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Home503. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung (103. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung)

503. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung (103. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung)

Formation and Training

103. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung (103rd Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion) was formed on 1 July 1943 as the 2nd Battalion of the 11. SS-Panzer-Regiment of 11. SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’ (11th SS Volunteer Panzer Grenadier Division ‘North Land’). It was initially sent to Yugoslavia to fight as infantry. However, at the end of November 1943, the battalion was converted back into an armoured unit. They were earmarked to become the heavy tank battalion of the III. (Germanic) SS-Panzerkorps.

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At the beginning of January 1944 the Abteilung was relocated to Zwolle in the Netherlands. On 4 February 1944, they were supplied with six Tiger IE heavy tank for training purposes. During February and March 1944 crews attended Panzer courses at Paderborn Panzer school. They lost their six Tiger in the spring of 1944 when they are issued to the 9th Company of SS-Panzer-Regiment 3. After training at Paderborn the Abteilung returned to the Netherlands to await their new equipment at Olde-Broek.

In the summer of 1944 they moved camp again, this time to Wezep in the Netherlands. There, training continued in a makeshift manner with three old Panzer Ausf C light tanks. On 15 May 1944, due to their lack of tanks, a number of their experienced and trained Tiger NCOs were reassigned to Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilungs 101 and 102 who had begun to receive their own tanks. During the Normandy campaign the Abteilung acted as training and replacement unit for the other two SS heavy tank battalions.

On 26 May 1944, the Abteilung received six more Tiger IE heavy tanks for training, two for each company. The total strength of 103. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung on 30 June 1944 is 33 officers, 154 NCOs and 850 other ranks. On 22 August 1944, they received another four Tiger IE tanks. However, these, and the already acquired six, are reassigned to heavy radio-control tank battalion (FKL) 301.

In early September 1944 the Abteilung begins it conversion to the new Tiger II heavy tank around the area of Paderborn in Germany. The first four Tiger II tanks arrive on 19 October 1944. A further six are transferred from Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 102.

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However, they again supplied replacement trained crews and gave up their tanks to the other two heavy SS tank battalion as the Ardennes Offensive approached. They also provide replacement crews to their sister unit in the 11. SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’. On 13 November 1944 they are re-designated 503. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung.

On 1 December 1944 they are reported to have three tanks. In January 1945 they receive a steady stream of new tanks and by the end of the month they had received 31 Königstiger tanks and are busy training new crews for combat. Just eight day before they were due to be deployed in the field the Abteilung receives a new commander, SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Herzig. Despite the less than ideal timing, Herzig is an experienced and proven leader and goes on to lead his new Abteilung with skill and vigour.

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To the East and Operation Sonnenwende

A total of 39 Königstiger heavy tanks were transported from Paderborn to the Eastern Front on 26 January 1945. 503. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung placed under the command of Army Group Vistula. The railway transport to the east is divided into two groups: The first group with 12 Königstiger tanks and the Abteilung staff commanded by SS-Sturmbannführer Herzig goes to Arnswalde in Pomerania, while the second group goes to area around Küstrin.

Part of the Abteilung was expected to arrive at Reetz (Recz) on the front by 28 January ready for Army Group Vistula Commander Reichsführer SS Himmler’s counterattack (Unternehman Sonnenwende, Operation Solstice). One part of 503. Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung was to attack from Kalies (Kalisz Pomorski) near Neuwedell (Drawno) in Pomerania. Other parts of the Abteilung was to strike from Küstrin (Kostrzyn nad Odrą) on the Oder and Gdynia in eastern Pomerania. The result was the battalion was somewhat scattered and their fighting power was not concentrated where it could be best used.

SS-Untersturmführer Haake’s 2nd Company unloaded from its train at Schneidemühl (Piła) with three tanks and the battalion’s Flak. It turns out this is where Haake grew up and he knew the area well.  He first fitted the tanks combat tracks and gave his tanks a quick coat of whitewash camouflage. Meanwhile, the Soviet artillery was shelling his position sporadically. Two of the tanks then took up positions on the nearby railway embankment, before repelling several Soviet infantry attacks. Unfortunately the third tank had to be left behind because of mechanical failure. During the night, the two tanks, with infantry riding aboard, move westwards. By early February, Haake’s small battlegroup, with the help of his local knowledge, had made it as far as Küstrin. The two tanks were then placed under the command of the Küstrin garrison.

Some tanks of 1st Company under SS- Obersturmführer Lippert were incorporated into Kampfgruppe Scherer facing the bridgehead at Driesen (Drezdenko). They are used to ward off several enemy attacks.

Six Tiger tanks were unload at Mückenburg (Sarbiewo) at the request of area commander Generalmajor Hauschulz. He immediately directed them towards Friedeberg (Strzelce Krajenskie). However, they instead move towards Stolzenberg (Sławoborze) on 29 January 1945, where they were ambushed at 04.00 hours and all six tanks were lost.

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The II. Armeekorps under Generalmajor Munzel was assigned a group of Tiger II tanks from the Abteilung. This area was still relatively free of Soviet units as Generalmajor Munzel waited for his Tiger II heavy tanks to arrive. On 29 January 1945 six Tiger II heavy tanks and one self-propelled twin anti-aircraft gun arrived at Zatten. They were accompanied by an advance party of 365 Fallschirmjäger under Major Hörl from Fallschirmjäger-Regiment z.b.V. Schacht (later Fallschirmjäger-Regiment 25, 9. Fallschirmjägerdivision). The plan was for this force to breakthrough Reichsstrasse 1 (National Road 1) between Hochzeit and Woldenberg.

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Just before the attack was launched, the Soviets had begun their own attack. The troops assembled for the attack in Pomerania launched counter-attacks from their deployments around Zatten. At Heidekavel the Königtiger tanks encountered a large concentration of 80 to 90 Soviet tanks. The Soviet armoured attack was repulsed and by the evening Regenthin was in German hands. However, the 2nd Battalion of Fallschirmjäger-Regiment z.b.V. Schacht took very high officer casualties during the battle to take Regenthin.
On 31 January, 1st Company of 503. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung under SS-Obersturmführer Max Lippert with four Königstiger tanks attacked from Regenthin with Fallschirmjäger in support. They advance about 15 kilometres, destroying 80 Soviet guns and inflicting heavy casualties on the Red Army infantry. During fighting in a forested area near Anmarsches SS-Oberscharführer Dienersberger was killed when he was struck in the head. At the time he was firing from his tank turret with his machine-pistol at Soviet infantrymen. The tank of SS-Untersturmführer Bromann was halted after several anti-tank guns hits. The other three tanks continued to advance from Regenthin towards the anti-tank positions. The leading tank, commanded by SS-Unterscharführer Lindl, was hit 22 times, but still pushed through the position! Another tank, under SS-Uuntersturmführer Meinl, which held the left flank, was hit by a Soviet tank and began to burn and crew suffered serious burns. The advance of the Fallschirmjäger battalion was carried out towards Woldenberg to Lämmersdorf without any significant enemy resistance.

The Soviets bypassed the German advance and threatened the battle groups rear, forcing them to retreat to the original positions in Regenthin that evening. Afterwards the Fallschirmjäger are withdrawn to the area of Neuwedell.

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On 1 February SS-Obersturmführer Lippert’s 1st Company continued its thrust, advancing 10 kilometres, fighting skirmishes with Soviet tanks, and losing four crew to injury. The next day the 2nd Company joined the attack. The 1st Company advanced a further five kilometres to Deutsch Krone and Schneidemühl. The command of the 2nd Company, SS-Untersturmführer Schäfer, was wounded during the fighting. The Abteilung was forced to retreat due to the danger of encirclement by advancing Soviet forces.

On 3 February 1945 the four Königtigers had arrived at Arnswalde just in time to repel a Soviet attack on Kopplinsthal west of the city. In Arnswalde they came under the command of Generalmajor Hans Voigt’s Kampfgruppe (made up of 3,000 Nebelwerfer replacement troops, and 2,300 men various alarm and training troops). The newly arrived SS tanks were ordered to keep the city’s connection to the north open. The next day they counterattacked and relieved friendly infantry five kilometres from Arnswalde. During the attack they knocked out two Soviet tanks, but not before losing their tanks to immobilisation.

A second attack with another four Königtigers was stopped at Hohenwalde and north of Sammenthin by a Soviet tank counterattack. Several Soviet tanks were destroyed in the engagement and the Tiger II of Untersturmführer Bromann took a hit to its drive wheel and was immobilised. During the night the three other tanks towed it to the Marienkirche churchyard in Arnswalde. At the end of 4 February seven Königtigers were still operational in Arnswalde.

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5 February saw increasing Soviet attacks on Arnswalde, which are all repelled. Generalmajor Voigt considers surrender, but the officers of 503. Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung argue for a breakout.

On 7 February, SS-Untersturmführer Fritz Kauerauf took command of three Königtigers at Zachen that had been repaired by the Abteilung workshop located at Stargard. He was ordered to attack from Reetz to relieve and break the encirclement of Arnswalde. Before reaching Reetz, which had been occupied by the Soviets, Kauerauf’s platoon was diverted to support 11. Panzer Abteilung ‘Herman von Salza’ in Jacobshagen. The tanks were then attached to 11. Armee under Kampfgruppe Munzel.

Meanwhile, the Königtigers in Arnswalde continue to hold off Soviet attacks.

In the early morning of 8 February SS-Untersturmführer Kauerauf was ordered to stop the advance of the Soviets across the Ihna Bridge, south of Jacobshagen (where the command post of 11. Panzer Abteilung ‘Herman von Salza’ was located), towards Ziegenhagen and Klein Silber. The attack consisted of Kauerauf’s Königtiger and three StuG assault guns under SS-Oberscharführer Phillipp Wild. The advance was halted when they encountered a strong Soviet force on a ridge east of Ihna.

They were reinforced by another two Königtigers under SS-Obersturmführer Kaes, commander of the 503rd’s 2nd Company, and another 10 StuG assault guns of the 11. SS-Panzerdivision ‘Nordland’, as well as a company Fallschirmjäger. They attack at around noon towards Ziegenhagen. The Fallschirmjäger take an anti-tank gun position on the outskirts of Ziegenhagen, then carry on to along both sides of the road and over the Ihna bridge into Ziegenhagen. This is follow by some hard fighting for the town, during which the Königtigers knock our three IS-2 heavy tanks.

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By the evening, the Kampfgruppe had taken defensive positions on the southern outskirts of Klein Silber facing towards Reetz. Later that night three drums of fuel arrive for the Königtigers (each drum contains 200 litres gasoline).

The group in Arnswalde hold off more Soviet attacks at Schönwerder and Sandow.

On the morning of 9 February, the three Königtigers in Klein Silber were ordered to push east from their positions. They soon came under fire. The tank of SS-Obersturmführer Kaes was set on fire by an infantry assault and blocked the road for following 11th SS StuG assault guns. The leading tank of SS-Untersturmführer Kauerauf, was hit as it reached the outskirts of Klein Silber, Kauerauf was seriously injured. He survived his injuries, but was severely burned and had to have his left leg amputated. The third Königtiger was immobilised when its electrical system failed and was destroyed by its crew.

The Königtigers in Arnswalde continued to repel attacks, but were eventually relieved when panzergrenadiers of 11. Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’ and Führer Begleit Panzergrenadierdivision broke through the encirclement a week later (17 February), and the tanks were withdrawn to Zachan.

On 10 February, the rest of the Königtigers not trapped in Arnswalde, are sent to Zachen to join 11. Feiwilligen-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’ to take part in the attack towards Arnswalde. An attack was launched and the Königtigers knock out a number of T-34 tanks during their advance.

Though, the attack towards Arnswalde successfully allowed those troops and civilians trapped to withdraw, increasing pressure from Soviet forces forced any further attacks to be abandoned, and Operation Sonnenwende drew to a close. The last troops were withdrawn from Arnswalde on 22 February.

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Withdraw to the Oder

From 17 February 1945, the 17 Königtiger tanks of the Abteilung located at Zachen and the Abteilung command (under the command of SS-Hauptsturmführer Natterer, Abteilung second in command) began loading on trains to be moved towards Danzig (Gdansk) and placed under the command of 2. Armee. The rest of the battalion withdrawing from Arnswalde.

Before the rest of the battalion could join the others heading towards Danzig, a Soviet attack broke through towards Stettin and cut the rail links. Twelve damaged Königtiger tanks were loaded on a train on 26 February to be brought across the Oder for repair. The train derailed on 3 March due to excess speed and more than 80 refugees were killed.

Any tanks in running order were hastily unload and driven to Neuendorf, which was already under German attack.

On the way out of Neuendorf one Königtiger was set ablaze by its crew after it runs out of ammunition and blocks the road. The following tank under SS-Oberscharführer Körner had to run down a tree to make room to get by to continue on to Gollnow. Körner soon passed another tank disabled and abandoned by its crew.

On 2 March 1945, the rest of the battalion withdrawn from Arnswalde, under the Abteilung commander SS-Sturmbannführer Fritz Herzig, was operating with 11. SS-Feiwilligen-Panzergrenadierdivision. They advance through Trampke, Schönebeck and Vossenburg to the southeast of Stargard. The Herzig’s Königtiger tanks fought in support of 5. Jägerdivision against multiple Soviet attacks on 3 March east of Reetz.

More fighting occurred around Vossberg on 3 March, with two Königtigers operating in support of SS-Panzeraufklärungsabteilung 11. They destroy an entire Soviet tank company and another four enemy tanks later in the day.

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Gradually the damaged tanks were towed to Gollnow by 4 March, where other running tanks had gathered. They were all loaded on another train and began shipment to Pasewalk. This train was further delayed at Christinenberg by damaged tracks on 7 March. SS-Oberscharführer Körner, commander of the damaged tank group, gets the train moved to the parallel undamaged tracks and the train continued its journey on 9 March 1945 through Gegengleis, to Altdamm and then on to Pasewalk. In the following days, the tanks remain on their flatcars security for Himmler command train. They were eventually unloaded at Zerrenthin.

Eventually ten tanks began repairs in Pasewalk, with two more needing more extensive repairs moved to Berlin. Only seven had been repaired by 28 March.

At Küstrin, the Königtiger of SS-Unterscharführer Hoffmann in Kuhbrücke ran out of fuel and SS-Oberscharführer Reitert’s Königtiger had broken a track crossing a road bridge over Oder, and had been abandoned by its crew. They were eventually taken prisoner by the Soviets. The platoon leader, SS-Untersturmführer Haake, left his post without permission, abandoning his troops, found time to get married, and in the following weeks he was hidden by his wife and smuggled in a horse-drawn carriage to northern Germany. His tanks had been refuelled with coolant instead of gasoline and suffered engine failure.

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Tanks in Danzig

The battalion’s tanks shipped by rail to Danzig arrive on 20 February. Kampfgruppe Natterer consisted of 17 Königtiger, which were divided into four groups and used to support each of the defending infantry divisions. Tank spare parts were almost non-existent for the tanks, so Natterer order each tank commander to fight on the spot and defend his position until the bitter end if their tank suffered a technical problem, and not to immediately destroy it, as the Reich had invested so much time and money in each Königtiger. Ironically, Natterer was one of the first to blow his disabled tank up. In contrast, fuel and ammunition were available in good quantities.

The first six tanks to be deployed at the front arrived in the area of Prüssisch Stargard (Starogard Gdański) after a short road march from the railhead on 22 February.

On 23 February some action was seen between Tczew and Gnieschau (Gniszewo). The following day Natterer’s tanks were placed in reserve at Gnieschau. On 27 February, SS-Obersturmführer Jakob Kaes, commander of the 2nd Company, was killed near Grabau (near Gdynia) when an anti-tank rifle round went through the vision block of his cupola. He had been engaged in an action to clear a village and had destroyed two Soviet tanks during the action.

The turret crew of SS-Oberscharführer Heinrich’s (from the 1st Company) tank was killed the following day when deployed in a blocking position on a slope front. A round hit the ventilation fan on the roof of the turret and the fragments kill the commander, gunner, and loader.

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On 6 March more fighting occurred around Gnieschau and Lindenhof. The following day two Soviet T-34 tanks were captured and they were quickly put into action when a large Soviet tank force breached the front line. The two Königtigers were defending the position with a Panzer IV tank, a StuG and an 8.8cm FlaK36 gun. On his own initiative one of the Königtiger gunners, SS-Unterscharführer Reichl, climbed aboard a captured T-34 and fired on the approaching Soviets. Together the Königtigers, captured T-34, Panzer IV and 8.8cm Flak knocked out 57 soviet tanks. Despite this, the Soviets penetrated into Starogard. The two Königtigers continued to engage the attack and finally repelled it. One tank also relieved the encircled corps command post at Hermannshof estate. Unfortunately, the other Königtiger tank was hit and as it burned its crew were gunned down by the nearby Soviet troops.

Mentioned in dispatches was SS-Untersturmführer Karl Brommann. On 10 April 1945 a communique stated: “In the combat area of Gdynia SS-Untersturmführer Karl Brommann, a company leader of 503. Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung, proved his excellence. He and his tank crew, during the period of 2 February to 18 March 1945, despite being wounded three times, destroyed 66 tanks, 44 anti-tank guns and 15 trucks.”

By 20 March 1945 Kampfgruppe Natterer was down to just two operational Tiger II heavy tanks, with another three undergoing repairs. The tanks were engaged in a series of skirmishes until 22 March around the area of Groß Katz.

The repairs to the tanks was carried at the Danzig (Gdansk) Shipyard. They were then moved to Danzig itself. They were companied by observers from the heavy cruiser ‘Prinz Eugen’. Two tigers, those of Brommann and the intelligence officer, SS-Obersturmführer König, moved north of the city to scout towards Zoppot (Sopot), which is occupied by the Soviets, 25 March. The tanks took up defensive positions on the outskirts of Oliva (Oliwa) facing Zoppot.

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On 26 March, the tanks repel several Soviet attacks and destroy six Josef Stalin IS-2 heavy tanks. One IS-2 was captured by StuG Brigade 190 and put into use. When it finally broke down it was sunk in the harbour. That evening the last four tigers retire southeast to the corps headquarters at Weisshof Estate. On 30 March dismounted crews under the commander of SS-Obersturmführer Städler in the Danzig area fight as infantry until 1 May in the forest near Bohnsack.

Between 2 and 3 May some of the battalion’s elements in Danzig were shipped to Swinemünde to join the rest of the unit in Berlin Meanwhile, those that remained in Danzig are captured on 9 May.

The Actions of the rest of 503. Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung on the Oder Front

The ten tanks of the battalion not in Danzig were positioned at Frauenhagen from 1 to 15 April 1945. There they were undergoing the process of joining with SS-Panzer-Abteilung 11 ‘Hermann von Salza’ form a Panzer Regiment under the command of the 11. SS-Freiwilligen-Panzergrenadierdivision ‘Nordland’. The beginning of April saw the returned to the Abteilung Staff from Danzig to take over command. By the end of this restructuring they were up to 20 total tanks, with 12 Königtiger heavy tanks and 8 Flakpanzer tanks in strength.

The Abteilung was ordered on 16 April move into the area north of Strausberg (through Angermünde and Eberswalde). On 18 April the Abteilung, with supporting elements from Nordland, had taken up a blocking position on the road between Prötzel and Bollersdorf. A large Soviet armoured assault it repelled for the loss of just one Königtiger. The Soviet casualties were heavy with 64 Soviet tanks claimed by the defenders

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On 19 April a Soviet attack overruns the Abteilung maintenance company and most of it fall into the Soviet hands.

On the same day the Soviets were pressing hard to breakthrough to Berlin and the Königtiger tanks of the Abteilung were committed to the fighting along the western approaches to the city. Königtiger 314 under SS-Unterscharführer Diers was positioned in the hills northeast of Klosterdorf (just east of Strausberg) when he engaged 13 Soviet tanks approaching from the northeast. Diers knocked out 13 tanks temporarily halting the attack. Despite damage to his turret’s roof, which interfered with the tanks firing mechanisms, he and his crew were able to with withdraw and even had time to tow the damaged Königtiger of SS-Unterscharführer Bootsmann to safety. Bootsmann’s tank had to be later abandoned

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As they withdraw they are called on to stop another attack, but soon find the enemy already taken care of. However, they become bogged down in some deep snow while returning to their original route. Fortunately some passing Panzer IV tanks from 10. SS-Panzerdivision ‘Frundsburg’ were able to pull them out.

At the same time five Königtiger tanks under the command of SS-Obersturmführer Müller held blocking positions on the high ground at Grunow. As the surge of Soviet tanks began to arrive at their positons they opened up a rapid exchange of fire, but soon began to run low on ammunition. Three more Königtigers held in reserve under SS-Oberscharführer Körner had to be brought forward to reinforce the firing position. In a short time they had destroyed around 70 Soviet tanks. SS-Obersturmführer Müller was killed during the engagement when he was caught outside his tank during a Katyusha rocket barrage.

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SS-Oberscharführer Körner was soon in action again leading his reserve tanks counterattacking high ground near Bollersdorf. During his advance he spotted a Soviet column of IS-2 and T-34 tanks assembling for their next attack. The IS-2 heavy tanks were closely packed on a tree lined road to Strausberg, while over 100 T-34/85 tanks were crowded on the outskirts for Bollersdorf. Körner took his opportunity, knocking out the lead IS-2 tank, followed by the IS-2 tank at the end of the column. The other IS-2 tanks then couldn’t immediately respond because the tree restricted their long gun’s traverse. In short, one-sided, engagement the Körner’s three Königtigers knocked out all the IS-2 and T-34/85 tanks. Körner claimed 39 tank kills, while fellow tank commander SS-Hauptscharführer Harrer destroyed another 25. Having exhausted much of their ammunition the platoon returned to the rear to rearm with ammunition.

In the meantime, the rest of the Königtigers in the area had been withdrawn to Werneuchen.

In the late afternoon Körner’s reserve platoon was back in action, joined by a fourth tank under SS-Untersturmführer Schäfer. They defeat an attack by about 30 Soviet T-34 tanks, a following attack by infantry was also defeated with high-explosive rounds and machine-guns. During the night a third attack by IS-2 heavy tanks was stop when the advance was exposed with flares and the Königtigers were able to pick them off with the aid the flares’ illumination.

The following day the fighting continued to hold off the Soviet advance on Berlin. A fighting withdrawal was conducted back to Altlandsberg. On 21 April the 503rd’s Königtigers begin a full withdrawal into Berlin, travelling via Marzahn, Biesdorf and Lichtenberg. Once again Körner, after swapping tanks so his Königtiger could be repaired, was in the thick of the action. Alongside the tank of SS-Untersturmführer Feige, they broke-up another Soviet assault, resulting in another 15 burning Red Army tanks after a battle at very short ranges. As the pair of Königtigers withdrew into the Berlin suburb of Neukölln, Feige’s turret was hit with a rifle-grenade and he was decapitated in the explosion.

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Once they had reached Berlin they then moved through the city on the following day, to take up positions on the Sonnenallee facing the Teltow Canal Bridge. They were soon pressed into action again, conducting counterattacks and shoring up defence in various areas.

~Wayne Turner


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