Tiger Stalking

Rafał Zalewski

Allied tank crews had every reason to fear the Tiger; its 88mm gun was capable of chewing up every single opponent it faced. From a 30 degree angle it could pierce the front glacis plate of an American M4 Sherman at a range of between 1,800m and 2,100m, the British Churchill IV’s between 1,100m and 1,700m, the Soviet T-34’s between 800 and 1,400m and the Soviet IS-2’s between 100m and 300m. Clearly taking on the Tiger with a Sherman or a T-34 was not a pleasant experience.

Allied tank guns required tankers to close to two-thirds to half the Tiger’s range before they could engage. Neither the M4 Sherman’s 75mm gun nor the T-34’s 76.2mm gun could penetrate the Tiger’s frontal armour at any range. However the T-34 with the 85mm gun could tackle it between 200 and 500m and the IS-2 with its 122mm gun between 500 and 1,500m. Likewise the Soviet 100mm tank gun and the 152mm howitzer could take on the Tiger out to ranges of 1,000m. This meant that as the war progressed, the Soviets were increasingly able to keep the Tiger at arm’s length.

The American 76mm gun, using certain types of armour-piercing shell, could penetrate a Tiger’s armour at just over 500m. Only the later M36 Gun Motor Carriage and M26 heavy tank armed with the 90mm gun proved capable of knocking out the Tiger at long range. Much more successful was the British 17-pounder anti-tank gun that could tackle the Tiger out to 1,000m. As a towed antitank gun, this weapon was in short supply; equally, British armour armed with it – the Sherman Firefly, Challenger, Comet, Achilles and Archer – were too few in number and too lightly armoured. The Sherman Firefly was the only Allied tank committed to the D-Day landings that could take on the Tiger and Panther on anything like equal terms.

The 17-pounder was by far the best anti-tank gun possessed by the British Army towards the end of the Second World War and was a real tank-killer capable of penetrating up to 231 mm armour at 1,000 metres, and as a result it was employed in a variety of guises. The British Army went to war in 1939 with wholly inadequate anti-tank guns, principally the 2-pounder (40mm) developed in the mid-1930s and the 6-pounder (57mm) developed in the late 1930s, though the latter did not enter production until 1941 because the War office insisted on replacing those 2-pounders lost in France. These weapons were quickly outgunned by the German 50mm and 75mm guns.

By early 1942 prototypes of a 3in (76mm) weapon firing a 17lb shot were in hand and by May 1942 the 17-pounder gun was introduced. Hurriedly fitted to 25-pounder field gun carriages, as the split trail carriage was not ready, about a hundred were rushed to the Mediterranean to counter the appearance of the German Tiger tank the following year By mid-1944 the 17-pounder had become the mainstay of the anti-tank regiments of the British and Canadian armies.

It had been hoped as early as 1942 to use the Bishop (a 25-pounder selfpropelled gun based on the Valentine chassis) as a mounting for the new 17-pounder but this was not possible and instead the British Army ended up with the rear-facing Archer variant. While it was far from perfect, 665 examples of the latter were constructed from 1944 to 1945. An experimental self-propelled wheeled mounting was designed by Nicholas Straussler for the gun in 1943. This used a motive unit based on Bedford QL lorry components, but it was not taken up because it was felt it left the crew too exposed when in combat.

The Challenger cruiser tank was also armed with the 17-pounder and 200 of these were ordered and saw action in northwest Europe. Probably the most famous 17- pounder anti-tank gun mounting was the Sherman Firefly VC, which was developed to make up for the slow pace of the Challenger By June 1944 it was the only Allied tank capable of taking on the German Panther and Tiger Similarly, the British Comet was armed with a shortened version of the 17-pounder but the 77mm gun did not have the penetrating power of the latter.

The Soviets were well prepared, as Red Army veteran Mansur Abdulin recorded in his memoirs:

`We knew all the technical characteristics of Tigers, Panthers, Ferdinands and other enemy tanks and self-propelled guns. Our gunners received new anti-tank weapons. We also became acquainted with new self-propelled 152mm guns. . We veterans explained to the greenhorns the particular weaknesses .’.

The T-34/85 was deployed in conjunction with an 85mm self-propelled gun mounted on the T-34 chassis and known as the SU-85. This heavily armoured assault gun appeared in the battles in Ukraine in 1944 and was subsequently replaced by the SU- 100 mounting a more powerful 100mm M 1944 field gun.

The Russians introduced only one new tank, the IS (also known as JS) or Iosef Stalin, although in truth this was not an entirely new design, rather a redesigned KV Although classed as a heavy tank, it was actually roughly the same weight as the Panther medium tank. The IS-1 or IS-85 (after the calibre of its gun) was developed alongside the KV-85 and entered service in September 1943. The IS was initially equipped with an 85mm gun, then a 100mm gun, and finally a 122mm gun, enabling Soviet tank crews to engage any German tank type at extremely long ranges. The IS-2 went into production in late 1943; only 102 were produced in that year, but in 1944 Soviet factories churned out 2,250. The up-gunned IS-2 first saw action in the Ukraine in early 1944, `claiming’ forty-one Tigers and Elefants for the loss of only eight tanks. While the panzers could knock out the IS-2, they had no real answer to its 122mm armament, which easily outgunned them.

It has been calculated that in total eighteen units equipped with Tiger Is and Tiger IIs accounted for 9,850 kills, for the loss of 1,715 tanks. The kill-to-loss ratio, although varying quite widely from unit to unit, averaged almost 6:1. This clearly made a nonsense of the Allies’ preferred 3:1 ratio when taking on a Tiger. Despite Allied tankers’ fear of the Tiger, they soon learned that it was vulnerable on the flanks and at close range. The only way to neutralise a Tiger was to stalk it and attack from close range.

The Soviets greatly respected the Tiger, but were quick to develop ways of overcoming its capabilities, often at great personal cost. Soviet tankers had to close down the 1,000m range of the 88mm gun as quickly as possible, and this meant a nerve-wracking charge towards the frontal armour of a Tiger in a desperate bid to close with it before being hit. If there were enough T-34s, then the Tiger was at risk of being swamped no matter how many enemy tanks it knocked out, especially if it did not withdraw quickly enough.

At Kursk General Rotmistrov recalled, `Our tanks were destroying the Tigers at close range . We knew their vulnerable spots, so our tank crews were firing at their sides. The shells fired from very short distances tore large holes in the armour of the Tigers.’ In describing the battle of Kursk, the Soviet official History graphically recorded:

The battlefield seemed too small for the hundreds of armoured machines. Groups of tanks moved over the steppe, taking cover behind isolated groves and orchards. The detonations of the guns merged into a continuous menacing growl.

The tanks of the 5th Guards Tank Army cut into the Nazi development at full speed. This attack was so fast that the enemy did not have time to prepare to meet it, and the leading ranks of the Soviet tanks passed right through the enemy’s entire first echelon, destroying his leading units and sub-units. The Tigers, deprived in close combat of the advantages which their powerful gun and thick armour conferred, were successfully shot-up by T-34s at close range. Immense numbers of tanks were mixed up all over the battlefield, and there was neither time nor space to disengage and reform the ranks. Shells fired at short range penetrated both the front and side armour of the tanks. While this was going on, there were frequent explosions as ammunition blew up, while tank turrets, blown off by the force of the explosions, were thrown dozens of yards away from the twisted machines.

Recounting the bitter fighting between the Soviet 181 st Tank Brigade and the 1 st SS Panzer Division, the Official History observes that the Soviet tankers showed incredible bravery and sacrifice:

The 2nd Battalion of the 181st Brigade, 18th Tanks Corps, attacking along the left bank of the Psel, clashed with a group of Tigers [led by Michael Wittmann], which met the Soviet tanks with fire from the halt . Several Tigers opened fire on Skripkin’s tank simultaneously. One enemy shell punctured the side, another wounded the commander. The driver-mechanic and radio operator dragged him out of the tank and hid him in a shell hole. But one of the Tigers was heading straight for them. The driver mechanic, Alexander Nikolayev, jumped back into his damaged and burning tank, started the engine and rushed headlong at the enemy. It was as if a ball of fire careered over the battlefield. The Tigers stopped, hesitated, began to turn away. But it was too late. At full speed the burning KV [tank] smashed into the German tank. The explosion shook the earth. This ramming so shook the Nazis that they began a hasty withdrawal.

At Prokhorovka Soviet troops even resorted to using two grenades and a Molotov cocktail in a bundle dubbed `a bottle of Champagne for a hangover!’ to take out Tigers. Veteran Mansur Abdulin remembers how one comrade, Kostia Martynov, desperate to claim a Tiger, dug a trench some 30 metres away out in no-man’s-land:

We see Kostia jump out of his trench and throw the bundle of explosives underneath the caterpillar of the tank. It seems to us that Kostia has plenty of time to take cover before the blast. Then comes the powerful defeating explosion. The Tiger loses its track and twitches, trying to resume its forward movement. But having only one caterpillar, it turns and collapses on its side. Our boys bring some fresh `Champagne’ bottles and soon the Tiger is in flames.

The engagement cost the Germans two Tigers and Kostia his life.

While Allied tank crews were learning how to stalk the Tiger, it often pounced first. Colonel Henry E. Gardiner, commander of the 2nd Battalion, 13th Armored Regiment, US 1st Armored Division, had the unpleasant experience of being surprised by a Tiger in Tunisia. Fighting in an M3 Grant, he had just knocked out a panzer when he recalled:

Just at that point we were hit hard by what later proved to be 88mm fire from a Tiger tank that I had not seen. The M3 had a crew of seven. The driver and gunner were killed, the assistant driver badly wounded and I got some shrapnel in my left arm. The other three men escaped without injury. . I was evacuated to a British tent field hospital near Bone where most of the shrapnel was removed from my arm and after a week I rejoined my battalion.

In the close-quarter tank battles fought among Normandy’s hedgerows in the summer of 1944 British tank crews were under no illusions about their vulnerability to the Tiger’s 88mm gun. Even if the crew survived a hit, they were likely to be machine-gunned as they baled out and into the nearest ditch. The Tiger I sealed its reputation in Normandy at the engagement at Villers-Bocage, though Allied tank crews were already afraid of it. Colin Thomson, an armoured car driver-operator with the 11th Hussars, recalled:

My troop penetrated . as far as Cahagnes where . we saw a large concentration of enemy armour moving towards Villers-Bocage. Round the corner of a narrow lane came a German 8-wheel armoured car . Our lead car gunner let go. The Jerry vehicle went up in a cloud of smoke.

We heard another vehicle . `Please God, it’s not a Tiger!’ someone said. It turned out to be a huge self-propelled gun which we hit with everything we had, destroying it and its crew.

The 8th Hussars to the north advanced to help, but were engaged by four Tigers; they suffered heavy losses and were driven off, Colin Thomson observed, `By the time we reached the outskirts reports spoke of extremely hard fighting there. We began to work up north and north-west and also to the south where, at Tracy-Bocage, the troops came under fire from 88mms.’

Michael Wittmann, while attacking Villers-Bocage a second time with two Tigers and a Panzer IV, drove straight into a British ambush. `When the Tigers were about 1,000 yards away and were broadside to us I told 3 Troop and my gunner to fire,’ recalled Lieutenant Bill Cotton. `The Firefly [with the 17pdr] did the damage, but the 75s helped and must have taken a track off one, which started to circle out of control.’

A towed anti-tank gun hit Wittmann’s tank, and the following Tiger was caught by Sergeant Bobby Bramall’s Firefly; Corporal Horne’s Cromwell missed the target, and the Panzer IV had almost got past the second Tiger when Horne drove out behind the German and blasted him. A third Tiger entered the town but was also caught by B Squadron a few dozen yards from the main street at the crossroads of the rue Jeanne Bacon and rue Emile Samson.

The Tigers were quick to react. `They shot back at us, and knocked the Firefly out, as its commander was hit in the head,’ said Lieutenant Cotton. `However at the end of a very few minutes there were three “killed” Tigers.’ The crews escaped because too few British infantry remained to take them prisoner Later Cotton, armed with an umbrella, and with Bramall carrying blankets and petrol, walked in the pouring rain to the panzers and set fire to them to prevent recovery – something the Germans were very adept at:

At about 1700 hours on the 13th, while the Tigers were regrouping, the British withdrew to Tracy-Bocage, 2 miles to the west, having lost twenty-five tanks and twenty-eight armoured fighting vehicles. B Squadron was ordered to time its withdrawal to coincide with a covering barrage that would be laid down on the town. Stan Lockwood had just driven his Firefly across the town square when it stalled. Fortunately Sergeant Bill Moore in the following tank jumped down under small arms fire and attached a tow cable to Lockwood’s tank, towing him out just before the bombardment began.

Second Lieutenant Stuart Hill recalled his regiment, the Nottinghamshire Sherwood rangers Yeomanry, equipped with Sherman tanks, tangling with the Tiger in Normandy on 26 June 1944:

As they cleared Fontenay, they were suddenly confronted by an enormous tank coming round the bend in front. It was hard to know who was more surprised, but John [Semken, commanding A Squadron] shrieked, `Fire, it’s a Hun’, and they loosed off about ten rounds into the smoke. As this cleared away, it was observed that the crew were baling out as small flames came from inside the tank. It was a Tiger of 12th SS Panzer, the first Tiger to be captured in Normandy, and it made an impressive sight at close quarters as both its size and the thickness of its armour became apparent. Although the range had been only 60 yards, not one Sherman shell had penetrated that armour. The fire in the Tiger, we discovered, had instead been caused by a shot hitting the side of the driver’s observation visor and showering white-hot splinters into the tank. The driver screamed that he had been hit and the commander obligingly ordered his crew out.

A Squadron claimed a Tiger, a Panther and thirteen Panzer IVs. The following day B Squadron pushed on to Rauray. resuming his account, Stuart Hill recalled, `By midday Rauray had been cleared and in it were found about eight German tanks, all damaged to some extent, and one of them a Tiger, which seemed to be in perfect working order. We tried to incorporate it into our ranks, but unfortunately the High Command wanted it to be taken back to England.’

Hill had a close shave involving a Tiger on 2 August: The column halted to allow the sappers to come up and clear the mines, when suddenly a Tiger tank emerged from cover and moved to the high ground overlooking the road. It opened fire at about 2,000 yards and hit a tank further back in the column. With both ends of the road now blocked, we were bottled up and the Tiger was out of our range.

I shouted: `Gunner, traverse right. Steady on Tiger. Smoke. 1,750 yards. Fire when ready.’ Our shot landed just in front of the Tiger and the smoke soon obscured it from view. We fired again, this time just to the left of the tank, aiming to keep plenty of smoke between us and it. Other tank commanders did the same, while the air officer accompanying us called up four Typhoon fighter-bombers off the cab-rank to fire their rockets at the Tiger. We fired some red smoke to identify the target, and then the planes came in, very low and with a tremendous roar. The second plane scored a direct hit and, when the smoke cleared, we could see the Tiger lying on its side minus its turret and with no sign of any survivors.

Ultimately it took guts and nerves of steel to kill a Tiger at close quarters, as Hill observed: `Sergeant George Dring, that inveterate destroyer of tanks, stalked a Tiger on foot and then directed his own tank to kill it. Two other Tigers, heavily bogged down in wet ground, were captured intact.’

The Tiger finally met its match on 26 February 1945 when the American M26 Pershing tank went into action with the US 3rd Armored Division. The first encounter did not go well for the Americans, who were guarding a roadblock. A Tiger lurking behind a building just 100 yards away got off three shots. The first 88mm round burst into the Pershing’s turret through the co-axial machine gun port, killing the gunner and the loader. The following shot caught the muzzle break of the 90mm gun, setting off the round in the chamber. The third shot glanced off the right side of the turret and tore off the upper cupola hatch, which had been left open. Ironically, the Tiger then tried to beat a hasty retreat, only to become entangled in a pile of debris and the crew fled. Shortly afterwards Sergeant Nick Mashlonik recalled stalking a Tiger:

Our first exposure to the enemy with the new M26 was very fruitful. We were hit hard by the Germans from Elsdorf. The enemy appeared to have much armour as we received a lot of direct fire and this kept us pinned down. Our casualties kept mounting and the Commanding Officer of our company asked me if I thought I could knock the Tiger out that was almost destroying us. The Company Commander and I did some investigating, by crawling out to a position where we could see from ground level a sight to behold.

The German Tiger was slightly dug in and this meant it would be more difficult to destroy. I decided that I could take this Tiger with my 90mm.

Our M26 was in defilade position, more or less hidden in a little valley. I detailed my driver Cade and gunner Gormick to accompany me on this mission. I would be gunner and have Gormick load. I instructed both of them that once we had fired three shots – two armour piercing and one HE [High Explosive] point detonating – we would immediately back up so as not to expose ourselves too long on the top of the hill.

Just as we started our tank and moved very slowly forward (creeping), I noticed that the German Tiger was moving out of the position and exposed his belly to us. I immediately put a shell into its belly and knocked it off. The second shot was fired at his track and knocked his right track off. The third shot was fired at his turret with HE point detonating and destroyed the escaping crew.

The Tiger was the first of the heavy tanks; although it stole a march on the Allies, it was never produced in sufficient numbers. Nazi Germany was already facing defeat by the time the American Pershing and Soviet Joseph Stalin heavy tanks appeared. British attempts at producing a tank with sufficient firepower in the shape of the Archer, Challenger, Comet and Firefly were little more than inadequate stopgaps.

The Soviet Response

The initial Soviet response to the Tiger I was to order the restart of production of the 57mm ZiS-2 anti-tank gun. Production of this model had been halted in 1941 in favour of smaller and cheaper alternatives. The ZiS-2 which had better armour penetration than the 76mm F-34 tank gun which was then in use by most Red Army tanks, but it too proved to be all but inadequate when faced with the Tiger I.

A ZiS-2 firing APCR rounds could usually be relied upon to penetrate the Tiger’s frontal armour. A small number of T-34s were fitted with a tank version of the ZiS-2, but the drawback was that as an anti-tank weapon the ZiS-2 could not fire a strong high-explosive round, thus making it an unsatisfactory tank gun. The Russians had no inhibitions about following the German lead and accordingly the 85mm 52-K anti-aircraft gun was modified for tank use. This gun was initially incorporated into the SU-85 self-propelled gun which was based on a T-34 chassis and saw action from August 1943. By the spring of 1944, the T-34/85 appeared, this up-gunned T-34 matched the SU-85’s firepower, but had the additional advantage of mounting the gun with a much better HE firing capability in a revolving turret. The redundant SU-85 was replaced by the SU-100, mounting a 100mm D-10 tank gun which could penetrate 185mm of vertical armour plate at 1,000m, and was therefore able to defeat the Tiger’s frontal armour at normal combat ranges.

In May 1943, the Red Army deployed the SU-152, replaced in 1944 by the ISU-152. These self-propelled guns both mounted the large, 152mm howitzer-gun. The SU-152 was intended to be a close-support gun for use against German fortifications rather than armour; but, both it and the later ISU-152 were found to be very effective against German heavy tanks, and were nicknamed Zveroboy which is commonly rendered as “beast killer” or “animal hunter”. The 152mm armour-piercing shells weighed over 45 kilograms (99lb) and could penetrate a Tiger’s frontal armour from 1,000 metres. Even the high-explosive rounds were powerful enough to cause significant damage to a tank. However, the size and weight of the ammunition meant both vehicles had a low rate of fire and each could carry only 20 rounds.

The Two Extremes

The Tiger I enjoyed some spectacular triumphs on the battlefield, but it also endured its fair share of ignominious setbacks. These two contrasting combat reports demonstrate the two extremes of the Tiger I experience.

On 21st April 1943, a Tiger I of the 504th German heavy tank battalion, with turret number 131, was captured after being knocked out on a hill called Djebel Djaffa in Tunisia. A round from a Churchill tank of the British 48th Royal Tank Regiment hit the Tiger’s gun barrel and ricocheted into its turret ring. The round jammed the turret traverse mechanism and wounded the commander. Although the vehicle was still in a driveable condition the crew flew into a panic and bailed out. The complete tank was captured by the British. The tank was repaired and displayed in Tunisia before being sent to England for a thorough inspection.

In complete contrast to the dismal performance of Tiger 131 the Tiger I commanded by Franz Staudegger enjoyed an amazing string of successes. On 7th July 1943, this single Tiger tank commanded by SS-Oberscharführer Franz Staudegger from the 2nd Platoon, 13th Panzer Company, 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler engaged a group of about 50 T-34s around Psyolknee in the southern sector of the German thrust into the Soviet salient known as the Battle of Kursk. Staudegger used all his ammunition and claimed the destruction of 22 Soviet tanks, forcing the rest to retreat. For this amazing feat of arms he was understandably awarded the Knight’s Cross.

The British Response

In contrast to the laissez-faire attitude of the Americans, who correctly assumed that there would never be enough Tigers in the field to present a potent threat, the more experienced British had observed the gradual increase in German AFV armour and firepower since 1940 and had anticipated the need for more powerful anti-tank guns. As a result of the lessons learned in France work on the Ordnance QF 17 pounder had begun in late 1940 and in 1942 100 early-production guns were rushed to North Africa to help counter the new Tiger threat. So great was the haste that they were sent before proper carriages had been designed and constructed, and the guns had to be mounted in the carriages designed for 25-pounder howitzers.

Hasty efforts were also made to get Cruiser tanks armed with 17 pounder guns into operation as soon as possible. The A30 Challenger was already at the prototype stage in 1942 and was pressed into service, but this tank was poorly protected, having a front hull thickness of only 64mm. It was unreliable, and was fielded in only limited numbers – only around 200 were ever built although crews liked it for its high speed. The Sherman Firefly, armed with the 17-pounder, was a notable success even though it was only intended to be a stopgap design. Fireflies were successfully used against Tigers. In one famous engagement, a single Firefly destroyed three Tigers in 12 minutes with five shots and as a result of the superior Allied product capability over 2,000 Fireflies were built during the war. Five different 17-pounder-armed British tanks and self-propelled guns saw combat during the war. These were the A30 Challenger, the A34 Comet, the Sherman Firefly, the 17-pounder SP Achilles and the 17-pounder SP Archer.

Rafał Zalewski

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