While Tiger 131 was the first intact Tiger I to be taken back to Britain, it was not the first to be knocked out. This occurred several months earlier, by the 17th/21st Lancers.
This took place in Tunisia, naturally enough, in January 1943, said to be 31 January by the Germans, a date that is apparently confirmed by the 17th/21st Lancers. A mixture of tanks, led by a Tiger I and with another Tiger a short way back, were advancing along the Robaa Valley when they were ambushed by six pounder Mark II anti-tank guns of No. 2 Troop, of A Battery, 72nd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery.
Capturing the Tiger
Two guns took on the leading Tiger, which they penetrated from the side, the accompanying Panzer III N (four of them) were then knocked out, while the 4th gun, in company with two six-pounders of No. 1 troop tackled the second Tiger, and having penetrated its armour five times put it out of action as well. Since it was near the back of the group the Germans were able to use a Panzer III to tow it away.
The first Tiger, however, was in an area dominated by the British and under heavy artillery fire so it had to stay where it was, in any case it was on fire with some crewmen killed, some captured and the others making their way back to German lines.
It is said that the 17th/21st Lancers tried to tow it away but were unable to, since, according to the Germans it was burning for three and a half hours this is hardly surprising. At one point, while the Tiger was still intact, a Valentine of 17th/21st Lancers, Sixth Armoured Division, attempted to squeeze past it, but in doing so ran over an anti-tank mine, which damaged the off-side track and brought it to a halt.
Now we come to one of those matters about which there are two conflicting claims. The Germans claim that because they were unable to recover the damaged tank a pioneer sergeant-major was sent down at night with a 50 kilogram charge and that he managed to blow the tank up. The British claim that since they could not tow the tank away and because it was believed that the Germans would attempt to recover it the Royal Engineers were given the task of blowing it up.
It is quite impossible in this case to say who is telling the truth. For a German NCO to creep down in the dark would require a great deal of pluck, and even a bit of luck, but it’s not impossible. On the other hand assuming that they were available, there would be nothing to stop a party of Sappers from approaching the tank and blowing it up.
Tests and Trials
Since it was deemed important to know what it would take to break the track of a Tiger, a series of trials were carried out on the suspension, using an anti-tank mine and a cluster of grenades. The mine worked, as did the grenades if used in multiples of four, but tests with a total of fifteen No . 75 Hawkins grenades not only broke the track but seriously damaged the suspension on the right side of the tank, only adding to the damage already done.
What was needed, of course, was for the new tank to be inspected by real tank experts. Nobody was available on the spot although two men were on their way. These were Colonel J. A. Barlow and Lieutenant-Colonel R. D. Neville of the Weapons Technical Staff of the Field Force.
By the time they arrived, on February 2nd, in borrowed transport the tank had already been blown up but they spent their time measuring the thickness of surviving armour and salvaging pieces of metal to be sent back to Britain for evaluation.
While Colonel Barlow, after a few days, set off in a car with the first pieces of the tank selected for investigation Lt-Col Neville remained with the tank, his brief was to acquire portions of the thicker frontal armour and if possible carry out firing trials against it. Unfortunately the oxy-acetylene cutting gear ordered to hasten this process never arrived.
It got no nearer than Robaa, where the lorry carrying it was stopped since it was considered too large to enter the area. As a result Neville was reduced to using explosives in order to break off the sections he wanted and a photograph taken afterwards shows the tank with no hull front at all, but instead with the final drive exposed.
Firing at trials revealed that a six-pounder anti-tank gun, firing at 300 yards, could damage the front plate but not make a hole right through it although firing at the front of the tank was not considered a good idea, the flanks were much more vulnerable. In due course chunks of armour from the front of the hull were recovered to be air-lifted back to Farnborough, along with a sample track link. Whether a lot of use was made of them is another matter, although a lot had been learned about the tank from inspecting the wreck. Not that it made a lot of difference, it was still a formidable tank by British or American standards, and it still had to be dealt with on the battlefield.
Read more on the Tiger I here.