503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion

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s.H.Pz.Abt. 503
503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion
A row of seven large tanks lined up with their long guns pointing up at an angle, as if saluting.
Schwere Panzerabteilung 503
Active 4 May 1942 - 8 May 1945
Country  Nazi Germany
Branch Wehrmacht Heer
Type Armoured
Size Battalion
Equipment Tiger I (1942–1945)
Tiger II (1944–1945)
Engagements

Eastern Front:

Western Front:

Insignia
Identification
symbol
503rd heavy tank battalion insignia.svg

The 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion (abbreviated s.Pz.Abt. 503) was a German heavy Panzer Abteilung (a battalion-sized unit) equipped with Tiger I tanks and Panzer IIIs. In 1944, it was re-equipped with the new Tiger II. The 503rd saw action on the Eastern and Western Fronts during the Second World War. As with other German Heavy Panzer Detachments, it was normally not assigned to a single corps, but shuffled around according to war circumstances. Later the Panzerabteilung became part of the newly formed Panzerkorps "Feldherrnhalle" as the Feldherrnhalle Heavy Tank Battalion, schwere-Panzer-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle (abbreviated s.Pz.Abt. Feldherrnhalle).

History[edit]

Formation[edit]

The unit was created on May 4, 1942, in Neuruppin. After releasing all Panzer IIIs, the unit consisted of 45 Tiger Is on May 10, 1943. The 503rd was the second Tiger detachment promised to Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel for service in North Africa. The 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion was already in action in Tunisia. The detachment was to be formed of Porsche-manufactured Tigers, but the cancellation of Porsche's design meant that the deployment was delayed. Instead, the unit was equipped with Henschel Tigers. As it was then too late for the 503rd to assist in North Africa, the unit was instead deployed to Generalfeldmarschall Erich von Manstein's Army Group Don.

Don River - Kharkov[edit]

When the Abteilung was sent east, it comprised 20 Tiger and 31 Panzer III Ausf. N. In the aftermath of the Battle of Stalingrad, the entire German front was pushed west. The abteilung took defensive positions immediately after their arrival at the front on January 1, 1943. The 503rd, along with several divisions of the 4th Panzer Army, was tasked with securing the withdrawal of Heeresgruppe A. The unit first saw action on January 4, around Stawropol, when a Soviet attack was repelled, and claimed their first 18 kills. Some days later, the unit conducted a counter-attack against Soviet lines. The heavily defended Soviet positions around Wesselyj repelled all attacks and the attack was canceled. The next days brought a fighting withdrawal to Rostov. Here the 2/ s.Pz.Abt. 502 was attached to s.Pz.Abt. 503 and became eventually the 3rd company.

On February 11, 1943, the 503rd was transferred to Kharkov and fought to halt the Soviet advance after the collapse of the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad. The 503rd distinguished itself in the Third Battle of Kharkov, taking part in the destruction of Mobile Group Popov, the main Soviet attacking force.

Operation Citadel[edit]

Tiger I of the 503rd arming up just before Operation Citadel
Tiger Is of the 503rd near Belgorod, Russia, August 1943

The 503rd then took part in Operation Citadel, an offensive operation meant to destroy the Kursk salient. Four days before the start of "Zitadelle," the abteilung reported that 42 of their 45 Tiger tanks were operational.

The abteilung was split up and one company was attached to each Panzer division of the III Panzer corps (Army detachment Kempf). Hptm.Graf Kageneck protested against this split, but was overruled. The first company came under the command of 6th Panzer division, the second under the command of 19th Panzer division and the third was attached to the 7th Panzer division. The I/s.H.Pz.Abt 503 was part of a Kampfgruppe of 6th Panzer division, which established a bridgehead over the Donec at 11 July.

The Tigers of the 503rd performed well in the offensive, losing three Tigers during Zitadelle and five more during the subsequent withdrawal. From July 5 to August 17, the unit claimed the destruction of 385 tanks, 4 assault guns and 265 anti-tank guns.

Panzer Regiment Bäke[edit]

In January, the abteilung, together with the II.Abt/Panzerregiment 23 and some infantry units, formed Panzer-Regiment Bäke under Oberst Dr. Franz Bäke. Over the following weeks, Panzer Regiment Bäke saw heavy fighting. After fighting in the area of Uman, the regiment was part of the relief force, which tried to break through to encircled forces in the Korsun Pocket. For this battle, the unit had 34 tanks operational. The unit performed well, despite suffering from bad weather. During the relief attempt the regiment was credited with 267 tanks destroyed for five combat losses. The Abteilung lost seven Tigers in total, but only one was destroyed by the enemy, while others were abandoned after the tanks were immobilized by muddy terrain. One Tiger was accidentally destroyed by a Panther of the 1st LSSAH. The reasons for this friendly fire incident are unknown.

From January 24 to February 21, 1944, the regiment claimed about 500 soviet tanks and assault guns destroyed for only nine combat losses.

The Abteilung was then trapped in Hube's Pocket, where all but seven of their remaining Tigers were lost.

In late April 1944, the regiment was dissolved and the 503rd was sent West for rest and refitting. During this period, sPzAbt 503 was completely equipped with 45 new Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf.B Tiger IIs.

Normandy[edit]

Camouflaged Tiger IIs using the Porsche turret version of the 503rd in France, July 1944

With the Invasion of Normandy on June 6, 1944, the 503rd was transferred to the command of Panzergruppe West. The first company was equipped with 12 Tiger II tanks. It was the first Pz.Komp to be equipped entirely with the Tiger II. The detachment fought well in combat against Allied tank forces during the battles around Caen. On the launch of Operation Goodwood, the 3rd company, which was based in Cagny, was caught in the preliminary bombing raids and completely wiped out, with bomb impacts powerful enough to turn even a 68-ton Tiger completely upside down. Only one Tiger was operational at the end of the day. During the first day of "Goodwood," the unit reported the loss of 13 tanks. On July 18, a remarkable incident took place when a M4 Sherman tank under the command of the Irish Lieutenant Gorman rammed a Tiger II of the I/s.H.Pz.Abt 503 and disabled it.

On the next day the two remaining companies were in defensive positions around Cagny and helped to halt a British advance. The Wehrmachtsbericht reported 40 enemy tanks destroyed, many of them by the 503rd. At the end of July, the 3rd company received new Tiger II tanks. Heavy aerial attacks destroy most of the equipment of the Tiger II company. Only 2 Tiger IIs were brought back to Germany, the tanks with turret number '314'/annelise and '323'. The 503rd, along with the Panzer-Lehr-Division's 316th Funklenk Panzer Company, were the only formations in Normandy to operate Tiger IIs. The 101st SS Heavy Tank Battalion got Tiger II tanks in late August but they saw no action.

The severely depleted 503rd managed to escape the horrors of the Falaise Pocket and was engaged in a fighting withdrawal to the German border. In late August the detachment was pulled from the line for a complete refit with Tiger IIs.

Hungary[edit]

Tiger II of the 503rd, Budapest, October 1944

In September 1944, the refitted 503rd was sent to Hungary to bolster the forces of Armeegruppe Fretter-Pico, defending the approaches to Budapest. Arriving in early October, the 3./sPzAbt 503 under Leutnant Freiherr von Rosen, provided support for Otto Skorzeny's Operation Panzerfaust, the coup which replaced the Hungarian leader, Admiral Miklós Horthy, and resulted in the Hungarians remaining as Germany's allies until the end of the War. Six King Tigers of the 3rd Company helped take the Buda Castle.

Immediately following the success of Panzerfaust, the company was returned to the detachment. The 503rd now played a major role in the Battle of Debrecen. The detachment formed the vanguard of the 23rd Panzer Division's drive to sever Cavalry Mechanized Group Pliyev's lines of communication, thus allowing the encirclement and eventual destruction of the Soviet force. During this period of action, the 503rd claimed 1,500 vehicles and 120 anti-tank guns destroyed.

In early-November, a powerful Soviet offensive pushed the Axis forces back towards Budapest. The 503rd was regularly acting in co-operation with the 60th Panzergrenadier Division Feldherrnhalle, providing a mobile reserve for the Armeegruppe, now commanded by General der Panzertruppen Hermann Balck and so renamed Armeegruppe Balck. By mid-December, the Germans had been pushed back to Budapest, and the Soviets were probing the outskirts of the city. The 503rd, along with the Feldherrnhalle, having lost many of its Tigers to combat and to mechanical issues, was engaged in fighting off Soviet attacks on Budapest's government district.

On December 21, the 503rd, having lost virtually all of its armour, was renamed to schwere-Panzer-Abteilung Feldherrnhalle (abbreviated sPzAbt FHH) and officially attached to the 60th Panzergrenadier Division Feldherrnhalle.

On 31 December, the Soviets completed the encirclement of Budapest and the siege of the city began. During the Battle of Budapest, the majority of the FHH along with roughly 70,000 German and Hungarian troops of the IX SS Mountain Corps were trapped.[citation needed] The remnants of the detachment saw heavy fighting during the final Soviet assaults to annihilate the trapped forces. The 503rd took part in several failed attempts to relieve Budapest, codenamed Operation Konrad.

Record[edit]

The 503rd and the later Feldherrnhalle heavy tank battalions are credited with the destruction of around 1,700 enemy tanks. The battalion lost 252 Tiger Is, Tiger IIs and also some Panzer IIIs. Of these, 123 (49%) were destroyed by their crews and 113 (45%) were destroyed by the enemy. The battalion had more tanks put out of action outside combat than to enemy action. This was a common occurrence in German tank units as a result of the poor reliability of Tiger tanks and the fuel supply problems often suffered by the German army.

The 503rd maintained a kill ratio of 15:1 for combat losses, which was above average for German heavy tank battalions and the second highest for combat losses. The number of tanks claimed as destroyed by the 503rd will exceed the number which were actually destroyed, as a knocked out tank may be repaired, and two tanks firing on the same target may both claim the "kill," resulting in that target being counted twice, and some claims have simply been exaggerated. However, there are several examples where claims were found to be entirely accurate when enemy losses were counted, as when German troops held an area after a battle and were able to prevent Soviet forces from recovering their lost vehicles.

Commanders[edit]

Notable members[edit]

Orders of battle[edit]

February 1943 - Kharkov[edit]

  • Abteilung Stab Zug (3x Tiger I ausf E, 6x SdKfz 250)
  • 1./sPzAbt 503 (14x Tiger I ausf E)
  • 2./sPzAbt 503 (14x Tiger I ausf E)
  • 2./sPzAbt 502 (14x Tiger I ausf E)

July 1944 - Normandy[edit]

  • Abteilung Stab Zug (3x Tiger I ausf E, 6x SdKfz 250)
  • 1./sPzAbt 503 (12x Tiger II ausf B, 2x Tiger I ausf E)
  • 2./sPzAbt 503 (14x Tiger I ausf E)
  • 3./sPzAbt 503 (14x Tiger I ausf E)

October 1944 - Debrecen[edit]

  • Abteilung Stab Zug (3x Tiger II ausf B, 6x SdKfz 250)
  • 1./sPzAbt 503 (14x Tiger II ausf B)
  • 2./sPzAbt 503 (14x Tiger II ausf B)
  • 3./sPzAbt 503 (14x Tiger II ausf B)

Notes and references[edit]

External links[edit]