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

by | Mar 22, 2021 | LCSC, Military, Strategic & Disarmament Series, War and Society | 0 comments

by Bruce Oliver Newsome

This is the third and final 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.

Brown’s exploitation

The brigade timed the withdrawal of the remaining Panzers to 0850 hours, although the Buffs HQ recorded 0902 hours. A lull ensued. The lull was brief, because at 0935 hours the Buffs HQ recorded a report of Panzers in the wood north of A Company: this was part of a long incremental process by which German reinforcements dislodged A Company by mid-afternoon, and nearly dislodged the whole battalion. I do not have space here for this interesting battle, although I have told the full story elsewhere.[i] Here I want to return to the lull, when the Royal Canadian Engineer enters the story.

Major Cyril Elliot Brown (1915-1987) was from Windsor, Nova Scotia, and a graduate of the Royal Military College in 1937. He was one of seven RCE officers who disembarked at Algiers on 3rd January 1943. At some unknown date, he was given command of 256th Field Company RE, which 78th Division assigned to 36th Brigade at Robaa. It camped somewhere between Robaa and the front, probably around Sidi Said K’ba. During the lull, Brown went forward to photograph Tiger 231. Diary records suggest that he also took measurements.[ii]

His photographs show that the participants were relaxed. Enemy artillery and aircraft were not yet within range, and the Panzers and Panzergrenediers were out of sight. Soon after 0900 hours, B Squadron of the Lancers reported to its HQ on the attack, and added that it could hear small arms fire in the hills to the south-east (defended by other units). A subsequent paragraph begins: “It is thought possible to recover enemy tanks.” The entry then describes the enemy’s renewed attacks, which suggest that recovery was mooted but never executed. At some later, unspecified time, the B Squadron reported that it had failed to recover the Tiger. The Brigade’s diary recorded “attempts to recover the Mk. VI tank failed.” The squadron held no recovery assets of its own, and its tanks were incapable of towing a Tiger.

Soon the attackers advanced closer and combined with indirect artillery fire and ground-attack aircraft. At 1159 hours, the Buffs HQ recorded that “a belt of mines has been placed around the nearest Mk. VI to prevent the Germans from recovering it.” At 1328 hours, the Buffs sent a party to recover Tiger 231, but direct-fire prevented its approach. The firers included a Panzer in a hull-down position (probably behind the crest) and some infantry guns (less than 2,000 metres from Tiger 231).

This is likely the earliest photograph of Tiger 231, given the thick smoke. British soldiers are standing on its right, with the officer in the soft side cap. Subsequent photographs move around the rear of the Tiger to its left side, showing the same officer examining its front.

The Buffs HQ must have asked Brigade HQ for help. At 1553 hours, Brown was wounded, while “attempting to recover the disabled Mk. VI tank,” according to the brigade war diary. Nobody recorded how Brown was trying to recover a Tiger tank, with a disabled Valentine tank in the way, without a recovery vehicle, during another German attack. The technicians later clarified that Brown was “wounded during the preliminary efforts to investigate the tank.”

The 501st Battalion reported (on 3rd February) that Tiger 231 burnt brightly from the moment it was hit for 3.5 hours, then was demolished after dark on 31st January by a German pioneer with a 50-kilogram charge. He returned to verify that the interior equipment was destroyed: only the lower hull sides, rear, and front plates were still attached. To cover the demolition and recovery teams, one Tiger, two Panzer IIIs, and a company of Panzergrendier remained at a range of 750 metres (820 yards), which means they must have been on the southern slope of the hill formerly occupied by A Company. The brigade misreported this demolition as a final German attack, and misreported that Brown’s company had demolished Tiger 231. During the same night, the Germans recovered Tiger 21 and another two Panzers.

Neither side had any chance for further investigation on 1st February, which is best summarized as a day of Allied reinforcement and German containment. The wreck of Tiger 231 remained under occasional indirect fire for days, even though the attackers withdrew before dawn 2nd February. The technicians arrived from Algiers in the evening of 2nd February. Brown’s company helped them to extract samples of armour and components from the wreck on 3rd February. Brown was not present, and his replacement did not arrive until that evening.

Brown and MacLachlan had taken about a dozen photographs of the undemolished Tiger 231 during the lull, of which the British technicians appended only four. The other photographs ended up at the British School of Tank Technology and the Imperial War Museum, without provenance. Some of these photographs show personnel, including an officer wearing a soft side cap, who surely must be Brown.

The Fate of The Canadians

The British technicians credited the photographs to a “Canadian engineer officer” but did not name him. They obtained the photographs from the highest allied regional headquarters, suggesting that Brown had escalated his photographs on the day he was evacuated.

The battle is missing from the official histories, although Brown’s photographs of Tiger 231 sometimes appear in those same histories. Tiger 231 appears either as an exemplar of the type in Tunisia, or a particular tank captured by the British in April (actually Tiger 131 of a different unit) or by the Americans in February at Kasserine Pass (where Tigers never served).[iii]

The British technicians did not mention MacLachlan or his company in their report. We know from Stacey’s summary of MacLachlan’s missing report that he left A Company on 22nd February for attachment to the Buffs’ carrier platoon. From there he was given some staff experience at Buffs HQ, before rotating to a different British unit. He started his return to Britain on 16th March. In July 1943, he was present when the King presented Colours to his regiment. Soon thereafter he attended the Command and Staff College course in Kingston, at the end of which he was promoted to Major and sent to the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry (RHLI). He was the unit’s Deputy Commander during deployment to Normandy in July 1944. Within weeks, he became commander, only to be seriously wounded and returned to Canada. At the end of the war, he returned to the Royal Regiment (which returned to reserve status). He was briefly its commander in 1947, before devoting himself fully to his law practice.

Major Brown was one of the nine Canadian officers wounded in Tunisia, of which one died of his wounds. Brown’s wound was not serious. He served with British 1st Army for five-and-a-half months (i.e., through June 1943). He was then commander of 18th Field Company of the Royal Canadian Engineers, from October 1943 to October 1944, including landing in Normandy on D-Day (6th June) to clear the beaches of landmines. On 14th June, his company founded a school in a vacant house (nicknamed Homicide Hall) near Colomby-Sur-Thaon to teach Canadian soldiers how to avoid and disable German landmines.[iv] He stayed in the Army after the war, reached the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the 1950s, and retired in 1965, when he joined the Ryerson Polytechnical Institute to work on its physical plant.

Before the end of the Tunisian campaign, 298 officers and NCOs transferred from the Canadian Army in Britain to British 1st Army, excluding a few sent directly from Canada. The fifth draft, containing 50 Canadians, did not arrive before the campaign concluded in May 1943. Stacey’s amended report of March 1946 counts 25 casualties, including two prisoners who were presumably rehabilitated.[v]

What happened to Captain MacLachlan’s “long and graphic description” of the Battle of Sidi Zid K’ba? Hopefully, this article will stimulate further discovery, once the Covid emergency is behind us.

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] Bruce Oliver Newsome, The Tiger Tank and Allied Intelligence, Volume 1, Grosstraktor to Tiger 231, 1926-1943, (Coronado, CA: Tank Archives Press, 2020).

[ii] Philip Jordan, Jordan’s Tunis Diary, (London: Collins, 1943): 173.

[iii] Bruce Oliver Newsome, The Tiger Tank and Allied Intelligence, Volume 2, The Tunisian Tigers, (Coronado, CA: Tank Archives Press, 2020).

[iv] Ralph Allen, “School of Mines: But These are Lethal, Not Gold,” Globe and Mail, 1st July 1944. The company’s war diary shows that parts of the company were still engaged in road repair and mine-laying on 14th June, when Brown took others to a German dump at Cazelle, captured by British 3rd Division. “We have obtained samples and set up a very complete mine circus in a vacant house in area. It will be used to familiarize all ranks with enemy equipment. It is the very thing we need and the present lull gives us plenty of time to do it.”

[v] These data are derived from Stacey’s report directly. See also: R. Daniel Pellerin, “Canadian Infantry in North Africa, January-May 1943,” Canadian Military Journal, 17/1, Winter 2016, p. 17-56.