Monday, 23 May 2022

Beheaded King Tiger

This photograph of a King Tiger with a torn off turret and Soviet officers standing on the hull is known to many fans of WW2 history. It can often be seen in various publications describing the Battle of Balaton in March of 1945, although none of the authors seem to have attempted to discover where this image came from. A number of clues reveals that this tank came from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion and the photo was made in December of 1944 during the Budapest Offensive Operation. It has nothing to do with the battles in March of 1944. Let us try to figure out where this headless tank came from.


Having completed the Debrecen Offensive Operation in late October of 1944, forces of the 2nd Ukrainian Front almost instantly began the Budapest Offensive Operation. The second stage of this operation was conducted in November of 1944. Elements of the 6th Tank Army, 7th Guards Army, and 47th Army reached the outer defensive ring established around Budapest. Here Soviet forces were forced to pause their advance to regroup, resupply, and prepare for the assault on the Hungarian capital.

The offensive resumed in early December. Elements of the 7th Guards and 6th Tank armies reached the Danube north and north-west of the city. At the same time, units of Lieutenant General I.A. Pliev's cavalry-armour group moved north towards the important transport and railway hub of Balassagyarmat which lay on the river Ipoly running between Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Hungarian forces were forced to retreat in the north-western direction, covering their retreat with rear guard units. In addition to the scattered Hungarians, the 2nd Ukrainian Front was opposed by German units: the 357th Infantry Division as well as the 4th and 18th SS Panzergrenadier divisions. The 4th SS Panzergrenadier division had 24 StuG IV assault guns (only four of which were operational) and two Pz.Bef.Wg.IV command tanks. The division's anti-tank battalion received 31 new Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers in early November, but it was still located at its training grounds and had not arrived by this time. The 18th SS "Horst Wessel" division had four StuG III assault guns and four tank destroyers (likely Jagdpanzer IV or Hetzer) as of December 6th.

Fragment of a German map showing elements of Army Group South near Erdőkürt-Beckse, December 5th, 1944.

The 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion that had arrived in Hungary by mid-October of 1944 was a much more serious threat. It numbered 45 new King Tiger tanks. In October-November of 1944 it fought between Tisza and the Danube, but moved to the vicinity of Balaton in early December. By December 1st the battalion was down to 36 King Tigers, 11 of which were combat capable. The rest required repairs. 15 of the battalion's tanks that had received various degrees of damage were left at Erdőkürt with the repair company of the 503rd battalion. Here they awaited the arrival of the necessary spare parts.

The Soviet offensive renewed unexpectedly on December 5th. Infantry of the 7th Guards Army penetrated the German and Hungarian defenses, enabling a breakthrough by elements of the 6th Guards Army and Pliev's forces. His cavalry-armour group contained the 4th and 6th Guards Cavalry Corps as well as the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps with reinforcements attached.

A column of vehicles from the tank battalion of the 4th SS Division in Hungary. A Pz.Bef.Wg.IV tank leads several StuGs.

The situation with armour in Pliev's cavalry group was unsatisfactory. Each of the six cavalry divisions in the two corps was supposed to have a tank regiment, but only two of them actually had tanks: the 128th Independent Tank Regiment of the 10th Guards Cavalry Division had 13 T-34 tanks (5 operational) at the start of the offensive and the 136th Independent Tank Regiment of the 8th Guards Cavalry Division had six T-34s and seven SU-76s that they received from the 1813rd SPG Regiment.

The 4th Guards Mechanized Corps was little better off. It was tasked with developing the offensive towards Bercel-Beckse-Nándor, capturing the region of Mohora by the end of the second day, at which point they would pivot towards Balassagyarmat. The Corps was battered in previous battles and counted about 6000 men out of the authorized strength of 16,000.

Before the offensive, the 14th and 15th Guards Mechanized Brigades put together two fully staffed mechanized infantry battalions by disbanding the third, incorporating mechanized infantry from the 13th Guards Mechanized Brigade that was pulled out into the reserve, and also personnel collected from rear echelon units. The brigades' tank regiments were also below authorized strength, numbering 10 operational and 4 non-operational T-34 tanks in the 37th Guards Tank Regiment and 7 operational and 3 non-operational T-34 tanks in the 39th Guards Tank Regiment. The 38th Guards Tank Regiment had no tanks left at all and its personnel were pulled out of the fighting.

The Corps' 36th Guards Tank Brigade had only two tank battalions out of three remaining. The 1st battalion had 15 T-34 tanks and one SU-85 tank destroyer from the 292nd Guards SPG Regiment. The 2nd battalion had 11 T-34s. 7 T-34s needed medium repairs and 12 more needed major repairs. Nine tanks returned from repairs by the start of the offensive, making the total count in the 36th Guards Tank Brigade 35 T-34 tanks and one SU-85.

The 292nd Guards SPG Regiment had just two SU-85s left (and another one in repairs), and the 352nd Guards Heavy SPG Regiment had five ISU-122 (three more in repairs). The 292nd regiment remained in the reserve and did not see fighting during these battles. The five ISU-122s were attached to the tank battalions of the 36th Guards TBr: two in the first battalion and there in the second.

Fragment of a Soviet map showing Red Army forces around Hatvan before the December offensive. Erdőkürt, where the 15 King Tigers from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion were located, can be seen in the upper left corner. Erdőkürt fell into the sector of the 53rd Rifle Division.

Forces of the 4th Guards Mechanized Corps took their places on December 5th, 1944, and received the go ahead at 12:00 on December 6th. The corps pushed forward behind the 6th Guards Tank Army and cavalrymen of Pliev's cavalry-mechanized group, immediately running into a challenge: a single road packed with trucks and horse carts. There were no detours. The 4th Guards Mechanized Corps joined the traffic jam that sometimes moved as slowly as 100 meters per hour. It took 8 hours to cover the 5 kilometers between Hatvan and Heréd!

Evacuation? Nothing, left behind!

The rapid advance of Soviet rifle units resulted in the tank repair facilities at Erdőkürt coming under attack from the 53rd Rifle Division of the 25th Guards Rifle Corps on December 6th. A hurried evacuation of damaged King Tigers began. The 53rd Rifle Division fully captured Erdőkürt by the end of the day, but the Germans managed to evacuate all 15 tanks and reach Beckse. Some number of King Tiger tanks (likely two or three) were abandoned and demolished here due to a lack of fuel and technical problems. The tanks were left either in the village or nearby.

Map fragment showing Erdőkürt, Bercel, and Beckse with locations of Soviet rifle divisions as of December 7th, 1944.

The tanks of the 36th Guards TBr that managed to get around the infantry and regain freedom of movement, reaching Bercel at the same time as elements of the 48th Guards Cavalry Regiment, at 12:00 on December 7th. Here they were met with resistance from the enemy entrenched on the hills north and north-east of the village. The 36th Guards TBr lost three T-34 tanks at the edge of the village, but managed to displace the enemy and reach the northern outskirts of Bercel. The Corps reported that the enemy had up to a battalion of infantry supported by 5 SPGs in the area.

It was impossible to move forward due to an enemy artillery barrage. The 14th and 15th Guards MBr pulled up and executed a flanking maneuver. Threatened with encirclement, the enemy pulled back to Beckse. According to documents of the 13th Guards Cavalry Division, Bercel was held by elements of the 48th and 50th Cavalry Divisions jointly with the elements of 570th and 759th Rifle Regiments of the 227th Rifle Division. They mention nothing at all of the 4th Guards MC. Similarly, the 4th Guards MC says nothing of the cavalrymen and infantry fighting alongside them.

Path of the 4th Guards MC in the vicinity of Bercel.

On December 8th, elements of the 227th Rifle Division of the 27th Guards Rifle Corps took Bercel, kept moving forward, and reached Beckse, where they could not proceed any longer due to enemy resistance. The resistance was broken in the second half of the day and the village was taken.

In the meantime, elements of the 4th Guards MC and cavalry of the 13th Guards CD also reached Beckse and spent the day fighting over the village. Several attacks were repelled. Only another flanking maneuver by mechanized brigades of the 4th Guards MC forced the enemy out of the village by 19:00. A screening force numbering up to 10 tanks and SPGs was destroyed. The 4th Guards MC claimed that 6 Tigers, 4 Pz.Kpfw.IV, and 2 SPGs were destroyed in Beckse.

The Corps' SPGs also claimed one Tiger. The 352nd Guards Heavy SPG Regiment's journal indicates that ISU-122 SPGs took up positions on the northern edge of Bercel, firing 20 rounds at enemy positions near Beckse, destroying one Tiger tank. Sadly, as no photographs of abandoned or demolished King Tiger tanks in Beckse have been found, it's impossible to comment on the reports by the 36th Guards TBr. One can only say for certain that there were no Tiger tanks there, perhaps the report meant King Tiger tanks abandoned by the mechanics of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion.

Fighting of the 4th Guards MC's brigades around Beckse.

After taking Beckse, elements of the 4th Guards MC as well as the 8th and 13ths Guards Cavalry Divisions began to move towards Balassagyarmat facing nearly no resistance. By 22:00 on the evening of December 8th elements of the Corps and cavalrymen reached the outskirts of the city and engaged the enemy garrison. According to Soviet data, it included 20 tanks and SPGs. Cavalrymen from the 29th Guards and 49th Cavalry Regiments rode on the tanks in an attempt to take the city from the march. This didn't work, and the riders had to dismount, fighting on the southern outskirts of the city. Approaches to the city were mined. According to the 4th Guards MC, one cavalry battalion ran into a minefield and only several men survived.

Map fragment: Beckse-Balassagyarmat.

The King Tiger tanks that weren't abandoned at Beckse were towed here, to Balassagyarmat. They joined the elements of the 357th Infantry Division, 4th and 18th SS Panzergrenadier Divisions, and scattered Hungarian units defending the city. It is not known whether or not the tanks took part in the defense, but three or four King Tigers were demolished inside the city. Photographs and film reels show at least three King Tigers from the 503rd Heavy tank Battalion in Balassagyarmat. It is clear that they were demolished rather than knocked out. One of the tanks is the hero of this article shown in the first photograph. The caption "Balashnodi-Armat" that this image is often presented with is clearly a bastardization of "Balassagyarmat".

Top: frame from the "Liberation of Hungary" newsreel that shows the same King Tiger tank as the photo below. The film reveals that there is another tank of the same type left behind the first one. Balassagyarmat, December 1944.

After tense nighttime fighting, the enemy was pushed out of Balassagyarmat as a result of joint action of the 29th Guards Cavalry Regiment, 49th Cavalry Regiment, and 36th Guards Tank Brigade. Enemy units blew up the bridge over Ipoly and fortified north of the city. A portion of the forces retreated north-east towards Szécsény. According to the 4th Guards MC, 11 enemy tanks were destroyed over the course of the fighting for Balassagyarmat: seven King Tigers and four Pz.Kpfw.III, plus two SPGs. However, according to the 36th Guards TBr, the Germans lost 17 tanks: 7 King Tigers, 4 Tigers, 6 Pz.Kpfw.IV, plus 4 Panther SPGs (whatever those could be). 6 SPGs were also captured. Most of the tanks were credited to the 2nd battalion of the brigade commanded by P.I. Bordyugov.

According to the 36th Guards TBr, the brigade destroyed or captured 7 King Tigers, 10 Tigers, 10 Pz.Kpfw.III and IV, 4 Panthers, and 8 SPGs over the course of two days, which clearly exceeds the amount of heavy tanks the Germans lost in this area. There were also no Panthers at all.

This King Tiger tank was demolished behind the first one. The right track is missing and the barrel was blown off. This is most likely the result of the demolition by mechanics of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion.

According to the Germans, the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion had 28 King Tigers as of December 15th, 1944. 8 King Tigers were written off between December 1st and 15th, two of which were lost elsewhere: one on December 7th near Siófok and one on December 8th near Polgárdi. As a result, no more than 6 King Tigers were abandoned near Beckse-Balassagyarmat during the retreat.

Photos of the third King Tiger demolished in Balassagyarmat. The top photo was made in the spring or summer of 1945.

The same location in Balassagyarmat today.

By 21:00 on December 9th elements of the 4th Guards MC received an order to leave a screen north of Balassagyarmat and knock the enemy out of Szécsény jointly with the 6th Guards Cavalry Corps. Fierce fighting erupted in the city between December 10th and 19th. The 4th Guards MC took heavy losses in personnel and vehicles. Among them was the commander of the 2nd battalion of the 36th Guards TBr Guards Captain Pyotr Ignatyevich Bordyugov, whose tank was knocked out on December 10th.

Another destroyed King Tiger depicted in the "Liberation of Hungary" newsreel. It is possible that this is the fourth tank from Balassagyarmat, although some Western researchers identify this tank as the one knocked out near Polgárdi on December 8th (trophy number 196).

In conclusion, let us describe another episode that took place around the same time. While doing research for this article, the author came across a document written by the commander of armoured and mechanized forces of the 57th Army dated early December of 1944. It indicates that a "modernized Panther tank" was captured 10 km north-east of Kecskemét. The attached characteristics make it clear that this is a King Tiger.

The location means that this is very likely the first King Tiger from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion tank lost in Hungary. The document also indicates that new SPGs were captured near Jászberény. They were built on the Pz.Kpfw.III chassis and were equipped with 105 mm guns. This could only possibly be the StuH 42. The description is odd, since the StuH 42 was used starting in the second half of 1943 and would be well known to Soviet forces by the end of 1944.

Report with characteristics of a King Tiger tank captured at Nagykőrös, 10 km north-east of Kecskemét. 

This King Tiger was lost a month earlier, on November 1st, 1944. Tanks of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion were supporting an attack by the 126th Panzergrenadier Regiment of the 23rd Tank Division from Nagykőrös to Kecskemét, where advancing Soviet forces (infantry of the 59th Guards Rifle Division and tanks of the 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps) penetrated the defenses of Hungarian units reinforced by elements of the German 24th Tank Division. According to German reports, the lead King Tiger from the 2nd company commanded by Lieutenant Brodhagen was knocked out by anti-tank guns, caught fire, and was abandoned by its crew.

The 37th Guards Tank Brigade of the 2nd Guards Mechanized Corps notes that at 20:00 on October 31st they deflected a southward counterattack of 10 enemy tanks and a battalion of infantry, destroying 4 tanks, one of which was a Tiger. The brigade lost one T-34 burned up and two knocked out. It's also possible that the King Tiger was destroyed by IS-2 tanks of the 30th Guards Independent Heavy Tank Regiment. The tankers reported 2 destroyed enemy heavy tanks on November 1st as well as 12 other tanks with no losses of their own.

King Tiger #231 from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion destroyed in Hungary. Based on the terrain and lack of winter camouflage, it was most likely lost in November of 1944. Perhaps this is the very same tank described in the above report. The tactical number designates it as a platoon commander's tank, so it's possible that this could have been Lieutenant Brodhagen's tank.

Artillerymen of the 108th Guards Rifle Division also claimed a Tiger tank destroyed during the assault on Nagykőrös on November 2nd. It's possible that the artillerymen encountered the already knocked out tank on the following day and worked it over themselves. It's also possible that they confused another tank for a Tiger, as often happened. SPG crews of the 1505th SPG Regiment (18 SU-76es) that supported the 311st Guards Rifle Regiment of the 108th Guards Rifle Division did not claim any enemy tanks.

It's likely that the German tank was noticed, inspected, and reported only in early December of 1944 when elements of the 104th Vehicle Collection Point of the 57th Army moved into the area.

Locations of units of the 3rd Guards MC in the Kecskemét-Nagykőrös area on November 1st, 1944.

In addition to the King Tiger lost on November 1st, three more King Tigers were lost in this region during the next two days, but this tank's location matches the description the best.

It is less likely that this was one of the two King Tigers lost by the 3rd company of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion on November 2nd. One of them with tactical number 313 was bogged down in mud near Cegléd. Since it could not be evacuated, it was shot up by a second King Tiger. The second tank with tactical number 322 was knocked out south-west of Cegléd near Zöldhalom. It is possible that these are the two tanks that the 59th Guards Rifle Division reported. On November 4th, the division's journal notes that two Tiger tanks were destroyed in combat with the enemy located on the Cegléd-Alberti.

Another King Tiger with tactical number 300 belonging to the commander of the 3rd company of the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion was knocked out on December 3rd much further west, when the column of tanks driving through Alberti, Pilis, and Monor from Ceglédbercel drove into an ambush prepared by Soviet forces near Üllő. Documents of the 6th Guards Mechanized Brigade that took Üllő on December 3rd and defended it until December 5th reported that at 15:00 on November 3rd they deflected an attack by a company of enemy infantry and six tanks, but no Tigers or King Tigers were claimed. The 251st Guards SPG Regiment (21 SU-85) that fought jointly with the tank brigade reported one destroyed Tiger on December 2nd.

A Pz.Kpfw.IV tank with tactical number 1012 from the 10th company of the 24th Tank Regiment of the 24th Tank Division lost in Hungary. These tanks were often confused for Tigers.

The report should be taken with a grain of salt, as the SPG crews made similar reports before. For instance, on October 31st, 1944, the 251st Guards SPG Regiment reports the destruction of six Tigers (three burned and three knocked out), seven Ferdinands, five StuGs, and four Pz.Kpfw.IV. The regiment did not take any losses with the exception of two SU-85 burned up as a result of an air attack. Similar reports were made in other units, for instance the 59th Guards Rifle Division that fought in Kecskemét reported 10 destroyed enemy tanks on November 31st, which included 3 Tigers. Perhaps these were Pz.Kpfw.IV tanks from the 24th Tank Division.

1 comment:

  1. Hmm, I can understand the reasons for overclaiming enemy tanks--but wasn't there any organization in the Soviet army that counted the wrecks on the battlefields and reconcile claimed kills versus actual kills? (That would result in a minimum figure, as a KO'ed tank could be recovered and towed away even if later deemed irreparable).

    The other problem is that I think this author gives way too much credence to German unit tallies. This reminds me of the air war over Germany, with the low tallies of German planes lost, from fragmentary data, which are trumpeted as "truth" when it in no way accounts for the aggregate totals the Germans actually lost. Peter has shown numerous times how the German way of counting losses obscured their actual losses.

    I mention these things as in the West, there were "counters" who went over the battlefield and tallied the wrecks. I saw a webpage discussion which I can't find now, which tallied all 45 of the King Tigers lost by the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion in France, with location where discovered along with the cause of loss. I see that Wikipedia (whose authors apparently worship German sources) claims that two of the 503rd's King Tigers got back to Germany, and the November report sent to Guderian in November of 1944 only clalmed seven were lost!

    Given all these, I wouldn't blow off Soviet kill claims based on German sources, like this author did.