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Mike Nomad
05-09-2007, 01:55 PM
Villers-Bocage: The British Repulsed - Operation Perch was a failure.

The capture of Caumont-l'Eventé by the Americans on 13 June 1944 threatened the west flank of the German front. In the meantime General Montgomery launched the Operation Perch at the junction between the Vth American Corps and the XXXth British Corps. On 13 June at dawn the 7th British Armored Division had to skirt round the Panzer-Lehr-Division positions. The progression went in good condition, an advance guard of the 22nd Armored Brigade entered Villers-Bocage around 8 a. m. without fighting.

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Despite the disappointing results of the initial German counter-attacks, Hitler still planned a major German counteroffensive directed at the British and Canadian beach heads. Von Schweppenberg's Panzer Group West was tasked with organizing this, and set up a field headquarters in orchards near the village of Thury Harcourt, 12 miles south of Caen. Among its equipment were several powerful radio transmitter trucks. The signals sent out by these were picked up by British Traffic Analysis monitors, and on June 10th Allied Typhoons and Michell's hit the German HQ. Von Schweppenberg was injured and many of his staff killed. With Panzer Group West HQ for the moment out of action, responsibility for directing the German offensive was handed over to "Sepp" Dietrich of 1 SS Panzer Corps, who quickly decided that for the moment potential Allied opposition was too strong to make such an operation feasible.

Both Montgomery and the British Official History would claim in years to come that the Allied plan from the beginning had been for British 2nd Army to adopt an overall defensive strategy, aimed at drawing against it around Caen the bulk of the German panzer divisions and so easing the task of US 1st Army in expanding the bridgehead to the west and eventually breaking out. In fact, there is convincing evidence that for several weeks at least after D-Day, Montgomery still hoped to take Caen and thrust armored columns deep beyond it towards Falaise. By June 10th he was planning a major offensive intended to trap Caen and its defenders in the jaws of a double envelopment. Whilst 51st Highland Division and 4th Armored Brigade performed a short hook east of the city in the Orne valley, in the west the right pincer consisting of British XXX Corps spearheaded by 7th Armored Division, would take the key road junction of Villers Bocage. It would then turn east to link up with the 1st British Airborne Division which would be dropped in the Odon Valley, trapping the defenders of Caen.

However Montgomery's plan ran into immediate difficulties. Air Chief Marshal Trafford Leigh-Mallory, commanded the AEAF (Allied Expeditionary Air Force) refused to carry out the drop of 1st Airborne on the grounds that the operation would be too dangerous for his aircrews. German counterattacks east of Caen reinforced the view that opposition to the paratroops was likely to be too strong.

Nevertheless Montgomery put the rest of his plan into operation on June 10th, when 51st Highland Division opened its attack east of Caen, only to be firmly repulsed by 21st Panzer. With his planned left hook stalled, Montgomery's hopes of success rested on the drive to Villers Bocage, headed by 7th Armored. Initial progress here also proved slow. But on the evening of June 11th it became apparent that there was an opportunity to outflank Panzer Lehr which had been fiercely opposing 7th Armored around Tilly sur Seulles, and drive through a gap which existed between Lehr's left and the 352nd Infantry Division opposing the US V Corps' drive on Caumont.

Speed was essential. Unfortunately Lieutenant-General G.C. Bucknall, commanding XXX Corps, lacked the necessary drive. It was not until midday on 12th June, urged on by General Richard Dempsey, Commanding 2nd Army, that Bucknall ordered Maj-General Robert Erskine of 7th Armored, too disengage around Tilly and move round Lehr's flank, heading for Villers Bocage.

Valuable time had been lost, and although the operation began well, it soon became clear that the 7th Armored, famed as the "Desert Rats" in the North African campaign, were ill at ease in the confined surroundings of the bocage. Erskine would claim later that he had been given his orders to exploit the gap 24 hours too late. Even so, an opportunity still remained. Immediate opposition consisted of two armored and four infantry battalions of Panzer Lehr, reinforced by 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion. With a 10-mile front to defend, the Germans could have been seriously stretched by an assault on a broad front, but fortunately XXX Corps elected to drive a narrow spearhead, headed by 7th Armored directly along the route to Villers Bocage.

The attack was headed by Brigadier Robert Hinde's 22nd Armored Brigade. Hinde was a fearless commander who believed in leading from the front. Pushing forward with reasonable speed, 22nd Armored was within 5 miles of Villers Bocage by the evening of June 12th, when Hinde, uncertain of enemy strength, halted for the night. Early next morning the advance was resumed, and Villers Bocage occupied to a rapturous reception from its inhabitants.

Hinde ordered "A" Squadron of the 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters), supported by the motorized infantry of "A" Company of the Rifle Brigade, to secure high ground, known as Hill 213, which lay about a mile north-east of the town. The commander of the Sharpshooters, Lieutenant-Colonel Cranley was concerned about the lack of adequate reconnaissance before he made his advance, but was urged to haste by Hinde. Whilst Cranley moved forward, four of his tanks and the motorized Riflemen remained parked in the road leading out of Villers Bocage.

Cranley's fears were about to be savagely confirmed. Moving forward to defend the same high ground around Hill 213 was German armor, including No 2 Company, 501st SS Heavy Tank Battalion, commanded by the panzer ace Obersturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann, who had already earned himself a formidable reputation on the Eastern Front. During a period lasting no more than about five minutes, Wittmann's company of four Tigers and one Panzer IV, using every advantage of concealment provided by the hedgerows, carried out a devastating surprise attack on the British column on the road from Villers Bocage. By the end of the day, in this and renewed fighting, Wittmann had knocked out at least 20 Cromwell tanks, 4 Fireflies, 3 light tanks, 3 scout cars and a half track, and inflicted about 150 casualties.

Although in a renewed attack on Villers Bocage, Wittmann was repulsed with the loss of four of his tanks, he had brought 7th Armored to a complete halt. As reinforcements from 2nd Panzer moved up to strengthen the German defenses, the position of 7th Armored, lacking infantry support, became increasingly dangerous. An attack by 50th Infantry Division around Tilly had failed to gain ground, and there was an increasing possibility that 7th Armored might be cut off in Villers Bocage. Early in the evening of June 13th Erskine pulled back about a mile west of the town in an attempt to hold high ground around Hill 174. If he received infantry support from XXX Corps, Erskine still hoped to make a stand here.

Unfortunately General Bucknall seems to have failed to grasp the urgent need to reinforce 7th Armored with infantry, and ordered that 50th Division continue its unsuccessful attacks to dislodge Panzer Lehr from around Tilly. By the afternoon of June 14th it was obvious that Panzer Lehr was not going to be dislodged, and Bucknall ordered 7th Armored to pull back to new positions east of Caumont.

Though not fully admitted at the time or later, the failure at Villers Bocage was crucial to events over the next few weeks. Bucknall, soon to be replaced as commander of XXX Corps by the more dynamic and thrusting Brian Horrocks, had cost the British their last real chance of staging a major breakthrough in the Caen sector before German defenses solidified.

The units spaced out in the town and on the road to Caen. Suddenly at 9 a. m. an attack of the 2nd Company of the SS Panzer-Abteilung 101 under Obersturmfuhrer Michael Wittmann annihilated the British column. The Operation Perch was a failure and for Villers-Bocage population it meant seven more weeks occupation. On 30 July began the Operation Bluecoat that ended on 3rd August in a strategic retreat of the Germans. The British liberated definitively Villers-Bocage on 4 August.

Following the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, the Allies had made rapid progress inland in what had become the Battle of Normandy. By 13 June, a full week after the beach landings, Allied formations including the famous 7th Armored Division (the 'Desert Rats') had reached the vicinity of the city of Caen, slicing through the fast-retreating German defenses in the process. This smooth action was made easier with the massive air superiority held by the Allies, and by the morning of 13 June the flanks of the Panzer Lehr Division had been massively exposed - setting up the possibility of their being completely enclosed.

Central to the Allied plan was the main road towards Caen, and the high ground located at Hill 213 (also known as Point 213); right in the path lay the small, compact town of Villers-Bocage. The Allies were completely unaware of the presence of the 101st LSSAH in the area, among which was Michael Wittmann and his Tiger I; commanding officer Lt-Colonel Arthur, the Viscount Cranleigh, had requested time to carry out a proper reconnaissance of the area but this was ignored as the order was issued to push on regardless. This decision to press on was to have dire consequences.

The build up: Morning, 13 June 1944
On the morning of 13 June, the LSSAH panzer unit commanders conferred with divisional commander Obergruppenführer 'Sepp' Dietrich as to what their plan of action would be. The general feeling was that the Allies were about to launch a massive thrust with the aim of outflanking Panzer Lehr; it was concluded that the targets to secure would be Villers-Bocage and Hill 213, which was located close to the main crossroads north of the town. Thus the scene was set for what was essentially a simple race for tactical supremacy; nobody was able to predict the events that were to follow. In his typically selfless way, Wittmann suggested that his Tiger carry out a reconnoiter of the surrounding area, a plan to which his battalion commander instantly agreed.

Wittmann's role was one of simply checking out enemy movement in the area around Villers-Bocage, which had been cited by Dietrich as being essential to securing a crucial foothold in the area. Wittmann set out towards Villers-Bocage at around 6am, moving cautiously alongside a wooded area in order to avoid being spotted from the air.

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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.

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While at his command post some 150 meter's from Hill 213, Wittmann encountered an Army sergeant who informed him of the presence of a number of unfamiliar vehicles. Wittmann spotted what seemed like a never-ending convoy of British and American type vehicles rolling along the highway, heading out of Villers-Bocage towards Hill 213. It turned out that these vehicles were the lead element of a highly-trained British unit, the 4th County of London Yeomanry (CLY) ("Sharpshooters"), part of the 22nd Armored Brigade of the 7th Armored Division, the renowned 'Desert Rats'.

Equipped with both Cromwell and M4A4 Sherman Firefly tanks, 'A' Squadron 4CLY had positioned themselves east of the village; meanwhile, 'B' Sqn. 4CLY had been stationed west of Villers, overseeing the intersection with the road leading to the neighboring village of Caumont. 4CLY's Regimental Headquarters was situated in the main street of Villers-Bocage itself. Directly behind 'A' Sqn. were the 1st Rifle Brigade, which was equipped with a dozen M3 half-tracks and three Stuart M5A1 'Honey' light tanks.

This rather enticing opportunity provided Wittmann with something of a dilemma: he clearly felt that he could not allow this situation to escape him, yet any radio contact with HQ would have been instantly intercepted. More crucially Wittmann noted that there were few German forces of substance in the immediate vicinity, and that the British column would have had a clear and unobstructed route though to the town of Caen. He himself had only six serviceable Tigers at his disposal: these were numbers 211 (commanded by SS-Ostuf. Jürgen Wessel), 221 (SS-Ustuf. Georg Hantusch), 222 (SS-Uscha. Kurt Sowa), 223 (SS-Oscha. Jürgen Brandt), 233 (SS-Oscha. Georg Lötzsch, and 234 (SS-Uscha. Herbert Stief); of these six vehicles, 233 had track damage and SS-Ostuf. Wessel was not present, having departed for the front to receive orders. It was at this moment that the enterprising panzer ace decided to take action himself. He recalled that the decision was a tough one, one that required split-second thinking:

"...the decision was a very, very difficult one. Never before had I been so impressed by the strength of the enemy as I was by those tanks rolling by; but I knew it absolutely had to be and I decided to strike out into the enemy."

Leaving the infantry sergeant safely in his foxhole, Wittmann sprinted towards Stief's Tiger Nr. 234 as it was the vehicle closest to him. The vehicle's commander, who had previously been taking a short nap, was quickly dispatched to brief the remaining members of the platoon. The driver cranked up the engine. However, after rolling forward some twenty-five or so yards Wittmann sensed something not quite right. SS-Rottenführer Walter Lau, Stief's gunner, was not to know what he would miss out on as the next vital minutes unfolded. Without a moment of hesitation Wittmann leaped out and sprinted towards the next available Tiger, that of of SS-Unterscharführer Kurt Sowa, which had by this time made its way out of the defile.

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The number of the vehicle Wittmann commandeered that morning is a subject of enthusiastic debate; Sowa's assigned vehicle at the time of the battalion's formation had been Nr. 222, and it is this vehicle that has been cited by the majority of commentators as being the one Wittmann climbed into on the morning of June 13 prior to advancing on Villers-Bocage. However, the historian Daniel Taylor has presented a series of arguments that suggest the vehicle Wittmann took into Villers-Bocage might well have been SS-Ustuf. Heinz Belbe's Tiger Nr. 231, which had not been among the six serviceable Tigers listed by both Patrick Agte and George Forty in their studies of the battle. There are a number of possible reasons for this, most of which stem from the (assumption?) that Sowa's tank was in fact Nr. 222. It is fairly well-known that the Tigers were prone to mechanical failure, and as a result commanders had got used to what could best be described as 'tank-hopping'. It could well have been that by this time in the campaign Sowa's assigned vehicle might have been undergoing maintenance, and that on the day of the attack on Villers-Bocage he may have been in command of Nr. 231 and not his designated vehicle. Thus, Sowa's Tiger, which everyone who has written on the subject is agreed that Wittmann commandeered on the morning of 13 June, might have been Nr. 231 instead of Nr. 222.

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Wittmann gave the command to his 'new' driver, SS-Uscha. Walter Müller, to crank up the vehicle for an all out attack on the enemy formation. Also on board were his gunner Bobby Woll, Loader Sturmmann Günter Boldt, and radio operator Sturmmann Günther Jonas. The order was issued for all the remaining Tigers to stand fast and host their positions; Kurt Sowa, whose vehicle had been commandeered by Wittmann moments earlier, now in turn took charge of Stief's 234, rolling it into a defensive position on the highway. The other vehicles at the ready were Hantusch's 221 and Brandt's 233. The time was now 08:35.

Wittmann's Demolition Derby
Following his return from Villers-Bocage later in the day, Michael Wittmann was to play down the action - describing it as a simple drive along the column. In reality, it was far from this simple an exercise. Seeing the seemingly never-ending British column straight ahead, Wittmann directed his Tiger head-on towards the stationary vehicles of 'A' Sqn. 4CLY, braving a heavy barrage of fire. Had it been any other man than Wittmann, and had he been commanding any other vehicle that the powerful Tiger I, the attack would have been seen as bordering on the suicidal. But Wittmann was both faster and more wily than the enemy; the Tiger rolled on relentlessly while enemy shells simply bounced off its thick armor.

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As the lone Tiger charged relentlessly towards them, the 'A' Sqn. crews - who had been quietly enjoying a cup of tea and a cigarette at the side of the road - found themselves caught completely by surprise. They had little or no time to return to their vehicles, let alone maneuver them into any sort of position where they could have taken on the fearsome Tiger. Scattering and running for the nearest protection, the British crewmen abandoned their stricken vehicles, some of which still had their engines running. Gunner Woll then began the procession of destruction by taking out a half-track at the head of the column, blocking the road and thus preventing the possible escape of any of the vehicles behind it. Wittmann's loader, SS-Sturmmann Boldt, had to work like a man possessed to keep with this tremendous rate. Woll then grabbed his MG34, peppering the scout car which had been standing next to the head half-track with a hail of bullets.

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While the bow machine gunner's relentless MG34 fire prevented any of the British crewmen from emerging from their hiding places, Wittmann turned his attention to the array of vehicles conveniently lined up along the side of the road. Two Cromwells and a Firefly were knocked out, before the fearsome 88mm KwK was turned on the first of the lighter tracked vehicles belonging to the 1st Rifle Brigade. On noting the ease by which these vehicles were destroyed, the remaining number were taken out with heavy fire from the pair of MG34s operated by Woll and bow gunner SS-Sturmmann Jonas. In all, a staggering fifteen vehicles and two 6-pounder anti tank guns were reduced to burning wrecks. This was quickly followed by the destruction of three Stuart light tanks.

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Map of Villers-Bocage Town Center. The dotted lines mark the path of the approach route taken by the Panzers of the 101st, and the red 'x' marks the point where Wittmann abandoned his Tiger following its being hit by a 6-pdr anti-tank shell.

On entering the town itself, Wittmann encountered the four Shermans belonging to Regimental HQ. Three of these tanks were quickly taken out, including the two decoy M4A4 Sherman command vehicles - Wittmann of course was not to know that these vehicles were not armed. Woll then slammed another 88mm shell into the scout car belonging to the RHQ Intelligence Officer, with the panicking infantry being showered by deadly shrapnel. Wittmann himself then grabbed the MG34 mounted on his cupola, and joined Woll in razing the remaining M3 half-track, that belonging to the medical officer. The disabled vehicle was blown into the middle of the road, preventing any through way.

Not content with this, Wittmann relentlessly continued his advance, rolling westwards on the gently sloping road towards the center of Villers-Bocage. Only a small number of enemy vehicles had managed to escape the initial barrage, among them the remaining Cromwell of the Regimental HQ of the 4th CLY commanded by Captain Patrick Dyas - who had intelligently backed his vehicle into a secluded side street. By this time 'B' Sqn., located west of Villers, had been alerted to the Tiger's presence.

As Wittmann's Tiger now moved cautiously towards the center of town, it passed the side street where the Cromwell of Captain Dyas had been lurking; shortly after seeing the German vehicle rumble past up Clémenceau Street, Dyas rolled out after it, a scene witnessed by John L. Cloudsley-Thompson, whose own command vehicle had been one of the the three Cromwells 'brewed up' by Wittmann's Tiger. As Cloudsley-Thompson nervously watched Dyas slowly follow Wittmann up the road, Wittmann's next encounter was with a Sherman Firefly belonging to 'B' Sqn., commanded by Sergeant Stan Lockwood. Having sustained a light hit from the 17-pdr cannon of Lockwood's Firefly, Wittmann half-turned into a section of wall, causing the rubble to fall down upon the British vehicle.

Amid this confusion Captain Dyas, who had up to this point kept his Cromwell at safe distance in following Wittmann's Tiger, seized the opportunity to have a crack at his much larger adversary. The brave Dyas did manage to get two 75mm shots off against the massive German vehicle, but instead of claiming his prize he saw both shells bounce harmlessly off the Tiger's thick armor. Dyas was not to get a second chance; with Wittmann now aware of the danger the Tiger's massive gun quickly turned itself on the now helpless and exposed British vehicle, and an accurate shot from Woll succeeded in blowing Dyas clean out of his cupola, leaving him dazed but unhurt. His gunner and driver were not so fortunate, however.

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Above: The wreck of a British Cromwell tank knocked out by Wittmann's tiger inside the town of Villers-Bocage. Below: Wittmann's Tiger on the shattered streets of Villers-Bocage, having been knocked out by a British anti-tank gun. The men in the foreground are part of the attached Leibstandarte Panzergrenadier Division. Note the massive destruction and rubble from Allied bombing.

Having turned away from the threat posed by the advancing Cromwells of 'B' Sqn. to the west, Wittmann passed Dyas's burning vehicle and headed back down Clémenceau Street, whereupon his Tiger was struck on the tracks - its weakest point - by a shell from a British 6-pdr anti-tank gun located in a small side alleyway. Given the earlier exchanges with far heavier Allied weaponry, that the Tiger was disabled by the comparatively lightweight 6-pdr was more than ironic. With one of the drive sprockets damaged by the shell, the Tiger ground to a halt in front of the Huet-Godefroy clothes store. Knowing that further resistance was impossible, Wittmann and his crew exited their vehicle in the hope that it might be later retrieved, and succeeded in making their way some fifteen kilometers on foot back to the HQ of the Panzer Lehr Division where Wittmann provided a thorough briefing on the situation. Later that day, tanks belonging to the Panzer Lehr initiated their own counter-attack, accompanied by the 1st Company of the 101st LSSAH led by SS-Hauptsturmführer Rolf Möbius. By this time the element of surprise had been lost, however; there was to be no repeat of that morning's rout.

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Totally, Wittmann's personal calculations amounted to twenty-one enemy tanks and an unspecified number of half-tracks, troop carriers and Bren gun carriers; in one of the most astonishing feats of arms during the war, he had more or less single-handedly prevented the British advance. Naturally, the German propaganda agencies had a field day, and bloated kill figures were naturally thrown about: Wittman was initially credited with the single-handed destruction of 27 of the 30 British tanks that had been destroyed. Ever after a more sober analysis however, Michael Wittmann's achievement at Villers-Bocage still stands out as highly significant in the annals of armored warfare; in one short sortie his Tiger had destroyed a staggering twenty-seven enemy vehicles, including a dozen tanks.

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Some thirty or more British tanks were destroyed in and around Villers-Bocage on the morning of 13 June, as well as an unspecified number of other vehicles. The Germans lost eleven tanks. Among them six Tigers including Wittmann's Nr. 222. Three of these six vehicles were later salvaged and repaired. While Michael Wittmann may not have won the battle single-handedly as the German propaganda bulletins at the time suggested, his bold and instinctive action was without doubt the catalyst for an action that had driven the enemy out of Villers-Bocage and left them reeling and on the defensive; it was one of the very few occasions on which the Germans would have any sort of ascendancy during these last two years of the war.

ExoCet
05-09-2007, 07:06 PM
that is a great write up Mike.
Valuable info for DH so we can get Villers Bocage just right.

As you can see from the Picture below, the map is very close to being a perfect layout of the town and surrounding Bocage.

http://homepage.ntlworld.com/steven.merritt/Villers-Bocage1.jpg

Mike Nomad
05-09-2007, 08:13 PM
Thanx Exo, I appreciate that coming from you.... :wink2:

OneShot
05-09-2007, 08:15 PM
Guys are we looking for info on the entire Normandy Campaign? I have a lot of info on this entire campaign as well but though you were only interested in Carentan? This is a new thread on Villers so probably my bad ? What is the time frame we are looking at, June 6, 1944 until ?

ExoCet
05-10-2007, 03:20 AM
One Shot, DH will be covering all the major battles of the Normandy Campaign.
So any info on any of them, Even the smaller engagements (ones not normally covered by Games) As these would be a new fresh addition to our mod.

Some of these lesser known battles or engagments Could actually make for a better experience than maybe the major ones, as they will be new to most people. As long as we have as much Info and referance material we should be able to cover almost anything we wish to.

Thanks again to Mike for Hosting these threads, Not only for us to use for refereance, but they make good reading and also gives people like me (less knowledgeable about the history side of things) a more rounded view of both sides of the Normandy Campaign.