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Wilbeck, Christopher. Sledgehammers: Strengths and Flaws of Tiger Tank Battalions in World War II. Bedford, PA: Aberjona Press, 2004
Acknowledgments; Guide to Tactical Unit Symbols; Rank Equivalencies; Prologue; photos; maps; tables; Notes; Bibliography; About the Author
Appendix: Comparative Analysis of Heavy Tank Doctrines: France, United Kingdom and United States, Soviet Union
Everyone, it seems, loves Tiger tanks, and books abound on various aspects of Tigers. After enumerating the most important works on the subject, the author comes to the conclusion that, despite all the books about the machines themselves, few books deal with Tiger battalions as combat units, or with assessing the doctrine and performance of those units. To that end, Christopher Wilbeck writes about Tiger tanks not from the perspective of design teams or assembly lines, not as an enthusiast enthralled with cataloguing every nut and bolt and color scheme, and not as a swooning admirer who sees them as invincible chariots of supermen. Instead, Wilbeck examines the organization, doctrine, and effectiveness of battalions equipped with Tigers. More than that, he conducts a critical assessment of those units to determine how well they performed in the roles for which they were intended and employed.
To that end, after a short introductory section Wilbeck segues smoothly into a chapter covering the organization and tactics of German heavy tank battalions. The largest part of the chapter looks at the evolution of armor doctrine between the wars, with particular emphasis on the different missions tanks could be expected to conduct, and the often murky distinctions of roles among light, medium, and heavy tanks. Throughout the debate about proper use of tanks, one of the clearest corollaries to emerge was that tanks were intended strictly for use in attack and counter-attackthe latter particularly against enemy tanksrather than static defense.
Despite all the inter-war theories for utilizing heavy tanks, Germany's first two heavy tank companies were not created until February 1942. In May of the same year, the first three heavy tank battalions were organized. The battalions were designed to be subordinated to army or corps headquarters, attached to divisions as needed, and employed at the most critical points on the battlefield. For Waffen-SS battalions, each was assigned permanently to a corps, while the Heere battalions were shuffled around according to circumstances (with the exception of one battalion assigned to the Grossdeutschland division). By the end of the war, the following Heavy Tank battalions had been created:
3rd Battalion, Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland
SS-Heavy Tank Battalion 101/501
SS-Heavy Tank Battalion 102/502
SS-Heavy Tank Battalion 103/503
Heavy Tank Battalion 501
Heavy Tank Battalion 502
Heavy Tank Battalion 503
Heavy Tank Battalion 504
Heavy Tank Battalion 505
Heavy Tank Battalion 506
Heavy Tank Battalion 507
Heavy Tank Battalion 508
Heavy Tank Battalion 509
Heavy Tank Battalion 510
The actual TOEs of the battalions and their component companies were subject to considerable experimentation:
These units organized themselves based upon the contemporary wartime
organizational table (in German, die Kriegsstarkenachweisung, or K.St.N.)
This table called for nine heavy tanks per company, consisting of three platoons with three tanks each. The heavy tank battalions received new guidance
via an Army bulletin on 21 August 1942 to organize along the lines set forth
in a new table of organization (T/0). The new heavy tank companies organized themselves in accordance with T/0 1176d, dated 15 August 1942. This
company organization was known as "Heavy Tank Company D" (hereafter
referred to as the Company Organization D). The primary difference between this organization and previous heavy tank companies was
that this organization authorized a mix of heavy and light tanks, with Tigers
and Panzer IIIswhich were then the standard German medium tankbeing
integrated within each platoon of the company.
This version of the heavy tank company lasted until the General Staff published a new T/0 in May 1943. By that time, the German Army had equipped
and fielded five heavy tank battalions, with Heavy Tank Battalions 504 and 505
being created in December 1942 and January 1943, respectively.
The leaders of these battalions experimented and used almost every
variation of Company Organization D. Some companies changed their
organization internally to form two light and two heavy platoons.
Sometimes, commanders organized their platoons so that each possessed a
light section and a heavy section, while some had their sections within platoons integrated with a Panzer III and a Tiger.
These internal reorganizations focused on finding the best combination
and organization to accomplish the missions assigned. All echelons of command granted great latitude to experiment to find a combination of vehicles
that worked best. Occasionally, some companies within the same battalion
and some platoons within the same company were organized differently.
The purpose of mixing platoons and sections with Panzer IIIs and Tigers
was for the medium tanks to provide the heavy tanks with close support
against infantry and assist in destroying antitank guns threatening the
Tigers. The T/0 did not specify which model of Panzer III was authorized
for the heavy tank companies.
The heavy tank battalion was authorized three heavy tank companies, but
because of a shortage of Tigers, no battalion ever fielded a third company of
the Company Organization D in combat. A headquarters company and a
maintenance company, along with the two heavy tank companies, completed
the total organizational structure of the heavy tank battalion. The headquarters company was organized in accordance with T/0 1150d, dated 15 August
1942, thus keeping the "D" designation to the overall heavy tank battalion
The battalion "light platoon" was subordinated to the headquarters company, but presumably worked directly for the battalion commander during
combat. The T/0 for these platoons also failed to specify which model of
Panzer III was authorized. This platoon could be used to reinforce the tank
companies against infantry attacks or could be used to screen the battalion's
Wilbeck goes on to describe further changes in the official TOE for heavy tank battalions, including those associated with the units equipped with the King Tiger. Several organigrams accompany the text. While the first heavy companies and battalions were formed, tactics were also being worked out. As with inter-war doctrine, tactics for the heavy tank units emphasized attack (in the first wave against strong defenses, to destroy enemy tanks at long range, to "decisively defeat enemy defenses," and to break through the enemy's prepared positions) and specified that the Tiger's primary job was destruction of enemy tank formations. Besides the tactical manuals for heavy tank companies and battalions, Wilbeck also quotes several key points from a pamphlet of instructions for armies and corps to which Tiger units were assigned. For example, "Never place a Tiger unit under command of an infantry division in an attack."
The chapter sets the stage nicely for the studies of combat operations coming next, and the author summarizes things thusly:
Based on the published German doctrine and the Tiger program guidance, the
heavy tank battalion was formed with the primary focus of killing tanks.
German doctrine envisioned a decisive tank battle once a penetration of the
initial defensive line had been made. The heavy tank battalion was developed
and fielded to fight that decisive tank battle. Originally, it was intended to fight
that battle on the offensive during breakthrough operations, but it was also
capable of fighting in a defensive posture by counterattacking enemy armor
penetrations as a mobile reserve. However, it was fully recognized that Tiger
battalions' mobility was extremely limited; its mobility was barely 50 percent
greater than a foot-borne infantry battalion by day, and about the same as an
infantry battalion by night. Attempts to move faster than thisor to move a
great deal, at any speedwere sure to cause serious maintenance problems.
These were indeed harbingers of things to come when Tiger battalions were
committed to battle against mobile and agile foes....
Beginning with the third chapter, Sledgehammers shifts focus to the operations of individual Tiger units within larger campaigns. Interestingly, this approach closely resembles that used by Ian Walker in Iron Hulls, Iron Hearts, his study of Italian armored divisions in Africa. In this case, however, Wilbeck has a much wider range of fronts and opponents to chronicle, and he generally has more exact details about forces engaged and tank losses on both sides.
Wilbeck begins with the earliest Tiger operations through the Battle of Kursk. Heavy Tank Battalion 502 sent Germany's first Tigers into combat with a single company of tanks in September 1942 outside Leningrad. In his brief page and a half on these operations, the author notes that many contradictory accounts exist concerning the employment of Tigers at Leningrad, but everyone agrees their presence in support of the abortive offensive there was a mistake: the terrain was unsuitable (preventing the heavy tanks from deploying off-road and allowing the Soviets to position AT guns to block their movement) and the Germans forfeited the element of surprise. In defensive operations from mid-January through March 1943, however, the handful of Panzer VIs claimed "...160 Soviet tanks while losing only six Tigers, establishing a kill ratio of 26.7 to 1." Of the six Tigers, three were destroyed by their crews because they were stuck in a bog or suffered mechanical failure.
The same chapter devotes considerably more ink to Tiger operations in Tunisia where Heavy Tank Battalion 501 campaigned, later joined by a company of Heavy Tank Battalion 504 (which in March took possession of the 501st's remaining assets). The 501st arrived piecemeal and entered the battle in dribs and drabs, but the Allies had little with which to combat even limited quantities of heavies. Especially in the early operations in Tunisia, Allied light tanks (the Lee, aka Honey) suffered horribly one-sided losses when they attempted to engage even very small numbers of Tigers. In most instances, minefields covered by artillery represented the best defense for British and American forces. The Germans in turn used Tigers to lead their columns as oversized mine detectors in order to protect lighter, more vulnerable AFVs. Although mines could damage treads and temporarily immobilize them while AT and artillery fire might ding them, the Tigers could almost always be repaired and returned to combat. Wilbeck goes on to describe all the Tiger actions in Tunisia and analyzes the "extraordinary" manner in which the Germans were willing to use and abuse their most valuable fighting machines. Partly because of those tactics, maintenance proved to be a major reason why few Panzer VIs could be operational on any given day, and maintenance problems, as Wilbeck shows, loomed large in limiting the full potential of Tiger effectiveness. For example, operational readiness for the 504th Battalion averaged around fifty percent, and the most Tigers the battalion could ever field in one day was only seventeen. Even so, the 501st "...destroyed more than 150 Allied tanks in North Africa while losing only 11 Tigers" for a kill ration of 13.6:1. The 504th, not including the Tigers it destroyed at the end of the campaign to prevent their capture, also knocked out more than 150 tanks at the cost of eight Tigers for a ratio of 18.8:1.
Although the actions of Heavy Tank Battalion 504 indicate that Tigers were
effective in destroying enemy tanks, if the German Army had devoted some
resources to developing an armored recovery vehicle, they may have been able
to reduce the number of Tigers destroyed by their own crews. Only two Tigers
were total and complete losses on the battlefield as a result of enemy direct
fire. For the loss of these two Tigers, the battalion destroyed over 150 Allied
tanks, which equals a kill ratio of 75 to 1 in tank versus tank combat. Fortunately for the Allies, there was more than one way to kill a Tiger. Unfortunately
for the Germans, the solutions to the twin problems of recovering such massive machines when damaged on the battlefield and conducting the maintenance required to keep such complex vehicles running would prove elusive.
Meanwhile, heavy tanks were also operating on the Russian Front with Army Group Don. Heavy Tank Battalion 503 arrived at the front in January 1943 and immediately commenced operations. The battalion was later reinforced by 2nd Company of the 502nd Battalion (whose 1st Company continued to operate near Leningrad). Although the battalion registered some successes, attacks did not always go as planned.
Possibly the most important mission given this battalion was its attack to
reduce a Soviet penetration at Vessely. The battalion fielded 11 Tigers and 12
Panzer IIIs and was again supported by the 2d Battalion of Panzer-Grenadier
Regiment 128, as well as by a battery of light howitzers. The attack began in
the early morning of 9 January 1943. German forces made three attempts to
achieve their objective during the day, but the Soviets repulsed all attacks.
The battalion managed to destroy eight T-34s during the attack, but also
lost two Tigers and one Panzer III to enemy fire. In addition, the nine other
Tigers were so badly damaged that the battalion had only one operational
Tiger at the end of the day. Two of these Tigers were sent back to Germany for
general repairs. In the space of six hours, one of these received 227 hits from
antitank rifles and was struck 14 times by 57mm and 11 times by 76mm antitank rounds. It is a testament to the vehicle's durability that despite this damage, the Tiger still traveled back 60 kilometers under its own power.
By the time the battalion was withdrawn toward the end of February, however, it had racked up a ratio of 23.6 enemy tanks destroyed for each Tiger lost in combat. The 503rd also suffered low availability rates (around thirty-five percent) due to maintenance issues, but even during retreats the battalion seldom resorted to blowing up its own temporarily immobilized vehicles. As Wilbeck shows in later chapters, this was at odds with the usual experience of other Tiger battalions.
At the Battle of Kursk, the 503rd was attached to III Panzer Corps of Army Detachment Kempf in Army Group South while Heavy Tank Battalion 505 was committed with Army Group Center. The former, which had completed its reorganization into three companies of Tigers without Panzer IIIs, wasagainst doctrineordered to assign one company to each of the three panzer divisions in III Panzer Corps. Given this dispersal, the terrain, and the liberal use of minefields (2nd Company had 13 of its 14 Tigers disabled on the first day), the Tigers were able to break through two of the Soviet defensive belts, but their presence never became decisive even when the battalion was reassembled. Even so, in ten days of combat the 503rd managed to keep an average of fifty-seven percent of its Panzer VIs operational and destroy approximately seventy-two Soviet tanks at a cost of four Tigers lost in combat for a ratio of 18:1. On the other side of the Kursk salient, the 505th Battalion was attached to 6th Infantry Division for the opening assault. According to Wilbeck, the battalion proved completely successful but the remaining German panzer divisions could not exploit the gap because plans called for them not to enter battle until the following day. Citing Glantz, the author goes on to describe how the 505th on the next day destroyed over sixty tanks of the Soviet 16th Tank Corps. Of course, the depth of the Soviet defenses proved too much even for the Tigers who once again racked up an impressive kill ratio despite serious maintenance problems. Although the Soviet defenses were too strong and the Tigers too few in number to make a decisive difference in the battle, Wilbeck shows they were highly effective against enemy positions and tanks. This is partly at odds with some older assessments such as, for example, Albert Seaton who wrote in The Russo-German War that the Germans squandered Tigers at Kursk by using them in close combat where the T34s could kill them.
Wilbeck continues in the same vein, covering the remainder of the war with equal details and analysis throughout the next three chapters. This includes material about all the Heavy Tank battalions and their employmentas well as some information about enemy counter-measuresin the following arenas:
Battle of the Bulge
Following those chapters on operations, in his "Assessment and Conclusion" the author revisits some of his earlier appraisals and offers new suggestions about the use of Tiger units, beginning with offensive capabilities. Regarding the use of Tigers to locate minefields simply by rolling forward until the mines detonated, Wilbeck concludes that development of a simple roller or flail device (as used by the Allies) would have greatly reduced the number of Tigers temporarily knocked out of action when performing in the role of armored mine detectors. He also points out that many tanks disabled in this manner were lost simply because the Germans failed to field a suitable tank recovery vehicle for going to the aid of Tigers under fire. Wilbeck also enumerates three important shortcomings of Tigers in the attack:
Heavy tank battalions possessed three major deficiencies for breakthrough
operations for which they were intended. First, because they were unique and
scarce resources, when the Tigers attacked, the enemy was able to accurately
deduce the area of the German main effort. This allowed the Allies to move
forces to counter the German effort.
Second, thanks to their Tigers' very poor mechanical reliability and large
size, which both contributed to limiting the Tiger's tactical mobility, heavy
tank battalions were unable to achieve quick breakthroughs; it usually
required extended amounts of time to overcome enemy antitank guns, tanks,
and minefields. If the Tigers had been able to quickly break through the enemy
defenses, the first deficiency may not have mattered because other German
armored forces would have been able to exploit the breakthrough before the
enemy could react.
Even these two deficiencies might have been overcome if the Tiger had the
ability to exploit their own breakthroughs. Although these units were not
developed for this, their limited radius of action due to voracious fuel consumption, low speed (especially in the King Tiger) and intensive maintenance
requirements precluded them from exploiting any breakthrough achieved.
Given the overall flow of the war, Tiger battalions found themselves mostly on the defensive, even though that was not the role for which they were originally designed. Wilbeck offers some interesting conclusions about Tigers conducting defensive operations:
In the defense, heavy tank battalions achieved mixed results depending
upon many different factors. Heavy tank battalions performed defensive missions far more frequently than offensive missions. These defensive missions
included counterattacks to reestablish the front line; occupying front line
defensive positions with or without infantry support; and as a reserve force to
counterattack enemy penetrations behind the front line. Generally, even a
portion of a heavy tank battalion could defend against an enemy force that
possessed many more tanks. If there was an alternative, enemy units bypassed
heavy tank battalions rather than attacking them. After being bypassed, the
heavy tank battalions became a liability because they could not be repositioned easily and required a great deal of logistical and other support to do so.
The logical deduction from this is that heavy tank battalions may have been
more effective in the defense if they were dispersed along a wide front. This
would also lead to a conclusion that heavy tank battalions, as combined units,
were unnecessary in the defense and heavy tanks would have been more effective had they been incorporated into other armored units. Indeed, they could
have been organized much as Panzerjaeger or tank destroyer units were
assigned as integral parts of panzer, panzergrenadier, or even infantry formations. Incorporating them into an infantry unit would have added much
needed firepower, especially antitank firepower. Their incorporation into
panzer or panzergrenadier divisions would have added useful offensive and
defensive capabilities, but would have significantly complicated an already
hard-pressed supply and maintenance system, so there would have been logistical challenges which may have more than offset the tactical advantages of
such an arrangement.
The author next offers and analyzes statistics regarding Tiger victories and losses. Although he realizes that these numbers are imperfect, and he's rightly skeptical of some totals, Wilbeck's computations show, overall, a 12.2:1 ratio of kills to Tigers lost in combat. By comparison, he calculates a 5.4:1 ratio of kills to Tigers lost by all causes. A table of battalion-by-battalion statistics accompanies these calculations.
As to flaws, Wilbeck continues to hammer at the mechanical unreliability of the Panzer VIs and their constant need for maintenance. At one point he quotes figures indicating Tigers required ten hours of maintenance for each hour of operations. The author also notes that German commanders routinely flaunted their own doctrine for employing Tigers. For example, at Kursk a battalion was inappropriately subordinated to an infantry division while another battalion's companies were ineffectively divided among three panzer divisions. This section of the book also emphasizes the important limitations imposed by the extremely reduced radius of action. This fact meant that Tiger units, unable to keep up with the pace of operations, found themselves at a disadvantage in tactical situations such as when they were bypassed by enemy attackers and in operational situations when rapid withdrawals became necessary.
Wilbeck's final paragraphs are especially worth quoting:
In the end, one is left to wonder why the German military fielded heavy
tank battalions. According to theorists like Guderian, and German doctrine,
heavy tanks were only one tool to be used to achieve a breakthrough. If heavy
tanks battalions were fielded during the war to achieve a breakthrough, the
other arms and branches of the military were not developed, fielded, and
incorporated as equal components in that effort.
By the time that heavy tank battalions were fielded in significant numbers,
the strategic situation had changed so that even if a breakthrough was possible at the tactical level, the German military was no longer capable of exploiting that breakthrough on an operational scale. This should have signaled that
there was no longer a need for heavy tank battalions, but the realities did not
slow the production of heavy tanks or the fielding of heavy tank battalions.
Given these facts, it is interesting that the German military did not reevaluate many aspects related to heavy tank battalions. Like the Soviet, American,
and British military establishments, the German Army should have balanced
the strategic realities they faced, with their limited resources, to develop a plan
to achieve their strategic objectives. If that plan included heavy tanks, and
allocated resources to field heavy tank battalions, the Wehrmacht should have
at least developed and published new doctrinal guidance. This guidance
should have further clarified the role of heavy tank battalions in what had
become for Germanyat the strategic and operational levelsa primarily
defensive war. As a result of this inaction, the German Army and Waffen-SS
were left with expensive, important organizations built for offensive operations, operating on the defensive, and excelling not in the conduct of maneuver for which the Wehrmacht is so often praised, but at achieving attrition of
Having opened his book with a Prologue by Tiger ace Otto Carius, the author concludes with Epilogues by Viktor Iskrov, commander of a Soviet artillery unit that successfully halted a Tiger assault, and Ray Holt, driver of a Sherman that knocked out a Tiger at extremely close quarters in Italy in 1944. These make interesting reading and perfectly complement the main text. The book also includes an appendix reviewing heavy tank development and doctrine in France, the UK, the US, and the Soviet Union. The chapters on operations are plentifully illustrated with very nice maps, and the book includes a good selection of photographs plus notes and an extensive bibliography.
Somewhat surprisingly, much of Wilbeck's source material comes from recent books from Schiffer and Fedorowicz, although it's true that many of those titles were either translated from German volumes or else utilized considerable German documentation. It would have been nice to see more research in primary sources, but at least the author has thoroughly footnoted his work. (Wilbeck also gives a useful tour of the best English-language works on Tigers in his introductory chapter.)
Otherwise, it's tough to find much to fault in Sledgehammers. The book takes a refreshing approach to the topic of Tiger tanks, the author does his homework, he writes well enough, and he remains very even-handed in his descriptions of Tiger battalions in action and in his assessment of their effectiveness. Overall, this book should favorably impress most readers, and it's probably the sort of obscure classic that will remain very much in demand over the years by armor enthusiasts in general and Tiger buffs in particular.
Available from online booksellers, local bookshops, or directly from Aberjona Press.
Thanks to Aberjona for providing this review copy.
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Reviewed 23 May 2004
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Stone
May not be reproduced in any form without written permission of Stone & Stone