Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Allied/Soviet Armour versus Tiger I and II Part I




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 ZiS-2 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 Two Extremes
The Tiger I enjoyed some spectacular triumphs on the battlefield, but it also endured its fair share of ignominious setbacks. These two contrasting combat reports demonstrate the two extremes of the Tiger I experience.

On 21st April 1943, a Tiger I of the 504th German heavy tank battalion, with turret number 131, was captured after being knocked out on a hill called Djebel Djaffa in Tunisia. A round from a Churchill tank of the British 48th Royal Tank Regiment hit the Tiger's gun barrel and ricocheted into its turret ring. The round jammed the turret traverse mechanism and wounded the commander. Although the vehicle was still in a driveable condition the crew flew into a panic and bailed out. The complete tank was captured by the British. The tank was repaired and displayed in Tunisia before being sent to England for a thorough inspection.

In complete contrast to the dismal performance of Tiger 131 the Tiger I commanded by Franz Staudegger enjoyed an amazing string of successes. On 7th July 1943, this single Tiger tank commanded by SS-Oberscharf├╝hrer Franz Staudegger from the 2nd Platoon, 13th Panzer Company, 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler engaged a group of about 50 T-34s around Psyolknee in the southern sector of the German thrust into the Soviet salient known as the Battle of Kursk. Staudegger used all his ammunition and claimed the destruction of 22 Soviet tanks, forcing the rest to retreat. For this amazing feat of arms he was understandably awarded the Knight's Cross.

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