PzKpfw Tiger ausf E. 2.Kompanie, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501. Byelorussia. Winter 1943-44. Photographed during the battles along the Dnieper in the Orscha region of what is today Belarus, this tank is probably one of the mid production models the battalion received in November 1943. This unit used the official three-digit numbering system to identify its tanks, the numbers rendered as a black outline only with the whitewash camouflage carefully painted around the edges. Note that the number on the rear stowage box appears to have been painted over the whitewash and this seems to have been common, if not universal. Also note the barbed wire fixed to the exhaust covers. Almost all the tanks of this battalion had their hulls covered with wire to some degree, most far more extensively than shown here, presumably to deter or impede tank-hunting Russian infanytrmen.
PzKpfw Tiger ausf E. 3.Kompanie, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501. Byelorussia. Summer 1944. This mid production model was built between August 1943, when the single headlight at the hull front was introduced into production, and some time before October when the pistol port on the turret side was discontinued. The turret number, as can be seen from our photograph, is a decidedly darker shade than the base coat of Dunkelgelb confirming that not all the tanks of this battalion had their numbers rendered as a black outline only. Although it is impossible to determine the colour with any certainty it is rendered here as Olivgrün, which is at least possible. Several photographs of this tank exist and the image shown at right is probably the earliest, made during April or May 1944 when the battalion received a large store of spare parts and was able to repair all its damaged tanks. This would explain the apparently fresh camouflage scheme and the dark coloured replacement gun barrel, almost certainly painted in RAL 7021 Schwartzgrau. In what we can safely assume to be the last photograph made of this Tiger, abandoned by the roadside while German prisoners are marched past, little has changed with the exception of the kill rings on the barrel. Damage is limited to the mudguards and fenders and the engine access door has been left open. In his account of the battalion’s history Wolfgang Schneider lists the number of tanks lost in June and July stating that all were completely destroyed either by enemy action or by their own crews with the exception of one Tiger which was abandoned on 4 July 1944, some 20 kilometres east of Minsk after breaking down. Although we can never be certain it is tempting to speculate that this may be the same tank.
Panzerbefehlswagen Tiger ausf B. Stab, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501. Poland. Autumn 1944. Photographed in the village of Ogledow, some 25 kilometres west of Sandomierz, this command version of the Tiger II was captured intact on 13 August 1944, together with Tiger 102 and Tiger 234, and today resides at the Kubinka Museum outside Moscow. The three tanks of the battalion staff were numbered 001, 002 and 003 and for some inexplicable reason the Soviets changed this vehicle’s original number of 002 to that shown here, almost certainly before the tank was moved. Note that when this tank was captured, and therefore when it was in combat, all three radio antennae were in place including the distinctive Sternantenne Don the hull rear deck for the FuG8 radio and the two metre antenna for the FuG5 radio on the turret roof, the latter not depicted in our illustration.
The army’s first heavy tank battalion was formed on 10 May 1942 from schwere Panzer-Kompanien 501 and 502, which were later renamed as the battalion’s first and second companies. Further personnel were drawn from Panzer-Ersatz-Abteilung 1, a replacement and training unit stationed at Erfurt in Germany and from Panzerschiess-Schule Putlos, a tank gunnery school near Holstein.
It was originally intended that this battalion would be equipped with the Tiger (P) which was then being developed by Porsche and a number of drivers were sent to the Nibelungenwerke at St.Valentin in Austria to be trained on the new tanks. The decision to drop the Porsche design in favour of Henschel’s proposal in July delayed the battalion’s training and formation and the first two Tigers did not arrive until 30 August 1942. The battalion’s first and second companies were sent to North Africa, the latter via France, with the first tanks arriving on 23 November 1942. So precarious was the supply route from Italy to the African coast that the last Tigers did not reach Tunisia until late January 1943 and the battalion’s 3.Kompanie, which was not fully formed until 6 March, remained in Europe and was eventually attached to Panzer-Regiment Grossdeutschland as a tenth company. On 12 May 1943 the remnants of the battalion, which had been combined with elements of the newly arrived schwere Panzer-Abteilung 504, surrendered to the British near El Alia in Tunisia. Beginning on 9 September 1943, and employing some 150 veterans of the original formation, the battalion was rebuilt under the command of Major Erich Löwe, an experienced tank officer who had been awarded the Knight’s Cross as a company commander during the 1940 French Campaign. The battalion spent the following months in training and on Sunday, 5 December 1943 began moving to the Eastern Front. From 19 December until the end of the year the battalion was involved in the fierce fighting between Losovka and Vitebsk and it was here, on 23 December, that the battalion commander was killed.
In January and February 1944 the battalion was operating in the area around Vitebsk, north-east of Minsk in modern day Belarus, in support of Panzergrenadier-Division Feldherrnhalle and 14. Infanterie-Division. Despite the heavy fighting just one Tiger was lost at this time when an artillery shell landed directly on the turret roof of Leutnant Schröder’s tank. In early March 1944, with just seventeen serviceable tanks, the battalion took part in Operation Hubertus, a limited offensive to retake the village of Osipenki west of Vitebsk near the current Belarus frontier, with the assault guns of Sturmgeschütz-Brigade 281 and the grenadiers of 256.Infanterie-Division. In early June nine Tigers were handed over to schwere Panzer-Abteilung 509 leaving just twenty tanks in total. On 23 June 1944, the day after the commencement of the Soviet Operation Bagration, the battalion was rushed to the area north-east of Orscha, an important rail and road junction on the Dnieper river, and immediately faced strong Russian armoured units including a number of JS-2 heavy tanks. The fighting here was extremely confused and the tanks of the battalion were widely dispersed. During the withdrawal across the Dnieper the tank of the first platoon commander crashed through the bridge and could not be recovered. In addition several other tanks were abandoned due to lack of fuel. The battalion continued to withdraw to the west and on 2 July 1944 the six remaining operational Tigers were ferried across the Berezina river.
EQUIPMENT ALLOCATIONS AND LOSSES, SCHWERE PANZER-ABTEILUNG 501,1944
Over the next few days a number of tanks were delivered from depot workshops and thrown into the defence of Minsk but most were abandoned after they ran out of fuel and two simply went missing and were never seen again. All surviving crews were withdrawn to Germany where, on 17 July 1944, the battalion was reformed. Equipped with a full complement of tanks the second and third companies returned to the front and on 11 August and were attached to 16. Panzer-Division and immediately thrown into an attack between Chmielnik and Szydlow in central Poland in an effort to reduce the so called Sandomierz Bulge. At the same time, 1.Kompanie was leaving Ohrdruf in Germany and within a week, in a dramatic turn of events, the battalion commander, Oberstleutnant von Legat, was removed from his post over suspicions of his involvement in the July plot to assassinate Hitler. In September the battalion was attached to XXXVIII.Panzerkorps and took part in the defensive battles near Kielce and Ostrowiec on the western bank of the Vistula. At this time a number of Tiger I tanks were handed over from schwere Panzer-Abteilung 509, which was returning to Germany, and by the end of September the battalion reported that fifty-three tanks in total were on hand, with thirty-six of those being combat ready. On 1 December 1944 the battalion was able to field fifty-one operational Tigers and on 21 December was renamed schwere Panzer-Abteilung 424 to avoid confusion with schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 501. On the last day of 1944 the battalion reported that seventeen Tigers were fully operational.