The Battle of Villers-Bocage

Freezing the frontline in Normandy

German troops inspecting a Sherman Firefly captured during the battle of Villers-Bocage
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The battle of Villers-Bocage on June 13, 1944, almost exactly 80 years ago, is usually told as the story of Michael Wittmann, the heroic German panzer ace who single-handedly savaged a numerically far superior British force with his invincible Tiger tank. The fundamental elements of that story are true: a single tank commanded by Wittmann did cause disproportionate losses to the British. The narrative, however, is rarely put in proper perspective: why did fight come about in the first place? Why was it important? What did the German victory mean in the big picture? This article will place the clash in the wider context of the Battle of Normandy unfolding all around it.

Two British Cromwell tanks captured by German forces at Point 213 during the Battle of Villers-Bocage
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Both the Allies and the Germans knew that the city of Caen was a critically important site in Normandy. The city not only allowed its defenders to beat back a much larger enemy force that attacked it directly, but also acted as a stable anchor to the frontline, preventing the enemy from flanking the front. Additionally, the Allies also wanted Caen for the nearby airfields, and for the open, dry ground around it which was suitable for mobile warfare and thus favored their highly mechanized forces.

A street corner in the strategically important city of Caen, photographed after the city’s liberation
(Photo: Britannica)

British General Montgomery's invasion plans called for the capture of Caen on D-Day for these very reasons. His hopes, however, proved too optimistic, as German resistance and traffic jams on the beaches prevented Commonwealth troops from taking Caen that day – or, in fact, for over a whole month. Rather than losing troops in pointless direct assaults, Montgomery quickly shifted his strategy to going around Caen from the east, the west, or both directions, and cutting off the city that way. The first such attempts failed, but an attack by the U.S. 1st Infantry Division on the night of June 9-10 forced some German units to withdraw from the front, temporarily leaving a 7.5-mile (12.1 km) gap in German lines some 12 miles (19.3 km) to the west of Caen.

The strategic situation on June 12, with arrows marking the American attack that punched a gap in German lines, and the British attempt to exploit it
(Photo: EyeSerene / Wikipedia)

This was the break the Allies were looking for. If nearby British forces could seize that gap and prevent the Germans from retaking the area, then further forces could pour through, turn southeast, and roll up German forces to the west of Caen, and, eventually, encircle Caen itself. As it happened, the nearest British unit was the highly experienced 7th Armoured Division, who earned their nickname the Desert Rats in the fight against Rommel (Read our earlier article) in Africa. The division was positioned to the east of the eastern edge of the gap. They were to head west, turn south and pass through the gap and to the town of Livry, then turn southeast from there and capture the small town of Villers-Bocage and a nearby ridge marked on maps as Point (or Hill) 213, both squarely behind the German lines. Point 213 dominated the nearby flat lands for miles, and would play an important role in the envelopment of German forces (specifically, the elite Panzer-Lehr armored division), and eventually of Caen.

Aerial photo of Villers-Bocage earlier in June, 1944. Point 213, and the direction from which Michael Wittmann’s tank approached, is along the road to the east.
(Photo: Allied aerial recon photo)

The 22nd Armoured Brigade, followed by other units, passed through the gap around noon on the June 12, and made good headway while suffering light losses after entering German-held territory. Once the brigade reached the vicinity of Livry, the commanding officer, Brigadier Sir William Robert Norris "Looney" Hinde, order a stop for the night to keep the Germans guessing about the brigade's eventual target.

As an aside, Hinde truly earned his nickname. Sometime in mid-June 1944 (around the time of the battle), he was distracted from briefing his senior officers by the sight of a rare caterpillar, which he promptly collected. When one of his subordinates pointed out that it was not the right time for zoology, he replied "Don’t be such a bloody fool, Mike. You can fight a battle every day or your life, but you might not see a caterpillar like that in fifteen years." He was also as brave as he was eccentric, and gunners in forward units had to be reminded not to automatically fire on all vehicles ahead of the main advance, as the brigadier was likely in that vehicle.

Brigadier Hinde, commander of the 22nd Armoured Brigade
(Photo: unknown photographer)

Naturally, the Germans were desperate to plug the gap in their lines as quickly as they could. All of their available forces, however, were already committed, and reinforcements were several days away. The only free reserve was the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion, which arrived in Normandy on June 12 after a five-day drive. Unfortunately for the Germans, the battalion's Tiger I tanks, while heavily armed and armored, were not designed for long drives under their own power: of the nominal strength of 45 Tigers, only 17 arrived as the rest broke down on the way. Of the battalion's three companies, 2nd Company happened to be the one to meet the British advance first. Of the company's 17 tanks, only 6 were present in the area; one of them had just broken down, and another one suffered track damage and was only partially combat-ready.

The company was led by 30-year-old SS-Obersturmführer (the equivalent of 1st Lieutenant) Michael Wittmann, a popular figure in Germany and the fifth highest-scoring "panzer ace," who would be credited with around 135-138 kills by the time of his death. Wittmann began his service on StuG III assault guns and Panzer III tanks, and was a veteran of the Battle of Kursk (Read our earlier article) and many other battles on the Eastern Front. He was once credited with destroying the Soviet T-34s and five anti-tank guns on a single day. Of the six Tigers present near Villers-Bocage, his was the one that broke down, so he fought in a tank commandeered from one of his subordinates. (This sort of tank-hopping was pretty common due to the Tiger's unreliability.)

Wittmann’s tank company on June 7, 1944, with Wittmann in the lead tank
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The general area around Villers-Bocage came under heavy Allied naval fire on the night before the 13th as preparation for Hinde's final advance, forcing Wittmann's company to relocate several times.

The British column moved out and passed through Livry, with the sight of jubilant French civilians putting the soldiers in a relaxed mood. They reached Villers-Bocage after a few minor encounters with German soldiers and vehicles. Most of the column settled down inside the town, while a recon force rolled out on the road leading east toward Point 213. A column of personnel carriers loaded with infantry also headed for the hill, but pulled over nose-to-tail to allow further vehicles to pass by and reinforce the high point.

Wittmann's tanks were located to the south of the hill. He was surprised to find a large British force on the road, but decided to act quickly and attack. He later reported: "I had no time to assemble my company; instead I had to act quickly, as I had to assume that the enemy had already spotted me and would destroy me where I stood. I set off with one tank and passed the order to the others not to retreat a single step but to hold their ground."

Michael Wittmann a week after the action at Villers-Bocage
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Wittmann broke cover, rolled onto the road near the hill, and turned west, toward the town. He was spotted at around 9 a.m. by a half-track which radioed in the only warning the British in Villers-Bocage would get. The Tiger quickly knocked out a Cromwell tank (Read our earlier article), the last one in the force that headed for the hill, then followed up by destroying a Sherman Firefly (Read our earlier article). As he headed west, the rest of his company rolled up the hill and took quick care of the British recon force.

The remains of the British transport column by the roadside
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Wittmann began his rampage. He destroyed the personnel carriers by the roadside with a combination of machine gun fire and high explosive shells, then knocked out three M3 Stuart light tanks at the town's east edge before rolling into the town proper. British PIATs (Read our earlier article) and anti-tank guns proved useless and were quickly abandoned by their crews. The Tiger proceeded to destroy a medical officer's half-track, possibly another personnel carrier, and four more Cromwells, which, like many British tanks, suffered from sluggish reverse speed and couldn't back away quickly enough. Getting close to the center of town, Wittmann knocked out two observation post tanks (one Cromwell and one Sherman), which were only used by artillery observers as a safe lookout spot, and one of them didn't even have a gun. In his rampage, Wittmann missed one particular target: the Cromwell of Captain Pat Dyas. Dyas's tank was hiding in a side street, and the Tiger rolled past him at point blank range, offering a clean shot at its relatively vulnerable tracks. Dyas, however, couldn't take that shot, as his gunner disappeared on a toilet break just before the German tank's arrival. Once he rounded up the gunner, Dyas rolled out onto the main street and started shadowing the Tiger from a distance, waiting for another chance to strike.

Captain Patrick Dyas, who decided to go stalk the Tiger
(Photo: unknown photographer)

The Tiger reached the western edge of Villers-Bocage and briefly dueled with a Firefly, which managed to dent the driver's visor on the German tank, prompting Wittmann to retreat. His withdrawal finally brought him close to Dyas's Cromwell, and the British tank quickly put two shells into the Tiger's rear. The armor there was weaker, but still not weak enough; Wittmann's turret turned around and blasted the Cromwell with a single shot. To his great fortune, Dyas was standing up in the commander's cupola rather than hiding inside. The blast of the hit threw him out of the tank, but killed the driver and the gunner inside. Dyas scrambled for safety. He found one of the knocked-out observation post tanks, discovered that the radio was still working, and sent a radio message to British forces alerting them of the attack. His face was badly lacerated by shrapnel, and he only retained his eyesight because he quickly found a medical officer who was an eye specialist and pulled some metal fragments out of his eyes with a magnet.

Captain Pat Dyas’s destroyed Cromwell tank after the battle
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

Meanwhile, Wittmann was retreating to the east. His tank was finally disabled by an anti-tank gun on the eastern outskirt of town, forcing him and his crew to leave the vehicle behind and make their way on foot to the Panzer-Lehr headquarters 3.7 miles (6 km) to the north. In 15 minutes, Wittmann's unit destroyed about 13-14 tanks, 13-15 transport vehicles, two anti-tank guns; most of these were a result of Wittmann's attack, the rest were at Point 213 which was attacked by the rest of the German company.

German soldiers walking past Wittmann’s disabled tank in Villers-Bocage
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The Germans captured Point 213 later in the morning, while the British in town dug in and prepared for the inevitable follow-up attack by more German tank forces. That attack came at 1 p.m. when Panzer IVs (Read our earlier article) and Tigers from the Panzer-Lehr Division showed up without infantry support and rolled into Villers-Bocage. While Wittmann's rampage caused disproportionate damage and shook up the British, the town's defenders redeemed themselves in the afternoon by knocking out or immobilizing multiple Tigers before the remaining British retreated at around 6 p.m.

One of the Tigers knocked out during the afternoon attack on June 13
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The fighting continued on the 14th. Villers-Bocage was back in German hands, but the 22nd Armoured Brigade still had a presence outside the town. They dug in and, supported by American artillery fire, defeated the first German attack. A later German push eventually got so close to British positions that American artillery could no longer fire without hitting friend and foe alike. The defenders were confident that they could hold their position for a while longer, but infantry forces from the north failed to reach them, and they were eventually ordered to abandon positions and straighten out the frontline.

Wittmann (center) talking about the attack with Sepp Dietrich, commander of the 1st SS Panzer Corps, and Hermann Weiser, adjutant to the same corps
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The battle for Villers-Bocage claimed some 213 British lives. Five of those men were captured by the Germans and apparently died in a fatal misunderstanding. Nearby impacts from American artillery prompted them to dive for cover in a ditch; their German guards thought they were trying to escape and shot them dead. 23 to 27 tanks were lost in total, more than half of them actually on Point 213, and not in town.

Michael Wittmann photographer a month before D-Day
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The battle wasn't particularly large in terms of casualties, but it became a focus for propaganda on both sides. Michael Wittmann became a hero in the German press, which published doctored photographs to give a false impression of the scale of destruction. He was promoted, and was given the Swords to his already held Knight's Cross of the Iron Cross With Oak Leaves by Hitler personally. He didn't live long enough to enjoy his fame: he was killed in action against Commonwealth forces on August 8. He is buried in the La Cambe German military cemetery in Normandy (Read our earlier article).

Wittmann receiving his decoration from Hitler
(Photo: Bundesarchiv)

The battle of Villers-Bocage was originally considered important due to its propaganda value, but it still retains its importance if we strip that away. Up until June 13, the Allies were concentrating on "land grabs," trying to take lightly defended or undefended ground to increase the area of their lodgement. With the failure to capture Villers-Bocage and Point 213, however, and with the failure to move troops past the area, such easy captures were no longer possible, and both sides had to dig in and prepare for attritional warfare that would only be broken by Operation Cobra (Read our earlier article) in late July.

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