Sherman Firefly v Tiger – Joe Ekins v Michael Wittman


8 August 1944: Sherman Firefly v Tiger – Joe Ekins v Michael Wittman

We saw them coming and I was the only one who could do anything about it; the 75mms would have to be within 300 yards to do anything to a Tiger. Sergeant Gordon, our tank commander said to us ‘Wait until they are about 800 yards’. So, we waited and then he pulled us forward out of the orchard. You need to get out of the trees to traverse the gun. ‘Target the last Tiger.’

Operation Totalise continued in Normandy, an attempt to finally break the German forces south of Caen. The Germans were still a force to be reckoned with. Just before midday 101st Heavy SS Panzer Battalion under the command of Michael Wittman headed north in a bold counter-attack. The ‘panzer ace’ Wittman, a veteran of the Eastern Front, personally awarded the Knight’s Cross by Hitler, had already demonstrated the extraordinary potency of a Tiger tank in a devastating attack on British armour at Villers Bocage on 13th June.

The ‘Panzer Ace’ Michael Wittmann in 1944

The Allies still struggled to find a means to contain the Tiger tanks, with their heavy armour and the long range of their 88mm guns. Most Allied Sherman tanks equipped with 75mm guns were outgunned, only a minority of ‘Sherman Firefly’ tanks had the more powerful 17 pounder anti-tank gun. Yet when they could be deployed effectively they evened up the odds considerably. One particular action on 8th August demonstrated how the Allies were building on their experiences in Normandy, and now knew how to deal with the Tigers.

Wittman’s nemesis was a man with no battle experience as a tank gunner. Joe Ekins was, nevertheless, in the right place at the right time, and he kept his nerve as he faced down seven Tiger tanks.

Joe Ekins, a radio operator with Northamptonshire Yeomanry. In his one and only day as a tank gunner he took on the SS – and won.

The following account of this action comes from “Operation Totalize (Battleground Books: WWII)” a 2019 study of the battle by Tim Saunders:

The diminutive Trooper Joe Ekins, a shoemaker from Rushden in Northamptonshire, decided to volunteer for the army and get the regiment of his choice rather than wait for conscription and a random allocation. During 7/8 August he was in the unaccustomed gunner’s seat of Velikiye Luki [named after a Russian town – see below], a Sherman Firefly belonging to Lieutenant James’ 3 Troop, A Squadron [1 Northamptonshire Yeomanry].

He was normally radio-operator but had fired a couple of 17-pounder rounds during pre-D-Day cross-training. Joe Ekins recalled ‘Someone came up on the air and said that there were Tigers approaching. I saw them through the gun sight, but they were 1,200 yards away advancing north towards us.’ Captain Boardman ordered three Sherman 75s and the Firefly into action.

A Sherman Firefly tank alongside a hedge, 16 June 1944.

The German attack began. Watching from the high ground around Point 122, Major Welch, whose battery of 4 Fd Regt RCA was supporting the Royals, saw the panzers head north across the fields. He was ‘astonished at the cool arrogance of the German tank commanders, standing up exposed in their turrets, looking for targets through their binoculars, their guns traversing all the time.’

Hauptscharfuhrer Hans Hoflinger describes the course of the attack when his earlier concerns about the wood on the right came back to haunt him: ‘Unfortunately, we couldn’t keep the wood under observation on account of our mission. We drove about one to one-and-a half kilometres, and then I received another radio message from Michel which only confirmed my suspicions about the wood.’

A German Tiger I tank, captured by British forces in Tunisia, 1943.

Joe Ekins gave his account of the same events:

We saw them coming and I was the only one who could do anything about it; the 75mms would have to be within 300 yards to do anything to a Tiger. Sergeant Gordon, our tank commander said to us ‘Wait until they are about 800 yards’. So, we waited and then he pulled us forward out of the orchard. You need to get out of the trees to traverse the gun. ‘Target the last Tiger.’

There were four coming across in line ahead. It was something we had learnt, fire at the last tank. Gordon said, ‘Fire when ready’, which I did and immediately the loader loads another one and I fired again. I think I hit with both. I fired twice at the same target and he started to smoke.

Sergeant Gordon immediately said ‘Reverse back into cover’ and I could see the gun of the second Tiger starting to traverse around towards us. He had obviously seen us and fired at us as we reversed back into cover. Either the shell hit the turret lid or he was hit by a branch of a tree, because Sergeant Gordon was knocked out.

Three shots were fired back as Velikiye Luki jockeyed into cover. According to Joe, after getting Sergeant Gordon out of the Firefly:

A few minutes later the troop officer, Lieutenant James, got into the tank and ordered ‘Driver advance.’ So we pulled out of the orchard again and I fired at the second tank. His gun was still pointing at us. We fired one round and he blew up; we must have hit his ammunition. We pulled back into the orchard.

According to Hoflinger, ‘Michel called [on the radio], “Pak right …” but didn’t complete the message. When I looked out to the left I saw that Michel’s tank wasn’t moving. I called him by radio but received no answer.’

Radio-operator in Tiger 312 or 009, Sturmmann Balho was a witness to the shot that knocked out Wittmann’s Tiger: ‘We had already been hit and forced out of the burning Tiger into the crops. I saw the wake of a shell going through the barley and it hit Hauptsturmfuhrer Wittmans tank. It came from the right.’

Tiger 321 of the Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503, 1943

It is commonly reported in accounts of the fighting in Normandy that the passage of high-velocity tank or anti-tank rounds could be seen like the wake of a torpedo in the tall wheat or barley, with tank crews even saying that they had been able to take evasive action.

Joe engaged the targets from his left to right and this Tiger, call sign 007, was his second target engaged at 800 yards and was the only enemy tank to suffer an internal ammunition explosion in this action, which displaced the turret. Joe’s testimony as to the internal explosion combined with Hans Hoflinger’s and Balho’s testimony is important in identifying who knocked out 007 (as positively as one can in the circumstances).

Lieutenant James jockeyed Velikiye Luki forward into action again and by this time the surviving two Tigers had swung north-east away from the Caen-Falaise road and deeper into the killing area: ‘. . . when we came out again the third Tiger was milling around; he probably knew the other two had gone and he was looking for some cover.’

This Tiger could have been damaged by the fire from the other 1 N Yeo Shermans whose Sherman 75s were ‘peppering it with high explosive’ or a Sherbrookes’ A Squadron tank that was covering the squadron’s flank, i.e. facing east, or it could have been B Squadron between Gaumesnil and Point 122. It was probably having difficulty steering, hence ‘milling about’.

So much fire was falling around the leading Tigers that Joe Ekins found it difficult to engage his third target. He eventually fired twice, knocking out his third Tiger in twelve minutes.

[All of A Squadron’s tanks were named after Russian towns – Velikiye Luki was a strategically important railway town on the northern end of the Eastern Front, the scene of a bitterly fought siege in the winter of 1942-43 which became known as “The Little Stalingrad of the North”]

Operation Totalize is part of the “Battleground” series from Pen & Sword. These are detailed studies of individual battles. Operation Totalize comes with numerous maps and photographs providing a comprehensive account of the Operation with many first person accounts from those involved on both sides of the battle.

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