I was still busy entering the dates of my wounded soldiers into the war diaries when I came across a huge entry. I knew straight away that this was something unusual, as most entries only have a few lines. This report was a fair size and also contained lots of details of a huge event!
Regt move forward at first light towards VILLERS BOCAGE 8157, A Sqn leading, followed by A Coy RB. No opposition and A Sqn reach feature East of VILLERS BOCAGE (area 8358). Column split at 823578 by two Tigers, RHQ brewed up completely. A Sqn continue and take up battle positions. B Sqn hold town but unable to get through to A Sqn. 1000 - A Sqn surrounded and attacked by Tigers and infantry. Call for immediate assistance, but none could get through.
1030 - CO, who was with A Sqn, reports position untenable, withdrawal impossible.
1035 - All stations go off the air. B Sqn ordered to hold village at all costs. 4Tp B Sqn, with infantry and A/Tk guns under Lt L Cotton MM, after a 6 hour street battle, destroy 4 Tigers and 3 Mark IV.
1600 - B Sqn reports village still held by us, but infantry in area 820575. 1/7th Queens attack, but fail to clear opposition. B Sqn Leader (now acting CO) ordered to withdraw Regt to 780580. This carried out without further loss. C Sqn cover withdrawal.
Major IB Aird takes over command of Regt, Major EP MacColl 2i/c, Capt FA Jarvis MC commands B Sqn, Capt KH Hiscock commands C Sqn.
Missing: Lt Col The Viscount Cranley MC (CO),
Major A Carr (2i/c),
Major PMR Scott MC & Bar (A Sqn Leader),
Capt BWG Rose (Adjutant),
Capt RRB Brown,
Capt AR Smith,
Lt WF Garnett,
Lt DL Sellars,
Lt LP Hurley (UDF),
Lt PH Strode,
Lt RSA Ingram.
Wounded: Lt JSW Simonds MM,
Capt HIC MacLean (remained at duty),
Capt P Dyas (remained at duty)
Killed: 4 ORs
3 Humber scout cars
1 half track.
I scratched my head for a moment when I saw the date... 13/06/1944? Why does that ring such a bell, then it hit me like like a steam loco going full steam. At first I thought, ha! It can't be, can it? What unit was Pringle in? 4th County of London Yeomanry! Oh, it was THAT event. The day Micheal Wittmann legendary panzer ace shot up a whole armoured column in his Tiger and just a couple of other Tigers acting as support and rear guard.
The build up: Morning, 13th June 1944
On the morning of 13th June, the available LSSAH panzer unit commanders conferred with “Sepp” Dietrich to discuss their plan of action. The general feeling was that the Allies were about to launch a massive thrust with the aim of outflanking Panzer-Lehr; it was concluded that the targets to secure were Villers-Bocage itself and Hill 213, which was located close to the main crossroads north of the town.
The scene had been set for what was essentially a simple race for tactical supremacy, though nobody could possibly predict the events that were to follow. Wittmann suggested that his Tiger carry out a soft reconnoitre of the surrounding area, a plan to which his battalion commander instantly agreed.
Wittmann’s assigned role was one of simply checking out enemy movement in the area around Villers-Bocage, which had been cited by Dietrich and Hitlerjugend commander SS-Oberführer Kurt “Panzer” Meyer as being essential to securing a crucial foothold in the area. Wittmann set out towards Villers-Bocage at around 06:00, moving cautiously alongside a wooded area south of the Route Nationale (RN) 175 in order to avoid being spotted from the air.
Unknown to him, the British had already set out earlier in the morning, and were already on their way to Villers-Bocage with the intention of taking Hill 213 themselves and securing the road to Caen.
While at his command post located some 150 metres from Hill 213, Wittmann encountered an Army sergeant who informed him of the presence of a number of unfamiliar vehicles in the vicinity. Wittmann then spotted what looked like a never-ending convoy of British and American type vehicles casually rolling along the highway, heading out of Villers-Bocage towards Hill 213. It turned out that these vehicles were the lead element of a highly-trained British unit, the 4th County of London Yeomanry (4CLY, “Sharpshooters”), part of the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division – the renowned “Desert Rats”.
Equipped with both Mk. IV Cromwell cruiser tanks and M4A4 Sherman VC Firefly medium tanks, “A” Squadron 4CLY had positioned themselves east of the settlement. Meanwhile, 4CLY’s “B” Squadron were stationed west of Villers-Bocage, overseeing the intersection with the road leading to the neighbouring village of Caumont with 4CLY’s Regimental Headquarters situated in the main street of Villers-Bocage itself.
Directly behind “A” Sqn. were A Company of the 1st Rifle Brigade, which was equipped with eight M5A1 half-tracks, four Mk. II universal and Loyd carriers and three Stuart M3A3 “Honey” light tanks.
The Allies had been completely unaware of the presence of the German Panzers in the area; the 4CLY’s commanding officer Lt-Colonel Arthur, the Viscount Cranleigh, had requested time to carry out a proper reconnaissance of the area but this was ignored as the order was issued to proceed regardless. Nevertheless, any lingering doubts would have been put aside after a trouble-free entry for the British column into Villers-Bocage, where they had been warmly greeted by enthusiastic residents.
Despite Cranleigh’s initial reservations the column pressed on towards Hill 213, unaware that their movement was being closely observed. According to the account of Major Ian “Ibbie” Aird, leader of “B” Squadron 4CLY,
"The orders were to push on as fast as possible, there being no further opposition from the crossroads area. The country was very close, the road wandering over switchback hills, gradually swinging east towards Villers. Within a few hours, the leading elements, moving fast, were in sight of the small town. From Brigade came the information that the place was clear of the enemy and the cheering villagers on the side of the road seemed to conﬁrm it. In consequence, A Squadron galloped through the town, seeing no signs of Germans, and reached their objective on the farther side, a hill which commanded the road to Caen."
This rather enticing opportunity provided Wittmann with something of a dilemma: he clearly felt that he could not allow this situation to escape him, yet any radio contact with HQ would have been instantly intercepted by the enemy. More crucially Wittmann noted that there were few German forces of substance in the immediate vicinity to provide any additional support, and that if left unchecked the British column would have had a clear and unobstructed route though to the town of Caen. The situation helped to make his mind up for him. There was no time for dithering.
With his own command Tiger 205 out of commission, Wittmann would have only five Tigers at his disposal: 221 (SS-Untersturmführer Georg Hantusch), 222 (SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Sowa), 223 (SS-Oberscharführer Jürgen Brandt), 233 (SS-Oberscharführer Georg Lötzsch), and 234 (SS-Unterscharführer Herbert Stief). Of these half-dozen vehicles, 233 had track damage and SS-Obersturmführer Jürgen Wessel in 211 was not present, having departed for the front earlier in the morning to receive orders. It was at this moment that Wittmann decided to take action himself. He recalled that the decision was a tough one, one that required split-second thinking:
“…the decision was a very, very difficult one. Never before had I been so impressed by the strength of the enemy as I was by those tanks rolling by; but I knew it absolutely had to be and I decided to strike out into the enemy.”
Leaving the infantry sergeant safely in his foxhole, Wittmann sprinted towards Stief’s Tiger 234 as it was the vehicle closest to him. The vehicle’s commander, who had previously been taking a short nap, was quickly dispatched to brief the remaining members of the platoon. The driver cranked up the engine. However, after rolling forward some twenty-five or so yards Wittmann sensed that something not quite right. SS-Rottenführer Walter Lau, Stief’s gunner, was not to know what he would miss out on as the next vital minutes unfolded.
Without a moment of hesitation Wittmann leapt out and sprinted towards the next available Tiger – 222, that of of SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Sowa, which had by this time made its way out of the defile.
THE BATTLE BEGINS
Following his return from Villers-Bocage later in the day, Michael Wittmann would play down the action – describing it essentially as a simple drive along the column that had carried little serious risk. In reality, it was far from this simple an exercise, though by the same token it was nowhere near as expansive as the later German propaganda reports would later project. Seeing the seemingly never-ending British column straight ahead, Wittmann directed his Tiger head-on towards the RN 175 and the stationary vehicles of “A” Squadron 4CLY and A Coy 1st Rifle Brigade, risking a heavy barrage of return fire.
Had it been anyone other than Wittmann, and more crucially had he been commanding any vehicle other than the powerful Tiger I, the attack would have been seen as bordering on the suicidal. But Wittmann was both faster and more wily than the enemy, who could possibly have been lulled into a false sense of security given the ease of their journey into the town where they had met little resistance. The element of surprise was crucial.
Wittmann slowly approached the highway, accompanied by the two other running Tigers 221 and 223 belonging to SS-Untersturmführer Hantusch and SS-Oberscharführer Brandt, with SS-Unterscharführer Sowa in the half-fit 234 sitting back to provide the rearguard. Wittmann zeroed in on the vehicles to the rear of what was the advanced enemy column, while Hantusch and Brandt were to proceed east along the RN 175 to Hill 213.
Parked up against the side of the road, the lead vehicle of the British column had limited visibility, and it would be far too late when Wittmann’s advancing Tiger was spotted by Sergeant O’Connor of the 1st Rifle Brigade. O’Connor immediately raised the alarm, but by then the Panzer was already well within close firing range. As the two other Tigers from Wittmann’s company made their way up the RN 175 towards Hill 213, his crew prepared to engage.
As Wittmann’s Tiger charged relentlessly towards their positions on the RN 175, the “A” Squadron crews – who had at the time been quietly enjoying a cup of warm tea and a cigarette at the side of the road – were caught cold as Wittmann set about doing his own “brewing up”. The British crews had little or no time to return to their vehicles, let alone manoeuvre them into any sort of defensive position where they could have taken on the fearsome Tiger.
The first enemy vehicle Wittmann encountered was a stationary Cromwell at the rear of the column, which would have no chance against the Tiger’s powerful 88mm cannon at such close range. After taking out the Cromwell Wittmann then knocked out the next tank, a Sherman Firefly nicknamed “Blondie” – sending debris into the road which prevented any quick retreat by the remaining vehicles. With the exit to the north-east now blocked by the burning wreckage of the Firefly, Wittmann was then able to switch back onto the road leading back into the town, with the entire British column at his mercy.
Scattering and running for the nearest protection, the British crewmen hastily abandoned their stricken vehicles, some of which would still have their engines running. The Tiger’s loader, SS-Sturmmann Günther Boldt, had to work like a man possessed to keep with this tremendous rate. Gunner Bobby Woll then grabbed his MG34, peppering the scout car which had been standing next to the lead half-track with a hail of bullets.
While the bow machine gunner’s relentless MG34 fire prevented any of the British crewmen from emerging from their hiding places, Wittmann turned his attention to the array of lightly-protected vehicles conveniently lined up along the side of the road. Realising that he didn’t need to use the Tiger’s powerful 88mm KwK cannon, the dozen vehicles – eight M5A1 half-tracks and four carriers – were easily taken out with heavy fire from the pair of MG34s operated by Woll and bow gunner SS-Sturmmann Jonas. In all, by now a staggering fourteen vehicles and two 6-pounder anti-tank guns had been knocked out of commission in the space of a couple of minutes.
Having reduced the column of vehicles stationed on the RN 175 to a blazing inferno, Wittmann’s Tiger now headed down Rue Georges Clémenceau towards the eastern side of the town of Villers-Bocage itself, engaging the three M3 Stuart “Honey” light tanks belonging to 4CLY’s reconnaissance troop along the way at the junction with the road to Tilly-sur-Seulles – The “Tilly Junction”.
The lightly-armed 15-ton M3 Stuart was no match for the Tiger, but squad leader Lieutenant Rex Ingram still attempted to steer his vehicle “Calamity Jane II” into the road to at least try to stem the monster’s advance. Knowing that his 37mm M6 gun had no chance of penetrating the Tiger’s thick armour even at this close range, Ingram attempted to manoeuvre his small tank into the middle of the road to block Wittmann’s path. Ingram’s bravery was futile, and the last thing he and his crew would hear was the resounding crack of the Tiger’s 88mm cannon.
Forcing the burning shell of Ingram’s tank off the road, the Tiger then turned its guns on the remaining two Stuarts, turning both in to blazing infernos.
Woll then slammed another 88mm shell into the scout car belonging to the RHQ Intelligence Officer, with the deadly shrapnel showering the panicking infantry. Wittmann himself then grabbed the MG34 mounted on his cupola, and joined his gunner in destroying the remaining half-track, that belonging to the medical officer Captain H. I. C. MacLean. The disabled vehicle was blown into the middle of the road, blocking the throughway and creating yet another obstruction for any vehicles that might have tried to escape the ensuing carnage.
With this latest set of obstacles out of his way, Wittmann was set to continue his advance. With the burning Stuarts and half-track behind it, the Tiger rolled towards the town.
WITTMANN ENTERS THE TOWN
Having destroyed the three M3A3 Stuarts belonging to the 4CLY’s Reconnaissance Troop at the Tilly Junction, Michael Wittmann was confident that there were more rich pickings to come. The enemy had been clearly been shaken by the speed and ferocity of the Tiger’s attack; so long as this situation continued, Wittmann held the advantage.
With the British formations in a total state of panic and with no obvious resistance in sight, the German Panzer continued on its advance beyond the Tilly Junction, and headed towards the town.
Wittmann continues his advance
On entering Villers-Bocage, Wittmann then encountered the vehicles belonging to Regimental HQ. Like the Stuarts just moments earlier, the four Cromwells situated just beyond the Tilly Junction were no match for the Tiger’s cannon at such short range. The British crews wouldn’t even have time to panic as the German Panzer appeared like some apparition in front of them.
The first Cromwell belonging to Major Arthur Carr was hit as it attempted to back away to safety, while those belonging to Lieutenant John L. Cloudsley-Thompson and RSM Gerald Holloway would have no means of escape. Trapped in the street, it was simply a case of waiting for the inevitable. According to the account written after the battle by “B” Sqn. leader Major “Ibbie” Aird, Carr’s gunner had managed to get in a quick shot at the Tiger, only to see the 75mm shell bounce harmlessly off the German vehicle. “Heartbreaking and frightening, the shots failed to penetrate the side armour even at this ridiculous range”.
It was a desperate situation for the four RHQ vehicles. Fighting back had proved fruitless, and the awkward Cromwell’s painfully slow mobility in reverse gear would make any attempt at making an escape next to impossible. It is difficult to imagine the sense of terror and panic that must have overwhelmed the British crews, trapped in their vulnerable vehicles on the narrow road and unable to move.
Having seen his shot bounce off the advancing Tiger, it must have been a terrifying sight facing Major Carr. The Cromwell’s crew would have very little time to react before Wittmann’s gunner found his range, knocking out the British vehicle with one of its 88m shells. The Tiger’s cannon was then quickly turned towards Cloudsley-Thompson’s Cromwell, with the same result. RSM Holloway would desperately try to get his tank out of the Tiger’s path, but it too was quickly reduced to a burning wreck.
Amidst the confusion, Cloudsley-Thompson’s crew had managed to escape their burning vehicle. At the same time, the fourth Cromwell commanded by 4CLY’s adjutant Captain Patrick Dyas had been able to reverse off the road and into an adjacent garden. With his view obscured by the billowing clouds of black smoke, Wittmann wouldn’t notice Dyas’s vehicle crank into gear before quietly slipping out of his firing line.
Cromwells set ablaze
Moving onto Rue Georges Clemenceau, the Tiger next encountered two decoy Observation Post (OP) vehicles belonging to the 5th Royal Horse Artillery, both of which had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Cromwell of Captain Paddy Victory was quickly sent up in smoke, while the Sherman belonging to Major Dennis Wells – which was “armed” with a long piece of wood instead of a main gun, was also added to the Tiger’s trail of destruction.
Wittmann had no idea that these two vehicles had been unarmed, but they were just two more tanks to add to the morning’s already impressive statistics. Amidst the smoke and fire created by the burning RHQ vehicles, the scout car belonging to Lieutenant Charles Pearce managed to escape the pandemonium, bypassing Wittmann and heading west to where “B” Squadron 4CLY were positioned.
The German Panzer relentlessly continued its advance, rolling westwards on the gently sloping road towards the centre of Villers-Bocage. Only a small number of enemy vehicles had managed to escape the initial barrage, among them Pat Dyas’s Cromwell; by this time the more powerful “B” Squadron 4CLY, located west of Villers, had been alerted to the Tiger’s presence by Lieutenant Pearce.
As Wittmann’s Tiger now moved more cautiously towards the centre of town, it passed the side street where the Cromwell of Captain Dyas had been lurking. Shortly after seeing the German vehicle rumble past up the western end of Rue Georges Clémenceau towards Rue Pasteur, Dyas rolled out after it – a scene witnessed by Lieutenant Cloudsley-Thompson, whose own command vehicle had been one of the the three other Cromwells put out of commission by Wittmann’s Tiger.
Toilet breaks and close shaves
Dyas’s decision to allow the Tiger to pass by without taking a shot from his concealed position might have seemed curious, but on a day that had seen a mix of tragedy and comedy it would later be revealed that he had been unable to take a shot on account of his gunner disappearing for a toilet break. It must have been immensely frustrating for Dyas to watch the German tank roll by, with its sensitive tracks exposed and there for the taking.
As Cloudsley-Thompson nervously watched Dyas slowly and carefully follow the Tiger up the road, Wittmann’s next encounter was with a Sherman Firefly belonging to the 4CLY’s “B” Squadron, commanded by Sergeant Stan Lockwood which had turned into Rue Georges Clémenceau from the Place Jeanne d’Arc having encountered the desperate Lieutenant Pearce. Having sustained a light hit from the 17-pdr cannon of Lockwood’s Firefly, Wittmann half-turned into a section of wall, causing the rubble to fall down upon the British vehicle.
As Lockwood struggled to free his tank from the rubble, Wittmann made good his escape. Taking on Cromwells, Stuarts and lightly-protected half-tracks was one thing; facing up to the Firefly’s more potent seventeen-pound gun from close range was a different proposition altogether.
The one-sided duel with Pat Dyas
Amidst this confusion Captain Dyas, who had up to this point kept his Cromwell at a safe distance in following Wittmann’s Tiger, seized the opportunity to have a crack at his much larger adversary from around seventy yards. The brave Dyas did manage to get two 75mm shots off against the massive German vehicle, but instead of claiming his prize he saw both shells bounce harmlessly off the Tiger’s thick armour.
The Tiger was now aware of the presence of the British tank, and Dyas would not get another opportunity. With Wittmann now aware of the danger ahead of him, the Tiger’s massive gun quickly turned itself on the now helpless and hopelessly exposed Cromwell. An accurate shot from the German Panzer succeeded in blowing Dyas clean out of his cupola, leaving him dazed on the side of the road with serious facial lacerations. His driver and gunner were not so fortunate.
Having made his escape from his stricken Cromwell, Dyas made his way to RSM Holloway’s burning vehicle, which appeared to still have a working radio. As Wittmann was continuing his journey into the centre of the town, Dyas was able to make contact “B” Sqn. and Major Aird.
With the battle continuing to blaze around him, Dyas sought refuge in a nearby garden, where he encountered young local girl who had also been witness to the morning’s carnage.
Captain Dyas would suffer shrapnel wounds to the face, and was luckily treated by a medical officer who was able to remove the tiny shards of metal with a magnet. The presence of the medical specialist was a quirk of fate; had his injuries not been treated as quickly they had, Dyas would surely have lost his sight in both eyes.
Like most experienced commanders, the Yeoman captain was standing in an open turret; had he decided on closing the hatch, he would have met almost certainly the same fate as his crew.
Michael Wittmann and his crew must have been surprised by the ease of their advance towards the centre of Villers, and at that point the Waffen-SS Obersturmführer probably thought that he could capture the entire town by himself. Wittmann could have easily quit while ahead and turned back towards Point 213 – but he made the decision to push on.
ENDGAME: EXIT AND ESCAPE
After the close encounter with Stan Lockwood’s Firefly, Wittmann knew that his run of success had come to an end. He had risked entering the town alone, but taking on more potent enemy armour in such an enclosed space was too much of a challenge, even for a vehicle as powerful as the Tiger. It was now time to head out of Villers and back towards Point 213.
Making his way back to German lines would have capped off the highly successful action in the best way possible, but it was not to be.
Having turned away from the threat posed by the advancing tanks of “B” Squadron to the west of the settlement, Wittmann headed back down Rue Georges Clémenceau, where his Tiger was struck on the tracks – its weakest point – by what Wittmann believed to be a shell from a British 6-pdr anti-tank gun located in a small side alleyway between Boulevard Joffre and Rue Jeanne Bacon. Given the earlier exchanges with far heavier Allied weaponry, that the mighty Tiger was disabled by the comparatively lightweight 6-pdr was more than ironic.
Huet-Godefroy: Exit and escape
With one of the Tiger’s drive sprockets damaged by the shell, it quickly ground to a halt in front of the Huet-Godefroy clothes store. Knowing that further action was impossible, Wittmann and his crew secured their position before exiting their vehicle in the hope that it might be later retrieved.
It was a moment of regret for Wittmann, who felt that there were plenty more targets on offer; however, with just their sidearms the Tiger commander and his crew were left with little choice but to leave their stricken vehicle and make good their escape. With British forces still present in the town, going back the way they came was too much of a risk; their only option was to exit to the north and towards the position held by the Army’s elite Panzer-Lehr Division.
Meanwhile back at Hill 213 the remainder of “A” Squadron had found themselves first up against the two other Tigers of Hantusch and Brandt, who were joined by Sowa’s half-fit Tiger 234 and then by the support vehicles of 4. Kompanie. By 10:35 the stretch of the N 175 between Hill 213 and Villers had been secured, and this first stage of the battle was effectively over as the Germans set about flushing the remaining “A” Company personnel from their hiding places.
On foot to Panzer-Lehr
Having successfully made their way out of the Villers-Bocage, Wittmann and his crew succeeded in safely making their way some seven kilometers on foot back to the HQ of the Panzer-Lehr Division at Chateau d’Orbois. Here, all of the “out of vehicle” training was put to good use. After delivering his report, Wittmann immediately looked to return to his unit.
Wittmann was initially accompanied by fifteen Panzer VIs of the 2nd Battalion, 130th Regiment of Panzer-Lehr, commanded by Hauptmann Helmut Ritgen. Heading back south towards Villers, the group had advanced close to the village of Maizerais just south of Gournay en Bray, before coming under heavy enemy fire. With the Panzers needing to consolidate their position, Wittmann continued eastwards in an amphibious Schwimmwagen.
By the middle of the afternoon Wittmnn had reached his destination, arriving at more or less the same point from where he had departed for Villers in his Tiger earlier that morning. As German forces rounded up the few remaining British stragglers, Wittmann reported back to headquarters.