A Metaphor of German Brilliance and Flawed Thinking in WW2
Wittmann and the Tiger 1 represented the very best of German manhood and Engineering. Joined together they represented an invincible combination. Both had fatal flaws.
Michael Wittmann was emblematic of WW2 German Panzer Tank Commanders. He was credited with the destruction of 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns, along with an unknown number of other armoured vehicles, making him one of Germany’s top scoring panzer aces, together with Johannes Bölter, Ernst Barkmann, Otto Carius and Kurt Knispel who was the top scoring ace of the war with 168 tank kills.
In wartime Germany, the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht or OKW recognised not only air aces but also tank aces unlike the Allies who deemed that the actions of a tank were a collective action not solely attributable to one’s man’s deeds. Michael Wittmann was simultaneously emblematic of German ardour and Nazi nihilism and will forever be conflated with the most impressive tank of WW2, the Panzer VI or Tiger 1 Tank.
Both the Tiger Tank and Michael Wittmann epitomised both the splendid military machine but also its drawbacks. How was it possible that the Wehrmacht was able to overwhelm forces many times their magnitude even in the face of imminent defeat?
Whilst I can never and will never condone the despicable actions of the Nazi Regime and what it inflicted upon the world due to its dismal moral turpitude and egregious behaviour towards their fellow human beings, I have always borne a grudging admiration for their military prowess. This was manifested in not only the finest soldiers that the world has ever produced in the form of the fanatical Waffen SS but also their ground breaking military equipment.
Conception of the Tiger
Foremost amongst such revolutionary equipment was the Tiger Tank. In reality the predecessor of the Tiger Tank was a 1938 requirement number VK3601(H) for the development of a 40T heavy tank with 100 mm of frontal armour, 80 mm on the turret sides and 60 mm on the hull sides. It was to be armed with a 7.5 cm cannon in a Krupp turret that looked very similar to an enlarged Panzer IVc turret. After encountering the French Char B and the British Matilda 1 Tanks in action, the OKW came to a fundamental realisation: The PzKpfw’s I and II were useless and even their PzKpfw III and IV were outclassed by the Allied Tanks. It was only superior German tactics that overcame superior enemy armour but it was a wake-up call.
In May 1941 Henschel and Ferdinand Porsche were asked to submit designs for a 45 tonne heavy tank to be ready by June 1942. However what really spurred the development of a heavy tank was when on 22 June 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Germans were shocked to encounter Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks that completely outclassed anything that the Germans were currently fielding.
The development of the proposed Durchbruchwagen – the break through tank – was accelerated. The T-34 was almost immune frontally to every gun in German service except the 88 mm FlaK 18/36 gun. Panzer IIIs with the 5 cm KwK 38 L/42 main armament could penetrate the sides of a T-34, but had to be very close. The KV-1 was almost immune to all but the 8.8 cm FlaK 18/36.
An immediate weight increase to 45 tonnes and an increase in gun calibre to 88 mm was ordered. The due date for new prototypes was set for 20 April 1942, Adolf Hitler‘s birthday. Unlike the Panther tank, the designs did not incorporate sloping armour, an innovation from the T-34. Thus, the Tiger’s armour was thicker than it had to be with the eventual weight being 57 tonnes.
Everything about the Tiger suggested excess. The tank was too heavy or too wide for many bridges and generally it was an extremely temperamental machine. Too many were lost due to mechanical failure. With the long range of the 88mm gun and the 100mm of frontal armour, it was both impervious to most Allied anti-tank guns whilst simultaneously keeping Allied tanks at bay with the long effective range of the 88mm gun being twice that of the Allied Tanks. Thus some Tiger units exceeded the 10:1 kill ratio including the Grossdeutschland with 16.6:1. Against the Soviet and Western Allied production numbers, even a 10:1 kill ratio was not sufficient. These numbers must be set against the opportunity cost of the expensive Tiger. Every Tiger cost as much as four Sturmgeschütz III assault guns to build.
All in all it was an extremely impressive machine and even today, 70 years later, it still looks surprisingly modern and capable.
What about the tank men themselves? They were also an elite with their impressive black uniforms they certainly exuded an air of indomitability like the trusted tanks.
One such man was Michael Wittmann. A professional soldier by profession, in October 1936 the 22-year-old Wittmann joined the Allgemeine-SS – The Waffen SS. On 5 April 1937, he was assigned to the premier regiment, later to be known as the Leibstandarte-SS Adolf Hitler. A year later, he participated in the occupation of Austria and the Sudetenland with an armoured car platoon. At this point, Wittman also joined the Nazi Party.
His first experience in action came in the Polish Campaign, followed by the Battle of France as a commander of the new self-propelled assault guns, the Sturmgeschütz III Ausf. A. The Greek campaign – Operation ‘Marita’ – was launched in April 1941. He was assigned for both officer and tank training in the winter of 1942–43. Returning to the Eastern Front as a newly commissioned officer, he commanded a Panzer III, the first time that he had commanded a tank.
By 1943, he had been promoted and commanded a Tiger, and by the Battle of Kursk (Operation Citadel), he was a platoon leader. His four Tigers destroyed a number of Soviet tanks, his tank at one point surviving a collision with a burning T-34. For this action on January 1944, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross and on January 30, the Oak Leaves for his continued excellence in the field. By this time, he had destroyed 88 enemy tanks and a significant number of other armoured vehicles.
His proficiency and credibility as a tank destroyer had been established.
In April 1944, Wittmann was in command of the battalion’s second company and held the rank of SS-Obersturmführer (first lieutenant). On 7 June, following the Allied Invasion of Normandy, the battalion was ordered to move from Beauvais to Normandy. The move, covering roughly 165 kilometres, took five days to complete. This was mainly as a result of intensive air activity by the Allied Airforce which prevented any daylight movement.
It was now that Wittmann would be engaged in the military action that would forever cement his name as a tank commander par excellance, an action opposite the British Sector not far from Caen, the fulcrum of this sector.
Late on the 12th June, Wittmann’s company arrived in the area of Villers-Bocage. Nominally consisted of 12 tanks, Wittmann’s company was 50 per cent understrength due to losses and mechanical failures. During the night, the area came under heavy naval artillery fire. The front was still close enough to the sea for this to occur. The following morning – the 13th June – the lead elements of the British 7th Armoured Division – the famed Desert Rates – entered Villers-Bocage. They had been given the objective of exploiting the gap in the frontline, seizing Villers-Bocage, and capturing the nearby ridge (Point 213) to attempt to force a German withdrawal. The British arrival surprised Wittmann, as he had not expected them so soon.
He set off with one tank and passed the order to the others not to retreat a single step but to hold their ground. At approximately 09:00 Wittmann’s Tiger emerged from cover onto the main road, Route Nationale 175, and engaged the rearmost British tanks positioned on Point 213, destroying them. Wittmann then moved towards Villers-Bocage engaging several transport vehicles parked along the roadside, the carriers bursting into flames as their fuel tanks were ruptured by machine gun and high explosive fire.
Moving into the eastern end of the town he engaged a number of light tanks followed by several medium tanks. Alerted to Wittmann’s actions, light tanks in the middle of the town quickly got off the road while medium tanks were brought forward. Wittmann, meanwhile, had accounted for a further British tank, two artillery observation post (OP) tanks followed by a scout car and a half-track. The Tiger is then reported to have continued eastwards to the outskirts of the town before being disabled by an anti-tank gun. In less than 15 minutes, 13–14 tanks, two anti-tank guns and 13–15 transport vehicles had been destroyed by the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, the vast majority attributed to Wittmann. Wittmann would however play no further role in the Battle of Villers-Bocage. For his actions during the battle, Wittmann was promoted to SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) and awarded Swords to his Knight’s Cross of the Iron Cross.
On 8 August 1944, Anglo-Canadian forces launched Operation Totalize. Kurt Meyer, of the 12th SS Panzer Division, ordered elements of his command to counterattack and recapture the high ground. Wittmann decided to participate in this attack, as he believed the company commander – who was supposed to lead the attack – was too inexperienced.
Wittmann led a group of seven Tiger tanks, from the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101, supported by additional tanks and infantry. His group of Tigers, crossing open terrain towards the high ground, was ambushed by tanks from A Squadron 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry. During the ambush, anti-tank shells – fired from either the British or Canadian tanks – penetrated the upper hull of Wittmann’s tank, igniting the ammunition resulting in a fire that engulfed the tank and blew off the turret.
Today Wittmann’s demise is attributed to a British Tank Commander Joe Ekins in a Sherman Firefly, a British modification of the ubiquitous Sherman but with its main gun replaced with a British 17 pounder anti-tank gun which was vastly superior to the American 75 mm M3 L/40 gun.
Joe Ekins was the very antithesis of Michael Wittmann in every way just as the Sherman was the opposite of the Tiger Tank in every way. Wittmann was the stereotypical Nazi both in thought and deed. With his cold steely nerves and rapid battle appreciation, he was able to swiftly comprehend what was required to be done. With machine-like precision he would destroy the enemy where ever they were. Like most Nazis he despised the abilities of the Allied troops as being “soft” and in the case of the Russians “stupid.”
Unlike Wittmann, Joe Ekins was not a professional soldier but rather a conscript. In all the interviews in which I have seen him in, Joe Ekins could not be more dissimilar to Wittmann. With his easy wit and charm and non-ideological outlook on the war, instead he embodied the lets-get-it-done-chaps-but-don’t-get-killed-in-the-process. In that respect he epitomised the vast majority of British soldiers which was buttressed by the Allies’ mentality of letting the equipment take a hammering and not the men.
In this regard, the Germans expected to easily win the war purely on their martial attributes. It certainly did count in their favour that they were vastly outnumbered at all times. Could sheer fanaticism defeat an enemy many times one size with insufficient troops to hold the line? The Germans forces tried their utmost in Russia but with a front in excess of 1000kms, it was porous as large stretches were unmanned.
The casualties might initially have been higher on the Allied side due to sterling defensive actions by the Germans but when the front did crack due to unendurable Allied pressure, the German forces would be swamped and annihilated in toto which is what happened ultimately in Falaise.
Similarly with the Tigers. Undoubtedly they represented the next generation of armoured vehicle but the philosophy underpinning them was unsustainable. They might have possessed an excellent gun in the 88mm and were certainly well armoured but due to the technical complexities, they could only be manufactured in limited quantities. Being revolutionary, they were temperamental and prone to breakdowns. Finally they consumed invaluable resources such as fuel far beyond what German could provide.
Instead the Allies opted for volume production. Whereas the Germans produced only 1347 Tigers, America produced 47 000 Shermans and the Russians an equivalent quantity of T34s. Even though the Germans boasted of kill ratios against the Russians of the order of 10:1, the production numbers indicate that all of the German tanks would be destroyed inspite of their superb characteristics.
German Tank Production during WW2
Finally at the end of the war, the Germans were losing the Tigers predominately to three factors viz lack of fuel, breakdowns and abandonment and by aircraft such as the Hawker Typhoon.
The Tiger might have morphed from Armoured Vehicle into a bogeyman for Allied tankmen in Normandy but at no stage did they represent anything other than a delaying tactic as the German forces were inexorably ground down by the weight of Allied Numbers.
All the qualities that made the Tiger such an outstanding tank had not only limited their production runs but also deluded the Germans into the belief that their meagre resources could withstand the Allied pressure due to their ability both in material and manpower.
Both fallacies were ultimately crushed along with the Third Reich as ultimately the Germans were outfought in every way.
Quality could never just triumph over overwhelming odds.
From a personal perspective, if the Germans had adopted a less expensive, less complicated, less resource intensive tank as their Main Battle Tank, I would never have had the pleasure to admire this work of art.
Or should that read Work of Destruction.
Video on Michael Wittmann and his beloved Tiger:
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