Monday 15 July 2019

Infantry vs. Tigers

The German 4th Tank Army received an impressive injection of new reserves in March of 1944: three infantry divisions and a brigade of assault guns. The generosity of their superiors did not end there. The 507th Heavy Tank Battalion was moved out from Western Europe.

Its formation began in May of 1943. It was lucky enough to escape Operation Citadel and fall battles near Kiev. The unit received 45 brand new Tiger tanks between December 1943 and February 1944. Its hour came on March 15th, when the tanks were loaded on trains and set out eastward. Six more followed, which resulted in a total of 51 tanks.

These heavy tanks were going to be the steel core of the attack, a battering ram for the Wehrmacht's tank divisions. However, in harsh reality, the distribution of Tiger tanks to mobile units did not pan out. Tiger companies only existed in SS divisions and the elite Grossdeutschland.

Tiger battalions formed in 1943-45 were in a strange position. They could easily be assigned to infantry support roles, which was done quite often. Close support of ordinary infantry with tanks was not a very common technique for the Germans, especially since training of infantry in the second half of the war left much to be desired.

The 507th battalion received an order on March 23rd: destroy the enemy tank group that crossed the Seret in the sector of the 357th Infantry Division.

This was the Soviet 60th Army (140th and 107th Rifle Divisions), reinforced with anti-tank guns and the 59th Independent Tank Regiment (only 12 T-34s), slowly coming around Tarnopol. The unit did indeed cross the Seret as reported.

According to Soviet data, the 96th Regiment of the 140th Rifle Division was hit by five German tanks and a battalion of infantry. The Soviet soldiers did not run from the Tigers, but let them through and started cutting off their infantry. The Germans dug in upon contact, and the Tigers were forced to turn back.

The 283rd Regiment of the same 140th Division was also attacked. On March 23rd, at 8:00, T-34 tanks from the 59th Tank Regiment were advancing from Kurovtsy, and reached the highway leading to Lvov. Here they ran into Tigers coming from Yezerna. The result was predictable: the 59th Regiment lost 8 T-34 tanks knocked out and destroyed and was forced to retreat.

However, the loss of its T-34s did not dampen the infantry's spirits. The 285th Rifle Regiment transitioned to the defense. The day was spent in an artillery duel with 12 Tigers. It's worth mentioning that at this point the entire 140th Rifle Divison numbered scarcely over 5000 men.

On the next day, the Tigers attached again, this time against the 96th and 283rd Regiments of the 140th Rifle Division, coming north around the Yezerna. Soviet infantry stood their ground and reported on three knocked out tanks. 

This information corresponds well to German records. The Germans reported two total losses: one was destroyed by an engine fire and ammunition rack detonation 700 m north-east of the Yezerna, the other was knocked out by artillery and burned up.

Let's sum up the results of the Tigers' actions. As on March 24th, only three days after they arrived, only 26 tanks remained in action out of 51. 16 tanks were in repairs, 7 in long term repairs, and two were permanently lost. Meanwhile, the Soviet infantry wasn't any closer to defeat. The 140th Rifle Division lost 109 men KIA and 140 WIA on March 23rd and 64 KIA, 43 WIA on March 24th.

The limited success of the Tigers can be linked to the quality of the infantry of the 357th and 359th Infantry Divisions. They largely consisted of hurriedly and poorly trained 18 year old recruits.

This failure led to a reduction in the scale of the 507th battalion's objectives and spreading it across the front lines. By March 27th, 18 battle-ready Tigers were split up between four strongholds placed several kilometers apart, anywhere from 2-3 to 6-7 tanks apiece.

An attack by a Tiger company from the 507th battalion was undertaken against Pokropivna village on March 30th, accompanied by the same questionable infantry from the 357th Infantry Division. The attack failed. Several tanks were bogged down in the muddy fields. Two more companies fought under Zolochev and reported one lost tank. The same two companies tried to deliver supplies to the besieged city of Brody on March 31st, which led to 5 tanks disabled by mines.

As a result, by April 1st the 507th battalion still recorded 44 regular and 3 commander's Tigers, but only 14 were still in action. The rest were under repair. The attempt to make a steel fist out of 50 Tigers to strike at Tarnopol failed. The goal to defeat the Soviet infantry that crossed the Seret was not even remotely achieved. The Tigers could only claim the accomplishment of propping up a flank of an infantry division made of yesterday's schoolboys and holding back Soviet attacks in a direction of secondary importance, at the cost of shrinking from a battalion to a company. 

When the front line moved up, the Tigers under repair were transferred from "under repair" to total losses.

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