Heavy Tank Battalion 503 in Hungary

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Koeingstiger Heavy Tank, sPzAbt 503, Autumn 1944.

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After completing operations in Budapest, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 was ordered to move southeast to support the 4th SS-Police Panzer-Grenadier Division and the 24th Panzer Division.

Due to a shortage of the special railway cars required for transporting Tigers, only one company at a time was able to be sent to the battalion’s forward assembly area, with the lead company arriving on 18 October 1944. As a result, the elements of the battalion were divided between the two divisions that it supported.

The German attack on 19 and 20 October 1944 was led by two companies of Heavy Tank Battalion 503. On 19 October 1944, the 1st Company led, followed and supported by the 3d Company. The attack, beginning at 0500 hours east of the town of Szolnok, succeeded in penetrating the initial defensive positions held by Romanian troops and seized their objective for the day, the town of Mezotur. The Commander of the 3d Company describes the success of the day:

Shortly after the lead tank had crossed the main line of resistance, the first Rumanians [sic]-they were the ones who held the positions in that sector-approached the tanks with their hands raised. . . . The next village was rapidly reached, from which the Rumanians tried in vain to flee. They were waved to the rear since the tanks had no time to concern themselves with prisoners. An antitank belt facing the direction of the attack was overrun. As it turned out, the entire depth of the defensive position had been penetrated. Mines were discovered twice on the avenue of advance, but it was possible to drive around them. As a result, the Tigers thrust ever deeper into the hinterland. Enemy trains were surprised; entire columns swept from the road. Nothing could halt the forward advance.

Later in the day as the attack continued, the lead elements of the battalion encountered a train loaded with a Soviet Guards cavalry division and wrought havoc on the train and the troops. The battalion also encountered and destroyed several rear-area columns and logistics units during the day. The attack on this day succeeded in penetrating 40 kilometers deep into the Soviet defenses.

On 20 October 1944, the 3d Company assumed the lead in the attack toward the town of Turkeve. Soviet forces recovered from the day’s previous attack and established strong antitank defenses between Mezotur and Turkeve. Additionally, the muddy terrain conditions restricted the King Tigers from movement off of the road. Only a few tanks in the lead, therefore, were able to effectively engage Soviet forces during the attack. Despite the increased resistance and the restrictions on off-road movement, the company successfully defeated at least three separate Soviet antitank belts. The company commander praised the King Tiger during this day’s action:

If the Panzer IVs of the 24th Panzer Division had been forced to take the lead, not a single one of them would have made it through. The strong frontal armor of the King Tiger withstood the antitank rounds. Nothing could stop them and the tanks at the point chewed their way right through the strong antitank defense until they could gain open and negotiable terrain.

After breaking through the Soviet defensive positions, the attack succeeded in capturing the town of Turkeve and even continued on 15 kilometers further to the outskirts of the town of Kisujszallas. Extremely strong Soviet forces in and around the town of Kisujszallas prevented its capture, however. Also, the supporting attack by the 4th SS-Cavalry Division, led by the 2d Company of Heavy Tank Battalion 503, failed to reach Kisujszallas from the west. Throughout the day, the German attack penetrated a total of 30 additional kilometers.

The next day, 21 October 1944, the Soviet capture of Mezotur in the German rear forced the leading German elements to withdraw. Over the course of two days, led throughout by elements of Heavy Tank Battalion 503, the German attack successfully penetrated the Soviet defenses to a depth of 70 kilometers. This relatively obscure attack is noteworthy because it was probably the deepest penetration of the war that was spearheaded by a heavy tank battalion.

There were several reasons for this exceptional success. Foremost, the battlefield situation was uncertain and fluid after many Hungarian Army units left their defensive positions. In many places, there were not even defined front lines. Also, the morale of the Romanian defenders on 19 October 1944 appears to have been low, with many surrendering easily. More importantly, the Germans had done little to equip their former allies with first-quality antitank weapons, so the Romanians’ few, small-caliber guns were incapable of dealing effectively with the attacking King Tigers. During the two days of offensive operations, the only mention of the battalion encountering any Soviet tanks was at the end of the second day in and around Kisujszallas.

This attack was conducted under very favorable conditions for Heavy Tank Battalion 503. Having just completed refitting with the King Tiger, it had its full authorization of equipment and personnel. To the battalion’s credit, they penetrated several defensive lines each day and destroyed at least 36 antitank guns on the second day’s attack. Although no King Tigers were totally destroyed during the operation, many received damage from the numerous antitank guns. By the time that the 3d Company made it to the town of Turkeve on the second day of the attack, there were only three King Tigers operational.

After this attack, Heavy Tank Battalion 503 withdrew gradually to the west with other German forces. Initially, they defended along the Theiss River around Szolnok, finally withdrawing from those positions on 31 October 1944. The battalion spent the month of November 1944 withdrawing from their positions along the Theiss River, eventually occupying a new defensive line northeast of Budapest.

As could be expected, the battalion’s combat power dramatically decreased after continual employment without providing or allocating any appreciable time to conduct major maintenance efforts. Continuing its tradition throughout the war, this battalion’s crews and ordnance personnel did an excellent job of recovering damaged and broken vehicles. The battalion destroyed its first King Tiger to avoid capture on 2 November 1944, after it became stuck in the muddy terrain. That day marked the first time also that a King Tiger from the battalion was destroyed by direct fire, namely, from a Soviet antitank gun. On 30 November 1944, Army Group South ordered Heavy Tank Battalion 503 to move to the vicinity of Lake Balaton to defend against Soviet forces that had broken out of their Danube bridgeheads south of Budapest.

The battalion loaded trains on 30 November 1944 and arrived in Balatonkenese, on the east side of Lake Balaton, on 3 December 1944. Their redeployment presented the battalion with a major problem, however.

Fifteen damaged tanks were in the maintenance facility at Kurt. It would take at least 14 days to repair them since replacement parts had to be brought from Germany in the unit’s own trucks. The corps ordered that the Maintenance Company had to remain in Kurt until the tanks were repaired. For the time being, the enemy situation in that section of the front did not cause any concern. There was, indeed, no other alternative, since that number of tanks could not be towed the approximately 50 kilometers to a railroad station where they could be rail loaded. There were no prime movers available for that. As a result, the maintenance facility remained in Kurt.

The “enemy situation in that section” changed dramatically on 5 December 1944 when the Soviets began their largest offensive operation in Hungary up to that time. Although the King Tigers at the repair center were towed into defensive positions and managed to destroyed several Soviet tanks, on 7 December 1944, eight King Tigers had to be destroyed to avoid capture. Fortunately for the battalion, they were somehow able to transport the remainder of the damaged vehicles to the relative safety of the battalion’s new area of operations.

The battalion contributed greatly in stopping the Soviet offensive and stabilizing the front in the Lake Balaton area. Soviet antitank guns and self-destruction of vehicles after they had become stuck in the mud were the two primary causes of King Tiger losses throughout their time around Lake Balaton. Heavy Tank Battalion 503 continued to operate in and around the Lake Balaton region until 11 February 1945 when they were moved north to participate in Operation SÜDWIND, the reduction of the Gran Bridgehead.

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