February 7, 2014

Villers-Bocage, the Anatomy of a Legend

General Situation

SS-OberstGruppenführer Josef  “Sepp” Dietrich
SS-OberstGruppenführer Josef 
“Sepp” Dietrich in Normandy.

On June 6, 1944 the Allies landed in Normandy. The US First Army on the right and the British Second Army on the left. The Second Army, according to Montgomery’s plan, ought to have reached the line Bayeux - Caen - Troran by the end of D-Day. It failed to do so. A stalemate developed just north of Caen. An opportunity arose when 352.Infanterie-Division was forced to withdraw under the pressure of U.S. 1st Infantry Division, exposing the western flank of I.SS-Panzerkorps. The gap was screened by Panzer-Lehr's reconnaissance battalion, as an emergency measure. The 2nd Panzer-Division and the 3rd Fallscirmjäger-Division were supposed to seal the gap between LXXXIV Armeekorps and I.SS- Panzerkorps, but not before the 15th of June. I.SS- Panzerkorps was in mortal danger.

The British Plan

Allied and Axis disposition of forces on June 12
2. Allied and Axis disposition of forces on June 12.
The Caumont gap presented a tempting opportunity to the Allies.

The original British plan envisioned an attack, by the 50th Infantry Division, on the Bayeux – Tilly-sur-Seulles axis. Once success was met the 7th Armored Division would pass through, seize the strategically important Point 213 and continue towards Evrecy. The plan had bogged down in front of Tilly. When the news about the withdrawal of 352.Infanterie-Division reached Second Army, it was decided that the 7th Armored Division would advance further west, to exploit the newly discovered gap in the German line.

The 7th Armored Division was composed of the 22nd Armored Brigade and the 131st Infantry Brigade. The Division would advance with the 22nd Armored Brigade in the lead and the 131st Infantry Brigade following. The 22nd Armored Brigade was composed of: 
  • two tank battalions (4 CLY, 5 RTR) and 
  • two infantry battalions (1 RB, 1/7 Queens). 
The 131st Infantry Brigade was composed of: 
  • one tank battalion (1 RTR) and 
  • two infantry battalions (1/5 – 1/6 Queens). 

Flank protection was assigned to the 8th Hussars (Cromwell tanks) and the 11th Hussars (armored cars). Many of the previous mentioned units were already engaged and had to be relieved before taking part in the new operation. Finally the advance commenced at 16:00 hours, on June 12 and after a few miles, with minor incidents, the Division stopped and prepared to laager for the night. The next morning, at 05:30 hours, the advance towards Villers-Bocage begun.

Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101
Tigers of 2nd Kompanie  advance toward the invasion front
3. Tigers of 2nd Kompanie 
advance toward the invasion front.

The only uncommitted reserve that I.SS-Panzerkorps had at the time, was the powerful 101 SS-schwere Panzer Abteilung (Tiger IE tanks). The Battalion was stationed in north–eastern Normandy and in the early hours of 7 June started to move toward the invasion front. While on the march the Battalion was attacked repeatedly by allied fighter-bombers. Only 15 of the original 45 tanks were battle-worthy on June 12. The Battalion commander with the Headquarters Company and the 3rd Kompanie (one tank) were located at Falaise. I.SS-Panzerkorps ordered the Battalion’s 1st Kompanie (nine tanks) to take up positions some 9 km north-east of Villers-Bocage and the 2nd Kompanie (five tanks) to be placed at the northern outskirts of Villers-Bocage with the mission to annihilate any enemy tank that might attempt to break through there.

The Contact
M5 Half-tracks destroyed by Wittmann’s Tiger
4. M5 Half-tracks, of the 1st Rifle Brigade’s 
A Company, destroyed by Wittmann’s Tiger.

The British armored phalanx reached Villers-Bocage at 08:00, June 13. The 4th County of London Yeomanry (CLY) was leading the advance, with the objective of occupying the high ground at Point 213. When the objective was secured the column halted. The commander of 4 CLY, Lieutenant Colonel Viscount Arthur Cranley, was with his most forward element, A Squadron, when an infantryman observed a single Tiger tank emerging from cover. The Tiger belonged to the commander of the 2nd Kompanie, SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann. Wittmann ordered the rest of his tanks to stay put and he himself attacked towards Villers-Bocage, destroying tanks, half-tracks and carriers, before his own Tiger became immobilized by an antitank round, inside the town. At the same time the other Tigers engaged the tanks of A Squadron, at Point 213, with significant success.

Positions of the 4th County of London Yeomanry
5. Dispositions of the 4th County of London Yeomanry, 1st Rifle Brigade
and 1/6 Queen’s Regiment prior to the attack.

Reinforcements Pour in
A Tiger I and a Pzkpfw IV knocked out,  close to the town’s center
6. A Tiger I and a Pzkpfw IV knocked out, 
close to the town’s center.

It appears that at about 10:00 hrs the commander of the 22nd Armored Brigade, Brigadier William “Looney” Hinde, ordered the 1/7 Queens to enter Villers-Bocage. Quite inexplicably the Brigadier took no further action to influence the situation of his Brigade. On the other side of the hill, a force composed of Panzer-Lehr's Pzkpfw IV tanks and 1st Kompanie's Tigers advanced into Villers-Bocage. The German tanks were met by British tank hunting parties and several were lost, but soon German infantry arrived in strength. Hinde came to the conclusion that Villers-Bocage could not be held. The 7th Armored Division commander, Major-General George “Bobby” Erskine, authorized a withdrawal. The infantry withdrew first, while the remaining tanks provided cover. A photostory of the battle can be found here

The Battle of Villers-Bocage

Wittmann presented with the  Swords to the Knight’s Cross
7. Wittmann presented with the 
Swords to the Knight’s Cross, 
at Berchtesgaden.

Michael Wittmann was awarded the Swords to his Knight’s Cross for his actions on 13 June and was promoted to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer.

On the British side, it is quite incomprehensible why the 7th Armored Division withdrew while two thirds of the Division wasn’t actually engaged with the enemy on the 13th of June. Probably the Division’s key personalities lacked the drive and enthusiasm necessary for an operation deep in the enemy’s rear. The same was also true for XXX Corps commander, Lieutenant-General Gerard Bucknall. Within the next two months they were all sacked. In any case a significant opportunity, for the British, was lost and more bitter fighting was to follow.

Agte, Patrick. Michael Wittmann and the Waffen SS Tiger Commanders of the Leibstandarte in WW II. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole, 2006.  
Bernage, Georges. The Panzers and the Battle of Normandy, June 5th - July 20th, 1944. Bayeux: Heimdal, 2000.
Forty, George. Battle Zone Normandy - Villers Bocage. Gloucestershire: Sutton, 2004.
Kraemer, Fritz, Generalmajor. "I SS Pz Corps in the West." Draft translation by A. Rosenwald. Mimeographed. U.S. Army, Europe, Historical Division, 1948. MS # C-024.
Reynolds, Michael. Steel Inferno, I SS Panzer Corps in Normandy. Staplehurst: Spellmount, 1997.
Simpson, Gary L. Tiger Ace, The Life Story of Panzer Commander Michael Wittmann. Atglen: Schiffer, 1994.
Taylor, Daniel. Villers Bocage through the Lens of the German War Photographer. London: After the Battle, 1999.

Photos attribution
1. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1994-035-18/Kempe, CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
2. EyeSerene, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons
3. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-299-1804-07/Scheck, CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
4. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-494-3376-22A/Zwirner, CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
5. EnigmaMcmxc, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
6. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-494-3376-08A/Zwirner, CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons
7. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1987-074-33/CC-BY-SA-3.0-de, via Wikimedia Commons

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