THE NEW GENERATION OF SOVIET ARMOR VS. TIGERS
by Dmitry Pyatakhin
Edited by Joe Koss & George Parada
The first appearance of the Tiger on the Eastern Front was unsuccessful. The first Tigers were issued to the 1st platoon of the 502 Battalion of Heavy Tanks (Schwere Panzer Abteilung 502). On the 29th of August 1942, the four Tigers arrived at the Mga railway station near Leningrad. Early that day, the tanks were unloaded and prepared for battle. At 11:00 AM, the Tigers went into their battle positions. Major Richard Merker commanded the platoon, which included four Tigers, six PzKpfw III Ausf. L and J, two infantry companies and several trucks of the technical support unit. A representative of the Henshel firm – Hans Franke accompanied this unit in a VW Kubelwagen right behind the first Tiger. After the attack, the error in trying to use the heavy Tiger in ground so soft was realized, for their maneuverability was hampered.
The Russian infantry retreated, and their artillery opened heavy fire to cover the troops. Major Merker’s unit, divided into two groups, started to attack on two parallel side roads. Very soon the first Tiger was abandoned because of transmission failure. The second one was abandoned a few minutes later after engine failure. In spite of Russian fire, the Henschel representative started to inspect the tanks, but very soon Merker came by with his Tiger and said that the third tank was disabled because the steering control failed. During the night, all three damaged Tigers were evacuated using Sd Kfz 9 prime movers-three per tank. Fortunately for the Germans, the Russians could not take any action to capture the disabled tanks. After the inspection, spare parts for the Tigers were delivered by plane from the Henshel plant in Kassel and on the 15th of September all four Tigers were repaired and ready for action.
The second action of the Tigers was no better than the first. On the 22nd of September, four Tigers, supported by PzKpfw III tanks, were to accompany the 170th Infantry Division in attacking the 2nd Soviet Army. The terrain was very bad, the ground was too soft after the rains, and Major Merker opposed the use of Tigers in this operation. After a direct order from Hitler, the Tigers went into battle. Very soon after the attack began, the first Tiger received a direct hit in the front armor plate. The shell did not penetrate, but the engine stopped and there was no time to restart it. The crew abandoned the Tiger and threw hand grenades into the fighting compartment. The other three Tigers reached the Russian trenches, but very soon were damaged by Russian artillery crossfire as they lost maneuverability on the soft ground. Later on, the three Tigers were evacuated, and German engineers destroyed the fourth in order to prevent its capture.
Soviet SU-122 medium assault gun armed with 122mm howitzer.
General Guderian: "It was not only the heavy losses, it was the loss of secrecy and suprise in the future".
The Tigers were successful in their third battle. On the 12th of January 1943, the 502nd supported the 96th Infantry Division opposing an attack of Russian tanks. Four Tigers destroyed 12 T-34/76 tanks and the rest of the Soviet tanks were forced to retreat.
On the 16th of January 1943, the Russians captured their first Tiger during a German attack near the Shlisselburg on the Leningrad front. The captured tank was immediately delivered to the Kubinka Proving Grounds and inspected by Soviet Engineers. The Tiger was no longer a new secret weapon.
In early 1943, the Red Army had no weapon comparable to the firepower of the Tiger‘s 8.8cm KwK 36 L/56 gun or its heavy armor. For close combat, the Red Army Infantry had the PTRD-41 and PTRS-41 anti-tank rifles which had a 1.2 meter-long barrel firing 14.5 mm shells with tungsten cores. This weapon was not able to knock out the Tiger, but, in the right hands, could destroy the tank’s optic devices or damage the suspension. Nevertheless, it was effectively useless against the heavy German tanks, and later on Soviet troops used captured Panzerfausts.
Soviet IS-2 heavy tank armed with 122mm gun.
Artillery was the main weapon of the Red Army. Not all Russian cannon types could penetrate Tiger’s armor, but concentrating the fire of all possible guns on the tanks could heavily damage them, even to the point of stopping the engine or detonating the ammunition. The 76.2mm ZIS-3 cannon, using anti-tank shells, could penetrate Tiger side armor (at 300-400 meters) or destroy the running gear, while it couldn’t penetrate the frontal armor. Because of poor maneuverability, the Tiger could be an easy target for an anti-tank gun in defense. Only the 85mm anti-aircraft gun and especially 122mm A-19 cannon could destroy the Tiger at extended ranges. The Soviets made many anti-tank guns, up to 100mm in bore diameter, by the end of the war.
Otto Carius: "Even the Americans, whom I would know very well on the Western Front later on, can not be compared with Russians. The Ivans fired on our positions with all kinds of artillery, from light mortars up to heavy howitzers. We were not able to come out from our shelters in order to check our Tigers. It is not strange that the Russians easily broke our front line after such heavy fire".
Otto Carius: "The destruction of an anti-tank gun can cost a couple of tanks, because they are small, well-covered and waiting for the tanks in ambush. Usually it takes [just] the first shot. If the gunners are skilled, they can knock out the Tiger. If they did not destroy your tank with the first shot-you will have no more time to react before you receive the second shell."
Michael Wittmann: "The anti-tank gun is more difficult to find than the tank. The gun can fire several shots before I find it"
The Red Army’s field artillery provided the main antitank support for the infantry.When the Tiger I first appeared on the Eastern Front, the Red Army had the T-34/76 and different models of the KV-1. Until the autumn 1943, Red Army had only two types of SP guns: the SU-122 Medium Assault Gun and the SU-76 Light Self-Propelled Gun.None of these were effective against the Tiger at ranges over 500 meters. The Tiger had a great advantage over long distances. During the famous tank battle near Prokhorovka, the Soviet commanders tried to take advantage of the greater mobility of the T-34 and the assault guns by closing in to short ranges and shooting at the Tiger’s thinner side armor. The result of the battle was that the new German tanks were equal to older Soviet tanks because of the correct choice of the battlefield. This was the great maneuver of Gen. Col. Rotmistrov and Gen Leut. Zhadov. The battle ended with almost equal losses, but Soviets kept more tanks in reserve for the counterattack, while Germans were unable to continue with their offensive.
In February of 1944, T-34 was rearmed with the new long-barreled 85mm S-53 gun and then in mid-1944 with 85mm ZIS-S-53. This new gun could penetrate the side armor of the Tiger I from a distance of 800 meters and the turret side from a distance of 600 meters. It was not enough-as before, the Tiger could destroy the T-34 from a distance of 1,500 to 2,000 meters. 85mm AA gun was the anti-aircraft gun without any special modifications. The S-53 was a modified version designed by the F.F.Petrov’s Design Bureau to be mounted in the turret of T-34-85. The ZiS-S-53 was a modified S-53 designed by Grabin’s Design Bureau in order to simplify the gun and reduce its price, while ballistic of both guns were same.
Soviet ISU-152 heavy assault gun armed with 152mm howitzer.
From early 1943 to mid-1944, the main opponents of the Tiger on the Eastern Front were the assault guns based on T-34 and KV-1 chassis. When it was discovered that the existing SU-76 and SU-122 types could not penetrate the Tiger’s armor at any distance under 1,000 meters, the Soviets decided to create a new assault gun, the SU-85, armed with an adaptation of the 85mm anti-aircraft gun. Production of the SU-122 was stopped and the SU-85 was adopted in its place. It was later followed by the SU-100 medium assault gun. In mid 1943, SU-152 heavy assault gun entered service. It was based on KV-1 heavy tank and was armed 152mm howitzer.It was nicknamed Zveroboi (Animal Killer). At the end of 1943, a new assault gun, the ISU-152, based on IS-2 heavy tank was produced. It was armed with a very powerful 152mm howitzer. The shell of this gun could penetrate any part of the Tiger’s armor and even cut the turret from the hull. This assault gun was nicknamed "Animal Hunter". The weight of the AP shell was 48kg, while HE shell was 41kg.
Otto Carius: "The shell cut the right part of the commander’s cupola. I was not beheaded because I had bent down to light my cigarette. Suddenly the Russian assault gun appeared and I gave an order to the gunner to open fire. Kramer shot, and a second shell, from another assault gun, hit in the turret. I can not remember which way I left the Tiger. The head phones-the only thing I have from my destroyed Tiger".
Using assault guns to their maximum ability, the Red Army fought for the time it needed to develop a new tank comparable to the Tiger. At the end of 1943, new heavy tank IS-1 was developed and the Red Army received first tanks in February of 1944. It was followed by the famous IS-2 heavy tank. The IS (for Iosif Stalin, for the Cyrillic alphabet does not have the Western "J" for Joseph Stalin) tanks had a low profile-lower than the Tiger or the Sherman. The turret and front armor plate were 100mm thick. The side armor plates were 75mm. This tank was armed with a powerful 122mm D25T gun that had a barrel five meters (16 feet) long. The IS tanks had a great advantage in comparison to the Tiger because of their well-sloped armor plates. With these tanks, the Red Army finally had armor that was better then the Tiger I and equal to the King Tiger (Tiger II) in many ways. In March of 1944, the first IS-2s were tested in action and proved their power. More then 3,000 IS-2 tanks were built up to the end of the war. In the opinion of Hasso von Manteuffel, it was the best tank of WW II.
During the war, the Soviet Union built more than 125,000 AFVs. Germany built some 89,000 AFVs and only 2,000 of them were Tigers and King Tigers. There was no chance for Germany to win the war on the Eastern Front against the power of the Red Army.
Credits / Sources:
H. Guderian: "Memories of a Soldier", Moscow Voenizdat 1962;
F. Mellenthin: "Panzer Battles 1939-1945", Moscow, AST 1998;
E. Middeldorf: "Russian Campaign Tactics and Weapons", Moscow, AST 1999;
D. Crow: "Armored Fighting Vehicles of Germany", Chancellor Press, London 1973;
J. Ledwoch: "Tiger", Wydawnictwo Militaria, Warsaw;
B. Culver: "Tiger in Action", Squadron Publication, London 1980;
M. Svirin: "IS Tanks", Moscow, Armada 1998;