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Blog topic: From Stug to Ferdinand/Elefant

March 21, 2015


Stug III assault gun illustration.

Stug III assault gun. Illustration by ©WW2HQ.


This past week I have been reading the book Assault Guns to the Front,1 about the stug assault guns of World War 2. It seems to me that artillery men of WW2, in general, received a specific type of equipment such as assault gun, and typically stayed with that same type throughout the war. The experience that I thought was so startling, if not unique, was the size difference of the two vehicles assigned to the men of German Battalion 197, as related in this book.


German Assault Gun Battalion 197

.Battalion 197 formed at the very end of 1940 and were supplied with Stug III (Sturmgeschütz III) assault guns, which were twenty-six ton tanks having 50mm and, eventually 80mm frontal armor. The Battalion's first combat assignment was the invasion of the Balkans, where they saw relatively little action, since the Yugoslavians were effective in blowing up the bridges before the German armored vehicles could get there.


But eventually, Battalion 197 was involved with the invasion of Russia (Operation Barbarossa) where they fought, attached to many different units. They suffered great numbers of casualties in the Crimean.


In February of 1942, after the Germans had been stopped in Moscow, and Leningrad was still under siege, Battalion 197 had suffered so much equipment damage and so many casualties, they were withdrawn back to Germany for refitting. Then by what seems to be a matter of chance, the entire unit was reassigned to a heavy panzer regiment.2



Elefant tank-hunter/destroyer illustration.

Elefant tank-hunter/destroyer. Illustration by ©WW2HQ.

The Elefant (Ferdinand)

After reassignment, the artillerymen of Battalion 197 were not issued Stug IIIs or even a newer version of a Stug III. Surprisingly, they were issued the giant sixty ton Ferdinand3 tank hunter. Consequently, these men went from operating a twenty-six ton tank with 50 to 80mm armor, to a monstrously large sixty-five ton tank with 100mm thick frontal armor.


The Ferdinand/Elefants3 were a heavy tank-hunter/destroyer (Schwerer Panzerjäger), built under the direct order of Adolf Hitler, because he was disappointed that the first version of the Tiger tank didn't mount the full size version of the famous 88mm anti-aircraft, anti-tank gun. Hitler now pressed to have an assault gun with the large 88mm gun in it. So the Nibelungenwerke manufacturing company took an unused version of the Tiger tank chassis, enlarged it a little bit, added a massive fighting compartment and added 100mm thick frontal armor. There were very few Ferdinands built in WWII – about 90 all together.


Because the Ferdinand was produced at the direct order of Hitler,4 they were in production and coming out the factory door before Heinz Guderian, leader of the panzer units, ever saw them. It is my understanding that when Guderian did see the Ferdinand, he was appalled. This is an illustration of the the extent of meddling that Hitler did on a regular basis with regards to the German army.


Although amazingly large, the Ferdinand3 had disadvantages that weren't immediately apparent. First was height. In a tank battle, height matters because more height makes you a bigger target. And this tank was just so huge overall, you could spot it from quite a distance. This first version, (Ferdinands which fought at Kursk), had no machine gun and no commander's cupola. With no movable turret, this meant fighting infantry with the 88mm cannon, while sighting through the gunner or driver scopes, because the commander was missing the hatch with the periscopes. So Guderian had reason to be appalled, and wanted these deficiencies fixed as soon as possible. But Hitler had already sent the Ferdinands to Kursk.



Illustration comparing size of Stug III and Elefant tank-hunter/destroyer.

Comparison of Stug III assault gun and Elefant tank-hunter/destroyer. Illustration by ©WW2HQ.

The Ferdinand at the Battle of Kursk

The Ferdinands3 had their first debut at the battle of Kursk in 1943, which by all accounts was the largest tank battle in history in terms of number of tanks on opposing sides. The Germans had amassed all of their tanks together to attack the Kursk salient.5 The Germans put together all their armored divisions to try and cut off the salient, attacking from both the north and south. But the Russians were prepared. They had known for four or five months that the assault was coming and so built row after row of trenches and tank traps and put thousands of anti-tank guns and mines into the area. They also brought in many divisions of Russian tanks for a counter-attack to the initial German attack. There were literally thousands of tanks in this one battle. In the end, the Russians won the battle of Kursk, and thereby, the Germans lost any chance of future offensive operations in Russia.


Although less than half of these heavy tank hunters survived the battle at Kursk, before the war was over, some fought in Italy, where American and British soldiers came up against small numbers of them.

 

Notes

1Franz Kurowski. Sturmgeschutze vor! Assault Guns to the Front!. Winnipeg, Manitoba: J.J. Fedorowicz Publishing. (1999).
2There were also Panzer soldiers included in this unit.
3Shortly after Kursk, the Germans started pulling back the Ferdinands that survived and refitted them with a machine gun and commander's cupola, renaming them Elefants.
4Peter Chamberlain and Hilary L. Doyle. Encyclopedia of German Tanks of World War II. New York: Arco Publishing Company, Inc. (1978) p. 140.
5 A salient is a nose-shape extension; in this case, the extension was the Russian intrusion into the German lines.




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