Battle of Villers-Bocage

The Battle of Villers-Bocage took place during the Second World War on 13 June 1944, one week after the Allies landed in Normandy to begin the liberation of German-occupied France.

In an opportunistic development of a British operation whose aim was to encircle and seize the city of Caen, a Brigade group of the 7th Armoured Division sought to exploit a gap that appeared in the German defences to the west of the city. The British bypassed the front line and reached the small town of Villers-Bocage, but the Germans had anticipated the thrust and hastily repositioned their reserves to cover their open flank. As the Brigade group's vanguard pushed beyond the town it was ambushed by German heavy tanks, and increasingly strong counterattacks forced the British to abandon Villers-Bocage for a more defensible position. Despite a successful defence of its "Brigade Box" the following day, the Brigade group was withdrawn during the night of 14–15 June after additional German forces were rushed to the area.

Caen had been a major objective for British forces on D-Day (the Allied landings in France) itself. However an attempt to reach the city that afternoon failed, and the Germans rapidly established strong defences. During the subsequent Battle of Normandy numerous attempts were made to seize the city. On 7 June, the British launched Operation Perch, which by 9 June had become a two-pronged attack aimed at surrounding and capturing Caen. However, both arms of the offensive—I Corps on the left and XXX Corps on the right—soon stalled in the face of dogged resistance. I Corps's attack was called off, but on XXX Corps's right flank, American pressure had forced back an exhausted German infantry division and opened a wide gap in the front line. In an effort to keep operations mobile, a mixed force of tanks, infantry and artillery formed around the 7th Armoured Division's 22nd Armoured Brigade was diverted from its contest for Tilly-sur-Seulles with the German Panzer Lehr armoured division and ordered to advance through the gap towards Villers-Bocage. British commanders hoped this flanking manoeuvre would break the deadlock and force the Panzer Lehr Division to fall back.

The 22nd Brigade group entered Villers-Bocage during the morning of 13 June, and its lead elements moved quickly to secure Point 213, a commanding area of high ground to the east. However, the British were caught unawares by Tiger I tanks of the SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101. In fewer than 15 minutes numerous tanks, anti-tank guns and transport vehicles fell victim to the German force, the vast majority being destroyed by SS-Obersturmführer (Lieutenant) Michael Wittmann's tank. Point 213's defenders were cut off and taken prisoner, and a German attack was launched against the town during the afternoon. Although this ran into an ambush and suffered significant losses, after six hours the British commander decided to withdraw his force to a defensive position outside the town—a move that was accomplished, before nightfall, largely without interference.

Fighting resumed the next day in the Battle of the Brigade Box, following which the decision was taken to pull the Brigade group back from its salient. Villers-Bocage played no further role in the Second Army's Battle for Caen, which was finally liberated on 19 July. A Royal Air Force bombing raid in support of Operation Epsom largely destroyed Villers-Bocage, which eventually fell to the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division on 4 August. Analyses of the battle have generally taken the view that, due to failures at the British divisional and corps command levels, an early opportunity to capture Caen was squandered.

Following the D-Day landings in Normandy on 6 June 1944, the Allies had made rapid progress inland in what had become the Battle of Normandy. By 13 June, a full week after the beach landings, Allied formations including the famous 7th Armoured Division (the 'Desert Rats') had reached the vicinity of the city of Caen, slicing through the fast-retreating German defences in the process. This smooth action was made easier with the massive air superiority held by the Allies, and by the morning of 13 June the flanks of the Panzer Lehr Division had been massively exposed - setting up the possibility of their being completely enclosed.