11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann

Larry Holzwarth - December 12, 2017

During the earliest days of the Second World War the world’s media, awestruck by the speed and seeming invincibility of the German Army, created a new word – blitzkrieg – to describe the German war machine. This created a lasting impression that the German military of the Second World War was an entirely mechanized war machine. It wasn’t. Hitler had an army which required horses and mules to drag its logistics train, a fact which did much to contribute to his defeat in Russia. But the tip of the Nazi spear was the armored columns of Panzers, supported by dive bombers of the Luftwaffe and infantry, used in way never before seen, which demoralized its European foes.

The American and British armies never did field tanks which were the technological match of their German enemy, although the Russians did. German tank commanders became nearly as famous at home as did the aviators of the previous war. German propaganda rang with the names of Panzer leaders such as Ernst Barkmann, Kurt Knispel and Michael Wittmann, when in the First World War they had sung the praises of Richthofen, Goering, and Boelcke. Wittmann was not the leading Panzer Ace of the Second World War, but he was one of the most renowned, and his abilities as a leader and tank commander remain debated by historians and students of armored warfare decades after his death.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
In SS uniform, Michael Wittmann receives Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross from Adolf Hitler at Wolf’s Lair, January 30, 1944. Bundesarchiv

Here are eleven often overlooked facts about panzer ace Michael Wittmann.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
A destroyed Soviet T-34 heavy tank. Wikipedia

He did not destroy the most enemy tanks of any German tank commander

On numerous websites and in books and magazine articles Wittmann is described as the most successful German tank commander, based on his personal destruction of the most enemy tanks during the war. Three German commanders were credited with destroying more enemy tanks than Wittmann, although militarily speaking, one of them was not a commissioned officer.

Feldwebel (roughly equivalent to a United States Army Staff Sergeant) Kurt Knispel served in the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion, where he was credited with the destruction of 168 enemy tanks, primarily while operating a Tiger I. Knispel is considered to be the leading tank ace of the Second World War by the German Army, and the most successful tank commander of all time. He spent most of the war fighting the Soviets, and died in action in April 1945.

Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) Otto Carius served in the 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion, also on the Eastern Front, where he was credited with more than 150 enemy tanks destroyed. He later commanded a tank company. Although most of his fighting was on the Eastern Front he survived the war and surrendered to the United States Army in May of 1945. He lived in Germany until 2015 operating a drug store named (in German) Tiger Pharmacy.

Hauptman (Captain) Johannes Bolter also served in the 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion, usually in a Tiger I tank, from which he destroyed 139 enemy tanks, and possibly as many as 144. Martin Schroif is usually credited with more tank kills than Wittmann as well.

Wittmann served on the Eastern Front (with occasional postings elsewhere) until just before the Allied invasion of Normandy after which he operated against primarily British units, and later Canadian units of the British Army. His success against these troops, at a time when the German Eastern Front was beginning to crumble before the Soviet onslaught in 1944, was widely exploited as a morale builder by the German propaganda machine, greatly enhancing his reputation during the war.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
A captured German Tiger I heavy tank in Tunisia in 1943. Wikimedia

Panzer Ace was not a term used by the German Army

Wittmann and several other leading German tank commanders are often referred to as Panzer Aces, a term used to compare them to pilots who were awarded the descriptive “Ace”. The term Panzer Ace was not used by the German army during the Second World War. Most German tank commanders serving in the Army did not receive awards for individual kill rates during the war, though many were decorated for successful missions.

Neither the US Army nor the British Army officially recognized individual kill totals for tank commanders. The term Tank Ace was proposed several times and rejected by US Army senior commanders. American military magazines occasionally used the term ace when describing successful commanders such as Creighton Abrams, but there was no official description of the term.

Wittmann’s war service was in the Waffen SS. The SS was more aware of and attuned to the German propaganda ministry, and as such its achievements were highly touted. Waffen SS units routinely provided the propaganda apparatus with exaggerated reports of battles and casualty figures of the enemy to help boost morale in Germany, especially as the Soviet resistance intensified and the cost in German lives increased.

Propaganda units traveled with and operated with the SS. Much of the Eastern Front combat film footage available for viewing today came from these units. German writer Franz Kurowski served in a propaganda unit on the Eastern front. Kurowski later wrote Panzer Aces, which contains highly fictionalized accounts of several tank commander’s experiences during the war, including those of Michael Wittmann.

Wittmann was well known in Germany during the war and the Waffen SS ensured that his record and exploits were broadcast to the German public, including his receipt of the Oak Leaves to his Knight’s Cross from the hand of Adolf Hitler at Wolf’s Lair. Because of his propaganda value during the war, most historians dispute many of his reported achievements, particularly those on the Eastern Front.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
A Waffen SS Panzer IV (Tiger) in Russia, with supporting infantry. Bundesarchiv

Wittmann served in the Waffen SS

Wittmann served briefly in the German Army before joining the SS in the fall of 1936. He was assigned to the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (LSSAH) in 1937, in time to participate in several of the German actions prior to war, including the annexation of Austria known as the Anschluss. Initially the LSSAH was a regiment which served as Hitler’s bodyguard, eventually it grew to division size. Wittmann was a member of the Nazi Party from 1938 onward.

The LSSAH was a paramilitary branch absorbed into the Waffen SS before the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. After the war the LSSAH was determined to have killed upwards of 5,000 prisoners of war following their capture, mostly on the Eastern Front, and LSSAH members participated in the Malmady Massacre during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944.

During the Nuremberg War Crimes trials the Waffen SS was defended as being an apolitical organization which consisted of elite troops, performing alongside the Wehrmacht, separate from the criminal activities of the SS under Heinrich Himmler. The Tribunal rejected that argument and found that the Waffen SS was an inherent part of the overall structure of the SS and had participated in atrocities and war crimes in occupied countries. Since then apologists and revisionists have continued to defend the Waffen SS as elite troops with no criminal responsibility for Nazi war crimes.

Throughout the invasion of Poland in 1939 the LSSAH suffered casualties at a higher rate than German Army units which were similarly engaged. Operating on the southern flank during the invasion, and later in the encirclement of Warsaw, numerous actions were taken against Polish cavalry and infantry.

In Poland the LSSAH, for which Wittmann drove a six wheeled armored car as part of the 17th Panzer Scout Platoon, developed a reputation for ruthlessness against both enemy troops and civilian populations. The units of the LSSAH routinely burned villages overrun by the German assault, and was found to have committed atrocities including the murder of civilians by machine gunning, including children.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
A Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler tank manned by SS troops in France. Wikipedia

Early Operations in Europe

Throughout the German sweep through Western Europe Wittmann served in the LSSAH as a reconnaissance driver with the rank of sergeant. The invasion of the Low Countries and France was known as Fall Gelb – Case Yellow – and the initial duty of Wittmann’s regiment was a link-up with German paratroopers in the Netherlands. Wittmann’s regiment was the vanguard of the German ground attack in Holland, after which it was transferred to France.

During the Battle of France the LSSAH engaged troops of the British and French armies and were near the trapped Allies in Dunkirk when the German High Command ordered their advance to a stop. The LSSAH assaulted a British artillery position in defiance of the orders, eliminating it, and for doing so their commanding officer, Sepp Dietrich, was decorated with the Knight’s Cross.

After the German advance continued Wittmann’s regiment was involved in the massacre of British and French prisoners of war at Wormhoudt, although there is no evidence of Wittmann being personally involved, or even aware of the crime. Following the fall of France the LSSAH reformed and enlarged while stationed at Metz. During preparations for the invasion of England Heinrich Himmler inspected the division, and presented it with new colors. As it became evident that there would be no invasion of England the division shifted to Bulgaria to prepare for the invasion of Greece.

In Greece Wittmann commanded an assault gun platoon against both Greek and British units. The Germans encountered strong resistance as they attempted to outflank the retreating Allied army, but by April 20 the Greek army was defeated. The Germans had another opportunity to capture an entire British army similar to the one they had missed at Dunkirk.

In Greece, Wittmann’s abilities as the leader of an assault gun platoon were evident, and his courage in combat was conspicuously displayed against British and Greek troops, leading him to be awarded the Iron Cross Second Class. The LSSAH was sent north to join the forces assembling as Army Group South in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union, Operation Barbarossa.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
A German tank advances during Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Wikimedia

Operation Barbarossa

Recognizing the LSSAH performance in Greece Himmler – the head of the SS – ordered that the up to then regiment be designated a division and more importantly, that it be fully motorized. Most divisions of the Wehrmacht were not fully motorized and still used horses to draw supplies and even artillery. The upgrade in size and equipment was still incomplete when Operation Barbarossa began on June 22nd 1941.

Wittmann commanded a tank from the opening of the invasion, which by autumn had advanced deeply into the Soviet defenses. By mid-July Wittmann had received a second award of the Iron Cross second class, having already claimed the destruction of six Soviet tanks. Wittmann was twice wounded in the opening weeks of the invasion, neither time severely, and he remained at the front. As the Germans penetrated deeper into Soviet territory they encountered ever stiffening resistance.

During the initial thrust the LSSAH was involved in the murder of four thousand Soviet prisoners of war, as reported by a Waffen SS journalist named Erich Kern. Wittmann was credited with destroying six Soviet tanks in one action near Rostov-on-Don. His leadership was recognized by German commanders and he was promoted to Technical Sergeant. By spring 1942 he was credited by the SS with having destroyed more than sixty enemy tanks.

He was then ordered back to Germany to attend officer training and training to serve as a panzer instructor. Wittmann was commissioned as a second lieutenant and sent to join the LSSAH 1st Waffen SS Motorized Division, then in training in Westphalia and in France. The division was equipped with the Tiger I heavy tank, and transferred to the Eastern Front in early 1943.

Wittmann was assigned to lead a support platoon of assault guns – essentially motorized anti-tank guns – to protect the heavy tanks. When the division arrived at the front, Wittmann transferred to the 13th Heavy Tank Company of Tiger tanks. The Tiger had been developed to counter the formidable Soviet T-34 tank, which had spearheaded the Soviet counterattacks that had stopped the German advance.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
These US built M3 Lee tanks were supplied to the Soviets during lend-lease. They couldn’t stand up to German tanks, but their numbers overwhelmed German lighter vehicles. Wikimedia

The Battle of Kursk

Following the Soviet victory at Stalingrad the Soviet lines presented an exposed position near Kursk. German forces, re-equipped with Tiger and Panther tanks, determined to attack the exposed Soviets with support from Luftwaffe bombers and large numbers of Elefant tank destroyers. In early July 1943 the Germans launched an assault called Operation Citadel against the Soviets.

On July 4 a German tank platoon commanded by Lieutenant Helmut Wendorff found itself pinned down by superior Soviet forces. Wittmann launched a counterattack which destroyed 13 T-34 tanks and two Soviet tank destroyers, rescuing the trapped platoon. Over the course of the next several days, units led by Wittmann destroyed 13 tanks, at least nine of which were T-34s, and five other types of Soviet armored combat vehicles.

Kursk was the largest tank battle in history, in which more than 5,500 tanks and armored vehicles engaged. Both sides lost more than 1,500 vehicles. The Tigers and Panthers proved to be superior on the battlefield at Kursk and at Kharkov to the south, and the Soviets sustained more than 600,000 casualties. But the sheer numbers of Soviet tanks and men proved to be too much for the Germans to defeat. Losses of equipment and men forced the Germans to withdraw.

LSSAH casualties as a percentage of overall strength were extremely high, both in men and materials, and the division was ordered to withdraw from the front lines after the German defeat at Kursk. The division had lost more than 2,700 men during the attack and withdrawal, and several tanks and support vehicles.

Removed from the line, the division was sent to Italy to rebuild its strength and to be held in reserve against the Allies invasion of Sicily. The presence of the SS unit was also expected to help stabilize the Italian situation which was chaotic following the removal of Mussolini.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
Troops of the Motorized Waffen LSSAH in Italy, in Italy. Wikimedia

Italy and return to the Eastern Front

The LSSAH was sent to the region of Italy known as the Po River Plain and tasked with suppressing partisan activities and protecting vital infrastructure from sabotage. Neither of these functions were suitable for a division of heavy armored vehicles, but the presence of the SS symbol and the division’s reputation were considered to be ominous by potential saboteurs.

The division was involved with numerous fire-fights with Italian partisans until the surrender of Italy, when it was assigned to disarm Italian military units in the area. Many of the Italian units resisted and several engagements occurred between the Germans and their former Allies. The battles between Italian troops, partisans, and Germans led to multiple killings of civilians and to the capture and execution of Italian Jews by several units of the LSSAH.

Wittmann was present with the LSSAH during the period of the German “occupation” in Italy, serving both as a unit commander and as an instructor, training newly arrived personnel in their duties and in what to expect when the division returned to the Eastern Front.

As the LSSAH rebuilt its strength in Italy it was reformed as the 1St Panzer Division SS Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. The division remained in Italy through the summer and early fall, continuing to operate in anti-partisan activities, through which it enhanced its reputation for ruthlessness.

By late October 1943 the division was determined to be again combat ready, although not yet at full strength on paper, and was ordered back to the Eastern Front where German strength was deteriorating. Wittmann and the rest of the division were assigned to the 4th Panzer army on the Eastern Front.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
German infantry passes a stopped Tiger tank on the Eastern Front, January 1944. Wikimedia

Final Actions on the Eastern Front

Wittmann and some units of the 1st SS Panzer Division were involved in combat by fall of 1943, with Wittmann claiming the destruction of another 43 Soviet armored vehicles during the German fall counteroffensive. The situation of the German troops on the Eastern Front continued to deteriorate. Soviet numbers continued to increase, supported by production of equipment in the United States, and the decline of German production made them unable to replace losses.

To counter the effects of the losses on the Eastern Front the German propaganda machine kicked into high gear. Wittmann and other German soldiers and airmen were lauded on German radio reports, in magazines and newspapers, and in newsreels in theaters. These reports took the place of real news about the increasingly dire situation.

By January 1944 60,000 German troops were nearly surrounded by Soviets in an area which became known as the Korsun Pocket. In heavy fighting the Soviets attempted to crush the entrapped German troops and thus destroy the German lines, giving the Soviets a breakthrough. 1st Panzer SS participated in German counterattacks to relieve the encircled troops.

The relief attacks were doomed from the start, as the winter weather and the deterioration of German equipment ensured the Soviets of numerical superiority in men, fighting vehicles, support vehicles, and supplies. Wittmann participated in the German relief attempts, but the 1st Panzer again took heavy casualties and was forced to withdraw as part of the overall Soviet victory.

As the battle raged in January 1944, Wittmann was awarded the Knight’s Cross, an award usually reserved to Field Grade officers, and his award and the number of tanks he had destroyed during the German actions was broadcast to the German people. By then his number of enemy tanks destroyed stood at 119, with reports differing dependent on the source. The remnants of the LSSAH were withdrawn to Belgium to refit yet again.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
Michael Wittmann, in Waffen SS black, chats with Heinz Guderian, in Wehrmacht gray, during his propaganda tour in 1944. Wikimedia

Propaganda Tour

In the winter and spring of 1944 Germany was clearly losing the war on all fronts, and every effort was made to keep this information from the people at home. Support for the war on the Eastern Front was lagging, and morale with it. German war heroes were increasingly presented to the German people, promising victory if the people at home stayed the course.

Wittmann, wearing the Knight’s Cross on his distinctive SS black uniform, a member of the Nazi Party, was sent on a propaganda tour in early 1944. A telegram, received by Wittmann from Hitler in congratulations for his war record, was read repeatedly, whenever and wherever Wittmann made an appearance. With his division resting near Mons, Belgium, Wittmann took leave to marry, an event which was touted by the German propaganda apparatus.

Wittmann was used to encourage workers at several arms manufacturers and other industries critical to the German war effort. How he was received by the forced laborers from occupied Europe was not recorded, the German’s filmed him visiting and speaking with German workers, wherever possible avoiding references to damage from Allied bombing.

Wittmann was filmed and photographed visiting factories where the Tiger I was built, thanking the workers for their efforts and the touting the value of their labors to the troops at the front. He promised that the Tiger II, a new version of the Tiger which would outgun Soviet, American, and British tanks, would lead to German victory.

Meanwhile his division rebuilt at Mons, stationed there in anticipation of the Allies landing in Europe, believed by the Germans to be scheduled for that summer at the Pas de Calais. Wittmann was experienced in the tank battles of the Soviet plains, countering Soviet tactics. He now prepared to engage British and American armor on much different terrain. In late spring he returned to the LSSAH, which moved to Beauvais.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
German Tiger tanks in the bocage country, outside the town of Villers-Bocage. Bundesarchiv

Actions in Normandy France

In April 1944 Wittmann was assigned to the SS Heavy Panzer division and command of its 2nd Company, now holding the rank of SS Obersturmfuhrer – roughly equivalent to a 1st Lieutenant in the American Army. On June 6 the allies landed at Normandy and the following day Wittmann’s unit was ordered to move there to counter the growing threat. It took five days for the Germans to reach the battle area. Wittmann was positioned near Villers-Bocage, with his unit more than 50% understrength.

On June 13 1944 Wittmann was taken by surprise by a British armored advance and engaged several British tanks alone before the rest of his unit rallied to his support. After destroying several British Firefly tanks (basically a Sherman tank with a more powerful anti-tank gun) Wittmann shifted to the offensive, supported by other German tanks as they entered the action. Wittmann and the other German tanks and armored vehicles, as well as German infantry armed with anti-tank rockets, destroyed more than a dozen British tanks, at least 13 other armored vehicles, and two anti-tank guns.

Wittmann’s Tiger was disabled, according to his own report, by an anti-tank gun in the center of the town of Villers-Bocage, leaving him out of the remainder of the action. British reports stated that the German tank withdrew after engaging a Firefly tank without success near the end of the action.

German radio reports, anxious to quell fears at home following the landing of the allies and their initial successes in Normandy, gave Wittmann personal credit for all of the British vehicles destroyed at Villers-Bocage, ignoring the contributions of the other German tanks involved in the fighting. Wittmann was ordered to record a message for radio broadcast in which he read from a prepared script a description of the battle written by SS propagandists. Doctored photographs exaggerated what was nonetheless a defeat for the British.

The propaganda broadcast was so successful that even the British believed Villers-Bocage to have been catastrophic evidence that the German tanks were vastly superior to their own. Wittmann’s actions at Villers-Bocage greatly enhanced his heroic reputation, in both the German homeland in the eyes of his opponents on the field.

11 Myths Dispelled and Details Revealed about World War II Tank Ace Michael Wittmann
His exploits were exaggerated in life with his knowledge and support. After his death he was mythologized by Waffen SS supporters. Wikimedia

Death and Legendary Status

Michael Wittmann was killed in action in a tank battle with British and Canadian forces during Operation Totalize on August 8 1944. Who fired the shot which penetrated his tank and caused the stored ammunition to explode is still debated, with both British and Canadian troops claiming the kill.

The Allies buried the crew of Wittmann’s shattered tank together in an unmarked grave, which was located by the Germans in 1983. Wittmann and his crew were reburied at La Cambe German War Cemetery in France.

Wittmann’s myth, which gained a huge head start from Nazi propaganda during the war, has gained strength in the years since, largely from literature which has remained focused on depicting the Waffen SS as an elite military unit rather than the paramilitary arm of the Nazi Party. While he was undoubtedly a successful tank commander the true number of his victories is unknown. At Villers-Bocage for example, German propaganda gave Wittmann full credit for every British vehicle destroyed during the engagement, other participating German tanks received none.

Even German historians dispute Wittmann’s record in terms of numbers of kills, pointing out the German propaganda machine as one factor, and the difficulty of determining reliably the number of kills achieved in the heat of action another. Aviation kills required confirmation by others or by gun cameras, tank kills did not.

Most of Wittmann’s defenders also ignore the criminal actions of the Waffen SS against both prisoners of war and civilians, presenting him as a humane, honorable victor in battle. Such an account does not reconcile with the known record of the Waffen SS, as testified to by those who fought against it during World War II.