforcements for the division's reconnaissance battalion, safeguarding its left flank. His unit took out several Soviet tanks. His tank was involved in a collision with a burning Soviet T-34 but managed to escape without much damage to it.
Wittmann received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross on January 14, 1944. He was awarded the military honour by his divisional commander SS-Oberführer Theodor Wisch, who garnered him a nomination for the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves.
Michael Wittmann received the Oak Leaves on 30 January for taking out 117 tanks. He became the 380th member of the German armed forces to be awarded the accolade. This time, the presentation was made by Adolf Hitler himself at the Wolf’s Lair on February 2, 1944.
In April 1944, the LSSAH's Tiger Company was placed in the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101, which in turn was attached to the I SS Panzer Corps as a corps asset. However, they did not get permanently assigned to any division or regiment at any point during the war.
Wittmann was made the commander of the battalion’s second company and assigned to the rank of SS-Obersturmführer. After the Allied Invasion of Normandy, on 7 June, the battalions received instructions to report to Normandy.
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As the defensive German force, the German 352nd Infantry Division was crumbling in front of the onslaught of the Anglo-American attacks. Sepp Dietrich, commander of 1st SS Panzer Corps, issued orders to place the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, the sole reserve left in his command, behind the Panzer Lehr Division and SS Division Hitlerjugend. He was hoping that this placement would protect the gradually deteriorating left flank.
Wittmann and his company were placed close to the town of Villers-Bocage, as Dietrich expected the British to take position in the high ground near the town as well.
When the German battalion arrived near the town on 12 June, they only had six tanks, half of its nominal strength. In the next morning, elements of the British 7th Armoured Division made their way into the town with the plans to explore the cracks in the German front line, take control of Villers-Bocage and a nearby ridge (Point 213), and try to rout the Germans. The British forces caught Wittmann by surprise, as he had not anticipated them to come to the town that early.
Later, he revealed in a report that he did not have enough time to gather his men, believing the British had already marked him. He subsequently decided to engage the British forces with one tank. Around 9 am, Wittmann’s Tiger came out of hiding and onto the main road, Route Nationale 175, and took out British tanks placed on Point 213. He then took his tank to the town, destroying a number of parked transport vehicles.
His tank then rolled towards the eastern end of the town, fighting and defeating several light tanks and then, a number of medium tanks. At this point, the rest of the British forces became aware of Wittmann and repositioned their light tanks away from the road, while their medium tanks were moved forward. By then, Wittmann had taken out another British tank, two artillery observation post (OP) tanks, a scout car, and a half-track.
Contradictory information is available on what transpired after this. According to historians, Wittmann had a short duel with a Sherman Firefly before falling back. His Tiger was subsequently observed to move eastwards to the edges of the town before it was rendered non-functional by an anti-tank gun.
Wittmann’s own report tells a different story. His tank had become non-functional in the town centre after being hit by an anti-tank gun. In the space of 15 minutes, the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101 took out thirteen to fourteen tanks, two anti-tank guns, and thirteen to fifteen transport vehicles. Most of these engagements were credited to Wittmann.
He had no active role in the rest of the Battle of Villers-Bocage. For his accomplishments, he received the Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords and was appointed SS-Hauptsturmführer.
The Nazi propaganda machine promptly made him the hero of the battle, claiming that he alone destroyed all those British military vehicles. He was already known to almost every person in Germany. In a radio message that aired in the evening of 13 June, he gave his account of the battle.
Death & Legacy
Michael Wittmann was killed on August 8, 1944, near Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil, Normandy, France, during Operation Totalize. His Tiger was hit with anti-tank shells by either British or Canadian tanks. They went right through the upper hull of his tank, and the ammunition caught fire, killing Wittmann and his men.
Wittmann and his men were initially laid to rest in an unmarked grave. In 1983, the burial site was found by the German war graves commission. The remains of Wittmann and his crew were exhumed and reburied together at the La Cambe German war cemetery in France.
Wittmann was mentioned in several books on the battles of Normandy. A number of websites have been set up that are devoted to him. Due to his achievements as a "panzer ace", he has attained a cult status.
Historians harbour contradictory views on his tactical performance in battle. Some commend him for his accomplishments at Villers-Bocage, whereas others hold the view that his capabilities as a tank commander had plenty of shortcomings.