On August 10th, 1944, after crossing the Vistula river, elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front broke the enemy defense lines South-east of the Polish town of Sandomierz, and after throw back parts of 4th Tank Army, significantly expanded their bridgehead. In an attempt to retake the lost territory on the west side of the Vistula river, the Germans immediately transferred five divisions (including one panzer division), from the Army Group "South Ukraine," five infantry divisions from Germany, three infantry divisions from Hungary, and six brigades of assault guns to the Sandomierz area. Preparing for the German counterattack, the Soviet High Command decided to regroup its troops. Preparations for defense started with laying large minefields.
On August 11th, units of the 6th Guards Tank Corps (GTC) of the 3rd Guards Tank Army (GTA), took defensive positions on the outskirts of the towns of Szyldów and Ogledów which were taken earlier that day. The bridgehead at that time resembled an irregular semicircle abutted against the Vistula River,in the centre, while the 52nd Guards Tank Brigade (GTBr) closed the left flank. Sandy soil made it difficult to dig the tanks in to their full height because the sides of the trenches kept collapsing. The same sandy soil caused problems for the Germans as well. Many times Soviet troops observed Panthers swerving in the sand, and while their drivers struggled to control their vehicles, they exposed their thinner side armor to the Soviet guns. During the skirmishes near Szyldów and Ogledów, this led to severe losses of Panthers (on August 11th, 1944 alone, the 53rd GTBr destroyed eight German tanks).On August 12th, the commander of the 53rd GTBr, Colonel V. S. Arkhipov, with his Chief of Staff, C. I. Kirilkin, came to the conclusion that the Germans would not continue their direct attack across the open sandy fields, and that they would try to outflank the brigade. They therefore reinforced their force's flanks.
The area facing Major A. G. Korobov's 2nd Tank Battalion (TBn) was open. On the right flank, where the T-34 tanks of Captain I. M. Mazurin's 3rd TBn formed the defense line, there was a deep and wide valley with a dirt road leading from Ogledów village to the town of Staszów, and to the Soviet rear. Behind the valley, there were wetlands defended by the 294th Rifle Regiment of the 97th Rifle Division.
The dirt road provided good access to the Soviet positions, and drew the Germans' attention. To prevent the enemy from using this passage, the Soviet brigade commander decided to set up an ambush from an unnamed hill with two T-34 tanks from the 3rd TBn under command of deputy battalion commander Guards Captain P. T. Ivushkin. The battalion's remaining tanks were at the main defensive positions one-kilometre from Ogledów.
The initial speculations about the German plan were confirmed by reconnaissance reports. Three reconnaissance units with tanks and motorcycles were sent to patrol the expected routes of enemy movement. Reconnaissance Report #53, issued at 7:00 p.m. on August 13th, 1944, issued by the staff of the 6th GTC stated:
"During the night of August the 12th and 13th, a Feldwebel from the 1st Company of the 501st Independent Heavy Tank Battalion (IHTB) of the High Command Reserves (HCR) was taken PoW in the area west of Szyldów, and a private from the 10th Company of the 79th Motorised Regiment of the 16th Panzer Division in the area of Poniki was also captured. The Feldwebel stated that at the Koniecpol railway station, after the 501st IHTB had moved out, an unknown tank division began to disembark. The 501st IHTB consisted of three tank companies and a supply company. The battalion arrived with forty tanks on strength, and consisted of twenty Panthers and twenty Panzer IV's. About thirty tanks reached Chmielnik, the remaining tanks had suffered malfunctions and required repairs."
The arrival of the 501st sPzAbt under the command of Major von Legat was significant. In July and August 1944, the battalion was reorganised at Ohrdruf training centre, and was equipped with King Tiger tanks, preemptively called "super-tanks." (King Tiger tanks are also known as Tiger II and Tiger B tanks).
Though of low reliability even for a new tank (the work on the tank had started in 1943, but was not fully completed) the battalion left for the Eastern Front on August 5th without its full complement. Fourteen tanks with various problems were transferred to the 1st Company, which remained in the Training Centre.
On August 9th, the battalion arrived in Poland, and disembarked at Koniecpol railway station near Kielce. According to the PoWs, half of the tanks were Panthers, and the remaining were Panzer IV's. It was later revealed that the PoWs' story about the Panthers was not true. Probably they tried to conceal the arrival of a secret weapon to the front. The Panthers were actually new King Tiger tanks.
Ten of the King Tigers broke-down during the short three-kilometre march from the disembarkation point to the headquarters of the 16th TD near Chmielnik. On August 11th, after losing two days to repairs and re-supply, the battalion moved two kilometres further and reached Szyldów. Breakdowns continued, and at the end of the day, only eleven of the twenty King Tigers were intact and ready to commence the attack on Staszów.
It is worth mentioning that the Soviet 6th GTC did not have significant numerical superiority. Ready for the German assault were nine T-34-76's from the 53rd GTBr, and nine T-34-76's and ten T-34-85's from the 52nd GTBr. The 51st GTBr, positioned to the north, had eleven T-34-76's and four T-34-85's. At Staszów there were eleven JS-2 heavy tanks, and one JS-85 heavy tank from the 71st Independent Guards Heavy Tank Regiment.
At midnight on August 13th, a growing noise of tank engines was heard coming from the German side. Before dawn, the commander of the 53rd GTBn returned from the headquarters to his tank, which was employed as an observation post between the tanks of the 1st Tank Battalion, which were hidden between low sand dunes. In the front and on the right side of the Soviet positions, there was a valley with a road to Staszów. On the left hand side, there was a field with stacks of hay, where Ivushkin's tanks were camouflaged. Near the entry of the valley stood Lieutenant A. P. Oskin's "thirty-four" (T-34). A. Stetzenko was the driver, A. Merkhaidarov was the gunner, A. Grushin was the radio operator, and A. Khalychev was the loader. Colonel Arkhipov and Ivushkin hid the tank in the haystacks, and ordered Oskin to hold his fire until given a special order.
The next morning was covered in mist, which obstructed the view. From the observation point of the 53rd GTBr commander, neither the village of Ogledów, nor the valley, nor the tanks hidden in the haystacks were visible. The morning silence was broken by a growing hum of tank engines, and soon the incoming noise of tanks' tracks was heard. From the sky, one could hear Junkers planes approaching Staszów. German artillery began to fire. The rounds passed high above the brigade's forward line. Enemy reconnaissance neither located the brigade's front line, nor spotted the ambush positions.
On August 13th, at 07:00 a.m. under the cover of the mist, the Germans started to advance on the unnamed hill with eleven King Tigers and a few armored personnel carriers with infantry.
Ivushkin's voice was heard on the radio: "The tanks are gone. I can't see them, but I can hear them. They are moving through the valley."
This is how the commander of the 53rd GTBr described the battle:
"An enormous tank crawled from within the valley. It was jerkily climbing up and swerving on the sand. From the left flank, Major Korobov exclaimed on the radio: - They're coming!
- Be patient! Open fire from 400 metres only!
Behind the first tank, the second beast came from the valley, and soon the third tank appeared. The first had already passed Ivyshkin's ambush position.
- Fire? - he asked.
- Fire! I saw a part of the haystack over Oskin's tank move, and the gun barrel appeared. It fired, and then again and again: Oskin had commenced the battle. Through my binoculars, I could see black holes in the sides of the German tanks. At first I saw only smoke, but then I saw flames. The third tank turned to Oskin, but it was immobilized after it received a hit in its tracks, and then it was hit again for good. I called the code signal "307 - 305" on the radio. At that moment, German Howitzers began firing, and soon the air in the valley up to Ogledów was filled with smoke and dust." Junkers bombers and Messerschmitt fighters appeared in the sky at the same time that Soviet fighters arrived. An air battle began."
During the day (August 13th), Korobov's 2nd TBn fought German tanks west of Hill 247.9. At the end of the day, the 53rd Brigade took southward defensive positions 300 metres east of Ogledów, in readiness to move towards Szyldów. At ten o'clock in the evening, two tanks from the 3rd TBn, supported by the company of the mechanised infantry, assaulted the village, and by eight o'clock in the morning, they succeeded in clearing it of the enemy. The 3rd TBn then took defensive positions on the edge of the village. German tanks, which had been withdrawn after earlier attacks, were captured in this village. It was then that it was discovered that the burning tanks in the morning battle were not Panthers. However, there was not enough time to identify the tanks, and the first reports stated that there were three Panthers captured. The 2nd TBn, the 2nd Tank Company of the 71st IGHTR, and the 289th Rifle Regiment, began moving toward Zaraz at 09:00 a.m. King Tigers which were positioned west of Ogledów, blocked the attacking infantry with gunfire. A platoon of JS-2 tanks, led by Lieutenant Klimienkov, advanced and joined in the battle. Soon one of the German tanks was on fire, and another one was knocked out. The infantry, without opposition, then moved in to Ogledów, where tanks of the 3rd TBn were already eliminating the remaining Germans.
Meanwhile, seven King Tigers attacked the Soviet positions from Hill 272.1. Waiting in an ambush near Mokre, Guards Lieutenant Udalov in his JS-2 tank (with number 98, and fitted with the D-25 Main Gun) let the German tanks to approach to a distance of 700-800 metres and started firing. After a few hits, the first tank was set on fire, and the second tank was knocked out. The German tanks shifted into reverse. Udalov drove towards the enemy and fired again from the edge of the forest. With one more tank burning, the Germans retreated. Soon, the King Tigers attacked again, this time towards Poniki, where Guards Lieutenant Beliakov's JS-2 was set up in an ambush position. He commenced fire at a distance of 1000 metres, and after the third round, had set fire to an enemy tank. The Germans realized the grave situation, and retreated again.
During the three days of continuous fighting on August 11th, 12th, and 13th, 1944, in the Staszów and Szyldów area the 6th GTC destroyed and captured 24 enemy tanks, thirteen of which were the newly introduced King Tigers.
"From the 9th to 19th of August 1944, the 52nd GTBr took seven PoWs and eliminated 225 soldiers and officers, destroyed one machine gun, captured three cannons, destroyed six tanks, ten trucks, and two other vehicles."
Besides the following was listed in the Corps' reports on the PoWs and war prizes:
From August 1st to 29th, 1944, the 53rd GTBr eliminated 8 enemy officers, 37 NCOs, 153 soldiers, took 6 King's Tigers and 2 NCOs as PoWs, destroyed one aircraft,12 tanks, 29 howitzers, 130 rifles, 7 sub-machine guns, 20 machine-guns, 4 mortars and 2 field cannons. It is worth mentioning that this was achieved by the units of the 6th GTC without loss of a single tank. It is worth mentioning that this was achieved by units of the 6th GTC, without the loss of a single tank.
Enemy losses were later confirmed by Reconnaissance Report #39, issued by the staff of the 6th GTC at 7:00 p.m. on August 16th:
"On August 16th, in the Zaraz area, a PoW from the 501st Heavy Tank Battalion was taken. He stated that the 501st Independent Heavy Tank Battalion, which was formed in Germany, received forty new tanks and consisted of twenty King Tigers and twenty Panzer IV's. The battalion arrived in the Chmielnik area two weeks ago. At present, there are no more than 26 tanks with the 501st, the remaining tanks were burned and destroyed. The PoW saw Tiger tanks of another unit, although he did not know the unit's name."
According to the 53rd GTBr's commander's memoirs:
"Who made the 'kills' and how many, is a difficult question; as tank crews from two battalions (I. M. Mazurin's and A. G. Korobov's), as well as two artillery regiments (the 185th Hovitzer Regiment and the 1645th Light Artillery Regiment), and two regiments of self propelled guns (the 1893rd and the 385th) fired at the Germans. Ground attack aircraft contributed as well. Oskin's crew set three tanks on fire, and destroyed one. Aleksander Petrovich Oskin was awarded the title of Hero of the Soviet Union, and Abubaker Merkhaidarov was awarded the Order of Lenin. The other members of the crew also received awards."
After the battle, the commander of the 2nd TBn, Korobov, reported that "about twenty heavy tanks attacked the area between my battalion and the 51st GTBr." Where were the remaining King Tigers? The answer is that they were caught in an ambush set by the 52nd GTBr on the flank of the 6th GTC. On August 12th, the 2nd TBn, under the command of Major A. N. Golomidov, set up on the edge of the woods near the village of Mokre, a few kilometres away from Staszów. That evening, the battalion commander called company commander Lieutenant V. I. Tokarev, and after reviewing their maps, ordered an ambush position to be set up. One kilometer away from the battalion's main defensive positions, on the hill covered with bushes, two tanks took up positions.
The crews did not sleep during the night of August 13th. Both T-34's were entrenched between corn stacks, and it was almost impossible to spot them. The following is how the course of events transpired, as described by the commander of the 52nd GTBr, Hero of Soviet Union, Guards Colonel, L. I. Kurist:
"Early in the morning, an enemy spotter plane (the Russians called it a "Rama") appeared. It flew over our area and then disappeared. Soon after, the enemy commenced heavy artillery fire. The rounds kept whining over our tank crews, and exploded in the rear, at the edge of the woods and near the village.
- When the bombardment ended, -Tokarev said, - Now Tigers or Panthers will come.
- I'll go to the trench, as I can see better from there, and Grigoriy (gunner Senior Sergeant Komarichev), keep watch!
Komarichev and Dhzoparidze (the loader) kept scanning ahead, from where the noise of engines was heard. Within a few minutes, armored vehicles appeared from behind the hill, moving from the valley, bypassing the hill, and exposing their sides to the front of our tanks. Apparently, the Germans did not expect an ambush here.
- Tengiz! Twenty! Do you understand, twenty!!! And behind them there is infantry!
- Don't worry Zhora, we're guardsmen!
- Pass the anti-tank rounds!
Lieutenant Stepan Krajlov's crew saw enemy tanks as well. They let the enemy come closer, and then shot at point blank range. When the Germans came to a distance of five hundred metres, Komarichev and Krajlov commenced fire. Komarichev set the first Tiger on fire. Krajlov destroyed the second one. The Germans tried to reach the edge of the woods. The tanks moved to the left, though it did not help them, and more of their tanks were destroyed. To avoid further losses, the German tanks turned back and began to retreat. They did not attempt further attacks on the brigade's positions."
The intensity of the battle can be judged by the fact that the Soviet tanks used almost all of their shells. Komarichev and Dzhaparidze together scored eight Tigers and Panthers. Krainev had six "kills:"
"While engaged in combat with the enemy, our tank troops eliminated fourteen tanks, more than fifty soldiers, and most importantly, stopped the enemy counterattack."
Unfortunately, in their memoirs, neither commander mentioned the exact number of German tanks destroyed. According to the recent book "Germany's Tiger Tanks: Tiger I & II: Combat Tactics" by Thomas Jentz, a week after the battle, on August 21st, 1944, the 501st sPzAbt had twelve intact King Tigers, another 27 required repairs, and six were lost. Jentz's figures are doubtful. On the battlefields near Ogledów, Mokre, and Szyldów, twelve King Tiger tanks were left behind. From the archive records currently available, it appears that the 501st Battalion was routed, and three tanks with turret numbers 102, 502, and 234, were captured intact.
Tank number 502 was found standing in the yard near a house in Ogledów village. It is not clear why the crew abandoned the tank. Ogledów village was taken during a lightning attack by Soviet tanks, and the German crew must have abandoned the tank and run away. A sufficient amount of fuel and ammunition was in the tank, and according to the records found on the tank, it had run only 444 kilometres. When attempting to start up the engine, it started immediately.
The Germans analysed their defeat, and von Legat lost his command.
The "Battle Call" newspaper of the 6th GTK, described the fighting at the Sandomierz bridgehead as follows:
"After first encountering our superior tanks, the Germans created their clumsy monsters: the Tigers, Panthers, and Ferdinands. These tanks are inferior to ours. It was proven during recent battles, where the path of the German retreat was filled with the remnants of Tiger tanks and their other weaponry. The recently-introduced King Tiger tanks did not frighten our soldiers. During the first encounter, our tank crews and artillerymen proved the absolute superiority of our weaponry against the so-called secret weapon of the Germans. Our valiant tank crews under the command of Oskin, Udalov, and Potekha, destroyed a few King Tigers each. The battle results of the Soviet-German front indicate the obvious edge that Soviet tanks have on German tanks. Ours have better cannons, better ground-crossing capability, and better maneuverability."
Sadly, such a blatant propaganda simply discredited the true victory of the Soviet tankers.
The reasons behind the Sandomierz King Tiger fiasco include cleverly prepared Soviet defenses and, without a doubt, the high level of professionalism of Soviet tank crews. The Germans failed due to faulty planning and tactics, and particularly because of the direction of the attack for the 70-tonne King Tigers. The need to put the newly designed, but still incomplete "wonder-weapon" into action, resulted in these errors.
According to a few western historians, tank number 502 originally had the number 002, repainted later by the Russians. This claim is difficult take seriously. On the one hand, the number of the tank is of no importance; on the other hand, the numbers carried by 501st Battalion tanks can be retrieved from German archives and verified, and it can be shown that there was no tank number 002 but 502.
To complete the story, it is worth mentioning that the 501st Heavy Tank Battalion (the German name was s.Pz.Abt.501) was formed from two companies on May 10th, 1942, as a part of the 7th Panzer Regiment. The third company was incorporated on March 6th, 1944. The battalion took part in the African campaign, where in May 1943 it was almost completely defeated. Later, on September 9th, 1943, it was re-formed. In the summer of 1944, it was re-equipped with new King Tiger tanks, and assigned to the Army Group "Southern Ukraine," and sent to the Eastern Front. After the fighting near Staszów as described above, the battalion took part in combat near the Pilica River, where it experienced further losses and was pulled back to the rear for reinforcement. In November 1944, it was renamed the 424th Heavy Tank Battalion, and was assigned to the XXIVth Tank Corps. The 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion was then given number 501.