Panzer VI Tiger of the Schwere Panzer Abteilung 503, tank number 123, winter camouflage. Near Rostov-on-Don January 1943
On 27 December 1942, OKH sent Heavy Tank Battalion 503 to Army Group Don to assist in stabilizing the front. This unit was needed to help protect Rostov so that the 1st and 4th Panzer Armies and other German units in the Caucasus could withdraw across the Don River to the Donets River, where the high command planned a new defensive line.
This battalion arrived at the beginning of 1943 and Army Group Don immediately assigned it the mission of securing bridges across the Manytch River for use by withdrawing forces. By this time there was not a continuous front in the area. German forces defended a series of blocking positions and strongpoints in an attempt to stop the Soviet advance. These were located at key points at road or railroad junctions and major river crossings. The fighting was characterized by rearguard actions, while the main body of troops took up new positions farther back.
Heavy Tank Battalion 503 participated in this fighting from 1 to 17 January 1943, primarily securing important river crossing sites. Due to the fluid nature of the battlefield, however, they were sent from one important area to another, and in one instance covered 65 kilometers in one day.
Probably the battalion’s largest single employment occurred on 6 January 1943 when the battalion, supported by 2d Battalion, Panzer-Grenadier Regiment 128, attacked towards Stavropol. The 1st Company attacked frontal – ly with the battalion of panzergrenadiers, while the 2d Company attacked from the left flank. Altogether, the battalion fielded 17 operational Tigers out of 20 assigned and 20 Panzer IIIs out of 31. During the engagement, the Tigers knocked out 18 Soviet tanks and destroyed an armored car and five antitank guns. The enemy retreated, and during the pursuit the battalion lost its first vehicle during the entire engagement, a Panzer III, to artillery fire.
Possibly the most important mission given this battalion was its attack to reduce a Soviet penetration at Vessely. The battalion fielded 11 Tigers and 12 Panzer IIIs and was again supported by the 2d Battalion of Panzer-Grenadier Regiment 128, as well as by a battery of light howitzers. The attack began in the early morning of 9 January 1943. German forces made three attempts to achieve their objective during the day, but the Soviets repulsed all attacks.
The battalion managed to destroy eight T-34s during the attack, but also lost two Tigers and one Panzer III to enemy fire. In addition, the nine other Tigers were so badly damaged that the battalion had only one operational Tiger at the end of the day. Two of these Tigers were sent back to Germany for general repairs. In the space of six hours, one of these received 227 hits from antitank rifles and was struck 14 times by 57mm and 11 times by 76mm antitank rounds. It is a testament to the vehicle’s durability that despite this damage, the Tiger still traveled back 60 kilometers under its own power.
On 14 January 1943, the 2d Company, Heavy Tank Battalion 502 was attached to Heavy Tank Battalion 503. This became the only instance where three Organization D companies were combined under the control of a single battalion. This arrangement lasted only eight days because of losses to the battalion, however; on 22 January 1943, the battalion disbanded the 2d Company. The battalion integrated the remnants of this company into the 3d Company, and continued to operate with only two Organization D companies.
After partially rebuilding its strength, Army Group Don assigned the battalion missions that involved securing the important railroad centers around Rostov. The battalion participated in many minor local counterattacks that forced it to operate in company- and platoon-sized units. These elements operated with a wide variety of other units, usually in a subordinate role. In accomplishing these missions, the battalion demonstrated excellent flexibility in command and control and in company and platoon organizations, repeatedly changing command relationships and composition to accomplish the mission.
During this fighting, the battalion integrated Tigers and Panzer IIIs in many different ways. On two occasions the battalion formed a light company consisting of a company’s worth of Panzer IIIs and a heavy company equipped with Tigers and the remainder of the Panzer IIIs. This light company primarily covered other units’ withdrawals, but did participate in an attack of 8 February 1943 in the northwestern sector of Rostov, where it destroyed 12 enemy tanks and three antitank guns. The battalion commander employed this light company because of the difficult terrain, consisting of many ditches, across which the attacks were carried out.
From 19 February to 22 February 1943, the light company, starting with eight Panzer IIIs and two Tigers, conducted local counterattacks and occupied covering positions in the vicinity of Rostov. During this four-day period, the company destroyed 23 T-34s and 11 antitank guns while losing one Tiger and one Panzer III. After an engagement on 22 February 1943, the battalion had only two Tigers and five Panzer IIIs operational and withdrew to an area near Taganrog to refit. This battalion was not employed again until Operation Zitadelle in July 1943.
During the almost two months of combat with Army Group Don, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 destroyed more than 71 enemy tanks and 55 antitank guns. In so doing, they lost around 13 Panzer IIIs and had three Tigers knocked out due to enemy actions. Another Tiger was destroyed while waiting at the Budenny rail station for transport back to Germany for factory repair when the battalion was forced to retreat to Rostov. A total of four Tigers were so badly damaged in combat that they were transported back to Germany. This means that this battalion destroyed 23.6 enemy tanks for the loss of each Tiger, or 4.4 enemy tanks for the loss of any type tank, Panzer III and Tiger.
Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was much more effective than the units around Leningrad and in North Africa in recovering disabled Tigers. During combat that always involved retrograde movements, its soldiers destroyed only one Tiger to avoid capture. Additionally, this Tiger had already been recovered and loaded on a rail car for transport back to Germany. This battalion’s leadership was very reluctant to destroy its own vehicles and did everything possible to recover Tigers. In one instance, three Tigers broke down in a withdrawal; instead of destroying them, the crews stayed with the vehicles until they could be recovered, which was over 30 hours later. Diary entries are filled with examples of operational vehicles towing damaged vehicles back to the maintenance platoon to be repaired. In another instance, while the rest of the unit withdrew, six 18-ton recovery vehicles and two other Tigers recovered a Tiger that broke through the ice of a stream.
Despite the great efforts of the recovery elements, this battalion still suffered from a low operational readiness rate of its Tigers. On average, the battalion only maintained around 35 percent of its Tigers in operational condition. Probably one of the main reasons for Tigers being in need of repair was from damage due to enemy fire. Another reason may have been the great distances that the unit had to traverse. In one instance, the 2d Company conducted a 107-kilometer roadmarch in ten and a half hours. This unit did not lose any vehicles to maintenance breakdowns during the roadmarch, however, probably because the company commander ordered a maintenance halt every 20 kilometers.
Overall, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was very successful in its operations around Rostov. This unit played a large part in protecting the key road and rail networks that allowed the 1st Panzer Army to retreat. Some historians attribute the actions of this battalion to preventing the Soviets in breaking through to Rostov and cutting the road and rail lines.