The first steps aren't always straight'
Unternehmen Barbarossa had three strategic goals – Leningrad in the North, Moscow in the Center and the grain and oil of the South. We're now looking at Leningrad (now St.Petersburg), the former Russian capital, in an excellent strategic location, also the base of their Baltic Fleet and a major industrial center. You would maybe expect Hitler to want it for himself - kick out the Russians, rename it to Arminiusstadt and use it as the capital of Ostland. But no. He wanted the city, and its inhabitants, dead.
"After the defeat of Soviet Russia there can be no interest in the continued existence of this large urban center. Following the city's encirclement, requests for surrender negotiations shall be denied, since the problem of relocating and feeding the population cannot and should not be solved by us. In this war for our very existence, we can have no interest in maintaining even a part of this very large urban population.”
However, things did not work out as expected. The Soviets fought back, it was very, very cold, and the Germans ran out of oil. To fix that, they shifted their attention south, to Sevastopol and the Baku oil fields. But Hitler was a bit capricious at times - and half way to Baku, he decided that he rather play with Leningrad again. He ordered Manstein and the 11th Army to go and fuck over the city, but did not give them the toys they needed. The renewed German attack drew massive Soviet forces to the city, and by this time - autumn 1942 - the terrain in this region of Russia tends to disintegrate into channels of bottomless mud. Not a good moment, then, to introduce the new WunderPanzer.
The first unit to receive the new "Tiger" was sPzAbt 502 (a Heavy Tank Battalion), under the command of Major Richard Marker. The Battalion fought with distinction almost continuously until the end of the War. It was one of the most highly decorated units in the Wehrmacht, known for its tenacity and resourcefulness in combat. Between August and October 1942, they received seven Initial Production Tigers (with turret numbers 100, 102, 111, 112, 121, 122 and 123), to test them out in real life. Unfortunately, the autumn's heavy rains turned the area into a mud bath and Major Marker stronly advised against using the Tigers here and now. You see, if a heavy tank gest stuck in deep mud, it will only dig itself in deeper. Then, it starts freezing and by next spring, you'd have a rusty hull and not much more.
On August 29th 1942, the first four Initial Production Tigers were unloaded, under Soviet artillery fire, at the Mga railway station. Because the Soviets had broken through German lines and were heading towards the station, those four Tigers rolled out of Mga into combat. Weapons were checked, and radios tuned. The battalion CO, Major Marker, climbed into the turret of his Tiger "100" (with the funny storage bins on the side of the turret) and gave the signal to move out. Five Panzer IIIs followed the four Tigers closely, just in case.
The German infantry was mightily impressed by the rumbling Tigers, NOW they'll show Ivan what engineering is all about! The Panzergrenadiere gingerly followed the tanks on foot, keeping low over the ground. The Tigers opened fire on the dispersed Soviet infantry, rolled forward again and aimed their 88s at the Soviet artillery. When a number of T34s and KV1s were spotted on the horizon, one by one the Tigers engaged.
“KV1 at Ten o’clock ... range 1500m ... load armour piercing….. FIRE! Tiger 121 - cover my right flank! ... enemy artillery positions at One o’clock ... range ... fire at will!" Major Marker was barking orders through his laryngophone as the Tigers, followed by the Panzers and the infantry, slowly advanced towards the Soviet positions. After the initial surprise, the Soviet armour concentrated their fire on the Tigers. The Soviet gunners could not believe what was happening: armour piercing rounds were bouncing off the Tigers like ping pong balls. However, the Tigers started to score direct hits on the Soviet armour, three T34s had already exploded spectacularly.
The action was closely followed by a lone VW Kubelwagen, driven by a corporal from the Battalion. The vehicle, hastily camouflaged with rubbed on mud, was carrying two helmeted observers: Henschel’s technician Herr Franke and a Government observer, Herr Übel. They had been ordered to observe the action first hand and report back to the Waffenamt. The VW zigzagged between shell craters, dodging schrapnel. Suddenly, they spotted a stationery Tiger with its engine revving but not moving. The Corporal was ordered to draw up alongside the Tiger. “Why have you stopped?" shouted Herr Übel, over the noise of the engine and the explosions, “My transmission is broken” shouted back the Commander, “it won’t move, 122 is also stuck with a broken eng...”. He was cut short by a shell, exploding too close for comfort, showering debris into the open Kubelwagen. The Corporal raced away, looking for cover, which he found behind the ruins of a peasant’s farm building. The bombardment went on relentlessly, shells whistling above their heads and exploding all around them.
Suddenly the artillery fell silent, the sound of an approaching tank shook them out of their daze. It was 111 the CO’s Tiger. The tank trailing plumes of smoke & vapour drew level with the Kubelwagen and stopped. The copula hatch clanged open and the Major’s agitated face emerged from the bowels of the monster. “Three of my Tigers are stuck in a bog, broken, 121 is on the other side of the hill in open ground, verdammt noch mal” swore Major Marker with frustration “and I am overheating like Hell!”.
The soldiers had been promised a weapon that would devastate the Soviet hordes. Instead, of the four Tigers, three broke down in mid-battle and the fourth limped back with an overheating engine. This was very disappointing. The fact is that, even if it had a brilliant gun, the Tiger's automotive parts were far too light and fragile. One would expect the Germans to learn from their mistakes and build improved Pz IVs instead, perhaps even with a 7.5 cm 42 L/70. Well, we know. They built a Jagdtiger.