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Arrival of the Third Tiger Battalion

On 26 and 27 June 1944, schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 was loaded on eight trains and dispatched in the direction of the Invasion Front. As a result of the systematic Allied air attacks on the rail networks, especially in France, the transport trains frequently had to be detoured. They did not reach the designated railheads of Houdan and Dreux, some 70 kilometers west of Paris, until 2 and 3 July.

The battalion’s companies moved to their future area of operations east of Caen via Verneuil, L’Aigle, Argentan and Falaise in a series of night marches. Road marches during the day were impossible due to Allied fighter-bomber activity. The battalion moved every night from 2300 to 0300 hours, at which time it took up concealed positions in some woods. Another leg of the march was conducted the following night. During the last nighttime road march, the first vehicle was lost. This was on 3 July and in the 3rd Company. A bridge over a railway cut collapsed under the weight of the tank in the vicinity of the village of Canon (near Mezidon). Tiger 323 of Feldwebel Seidel crashed onto the rail line. In the process, it received such severe damage that it could no longer be repaired, even though it was recovered. Without a shot being fired, the company suffered its first complete loss and its first injured soldiers on the Normandy Front.

Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 was allocated to the LXXXVI. Armee-Korps and was initially placed under the operational control of the 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division. On the previous day, the Luftwaffe field division had taken over the sector of the 21. Panzer-Division. After the heavy losses that this Luftwaffe division took on the following day in the fighting for Caen, its sector was taken back by the 21. Panzer-Division on 8 July 1944. Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 was then placed under the operational control of Panzer-Regiment 22, the division’s tank regiment. At this point in time, Panzer-Regiment 22 had only one battalion, and it was issued with Panzer IV’s. The regimental commander was Oberst von Oppeln-Bronikowski; the commander of the I./Panzer-Regiment 22 was Hauptmann von Gottberg. Together with schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503, the tank regiment’s sole battalion formed the immediate armored reserve of the division. The Tiger battalion was assigned an assembly area east of Troarn; the battalion commander was directed to report to Troarn daily for a meeting in the evening with the regimental commander.

Up to the point of arrival of the battalion in its new area of operations, the situation had developed as follows in the invasion front:

With growing losses, twenty-one divisions of the Wehrmacht were defending between the mouth of the Orne and the west coast of the Cotentin Peninsula—a frontage of 140 kilometers. The British had held a 25-square-kilometer bridgehead (approximately 15.5 square miles) east of the Orne since the start of the invasion. A cohesive front line and corresponding well-established positions were not available. As a result of constant local attacks, defensive successes and fixing operations, the forward-most lines were in a constant state of flux. The Allies had not yet been able to achieve a decisive breakthrough. It was clear to everyone, however, that this is exactly what they would attempt to achieve.

On 8 July 1944, the Battle for Caen started. As ordered, the German forces evacuated the city on the night of 9–10 July 1944 and pulled the front back to the east bank of the Orne River. Consequently, the southeast march routes out of the city were in German hands, and they blocked any further Allied advance into the Falaise plain.

The increasing artillery activity in the days that followed, under which schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 also had to suffer, and the attempts to expand the Orne bridgehead all pointed to an imminent British attack. Where would it take place? It was considered improbable that the enemy attack would proceed directly from Caen, since it would mean a contested river crossing over the Orne. An attack to the south or southeast from out of the Orne bridgehead appeared more likely.

By order of Panzergruppe West on 9 July 1944, the I./Panzer-Regiment 22 and schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 were brought forward into the rear of the main battle area. This was contrary to the recommendations of both of the battalion commanders, the 21. Panzer-Division and the LXXXVI. Armee-Korps. From this point forward, the Tiger battalion was located only a few kilometers behind the main line of resistance at the eastern Orne bridgehead.

The headquarters of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 moved to Emiéville. The 1./schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 was southeast of this village, as were the companies of the I./Panzer-Regiment 22. The 2./schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 encamped northeast of Emiéville, and the 3./schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 was in a patch of woods on the land belonging to the stud farm at Maneville, some 2.5 kilometers from the battalion command post.

During the second week of July, the battalion commander, Hauptmann Fromme, had to be admitted to the military hospital in Paris for approximately ten days as the result of an inflammation of his eye, which had been previously injured in combat. In his absence, Hauptmann Scherf assumed acting command of the battalion, with Leutnant von Rosen assuming his place in command of the 3rd Company. The companies conducted reconnaissance of the potential future areas of operation so that they would be prepared for all eventualities. One of the tank companies of the battalion was always on rotation as an “alert” company, which meant that it had to be ready to move out at a moment’s notice for a twenty-four hour period. For the time being, however, it remained quiet at the front.

On 11 July 1944, the waiting period was over; the battalion would experience its first test in Normandy.

The 3rd Company was alerted around 0530 hours. After a short but intense artillery preparation, British tanks and Canadian infantry had broken through the main line of resistance between Cuverville and Colombelles. They then took the high ground north of the industrial complex of Colombelles. Luftwaffen-Jäger-Regiment 32, which had been in position there, had withdrawn to Cuverville. This opened the road to Giberville and the area east of Caen to the enemy.

As a result of the immediate counterattack launched by the 3rd Company from Giberville to the north, the former main line of resistance could be reoccupied without any battalion losses. Eleven Shermans and four antitank guns were destroyed; two Shermans were captured without damage and sent to the German rear. After Luftwaffen-Jäger-Regiment 32 reoccupied its positions late in the afternoon, the Tiger company was pulled out of the line and sent back to the assembly area at Maneville.

Leutnant Freiherr von Rosen has provided the following firsthand account of this operation:

Be prepared to move out immediately … I was personally ordered to the battalion command post. I issued my orders quickly, briefed Leutnant Koppe and was taken to the command post on the motorcycle. There I was briefed on the situation: The enemy had succeeded with tank and infantry forces in overrunning the main line of resistance at Colombelles, which was being held there by a battalion from the 16. Luftwaffen-Feld-Division. The last reports received from up front indicated that the enemy was already some three kilometers northwest of Giberville. A large concentration of armor had been observed. Speed was of the essence. I received the following mission: The 3rd Company was to eliminate the enemy forces that had broken through in an immediate counterattack; restore the former main line of resistance; and hold this position until further orders were received.

At the company’s location, the tank engines had already been warmed up; the tank commanders were waiting at the commander’s tank for my return from the command post. Briefing the tank commanders went quickly; just thirty minutes after being alerted, the company was moving at high speed towards Giberville. I moved ahead of the company, established contact with the forces on the northern outskirts of the village and, from the roof gable, had good fields of observation into the terrain to be attacked. A few of the enemy tanks could be easily identified in a farmstead that was two kilometers away.

I moved back to the company and informed it of the latest situation. Then: “Panzer marsch, prepare to engage!” The first tank (Leutnant Koppe) had barely reached the northern outskirts of the village, when it started to receive intense main-gun fire. There was a slight hesitation, then the company spread out.

The 1st Platoon under Feldwebel Sachs veered off to the left and the 2nd Platoon (Leutnant Koppe) to the right, while I remained on line with the two platoons. The 3rd Platoon (Leutnant Rambow) stayed behind me. In the course of executing this maneuver, the tanks received a considerable number of hits. At this distance, they could do little damage to us. I then issued the order by radio to initiate bounding by platoons. This meant one platoon provided cover and fired, while the other platoon advanced.

There was no reaction to my order, however. I radioed it again. Still, nothing stirred. Instead, my tanks were exchanging fire with the enemy. In our case, nothing much could happen because of the great distance; in the case of the enemy, however, the effect of our fires was easy to recognize in the form of thick, black clouds of smoke.

When nothing continued to stir among our ranks, I threatened by radio to traverse my turret to six o’clock and fire to the rear, if everyone did not move out immediately.

While this was happening, enemy tanks were hitting my tank the entire time. Then I saw through the vision slot of my commander’s cupola that my tank’s antenna had been shot off and no radio messages could be transmitted. At this point, it was clear why my orders had not been executed. I then had my tank bound forward 300 meters and, when I looked around, I saw to my satisfaction that the 1st Platoon following me, while the 2nd and 3rd Platoons continued to fire. And then we conducted the attack without radio traffic; all of the movements were done as if on auto-pilot. One platoon fired and covered; the other one took a bound forward.

There wasn’t too much more to be seen of the enemy tanks, because the farmstead, where they had set up, was a single black cloud of smoke.

Then the enemy infantry also withdrew under cover of artificial smoke. When the smoke allowed a little more visibility, I saw a few enemy tanks left. Another Sherman went up in flames with every round fired from our main guns from this extremely short distance to the enemy. The crews even left their intact tanks in panic and terror. We received no more fire, and the last 200 meters were covered in a single bound. We were at the farm and had reached the former main line of resistance. All of this took perhaps thirty minutes.

I set up the company to screen; the terrain offered little cover. We had barely completed these movements, when an aerial artillery observer appeared overhead. Shortly thereafter, we were plastered with a barrage from the artillery that left you stunned.

This lasted about two or three minutes, then it became quiet again. We moved our location from time to time—sometimes 500 meters forward, sometimes 500 meters to the rear—so as to avoid the artillery fire, which covered us again with the next salvo twenty minutes later. We were out there on the serving platter for nearly eight hours before the infantry came up and occupied its old positions.

My tank received a direct hit from the artillery. Thank God, the English used sensitive fuses and, thank God, the turret armor had been reinforced with a second armored plate shortly before we had left Germany. All of us in the tank were knocked about quite a bit. The lights went out, and we were all affected for a few moments.

With regard to the tank itself, a few weld seams had been ripped open, with the result that I had to get into another tank. During one of the longer breaks in the artillery fire, I took a closer look at the enemy tanks. Twelve Shermans were burnt out. Most of them had 75-millimeter main guns; a few of them had the more modern 17-pounder (Sherman II “Firefly”). Four 57-millimeter antitank guns had been destroyed.

I then discovered two completely untouched Shermans between the buildings of the farm. When they had attempted to turn around, they had collided and the crews had then abandoned them. One of the tanks was a command tank, and I found a whole handful of marked-up maps, signals instructions, orders, etc. I then went with them on the shortest route to the battalion command post, which was temporarily located on the rail line at Démouville.

It was there that Hauptmann Fromme had arrived in the course of the morning from the hospital in Paris. When I made my report to him, I received the mission of bringing both Shermans back, if possible. I went back up front and arrived just as the infantry arrived and relieved us. Leutnant Koppe led the company back to its old encampment at Maneville, where everyone disappeared into the same holes they had occupied previously. I stayed up front with my tank and two drivers of the maintenance section. After we tried for some time, we actually got both Shermans running and freed up again.

We moved the two Shermans, escorted by a Tiger, back under the eyes of the English, who were able to see all this from not too great a distance. We considered this a triumph. But we were not allowed to be triumphant for too long. With the exception of a few artillery attacks, the next few days were quiet. There were more and more indicators, however, that pointed to a large-scale attack on the part of the English. After our success on 11 July, we thought we would be able to deal with it—but we really had no idea what lay before us …

In the first assembly area occupied in Normandy—in this instance, the 1st Company in the woods near Chateau Cantaloupe—the tanks were still outside artillery range. (BA)

The same vantage point, separated by more than sixty-five years. In the woods off to the viewer’s left, traces can still be found of tanks that parked there off the trail. (BA)

One of two tanks from the 1st Company to park in the woods can be seen in the lower photograph. (BA)

Two English prisoners of war are put to use distributing rations in the assembly area. Two days later, they were sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany. (BA)

The approach march continued under cover of darkness. In these images, we see the 3rd Company marching through the village of Magny-la-Champagne. (BA)

The view from Cuverville towards modern-day Colombelles shows that the Tigers had to cross a large stretch of open terrain. The industrial areas had already suffered considerably as a result of the previous fighting.

This sketch map marks the various vantage points of the photographs taken to illustrate the attack on Colombelles (C1), the British viewpoint from the line of departure for the attack (C2 and C3) and the German vantage point for the same attack (C4 and C5).

View from Démouville to the south, that is, from the enemy’s location coming out of the bridgehead (Banneville is the leading group of buildings). It can be seen how far the attack objective—the ridgeline at Bourguébus—is from the line of departure. In the lower photograph, the view is from the Sannerville–Démouville road in the direction of Cagny, which is easily identifiable by the water tower in the middle of the image. Cagny was halfway to the Bourguébus ridgeline and was to prove to be a bulwark of the German defenses that was difficult to crack.

The British were able to advance past Manneville quickly. At that point, the broken terrain and depressions favored the employment of German flat-trajectory weapons, which could fire at short range. In addition, attacks in the flanks by schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503—initially by the 3rd Company and, later, by the 1st Company—caused considerable losses among the British. The view from the German side from Four (above) and Bourguébus (below) shows how the attack area slopes down. Also of note is the railway line that runs across the direction of attack just south of Cagny, which can only be crossed in a few places. Consequently, the defenders were afforded numerous opportunities to deliver flanking fires.

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