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  • History Friday: Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittman

    Posted by Lexington Green on August 8th, 2014 (All posts by )

    On this day seventy years ago, Michael Wittman was killed. Wittman was a war hero, and media hero in Nazi Germany, a “tank ace” with 138 confirmed kills.

    As Wikipedia tells us:

    Wittmann is most famous for his ambush of elements of the British 7th Armoured Division, during the Battle of Villers-Bocage on 13 June 1944. While in command of a single Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger he destroyed up to 14 tanks and 15 personnel carriers along with 2 anti-tank guns within the space of 15 minutes.

    Some photos of the aftermath of this one-tank rampage can be found here. There is a video about this action here. Notably, the British narrators of this video treat Wittman’s feat with a sort of hushed awe.

    Wittman was a dashing looking chap, as well:

    The historian John Lukacs somewhere wrote that Nazi Germnay was a bigger threat to the United States and to the world than Soviet Communism because it was based on a corrupted version of real sentiments people actually feel, such as patriotism and hero worship.

    The Nazi propaganda machine tried to make the war glamorous, and to make its young war heroes look like movie stars. The Nazis tried, at least in terms of propaganda, to personalize the war and turn it into a conflict where heroism and extraordinary feats of arms could overcome the limitless numbers and mass of the Allies. Of course, this was a lie, though apparently a lie the Germans told themselves and chose to believe.

    The Nazis also, in the process of manufacturing heroes for popular consumption, made a practical error. They left their champion fighters in combat and used them up, wasting their skills and expertise. The Americans did not make that mistake. For example, the American fighter ace of aces in World War II was Richard Bong. The Army Air Corps took him out of combat both to sell war bonds and otherwise be used for propaganda, but also to train others in the skills he used to destroy enemy planes in air to air combat.

    The Nazi war effort was not a rational act of statecraft. It was not based on a realistic or even sane assessment of Germany’s actual capabilities. The leadership in Kaiserian Germany was wretched, and led to a grinding and unnecessary war against the entire world which Germany was almost certain to lose. The Nazi remake of the original movie was even more unhinged. Its political leaders were amateurs, its generals capable of winning battles but not planning entire wars. The Nazi onslaught on the world was less a matter of means-ends rationality than a massive, murderous pierce of extemporaneous performance art. The German war aims were sheer fantasy, and everyone involved at a senior level for starting and prosecuting the war was responsible for it, and for its almost inevitable failure, not just Hitler.

    Wittman’s life and death were about nothing real, nothing achievable, nothing except pointless destruction. His military achievements were about looking great in a great looking uniform and fighting and riding around in a tank and doing heroic deeds for the sake of doing them. That, plus holding off the Allies for a few more days or weeks, allowing more people to be hustled off to the death camps.

    Yet many still find it easy to fall for the glamour. Neo-Nazis have made a cult of Michael Wittman, and his youthful death and good looks make him an almost inevitable cult figure.

    Many of us readers of military history, who have no sympathy for Wittman’s cause, are still enthralled by the tactical bravado of his blaze of glory at Villers-Bocage.

    We are atavistically built to feel at least a twinge of admiration for martial prowess no matter the cause it serves, for its own sake.

    Fortunately, America and the English speaking world generally, have little admiration for war in any general way, and comparatively little romanticism about it. It is a dirty business we carry out in a business-like way when we have to. We admire courage and fighting skill but we do not make a cult of out of them.

    May fate spare us many enemies in the future as competent as Michael Wittman.

     

    25 Responses to “History Friday: Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittman”

    1. MikeK Says:

      “are still enthralled by the tactical bravado of Wittman’s blaze of glory at Villers-Bocage.”

      I have been there when we stayed a week in Normandy at a B&B not far from Villers-Bocage. This is the place although I see no rates and the owners, a young English couple, may not be running it anymore. It was very convenient and just down the road a few kilometers from Villers-Bocage.

      The Japanese followed the same pattern with their painfully small but highly skilled cadre of carrier pilots.

      Germany’s fatal mistake was invading the USSR but, as was the case in WWI, it was the whole strategic aim and could not be avoided.

      Weakness, like that created by Baldwin and Chamberlain are an invitation to madmen and the irrational, like ISIS.

    2. Robert Schwartz Says:

      “The Nazi war effort was not a rational act of statecraft.”

      Understatement of the year.

      It is scary to think about what would have happened if they had stopped before they invaded Russia. I think one of the truly great mysteries is why the General Staff didn’t take Hitler out before then.

    3. Jonathan Says:

      We should dig him up and kill him again.

    4. Lexington Green Says:

      Invading Russia was not a mistake. The Germans were Nazis. Taking over Russia, murdering or enslaving everyone who lived there, and settling the place with ruggedly handsome and blushingly buxom Aryan couples, to produce mobs of strapping Aryan children, was possibly the main feature if the psycho Nazi fantasy scenario. Hitler said “treat the natives as Redskins.” D’oh. The Apaches did not have T-34 tanks.

    5. MikeK Says:

      The T 34 was the reason the Soviets survived.

    6. Bill Brandt Says:

      It is amazing that Wittmann survived the Eastern Front – and even the Battle of Kursk I believe – a tank battle so huge it involved 7,000 tanks over 400 miles – to be killed at Normandy.

      I can admire an Adolph Galland or an Erwin Rommel (who died at the hands of the Nazis, I believe, because he was to be the liaison to the Allies had the Hitler assassination been successful) – Rommel was one of the few generals who had the respect of the Allies –

      But someone in the SS Death’s Head regiment?

      Sorry.

      BTW somewhat off topic but for those of you who stream Netflix they offer a great 3 part miniseries on the lives of 5 young German friends in Berlin – 1941 – just before the war sweeps them up to different directions.

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1883092/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

      One of the young men, a common soldier in the Wehrmacht – seeing the atrocities the Nazis have perpetuated on the Russians, said that ‘God will turn His back on us”.

    7. dearieme Says:

      “The historian John Lukacs somewhere wrote that Nazi Germnay was a bigger threat to the United States and to the world than Soviet Communism because it was based on a corrupted version of real sentiments people actually feel, such as patriotism and hero worship.” What a wonderful mixture of insight and piffle.

    8. dearieme Says:

      “Weakness, like that created by Baldwin and Chamberlain are an invitation to madmen and the irrational, like ISIS.” It wasn’t created by them; they were responding to overwhelming public sentiment, as politicians often do in a democracy. If you want horror created by a politician, look at W and Iraq. The American public doubtless hysterically wanted something done, but the folly and wickedness of the choice was W’s.

      And while we’re at it, look at the f & w of Obama pouring “support” into Syria, much of which will have ended up with ISIS. As far as I know, that’s entirely his doing; I take it that the American public gave not a hoot.

    9. David Foster Says:

      DM…”What a wonderful mixture of insight and piffle.”

      Could you explain which part is the insight and which part is the piffle?

    10. dearieme Says:

      Insight, and very good insight too: “Nazi Germany … was based on a corrupted version of real sentiments people actually feel, such as patriotism and hero worship.”

      Demonstrably piffle: the implication that the USSR was not based on “real sentiments people actually feel”. Lots of people have felt strong class hatred, and religious hatred (or anti-religious hatred). Coveting other people’s goods, lands or whatever is widespread. (Else why bother cautioning against it?) Moreover, a subset of people really do want to seize power and then abuse it murderously: the USSR was based on that too. There’s no need to contemplate the USSR to see these points: just read of the horrors the Revolutionaries imposed on France. (Simon Schama’s Citizens is pretty good.)

      Unlikely: “Nazi Germany was a bigger threat to the United States and to the world than Soviet Communism.” I doubt it because it would be very difficult to persuade the rest of the world to adopt an Aryan-superiority superstition whereas it proved not too difficult to spread the class/conspiracy/vanguard-of-the-proletariat view of society. See China, Vietnam, Cambodia, North Korea, The Spanish Republicans, Allende’s Chile, Castro’s Cuba, ….

      The most stunning defence of the Spanish Republicans I’ve ever heard was along the lines of “People say the Republicans crucified priests and raped nuns but they didn’t crucify priests they only killed them.” Real sentiments people actually felt, I’m afraid.

    11. Lexington Green Says:

      What Lukacs meant is that class solidarity and working for the benefit of the revolution or for society as a whole, and the creation of a New Communist Man with a new communal consciousness, and the purported science of Marxist-Leninism, were all bunk. They did not exist, and could not exist.

      Further, the Nazis did much less to interfere with the operation of the private economy, especially the lower and middle strata of the private economy, whereas Communism inevitably and pretty rapidly immiserates itself. So, Nazism, once rooted in place, was not on an inevitable slide to collapse as Communism was.

      The Nazi program of racism and nationalism and hero worship was not limited to Germany. There were going to be local variants in the various other European countries. The SS recruitment of volunteer legions shows how this might have looked. So it not only had international appeal, it would have tailored that appeal to real, existing sentiments.

      Nazism was also a more acute danger because it celebrated violence, whereas the Communists did not romanticize violence. So, with the Nazis you have to have a big war. If they win, its a disaster. With the Communists, you face a steady and opportunistic enemy who may never make an open assault.

      So, the Nazis were, in Lukacs’ view, a much greater long term threat than the Communists, if they could have won the first round and established themselves as the masters of Europe. All speculative, of course, but it is an interesting way to think about it. Good thing we did not get to find out.

    12. MikeK Says:

      “If you want horror created by a politician, look at W and Iraq. The American public doubtless hysterically wanted something done, but the folly and wickedness of the choice was W’s.”

      Once again, the reaction to 9/11 was not hysteria. It was fear because the perps had gotten here so easily and evaded the inept government security so easily. Mohammed Atta got an extension of his visa months after he was dead in the WTC.

      Bush’s decision to invade Iraq was rational and based on a number of facts on the ground. It was actually, eventually, fairly successful until Obama abandoned the Iraqis. Democrats in modern times have a habit of doing that. Vietnam was far less stable and far less important to us but they deserved more than they got from us in 1975.

      The place where serious lunacy has taken place is Afghanistan. There is no chance that it will ever look like a civilized society. Kabul in 1979 was an island in a society Alexander the Great would have recognized as unchanged except for the AK 47.

      Imagine Korea under a post 1963 Democrat administration. Especially under a post 1972 administration.

    13. Death 6 Says:

      “The American public doubtless hysterically wanted something done, but the folly and wickedness of the choice was W’s.”

      Dearie,
      Thanks again for giving us a little dose of unqualified Bush hating and dismissive contempt for this country’s body politic post 911, all from the enlightened and distant point of view.

      I won’t say that GW did things right, but in the longer geopolitical view I believe establishing the conditions for a post Saddam secular representative Iraq would have changed the trajectory of the Middle East’s decent into Islamic Jihad chaos. Was that possible? We will never know for sure since our attempt failed. It was poorly executed with insufficient forces, failure to capture their weapons and munitions, and failure to secure the borders thus allowing evacuation of such weapons to Syria and being used to create the ready means for the insurgency. These porous borders created the opportunity for wholesale infiltration of IED’s and jihadis from Iran, etc. There was no planning for the post Saddam reconstruction of the Iraqi political and security systems beyond hoping. Whatever painful and limited gains made were completely forfeit by Barry. Thus we have ISIS and whatever follows.

      By the way, do you think it is possible that some of the chemical weapons we did not find in Iraq might have been slipped over the western border of Iraq into places like Syria? If so, do we know how much they have? If we don’t know how much they have, how can we know how much they have to “voluntarily” surrender?

      I’m unable to know if neutralizing Iraq was even possible since we pulled all out punches, but if it had worked and we hadn’t had Barry systematically dismantling our security and international influence, the world would have been a far more friendly place. If there are any valid criticisms of us in Iraq, I’d say they include a lack of comprehensive, realistic objectives coupled to adaquate means, lack of bottom when things get tough and limited time horizon.

      I totally reject hysteria and wickedness as any part of it.

      Mike

    14. Death 6 Says:

      Back to the background of this thread. The facts that you are in a tank that can penetrate any part of any the opposition’s, they are unable to penetrate yours frontally and your optics are superior at extended range, it gives a tanker an advantage. Nevertheless, this feat as well as his crews performance on the eastern front was remarkable. One has to wonder what all those British crews were doing while they were being picked off. Certainly surprise was a factor. The allied medium tanks could penetrate the Tiger on the flanks and rear. Another thing is that his crew were engaging on the move. This was using a ballistic telescope and a non-stablized gun. At close ranges (up to about 300 meters or so) while moving on flat, level surface (like a cultivated field, road or tail) this can be done, but it requires training and practice. The tiger also had an hydraulically traversing turret which enables the gunner to better keep on target.

      Apparently the Tiger was quite successful at killing large numbers of Allied tanks, even the Russian T-34’s whose armor could defeat calibers up to 75mm.

      From Wikipedia:

      “On 7 July 1943, a single Tiger tank commanded by SS-Oberscharführer Franz Staudegger from the 2nd Platoon, 13th Panzer Company, 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler engaged a group of about 50 T-34s around Psyolknee (the southern sector of the German salient in the Battle of Kursk). Staudegger used all his ammunition and claimed the destruction of 22 Soviet tanks, while the rest retreated. For this, he was awarded the Knight’s Cross.[42]

      The Tiger is particularly associated with SS-Hauptsturmführer Michael Wittmann of schwere SS-Panzerabteilung 101. He worked his way up, commanding various vehicles and finally a Tiger I. In the Battle of Villers-Bocage, his platoon destroyed over two dozen Allied vehicles, including several tanks.

      Several Tiger tank commanders claimed over 100 vehicle kills each, including Kurt Knispel with 168, Otto Carius with 150+, Johannes Bölter with 139+, and Michael Wittmann with 138.[43]”

      Only about 1300 of these were produced. Expensive, complicated and had some mechanical weaknesses. They were not only heavily armored with a gun that could penetrated almost anything at long ranges, they were maneuverable. The M1 Abrams of its day.

      Mike

    15. David Foster Says:

      Re the Lukacs comment: Koestler, in Darkness at Noon, has a scene in which protagonist Rubashov tells a young disillusioned comrade (Richard) that Communism’s course is “sharply defined, like a narrow path in the mountains….the air is thin; he who becomes dizzy is lost.”

      To which the disillusioned comrade replies that “what you said about that mountain path is very fine,” but that the Party is still losing ground in the subject country (which I’m pretty sure is Germany.) Richard continues:

      “Those who are still left desert us. Perhaps, because it is too cold up on our mountain path. The others–they have music and bright banners and they all sit around a nice warm fire. Perhaps that is why they have won.”

      Koestler (himself a former Communist, of course) seems clearly to be saying that the emotional pull of Fascism is stronger than that of Communism. I think both ideologies do have emotional appeal, but perhaps partly to different kinds of people, or at least under different circumstances. Here’s an interesting quote from Aldous Huxley:

      “In the field of politics the equivalent of a theorem is a perfectly disciplined army; of a sonnet or picture, a police state under a dictatorship. The Marxist calls himself scientific and to this claim the Fascist adds another: he is the poet–the scientific poet–of a new mythology. Both are justified in their pretensions; for each applies to human situations the procedures which have proved effective in the laboratory and the ivory tower. They simplify, they abstract, they eliminate all that, for their purposes, is irrelevant and ignore whatever they choose to regard an inessential; they impose a style, they compel the facts to verify a favorite hypothesis, they consign to the waste paper basket all that, to their mind, falls short of perfection…the dream of Order begets tyranny, the dream of Beauty, monsters and violence.”

    16. MikeK Says:

      “If there are any valid criticisms of us in Iraq, I’d say they include a lack of comprehensive, realistic objectives coupled to adequate means, lack of bottom when things get tough and limited time horizon.”

      The Army had many of the same weaknesses it showed in Vietnam. Gulf War I was a tank battle and we were good at that. The post-invasion phase in 2003-2004 required much better intelligence and COIN skills, both of which were thin on the ground. As for the al Qeada-Iraq connection, it turned out there was one..

      At Falluja, for example, we had to back off once when State lost its enthusiasm. Also, the Obama people did what they could to kill morale.

    17. Carl from Chicago Says:

      This is an excellent post. I too have read dozens if not hundreds of military books and there is an implicit praise in the war fighting capabilities of the men like Wittman.

      They fought for an odious and desperate group of deranged killers. That too is a fact. Sometimes when you are in the heart of reading about a particular campaign or engagement you forget about the broader context of what everyone was fighting for.

    18. dearieme Says:

      “What Lukacs meant is that class solidarity and working for the benefit of the revolution or for society as a whole, and the creation of a New Communist Man with a new communal consciousness, and the purported science of Marxist-Leninism, were all bunk. They did not exist, and could not exist.” Just because something doesn’t exist doesn’t mean that it can’t give rise to “real sentiments people actually feel”. Consider gods.

    19. Mike K Says:

      Carl, Joachim Peiper was another personally odious character who was a very competent and skilled soldier.

      The descriptions of his tactical skills propelled Peiper to become an icon of the Waffen-SS after the war, with former battalion members describing him in glowing language.[49] Peiper was seen as an officer who obeyed orders without much discussion and expected the same from his men.[45]

      He was imprisoned for war crimes (including the Malmedy Massacre) after the war and served 12 years. After his release, he moved to France where, “During the night from 13 July to 14 July 1976” some unknown gentlemen sent him to Hell.

    20. Mr Black Says:

      The western powers are exceedingly good at beating other armies but have lost all the necessary will and capability for beating ideologies.

      As we only get into ideological wars these days, we are destined to lose them all, even in our home countries.

    21. Lexington Green Says:

      Rather than dispute the existence of God, about which you are wrong, consider a case which is precisely on point. At the outbreak of World War I the elected representatives of labor and socialist parties, who claimed to believe in international class solidarity immediately dropped any such pretenses and supported the war. Nationalism is the most powerful ideology of modern times, and Nazism appealed to that. Communism was most effective where it was joined to nationalism. Lukacs is correct on this point.

    22. dearieme Says:

      “the elected representatives of labor and socialist parties, who claimed to believe in international class solidarity immediately dropped any such pretences”: too sweeping. MacDonald, the Labour leader in Britain, didn’t.

      WKPD: “His opposition to the First World War made him unpopular, and he was defeated in 1918. The fading of wartime passions made it easier for an anti-war politician to find a platform, and he returned to Parliament in 1922.”

    23. Lexington Green Says:

      The case of MacDonald supports the point. The idea of class solidarity has very little purchase compared to nationalism. MacDonald was an intellectual who was one of a tiny minority who believed in socialism.

      Nazism was built on much stronger foundations than was communism.

    24. dearieme Says:

      “The case of MacDonald supports the point.” The proposition that a counter-example supports a point is rather novel.

    25. Lexington Green Says:

      You lack a lot facts, Dearieme, so I will explain it to you. MacDonald personally was a counterexample. But of course his entire party deserted him, and he was a political nullity as a result. He tried to lead his party based on principles they claimed they believed in, but in fact no one believed in the principles of socialism or class solidarity except a tiny minority like him. Millions of ordinary were willing to kill and die for nationalism, virtually no one stuck to the bogus principles of socialism and class solidarity.

      Bottom line, your counter example is not a counter example.