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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.