During WWII, Hungary was one of Germany’s allies with a significant domestic production of armored vehicles. While these locally produced vehicles were fine by the standards of the early war, unfortunately for the Hungarians, by the time these were fielded in larger numbers, they were already obsolete. To bolster their ally’s firepower, during the war, the Germans supplied the Hungarians with a selection of armored vehicles, including a small number of the famed Tiger tanks in 1944.
By 1944, it was obvious that the Axis were on the losing side of the war, and due to the huge losses sustained while fighting on the Eastern Front, the overall military and political situation for Hungry was dire. In an attempt to leave the war, the Hungarian Regent Vice-Admiral Miklós Horthy secretly began negotiations with the Allies. It seems that this was not kept a secret, as the Germans found out about it and launched the Margarethe Operation. This was the German secret contention plan to deal with Hungary in the case its government attempted to change sides during the war. Horty was arrested and a puppet government was formed under the leadership of Dome Sztojay instead. This way, the Germans managed to force Hungarians to stay active on the Eastern Front.
The Hungarians deployed their 1st Army in support of the German front line in eastern Galicia. The 2nd Armored Division (which was part of the 1st Army) was equipped with obsolete Hungarian-built vehicles such as the Turan I and II tanks. During its first engagement with the Soviet Armor, the Turan II tanks claimed to have destroyed two T-34/85 tanks. During a short Axis offensive in this area in April, despite having a disadvantage in armor and firepower, the Hungarian tanks claimed to have destroyed 27 Soviet tanks (26 T-34/85 and 1 Sherman) with the loss of 22 of their own vehicles (8 Turan I, 9 Turan II, 4 Nimrods, 1 Toldi, and 1 Csaba armored car).
It appears that the bravery of the Hungarian tank crews was noted by the Germans. By the direct orders of General Walter Model, the Hungarian 2nd Armored Division was to be reinforced with 10 to 12 (depending on the source) Panzer IV Ausf. H, a smaller number of StuG III and even with a group of Tiger tanks.
Panzerkampfwagen ‘Tiger’ Ausf. E
The German Tiger tank is one of the most iconic tanks in history. While the development of a heavy tank began in Germany prior to the war, only after encountering the advanced Soviet tanks in 1941 was the whole program sped up. Two firms, Porsche and Henschel, were involved in designing the chassis of the new heavy tank, with Krupp being responsible for the turret and gun. While the Porsche design was favored, in the end, due to mechanical problems, the Henschel design would be adopted. The heavy tank that would be known as the Tiger was an immense vehicle, armed with the deadly 8.8 cm gun and well protected by a 100 mm thick frontal and 80 mm side armor. With its weight of 57 tonnes, it was also a fairly mobile vehicle thanks to its strong 650 hp engine and wide tracks. By the time of its introduction in 1942, few enemy weapons were able to do anything against it and, with its gun, it could efficiently destroy any enemy tank type. Its production began in August 1942 and ended in August 1944. By that time, only slightly more than 1,340 vehicles had been built.
While certainly a terrifying tank to be encountered on the battlefields, it was far from perfect and was plagued with many problems. The cost to build one was significant and this was one of the reasons why only small numbers were built. As there were never enough of them, they were allocated to separate special units that would be, depending on the need, attached to other units. The maintenance of these vehicles was time-consuming. The suspension system, while providing good drive, was overly complicated. Despite these issues, the Tiger tanks remained a potent threat to Allied tanks right up to the war’s end. Due to the small numbers available, they were regarded as elite vehicles reserved only for the German Panzerwaffe, but surprisingly few would be supplied to Germany’s allies.
Origin of the Hungarian Tigers
It is common to find information that the supplied Tiger tanks belonged to the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion (schwere Panzerabteilung, s.Pz.Abt. 503). The 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion was created in late 1942 and was initially equipped with 20 Tigers and 25 Panzer III Ausf. N. From early 1943 until April 1944, this unit was mainly engaged on the Eastern Front. Then, it was transferred to France for recuperation and conversion to Tiger II tanks. By that time, only 12 Tiger IIs were available for this unit. In order to fully equip it, 33 additional Tiger Is were allocated to this unit.
According to T. Jentz and H. Doyle (Tiger I Heavy Tank 1942-45), three Tiger tanks from the ordnance depot were delivered to the Hungarian Army on 22nd July 1944. In addition, an unknown number of Tigers were acquired from the 503rd and 509th Heavy Panzer Battalion. The 509th Heavy Panzer Battalion was formed in September 1943 and had 45 Tiger tanks. It was engaged on the Eastern Front up to September 1944, before being sent back to Germany to be reequipped with the Tiger II.
The total number of supplied tanks is not clear, but most sources give a number of around 10 vehicles. For example, authors C. Bescze (Magyar Steel, Hungarian Armour in WWII) and S.J.Zaloga (Tanks of Hitler’s Eastern Allies 1941-45) mention that 10 vehicles were supplied.
But, according to Dr. M. Durden (Leopard’s guide: The Tiger I tank), between 6 and 12 Tigers were used by the Hungarians. Authors C. K. Kliment and D. Bernard (Maďarská armáda 1919-1945) note that up to 15 Tiger were supplied.
To complicate matters more, authors F.W. Lochmann, R. Freiherr Von Rosen and A. Runnel (The Combat History of German Tiger Tank Battalion 503 in World War II) noted that no Tigers were ever supplied to the Hungarians! They also state that the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion gave all its surviving Tiger tanks to the 509th Heavy Panzer Battalion on 14th May 1944. While they state that Hungarian crew members were trained, due to a shortage of tanks, no Tigers were given to the Hungarians. They were instead issued with Panzer IV vehicles.
Interestingly, author G. Finizio (Wheels and Tracks No.27) suggests the possibility that some Hungarian tank crews operated Tiger tanks but in German units. This significant disagreement between different authors shows how difficult finding accurate and precise information can be.
Another issue is which type of Tigers were provided by the Germans. As it was late in the war, we can assume that any Tiger that was available was used for this purpose. So it would not be a surprise if this was a mix of early to late production types.
Regardless of how many vehicles were supplied by the Germans, it was essential for the Hungarian crews to receive necessary training before they could even see combat. For this reason, some members of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion served as instructors for their allies. While the majority of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion was repositioned in France, the 3rd Company was chosen for this task.
What was available of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion’s vehicles and equipment (including the 3rd Company) was therefore renamed to the 1st Tiger Demonstration Company of the 1st Panzer Demonstration Group North Ukraine. The main base of this unit was Nadworna near Stanislau in South Poland. The Hungarians provided a group of tank crew members to be trained there. The training only lasted from 6th to 14th May 1944, before the unit was disbanded. Interestingly, while it appears that during this occasion, the Hungarians did not receive any Tigers, their High Command awarded several German instructors with high military recommendations. These include Feldwebels Fritz Großmann and Herbert Schünrock, Obergefreiters Ernst Reinhardt, Gotthold Wunderlichn and Gefreiter Hans Bartels. Ironically, while the information about these recommendations was found in Hungarian archives, these awards were never actually given to the Germans instructors due to political machinations.
The Hungarian Tigers, alongside the remaining German supplied vehicles, were allocated to the 2nd Armored Division, 3rd Battalion. They were divided into two Tank Squadrons. The 2nd Tank Squadron was commanded by First Lieutenant Ervin Tarszay, probably the most famous Hungarian tank commander, and the 3rd by Captain Janos Verdess. Besides the German vehicles, the 2nd Armored Division also had some 40 Turan I and 20 Turan II tanks.
Unfortunately, information about the Hungarian Tigers’ performance in combat is hard to find. The following information is from C. Bescze (Magyar Steel Hungarian Armour in WWII) supplemented with Russian archive documents. The Hungarian Tigers’ first combat engagement took place on 26th July 1944 near Nadvornaya. It was a triumph. A single Hungarian Tiger ambushed a Soviet armored column, destroying 8 Soviet tanks, several guns, and several transport trucks. For this successful action, the Tiger’s gunner, Istvan Lavrencsik, was awarded with the Gold Medal for Bravery.
According to Russian archive sources, elements of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment (Samokhodno-Artilleriyskiy Polk) were caught in this ambush. A group of 5 self-propelled guns, which was supported with a reconnaissance detachment of the 985th Infantry Regiment, after leaving Nadvornaya, were on 26th July advancing toward Bogorodchany.
The Hungarians forces prepare an ambush just before the position recorded as Hill 386. After letting the infantry support pass by, they waited for the advance of the Soviet armor. When the advancing Soviet armored vehicles approached at a distance of about 200 m, the Hungarian tanks opened fire. In the ensuing engagement, the Soviets lost 2 self-propelled guns which were burned, and 2 which were knocked out, with the loss of 4 men dead and 5 more wounded. The fate of the fifth Soviet self-propelled vehicle is not clear. It could have already passed by with the reconnaissance detachment of the 985th Infantry Regiment or was left behind for some reason, but these are only speculation.
The war diary of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment mentioned that there were 5 enemy tanks (3 of them were Tigers) supported by an infantry company. The precise type of the Soviet vehicles participating in this encounter is not clear, but it is likely that these were the SU-122, as the Hungarians could easily misidentified them as T-34 tanks (the SU-122 was based on the T-34 chassis).
The Hungarians attempted a counterattack against the Soviets near the Ostre region. The counterattack failed and the Hungarians were forced to abandon two Tigers and one Turan II tanks at the intersection of the road in Lyakhovitsa. In total, the Soviets reported to have lost 4 self-propelled guns with 4 men dead and 8 wounded. The Soviets also reported to have burned down two enemy tanks in the Banya district. In addition, they captured 4 enemy tanks, with one Panzer IV in working condition (which was used against the enemy), destroyed 12 machine guns and 3 mortars, killed up to 150 soldiers and officers, and captured 75 enemy soldiers.
The question remains which sources to trust. For both sides it was in their interest to falsify the data for propaganda reasons.
The Hungarians Tigers are also claimed to have managed, during a 30-minute long fight, to take out around 14 Soviet tanks near “Hill 514” (possibly near Dolina), but the precise location and date of this action are not specified in the source, unfortunately. If these numbers of destroyed tanks were real or exaggerated for propaganda purposes is almost impossible to tell.
In the following days, despite these short term successes, the few Tigers could not change the overall war situation for the Hungarians. By the middle of August 1944, the Axis forces, including the Hungarian 1st Army, were pushed back to the Carpathian Mountains. It seems that, by this time, the Hungarians had lost at least 7 Tigers. While not all were combat losses, some were lost due to a general lack of fuel and spare parts. The Hungarians did not have any kind of towing vehicle capable of moving the huge Tigers, which also presented a problem with recovering any damaged vehicle. From this point on, it seems that the surviving Tiger were probably pulled back to Hungary. They may have been also returned to the Germans as author Dr. M. Durden (Leopard’s guide: The Tiger I tank) suggests, but once again the sources are conflicting.
In late August 1944, the Romanians changed sides and joined the Soviet Union and almost immediately engaged with the Hungarians in combat. The 2nd Armored Division was part of the Hungarian offensive toward Romania. If the Tigers were used there is unknown, but it is unlikely. Due to the increasing presence of the Soviet Army, the Hungarians were beaten back.
The 2nd Armored Division would be reinforced with new German vehicles, including Panther tanks. The Panthers were used by the 2nd Tank Squadron commanded by First Lieutenant Ervin Tarszay. The majority of the 2nd Armored Division would be destroyed during the siege of Budapest. The few elements that avoided destruction managed to reach Slovakia, where the last armored vehicles were blown up by their crews.
The final fate of the Hungarian Tigers is not clear. Author C. Bescze (Magyar Steel Hungarian Armour in WWII) notes that the last three vehicles were lost in Transylvania due to a lack of fuel and supplies.
Author G. Finizio (Wheels and Tracks No.27) claims that at least 4 Tigers were reported to be in repair in December 1944. By the end of January 1945, one Tiger was reported to be still operational.
The Tigers were the strongest armored vehicles that the Hungarian tank armored force operated during the war. While certainly deadly, it was supplied in too small numbers and too late to really have an influence on the war’s development. Despite fielding obsolete tanks, the Hungarians managed to destroy many Soviet tanks. This shows that, while the Hungarians lacked modern equipment, they did not lack effective tank crews. Had the Germans supplied them much earlier in the war with more modern equipment, the Hungarian tank force may have been a more important element in the war in the East.
Hungarian Ausf.E from the 3rd Regiment, Ukraine, near Nadvirna, May 1944
Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Sd.Kfz.181, ‘Tiger I’ specifications
|Dimensions||Height: 8.45 m Long x 3.23 m Wide (rail transport) x 3.547 m Wide (normal tracks) x 3 m Height|
|Weight||54 tonnes (combat), 57 tonnes by February 1944|
|Crew||5 (commander, gunner, loader, driver, and radio operator)|
|Engine||Maybach model HL 210 TRM P45 21-litre V-12 petrol engine producing 650 hp at 3000 rpm (early production vehicles), Maybach model HL 230 TRM P45 V-12 700 hp petrol engine (later production vehicles)|
|Ford||1.5 m without preparation – submersible to 4.5 m with preparation (vehicles prior to August 1942)
|Performance||45 km/h (road max.), 30 km/h (road sustained), after February 1944 this was 40 km/h, 20-25 km/h (firm ground sustained)|
|Fuel||348 litres sufficient for a range of up to 120 km road, 85 km firm ground. Two spare 200-litre fuel drum could be carried on the back deck for long road marches.
|Armament||8.8 cm Kw.K. 36 L/56 gun, coaxial 7.92 mm M.G. 34, hull mounted M.G. 34, roof mounted anti-aircraft M.G. 34|
|Ammunition||92 rounds 8.8 cm, ~4,500 – 4,800 rounds 7.92 mm ammunition|
Driver’s plate 100mm @ 9º
Nose 100mm @ 25º
Glacis 60mm glacis @ 80º
Hull Sides Upper 80mm @ 0º
Hull Sides Lower 60mm @ 0º
Rear 80mm @ 9º
Roof and Belly, 25mmTurret:
Mantlet 120mm @ 0º
Front 100mm @ 5º
Sides and Rear 80mm @ 0º
D. Nešić, (2008), Naoružanje Drugog Svetskog Rata-Nemačka, Beograd
C. Bescze (2007) Magyar Steel Hungarian Armour in WW II, STRATUS.
P. Chamberlain and H. Doyle (1978) Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War Two – Revised Edition, Arms and Armor press.
B. Adam, E. Miklos, S. Gyula (2006) A Magyar Királyi Honvédség külföldi gyártású páncélos harcjárművei 1920-1945, Petit Real
S.J.Zaloga (2013) Tanks of Hitler’s Eastern Allies 1941-45, New Vanguard.
N. Thomas and L. P. Szabo (2010) The Royal Hungarian Army in World War II, Osprey.
T. Jentz and H. Doyle, Tiger I Heavy Tank 1942-45, Osprey
T. Jentz and H. Doyle (2001) Panzer Tracts No.6 Schwere Panzerkampfwagen.
Dr. M. Durden Leopard’s guide: The Tiger I tank
C. K. Kliment and D. Bernard (2007) Maďarská armáda 1919-1945, Naše vojsko.
F.W. Lochmann, R. Freiherr Von Rosen and A. Runnel (2000) The Combat History of German Tiger Tank Battalion 503 in World War II, Stackpole Book.
G. Finizio (1989) Wheels and Tracks No.27, Battle of Britain prints.
War Diary of the 18A, 4th Ukrainian Front, 31.07.1944, TsAMO, F 244, O 3000, D 890, PP 1-72
War Diary of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment, TsAMO, F 4438, O 0445095с, D 0003, PP 19-30
TO&E of the 1448th self-propelled artillery regiment