South African Military 
History Society


July 2007

Contact: Mike Laing 031-205-1951
Bill Brady 031-561-5542

The DDH talk "Achtung Panzer - Michael Wittmann" was delivered by Chairman Bill Brady;
Michael Wittmann was the greatest exponent of the art of armoured warfare in military history. Resulting from his many campaigns, both on the Eastern front and in the West, Wittmann was awarded Nazi Germany's coveted decoration, the Knights Cross with Oak Leaves and Swords. His death in action presented much controversy and debate, and no clear consensus has been reached.

Michael Wittmann was born in 1914 on a Bavarian farm where he soon developed skills that were to assist him greatly in later life. In 1934, he, as did many of Germany's youth of this time, joined the rapidly expanding German Wehrmacht, which Hitler had released from the yoke of Versailles. In 1937 he joined the elite "Leibstandarte SS Adolph Hitler".

On the outbreak of war in 1939, he served in Poland as a driver and later in France as commander of a reconnaissance unit. After the fall of France, Wittmann fought in the Balkan campaign in 1941. Also in 1941, during the first day of Operation Barbarossa, Wittmann destroyed 6 Russian tanks and received the Iron Cross Second Class. Further actions in Russia saw him being awarded the Iron Cross First Class and a place in the officer training school. After graduating, Wittmann took command of the revolutionary Tiger tank, returned to Russia and in operation "Zitadelle," he destroyed 30 tanks, mainly T-34's, plus 28 anti-tank guns and two artillery batteries. Both he and his gunner Bobby Woll received the Knight's Cross for their exceptional skill, bravery, and outstanding gunnery tactics. Wittmann was decorated in person by the Fuhrer at Wolfslair, East Prussia.

In February 1944 Wittmann returned home to begin a new chapter in what was already an illustrious career. He was hailed as a national hero, got married in April 1944 and was seen everywhere, especially visiting tank factories, thanking workers for their great efforts in producing Tigers. In May Wittmann was transferred to Normandy and on D-Day, he moved to the invasion front, as part of the group under Rommel's command. On June 13th Wittmann was near Villers-Bocage, to the south of Caen where he engaged and destroyed a large contingent of the British 7th armoured Division. For this action he received Swords to his Knights Cross with Oak Leaves, being recommended by SS commander Josef "Sepp" Dietrich.

Adolph Hitler again in person decorated Wittmann and promoted him to the rank of SS Captain. He then participated in the battle for the Falaise Pocket. This proved to be his final action. On August 8th of 1944, his Tiger was destroyed and the entire crew killed. It was claimed that Wittmann's Tiger was destroyed by Sherman's armed with 17 pounder guns, capable of penetrating a Tiger's armour at a range of 800m. There were also signs that Wittmann's Tiger could have been destroyed by a British Typhoon fighter-bomber. Several other sources claimed to have ambushed and destroyed Wittmann's Tiger, including 1st Polish Armoured Division, 4th Canadian Armoured Division, and 33rd British Armoured Brigade.

Wittmann has been credited with destroying 138 tanks and 132 anti-tank guns when they were killed. This record has never been equaled in warfare.

Captain Michael Wittmann was by far the most successful tank commander of the Second World War, indeed, of all time.

Wittmann and his crew are buried in the German Military Cemetery of "De La Cambe" in Normandy.

His place in the annals of military history is thoroughly deserved.

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The Main Talk was presented by fellow member Robin Taylor, entitled: The Battle of Yorktown, 1781.
This title does not do justice to his presentation which covered the whole background of English colonization of North America and the final actions that led to the Declaration Independence and the English defeat at Yorktown. The occurrences are given as a time-line.

In 1497, the first settlers arrived in Newfoundland. They were cod fishermen whose catch was urgently needed in England to feed the rapidly expanding population. Often they were families who had been evicted from the great estates. Meanwhile Spain had conquered Mexico and much of Central and South America. As a result, Raleigh was given the charter to colonize Carolina.

The Spanish Armada was defeated in 1588, and now the privateers would steal the riches from Spain for Queen Elizabeth. In 1607, Virginia was settled by private enterprise at Chesapeake. By 1622, the settlement at Jamestown was in desperate straits, only 20% surviving disease and massacre by Indians. The population of New England (Plymouth, Massachusetts) had expanded with the arrival of the Puritans. By 1640, tobacco had become an important crop, while in the Caribbean, sugar was booming. Negro slaves were brought in to work the plantations. Meanwhile the English civil war had raged on.

By 1670, the colony of Georgia was a major producer of rice for England, and they too imported negro slaves to work the rice fields because of shortage of labour. In 1707, England and Scotland united. Dutch settlers came to Philadelphia. (The Dutch had first been on the Hudson River in 1614, and founded New Amsterdam [Manhattan] in 1626.)

England now got involved in the Seven Years War in Europe and the French and Indian Wars in North America from 1754 to 1763. Under Wolfe, the English defeated Montcalm and captured Quebec. Grenville, the Prime Minister, insisted that the 13 colonies must be protected. The Stamp Act of 1765 was introduced mainly to get money to pay for England's wars, and Otis made the famous statement: No taxation without representation. The Boston Tea Party followed in 1773, and in 1775 the English soldiers under General Gage advanced out of Boston towards Concord. Paul Revere rode to warn the colonists. There were fatalities, as Hancock claimed: "At last, a bloody day." The English attacked and took Bunker Hill, but it was valueless. Fort Ticonderoga was captured from the English. There were skirmishes at Charleston in June 1776, and a failed attack on Quebec. An attempt at a peaceful settlement failed.

July 4, 1776, the Declaration of Independence. General Howe attacked Washington in New York, but Washington's army escaped. In October 1776, Mathew Arnold took Valcour Island. In 1777, Burgoyne launched a complex 3-pronged campaign which failed. He surrendered on 17 October 1777 (at Brandywine Creek and Saratoga). This was the turning point of the Revolutionary War.

December 1777 was miserably cold at Valley Forge for George Washington and his army. But, in May 1778, France declared war on England and became an ally. As a result of English attacks on Spanish possessions in the Caribbean, Spain too allied itself to the revolutionaries and declared war on England. The French navy became the key to success. Fighting took place in the Carolinas, Kings Mountain in October 1780 and at Guildford Courthouse in March 1781.

On 17 January 1781, the English retreated to Wilmington for resupply. On May 20, a French fleet plus 3 000 men sailed into Chesapeake Bay. The English under Cornwallis retreated to Yorktown, and were besieged. The English fleet under Graves attempted to rescue them, but the French fleet under Degrasse prevented them. Cornwallis (8 000 troops) was trapped by the allies; Washington (9 000) and Rochambeau (8 000). On October 19, 1781 Cornwallis surrendered his sword to Washington. The Revolutionary War was over; the Colonies became independent which was formalized by the Treaty of Paris, 1783.

Fellow member Ian Sutherland thanked both speakers for their detailed research and personal comments. In both talks, the British received a little more than they had bargained for.

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Please note that the 2nd Thursday in August is a public holiday, but as the auditorium at the University is fully booked for all Thursdays in August, your committee has decided to hold the meeting on our normal 2nd Thursday, despite it being a public holiday. Please make a note in your diary that the August meeting will be held, as normal, on 10 August 2007.

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Another important date for your diaries!! It has now been confirmed by Ken Gillings, that the Battlefield Tour will take place on the last weekend of September 2007 - the 29th & 30th September. Day 1 will concentrate on the Battle of Elandslaagte and on the Sunday we will merge with the Ladysmith Historical Society to visit the location of Brakfontein, which is the ridge between the Twin Peaks and Kranskloof in the Vaalkrans area. Brakfontein was of strategic value to the Boers as it commands one of the routes to Ladysmith.

A full itinerary will be published in the next newsletter - but in the meantime, please put this date in your diary as our Battlefield Tours are a highlight of the Military History Society year.

Any members or guests wishing to play the roles of the various commanders are requested to contact vice chairman Ken Gillings. Members wishing to attend the tour should make their own reservation for accommodation. We have negotiated a special rate with the Royal Hotel, Ladysmith (tel 036 637 2176 - refer to the SA Military History Society tour).

THURSDAY - 12 July 2007

DDH Who Is It?; - By Mike Laing
In the form of a quiz, he will show pictures of eminent figures in military history and ask the audience to identify them.

Main Talk: The English Civil War in Ireland, 1641 to 1652; by Brian Kennedy
This will describe the battles of this complex situation and how the actions of Cromwell still impact on Ireland of today.

FUTURE SOCIETY DATES: August to October 2007

9th August
DDH - Brian Hoffman - Admiral Drake
MAIN - Peter Schneider - The Hungarian War against Communism: 1956

13th September
Natal Mounted Rifles Base Visit
11th October
DDH - Paul Kilmartin - The Guns at Nery - 1 September 1914
MAIN - Robin Smith - Robert E. Lee's Greatest Victory, Chancellorsville, 1863

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South African Military History Society /