First published: 2019.
The story of the world’s most famous tank has had a new chapter added, following research revealing exactly how Tiger 131 was captured.
The newly published information includes an account from a previously unknown eye-witness who recalled his discomfort at being perilously close to the tank moments before it was disabled by a lucky shot.
Tiger 131 was the first example of the fearsome new German invention to be captured by the Allies, who seized it during fierce fighting in the Tunisian desert in 1943. A lucky shot had wedged itself in the turret mechanism so it couldn’t turn and the crew had bailed out and ran. Such was the importance of the capture that Prime Minister Winston Churchill and King George VI flew to North Africa to be pictured with it.
After the tank was taken to the UK, Lt. Peter Gudgin was charged with writing a detailed report about it. Gudgin had been fighting Tigers with 48 Royal Tank Regiment in Tunisia at a place called Djebel Djaffa, on 21 April 1943, and after being hit by one was invalided home. He mistakenly believed that the Tiger tank was the same one that had destroyed his Churchill tank and that his comrades had subsequently stopped it with the lucky shot. And that has always been the official story.
However, new research shows that Tiger 131 was actually disabled 15 miles away from Djebel Djaffa at a place called Gueriat el Atach, known as Point 174, during an attack there by 2nd Battalion The Sherwood Foresters on 24 April 1943.
Research carried out by Dale Oscroft, son of one of the Foresters who fought on Point 174, has revealed the story. Dale’s father John, who died in 1982, had told him about his battalion’s first set-piece attack in Tunisia when they took on the legendary tanks and captured one intact with a jammed turret. And when, in 2012, Dale visited the Tank Museum and saw how the official story of Tiger 131 and his father’s recollection were so similar, he began his research.
Dale said “After ejecting the Germans, the Foresters – including my father – dug in and prepared for the counter attack which, when it materialised, comprised a number of Tiger tanks. Having the dubious honour of carrying a PIAT anti-tank weapon, my father was ordered to creep forward and engage the nearest Tiger.
“After getting as close as he dared he took aim and fired only to see the bomb strike a glancing blow on the turret and bounce off. At this point he saw the turret begin to traverse in his direction and decided to get his head down.
“Fortunately for him, the tank was then hit by what my father was later told was an old French ’75’, which the Foresters had taken from the Germans. Much to his relief the tank crew bailed out and made off. A later inspection showed the Tiger to have sustained a lucky hit on the turret ring.
“My father speculated that the crew must have thought that the Foresters had done something more potent than they actually did.”
John, who was from Sutton-in-Ashfield, joined the Foresters in 1942 from his job in the hosiery industry. He fought in Tunisia, in Italy and ended up in serving in Palestine before being demobbed in 1946 and returning to his job as a hosiery knitter.
Dale carried out his research using wartime maps, photographs and documents which showed that Tiger 131 was indeed captured on Point 174 and not Djebel Djaffa as had always been believed. Later, Dale sought the assistance of David Byrden, a Tiger tank expert, to confirm his findings through the use of satellite imagery.
Dale added, “Dad said very little about his war, but he did tell me about the Tiger tank and how it came to be captured. After being struck by the similarities between my father’s story and the official account, I began the research which has now proved that Tiger 131 was the one my father was fighting. “However, it is now clear that although the Foresters did capture the vehicle, they were not the ones who disabled it”.
In response to Dale’s research The Tank Museum recently carried out putty tests (left) on Tiger 131’s turret which showed that the shell which disabled it had been fired from a Churchill tank which was supporting the Foresters from quite a distance behind.
David Willey, Curator of The Tank Museum said “History is re-interpreted by each generation, keen to learn their own lessons, draw their own comparisons and find their own relevance to the stories of the past.
“In this age new tools have been given to the researcher, the internet, records online, e-mail, a mass audience willing to respond to questions and comment on theories – whether well informed or not. But there is also simply carrying out good research, looking at and questioning the facts, finding new evidence and following up on a hunch or a theory.
“Here we see a case of the evidence always being there – but until Dale came to question the accepted orthodoxy – no one had looked at this evidence in a new way. Backed by the magic of technology such as Google Maps – a new story can now be written about the capture of Tiger 131.
“And of course the story doesn’t end here as more will undoubtedly come to light, more of the picture will be filled in and we can return again to this moment in history anew.”
Read Dale Oscroft’s research paper here.