by Bruce Oliver Newsome
This is the first article in a three-part series on the deployment of German Tiger tanks in 1942, while Canadian forces were still staging in Britain for campaigns in Europe. Thanks to opportunities for a few Canadian personnel to volunteer for short rotations with British units in Tunisia, a Canadian infantry officer was in charge of a British company that was first to knock out a Tiger, and a Canadian engineer was first to exploit a second Tiger, knocked out within the hour. Yet their stories were lost in the subsequent British exploitations and histories. This article rediscovers the evidence from the Canadian, British, and German archives.
Bruce Oliver Newsome (PhD) is a lecturer in international relations at the University of San Diego. He previously held standing faculty positions at the University of California Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania, and the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He started his career as a research political scientist at the RAND Corporation. He has served in the British and US Army reserves.
The Tiger tank was first deployed by German Forces in Russia in August 1942. At the time, Canadian forces were raiding Dieppe, in France, and staging in Britain for eventual invasions of Sicily (July 1943), mainland Italy (September 1943), and Normandy (June 1944). What are the chances that Canadians would be first to defeat and exploit Tiger tanks in the West?
Tiger tanks were first deployed on a Western front in Tunisia in December 1942. The following month, a Canadian infantry officer was in charge of a British company that knocked out a Tiger. Within the hour, another Tiger was knocked out, a Canadian engineer was in charge of the company sent to recover it.
These two Canadians were on three-month rotations with British units, in order to distribute combat experience to Canadian units. That much is certain. Unfortunately, we know less about their achievements than we should. Senior British officers took over the exploitation of the captured Tiger after the two Canadians had been advanced and evacuated respectively. Although the technicians credited four photographs to the Canadian engineer, they did not name either Canadian. Fortunately, a Canadian report on Tunisia names both. Unfortunately, their personal reports have not turned up. This article tells their stories, so far as the British, Canadian, and German archives allow. Hopefully, it will stimulate further discovery.
In mid-January 1943, Tiger tanks participated in a counter-offensive (Operation Eilbote) that left the Italians in control of most of the passes in the Eastern Dorsals, in the French sector of the Allied front in Tunisia. However, American counter-attacks put the Italians under pressure. On 31st January, Operation Eilbote II was supposed to relieve that pressure. Friedrich Weber was in charge of the nascent German 334th Division HQ deployed in both operations:
Objections were raised against this operation plan because it was a repetition of the previous action, the enemy was forewarned, and therefore the plan did not promise of any great success. Nevertheless, the operation was ordered.[i]
During Operation Eilbote I, Weber had sent the Tigers up the highway from Pont du Fahs, south-westwards, into the French left flank. Instead of penetrating deeper towards Robaa (now Bargou), they turned left (south-eastwards) off the highway, effectively in parallel to the French front, in order to capture the passes from the French side. Eilbote II took the same highway almost to Robaa before turning left, in order to capture the area between the highway and the passes.
However, the defenders had been reinforced, while the attackers had not, except for a slight increase in available Tigers (11 instead of 9, of which only 6 were allocated towards Robaa). In Robaa, British 36th Brigade HQ now commanded a substantial brigade group. It advanced its positions until it was defending an unusually sharp bend in the highway, about 2 miles north-east of Robaa. The spot remains un-named. Often the battle is described inaccurately as a battle for Robaa itself. Some Allied documents record the battle as Sidi Zid or Sidi Said; on the Allied map of the time, the nearest printed name is “Si Zid Kba”, alongside a mosque, which was not occupied by either side. (See the oval in the upper right corner of Map 1.)
The most forward unit was the 5th Buffs (Royal East Kent Regiment). Its “A” Company (the one commanded by a Canadian) was closest to the tight bend in the highway, atop a small, steep hill, about 300 metres across (see the circle containing the letter “A” on Map 1). This hill is 1,100 metres to the west of the mosque, and hidden by an intervening rise about 500 metres to the east of the Company. On 29th January, A Company reported that the enemy had occupied the high ground a few hundred metres to its left front (north-east). On 30th January, after dusk, 48 shells from a heavy infantry gun or mortar landed within the A Company’s area, killing one man.
The D Company was in a wood on the southern side of the highway. The B Company was on the hill behind D Company, and C Company was hidden on a hill above the highway, 2,300 metres to the south-west of A Company.
Just to the south was a junction (Sidi Said K’ba: contained within an oval in the lower left corner of Map 1). The Germans meant to seize this junction before turning left into the mountains. Around this junction were the Buffs HQ, most of HQ Company, most of the 3-inch mortars, two-pounders, Universal Carriers, and pioneers, and a squadron of Crusader and Valentine tanks from the 17th/21st Lancers. They were less than a mile from central Robaa, which was occupied by the Brigade HQ and at least one troop of twenty-five pounders.
The Buffs started 31st January with 777 men of all ranks, after 5 officers and 56 other ranks arrived as replacements just the previous evening.
Amongst the very first batch of Canadians sent to British 1st Army, three infantry captains joined the 5th Buffs on 18th January 1943 (E.A. Dunlop, R.C. Coleman, and G.M. MacLachlan). Each was assigned to a company as second-in-command.
The surviving documents do not locate Dunlop and Coleman, but they reveal that Captain Graham M. MacLachlan of the Royal Regiment of Canada joined A Company. The Canadian archives contain a copy of a letter he sent to a friend (addressed only as Peter) at his unit in Britain. This copy was preserved as an attachment to a report, dated 12th May 1943, and amended 18th March 1946, on the Canadians attached to British forces in Tunisia.[ii] The author was Colonel C.P. Stacey, then Director of the Historical Section at Canadian Military Headquarters (later: the official historian of the Canadian Army in the Second World War). Stacey’s report refers to “an undated copy of a report” by MacLachlan. Unfortunately, none of MacLachlan’s papers have turned up amongst the Library & Archives Canada, his regiment’s papers, the Buffs’ papers, or the various war diaries.
Fortunately, Stacey summarizes MacLachlan’s report: MacLachlan joined A Company as second-in-command on 19th January. His letter to “Peter” was initially dated 23rd January; a series of postscripts reveal that he first went on patrol on some night between 19th and 28th January. By the latter date, he had “not shaved or had a wash for days and missed my shut-eye for four days straight.” He was then in charge of the company’s carriers, machine-guns, two-pounder guns, and landmines. By 31st January he was in charge of the whole company, after its British commander was somehow incapacitated. Stacey quotes from MacLachlan’s report: “[I] commanded my co[mpan]y through a heavy attack by German tanks supported by inf[antry], aircraft, and art[iller]y.”
The Tigers advanced from Pont du Fahs, followed by some mechanized engineers and 20-mm cannons. They crossed the forward line two-and-a-half hours before dawn at 0500 hours Allied time, when they came under artillery fire. Shortly after clearing mines in the road, they received more artillery fire. Two Tigers were damaged. After the second mine barrier, they dropped out, leaving four Tigers, each escorted by two Panzer IIIs.
The A Company heard tank engines around 0600 hours. Amazingly, the Germans had been manoeuvring their tanks in the dark for an hour already. Over the next 90 minutes, they would navigate many crests, depressions, bridges, and culverts that could have sheltered defenders, up to Sidi Zid K’ba. Sunrise was at 0724 hours. A few minutes later, D Company or B Company reported 13 tanks south of the highway near Sidi Zid K’ba. A dozen Panzers must have turned to face the likely Allied positions, while engineers dismounted their half-tracks to clear the culvert and wadi just south of the mosque.
Tiger 21 (numbered for the commander of 2nd Company, 501st Heavy Tank Battalion) crossed the culvert, followed by two Panzer IIIs. Tiger 21 came into view of A Company at a crest, whose north-south line is indicated on Map 1 by Point “456” and the letters “R.R.” and “I.B.” The two nearest six-pounders opened fire, with the nearest just 500 metres away. At the same time, another six-pounder opened fire on Tiger 21’s left side, from the south, 1,000 metres away. Tiger 21 ended up with hits on both sides and the front. No shots perforated, until Tiger 21 was closer still. It likely turned up the track north-westwards in order to get between A Company and the higher hill that had been occupied by German troops a couple days earlier, and most likely after the British guns seemed to be suppressed.
However, Lieutenant Stanley Edwards, the commander of the four six-pounders, was holding fire in the hope of a side shot. Two were out of sight, on the western end of A Company’s hill. Twelve minutes after he first sighted Tiger 21, his guns put two perforations in the left side of Tiger 21. The German crew reported eight hits before they evacuated: the two perforations were the only impacts at perpendicular angle. The range was likely less than 400 metres. The war diary confirms the time as 0740 hours. MacLachlan’s missing report would surely clarify how Tiger 21 was defeated. Stacey’s summary of it concludes as follows:
Captain MacLachlan gives a long and graphic description of the enemy tank attack on 31 Jan. 43 mentioned in (b) above, in the course of which the force which he commanded knocked out with a 6-pounder an enemy Mk. VI (“Tiger”) tank. Captain MacLachlan’s company had an A.Tk. [anti-tank] troop under command. “This Mk. VI was the first knocked out by any British t[roo]ps on any front.”
Tiger 21 received 18 further hits after its crew departed, according to sketches by its mechanics. Yet Tiger 21 was pulled back behind the crest quickly, beyond hope of Allied capture. Indeed, it would be returned to service, having suffered no internal damage beyond the radio.
The author thanks: Colin Alford, Canadian Forces Recruiting Group Headquarters; Tim Cook, Director of Research, Canadian War Museum; John Fisher, Curator, Base Borden Military Museum; David Portilla, Reference Archivist, Library and Archives Canada; Emily Sommers, Digital Records Archivist, University of Toronto Archives; Rick Towey, Curator, Museum of The Royal Regiment of Canada; Emilie Vandal, Archivist, Directorate of History and Heritage, Department of National Defence.
[i] Friedrich Weber, “Battles of 334th Division and of Group Weber from the end of December 1942 to May 1943,” United States Army Europe HQ, Historical Division, Foreign Military Studies Branch, D-215, 1948, p. 22.
[ii] Stacey’s report can be found online at: https://www.canada.ca/en/department-national-defence/services/military-history/history-heritage/official-military-history-lineages/reports/military-headquarters-1940-1948/attachment-canadian-officers-soldiers-1st-british-army-tunisia-1942-1943.html