Counter Attack at Villers Bocage by David Pentland. (C)
Wittmann at Villers Bocage, Normandy, 0900 hrs, June 13th 1944 by David Pentland. (PC)
While the Germans vainly planned to deliver a multidivision counterattack, the British were hatching plans of their own. Montgomery planned a double encirclement of Caen with the 51st Highland Division and 4th Armoured Brigade executing a short hook east of the city via the Orne bridgehead and the 30 Corps to the west continuing its attack down the Seulles River Valley to capture Villers- Bocage. Corps elements were then to turn east to link up with the 1st British Airborne Division, to be dropped around Noyers and Evercy. RAF objections scratched the parachute operation, however, and the 21st Panzer and Panzer Lehr Divisions both counterattacked to stall, respectively, the east and west British pincer movements. The discovery of a gap in the German front on the Aure River three miles west of Tilly-sur-Seulles, however, offered the possibility of a wider flanking movement on Villers-Bocage.
On 12 June, Dempsey went to the 30 Corps’ sector to see for himself what could be done to regain the initiative. At the 7th Armoured Division’s headquarters, he seized on the suggestion of Maj. Gen. Bobby Erskine that it might be possible to outflank the Panzer Lehr by driving on Villers-Bocage from the west, leaving the 50th (Northumberland) Division to hold the German formation in place. Correctly sensing that Erskine had identified a weak spot in the German defense along the Aure River, Dempsey directed him and Bucknall to immediately execute the movement with all speed.
That afternoon, Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division, primarily equipped with Cromwell tanks, started moving. Brig. Robert “Looney” Hinde’s 22nd Armoured Brigade, with two armored regiments and two infantry battalions, spearheaded the drive through the gap, followed by Brig. Michael Elkins’s 131st Infantry Brigade, which had one tank regiment and two infantry battalions. By late evening, Hinde’s formation had reached Livry, five miles west of Villers-Bocage. There, owing to uncertainty about enemy strength in the latter village, he wisely decided not to undertake further movement that night.
In the early morning of 13 June, a battle group of the 4th County of London Yeomanry tanks and a motorized company of the 1st Battalion of The Rifle Brigade advanced virtually unopposed into the town. While attempting to secure the key high ground northeast of the town, the battle group encountered the 2nd Company of the 101st SS Heavy (Tiger) Panzer Battalion. The company was commanded by the already legendary tank ace Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann, who, in short order, cut a swath of destruction along the strung-out British armored column, his single Tiger destroying six Cromwell tanks, two Shermans, a Firefly, and numerous infantry carriers. By the time the action finished, Wittmann and his four other Tigers and Mark IV Special had knocked out around thirty British tanks and an equal number of armored vehicles. Although Wittmann later lost three Tigers and the Special to 6-pounder and hand-held antitank weapon fire in attacking Villers-Bocage itself, he went on to coordinate the deployment of nine more Tigers from the 1st SS Heavy Panzer Company and fifteen Mark IVs from the Panzer Lehr. Significantly, however, three more Tigers were knocked out in the town, which was defended from 1000 hours by Hinde’s 2nd Infantry Battalion from the Queen’s Royal Regiment.
The shock of the Wittmann attack not only threw the British onto the defensive, but also trumped good tactical sense. When the Queen’s commanding officer asked to be reinforced in Villers-Bocage, he was told by a visiting Elkins that the situation looked hopeless. Erskine, on the other hand, recognized the urgent need for more infantry and gave Hinde another Queen’s infantry battalion from Elkins’s 131st Brigade. Just before this battalion began to arrive in Villers-Bocage, however, Hinde, with Erskine’s approval, ordered a withdrawal to the high ground two miles to the west of the village. Had he not done so, Villers-Bocage could have been turned into a fortress by the two Queen’s battalions and the bulk the Rifle Brigade motorized battalion. Conceivably, such a fortress defense could have been made stronger than those effectively established by the Regina Rifles at Bretteville and Norrey. In addition, Erskine still had at his disposal 155 operational tanks and the last infantry battalion of the 131st Infantry Brigade to defend the high ground west of the village.
In any case, spooked by Ultra reports of the imminent arrival in area of the 2nd Panzer Division, the entire 22nd Armoured Brigade withdrew from Villers-Bocage to tighter positions around Point 174 a mile to the west, near Tracy-Bocage, by 2000 hours on 13 June. Arguably, Ultra intelligence appears to have worked against tactical effectiveness in this case by encouraging excessive caution. In fact, the first of the 2nd Panzer Division’s tanks did not arrive in the area until 18 June. Most German attacks launched against the British in Villers- Bocage also appear to have been mounted by Panzer Lehr scratch forces and only leading elements of the 2nd Panzer Division, most notably reconnaissance battalion troops, reinforced by the few remaining Tigers of the1st SS Heavy Panzer Company.
Notwithstanding decisions made by Hinde and Erskine, primary responsibility for the failure of the Villers-Bocage turning movement must be laid at the feet of the corps commander, Bucknall. On the night of 13 June, after committing his last infantry battalion to Hinde, Erskine warned Bucknall that without additional infantry reinforcement, the 22nd Armoured Brigade could not continue to hang on between the Panzer Lehr in the north and the 2nd Panzer in the south. If Bucknall provided such reinforcement, however, Erskine was confident Hinde could hold out and keep threatening the German flank. Instead of reacting quickly to Erskine’s request by dispatching his reserve 151st Infantry Brigade or an infantry force from the 50th Division through the still-open gap to reinforce the 22nd Armoured Brigade, Bucknall opted to continue the 50th Division’s drive south in the hope that it could break through the Panzer Lehr to relieve Hinde.
At the time, Hinde’s positions astride the Caumont-Villers-Bocage road around Point 174 were defensible against anything short of concentrated attack, but by the morning of 14 June, Bucknall recognized that the 50th Division would be unable to break through the Panzer Lehr and provide additional reinforcement. Deciding that the 7th Armoured was now at unacceptable risk, he obtained Dempsey’s permission to have it withdraw to new positions east of Caumont. At no time, apparently, had Bucknall ever considered asking Dempsey to divert recently landed infantry brigades of the 49th (West Riding) Division to Erskine. For his part, Dempsey was furious that the 7th Armoured had withdrawn from Villers-Bocage without his permission. In his view, he had told both Erskine and Bucknall what to do, and they should have complied. Without the stunning intervention of Obersturmführer Wittmann and his Tigers-which seemed to change the entire dynamic of the battle in favor of the Germans-they might well have succeeded. A fleeting opportunity to roll up the I SS Panzer Corps’ flank and envelop Caen from the southwest was thus lost.