The Germans understood that Sandomierz opened the road deep into Poland, and losing it was catastrophic. The plan was to strike between two Soviet armies. The offensive would be joined by the 501st heavy tank battalion (45 King Tigers).
The 53rd Guards Tank Brigade lay in the path of the Germans, commanded by Colonel Vasiliy Arkhipov. He was an experienced officer, having fought enemy tanks back in the Winter War. He was well capable of competently organizing defenses, including tank ambushes.
The King Tiger suffered from technical problems. Before the August 11th offensive, only 12 of the 45 501st's King Tigers remained operational. The rest broke down.
Initially, the enemy achieved significant gains. By August 12th, King Tigers overran infantry defenses and reached the villages of Szydłów and Ogledow, next to Staszow. This is where their luck ran out.
On August 13th, at 7:00, under the cover of fog, 11 Tiger II tanks and two APCs with infantry formed up for an attack on a nameless height east of Ogledow. On the eastern slopes, an ambush with two Soviet tanks awaited them. One was a T-34-85 commanded by Guards Lieutenant Alexander Oskin. At 300 meters, he opened fire. Three tanks were destroyed, the rest turned back.
That day, on another section of the front, two IS-2 tanks from the 71st Independent Heavy Tank Regiment, attached to Arkhipov's brigade, faced King Tigers. Before dawn, a platoon of IS-2 tanks commanded by Senior Lieutenant Klimenkov set up next to Ogledow. When our infantry went into an attack, they spotted a King Tiger in some bushes in the south of the village, and informed our tankers. Klimenkov moved out to a prepared position and set a house on fire with two shots. The Tiger began retreating.
Klimenkov's next shot shattered his track. The crew bailed out and ran. Soviet infantry took over the tank, turned the turret towards the Germans, and opened fire. Meanwhile, Klimenkov destroyed another tank on the right flank. The attack on Ogledow failed.
Seven more King Tigers tasted defeat that day. At 14:00, they attacked our positions at Ogledow from height 271.2. Senior Lieutenant Udalov let them approach to 700-800 meters, and opened fire with his IS-2. One tank burned, another was damaged. When the German tanks passed the ambush and continued on, Udalov went around through a forest road, cut off their advance, and destroyed another tank. The enemy retreated, but soon repeated his attempt. This time, the Germans hit Senior Lieutenant Belyakov's ambush, who opened fire at 1000 meters, and destroyed a tank on his third shot. The rest turned back. Our tankers, combined with artillery, deflected 7 tank attacks that day.
On the night from August 13th to August 14th, Arkhipov's 53rd brigade captured four King Tigers. According to Soviet reports, the Germans lost 31 tanks at Szydłów and Ogledow. Reports mentioned the poor mobility of the new Tigers, which were frequently bogged down in the sand, and large size, which made aiming easier.
The appearance and capture of new tanks did not go unnoticed. The King Tigers underwent extensive trials. How did Soviet specialists find the trophies?
The King Tiger, weighing 68 tons, had high fuel consumption due to its worn out engine, 971 L for 100 km, instead of 700, as specified in the manual. 860 L that could fit in the tank was enough to travel 90 km on dirt roads.
In comparison, a Panther can travel 120 km with 750 L of fuel, and the 44-ton Soviet IS-2 could travel 135 km on its 520 L tanks, spending 400 liters on 100 km.
The IS-2 was also superior in speed: 17 average kph on dirt roads, compared to the King Tiger's 13.4 kph.
While driving to the proving grounds, the tank showed its poor reliability. Final drives broke twice, on the 1st and 113th kilometer. The drive wheel broke on the 86th and 103rd kilometer, the second time taking out the torsion bar of a road wheel with it.
The planetary mechanism gave the King Tiger a good turning rate, but two track links and 12 track pins broke during turning. The pins shattered into several pieces. Additionally, the turning mechanism was expensive and complicated.
The convenient positioning of aiming mechanisms, a backup electric trigger mechanism, hydraulic foot-operated turret turning mechanism, and monocular ball-mounted sight with variable field of view gave the King Tiger good precision and a rate of fire of 5-6 RPM.
The crew positions were well designed and comfortable, aside from the commander's seat. The report mentions that it is too low, and its height cannot be adjusted, making it so the commander had to lift himself up to observe through the cupola. The cupola's vertical field of view was also insufficient.
Despite the thick armour (150 mm UFP at 50 degrees and 190 mm turret front at 10 degrees), the armour was of low quality, worse than first Tigers and Panthers. Due to the poor armour, welding seams were unreliable. Even if the armour was not penetrated, it formed see-through cracks. After 3-4 hits from 500-600 meters with 100-122 mm shells, an armour plate would be completely destroyed.
The side armour was significantly less protected than the front plates, and therefore more vulnerable. The tank's protection was insufficient for its excessive size and weight.
The most effective way to fire on a King Tiger was a volley from a battery (3-4 guns) of high caliber guns at a range of 500-1000 meters.
The conclusion is that the King Tiger could be, like its predecessor, a dangerous opponent in a defensive line prepared ahead of time. For instance, the 17-19 tanks of the 501st battalion claim 250 Soviet tanks and 142 guns destroyed in the winter of 1943-1944.
In order for this to happen, the King Tiger must already be at the spearhead of the offensive, and not trying to catch up with the increasing strength of Soviet attacks, frequently unaware of where they are happening. The unreliable suspension, poor mobility, and very vulnerable sides were frequently fatal for King Tigers, as it happened at Sandomierz.
Author: Evgeniy Belash
Evgeniy Belash is a historian, an author of books and articles on the First and Second World Wars. His best known work is "Myths of the First World War". Currently, he is working on the manuscript of a book on the application of tanks in the 1920s and 1930s.
- NIBT report on brief Tiger B trials.
- NIBT report on ballistic testing of the front hull and turret of the Tiger B.
- Report of the combat actions of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade from April 19th to September 1st, 1944.
- Report of the combat actions of the 71st Independent Heavy Tank Regiment from July 14th to August 31st, 1944.
- A. Isayev, Operatsiya Bagration, Moscow, Yauza, Eksmo, 2014, p. 71
- P. Schitkin, Konigstiger: neudachniy debut, Korolevskiye Tigry na Sandomirzkom Platsdarme, "Mir Oruzhiya", 2005 #8, p. 14-25