June 13, 1944 - The Battle of Villers-Bocage & the World War II Tank Myth
Updated: Jun 12, 2021
June 13, 1944. Normandy. A British tank unit moving out from the village of Villers-Bocage runs into an ambush engineered by SS Captain Michael Wittmann. The Tigers of his company rip into the Allied force in one of the legendary tank actions of history, with Wittmann’s Tiger launching on a reckless run and blazing through his foes. But what led to this victory? Was it the machine, the men, the situation – or something else? Let’s talk tanks.
Today’s post, again, is less narrative and more theme. The theme is TANKS! Tanks of World War II, to be specific. There’s a big, burning question that has spawned a cottage industry of books, History Channel documentaries, video games, and fights on the internet: who had the best tank of World War II? The answer to most people is almost always, “the Germans,” but this is wrong, and I’m here to tell ya why. Strap in everyone, let’s do some mythbusting.
Each of the major nations of World War II produced its own little fleet of armored vehicles – this is easily apparent. What might be less apparent is that each of these fleets was built to fit each nation’s doctrine – that is, how they planned to use them in wartime. Tanks are machines of war. They do not exist independent of the people using them and directing their movements. They are made to accomplish a task, and “fighting” is not only too broad of a description, but is only part of a tank’s job.
What makes a good tank, then, depends on what the tank is designed to actually *do.* And what a tank is asked to *do* depends on what the army’s generals and theorists think that tanks are *for,* which isn’t a simple question. Are tanks meant to support the infantry? Are they meant to operate on their own? Are they meant to operate as part of a combined-arms team? Are they meant to pursue a retreating enemy, or break through an enemy line? All of these questions affect how a tank is designed: how much armor and speed it requires, what weapons it is armed with, how easy it should be to maintain and manufacture.
A tank, being a machine, also has criteria that good machines meet. Is the tank easy to produce? Is it easy to maintain? How does it respond to conditions like desert, winter or jungle terrain? Can it be amphibious? How is it transported? What is its fuel consumption? And does any of this match our country’s possible conflicts?
The German Army is well-known for being the pioneering force in “blitzkrieg” warfare – a word, I should note, that the Germans themselves never used. Instead, they used the word “auftragstaktik” – a word which means “mission tactics,” a much older concept of German warfare wedded to new technology. The German panzer force that won the climactic victories over Poland and France in 1939 and 1940 was not armed with the big, mean Tigers and Panthers that would haunt Allied tank crews in later years.
Instead, over 80% of the tanks in the German army during those first years of World War II were light tanks, less than 10 tons apiece with at most a small cannon. In fact, these tanks were far inferior to British, French and even Polish tanks in quality. The key difference were the tactics and the men commanding them. The German panzer divisions massed their tanks in large, disciplined units, with every tank having a radio and with a clear mission to exploit into the enemy’s rear.
The British, French, and Polish tanks, even though they were superior to German machines (and the French even had more tanks than Germany in 1940), were used ineffectively, broken up into small packets to support the infantry. The Germans, then, had the worst tanks but the best doctrine, which enabled them to win their blitzkrieg victories.
By the time the Germans invaded Russia in 1941, they had rearmed their divisions with medium tanks – Panzer IIIs and Panzer IVs – and the Panzer IV would be the main German tank for the bulk of the war. They were in for a rude awakening, though, because the Soviet Union had the best tank in the world at the time. The T-34 was a crude machine, but it had a big gun, thick, sloped armor, and it was so utterly simple that a caveman could repair it. The German Panzer lines were textbook German engineering – brilliant but complex – but their ingenious crews kept their machines going throughout the war in 1941, against both the Russians and against the British in the deserts of North Africa.
By 1942, however, the German tank system was growing weak. It became immediately apparent that the German tanks had been designed to win short campaigns quickly, not to fight long wars of attrition in the hot desert or the Russian winter. The difficulty in repairing German tanks, as well as their high fuel consumption, also meant that many German units were soon running short of vehicles. It didn’t help that Nazi industries kept churning out new, slightly varied models of tanks, which meant that every new version needed new parts and also caused assembly lines to completely reset every so often, causing snarls in part and unit production.
What happened next didn’t help. Hitler was furious that the Russians had somehow made a better tank than his engineers, so he demanded a bigger and better fleet of tanks with heavy armor and big guns. The result would be the most iconic German tanks of the war – 1942’s Tiger, 1943’s Panther, and 1944’s King Tiger. The Tiger could stand for all of these: it was a slab-sided monster with thick armor and an enormous 88mm gun that could destroy any Allied tank. It was as subtle as a kick to the groin and, on the battlefield, about as effective.
The Tiger was nigh-unbeatable on the battlefield – if it got there. You see, the Tiger’s production was rushed, and when they went into combat for the first time in 1942 numerous problems popped up. The over-engineered beast used expensive materials, took an enormous amount of time to build, and burned Germany’s limited fuel supply at an alarming rate. It was difficult to transport and due to its immense weight was vulnerable to mud and snow. The Tiger was so difficult to maintain that every battalion was followed by nearly its own battalion of maintenance crews. Throughout the war, more Tigers were lost because they had to be abandoned after a breakdown than were lost in combat.
The other problem, of course, was that now German industry was still producing parts for the light tanks and the medium tanks that still comprised the bulk of Germany’s panzer fleet – AND they were now building Tigers and Panthers, and the parts for them. This was a massive duplication of energy that Germany could have spent on one *decent* tank rather than building a bit better of a model every year.
Instead, in 1943 the Germans rolled out the Panther – meant to be a replacement for the other medium tanks, while the Tiger remained in its own separate unit as a heavy breakthrough vehicle. The Panther was a deadly beast, and made in far larger numbers than the Tiger, but it had possibly even more mechanical issues. Its final drives, designed for the Panzer IV (ten tons lighter), snapped for almost no reason, its transmission liked to catch fire, and to replace the transmission the entire turret had to be removed – not exactly feasible in anything but a dedicated maintenance facility. At the Panther’s combat debut in Kursk in 1943, almost all the vehicles broke down before they made it to the battlefield.
The Soviets, though, were happy to build entire cities in Siberia dedicated to pumping out as many T-34s as possible. When the T-34 proved inadequate next to the new Tiger and Panther, the Soviets shrugged and put a bigger gun in it. Instead of constantly producing more complex models of tank, the Soviets refined the T-34, making it quicker and cheaper to produce, ultimately building a staggering 80,000 of all variants. The T-34 was the Soviet answer to everything. Recon vehicle? T-34. Main combat tank? T-34. Breakthrough attack? How about 40 of them. Not to exaggerate: the Soviets made their own heavy and light tanks as well, but relied on the T-34 as the core of their tank forces from the beginning to the end of the war.
Now let’s look at the Western Allies. The British and Americans had very different ideas about what tanks should do. The British believed in different roles for different vehicles – a light tank for recon, a cruiser tank for their armored divisions, and an infantry tank to support the foot soldiers. The British, though, used bad tactics with their tanks, often bunching them up with no infantry support and little recon, allowing them to be picked off by the German heavy tanks – just what happened at Villers-Bocage in 1944, seven days after D-Day.
The Americans, on the other hand, did not believe tanks should fight other tanks. They built the special “tank destroyer” vehicle for that purpose, while their main combat tank – the M4 Sherman – was designed to fill almost all other roles. Infantry support, pursuit, amphibious assault, you name it. The Sherman was an excellent battle tank – for 1941. It was roughly the equivalent of the German Panzer III or IV, or the Soviet T-34, but toe-to-toe with a Tiger or Panther a Sherman would have a bad day.
So it would sound like the Germans had the best tanks. Sure, the Tiger and Panther had their problems, but if they could beat the Allied tanks every time they fought each other, doesn’t that mean they were better?
Michael Wittmann’s ambush of the British column at Villers-Bocage was such a success for one reason: he was on the defensive, and had prepared an ambush. This was extremely common in Normandy: the dense terrain and large number of German “big cat” Panthers and Tigers allowed the German commanders to always get off the first shot. But what would happen if they didn’t get the first shot?
Two battles prove a point.
Between September 18 and 29, 1944, the Germans in eastern France launched a counterattack against Patton’s Third Army. They ran into a force of 4th Armored Division’s Combat Command A, led by the best American tank general of the war – General John S. Wood – and his tank battalion commander, a plucky officer named Creighton Abrams. The Germans sent two full panzer brigades at Abrams’ battalion, but he used superior tactics to lay an ambush and get the better of the Germans. In the several days of battle, the Americans lost 25 Shermans – compared to 86 German tanks, almost all Panthers.
From December 19 to 25, the 1st SS Panzer Division’s battlegroup tried to penetrate American lines in the Battle of the Bulge. They ran into the 82nd Airborne Division, supported by only an American tank battalion. The 1st SS had an entire battalion of the biggest tank of the war – the King Tiger, even bigger than the Tiger, with a bigger gun and thicker armor. All the crews, though, were relatively untrained recruits, and the King Tigers burned exorbitant amounts of fuel. The result was that almost half the King Tigers were lost, at the cost of a handful of Shermans – many of the Tigers never got into the battle due to commander confusion and American ambushes.
What can we conclude from all of this? The simple fact is that the skill of the tank crew and the skill of their leaders mattered far more than the equipment alone. The German “big cats” completely failed to win the war and weren’t even good tanks, because they were fuel-sucking, high-maintenance monsters unsuited for the attrition war that Germany was fighting on a fuel supply that was thin and growing thinner. When a German tank was knocked out, it could be in the shop for weeks or even months. If a T-34 or a Sherman was knocked out, it would be hitched up to a tractor and pulled a couple miles behind the frontline. It would be sprayed out to get rid of the last crew, its armor would be re-welded, and possibly a new engine would be thrown in before it was sent back out. Most “knocked-out” Shermans were running again in a week.
The M4 Sherman was extensively modified. It could be an amphibious vehicle, and was used as one on D-Day, in the Pacific, and in the Rhine crossing. It had engineer, flamethrower, artillery, and even rocket-launcher variants. It could be upgunned; the British put a larger gun in their Shermans, which made it a major threat to the “big cats.” It had multiple escape hatches, meaning that even though more Shermans were lost than German tanks, crew survivability was actually higher. Patton’s Third Army welded extra plates to their Shermans to up the armor, which reduced their speed but made them able to take a hit.
Almost no German tanks were used by any major nation after the war, but the Sherman and T-34 saw extensive postwar use. The T-34 was used in the Korean War, and was so simple and easy to produce and maintain that T-34s were still being used in the 1990s. The Danville tank museum in my hometown has almost 40 tanks, but only two working tanks – a U.S. M60 from the 1980s, and a T-34.
Upgraded Shermans were used to win major armored victories in the 50s, 60s and 70s by the Israeli and Indian armies. There are still plenty of running Shermans out there, as well.
What can we conclude? The Shermans and T-34s did exactly what they were designed to do: win their wars. They were easy to produce and maintain, modifiable and reliable, and all-around robust vehicles. Even their supposed inadequacy in combat mattered less than popular media would tell you, because – as I noted above – the true difference was in tactics and skill, not the machine itself. Again, machines are used by men. The Tiger and Panther were powerful, deadly and cool – when they ran – but they did not do what they were designed for, and could never win the war.
Creighton Abrams, of course, survived his battles and became Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army. Michael Wittmann had only two more months to live after Villers-Bocage. Despite his legendary reputation and cult status as a tank commander, his recklessness in his tactics eventually caught up with him. He had been lucky to survive the “Leroy Jenkins” charge at Villers-Bocage. When he tried it again on August 8, 1944, he ran into an ambush by British Shermans. Two shells from the Allied tanks drilled holes in his hull, igniting the ammunition and blowing the turret off. This, then, is my third example of "Shermans vs. Germans".
It was the men – not the machine.