One of the most successful tank aces of the Second World War (coming in fourth with 138 confirmed kills after Kurt Knispel, Otto Carius and Johannes Bolter) is also one of the most controversial one. Michael Wittmann was not only a highly successful tank commander, but also served in the Waffen SS, joined the Nazi Party, and in general was greatly promoted by the propaganda machine as the war hero they needed. Contrary to the modest Otto Carius or the flat out rebellish Kurt Knispel, Wittmann was very willing to assist the regime, which did see him rise to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer, and he received one of the highest levels of military recognitions from Adolf Hitler himself.
Wittmann joined the German Army in 1934 and the Waffen SS two years later. In his early carrier he participated in the Polish campaign, and fought in Yugoslavia and Greece. He scored his first kills while commanding the legendary STUG III assault gun, though he was re-assigned to the much less regarded Panzer III medium tank not long after his transfer to the Eastern Front. Here, during Operation Barbarossa (the invasion of Russia) he started making his name by knocking out multiple enemy tanks in several engagements. In recognition of his talent he was sent for officer training, and returned to the front lines in 1943 already as a commander of one of the brand new Tiger heavy tanks.
During the forthcoming months (as the battle on the Eastern Front grew more and more desperate) he continued to rake up the kills – sometimes knocking out over a dozen enemy tanks and multiple anti tank guns in a single day. He scored most of his 138 confirmed kills during this period, as did most of the German tank aces. The Tiger tanks (although few in number) were vastly superior to their Soviet counterparts (mostly T-34s), and could hold their ground against overwhelming odds. Wittmann himself mentioned once that the Soviet anti-tank guns were harder and more prized targets than the enemy tanks themselves. By the time of the Battle of Kursk, he was already a Tiger platoon leader, representing a very formidable force on the battlefield.
In 1944 his unit was moved to the Western Front, and upon the start of the Allied invasion he was ordered to move from his position in southern France straight to Normandy. During the 5 day travel his company was hit several times by air raids and due to the losses and mechanical breakdowns he finally arrived at his position near the town of Villers-Bocage with only half of his Tigers being combat ready. His orders were to keep the British forces from capturing the town, which would have opened the road towards Caen, a strategical point in the area. It was here that Wittmann made his most praised (and at the same time most criticized) tactical move – the one he would be mostly remembered for in the coming decades.
Right the following morning after arriving at their new position, Wittmann was shocked to learn that British armored forces were already pushing into the town. It was certain that the attack was coming, but he was expecting to have at least some time to prepare. He knew he had to do something quickly, so after letting the main column pass almost right in front of them, he ordered his remaining tanks to hold position and broke cover alone in his trusty Tiger tank. Driving straight onto the main road, he started working his way into the city, destroying multiple targets in rapid succession. In just 15 minutes he scored up to 14 tank kills, having destroyed an additional up to 15 transport vehicles and several anti-tank guns. His rampage came to an abrupt end when an anti-tank gun disabled his Tiger, but he managed to escape on foot with his crew. Other Tiger companies did successfully secure the city in the next days, and the German forces did manage to hold it for another two months after this episode. The defense of the town was largely credited to Wittmann’s heroic moves, with the propaganda machine coloring the event so successfully that even the British thought that the attack of the town was a complete disaster, even if the reality was less harsh. Several military experts and historians since argue that Wittmann by completely ignoring all rules with this move forced the British into defensive positions making the re-capture of the town harder, claiming that a proper ambush would have had a much larger effect.
Be as it may, Wittmann was now known all over Germany as the hero who stopped the Allied advance. He was offered a position as an instructor which he refused, and continued to serve in Normandy, mostly aiding in the defense of Caen. His luck eventually run out in August 1944 in France, when in another criticized move he advanced in the open towards his target, a previously lost high ground. His group of Tigers were ambushed by British-Canadian forces, and Wittmann-s tank received a direct hit. The penetrating armor piercing round hit the ammo storage of the Tiger causing a violent internal explosion, blowing the tank-s turret clean off and killing the entire crew instantly. It is debated who fired the killing blow, but the most popular opinion points towards a British Sherman Firefly, an up-gunned version of the regular Sherman tank, specifically designed for killing Tigers.
- Michael Wittmann in uniform, 1944: German Federal Archive
- Tiger I tank in northern France, 1944: German Federal Archives
- Wittman’s Tiger tank company moving into position, France, 1944: German Federal Archive
- Propaganda photo, featuring Wittmann on a Tiger I: German Federal Archive
- Wittman’s exploded Tiger tank: Wikimedia Commons