Following the D-Day landings, the Allies faced a difficult challenge. The countryside of Normandy is made up of bocage – dense terrain full of winding roads, thick hedges, and hiding places. It was ideal for the Germans to defend.
Among the many small conflicts fought through the tough landscape was the battle on June 13 for Villers-Bocage.
From early in the Normandy campaign, the British under General Montgomery struggled to take their target of Caen. German panzer troops put up a fierce fight to hold back the British advance.
The town of Villers-Bocage lies at the nexus of several roads south of Caen. If the British captured it, they stood a chance of encircling Caen’s German defenders.
Montgomery launched Operation Perch. Led by the 7th Armoured Division, it was an attempt to take the town.
101st Heavy Panzer
The task of holding the area around Villers-Bocage for the Germans was given to the 101st Heavy Panzer Division. It was an SS unit led by Michael Wittmann, a tank ace who had destroyed dozens of Soviet vehicles on the Eastern Front. His job was to hold the area until the 2nd Panzer Division could get there.
Early on June 13, Wittmann advanced to the right of the Caen road, heading for Villers-Bocage. He was going to investigate rumors of a British flanking maneuver in the area.
Meanwhile, a British battle group formed from the 22nd Armoured Brigade was heading his way. They had set out the previous afternoon but had been delayed when they ran into German troops. After spending the night in a field, they set out again at 0530 on the 13th.
Moving quickly along the winding roads, they reached Villers-Bocage. By 0800, their units had passed through the village and were on the way to their ultimate objective, high ground labeled Point 213.
Unknown to them, since 0630 Wittmann had been watching them.
Clearing the Road
Having passed through Villers-Bocage, the units stopped. Command vehicles went forward, and officers met to discuss their next move. Meanwhile, soldiers got out of their tanks, set pickets, and started to relax.
During their meeting, the British officers decided to switch lead squadrons, with B Squadron taking over from A. The road was partially blocked by A Squadron’s vehicles, so they had to get out of the way. The vehicles got off the road to make space, while the rest of the force reached Villers-Bocage.
Through careful use of terrain, Wittmann had remained concealed while the British drove past only 600 meters from the German tanks. He was sitting near four Cromwell tanks of the British headquarters group.
Quickly, he devised a plan. He would take out the Cromwells, reconnoiter Villers-Bocage, and then drive to Point 213, destroying British units on the way.
There was no time to gather his company. He gave what briefing he could over the radio, then made his move.
Bursting from cover, Wittmann destroyed three of the four Cromwells. The other retreated down a side street, hidden by dense smoke, while he opened fire on a group of Sherman tanks.
Carrying on into the village, Wittmann came under heavy fire. The shells of the British tanks bounced off his tank’s thick front armor. He discovered the town was firmly held and it would take an attack in force to retake it. He told his driver to pull back so they could report.
Tiger Versus Cromwell
Meanwhile, the fourth Cromwell, commanded by Captain Dyas, emerged from its hiding place. Coming out behind Wittmann, Dyas drove toward the German tank, ready to make a surprise attack. Dyas opened fire, hitting Wittmann’s Tiger tank twice. Both shells bounced off its thick German armor.
Wittmann returned fire. His 88mm gun smashed through the Cromwell’s armor, destroying the tank and its crew.
Running low on fuel and ammunition, Wittmann raced out of Villers-Bocage. Bursting through a gap in the hedgerows around the main road, he appeared among the stationary British tanks.
Moving off the road had left the British vulnerable. Many of their vehicles did not have weapons capable of penetrating the Tiger’s armor. Of those that did, most could not bring their guns into position due to how they had been parked.
Wittmann rolled up the line, destroying them one at a time. In only five minutes, he had wiped out 27 tanks and tracked vehicles.
Then he drove away from the town.
Return to Villers-Bocage
Having taken on fuel and ammunition, Wittmann led his company back toward Villers-Bocage.
The British were ready for them. Four Cromwells and an anti-tank gun were waiting in ambush along the road into town.
As the Germans advanced, the three leading tanks, including Wittmann’s Tiger, were blown up. Wittmann was uninjured.
With his crew, Wittmann marched 15 kilometers across the countryside to meet up with the Panzer- Lehr Division. They supplied him with a group of 15 Panzer IVs. He was ready to tackle the British once again.
Heading back to Villers-Bocage, Wittmann went on the attack. By then, the 2nd Panzer Division were arriving. Working with them, Wittmann was no longer outnumbered.
Together, Wittmann’s battlegroup and the 2nd Panzers pushed into the town. It was too much for the British. They were driven out and the town again fell into German hands.
It did not last. The Germans had to pull back from their positions around Caen. At Villers-Bocage, they had shown the British just how tough fighting in the bocage could be.
James Lucas (1996), Hitler’s Enforcers: Leaders of the German War Machine 1939-1945