There were rumours from the East. Soviet T-34 tanks were being destroyed at inconceivable ranges while German news reels boasted of a war winning weapon. It was called Tiger. German tank designers had designed a weapon that would restore the balance of the armoured battlefield in Germany’s favour.
It was in Tunisia in early 1943 that British Shermans finally came up against the Tiger. With 100mm of frontal armour, it was virtually impenetrable to British guns, while its 88mm gun, developed as an anti aircraft gun, could smash through the Sherman’s armour at about a mile. As the British tanks burst into flames the black humoured German tank crews called the Shermans: ‘Tommie Cookers.’
At the excellent Tank Museum in Bovington this week I was shown round a Tiger and realised just how big a problem the British had on their hands. Shermans could knock out a Tiger but only at a range of 400m and only from the side. Lacking strike power, or defensive armament the Sherman would have to rely on the third component of armoured warfare: mobility. However the Tiger was surprisingly mobile, with top speeds similar to the Sherman despite weighing in at nearly twice its weight.
The allies were rocked. In Britain there was something close to despair. The invasion of Europe loomed and the British tanks were unambiguously inferior. One anti-tank gun, the high velocity 17 pounder could knock out a Tiger, but scientists said ruefully that it could not fit into the Sherman’s turret. At Lulworth gunnery school some maverick soldiers got hold of the 17 pounder by hook or by crook and went to work on the Sherman. After a bit of blue sky thinking, ripping out the radio and turning the gun on its side, they made it fit. Just.
The resultant Sherman Firefly was rushed into production but not many were ready before D-day. Trooper Joe Eskin was a gunner in one of them. He told me this week that he had had 5 practice shots on the range before heading to France. He hated the army, saying 90% of the time they were made to do ‘bull-shit’ tasks, like square bashing which he could see as having no impact on his skill as a gunner. After landing he had the worst fortnight of his life. His best friend was killed by shelling two days after they landed. ‘It didn’t matter,’ he told me, ‘if you were brave, scared, how good a soldier they thought you were, an officer, a soldier, who you prayed to, whether you prayed…… didn’t make a scrap of difference. They all got it in the end.’ One sergeant burnt to death, trapped against the hull of his tank by the breach of his gun. ‘You couldn’t be frightened all the time’ though, said Joe, ‘danger became normal.’
Meanwhile behind Gold and Omaha beaches the Tiger was at the centre of one of the most remarkable armoured contacts of the war. A Company of the Heavy SS-Panzer Battalion 101 commanded by tank ace and friend of Hitler, Michael Wittmann, took less than 15 minutes to destroy just under 15 British tanks, two anti tank guns, and around 15 transport vehicles. Wittman in his Tiger was responsible for the vast majority.
Ekins had never heard of Wittman, when on August 8 he faced a German counter attack, composed of seven Tiger tanks near Gaumesnil. Ekins’ tank broke cover, he took aim and knocked out the lead Tiger. His Sherman Firefly reversed back into the trees as the Germans returned fire. He burst out again and knocked out another tank and then a third. It was an extraordinary achievement. Joe says modestly that he was ‘pleased’ with his shooting but ‘the main relief was emotion.’ Wittmann was killed in one of those tanks; he had met his match in a volunteer from a citizen army who had still fired less than 10 shots.
Their personal conflict was a microcosm of the war. These two men embodied the ambitions, ethos and character of their respective sides. One was a warrior, the other a factory worker. One dreamt of medals, tank kills and martial glory; the other of peace and leaving the army. Incredibly Joe was rewarded by being made a radio operator and never fired another weapon. But he had made his contribution and, as promised, as soon as he could he left the army. He had done his job.