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Wittmann – Hero or Villain?

June 13, 2010

Today is the 66th anniversary of Michael Wittmann’s famed attack on Villers-Bocage. This assault, subject of continuing debate to this day, saw Wittmann and his crew destroy a significant number of British armoured vehicles both outside and inside Villers-Bocage in a short period of time, before their Tiger was immobilised and they were forced to flee on foot.

There cannot be a military historian or buff who has not heard of this famed Tiger Ace. Indeed, there is a whole industry now sprung up around Wittmann, often producing such tasteless tat as this. Two videogames feature levels based on the action on 13th June 1944. There are countless books dedicated to the action and to Wittmann himself.  What is it about this man, a member of one of the most elite divisions of the Waffen-SS, a Nazi through and through, that seems to fascinate people to this day. I admit, I have been taken in by the Wittmann legend in the past, and a scale model of Tiger 222, the vehicle he supposedly used 66 years ago today to destroy the lead column of the 7th Armoured Division, sits on one of my bookshelves.

Wittmann sat on the gun of his Tiger

Hearing one of the Tank Museum’s Veteran Podcasts made me reflect upon this. In an interview with Trooper Joe Ekins in 2009, the man who killed Wittmann in August 1944, he comments that

I think that it’s entirely wrong to make out that German officers were heroes. Not only Wittmann, but Rommel and all the lot of them. They all accepted Hitler’s theories and whatnot, and they fought for them, and if they fought for them they must have known what was going on. But on top of that, any man who invades someone else’s country and is prepeared to kill – not only soldiers but men and women and kids or anybody – take from that country the  food, the best houses to live in, which Wittmann did along with the rest of all the Germans soldiers, come on! He’s a criminal, and he was born a criminal.

There is a great deal of truth in this statement. Wittmann’s deeds on 13th June 1944 were amazing from a purely military historical standpoint – a single tank crew taking on an experienced British armoured forces and emerging victorious – but that story is itself clouded by contemporary propaganda which is still parroted by historians who should know better. Glamourising it only serves to glamourise an element of the Nazi forces fighting in Normandy. It is a difficult line to draw, for to ignore such an incident would be an injustice to military history, yet the difficulty is that Wittmann’s action has drowned out almost every other tank action in the Normandy campaign, save perhaps the British armoured disaster at Goodwood. Both are now de rigeur in any history of the campaign, and both in isolation reveal absolutely nothing about the relative strengths and weaknesses of either the British or the German tank forces. One of the most notable elements of the Wittmann story, conveniently forgotten by many, is the fact that when rushing to engage the 4th County of London Yeomanry on Point 213, he was forced to mount a different vehicle than his own, which was laid up for repairs.

Wittmann also demonstrated a considerable streak of foolhardiness during his time in Normandy, a cocky overconfidence that, ultimately, was to get him killed in action. During the engagement on August 8th 1944 in which Trooper Ekins made the fatal shot, Wittmann led his tanks from the 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion in a hell-for leather charge over open ground which begged for disaster and led to it. Both this and the earlier battle in Villers-Bocage cost the Germans several irreplaceable Tigers either completely destroyed or left abandoned to the British. From a military standpoint, this was hardly the marker of great success. True, the initial assault on the British forces at Villers-Bocage did catch them off-guard and led directly to the defeat of Operation PERCH, but that was as much thanks to the continuation of the offensive by the Panzer Lehr Division as much as the assault by Wittmann himself. Again, the action in the afternoon of the 13th, which involved bitter fighting in Villers to winkle out the entrenched British troops, is also heavily overlooked.

Michael Wittmann was a brave soldier, and he was also a Nazi. Do not forget that, for the more he is glamourised, the more he becomes a figurehead for the small remnants of Nazism that exist in the world today. Do not forget also the equally brave men of the 7th Armoured Division who died by Wittmann’s hand and during the continued fighting in Villers-Bocage 66 years ago today. Many of their graves go unvisited, while Wittmann’s is now a popular stop on the Normandy trail. As a final thought, here’s Ekins comment on the Tiger Ace’s demise:

Quite frankly, he got his just deserts.

 

The wreckage of Wittmann’s last Tiger, 007. Wittmann and his crew were killed instantly.

-JK

What’s That Coming Over The Hill?

June 12, 2010

Two tanks sit beside a windmill that trundles peacefully in the midst of war.  In the distance, shells whoosh through the air, while all around is the ever-present crackle of small-arms fire. The radio in the tanks suddenly buzzes to life.

“Hey guys, we’ve got a King Tiger somewhere around Hertville, you seem him.”

Peering through periscopes, the two tank crews watch for the metal monster. As they and the windmill are seated atop a hill they have a perfect view of Hertville in the distance. A small cluster of cottages around a church, the village is surrounded on both sides by hull-high cornfields, dotted with haystacks. They watch for the King Tiger, but nothing stirs. Then, suddenly, it looms from beside the church.

“Engaging!” screams one commander from the turret of his Sherman Firefly. I, sat in the other tank, a Cromwell VII, try and range in. Suddenly the King Tiger’s turret whirrs in our direction. It engages the Firefly first, evidently seeing its lethal 17-pounder gun. The Sherman explodes instantly. The King Tiger fires at me, solid shot slamming into the ground in front of my Cromwell.

“REVERSE!” I scream to the driver.

The Cromwell painfully backs up while I fire wildly at the King Tiger. Unbeknownst to me, while we were engaging the monster, a Panzer IV has snuck up on our right flank. With a perfect view, it nails my Cromwell through the turret. Endgame.

Just another battle in Darkest Hour, Europe ’44-45 

A Sherman before...

I have only just discovered this delightful war simulator, a mod for Red Orchestra, and available via Steam. Up to 50 players battle it out over objective-based maps in either infantry or armour-based combat (or both!). Those who destroy the enemy or capture the most objectives by the end of the game, win!

It’s a slow game though, certainly not one for the Call of Duty addicts. Much as I love that series, it’s almost restful to mount up in a Sherman in DH and tear across open countryside for a few minutes before engaging a German panzer in the hazy distance.

...and after

 

This match was particularly frustrating however. After my Cromwell was destroyed, I mounted up at the respawn point in a Sherman Firefly and charged off to a flanking position near the Windmill. Just as I got hull down, solid shot starting whizzing over me. I popped out of the commander’s hatch and scanned the fields ahead. At first, nothing…then I was looking down the 88mm barrel of the King Tiger. Swearing like a trooper, I traversed and sighted him, just as he found his range. End of Sherman.

Starting again, I mounted a 76mm Sherman and charged off to another flanking position, following two other Shermans. After waiting in the cover of a woodland, the other two headed off to the cornfields. One moved safely beyond my field of vision, the other was hit in the side and brewed up instantly. I scanned ahead and just caught a view of the King Tiger’s turret. Traversing again, I fired a few rounds to find my range…and was again hit by the King Tiger and killed instantly. End of another Sherman.

Next, a standard Sherman. Off I went to find trouble, and was brewed up instantly by a Panther camping the spawns. Grrr.

After a few more Shermans, I decided enough was enough. This is an awesome game, and riding into battle with a hoard of Shermans is one of the most amazing videogame experience of recent times, but sometimes Darkest Hour players can take the piss. But maybe tomorrow, I’ll get that King Tiger…

-JK

The War Memorial Project – A Real Hero

June 12, 2010

For the next couple of weeks we will be indundated with news from the World Cup in South Africa. Men who’s only quality seems to be the ability to kick a rubber ball into a string net will be hailed as heroes, their deeds heralded around the world. This is something that irks a non-football fan like me. Footballers are not heroes, they’re just good atheletes, if that’s your sort of thing.

For this month’s post on the War Memorial Project I want to highlight a real hero. He is on a war memorial in a British church, and he isn’t even British. Edouard Nihoul was born in 1895 in Waremme in eastern Belgian, a short hop away from the area which, a little under fifty years later, would be the scene of some of the fiercest fighting during the Battle of the Bulge. He arrived in Cardiff with his parents following the German invasion of Belgium in August 1914 and moved to the quiet village of Llanishen. However, young Edouard evidently did not intend to remain a passive refugee. That November, having gone to London, he enlisted in the Belgian Army and began training to go to war.

Two years later, in June 1916, Edouard was an Adjutant in the 7th Regiment of the Line, 2nd Belgian Division. This Division was operating near Oostvleteren in Flanders, and was the scene of heavy fighting. On the 30th June, the 7th Regiment’s position came under heavy German bombardment. Edouard spotted a comarde lying grievously wounded, and rushed to his aid. As he struggled to help him, both men were caught in the bombardment and killed.

Initially, Edouard was buried in Oostvleteren, but once the war was over and Belgium was liberated, his body was reinterred in his hometown. Unlike the footballers who will recieve all the attention over the next few weeks, young Edouard was a true hero. Paid a pittance for a job he did not want, he went to fight despite the fact that he could have remained safely in Britain, and died trying to help a comrade and liberate his country. Never forget him, nor those like him.

A Belgian soldier waiting to go to the front.

-JK

*Photo from Great War Primary Document Archive: Photos of the Great War

Out of the Armchair

June 7, 2010

“STRETCHER BEARER!”

I screamed the words at the top of my voice, searing my throat. I don’t normally shout like that. Never thought I would. Ahead of me, as I took aim with my Lee-Enfield, one of the members of a 53rd Welsh infantry patrol had gone down, hit by a sniper. He’d slumped backward and now lay motionless, weapon by his side, as we scrambled for cover and returned fire. We’d hardly gone a few yards from a former German trench when the sniper fired. Our Bren gunner lay in the trench and popped off a few rounds while I stared down my sights, vainly looking for a sign of anything. The man next to me, Rick, ran forward to the still figure and crouched beside him, shell dressing ready. Taking one look at the wounded man, he shook his head and hefted him over his shoulder.

“F***ing cover me!” he yelled.

We fell back slowly, firing indiscriminately while the Bren banged away. I staggered into the trench beside the gunner and clacked off a few rounds before Rick and the wounded man leapt into the trench with a roar. They landed with a thunk, and then, suddenly, the corpse moved.

“Good job chaps, now I want to practise running to contact.”

This was another training day for the 53rd Welsh. No rounds had really been fired, and there was no sniper, save another re-enacting hiding behind an old railway sleeper. It was designed to train us for private battles, but it had an equally important purpose. While it was never going to be the same as being really under fire, it served as a reminder that wearing uniforms was not all fun and games. Already I was steaming, my knee aching from where I’d banged it jumping into the trench. Now, with muscles aching I was put on point as the patrol moved forward from the trench again along the road. This time, the section leader, now back in the land of the living, yelled at me to “RUN!” to cover. This I struggled to do. While I’m certainly not military fit, I thought I was in pretty good shape, but this proved otherwise. Trying to run on a gravel road in hobnailed boots trying not to fall over, while simultaneously hoping your tin hat doesn’t fall off and looking for a spot to leap into, never mind carrying the weight of a full pack and rifle, was more than my muscles could take. I failed hopelessly. My section leader ran straight past me and was shot again by the sniper, crumpling dramatically while I ducked onto some gravel, the others behind me.

“Is he actually dead this time?” one of them asked, half-jokingly

“Piss off” responded the ‘corpse’

As punishment for my failure I was delegated to haul the Bren gun, which is quite possibly the heaviest gun in existence. Okay, I’m sure a thousand squaddies past and present will roll their eyes at that statement and mutter “Walt!”, but it is damned heavy in comparison to a Lee-Enfield. I set it up behind the sleeper and watched down the road as the rest of the chaps carried on patrolling to a disused railway building in the distance, practising spacing and proper posture. There I lay, alone in the searing sun, sweating conkers in my itchy, thick, woolen battledress and squinting down the sights so hard my face began to twitch uncontrollably.

The view from the back of a Bren Gun

As I lay there sweltering I counted my blessings that I was a military historian and didn’t have to do this for real. That didn’t prevent me from thoroughly enjoying the day of course, and simply reinforced the fact that no matter how much you read, nothing compares to doing what you write about. Of course, if you’re writing about a war in the past, you won’t be able to experience it (thankfully) with the exception of re-enacting. Only then to realise the sheer weight of the equipment and weapons, the difficulty of movement, the heat of the clothing and the din. And that’s before anyone tries to shoot you and without any real explosions. Those who so readily criticise troops of the past for not moving quickly enough, or not fighting hard enough, should try a bit of re-enacting. It might get rid of the outline in their armchair.

My "war-face". Dear oh-dear, oh-dear...

-JK

Remembering D-Day

June 6, 2010

To commemorate the 66th Anniversary of D-Day in Normandy, a group of re-enactors met at 1940’s Swansea Bay and held a small service before they trained in memory of  the men who perished on 6th June 1944.

The service involved all the re-enactors forming up on parade for a minute’s silence, and then a poetry reading. It was very moving and the silence focussed everyone’s attention on the men who wore the uniforms for real and slogged up beaches or leapt out of aircraft on D-Day.

Re-enactors remember D-Day

It was just a small service attened by a few family members and visitors to the museum, but such pauses are important on days like 6/6/44. In an age where there is seemingly a silence for everything, we should all try and pause for just a moment in  our busy lives and think those who fell for our country in past and present wars, whether on the anniversary of a battle or merely when visiting a memorial wherever it may be. Lest we forget

Cambes-en-Plaine CWGC Cemetery, Normandy

-JK

Meeting Up With the Airborne

June 6, 2010

Today is the 66th Anniversary of the Normandy D-Day – I say that because every time I mention D-Day in my grandfather’s presence, he enquires, with a sarcastic tone, “which D-Day?”. He had seen two before June 6th 1944. Nevertheless, D-Day, 6/6/44 was a significant date regardless of how you look at it, and I envy those currently in Normandy for the anniversary celebrations – I hope to be there myself next year.

In the meantime, I leave you with a mocked-up copy of Life magazine, “Meeting Up With the Airborne” – the photo is a posed and edited shot from the Exercise Tiger March with yours truly in the role of a paratrooper. It represents the first contact between troops of the 101st Airborne and the 4th Infantry Division in the flooded countryside behind Utah Beach.

D-Day was also just the beginning of a brutal three-month campaign that saw hundreds of thousands of men fighting in often very close quarters. Let us not forget those who fell  after 6/6/44 on the long road to Victory in Europe.

-JK

Marching into the Past

June 5, 2010

It was a cold and grey morning on Slapton Sands. Across the beach, the rain and wind whipped against the shingle and an empty landscape. The occasional car hurried along the main road to Kingsbridge, but otherwise, all was quiet. It was a Bank Holiday weekend, but the holidaymakers had stayed in their hotels, the weather far too inclement for them.

But not for a group of six men who stood, huddled against the inclement weather, in the shelter of a public toilet on the beach at Torcross.

These were no ordinary men. They wore uniforms and carried rifles. A policeman laughed and joked with them as he waited to see them off. They had come to remember events from a war of long ago, and to help those wounded in a war being fought today. They were marching into the past to help the present.

What most holidaymakers fail to realise as they sit on the soft shingle of Slapton Sands is the history that is seeped into it. 66 years ago, where you might sit today and lick an ice cream, American GIs stumbled up the same shingle you sit on now, weighed down by woolen uniforms often soaked in seawater, carrying a heavy pack and fumbling to grip their weighty M1 Garand rifles. They practised for an invasion, an invasion of where they did not know exactly, but they knew it was coming. Until that day came, they prepared here, in this quiet, otherwise peaceful part of Devon.

This practise was far from harmless. The entire population of the vast exercise area, some 30,000 acres of the South Hams, had been forcibly evicted by the British government in 1943. Homes became artillery targets. Naval shells slammed into beachside hotels, reducing them to rubble. The small Devon lanes that linked each abandoned community became clogged with the traffic of war – trucks, tanks, jeeps. 

Men died during these exercises too. Live ammunition was used to simulate the effects of real warfare and to inure them to it. Some of them were killed by this ammunition, as shells fell short or men failed to aim off. Even more unfortunate, for some of the men waiting on landing ships further out to sea from the sands, some of this live ammunition was fired by German ships. In the early hours of 27th April 1944, a group of German E-Boats penetrated this line of transports waiting to come ashore and attacked them. Two of the ships sank, others were heavily damaged – the one pictured below somehow managed to limp into Dartmouth.

Nearly 1,000 soldiers and sailors were killed, during this Exercise “Tiger” – which continued in spite of the terrible losses at sea –  and a memorial stands to them today at the small village of Torcross. It is itself a part of that time, a Sherman Tank that went down with one of the ships but was recovered by a local hotelier, Ken Small, nearly 40 years later. From this tank, this small and slightly mad band of re-enactors were to march across the old exercise area. I was one of them.

The first few miles across the open beach were difficult. Wind and rain whipped at our cloth and wool uniforms, making us shiver and swear, our faces numbed by an unseasonal cold. Rifles became slick in our hands and their weight clawed at our fingers. We sweated buckets but still shivered in the wind. If we tried to walk on the shingle, our legs screamed after a few yards of struggling through the multitudinous pebbles. It was perhaps as close to the weather of D-Day, which took place on beaches across the Channel 66 years ago, as one would want to get. Rain dripped from the tips of helmets  to add to our discomfort. We were tired, wet and miserable. Much as the men who did it for real must have been.  At least we were not being fired at, or our ears assailed with the noise of war – the shriek of rockets, the scream of artillery and men, and the constant crackled of bullets. All we had was the whoosh of the wind and the occasional rush as a car went past.

It took roughly an hour to get to the end of Slapton Sands. Our squad leader proudly announced that we had completed the easy bit. Easy? While it was hardly a struggle, we did expect that, as we advanced along country lanes, it would get easier, and at least we would get shelter from the weather.

Boy, were we wrong.

To climb up to the main road to Darmouth, the group would have to follow an old road, now footpath, to reach the village of Strete. At first, this footpath rose in a gentle climb that, ordinarily, offered impressive views on the beach, but today simply showed more rain and an unforgivingly grey sea. As we reached the half-way point, the gradient increased dramatically. Suddenly our feet were being pushed upwards with almost every step, pulling on our already shattered thigh muscles in almost impossible directions. Several of the team had to pause and admire the view”, a nice euphamism for catching one’s breath. Such a climb would be a reasonable challenge for an unencumbered walker – equipped with a soaking uniform, helmet and pack full of gear, as well as a rifle, it was a nightmare. Somehow, we did it, staggering into Strete along a winding country lane shrouded in fog. Several cars buzzed past us as we went, and their occupants gazed in bewildered awe at the line of tired GIs who emerged from the mist. They must have thought we were ghosts, risen from the sands to haunt the lanes of the South Hams for evermore. Perhaps we were…

As we moved through Strete our pointman began to yell “Squad! Go Left! Go Left! Go Left-Right-LEFT!” This brought out locals and holidaymakers who watched amazed as we passed. Our Sergeant popped into the local post office, rifle on his shoulder, and came out with a decent amount in sponsorship money, though he assured us that this was without recourse to the rifle! We left the village and began to follow more meandering roads through the countryside, until we reached what became known as the “Normandy farm”. This building bore a striking resemblance to the type of farmhouses one encounters in Normandy, and only served to reinforce the fact that the Americans had chosen this area well. Indeed, at frequent intervals those of us who had taken the pilgrimage to Normandy remarked upon the similarities in the countryside, whether it was the wide beaches, the “draws” in the cliffs or the often bocage-like nature of some of the country lanes.

The squad continued marching down to Blackpool Sands, which during the exercises had been used as a refuelling beach, where thousands of cans of fuel were piled up onshore to be taken to the “front” by waiting trucks. It was during this section of the march that we stood to one side on the road to let a bus pass, and then saluted the astounded passengers as it drove on. By now, the weather was clearing up, the rain had stopped, and we were in a fine mood, sharing jokes and whistling to ’40s tunes. The only issue was the increasing weight of our rifles. No matter how one carried them, they were the biggest burden. Your arms would ache after a long period of holding it in a ready position, and if left on the shoulder it merely dug into the skin with the rest of the web gear. In combat, of course, such pains would doubltess vanish within seconds, but it was a reminder of the sheer weight of the equipment that soldiers carried during the war. This is not something that one gets from books.

After some refreshments at Blackpool Sands we pressed on to the finish line. By now, our bodies, unaccustomed to the rigours of real soldiering, were really beginning to protest. Shoulders ached constantly from the chafing of straps. Boots jarred at blisters and sore heels. Leg muscles screamed with every hill, while, even though it was not a hot day, stops to take a sip from the canteen became frequent. We had not too much further to go to Dartmouth when, muscles still aching, we arrived in some real Bocage country. Here, there were no villages, and virtually no cars. Steep, almost slablike hedgerows rose either side of the lane. One of the team commented on the Normandy-type shivers these lanes produced. Imagine being on a road like this in 1944. German paratroopers could be lurking anywhere – in front, behind, on either flank, just waiting for the right moment to strike and mow down your entire squad. It is amazing that the Allies broke through at all in such countryside.

The final march into Dartmouth was perhaps the most emotional. Forming up just outside the centre of the town, we shouldered arms and marched down to the quayside, our pointman again yelling “GO LEFT! GO LEFT! GO LEFT-RIGHT-LEFT!” Dartmouth had been hit the previous day by a terrible fire that had destroyed some of the town’s priceless Tudor buildings, and combined with the bad weather the Bank Holiday crowds were nonexistent. Still, there were enough people to turn in their tracks and watch as a squad of GIs marched out of the past and down to the quay where we finished the march by the Fairmile Motor Launch.  The rest of the squad went for a cruise in the boat that ended in Brixham, where I, as a nominal member of the Airborne and thus no lover of boats, met them in Brixham for a few colas in the local American diner. We had done it!

 

During our long hike from the Sherman Tank to the Fairmile, we raised £140 alone for the British Limbless Ex-Serviceman’s Association. In total, the team of 6 re-enactors raised over £1200 pounds for the organisation, as well as exploring our military past. I cannot begin to describe the feeling of being in a part of the country steeped in WW2 history, alone with just a squad of GIs sharing banter. It was like going back in time. And I cannot wait to do it again.

-JK