Tiger and Max: December 1942

Heavy tank PzKpfw VI Tiger Ausf H1 early release of Hauptmann Lange, commander of the 3rd company of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion

The small column of Tiger’s continued their journey from the bridge down a rough track before moving onto the frozen Tundra, a mixture of ice and frost that looked like a shiny white carpet. As they headed towards a village, where there was a small number of Panzers and light infantry, currently holding the village. Max hoped to get fuel and ammunition there and a place to rest up for a short while. All around them there was evidence of past battles, burnt out vehicles, arms and legs protruding out of the snow. As they passed a German half-track, a Sonderkraftfahrzeug 251 produced by Hanomag and nicknamed Hanomag. These were the most widely produced half-tracks with 15,532 being built between 1939-1945. They proved extremely versatile from being a personnel carrier, medical carrier, flack gun or even a cannon mounted on them. This Hanomag had four of its seven rear wheels blown off and the track was broken in three places. The side of the Hanomag was peppered with holes some small and some the size of a fist. The front of the Hanomag had been partially blown away with the engine missing and the driver of the vehicle half hanging out. His bright green head made for a very strange sight as his body was already starting to decompose and had been there for at least a few days.

Further along an Ilusyian lay half buried in the ground at a 45-degree angle, its propeller had snapped off and was lying some forty feet away. The headless pilot, was still in the cockpit of his aircraft. The pilot had either dived into the ground or tried to perform a crash landing. The smell of death hung heavy in the air and even though it was also bitterly cold, the whole area sent a shiver down the spines of the crew. A feeling that something had happened here. From the carnage that surrounded them it must have been a fierce firefight. Two T-34 tanks were almost huddled together. One was on its side and the other upright but the turret had been blown clean off and the remains of the crew were still sitting inside. There had been an intense fire that had engulfed both tanks. Any crew left inside would not have had chance of survival. German infantry had a saying “The T-34 doffs his hat when he meets the Tiger.” This was due to the T-34s turret having a tendency to come away from the main hull if the tank was penetrated by 88mm armour-piercing ammunition.

A lone Panzer IV was not too far away from the T-34s. The rear end of the Panzer IV had been blown apart from what could only be bomb damage, possibly dropped from attacking Ilyushin.

For a short while, any evidence that a fierce war was ranging disappeared. The fog completely lifted and slim rays of sunshine burst through the small gaps in the clouds. For a few seconds, everything seemed peaceful and almost normal. Max drifted back to his childhood in. Max was 13 when he was just one of six children out of the 70 children at his school to be selected to attend a Nazi development camp for the Future Little Elite. It was a great opportunity and very much moulded Max into the person he was now. Max never agreed fully with Nazi policies, but her knew that they had helped Germany become strong once more. Max was proud to be German and fight for his country. He had seen the brutal acts that the Red Army had done towards the invading Germans. The Soviets were nothing more than Neanderthals who needed to be obliterated. A smile came to Max’s face as he remembered the story of how one of the children in his class brought a condom into school. His friend blew it up like a balloon, before throwing it out a window as the teacher approached the classroom. It was found by a Nazi youth leader who knew where it had come from. Max and his friends were lined up; each of them was almost interrogated. They all stuck to the same story and would not reveal who the culprit was. As they had shown solidarity the Nazi youth leader let them off. Solidarity was more important than the act. The youth leader said, “You can do what you want, you can let your teenage violent impulses out, it doesn’t matter, as long as you do it for us.” Instead of a good telling off, Max and his friends were congratulated for sticking together.

In the distance, the damaged roofs of the village came into view. It was obvious the village had seen its fair share of fighting. The odd building was partially destroyed and the local people all looked very glum. They hated the Red Army as much as they hated the Germans. Finally, the Tigers came to an abrupt stop and the crews clambered out. A fuel truck was not too far away. Max went to sort out getting fuel and ammunition on board. The rest of the crew went to smoke and get something to eat. The plan was to stay at the village for the night and continue in the morning to their main objective.

At least they would be safer here. Air attacks were common, but there were two flak batteries complete with quadruple 20mm anti-aircraft cannon guarding the sky and several anti-tank guns stationed around the village. A counter attack was expected. The German infantry had been getting dug in and preparing their own defences in preparation for an attack. Very little tank fighting occurred at night, since tanks could not effectively engage targets at ranges much beyond 100 yards unless flares were fired, but this tended to aid the defender more than the attacker, revealing enemy positions.

Tiger I H-1 1942 Manufacture

Earliest Tiger tank captured and recovered by the Soviet Red Army.

Early captured Tiger Tank being inspected by Soviet officers.

Tigers first appearance on the Eastern Front

During the war on the Eastern Front both sides tended to claim every enemy tank hit as a ‘kill’, but a good percentage of hits either bounced off the armour or failed to penetrate. Based upon post-battle analysis of both sides’ records, the Germans appeared to have on many occasions exaggerated their tank ‘kills’ by up to 200 per cent and the Soviets by 500 per cent. Tanks are complex weapon systems that require several sub-systems and the crew to function properly in order to provide the vehicle with its key characteristics: firepower, protection, mobility and communications. Tank crews vary in size, with 4–5 being the normal size for a full-strength crew. Combat and noncombat casualties along with disease and sickness in winter months could reduce crews both in size and fighting ability. This was true of either a German or Red Army crew. It was essential that each member of the crew performed their designated task to the best of their ability for the tank to achieve its full capability. A poorly-trained loader might be the lowest man in the tank crew hierarchy, but his inability to reload main gun rounds quickly in combat could easily lead to his tank losing a gunnery duel against a faster opponent. The tank driver’s ability to manoeuvre over rough terrain and use cover and concealed approaches is critical for the crew’s survival. The driver needed to fully understand the tanks limits on different kinds of terrain.

Here is a diary extract from Unteroffizier Erich Hager, a Panzer IV driver in the 6 Panzer Regiment 39. This extract records his actions not far from Venev on the Eastern Front:

Now the fun starts … 42-tonner on fire. Great to watch. A bit further on another 2 down. We attack 13 tanks. One tank destroyed. LKWs on fire. Lots of Russian infantry destroyed. Run over by the tanks. Then the best bit. We attack two 42-tonners and start a real hare hunt. He couldn’t turn his turret after the first direct hit and took off. We were after him with force, 20 meters behind him. Half an hour the hunt went on for until he lost a track and fell into a ditch. We fired 30 shots into him. Nothing got through. That day our vehicle fired 110 rounds … Have no more rounds.

The 42 tonner relates to the KV-1 tank and LKW is short for the German expression Lastkraftwagen meaning truck in English.

The Tigers first appearance on the Eastern Front was unsuccessful. Tigers were first issued to the 1st platoon of the 502 Battalion of Heavy Tanks (Schwere Panzer Abteilung 502). On August 29, 1942, four Tigers arrived at the Mga railway station near Leningrad. As soon as they arrived they were unloaded and made ready for battle. At 1100 hours, the tanks made their way to their battle stations. Major Richard Merker was in command of the platoon, which included four Tigers, six PzKpfw III Ausf. L and J, two infantry companies and several trucks of the technical support unit. A representative of the Henshel firm – Hans Franke accompanied the unit in a VW Kubelwagen right behind the first Tiger. After the attack, it was realised that trying to use the heavy Tiger tank on soft ground was an error as its ability to manoeuvre was severely reduced. The Tiger already had a slower moving turret, top speed and slower turn than the likes of the T-34. This was the trade-off for having a much more powerful gun and thicker armour.

During the battle, Russian infantry retreated, and their artillery opened heavy fire to cover the troops. Major Merker’s unit, divided into two groups, started to attack on two parallel side road. The first Tiger was soon abandoned because of transmission failure. The second one was abandoned a few minutes later after engine failure. In spite of Russian fire, the Henschel representative started to inspect the tanks, before Merker came by with his Tiger and said that the third tank was disabled because the steering control failed. During the night, all three damaged Tigers were evacuated using Sd Kfz 9 prime movers. It took three of these per Tiger to recover. The Germans had been lucky that the Red Army had not tried to capture the disabled tanks. Spare parts were flown in and all four Tigers repaired by the 15 September ready for battle.

Sadly, the second action the Tigers participated in was no better than the first. September 22, saw four Tigers, supported by PzKpfw III tanks; accompany the 170th Infantry Division in attacking the 2nd Soviet Army. The terrain was highly unsuitable, the ground again was too soft after heavy rain, and Merker opposed the use of Tigers in this operation. After a direct order from Hitler, the Tigers went into battle. Not long after the attack began, the first Tiger received a direct hit in the front armour plate. The shell did not penetrate, but the impact caused the engine to stall and there was no time to restart it. The crew abandoned the Tiger before they threw hand grenades into the fighting compartment.

The other three Tigers reached the Russian trenches, but very soon were damaged by Red Army artillery crossfire as they lost their ability to manoeuvre on the soft ground. Again, the three Tigers had to be abandoned and the fourth was destroyed to prevent it from being captured.

The Wehrmacht was adamant that crews read the Tiger’s manual before charging into battle with one of the Third Reich’s most vital (and expensive) pieces of hardware. However, experience showed that young tankers had little interest in poring over pages of dry instructions and boring schematics. To try to entice crews into reading the Tiger manual it was renamed the Tigerfibel and used poetry, humour and illustrations including scantily clad illustrations of women to make crews want to read it. A similar manual was also written for the Panther tank. The manual was written by Lt. Josef von Glatter-Goetz. In contrast to the usual tedium of instruction manuals.

The manual mostly covered the maintenance of the tank however it also contained supplements, like a vehicle recognition chart, which displayed good black and white photographs and diagrams of the Allied tanks a Tiger tank crew could encounter.

The Tigerfibell also included diagrams illustrating the vulnerability of enemy tanks and the ranges at which the armour could be penetrated. There were detailed diagrams of these tanks, which revealed the vulnerable spots in the front, side and back armour. The manual stood out not just for its humorous and playful tone, but also for its striking graphic design, which ironically was inspired by the ‘degenerate’ and ‘communist’ Bauhaus school of the 1930s so detested by Nazi ideologues. Each page of the manual was printed using just black and red ink with the text broken up by illustrations, cartoons, and easy-to-read technical diagrams. It provided an influential model for future army manuals.

Finally, Tigers had a successful third battle. January 12, 1943, saw the 502nd support the 96th Infantry Division opposing an attack of Russian tanks. Four Tigers destroyed twelve T-34 tanks. This forced the rest of the Soviet tanks into retreat.

January 16, 1943 the Russians finally captured their first Tiger during a German attack near the Shlisselburg on the Leningrad front. This tank was immediately delivered to the Kubinka Proving Grounds and inspected by Soviet Engineers. This meant the Soviets knew all of its secrets and could use this knowledge to build their own tanks and know the best method to attack and destroy a Tiger.

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