When the mighty German Tiger I entered service during the Autumn of 1942, it was the most advanced tank in the world and one designed specifically to dominate the battlefield. Capable of destroying anything the Allies had in service, the Tiger possessed a stand-off advantage where it could ‘kill without being killed’, picking off enemy tanks before they could even think about returning fire. Unfortunately for the Wehrmacht, the awesome potential of the Tiger was never fully realised, as it was over engineered, extremely complex and expensive to produce, ensuring that there were never enough Tigers on the battlefield at any one time. Between 1942 and 1944, only 1,347 Tiger 1s were manufactured and whilst it was undoubtedly one of the finest tanks ever produced, it could not hold back the ever increasing numbers of Allied armour. Highlighting this numerical disparity, American factories were able to produce over 49,000 Sherman Tanks during WWII.
A celebrated panzer ace with reputedly around 135 tank victories to his name, Michael Wittman combined his undoubted tactical skill with the awesome power of the mighty Tiger I tank to devastating effect on the battlefields of Europe. Perhaps his most famous action was the ambush of elements of the British 7th Armoured Division at Villers-Bocage on 13th June 1944, when during the space of a frenetic 15 minutes of combat, he destroyed 14 tanks and at least the same number of armoured personnel carriers. Unfortunately for Wittmann and the rest of Schwere Panzer Abteilung 101, the Allies were now flooding Normandy with troops and armour and his undoubted skills would be required in multiple locations at the same time. Wherever he found himself in combat, he would usually be at a significant numerical disadvantage.
On the morning of 8th August 1944, the Germans were coming to terms with strategic losses as a result of a massive Allied offensive ‘Operation Totalize’ in and around the Caen area. With his Tiger concealed in a wood, Wittmann was attempting to assess the situation and plan where best to direct a counterattack. Knowing he would be facing much greater numbers of Allied armour, he still had great faith in the fighting qualities of the Tiger I and backed himself to better any armoured unit who dared to oppose him. The Germans were still coming to terms with news of the combat introduction of a powerful new Allied tank, the Sherman Firefly, however, reports were that they were in very short supply and were being deployed sparingly.
On that fateful day, Wittmann was unable to use his own assigned Tiger I (Turret number 205), so he and his crew were using the machine belonging to Battalion Commander Heinz von Westerhagen, a machine which had the turret number 007 and one which would soon be forever linked with Germany’s most famous panzer ace. The plan was to attack and destroy Allied units occupying high ground near the town of Cintheaux, south of Caen, claiming the position for themselves and holding it until support units could arrive. Wittmann led a force of 4 Tigers across the perilous Normandy countryside, concealing their progress from air attack wherever possible. As they passed an orchard on the way to their objective, near the town of Saint-Aignan-de-Cramesnil, the battle group were completely unaware that their progress was being watched and that they were heading into a planned armoured killing zone.
Amongst the Allied tanks concealed in the orchard was a single Sherman Firefly, with its crew including a young gunner who was gaining a reputation as being something of a crack shot. Waiting until the Tigers were at relatively close range, the Firefly opened fire at the last Tiger, getting off two quick rounds before the enemy tank could react, knocking it out. Withdrawing to take up a new firing position and to avoid being fired upon by the remaining Tigers, the Sherman next targeted a Tiger displaying the turret number 007, letting off a round before they themselves could be fired upon. The round penetrated the hull of the German tank, setting off an explosive chain reaction which ignited its stored ammunition with such force that it blew the turret off the tank.
Clearly, the explosion would have instantly killed the Tiger’s crew, including Germany’s famous Tiger ‘Ace’ Michael Wittmann, although this was unknown at the time. Even the mighty Tiger tank could not hold back the overwhelming armoured superiority enjoyed by Allied armoured units in the wake of the D-Day landings.
Expected: Autumn 2020