Military history

- Chapter 29 -

Tigers in Italy

Due to Allied air superiority, the Tigers in Normandy and France were frequently employed mainly in a static defensive role. This conserved fuel as the Tiger normally consumed huge amounts of petrol. It also kept the mechanical breakdowns to a minimum. In other theatres such as Italy, Allied air cover was less comprehensive and the Tigers still enjoyed some freedom of action. This was not always a good thing however.

Although the Tiger was a formidable design and recognized as being such in a number of allied studies although the high fuel consumption and frequent mechanical breakdowns occasionally rendered its battlefield performance all but worthless. This was certainly the case with the 508 schwere Abteilung in May 1944 which the British report of which from August 1944 makes sobering reading and further deflates the myth of the invincible Tiger.



First major reverse of 3 Sqn 508 Hy Tk Bn

As an illustration of the difficulties encountered in the employment of Tiger tanks it is interesting to reconstruct one of the two mobile engagements on a Sqn basis which the Bn fought in Italy, when it won a victory and yet lost almost all its tanks.

The action took place between 23 and 25 May 44 in the general area of Cisterna. 3 Sqn, which had brought down 14 Tiger tanks from France, lost two burnt out at the end of Feb 4 – one through carelessness on the part of the crew and another by Allied A/tk action. It had received four of the latest pattern AFVs during May 44 and was two tanks over war establishment strength on 23 May 44, i.e. 16 instead of 14.

The Sqn formed up behind a railway embankment between the Mussolini Canal and the level crossing at G 063299 and engaged troop concentrations with HE. It then crossed the embankment and put three AFVs out of action in the attempt (one with gearbox trouble and two with tracks riding over the sprocket teeth). The remaining thirteen crews had all to stop on open ground because the guns had dug into the earth as the tanks came down the embankment and needed pulling through.

The Allied troops were driven back about three kms and a number of Sherman tanks surprised and knocked out.

The first loss sustained in action was a Tiger which had one radiator destroyed by an artillery round and had to limp back towards Cori in stages.

Twelve Tigers were thus left in action during the night 23/24 May 44. On the morning of 24 May 44 a retreat was ordered to everyone’s surprise and A/tk fire accounted for one Tiger (hit on the right reduction gear and subsequently blown up by its crew).

Eleven Tigers withdrew to the embankment and the OC Sqn ordered five to continue to hold the enemy whilst the six were to tow away the tree tanks which had failed to cross.

Four of the six towing tanks experienced gearbox trouble and the OC then ordered the three towed tanks to be destroyed and tow out of the five fighting tanks to assist in towing away the breakdowns.

These eight AFVs were got back to an assembly point near Cori, leaving four Tigers only in fighting order. Of these four, one was hit by A/Tk gun fire and two more experienced gearbox trouble (all three were blown up), so that only one runner was left.

Two converted Sherman tanks came down from Rome during the night 24/25 May 44 and extricated the one runner which had also become u/s meanwhile, by towing it in tandem along the railway tracks.

By 25 May 44, the situation had so deteriorated that it was manifestly impossible to get towing vehicles through and the OC ordered the blowing up of the nine Tigers which had reached the assembly area.

Although a good many of the crews had gone back to Rome with the one runner, the OC and about 45 men were left near Cori. They had to march back to Rome and came under fire several times in the process, arriving in an exhausted condition.

PW states categorically that this action had a profound effect upon the Sqn’s morale and also decided against the mass use of Tiger tanks. Of sixteen AFVs put into action, not one would have been lost, had adequate recovery facilities been provided.

Although the OC Sqn’s personal courage was not in doubt, it was generally thought that he had not appreciated the situation and had created the disaster by attempting to salvage the three AFVs that jibbed at the embankment. Had he not done so, he might have saved about ten out of the original sixteen.

‘Penny wise, pound foolish’ was the criticism made of him. 3 Sqn also took a poor view of the fact that almost at once a new troop was formed from tanks drawn from 1 and 2 Sqn crews put in, the former crews going back to their Sqn pools.

The citizens of the liberated French town of Marle clamber around this Tiger I which was abandoned in the main street.

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