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‘Black Baron’ Tank Ace Michael Wittmann: The Greatest Unsung Soldier of All Time

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The career of WWII German tank ace Michael Wittmann (April 22, 1914 – August 8, 1944) fascinates me. I believe he was the top soldier of all time. He had 183 enemy tank kills. Also, I’m writing this for the cartoon-world and gamer people to illustrate what real capable opponents in actual war are like.

Of course, there is also a rather cheap attempt to diminish him and knock him down to size. Like all revisionist discussion of this era, there’s first a smear, followed by snarkiness and then mischaracterizations, especially given that Wittmann served in the Waffen SS Panzer combat arm and the Liebstandarte SS, which was initially formed as Hitler’s personal bodyguard unit. Accordingly, academic “military experts” like to debunk, dog and spit on Wittmann’s legacy.

One such military historian, Steven Zaloga, refers to Wittmann as “the hero of all Nazi fanboys,” thereby preemptively shaming anyone from exploring his record. Zaloga claims Wittmann was a “bushwacker” who had a battlefield advantage rather than a technical one: a tank crew that could engage its opponent before the latter spotted it often came out on top.

Of course, tactical surprise is the first element of successful combat outcomes. Wittmann was a master of concealment and of recon. He also had a key tactical technical advantage because counter to the tank practice of the era, he had superbly trained his crew to fire with extreme precision while on the move. He was also fearless.

Wittmann and Woll

Wittmann was always surrounded by a hand-picked top-notch crew and, after Kursk in 1943, always had the most updated version of the Tiger tank. He spent most of the war accompanied by his aim-gunner, Balthasar “Bobby” Woll. Wittmann and Woll spent most of their time on the eastern front, acquiring kills on a daily basis. Wounded beforehand, Woll was not with Wittmann when he was killed in his Aug. 8, 1944, Valhalla charge in Normandy. Woll was again severely wounded in combat in 1945 but lived until 1996.

Epic Exploits at Villers-Bocage, Normandy

On June 7, 1944, following the Allied invasion of Normandy, Wittmann’s battalion was ordered to move from Beauvais to Normandy. The move, covering roughly 165 kilometers (103 miles), took five days to complete and resulted in the majority of the column being disseminated by air. The following video offers a rare color clip from minute 00:07 to 00:25, showing Capt. Wittmann and his young spotter up close and on the road to the Normandy front. Notice the spotter looking apprehensively skyward.

At 00:18 in the color video, we can see a scar and Michael clenching his jaw revealing a gap of missing lower teeth. He has aged and no longer looked 30 and is no doubt running on adrenaline. On Nov. 21, 1943, he suffered a close scrape following a man to man encounter with the crew of an enemy vehicle. After taking out two of the three Russians, the third managed to get a shot in, the bullet tearing through his chin- before Wittmann ended the fight.

Due to the Anglo-American advance south from Gold and Omaha beaches, the German 352nd Infantry Division began to buckle. As the division withdrew south, it opened up a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) wide gap in the front line. Wittmann’s company of six functioning tanks arrived at an area in the vicinity of Villers-Bocage. He was literally the only real opposition blocking a massive breakthrough of Allied forces.

The lead elements of the British 7th Armored Division entered Villers-Bocage. They had been given the objective of exploiting the gap in the front line, seizing Villers-Bocage and capturing the nearby ridge (Point 213) to attempt to force a German withdrawal. Wittmann was actually caught by surprise. However, he was strategically savvy enough as a platoon tank commander to know that he was in a gambling position to at least delay a breakthrough.

But he did more than that. By reacting quickly, he wrecked an entire enemy regiment single-handed and stalled the Allied breakout by two months. Fortunately, there is a video on YouTube that, between the barbs about Nazis, gives the account of this action and in Wittman’s own battlefield-report words. We begin at minute 31:40 and end at 37:45. The rest of the video covering his career is generally well done once one cuts through some of the obligatory NLP.

Incredibly, and once again demonstrating the bullshit surrounding conventional historiography, armchair German military historian Wolfgang Schneider has elected to Monday-morning quarterback and call into question the great Wittmann’s tactical ability. He claims the solitary advance into Villers-Bocage “breached all the rules.” No intelligence was gathered, and there was no “centre of gravity” or “concentration of forces” in the attack. He calls Wittmann’s “carefree” advance into British-occupied positions “pure folly” and states that “such over hastiness was uncalled for.” He concludes that, had a properly prepared assault been launched involving the rest of his company and the 1st Company, far greater results (LOL- look at the video aftermath footage) could have been achieved.

The fact of the matter is that the Germans had no real resources on hand and, had Wittmann waited to round-up what little there was, another enemy wave would have come through. Six Tigers rolling into town could have been heard 1000 meters away. Anybody with any concept of what the defenders were facing would have tried to use more sleuth to secure the town itself or at least disrupt the enemy further. These are not typical “American” operations with air superiority and 10-to-1 advantage. As he did so often, Wittmann was instinctively rewriting the book on warfare to fit the situation.

The Heroic Death of Michael Wittmann

Having been instrumental in bogging down the Allies in Normandy, Wittmann and his Tiger crews raked and destroyed Sherman tanks throughout the early summer.

By Aug. 8, 1944, the Allies had built up sufficient numbers, and strength and brought up the improved Sherman Firefly. The main Normandy breakout was underway. This is also picked up at min. 38:35 in the above video. Basically, Wittmann was doing what he always did: looking to wreak havoc on the enemy. But his group of four Tigers was ordered to undertake a suicide mission to cross open terrain to recapture high ground and was ambushed by concealed Canadian and British tanks. He was not part of the mission but voluntarily inserted himself.

The Allies knew full well they had the German tank ace but buried him and his crew in unmarked graves in the field where they died — that is until a French farmer discovered them in 1983. Perhaps it’s understandable, if they thought a German counterattack might find the remains, and they would be sent back to Germany for enshrinement. However, why not reveal the spot after the war? Perhaps the same fear? He is now properly interred in a German military cemetery in Normandy.

In the following video, a battlefield forensic expert dissects the scene, starting at min. 27:45. There is an alternative theory addressed in the video: that Wittmann’s Tiger was hit by a British Typhoon aircraft. The video that follows is from the “Battlefield Mysteries” series, as was the first one. At min. 4:15, there is a modern-day tour of the Villers-Bocage battleground.

Wittmann’s Early Career

Although a career soldier, Wittmann was not deployed off of bodyguard duty until the the 1941 Balkan-Greece campaign, where he mostly served as a driver.

In Russia in 1941, he was awarded the Iron Cross First Class after knocking out six Soviet tanks in a single engagement with a low-profile StuG III assault gun/tank destroyer. He advanced through the ranks and was offered additional training after which he was finally introduced to his weapon of choice: the Panzer VI Tiger.

A remarkable aspect to Wittmann’s career is that he was mostly active and prolific when Germany was on the defensive and without proper air cover. Sure, he commanded a superior tank, but he was almost always badly outnumbered. The omission of this basic state of affairs makes the doth-protest-too-loudly Wittmann detractors look very suspect.

In July 1943 at the Battle of Kursk — or, as the Germans called it, Operation Citadel — his kill count began to rise. Wittmann destroyed 12 Soviet T-34 tanks in the first day alone. On this occasion, he rescued Helmut Wendorff and his squad, who were pinned down by the Red Army armor. The battle, which included the bloody fight for the city of Kharkov, ended on July 17. Wittmann’s score included 30 tanks and 28 anti-tank guns. Wittmann at Kursk:

Even with the Axis in retreat in the East, Wittmann controlled the battlefield, receiving the Knights Cross for neutralizing 88 Russian tanks and tank destroyers. He was particularly ferocious against anti-tank “nests”, and there is no real count for those.

Wittmann earned the nickname “The Black Baron.” When at all possible, he practiced honor in the field. He knocked out a Soviet T-34 on one occasion, and the enemy crew was on fire as they bailed out of the flaming hull of the tank. Wittmann stopped his tank and ordered his men to assist the enemy crew, covering them with blankets to extinguish the fire.

Wittmann was wounded on several occasions, but he refused to abandon the battleground. Despite the wound noted above in the color video, just a month later Wittmann played a key role in relieving the Tscherkassy pocket in which 35,000 embattled troops had found themselves surrounded. He is considered a hero to those troops.

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