The battle of Villers-Bocage (13 June 1944) was one of the more infamous incidents of the Normandy campaign, and saw an advanced force of British armour almost destroyed by Michael Wittmann’s Tiger tanks, before a larger German counterattack forced the British to retreat. However the battle also cost the Germans several Tigers, the first lost in Normandy.
The exact details of the fighting in Villers-Bocage are controversial, with many different accounts. Part of this was because both propaganda machines soon got to work, with the Germans trying to give Wittmann as much credit as possible for the victory. His initial attack is uncontroversial, but the sequence of events after that varies in different accounts.
The battle was part of Operation Perch, the first major attempt to capture Caen in the aftermath of D-Day. This had seen a two pronged assault, with attacks on either side of the city, but the attack had run into strong defensive positions held by the 12th SS Panzer Division and Panzer Lehr Division and had only made limited progress.
On 12 June Lt-General Bucknall, commander of XXX Corps, received news of a weak point in the German lines, five miles to the south/ south-west of Bayeux. At this point the strongly held German lines around Caen ran west to Tilly-sur-Seulles, twelve miles to the west of Caen. The newly discovered gap was to the west of this line, and if the British could take advance it would outflank the entire German position.
The gap had been created by the collapse of large parts of the 716th and 352nd Divisions in the face of American attacks, and ran from Berigny in the west to Longraye in the east (the western end of Panzer Lehr’s line).
Bucknall ordered the 7th Armoured Division to advance through this gap, and to try and capture Villers-Bocage. This village is five miles to the south of Tilly, and control of it would have both outflanked the Germans at Caen, and cut one of the better roads running behind their front.
On the night of 12-13 June the 7th Armoured Division advanced five miles through this gap and reached Livry (seven miles to the south-west of Tilly). On the morning of 13 June a force made up of armour from the 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) from the 22nd Armoured Brigade and lorried infantry from the 131st Brigade advanced five miles east from Livry to Villers-Bocage. One squadron of Sherman tanks from the Sharpshooters pushed on east to Hill 213, just to the east of the village on the road to Caen.
Villers-Bocage sits on a hill just to the east of La Seulline, a minor river. The heart of the village runs west-east along the main road that runs west from Caen to the coast around Avranches and Granville. At the western end of the village two roads branch off – one heading west towards Caumont and the other due south towards the Odon valley. Just to the east of the village another road splits off heading north to Bayeux (passing through Tilly-sur-Seulles on the way). The main street runs uphill from the valley end at the west up towards Hill 213 east of the village.
When Wittman attacked the British were stretched out along the main road. The Sharpshooter’s HQ Squadron was on the main street. B Squadron was to the west, on the road to Caumont. A Squadron was on Hill 213. Nobody was expecting an attack. The Sharpshooter’s commanding officer, Lt Colonel Arthur, Viscount Cranleigh, had left his tank and was with the troops at Hill 213.
Unfortunately for the British, their advance was detected. Heavy SS Tank Battalion 101, which was attached to the I SS Panzer Corps, had reached the Normandy area on 12 June, and was posted to the east of Villers Bocages. On the morning on 13 June Michael Wittman, command of 2.Company, decided to scout out the area to investigate rumours about the British advance. He took a force of four Tigers (out of the six that were serviceable), and one Panzer IV from Panzer Lehr. Wittman’s force approached Villers Bocage just as the leading British column advanced east towards Point 213. The British reached their target, then paused to rest.
Wittman decided to leave this force alone for the moment, and investigate Villers-Bocage itself, taking just his own tank. He approached the village from the south-east, bypassed A Squadron and reached the main street just east of the HQ tanks. He quickly knocked out three of the four Cromwell tanks from the HQ company (those of Viscount Cranleigh, his second in command Major Carr and the Regimental Sergeant Major), but one tank, commanded by Captain Pat Dyas, managed to reverse into cover in a garden south of the street.
Wittmann then advanced west along the main street, passing Dyas without spotting him. Unfortunately Dyas’s gunner wasn’t in the tank, so he was unable to take advantage of a perfect flank shot. At the western end of the street Wittmann ran into B Squadron. This time the British were more prepared, and Wittmann’s tank was hit at least once by a Firefly. He decided to reverse out of danger and head back east. He turned around, but then came face to face with Dyas’s tank, which had emerged from the garden and attempted to stalk Wittmann. Dyas was too late to get a shot at Wittmann’s rear. Dyas hit Wittmann’s Tiger twice without effect, and his tank was then knocked out. Two of the crew were killed, but Dyas escaped, and was able to join B Squadron.
After knocking out Dyas’s tank, Wittmann rejoined the rest of his detachment to take on fuel and re-arm and moved to attack A Squadron. He approached under cover of some woods, knocked out the M3 half-track nearest to the village (thus stopping the British from retreating west out of the sunken road), then the Firefly. He then helped with the destruction of the rest of the column – a mix of tanks, half-tracks, bren gun carriers and lorries, although this was by no means a solo action, and he wasn’t the senior German present. Around twenty five armoured vehicles may have been destroyed in this attack. This time the Germans were supported by infantry, so the British crews were killed or captured.
Meanwhile back in the village Major Aird of B Squadron decided to send four Cromwells and one Sherman Firefly, to try and make contact with A Squadron. They advanced through side streets to the south of the main street, but couldn’t get over a railway embankment in the south-east of the village. They then took up a position in a square just to the south of the main road, with a 6-pounder anti-tank gun in a alleyway a little further west, ready to ambush the Germans if they returned.
After destroying A Squadron, Wittmann decided to return to the village. He took two Tigers and the Panzer IV, and advanced west along the main street. However he ran straight into the British ambush. His own tank was hit on the left by the 6-pounder, and the second Tiger was knocked out by the Firefly. The Panzer IV survived the initial ambush, but one of the Cromwells then drove out behind it and knocked it out. The Germans had lost all three tanks in a few moments, although Wittmann and his crew were able to escape, taking advantage of a lack of British infantry.
At the end of Wittmann’s famous attack, the British were still in control of Villers-Bocage, despite their heavy loses. They were thus able to set fire to the four damaged German tanks, which were burnt out, making it impossible to repair them.
When Wittmann reached the Panzer Lehr HQ he was given command of fifteen Panzer IVs and ordered to clear the town. The attack was supported by the 1st Company of the 101st, and by the Panzer Lehr division. However by this point the British infantry had arrived and the result was a fierce battle in which both sides lost tanks. The Germans lost more Tigers during this action. Late in the afternoon the British pulled back from Villers-Bocage. The town was then hit by RAF Typhoons.
On the British side the losses were very heavy, with around 20 Cromwells, four Sherman Fireflys, three Stuarts and other armoured vehicles knocked out, 62 dead and 100 prisoners.
During the afternoon of 13 June the panzergrenadiers from the 2nd Panzer Division launched a counterattack in the area to the west of Villers-Bocage. By the end of the day they were close to the road from Villers-Bocage to Caumont (in American hands). Panzer Lehr was also able to sent troops to support Wittmann. That afternoon the 7th Armoured Division pulled pack to high ground two miles to the west of Villers-Bocage and linked up with the Americans. On the following day the German counterattack continued, and the British tanks had to pull back another five miles to Parfouru, on the road between Caumont and Caen.
The British attack had come very close to success, but the lucky arrive of Wittmann’s Tigers on the previous day, and his initial successes in and around the village had robbed the attack of all momentum.