Friday 7 April 2023

Heavy Trophies from Leningrad

There are plenty of armoured vehicles that had an impact on tank building worldwide. This list includes German vehicles, especially the Tiger tank. At the moment of its appearance, it was the best protected and most heavily armed tank in its weight class. Even though the effectiveness of Tiger crews is often exaggerated, this was indeed a very dangerous enemy, especially from 1943 to the spring of 1944. Tanks all over the world evolved to deal with Tigers.

Tiger 121 before winter camouflage was applied.

At about 9:30 am on January 18th, 1943, the Volkhov and Leningrad Fronts met at the eastern outskirts of Worker's Village #1. This was the first penetration of the Leningrad blockade. Another important event took place on the same day: Tiger tanks were captured in the vicinity of Worker's Village #5. Two samples were delivered to the NIBT Proving Grounds in Kubinka. Their study showed that the Soviet tank program requires some urgent changes. Today, we will discuss how the German tanks were captured and what were the first impressions regarding these tanks.

Soviet tanks during Operation Iskra (Spark).

The arrival of new German tanks on the Leningrad Front in late August of 1942 looked odd, to say the least. It's as if the Germans had nothing better to do than to send their newest tanks into some swamp. The reason is not complicated. Operation Nordlicht (Northern Lights) aiming to capture Leningrad was scheduled for August 23rd, 1942. All possible forces were concentrated here. On the other side of the front, the Red Army began the Sinyavino Operation on August 19th. Its goal was the opposite: to penetrate the blockade. As a result, the Germans had to defend instead of attack, and the forces meant to break through into Leningrad had to be deployed in another direction. The Tigers had to go into battle on the same day that they arrived at the Mga railway station. The debut that took place on August 29th, 1942, was a failure. 3 out of 4 tanks broke down and their further use in the Sinyavino operation seemed senseless.

Map of the area where the 1st company of the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion took most of its losses on January 17th-18th.

The Red Army took no notice of these new tanks. Ironically, two 502nd battalions made their debut at Sinyavino: the German 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion and the Soviet 502nd Flamethrower Tank Battalion. These two battalions almost ran into each other in September of 1942 near Tortolovo. The German 502nd battalion looked fairly odd. Most of its tanks weren't Tigers, but Pz.Kpfw.III. There were other issues with the battalion. The unit seemed like a waste of resources and its debut raised a lot of concerns. The problem was not even in the swamps around Sinyavino, but the fact that the unit was used in a way that specialized reinforcing units should not be used. The 502nd battalion was also quite unlucky in general. The second company was sent to the southwest, into Army Group Don, while only a single company armed with mostly Pz.Kpfw.III tanks was left to face Operation Iskra.

Tiger 121 as of January 1943.

The first company saw battle on January 13th. The company's Tigers, of which there were only 8, were used like a firefighting team. German infantry treated the Tiger company like Soviet infantry liked to treat their tanks back in the summer of 1941 and pull the unit apart into small packets. Four Tiger Ausf.E tanks (in the documents they are still called using the old name, Pz.Kpfw.VI(H)) and 8 Pz.Kpfw.III were attached to the 96th Infantry Division. They were used as tank destroyers and knocked out 12 T-34s that were attacking near Gorodok (this must have been either 1st or 2nd Gorodok north of Dubrovka, today a part of Kirovsk). 

The same tank after the battles on January 17th and 18th.

The battalion's troubles began on January 17th. Two Tigers and one Pz.Kpfw.III were attached to the 227th Infantry Division defending towards the north. Two Pz.Kpfw.VI(H) were written off that day: chassis number 250003 was stuck in a bog and demolished, chassis number 250006 took hits to the turret and front hull, which disabled the tank and it also had to be demolished. Recall that the blockade was penetrated near Worker's Village #1. Interestingly enough, correspondence from May 1943 mentions two tanks found here, one demolished and burned out completely, and one demolished but only partially burned. The second tank was used as a parts donor for Tiger 100 (photos of which were also initially captioned as Worker's Village #1). Samples of armour plate were also cut out of the partially burned tank.

This tank simply broke down.

The biggest troubles awaited the company on the second day. First of all, the Leningrad and Volkhov Fronts linked up at Worker's Village #1 on that day. Second of all, the Germans for some reason went into a counterattack that morning. Three Pz.Kpfw.III tanks defending Worker's Village #5 were pulled off of their positions to carry it out. This counterattack ended badly. Around the same time, Soviet ski-borne recon elements supported by Lieutenant D.I. Osatyuk's T-60 tank went out to survey the area. A famous battle took place, where the T-60 managed to lure two Pz.Kpfw.III tanks into Soviet guns. The third drove away, but didn't get very far. German infantry was left without tank cover and fled, taking heavy losses.

The tank was abandoned with all its documents.

Without cover from the west, the defense of Worker's Village #5 collapsed like a house of cards. The village was taken by noon. The width of the breakthrough grew rapidly with the 61st Tank Brigade taking Shlisselburg. The cherry on the cake was the Tiger tank with turret number 121 and chassis number 250004 found frozen on the outskirts of Worker's Village #5. This was one of the four tanks that arrived on August 29th, 1942. It did the same thing that it did during its first battle: broke down. According to German records, the engine and cooling systems gave out and the crew was forced to abandon their tank.

An elephant is depicted on the back of the turret storage bin.

The report says nothing about what state the tank was abandoned in. It was left intact with a whole colection of documents, including a brief manual and logbook. A full fledged instruction manual was not found, and it's very possible that no such manual existed at the time. Either way, an almost completely intact Tiger tank with documentation was captured.

Translation of the tank's logbook.

A study of the trophy began almost immediately. A portion of the documents including the logbook and manual were translated into Russian. The automatic firefighting system diagram was also quite interesting to the Soviet army. Information was quickly sent to the GBTU. The index Pz.Kpfw.VI was known back in November of 1942 thanks to information from British intelligence, but there were no details about what kind of tank this really was.

Firefighting system diagram.

Another Tiger tank was mentioned a lot more often in Soviet sources: the one with turret number 100 and chassis number 250009. This tank arrived at the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion in the fall of 1942. A curious story is connected with this tank. According to the battalion's documents, Johannes Bölter's tank was stuck in a swamp and abandoned by its crew. However, the documents are full of contradictions. The company reported four Pz.Kpfw.III and one Pz.Kpfw.VI(H) knocked out on January 18th, but only gremlins could have knocked out the Tiger tank, since according to the Germans themselves it broke down. The Pz.Kpfw.III all match up: three tanks were lost during the morning counterattack, the fourth was knocked out at Worker's Village #5.

Tiger 100 before the start of Operation Iskra.

Tiger 100's story is quite a silly one. Around 16:00, Bölter's tank turned up on the southern outskirts of Worker's Village #5. It's possible that the company commander didn't know that the village was in the hands of the Red Army. The driver decided to take a shortcut upon approaching the settlement. He managed to discover a pit left over from a peat harvesting operation. The tank was deeply stuck. The crew wanted to go to the village for help, but soon discovered that it was no longer populated by kameraden. Bölter's crew bravely fled, but later he became the second most celebrated German tank ace.

Tiger 100 on the outskirts of Worker's Village #5.

For a number of reasons, tank #100 was the one mentioned in memoirs most often. There is no mixup here, since many eyewitnesses describe pulling it out of a pit, and only Bölter's tank could be found in one. However, the documents that were translated were taken from Tiger 121. This was also the first tank that was studied. The information obtained by this study was inaccurate. The mass was estimated at 75-80 tons

Preliminary information gathered about Tiger 121 in late January 1943.

Further study of the "captured Henschel tank" later named T-6 was clearly done according to Tiger 121. It can't be confused for any other Tiger tank, since 121 had its storage bin on the side of the turret instead of the back. It's possible that the tank was nicknamed "Elephant" particularly due to the large elephant emblem painted on the back of the storage bin. These tanks are almost always referred to separately in documents. For instance, in the spring of 1943 the Leningrad Front reported Tiger 100 and two knocked out tanks. In part, this is why Tiger 121 left for Kubinka first.

Sketches of Tiger 121.

Evacuation of the trophies dragged on for a number of reasons, but two Tigers ended up in Kubinka in April of 1943. The two abandoned tanks were a gift that gave the Red Army an incredible amount of information about the Tiger tank. Work on modernizing Soviet artillery began in April of 1943, and development of new tanks and tank guns began on May 5th. The first results appeared in August of 1943 when the KV-85 and SU-85 were accepted into service.

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