In the summer of 1942, Hitler ordered the first company of s.Pz.-Abt. 502 to Army Group North to assist in the capture of Leningrad. This company, along with elements of the workshop company and battalion headquarters, conducted combat operations in the vicinity of Leningrad beginning at the end of September 1942. The 2d company of this battalion wasn’t formed until later, and in an attempt to stabilize the front after the Soviet encirclement of Stalingrad, OKH attached them to Army Group Don in early 1943. The 1st company of s.Pz.-Abt. 502 fought in the vicinity of Leningrad with Army Group North until the battalion was reunited in the summer of 1943 after having been refitted in accordance with the E battalion K.St.N.
As historian Egon Kleine points out, “there is scarcely a historical work on the Russian campaign that does not mention the first Tiger operation … [and they all] offer different versions of the events.” A common theme in all accounts was criticism about employing heavy tanks in terrain that was swampy and did not allow maneuver off most roads. Guderian summarized the lessons learned from the employment of this company with Army Group North in Panzer Leader:
He [Hitler] was consumed by his desire to try his new weapon. He therefore ordered that the Tigers be committed in a quite secondary operation, in a limited attack carried out in terrain that was utterly unsuitable; for in the swampy forest near Leningrad heavy tanks could only move in single file along the forest tracks, which, of course, was exactly where the enemy antitank guns were posted, waiting for them. The results were not only heavy, unnecessary casualties, but also the loss of secrecy and of the element of surprise for future operations.
During this initial attack, all of the Tigers received some damage, and the Soviets captured one Tiger. Even though the Tiger was superior to any Soviet tank at that time, several subsequent attacks achieved similar results because the Soviets positioned antitank guns in depth along the few roads in the area.
During the next year, the Soviets launched several attacks that forced the Germans in this sector onto the defensive. The swampy terrain that restricted heavy vehicle movement to roads enabled this company to provide excellent defensive support throughout the sector. Because the Soviets did not possess a tank or armored vehicle capable of defeating the Tigers, except at close range, Tigers dominated the battlefield in the restricted terrain. From 12 January to 31 March 1943, this company destroyed 160 Soviet tanks and lost 6 Tigers. This means that 26.7 enemy tanks were destroyed for the loss of each Tiger. This unit was obviously very effective in destroying enemy armored units attempting to penetrate the German front lines.
As most heavy tank battalions did, this unit suffered from inadequate recovery assets and a low operational readiness rate of Tigers. The unit never had more than four operational Tigers at the same time during this entire period. Three of the six Tigers lost were destroyed by their own crews; two of them after they had become stuck in the “peat-bog” and one because of mechanical failure. This may have been a result of the poor terrain, but sufficient recovery assets might have compensated for some of the losses. The unit’s diary is filled with entries about pulling out “bogged” Tigers and there is one instance where the recovery took three days.
EQUIPMENT ALLOCATIONS AND LOSSES, SCHWERE PANZER-ABTEILUNG 502,1944
Formed on 25 May 1942 from Panzer-Ersatz-Abteilung 35, this unit was not the first of the heavy tank battalions created by the German Army, as is sometimes stated, although it was the first to receive an allocation of Tigers and the first to see action, 1. Kompanie going into combat on 21 September 1942 near Tortolovo, some 30 kilometres east of Leningrad on the Volkov Front.
These first tanks suffered almost continuous mechanical failures and during the training phase were only kept operational with the help of civilian maintenance crews from the Henschel factory temporarily attached to the battalion.
On 29 August 1942, of the four Tigers available to 1. Kompanie, offloaded at the railway junction at Mga near Leningrad, three broke down before they could reach their assigned position at the front. Although the fourth made contact with the enemy it became bogged and had to be towed to safety.
The battalion’s 2.Kompanie was formed from surplus crews of Panzer-Regiment 1 and Panzer-Regiment 35 and arrived in Russia on 7 January 1943 to be attached to Heeresgruppe Don operating in the southern Ukraine, far from the battalion’s headquarters and first company fighting on the Volkov. It seems the lessons of 1942 had been learnt, however, as the company was able to make the road march from Proletarsk, south-east of Rostov, to Ssungar, a journey of over 100 kilometres, on their own tracks without a single mechanical failure.
On 22 February 1943 the battalion’s second company was transferred to schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 and renamed as that formation’s third company. While 1.Kompanie remained in the east, a new 2.Kompanie was formed in France from men of Panzer-Regiment 3 and by the end of May a third company had been raised, mainly from personnel of Panzer-Regiment 4.
By the end of July the new companies, together with the battalion staff, were reunited with 1. Kompanie in time to take part in the battles to the south of Leningrad, now Saint Petersburg.
During the remainder of the year the battalion fought in the attempts to retake Newel, south of Pskov, and as the new year approached, 1 .Kompanie was transferred to the Leningrad sector.
In January 1944 the remainder of the battalion, which was still with VIII.Armeekorps near Newel was rushed to Gatshina, south of Leningrad, in an effort to halt the Soviet attempts to break out of the Oranienbaum bridgehead. The third company commanded by Leutnant Meyer formed a Kampfgruppe with 9.Luftwaffen-Feld-Division and Grenadier-Regiment 422 and when the first and second companies arrived they were formed into a battle group with Grenadier-Regiment 377 and Panzerjäger-Kompanie 240.
In the confused and desperate fighting that took place around Syaskelevo eleven Tigers were completely destroyed while a number had to be towed during the withdrawal to Volosovo. The commander of 3.Kompanie, Leutnant Meyer, finding himself surrounded, committed suicide rather than surrender and Oberleutnant Diesl, the commander of 1.Kompanie, was killed near Narva on the last day of the month.
In early February the battalion was moved to Narva-Joesuu on the Gulf of Finland north of Narva, and remained in the area until mid-April, taking part in the attempts to reduce the Soviet bridgeheads on the western bank of the Narva river near Auvere and east of modern Sirgala referred to by the Germans as the Ostsack and Westsack respectively.
During this time the companies were separated and fought with the units that were collectively known as Panzer-Kampfgruppe Strachwitz. Operations in the Narva area only ceased when the ground, already marshy, became impassable in mid-April and the battalion used the next seven weeks to carry out urgently needed repairs.
When the Soviet summer offensive began on 22 June the battalion was attached to XXXVII.Armeekorps in the Pskov-Ostrov area, near the junction of the present day Estonian, Latvian and Russian borders. The second and third companies were ordered to counterattack immediately towards the Velikaya river in support of 121 .Infanterie-Division while 1. Kompanie was temporarily attached to the neighbouring I.Armeekorps. The Tigers were employed for the most part in platoon-sized groups in support of infantry and combat engineer units and during this time had their first experience of the US M4 Sherman tank when a single example was destroyed by Leutnant Eichorn of 2.Kompanie. On Sunday, 2 July the battalion began moving to Dünaburg, modern Daugavpils in Latvia, the last tanks arriving on the following Thursday. At that time the battalion was able to report that twenty-two Tigers were combat ready from a total of fifty-two. Four tanks had been abandoned in the battles near Ostrov and had to be destroyed by German artillery.
During July and most of August small units of the battalion – sometimes individual tanks – fought along the Duna river in an effort to hold back the Red Army. It was here on 22 July that 2.Kompanie under Leutnant Otto Carius with just eight Tigers ambushed and destroyed twenty-eight Russian tanks in a single action near Krivani, 12 kilometres north of Daugavpils off the road to Kalupe.
Despite local successes the battalion had lost twenty-seven tanks by late August, at least four of those to captured 88mm guns, and the heavier and more powerful armoured vehicles including the JS-2 tank and ISU-152 self propelled gun which the Russians were by now employing.
On 25 August the battalion moved to Ergli, coming under the command of X.Armeekorps of Heeresgruppe Nord, and fought here in the defence of the port city of Riga claiming, on 26 September, to have destroyed its 1000th Soviet tank since the battalion arrived in Russia almost exactly two years previously.
On 4 October the battalion was ordered to begin preparations to move to Germany to re-train on the Tiger II, however, five days later Red Army units reached the Baltic coast near Memel, modern Klaipeda in Lithuania, cutting off the units of Heeresgruppe Nord and all transport was halted.
Over the next days Hauptmann Leonhardt’s 3.Kompanie with its remaining eight Tigers was attached to schwere Panzer-Abteilung 510 while the thirteen tanks of the first and second companies were employed in the defence of the Memel bridgehead.
On 30 October the crews without tanks, who had been fighting as infantry, were withdrawn to Gdansk and on 12 November Leutnant Leonhardt’s men, after handing over their last six tanks to schwere Panzer-Abteilung 510, were evacuated to Libau, present day Liepaja in Latvia, and from there to Gdansk and finally Paderborn in Germany.
The first and second companies would remain in Memel until 21 January 1945 when they were withdrawn to Germany, managing to take with them the last three surviving Tigers.