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The Battle of Villers-Bocage

Place l'Hôtel de Ville in Villers-Bocage. A destroyed Tiger. Beside it the wreck of a Panzer IV of the 2nd Battalion of the 130th Panzer Lehr Regiment.

Operation Perch (9-14 June)

The Battle of Villers-Bocage June 13 was a clash between British and German forces. Elements of the 7th Armored Division approached the town of Villers-Bocage coming from Tilly. Michael Wittmann had a small force of six tanks nearby. In one of the most aggressive small-unit actions of the war, he charged his vehicle into the British column, splitting it and then engaging the British forces at very short range before passing along and across the British line into the village. The other tanks of his small unit added to the heavy British losses.

Battle build up

The 1st US Division push strongly towards Caumont-l'Éventé against the 352nd German Inf Division, their retreat exposed the West flank of the Panzer Lehr Division. This gap opportunity gave General Montgomery the idea of the Perch Operation. He decided to use the 7th Armored Division (the Desert Rats) to encircle the Panzer Lehr with a surprised attack from the rear. Villers-Bocage lay in the path of this movement, sitting at the hub of a road net that led northeast towards Caen; if the town (and the high ground nearby at Point 213) could be taken and held, British armor would be able to push northeast behind the German front, with a possible exploitation to Caen. The British were unaware that elements of the 2nd Heavy Tank Company of the Schwere SS-Panzer Ableitung 101 led by M. Wittmann had received orders to take and hold point 213, which was above the crossroads at Villers-Bocage. After having reached it during the night to avoid detection by Allied aircraft, Wittmann's force of 5 Tiger tanks and a Mark IV were sited approximately 150 yards south of RN 175. The British force sent to take Villers-Bocage and Point 213 consisted of a reinforced tank squadron and an infantry company of a Motor battalion; approximately 200 armored vehicles.

British forces and objectives

  • 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars.
  • 4th County of London Yeomanry (CLY); assigned to capture and hold point 213.
  • 1/7th Bn Queen's Royal Regiment; assigned to secure the Villers-Bocage exits (except that of L'Église). HQ located in the bottom of Villers. Company «A» located in the area around the railroad station. Company «B» located in the center of town. Company «C» located in Pasteur and Clémenceau streets. Company «D» located close to the cemetery.
  • 5th Royal Tank regiment; assigned to capture and hold the area of Maisoncelles-Pelvy (3 km SW) south of D71 which connects Caumont to Villers and Point 142 which overlooks the city at the bottom of the valley.
  • 5th Royal Horse Artillery; assigned to capture and hold the other exits from the city: Battery of Sextons assigned to take position to the north of D71 and in the small valley where the roads to Coudray and Chouquet Bridge run.
  • 1st The Rifle Brigade, A Cpny. These forces were part of, or attached to, 22nd Armoured Brigade under Brigadier W. R. N. Hinde.

Led by Wittmann's Tiger Nr. 205, Tigers of the Second Company head towards the area surrounding the town of Villers-Bocage, 13 June 1944.

German forces

  • 2nd Heavy Tank Company (Tigers No. 221, No. 222, No. 223, No. 231, No. 233 and No. 234) of the Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101.

Later joined by:

  • 1st Heavy Tank Company of the Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101.
  • Elements of Panzer Lehr.

Opening moves

Villers-Bocage and Hill 213 were unoccupied as the battle opened and both sides raced to take the high ground, and thus the tactical advantage. While the British forces arrived in the town of Villers-Bocage first, Wittman's force gained Hill 213 and could observe the British movements. The British in the town suffered from poor tactical deployment and were initially crowded by cheering civilians happy about their apparent liberation. The four tanks of the squadron's command group parked and the crews dismounted. The men and vehicles of the battle group did not form an all-around defence as doctrine demanded, security was poor and no proper reconnaissance of Hill 213 was done. A combined tank and infantry force was finally sent out of the village to take Hill 213. Wittmann watched the column of the 4th County of London Yeomanry leave Villers-Bocage and advance on his tanks on Hill 213, nose to tail through a sunken road. The lead squadron halted on the road without deploying into a defensive position, allowing the halftracks and carriers of the accompanying infantry to pass. In the face of unreconnoitred terrain, this was a great mistake. Wittmann saw his opportunity and decided to attack with one tank between Hill 213 and Villers-Bocage, cutting off «A» Squadron of the 4th CLY and ordered his accompanying two operational tanks to hold their position. Wittmann counted on the effect of surprise to inflict the greatest possible losses on the British while waiting for reinforcements. Describing his actions Wittmann later said, «I had not been able to gather my company. I had to act very quickly because I must suppose that the enemy has already located us and intended to destroy us at the starting position. I left with my tank. I ordered the two other tanks to move back at once but to hold the terrain».

Destroyed Cromwell tanks in the Ruins of Villers-Bocage.

Rear view of the first Tiger destroyed during the battle in the afternoon of 13 June 1944 in Villers-Bocage.

The battle

At 0900 Wittmann's Tiger attacked. A few minutes later, in the direction of Caen, he destroyed 3 tanks; a Sherman Firefly and a Cromwell tank on the right and another tank on the left, proceeding to Villers without pause and attacking the lightly armored vehicles of The Rifle Brigade. During this engagement, he destroyed nine half-track vehicles, four Carden Loyd Carriers, two other carriers, and two 6 pounders anti-tank guns, then destroyed 3 Stuart light tanks and one half-track vehicle. Entering Villers-Bocage alone, he destroyed 3 of the four Cromwells in position at the top of the Lemonnier Farm. He followed Clémenceau Street where his tank destroyed two Sherman command tanks of the 5th Royal Horse Artillery before knocking out another scout car and half-track. As Wittmann arrived at the Jeanne d'Arc Square, he ended up opposite the Sherman Firefly of Sergeant Lockwood of «B» Squadron. The Firefly, whose 17 pounder was the only Allied main tank gun capable of defeating the frontal armor of a Tiger in most circumstances, fired four shells at Wittman. One hit the hull of the Tiger, which returned fire and knocked down a section of wall on the Sherman. Wittmann then made a half-turn, his tank lightly damaged, and returned down Clémenceau Street. A Cromwell tank, commanded by Captain Dyas, fired two 75 mm shells and failed to harm the Tiger. Wittmann subsequently put the Cromwell out of action with one shot. As Wittmann proceeded on the road leaving Villers-Bocage, his left track was hit by a 6-pdr shell, forcing him to stop on the street in front of the Huet-Godefroy store. Wittman engaged targets in range. Thinking that the Tiger might be salvaged and repaired later, Wittmann and crew abandoned the tank without destroying it, leaving the area on foot but without weapons. They ended up joining the headquarters of the Panzer Lehr Division, nearly 5 miles away. Consequently, 15 Panzer IV's of 2nd Battalion of the 130th regiment left Orbois in the direction of Villers-Bocage under the command of Captain Helmut Ritgen with the aim of blocking the exits to the North. Before reaching their objective, they came under the fire of British anti-tank guns and their advance was blocked. Fritz Bayerlein, commander of Panzer Lehr, ordered the Panzer IVs to fall back and regroup at Villers-Bocage. The tanks took the direction of the castle of Parfouru Sur Odon, where, after repairs were made to the 14 survivors, they attacked under the command of Hannes Philipsen; four tanks from the south and ten by Clémenceau Street. Each of the two groups lost two tanks. Wittmann was then brought back in his Schwimmwagen to Hill 213, where he joined with Karl Mobius, commander of the 1st Company and discussed the second attack that the 101st Abteilung was about to deliver. The tanks of the 1st Company entered the city along the Évrecy Road and joined those of Panzer Lehr at the marketplace in order to coordinate their offensive. The forces were distributed so as to occupy the city from the Pasteur Street towards the Jeanne d'Arc Square, on Saint-Germain Street, on Emile Samson and towards the crossroads of Jeanne Bacon Street and Joffre Boulevard. However, British resistance was by now organized as the Germans had lost surprise. One 6-pounder anti-tank gun of the 1/7th Queen's, placed in Jeanne Bacon Street, managed to score hits on three Tigers of which only one could be repaired.

Effects and disgrace

The British units had suffered considerably in the initial attack but had held the town with its vital crossroads. The Germans broke contact, but later managed to execute several strong counterattacks on Villers and the hold of the 7th Armored Division elements was tenuous. Support for the British was available from several sources. An accompanying US artillery forward observer called in very heavy and accurate artillery fire to break up one German attack. Several uncommitted infantry brigades were available and could have been used to reinforce Villers-Bocage, but the British commander on the scene did not request help. The Division commander George Erskine, could have requested these brigades, but did not. Neither the Corps commander, Gerard Bucknall, nor the Second Army commander Dempsey reinforced the units at Villers-Bocage. At 16.00, the acting commanding officer of the 4th CLY ordered a retreat of his forces from the town. The withdrawal from Villers-Bocage ended British hopes of unhinging the German front south of Caen. Historians feel that a great opportunity had been lost through poor execution of the plan. Dempsey later remarked that «the whole handling of that battle was a disgrace». Both Erskine and Bucknall were relieved of command in early August, after another failure to capture Villers-Bocage and Aunay during Operation Bluecoat. Brigadier Hinde and the Commander, Royal Artillery of 7th Armoured Division were also removed.


The British losses in the battle were:

  • 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars: a number of Stuarts.
  • 4th County of London Yeomanry: 8 Cromwells, 4 Sherman fireflies, 3 Stuarts, 1 Half-track vehicle, 3 Scout cars.
  • Rifle Brigade: 9 half-track vehicles, 2 Bren gun carrier, 4 Carden-Loyd Carriers.
  • 5th Royal Horse Artillery: 2 Cromwell, 1 Sherman.
  • On the German side, only 6 Tiger tanks were put out of action (of which 3 were later repaired) and 5 Panzer IV's.

The Propaganda of Villers-Bocage

German propaganda throughout the Second World War tended to elevate individual fighters to «hero» status. The events at Villers-Bocage were thus ascribed almost entirely to Wittmann who was given credit for 27 of the 30 destroyed British tanks as armored vehicles. Postwar, hobbyist interest in Wittmann has not waned. It must be pointed out that Wittmann's Tiger tank greatly outclassed the British vehicles he faced in firepower and armor. However, it is also true that in the close quarters of this battle, the British 17 pounder was capable of defeating the armor on Wittmann's tank. Even the towed 7 pounder and 3'' guns on the Cromwells and Shermans could, with ideal conditions. It can be concluded that the real reason for Wittmann's success was not so much technical superiority or individual skill, but poorly executed tactics and battle procedure on the part of the 7th Armored Division.