Tiger Combat Debut

Published: 10/11/2020

The Tiger combat debut took place in August 1942 on the Eastern Front. It was not a success, with three of the four breaking down.

The Tiger I began to enter service with the German Army in mid-1942.  They were to be used by Heavy Tank Battalions, a new type of unit.  The first two were formed in May 1942 at Fallingbostel.

The Heavy Tank Battalions

The first unit to receive the new tank was Heavy Tank Battalion 502.  Although the unit existed, the tanks didn’t.  Production had fallen behind schedule and by the end of August just 9 Tigers had been accepted by the Army.  The 502nd received their first 4 Tigers on the 19th and 20th August, allowing the Battalion’s 1st Company to be formed.

A black and white image of Tiger 131 with uniformed men stood around and on top of the tank.
One of the first Tigers received by the 501st and 502nd at Fallingbostel.

As brand new vehicles the Tigers suffered from mechanical teething troubles that led to frequent technical failures and breakdowns.  The Battalion relied heavily on support from employees of Henschel, who had built the tank, and Maybach, responsible for the engine.

At this early stage most Tiger crewmen were drawn from existing Panzer units.  This meant they were well trained and experienced, but they were new to the different tactics to be used by the Heavy Tank Battalions.  Unfortunately so few Tigers had been completed that by necessity training using the actual vehicle was minimal.

Hitler had ordered that the Tiger should be used in combat as soon as possible, so despite these issues the Company entrained for the Eastern Front on the 23rd.  At full strength it would have had 9 Tigers and 10 Panzer IIIs, but it appears that just four of each were sent.

Tiger Combat Debut

The Company arrived at Mga, south-east of Leningrad, on the 29th August, detrained and began to move towards the front.  That day saw the first use of the Tiger in combat.  It was an inauspicious debut.

The commander of the 502nd, Major Richard Märker, had advised against deploying the Tigers.  He argued that the terrain in this sector was completely unsuitable for the 56 ton tank.  Heavily forested, the area had poor drainage, which resulted in large, soft bogs.  The heavy rains common at this time of year made matters worse.

He was also worried that just four tanks would have minimal impact on any battle.  He was overruled and the tank’s debut proved to be a failure.  On two of the tanks thick mud built up between the interleaved roadwheels.  This overstressed the power train and caused transmission failure.  A third suffered engine failure.

A black and white image of one of the first captured Tigers. Men are inspecting the tank and stood around the front.
Tiger ‘100’ of the 502nd, the first captured by the Soviets.

The three broken down and bogged in Tigers were recovered by the Company’s Sd Kfz 9 Famo halftracks.  Three of these vehicles were required to haul each tank to safety.  The replacement parts needed had to be flown in from Germany.  Despite these challenges, the four Tigers were operational again by the 15th September.

The second use of the Tiger, on the 22nd September, was even less successful.  All four broke down or bogged in, with one catching fire.

This time only three could be recovered.  Märker suggested destroying the fourth to prevent the Soviets learning its secrets, but he was overruled by the Army Command.  After several months approval was given and the tank was blown up on the 25th November.

By this time Märker had been removed from command of the 502nd.  In spite of his warnings, he was held responsible for his unit’s failures.  However, since the order to use the Tigers had come directly from Hitler, there was no avoiding it.

Written by Ian Hudson

Tank Chats #17 | Tiger I

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