Military history

- Chapter 28 -

The Soviet Response

The initial Soviet response to the Tiger I was to order the restart of production of the 57mm ZiS-2 anti-tank gun. Production of this model had been halted in 1941 in favour of smaller and cheaper alternatives. The ZiS-2 which had better armour penetration than the 76mm F-34 tank gun which was then in use by most Red Army tanks, but it too proved to be all but inadequate when faced with the Tiger I.

A 2.52 firing APCR rounds could usually be relied upon to penetrate the Tiger’s frontal armour. A small number of T-34s were fitted with a tank version of the ZiS-2, but the drawback was that as an anti-tank weapon the ZiS-2 could not fire a strong high-explosive round, thus making it an unsatisfactory tank gun. The Russians had no inhibitions about following the German lead and accordingly the 85mm 52-K anti-aircraft gun was modified for tank use. This gun was initially incorporated into the SU-85 self-propelled gun which was based on a T-34 chassis and saw action from August 1943. By the spring of 1944, the T-34/85 appeared, this up-gunned T-34 matched the SU-85’s firepower, but had the additional advantage of mounting the gun with a much better HE firing capability in a revolving turret. The redundant SU-85 was replaced by the SU-100, mounting a 100mm D-10 tank gun which could penetrate 185mm of vertical armour plate at 1,000m, and was therefore able to defeat the Tiger’s frontal armour at normal combat ranges.

In May 1943, the Red Army deployed the SU-152, replaced in 1944 by the ISU-152. These self-propelled guns both mounted the large, 152mm howitzer-gun. The SU-152 was intended to be a close-support gun for use against German fortifications rather than armour; but, both it and the later ISU-152 were found to be very effective against German heavy tanks, and were nicknamed Zveroboy which is commonly rendered as “beast killer” or “animal hunter”. The 152mm armour-piercing shells weighed over 45 kilograms (99lb) and could penetrate a Tiger’s frontal armour from 1,000 metres. Even the high-explosive rounds were powerful enough to cause significant damage to a tank. However, the size and weight of the ammunition meant both vehicles had a low rate of fire and each could carry only 20 rounds.

The tide was definitely turning against the Tiger I and the Tiger II was introduced as a replacement in mid 1944. In order to shore up the crumbling morale and maintain the sense of invincibility the German School of Tank Technology released re-assuring combat reports such as the detailed example featured in Contemporary View No.26.

THE CONTEMPORARY VIEW NO. 26

THE JOSEF STALIN

A column of German infantry captured during the destruction of Army Group Centre file past an intact Tiger I now also in the hands of the Russians.

The new Soviet heavy tank, ‘Josef Stalin’, has caused the German tank experts no little worry. It is, therefore, of interest that the following unconvincing description of a ‘Tiger’ versus ‘Stalin’ engagement is printed in the official ‘Notes for Panzer Troops’ of September 1944, presumably as an encouragement to the German tank arm.

A ‘Tiger’ squadron reports one of a number of engagements in which it knocked out ‘Stalin’ tanks.

The squadron had been given the task of counter-attacking an enemy penetration into a wood and exploiting success.

At 1215 hours the squadron moved off together with a rifle battalion. The squadron was formed to move in file by reason of the thick forest, bad visibility (50 yards) and narrow path. The Soviet infantry withdrew as soon as the ‘Tigers’ appeared. The A/tk guns which the enemy had brought up only three-quarters of an hour after initial penetration were quickly knocked out, partly by fire, partly by crushing.

The point troop having penetrated a further 2,000 yards in to the forest, the troop commander suddenly heard the sound of falling trees and observed, right ahead, the large muzzle brake of the ‘Stalin’. E immediately ordered: ‘AP-fixed sights-fire’ but was hit at the same time by two rounds from a 4.7 cm A/tk gun which obscured his vision completely. Meanwhile the second tank in the troop had come up level with the troop commanders’s tank. The latter, firing blind, was continuing the fire fight at a range of 35 yards and the ‘Stalin’ withdrew behind a hillock. The second ‘Tiger’ had in the meantime taken the lead and fired three rounds at the enemy tank. It was hit by a round from the enemy’s 122mm tank gun on the hull below the wireless operator’s seat but no penetration was effected, probably because the ‘Tiger’ was oblique to the enemy. The ‘Stalin’, however, had been hit in the gun by the ‘Tiger’s’ last round and put out of action. A second ‘Stalin’ attempted to cover the first tank’s withdrawal but was also hit by one of the leading ‘Tigers’ just below the gun and brewed up.

The rate of fire of the ‘Stalin’ was comparatively slow. The squadron commander has drawn the following conclusions from all the engagements his squadron has had with ‘Stalin’ tanks:

(1) Most ‘Stalin’ tanks will withdraw on encountering ‘Tigers’ without attempting to engage in a fire-fight.

(2) ‘Stalin’ tanks generally only open fire at ranges over 2,200 yards and then only if standing oblique to the target.

(3) Enemy crews tend to abandon tanks as soon as hit.

(4) The Russians make great efforts to prevent ‘Stalin’ tanks falling into our hands and particularly strive to recover or blow up such of them as have been immobilized.

(5) ‘Stalin’ tanks can be brewed up although penetration is by no means easy against the frontal armour at long ranges (another ‘Tiger’ battalion reports that ‘Stalin’ tanks can only be penetrated by ‘Tigers frontally under 550 yards).

(6) ‘Stalin’ tanks should, wherever possible, be engaged in flanks or rear and destroyed by concentrated fire.

(7) ‘Stalin’ tanks should not be engaged under any circumstances by ‘Tigers’ in less than troop strength. To use single ‘Tigers’ is to invite their destruction.

(8) It is useful practice to follow up the first hit with AP on the ‘Stalin’ tank with HE, to continue blinding the occupants.

The Inspector-General of Panzer Troops (who is responsible for this official publication) commented as follows on the above remarks:

(1) These experiences agree with those of other ‘Tiger’ units and are correct.

(2) Reference para. (4), it would be desirable for the enemy to observe the same keenness in all our ‘Tiger’ crews. No ‘Tiger’ should ever be allowed to fall into the enemy’s hands intact.

(3) Reference paras (5) and (6), faced as we are now with the 122mm tank gun and 57mm A/tk gun in Russia and the 92mm AA/Atk gun in Western Europe and Italy. ‘Tigers’ can no longer afford to ignore the principles practiced by normal tank formations.

This means, inter alia, that ‘Tigers’ can no longer show themselves on crests ‘to have a look round’ but must behave like other tanks – behaviour of this kind caused the destruction by ‘Stalin’ tanks of three ‘Tigers’ recently, all crews being killed with the exception of two men.

This battalion was surely not unacquainted with the basic principle of tank tactics that tanks should only cross crests in a body and by rapid bounds, covered by fire – or else detour round the crest. The legend of the ‘thick hide’, the ‘invulnerability’ and the ‘safety’ of the ‘Tiger’, which has sprung up in other arms of the service, as well as within the tank arm, must now be destroyed and dissipated.

Hence, instruction in the usual principles of tank versus tank action becomes of specific importance to ‘Tiger’ units.

(4) Reference para (7), though this train of thought is correct, 3 ‘Tigers’ do not form a proper troop. Particularly with conditions as they are at the moment, circumstances may well arise where full troops will not be readily available. And it is precisely the tank versus tank action which is decided more by superior tactics than superior numbers. However it is still true to say that single tanks invite destruction.

(5) It may be added that the ‘Stalin’ tank will not only be penetrated in flanks and rear by ‘Tigers’ and ‘Panthers’ but also by Pz. Kpfw. IV and assault guns.

Marshal Georgy Zhukov inspecting a captured Tiger.

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