The Canadians who Captured the First Tiger Tanks where No Canadian Forces Fought, Part II

by | Feb 23, 2021 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 0 comments

by Bruce Oliver Newsome

This is the second article in a three-part series on the deployment of German Tiger tanks in 1942, while Canadian forces were still staging in Britain for campaigns in Europe. Nevertheless, thanks to opportunities for a few Canadian personnel to volunteer for short rotations with British units in Tunisia, a Canadian infantry officer was in charge of a British company that was first to knock out a Tiger, and a Canadian engineer was first to exploit a second Tiger, knocked out within the hour. Yet their stories were lost in the subsequent British exploitations and histories. This article rediscovers the evidence from the Canadian, British, and German archives.

Bruce Oliver Newsome (PhD) is a lecturer in international relations at the University of San Diego. He previously held standing faculty positions at the University of California Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He started his career as a research political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He has served in the British and US Army reserves.

Tiger 231

The evidence for Tiger 21’s quick initial recovery is that it does not feature in the Canadian photographs, taken within the next hour or two, of Tiger 231, inside British lines.

Tiger 231’s demise probably should be timed to 0823 hours, when Buffs HQ confirmed one Panzer knocked out. Tiger 231’s bold move surely depended on covering fire. Moreover, Tiger 231 needed to negotiate British mines (“Hawkins Grenades”) on the sharp bend, which implies that engineers came forward, while other Panzers were supressing the defenders. The two six-pounders at the front of A Company were either destroyed or suppressed by then, because Tiger 231 was never struck on its front or right side.

Still, Tiger 231’s advance was reckless. It completed the bend in the highway and continued south-westwards for another 900 metres beyond A Company. By then it was level with a separate troop of six-pounder guns. One of these four guns had already fired on Tiger 21. The other three were dug in to fire into the left side of Tiger 21 as the highway climbed along a high embankment above a large concrete culvert (marked on Map 1 by the cross symbol). Two two-pounder guns were closer still. Their positions were not recorded by any of the units involved. The technicians reported hearsay that all the perforations were achieved at 650 yards (600 metres), but a hand-drawn map accompanying one copy of their report suggests that the ranges varied from 380 yards (350 metres) to 550 yards (500 m), depending on the gun.

From the technicians’ report, it is clear that the most northerly two guns opened fire at 680 yards (622 metres), when Tiger 231 was still about half-way between the bend and its final resting place. The line of fire was oblique: the shots scooped the hull side towards the rear.

This is one of the series of photographs taken of Tiger 231 during the lull from 0900 to 0930 hours, 31st January 1943. The British technicians appended four to their report, of which one is almost identical, except no personnel are present. The Tiger is partially obscured by an officer in a soft side cap, who must be Major Brown.

Tiger 231’s crewmen were reportedly confused by the small arms fire; they closed hatches and trained the main gun towards C Company, right of the tank’s centre-line. The forward part of the turret’s side, which is horseshoe-shaped when viewed from above, was perpendicular to the line of attack. A six-pounder shot perforated the turret in line with the gunner’s position, which perhaps incapacitated him.

Tiger 231 came to rest above the culvert, perhaps where the driver saw mines on the road. It had erred towards the right edge of the embankment, to get around the wreck of a Valentine tank knocked out by mines ten days earlier.
Here the highway makes a slight curve to the left, narrowing the angle of attack, until Tiger 231’s hull sides were receiving strikes at about 10 degrees and 15 degrees. These came from the two most southerly six-pounders, which, according to the hand-drawn map, were just 500 metres and 350 metres away respectively. Two shots perforated the turret side towards its rear, where the armour presented perpendicular to attack, because of the turret’s prior rotation to right of centreline.

One shot perforated three roadwheels, the lower hull, and a fuel tank. This was likely the primary cause of the fire that eventually burned out the tank. Possibly the perforations of the turret started ammunition fires, but the photographs suggest that the fire progressed from the rear forward, non-explosively. A close shot perforated the rearmost road wheels but passed under the hull. The technicians’ photographs of these perforations prove that the wheels had stopped moving by then. A total of six shots hit the upper hull without perforating, although one shot remained stuck at an angle of 15 degrees.

The official history of the Buffs recorded that all the crewmen of Tiger 231 were captured,[i] although the war diary is not so clear. Somebody reported at 1012 hours to Buffs HQ that the Tigers “probably” belonged to 501st Heavy Tank Battalion. By 1045 hours, three prisoners reached the HQ: a lieutenant, a corporal and a private. They were recorded as crewmen of one of the two Panzers IIIs that were knocked out in series behind Tiger 231, but the lieutenant, at least, should have been riding in Tiger 231, which was the platoon command vehicle. The lieutenant was described as captured by A Company after an attempt at escape, so presumably the other two were captured by B Company or D Company more easily. The corporal and private carried “no firm identification, but probably [belonged to] 501st Heavy Tank Unit, [given a] badly written entry in Soldbuch [personal identification and pay book]. They were not talkative.” The lieutenant “would not talk, but had a great deal of documents on him, some marked with his unit, now definitely identified as 501st Heavy Tank Unit.” They were forwarded to Brigade HQ, whose diary recorded that the tanks were from “2nd Company, 501st Heavy Battalion.”

Other Panzers

The Buffs war diary suggests that Tiger 21’s disablement was complete by 0740 hours. At 0823 hours, the Buffs HQ recorded “one tank definitely reported knocked out.” This must refer to Tiger 231, whose demise was obvious due to fire and smoke. At 0828 hours, the Buffs HQ recorded another three Panzers knocked out, which must refer to escorting Panzer IIIs. At 0840 hours, it recorded “three tanks ablaze and three more have ceased to fire.” These tanks were credited to the anti-tank guns in general. The Buffs war diary recorded at 0905 hours “a seventh tank” as hit, although not knocked out, but this must be double-counting. At 1012 hours, the war diary confirmed that the “tanks [previously] identified as two ‘monsters’ [are] probably Mk. VI tanks of 501st Heavy Tank Unit, and four Mk. III, probably of same unit.” The 36th Brigade HQ correctly recorded that two Tigers and four other tanks had been knocked out.

The 72nd Anti-Tank Regiment recorded at 1000 hours two Tigers and four Panzer IIIs knocked out. Its 1st Troop was commanded by Edwards, whose citation for a medal credits his Troop – “with the assistance of 2nd Troop” – for knocking out a Tiger, four Panzer IIIs, one half-track, and one armoured car. According to the technicians, Tiger 21’s two escorts were knocked out by the two rearmost guns of 1st Troop, which must have turned about from defending the western side of A Company. Their range was reportedly 1,000 yards (914 metres), so they must have been firing at the crest that hid Tiger 21.

The 2nd Troop was commanded by Lieutenant Peter Michael Heslop, who was not awarded, perhaps because Edwards was the senior subaltern and in ultimate command of both troops. One of 2nd Troop’s gun commanders was Sergeant Marcus Bauer, whose commendation reveals that a third Tiger joined the fight:

When the enemy tanks moved down the road in front of his position, Sgt. Bauer was the first to open fire at the leading Mk. VI, which he stopped at a range of about 650 yds. This brought considerable fire from 88-mm, 75-mm, and small arms from the following tanks, which wounded the layer. Sgt. Bauer promptly took over and laid and fired the gun himself. His gun became exposed to the following tanks, but he continued to fire and after firing another 15 rounds the four following Mk. IIIs were all disabled. On the com[mander]’s instruction (Lt. Edwards), Sgt. Bauer continued to fire at the leading Mk. VI, in an attempt to set it on fire, but every round was replied to by the rear Mk. VI which was hull down on his right flank.

None of the Allied war diaries admit any lost equipment, but the Tiger unit claimed four anti-tank guns, one self-propelled gun, one armoured car, and several machine-guns. The four anti-tank guns were likely lost within A Company’s position: the company abandoned the hill later in the day, when a surviving Tiger tank circled it in the manner that Tiger 21 had attempted. The next day, the 72nd Regiment reported the loss of five wounded.

The Tiger unit later reported that its surviving Panzers, after the loss of the first six, took positions “on the crest” to give covering fire to the infantry’s attacks, and that at least one Tiger was involved in the recovery of tanks overnight. Weber later recalled:

The attack by the Panzergruppe along the road met only with limited success and came to a standstill only a few kilometres farther to the southwest [than during Eilbote I], because exceptionally effective flanking fire from anti-tank guns emplaced in the wadis caused severe losses. This was the first time that a Tiger was pierced by a direct hit into its side fired from a 7.5-centimetre anti-tank gun [the French and Americans were operating guns in this calibre]. The infantry tried to open up a path by making enveloping attacks but ran into minefields and strong resistance.[ii]

Infantry Attack

While Tiger 231 was advancing, a battalion of Panzergrenadiers attacked along the riverbed. The 6th Armoured Division’s artillery commander questioned eye-witnesses and “studied the southern half of the ground,” while investigating the performance of the 12th Royal Horse Artillery (25-pounder guns).

[The Panzers] in turn were followed very closely by the Panzer Regt. (inf[antry]) in armoured carriers or TCVs [troop-carrying vehicles]. They were seen to be sitting smartly to attention until engaged by 12th RHA [about 6 miles or 10 km behind]. They then dismounted hurriedly, and delivered a most determined attack on the Buffs.[iii]

Once the Panzergrenadiers engaged D Company, the Panzers must have ceased fire and turned against A Company. Indeed, at 0825 hours, the Buffs HQ recorded that A Company was “being machine-gunned and shelled by tanks.” At 0829 hours, D Company reported its expectation of an infantry attack against its left flank, presumably given enemy infantry in the riverbed to its north-west, and the recent passage of Tiger 231 and its two escorts.

The author thanks: Colin Alford, Canadian Forces Recruiting Group Headquarters; Tim Cook, Director of Research, Canadian War Museum; John Fisher, Curator, Base Borden Military Museum; David Portilla, Reference Archivist, Library and Archives Canada; Emily Sommers, Digital Records Archivist, University of Toronto Archives; Rick Towey, Curator, Museum of The Royal Regiment of Canada; Emilie Vandal, Archivist, Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence.

[i] Henry Raleigh Knight, Historical Records of the Buffs, East Kent Regiment, London: Gale & Polden, 1951, p. 194.

[ii] Friedrich Weber, “Battles of 334th Division and of Group Weber from the end of December 1942 to May 1943,” United States Army Europe HQ, Historical Division, Foreign Military Studies Branch, D-215, 1948, p. 23.

[iii] Brigadier T. Lyon Smith to Major-General C.F. Keighley, Brigadier H.J. Parham of 1st Army, and Brigadier F.W.H. Pratt of V Corps, 15th February 1943.