The German heavy Tiger tank left a mark on tank building worldwide. Even though propaganda and memoirs are largely to blame for its fame, the Tiger did really have nearly no competition on the battlefield among the tanks of the Allies. It's not surprising that the tank was thoroughly studied in the USSR, USA, and Great Britain. This article tells the story of how Tiger tanks were studied in the USSR and what conclusions were made, as well as the use of these tanks in the Red Army.
Present from Leningrad
The German tank first went into battle on August 29th, 1942, during the Sinyavino operation. These were Tigers from the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion. Their combat debut was not particularly impressive. The swampy terrain at Mga where the battalion fought was far from ideal. Interestingly enough, another 502nd heavy tank battalion fought nearby. This was the Soviet 502nd Heavy Flamethrower Tank Battalion, equipped with KV-8 tanks. Mere kilometers separated the two battalions.
The combat debut of these new tanks went unnoticed by the Red Army. The GABTU learned about the Pz.Kpfw.VI tank in the fall of 1942, but the information came from the British. On November 9th, 1942, the British Military Mission in the USSR passed on information about new German tanks and SPGs. Among it was a list of new vehicles, captured by the British in North Africa. The document, dated October 7th, 1942, mentioned tanks such as the VK 9.01 (PzII Ausf. G), PzI Ausf. C, and VK 16.01 (PzII Ausf. J).
Finally, the document listed the PzVI. The British did not know what kind of tank this was, and asked the GABTU to share any information. The British only guessed that this tank would be heavier than the PzIII and PzIV. However, the Allied did not have to wait for long. The 501st Heavy Tank Battalion arrived in Tunisia in late November, 1942. The Americans were the first to come under fire from these heavy tanks.
The 502nd battalion lay low after the failed debut at Mga. It returned to battle on January 13th, 1943. Operation «Spark» began a day before, with the aim of penetrating the blockade of Leningrad. The battalion suffered its first losses on January 17th, losing tanks #250003 and #250006. One of them became bogged down, the other took a hit to the turret. The transmission on the second tank also broke down. Both tanks were blown up.
It's worth mentioning that the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion did not consist of Tigers alone. About a third of the tanks were PzIII Ausf. L, and about as many PzIII Ausf. N. 4 PzIIIs from the 1st company of the battalion dug in around Workers' Village #5. They were opposed by, in part, T-60 tanks from the 61st Tank Brigade. This brigade was fully armed with T-60 tanks produced at factory #37. The brigade received T-70 tanks during the battle, but they did not take part in the fighting described here. The brigade also had a battalion of BA-10 armoured cars, which was assaulting Shlisselburg.
Knowing that the situation around Workers' Village #5 was growing dire, battalion command sent one PzIII and two Tigers as reinforcements on January 17th (the latter, however, arrived later). With reinforcements in hand, the Germans decided to attempt reconnaissance in force. Early morning on January 18th, three PzIII tanks took off, accompanied by infantry. By pure luck, the 61st Tank Brigade decided to perform reconnaissance as well. A group of skiers was supported by one T-60 tank, commanded by Lieutenant L.I. Osatyuk. The two groups met unexpectedly at around 7:30 am. Of course, the light T-60 could do little against the PzIII, and so Osatyuk ordered to his driver, Starshina I.M. Makarenkov:
Maneuvering in his tank, Makarenkov evaded his pursuers. Together with Osatyuk, he lured the Germans in front of an anti-tank gun battery. As a result, two PzIII tanks were destroyed, and the one that got away didn't get far. This was the first in a series of unfortunate events that plagued the Germans at Workers' Village #5. Having disposed of his pursuers, Osatyuk opened fire on enemy infantry, and then the Soviet assault began. Five T-60 tanks were knocked out and one burned up. However, neighbouring brigades supported the offensive, and the Germans were forces to reveal their line of defense and suffered a defeat. Workers' Village #5 was taken by noon on January 18th.
The Red Army captured an abandoned Tiger, turret number 121, serial number 250004. According to German data, its engine and radiator were broken. The Soviet description agrees with this assessment. The tank was undergoing repairs when it was captured.
This was not the end of the 502nd battalion's streak. Unaware that Workers' Village #5 was captured, the commander's tank with turret number 100 and serial number 250009 approached the settlement. Shortly before reaching it, the tank drove off the road and became bogged down in a peat bog. The crew left the tank and walked towards the settlement. Upon realising that it was no longer in German hands, they decided to withdraw. That is how the Red Army obtained two Tigers, one of which was undamaged. The Red Army also obtained documents, including a brief instruction manual and the waybill.
Operation «Spark» resulted in a penetration of the German defenses. The success was relatively small, but it allowed supplies to reach the city by means other than the Road of Life. The first echelon with supplies arrived on February 7th. The Red Army's success defined the fate of the German tanks. Thanks to the breach in the German lines, it was possible to bring them to the «mainland». However, the study of the tanks began almost right after they were captured. A technical description was ready by the end of January. In parallel, the documents captured with the tanks were translated. Due to the rush and a lack of precise data, the description was far from ideal. For example, the mass was estimated at 75-80 tons, which is significantly higher than in reality. The armour thickness was also incorrect.
Initially, the tanks were called «HENSCHEL captured tank». Later, the index T-VI was used. The Leningrad Front captured at least two additional tanks. Correspondence lists two tanks in addition to tank #100. One of them was captured completely burned up, the other knocked out and partially burned. This tank was the donor for the repair of tank #100. Pieces of armour were also cut out for study. Tank #100 was sent to Kubinka for study, but that was later. Tank #121 was sent to Kubinka first.
The new tanks were very interesting. By this time, the tanks were actively being used both on the Eastern Front and in Africa. The first massed use of these tanks happened at Kharkov, which made a significant contribution to the Soviet defeat there. Around the same time, these tanks were fighting in Tunisia, inflicting heavy losses on the British and Americans. The British were very forthcoming with information on the new German tank. On April 5th, 1943, the Soviets received a British report on the trials of a 6-pounder gun versus a «German Mk.VI tank». These trials took place in late March. 5 shells out of 10 penetrated the front plate of the tank from 300 yards.
Tanks #100 and #121 were already at the NIBT proving grounds by April of 1943. It was decided that one tank will be shot up, the other will be used to evaluate the armour of Soviet tanks. Tank #100 was the lucky one. As for tank #121, it had its equipment removed and prepared for trials by April 25th.
Trials took place from April 25th to April 30th, 1943. 13 cannons, 5 anti-tank rifles, the KB-30 anti-tank grenade, 2 types of anti-tank mines, and the 37 mm aircraft gun from a LAGG-3 were used. Of those, three weapons (the 107 mm M-60, 122 mm M-30, and 152 mm ML-20) managed not to hit the target, even though the weather was clear.
The T-70 opened fire against the Tiger first. It was clear that firing at the 80 mm armour with the regular shell was pointless, so the tank used subcaliber ammunition. One shot from 200 meters penetrated successfully. From 350 meters, the 60 mm thick lower side could be penetrated. The model 1942 anti-tank gun showed similar results. Its armour piercing shell could not penetrate the upper side from even 100 meters, but the subcaliber shell penetrated from 350 meters.
57 mm guns were next. Both the Soviet ZIS-2 and British 6-pounder showed similar results. The side could be penetrated from 800-1000 meters. As for the front armour, the ZIS-2 could not penetrate it from 500 meters. It was not fired from a closer distance, but all signs pointed to the fact that it would penetrate from about 300 meters. Data received from the British confirms this. The British anti-tank gun had a shorter barrel, but higher quality ammunition gave it comparable penetration.
The American 75 mm M3 gun, installed in an M4A2 tank, also performed well. Two armour piercing shells were tested: M61 and M72. The M61 could penetrate the side from 400 meters, the M72 from 650 meters. As with the 6-pounder, a high quality of the ammunition was noted. The gun did not fire at the front plate. It is likely that the testers knew it would be a fruitless endeavour.
The trials of the F-34 gun turned into a real fiasco. Not a single shot penetrated, not even from 200 meters. This was true for the AP, experimental subcaliber, and experimental HEAT shell. This was the main Soviet tank gun of this period!
Another 76 mm gun, the 3-K, fared better. The difference was not that great, however. The 3-K's shell could not penetrate the side of the turret from 500 meters. In other words, its performance was approximately equal to that of the 75 mm M3 gun with the M61 shell.
The 3-K was far from the most powerful gun in the Red Army's arsenal. In addition, it was not produced since 1940. It was replaced by the 85 mm 52-K AA gun. It was considered as a base for a tank gun since 1940, but for various reasons work never progressed past the experimental stage. Meanwhile, AA guns were successfully used in the anti-tank role. Trials showed that the GAU and GBTU were correct in considering the 52-K as a prospective tank gun. It shell could reliably penetrate the front from a kilometer, and the sides from about 1.5 kilometers.
The 122 mm A-19 corps gun proved even more effective. Unlike the 52-K, it was not considered as a tank gun before this. A gun with the ballistics of the 107 mm M-60 gun was considered, but as mentioned above it did not even hit the Tiger. As for the A-19, it hit, and how! The first shell passed through a breach in the front of the hull and penetrated the rear. The second hit the turret front and tore out a 58×23 cm chunk. The turret was torn off the turret ring and moved half a meter. After being shot at by the A-19, the Tiger, which was looking unwell at this point of the trials, turned into a heap of scrap metal.
The trials were not finished here. The German tank had not only thick armour, but a powerful 88 mm gun. During trials of tank #121, its brother #100 was shooting at Soviet tanks. A T-34 and KV-1 were used as targets.
The results of the trials were predictable. The KV-1's additional front armour did not help. The first shot from 1.5 kilometers partially tore off the applique armour, the second penetrated the front armour. The idea of lightening the KV-1 tank was correct. The KV-1S was more mobile, while both the KV-1S and the KV-1 were more or less equal targets for the Tiger.
Trials of the T-34 were worse. The first shot that hit the turret displaced it from the turret ring. Further hits partially destroyed the upper front plate. To compare, the 85 mm 52-K gun was fired at the tank. From 1.5 km away, the penetration was similar to that of the German gun. This is not surprising, since the German and Soviet guns were relatives. The 76 mm 3-K gun, which the 52-K was developed from, was based on the same AA gun as the German Flak 18.
After the end of the trials, both tanks were taken to an exhibition at Gorky Park in Moscow. They remained on display there until 1948, after which they were scrapped. As for the conclusions, they were made immediately. It was clear that 76 mm guns were no longer sufficient, and had to be replaced. GKO decree #3289 «On improvement of armament of tanks and SPGs» was signed on May 5th, 1943. It was the starting point for the development of 85 mm tank and SPG guns.
The GAU launched this program even earlier. As of April 28th, 1943, factory #9 already had its orders. Work was also launched at the Central Artillery Design Bureau (TsAKB). Work on the SU-152 SPG with a 122 mm A-19 gun was already underway. This idea was first voiced in March of 1943, after the study of a captured Pz.Slf.V. Finally, in May of 1943, factory #9's design bureau received orders to develop a tank version of the A-19.
The Tiger's appearance only accelerated this work.
Another result of the trials was the acceleration of work on the ZIS-2 anti-tank gun. Despite common rumours, this gun was not completely discarded, it was merely reworked. The issue was that this work was not progressing very quickly. The meeting with the Tiger changed these plans. Instead of the IS-1 gun, which had a shorter barrel and altered trails, a new gun was designed, effectively combining the ZIS-2's barrel with the ZIS-3's mount and oscillating part. The 57 mm ZIS-4 tank gun was revived. In addition, the TsAKB began working on the 76 mm S-54 tank gun, as well as a self propelled variant.
Tigers in the Red Army
Even though the Tiger was first captured in January of 1943, their use in the Red Army was uncommon. There were several reasons for this. First, the Germans rarely left these tanks behind in usable condition, attempting to blow up tanks that could not be evacuated or repaired. Second, remember that there were not that many Tigers. In addition, Soviet tankers tried to destroy Tiger tanks, not disable them, as this guaranteed a high award. Keeping all this in mind, you will not be surprised to learn that the first captured Tiger was used towards the very end of 1943.
The first crew that is confirmed to have used a Tiger in battle was the crew of Guards Lieutenant N.I. Revyakin from the 28th Guards Tank Brigade. A Tiger from the 501st Heavy Tank Battalion became bogged down in a swamp. Its crew fled, and the tank became a trophy. On the next day, the tank was enlisted into the 28th brigade. Revyakin was appointed as the commander because he had great experience in combat and awards: two Orders of the Patriotic War 1st Class and an Order of the Red Star. On January 5th, the tank went into battle with red stars on its turret and the personal name «Tiger». The tank's career was about the same as in German hands. It constantly needed repairs. A lack of spare parts complicated matters. Later on, the 28th Guards Tank Brigade acquired another Tiger.
Another instance of a Tiger being used happened on January 17th, 1944. Lieutenant A.S. Mnatsakanov's T-34 crew from the 220th Tank Brigade managed to capture a working Tiger mid-battle. Using this captured tank, Mnatsakanov destroyed an enemy column. For this battle, he was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
The situation changed by the spring of 1944. A number of operations supplied the Red Army with a plethora of Tiger tanks. For instance, the 61st Guards Tank Brigade captured two Tigers on March 6th, 1944, at Volochisk, and 13 Tigers and Panthers at Gusyatina on March 23rd. One more Tiger was captured on the 25th. The brigade made good use of its trophies. 3 Tiger tanks were listed as a part of its assets as of April 7th. However, they spent only a few days in action. Most likely these were Tigers from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion, famous for losing only one Tiger in the battles of late 1943-early 1944.
This story doesn't end here. The Tigers were sent away for repairs. It is not known where, but there are complaints in the correspondence of the GBTU during the spring of 1944 that there are not enough gun sights and other optics for repairs of enemy heavy tanks. It can be concluded that the tanks did end up in a repair shop. Some of them were sent back to the front at a later date.
Only one unit that received repaired Tigers has been established so far. This was the 51st Independent Motorcycle Regiment. Typically, a motorcycle regiment included 10 T-34s, but this regiment was special. It included a company of captured heavy tanks, consisting of 5 Tigers and 2 Panthers. They were all repaired at Soviet factories. By the start of the Lvov-Sandomierz offensive, the number of Tigers fell to 4. Periodically, 1-2 Tigers would be reported as needing repairs.
The regiment lost 6 T-34-85 tanks in a battle on July 21st, 1944. In return, the enemy lost 2 Tigers, 3 SPGs, and 2 APCs. It's possible that enemy Tigers were knocked out by fire from captured ones. In total, 7 Tigers were destroyed between July 20th and 22nd, at a cost of 7 T-34-85s. The 51st regiment received reinforcements after that. As of July 28th, it had 9 T-34-85s and 4 Tigers. Of the 4, 3 were in need of medium repairs, but were still in running condition. By August 19th, the regiment still had 3 Tigers. After that, the regiment was transferred to the NKVD to deal with OUN groups. The Tigers were taken away.
In total, one can list at least 10 captured Tigers that fought in various Soviet units.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Central Archives of the Russian Ministry of Defence
- Archive of Gennady Malyshev
- Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents
- Electronic catalog “Feat of the People”