The Tiger tank is undoubtedly one of the most famous tanks to have ever existed, with dozens of books on the topic covering development, production, and combat. Yet, despite the fame and a lot of hyperbole related to the combat performance, in particular, there is still plenty of misinformation about the tank and its variants, one of which is the existence of a ‘Bergetiger’ or Recovery Tiger variant.
In early summer 1944, a peculiar Tiger tank was captured by the Allied forces in Italy. Missing its main armament and sporting a winch and crane on top of the turret. A British intelligence summary did a short analysis of the vehicle, speculating it may have been some kind of ARV, an assumption which was taken as fact by many persons since.
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To Berge or Not to Berge
The German military in WW2 was short of specialized recovery vehicles, often having to rely upon a team of half-tracks coupled together to recover a fallen, crashed, or mud-bound tank. This problem was exacerbated by the introduction of the heavy Tiger tank to combat in August 1942. Right from the first combat action on the Eastern Front, the combination of intense enemy fire breaking tracks and soft ground lead to tanks being crippled or stuck in the mud. With a series of serious mechanical reliability problems to add into the mix, the history of the Tiger is replete with examples of vehicles breaking down or being crippled, but otherwise recoverable. Recoverable, that is, save for the lack of a dedicated recovery vehicle.
The Tiger was a formidable tank and the most powerful tank in the German arsenal at the time, so abandoning vehicles was the last resort entailing a huge price in both combat power for a unit and also in the loss of the Reichsmarks invested in the production and delivery of it. It was also imperative to try and keep this new weapon system out of enemy hands, so much so that orders published in July 1943 expressly forbade allowing the enemy to capture a Tiger tank. Crews were expected to destroy the vehicle rather than let it fall into enemy hands and self-destruct equipment (Sprengpatronen Z85) was issued from February 1943 for just this purpose. What the German armored forces needed was a dedicated heavy armored recovery vehicle – what they did not get, however, was a Bergetiger, a recovery vehicle based on the Tiger I. There was a recovery vehicle produced from the left-over hulls of the VK45.01(P) known as the Bergetiger, but that is effectively an ARV based on the chassis of the Ferdinand tank destroyer, not that of a Tiger I.
Later, the Germans produced an ARV based on the Panther tank, known as the Bergepanther, but the numbers produced were well below what was actually needed. In the absence of such vehicle, crews would often use captured enemy vehicles such as the M4 Sherman, numerous examples of which were captured, or their own tanks, to try to tow a stuck or broken-down vehicle to a place of safety. Once recovered, it could go back into action or be repaired. However, this maneuver could also be a gamble resulting in the recovering vehicle becoming stuck as well.
Recovery was, and still is, always preferable to abandoning or destroying your own tank, but the absence of a heavy recovery vehicle was a serious handicap to German tank forces during the war and this was a fact not lost on the Allies, a background which may help to explain why the fake ‘Bergetiger’ was ‘misidentified’.
Evidence for this vehicle comes from only two places. The first comes from the unit diary for s.Pz.Abt.508 which records that, in late February 1944, the unit moved against the Allied beachhead at Isola Bella, Italy.
An account of the action given by members of Tiger crews that day gives a sense of the sort of combat undertaken and the problems of recovering a broken down Tiger.
“Our artillery began firing at 0500 hours. At 0700 hours we moved out of the assembly area, single file on a muddy road past Cisterna in the direction of Isola Bella… The lead tank, commanded by Oberfähnrich Harder, ran over a mine. While the tank track withstood the shock, the leading road wheel’s torsion bar was broken. The tank had to be towed away. The entire column came to a halt since none of the other vehicle could pass in that marshy area. What to do? Engineers were called up to clear the mines, but for the time being we had to wait. And then it began. The enemy artillery began ranging in on us”
“The artillery fire became heavier by the minute. The rounds were bursting quite close to us. Shrapnel struck our vehicle. One burst shredded two road wheels on the right side, and a fragment pierced the stowage box on the back of the turret. By that time it was noon. A suspicious house about 1,500 metres in front of us was peppered with high-explosive rounds. Enemy infantry ran away.”
“14:00 hours: The enemy fire was unbroken. Then, suddenly, we were hit twice on the rear of the turret; four or five hits more followed. Two Sherman tanks were firing at us from the right. We immediately returned fire; one Sherman began to burn; the other ran for it.”
“Enemy artillery gave us no rest. The [US] artillery spotter directed the salvoes closer and closer to us. Then my commander decided to change position. We pulled off the road past the trail vehicle. Bang! Another mine exploded and blew off a torsion bar. The vehicle was disabled. A dreadful feeling to be sitting in a minefield like that. It was obvious that we were not going to reach our objective. We would have to wait for night before we could have the damaged vehicles withdrew toward the outskirts of Cisterna, from where they could cover the disabled vehicles. Luckily, at that point, the enemy artillery abated.”
“During the next five days, the battalion recovered all of the disabled Tigers, usually at night and under constant artillery fire. Four Tigers were so badly damaged that they were beyond repair. All of the disabled Tigers were under direct observation from Allied forces, so the unarmoured German recovery vehicles were useless, and only Tigers were used to tow the disabled vehicles”
During this action then, the unit received heavy artillery bombardment and several vehicles had struck land mines. One vehicle, which had been leaking fuel was, at least partially, set on fire by white phosphorus rounds fired by American artillery, but all of the tanks were recovered; three of them though were deemed to be unrepairable. It is one of those three tanks in which the diary records was converted into the role of a demolition charge carrier or ‘Ladungsleger’.
“1st to 5th March 1944: All the tanks are recovered, but 3 are not repairable. 1 is converted into a demolition charge carrier”
The second source states that the vehicle was abandoned and captured by the Allies, possibly broken down, in the early summer of 1944. A white mark on the bottom right-hand corner of the turret is a possible indication of a fire. When it was found, the appearance of the vehicle with the fittings on the turret, such as the winch, jib, and hull tow ring, lead the initial assessment team to conclude was that it was some kind of recovery vehicle. The details are recorded in the British Technical Intelligence Summary No.135 from 19th July 1944 based on photographs from Italy. In the report, the vehicle is described as:
“It appears to consist of a normal Pz Kpfw Tiger modified by the removal of the 88 mm gun and the mounting of a winch and derrick on the turret. The winch is arranged high up at the rear of the turret, and what appears to be a socket for the derrick is provided in the centre of the turret roof near the front and facing forwards. The derrick itself is not shown in the photographs. Although the gun and barrel sleeve have been removed, the mantlet is retained, the opening in its centre being covered by a roughly circular plate with a central aperture for the muzzle of an M.G.”
A final additional piece of information followed on 1st August 1944 stating:
“Reference Summary 135 para.8, it is now learned that the Pz Kpfw Tiger Recovery Vehicle recently examined in Italy was not a standard German equipment, but a local improvisation”
With only one such vehicle recovered, the reports on it seem to have gained no particular attention and the initial idea that this was for recovery has been left essentially unchallenged until recently.
The vehicle can be seen in photographs to retain traces of Zimmerit, indicating the vehicle was produced after August 1943, but the first pattern of rubber-tired road wheels indicates it was produced before January 1944. As a further complication, the turret has the rear escape hatch, meaning it was made after December 1942, but also the cast commander’s cupola with AA machine gun-ring which was added in July 1943. Putting this together, it appears that the modified vehicle was manufactured sometime between July 1943 and January 1944, meaning a chassis number between 250405 and 250911. The turret is dateable too, as photos of the rear show that it had the pistol port (MP-Klappe) in the back left welded shut. On turrets made prior to July 1943, this port was covered with a large armored cover, but from July 1943, this was replaced with a simpler hold and plug (on a chain). The same is true of the commander’s cupola. The original ‘drum-style’ cupola was replaced with the cast cupola seen on the vehicle starting in July 1943. The turret, therefore, was made post-July 1943.
The vehicle has one more secret too. It is not a standard Tiger hull which was modified, but a former command version; a ‘Befehlstiger’. This can be proven by the small bracket on the right-hand-side of the turret, between the viewport and mantlet, which was used to mount an Fkl radio antenna. Further, the right-hand-side of the hull shows the remains of two mountings for a radio mast. On the rear right-hand-side deck roof near to the engine grilles, there is also the remains of the base mount which formerly took a Sternantenna. This feature was not found on standard Tigers unless they have been converted back from a Befehlstiger to normal use.
It is the modifications and fittings on the vehicle which led both to the initial idea that it was for some kind of recovery and, subsequently, to model-making companies, in particular, repeating this assumption. This is exactly what it was though, an assumption. One made during the war without a technical examination or testing and then left for time to inflate into a thing it was not.
‘Recovery Vehicle’ Assessment
Upon initial glance, it is reasonable to assume some kind of recovery or workshop nature to the tank, but, as an ARV, this vehicle was less than ideal. The heavy turret remained, which, even without the gun, was several tonnes of unnecessary weight. The only logical reason to retain a turret would be to allow for the rotation of something like a jib. Indeed, the design retained a winch and a jib, and when recovered, the turret was notably turned to the rear. If the turret was retained for armor protection, then the winch was useless anyway, as it left the crew members operating it totally exposed to enemy fire stood on top of a huge tank. Most recovery simply required towing, so a turret-mounted winch was simply not required. On top of this issue is the fact that the winch itself was extremely light, perhaps with a load of a couple of tonnes at most based on the ability of the man/men cranking it and the thin steel cable. Certainly, this was enough to lift the heavy engine deck armor plates or perhaps as much as an engine, but certainly no use for towing a 58-tonne Tiger tank even on a flat, level surface for recovery.
Above the mantlet is the bottom end of the jib consisting of what appears to be not much more than a section of steel pipe. Into this would go the arm of the crane which would have a block and tackle of some kind attached. The limit of the lifting ability of this system was, therefore, subject not just to the ability of the crew to winch it, the strength of the pawls in the ratchet on the winch to hold the weight, or the cable, but also on the bending strength of the arm and strength of the tackle. The entire system was only as strong as the weakest part.
Analysis of the photos clearly shows that this arm and winch system were a simple affair that were elevated or lowered only by the winch with the fulcrum of the arm located at the base of the ‘pipe’ as a pin welded to a bracket on the turret roof. On the face of the mantlet, a small bracket was welded to the cover-plate which is assumed to have taken a support, probably a hydraulic strut to support the arm.
Seen from the front, with the turret traversed, the vehicle can be seen to have two towing eyes attached to the front along with either a tow-bar across the glacis or part of the crane-arm. Directly in the center of the hull on the nose is a welded bracket with some kind of fitting, the purpose for which is unclear, but this presumably was for retaining the cable, chain, and block on the end of the crane-arm when not in use. It would not be of any use for towing a Tiger tank and the entire load on the towed vehicle would end up being borne only by the strength of the welds on this small fitting.
It is possible and even probable that the crane and winch found use during maintenance of vehicles. This would have been a very useful tool to have at the disposal of the unit, able to lift engine plates, damaged sections of track, sprockets, or even the engine. Certainly, it is not strong enough or even tall enough to lift the turret off a tank, so despite how useful it may be, it would not help with a transmission change as this required removal of the turret.
Other ideas have in the past been suggested for this vehicle, including obstacle clearance and moving unexploded ordnance. Neither of these ideas makes sense in practical terms, as explosive ordnance disposal (EOD) is not that great of a concern to a unit that they would sacrifice a precious heavy tank to help clear it. Anywhere outside a key strategic point like a bridge, explosives could simply be blown up in situ. As for obstacle clearing, this makes even less sense as the vehicle lacks a bulldozer blade to move rubble or obstacles, there is no way of using the winch to secure an obstacle under fire to haul it away and the weight limit of this small jib would mean that any obstacles would only be lighter ones anyway – the sort which could equally be cleared by a tank crushing them or troops dynamiting them. Mine clearance is another consideration for the tank to address. Landmines had, as shown in the February action at the beachhead for s.Pz.Abt.508, caused them a lot of problems. The mine-sweeper suggestion is based on the idea that the tank could lower a charge over a mine and then withdraw detonate it and then go back and repeat the process to clear a path. This idea seems wholly impractical due to having to either load up with charges with a man exposed on the back to operate the winch under fire or to withdraw far enough for safety which would be far too low to be of effective combat value. No part of that idea covers how a mine would be found in the first place nor why infantry would clear them manually ahead of an armored assault in the first place.
The primary evidence for use as a charge layer comes from the unit records for the s.Pz.Abt.508, which records one of three damaged Tigers being converted to fulfill this charge-layer role. The circumstantial evidence against is based only on a look at the equipment fitted but there is another key piece of evidence to consider, s.Pz.Abt.508 was equipped with Borgward demolition vehicles. Commanded by means of radio control, these small, lightly armored tracked vehicles were guided to a target and detonated, causing an enormously effective blast for clearing concrete bunkers or defended positions like buildings.
The Borgwards though were uncrewed, and the Tiger-based vehicle clearly was not subject to the major modifications required to switch from a manual driver to a series of control so was not going to be detonated. Further, at least one other crewman (other than the driver) was required inside the turret in order to operate the traverse.
The means of use for the vehicle to lay demolition charges can only be theorized with the evidence of video, manuals or testimony which given the unique status of this vehicle and no living eyewitnesses, is not going to be available. Combining the retention of the turret and the winch/crane system to lay a demolition charge might go as a follows:
- use of crane to lift up explosive charge in a safe location for the exposed winch-handler
- movement of the charge to the rear by means of turret rotation in order to protect it from enemy fire
- advancing to the enemy
- rotation of the turret and charging to the front
- use of a simple release wire to the winch to release the ratchet
- dropping the demolition charge
According to the British report on the vehicle, there was a machine gun fitted inside the turret. Facing forwards through a small hole in the cover plate over the hole in the mantlet formerly occupied by the 8.8 cm L/56 gun, the existence of the machine gun as described appears to be based only upon what appears to be the small device just visible within the hole. A machine gun was a reasonable assumption, but with the end of the barrel that far back it is entirely unclear how it could be depressed or elevated. A fixed (although it could rotate with the turret) machine gun is almost useless.
Also, normally, an M.G.34 was mounted in the front right of the hull and the available photographs show the ball mount still in place but no machine gun. This does not mean that there was not one, rather it was likely removed before or after capture. Retaining this machine gun would be easier than actually removing it and having to plate over a hole in the armor, but with a hull machine gun would a second (and fixed) machine gun in the turret have any value?
More likely, therefore, given the purpose described in the unit diary, is that this was simply some kind of tube through which a wire could be passed to the explosive charge. Assuming this charge to be the same as from the Borgward IV vehicles operated by the unit, this would be a 450 kg charge of Ecrasite (trinitrocresol), an ammonia-based explosive insensitive to shock impacts like those from bullets.
Although the British examination is a primary source, it has to be countered with another primary source in the form of the unit war diary. With no reason to lie about such a thing and the technical assessment of the vehicle as an ARV in mind, it can be said that the vehicle was not a dedicated ARV but instead was a charge laying vehicle. The success of the vehicle as a charge-layer may not be known and whilst it is certainly possible, or even probable that with a handle winch and light crane available it was used for some maintenance operations in the unit, this does not make it an ARV.
Illustration of the Panzerkampfwagen VI – Ladungsleger Tiger produced by Tank Encyclopedia’s own David Bocquelet.
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