Whenever we talk about the tank gunners of World War II, it’s quite impossible not to mention Joe Ekins’ name, as he was one of the most well-known British tank gunners, and for good reasons. One was because he took down three German Tiger Tanks with five shots(And lived to tell the tale). Even though he described volunteering for the army as “the biggest mistake of my life,” that did not stop him from standing out on the battlefield.

Operation Totalize

During the later stages of Operation Overlord, the Allied forces launched an offensive in the First Canadian Army known as Operation Totalize from August 8 to 9, 1944. Their goal was to break through the defenses of the German forces in the south of Caen on the eastern flank of where the Allied forces were positioned. They wanted to capture the high ground on the north of Falaise. Operation Totalize was the first operation of the First Canadian Army after being activated on July 23.

Joe Ekins. (The Tank Museum via blog.tiger-tank.com)

The 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry and some of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division reached St. Aignan de Cramesnil, a French village, in the early morning of August 8. Meanwhile, the B Squadron stayed in the village while A and C traveled south into Delle de la Roque wood.

Ekins was with A Squadron, and they took the post in the southern portion where they could watch as the German tanks moved toward Route Nationale 158. And so, their troop commander ordered them to hold their fire until the German tanks were within the firing range.

Ekins had never fired his gun in action yet. Upon seeing the German Tiger Tanks, he doubted if they could ever knock out three of those with one tank. Tiger Tank was thick-armored and weighed almost 70 tonnes. Its front was protected by 100 to 185 mm of armor. It was also armed with a long-barreled, deadly anti-tank cannon, 8.8 cm Kwk 43 L/71.

As ordered, they waited until the tanks were just 800 yards away. He was then ordered to target the rear one. He remembered thinking,

There’s no way one tank is gonna knock out three Tigers, no way!  You allow five Sherman to one Tiger, there’s no way they’re gonna knock ‘em out, but he still sent us out on our own, I mean, I don’t know how I weren’t killed, I should’ve been, should’ve been.

Firing the Shots

Joe Ekins fired and hit the rearmost Tiger, as he was told to do. The tank caught fire, and he knew he’d have to take down the two remaining Tigers with his Sherman Firefly. The Sherman “Firefly” was a very special tank.  The Sherman was originally designed as an infrantry support medium tank to support infantry.  Its 75mm gun had a relatively short barrel and in order to prolong the life of the barrel its muzzle velocity was low compared to German tanks.  Early in the war the 75mm was capable of punching through German Panzer III and IVs, with 50mm armor but when their armor was upgraded to 80mm, the 75mm gun couldn’t penetrate it.  The British also used the Sherman in the thousands and they reworked the turret and gun to install their own Ordnance QF  17-pounder cannon inside it.  This was the best allied anti-tank gun of the war and rivalled the German 88mm performance.  It could punch holes in pretty much anything the Germans had in the field. The UK converted about 2,000 Shermans in to Firefly types and Germans learned to fear the long gun Shermans very much

One of the Tigers fired two shots and hit Ekin’s turret, injuring his commander and prompting him to jump out. He was ordered to fire at the second Tiger, and he did. The 17-pounder gun carved into the tank engulfing in flames, like his previous target.

The third Tiger, seeing two of the invincible tanks blown up, sought some shelter, but it was too late— Ekins’s eyes were already locked up to them, and two more shots were fired, and soon, the third Tiger was burning too. And with that, he had successfully destroyed three of the tough death machines of the Germans in his first combat.

Death of Michael Wittmann

Michael Wittmann was a German Waffen-SS tank commander who, while commanding a Tiger I tank, managed to destroy up to 14 enemy tanks, 15 personnel carries, and two anti-tank guns in a span of 15 minutes. His image was used in Nazi propaganda for his role in resisting the Allied offensive during the Battle of Villers-Bocage. He was a national hero in Germany with more than 130 kills of enemy tanks, mostly on the Eastern Front.

That same day, Joe also managed to disable a fourth German tank before finally being hit by the enemy shots and leaving his tank immobilized. He was then assigned to a new Sherman tank as a wireless operator, much to his surprise.

The only photograph taken of Michael Wittmann’s destroyed late production model Tiger I no. 007 still in the fields near Gaumesnil. (Michael Wittman Wikipedia)

There were claims that Joe unknowingly killed Wittmann that day of Operation Totalize, which was generally accepted as a fact. However, there were theories that one from the A Squadron of the Sherbrooke Fusilier Regiment on the left flank of the German tanks was responsible for Wittmann’s death. The unit had drilled firing holes in the wall to engage the German tanks, including the Tigers. The Canadian squadron was just around 500 meters away from the German line, while the British were around 1,000 meters.

Article on Ekins and Wittmann from Daily Mail, 2006.

When the war was over, Joe Ekins resumed working in the shoe factory that he left when the war broke out. He also married the woman he met and fell in love with during training. He spent the rest of his life working as a manager in that shoe factory until he passed away in 2012 at the age of 88.