the official WoT forum history sections are full of heroic stories from various units and nations – with one exception: the Waffen SS. There’s a reason for it of course: any “adoration” of Waffen SS is illegal in many countries (especially in Europe) and SS insignia are banned practically everywhere.
Waffen SS units (not to mistake them with Allgemeine SS or SS-Totenkopfverbände, who were a bunch of sadists, criminals and useless in combat) themselves are the subjects of a lot of myths, that actually go both sides. Some consider them to be elite fearless and fanatical nazi supersoldiers, others consider them rubbish based on some of their combat records.
The truth – as usual – lies somewhere in the middle. Waffen SS units were ranging from some of the best in the entire German army (some of the elite Schwerpanzerabteilungen) to totally useless (13. Waffen-Gebirgs-Division der SS „Handschar“ and other “foreign legion”-type SS units).
In general, early Waffen SS had poor combat record (especially in France), but of course that didn’t mean there were no exceptional men in these units. There’s Michael Wittman of course, but one of the less known Panzer commanders was Franz Staudegger.
Franz Staudegger was born on 12.2.1923 in Austria as one of four sons of a pub owner. He finished the school in Klagenfurt in 1940 and immediately joined the SS. He was assigned to the infantry training batallion of the 1st SS Division “Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler” (LAH). During his first fight as an infantryman he was wounded. When he recovered, he was sent to train to become a tank commander of the new dreaded weapon – the massive Tiger tank. This was the end of 1942. He first fought on the Panzer III tank and later (after his promotion) switched to the Tiger.
He was seen as a brash commander to the point of being reckless, but noone could deny his bravery – but his most famous moment happened during the Battle of Kursk Salient.
Tanks versus grenades
It all started on one warm night of 5th of July. By then already SS-Unterscharführer (the rank roughly equals to US sargeant) Staudegger was slowly moving his Tiger to rejoin the rest of the LAH panzer unit (2nd Platoon of 13th Panzer Company LAH) (led by Michael Wittman) down a forest road. The tank was quite loud, so he couldn’t hear anything really from his surroundings. Suddenly, a small light lit up directly in the Tiger’s way: there was another tank standing across the road the Tiger was rolling on and its commander was just standing there in his turret, smoking (Staudegger could see the cigarette lighting up). Staudegger got out of his Tiger to yell at the idiot blocking the road (the other guy couldn’t hear the Tiger either, his tank’s engine was running) and ran to the other tank. When he reached the other tank, he was in for a shock: it was in fact a Russian T-34 and the guy on the top of the turret was a Russian commander, who froze with shock, realizing the tank that just arrived is not another T-34, but a Tiger! Staudegger’s infantry training however took over, he calmly took one of the grenades he was carrying, primed it and threw it at the T-34 hatch. It fell inside and the detonation illuminated yet another T-34, standing behind the first one.
Staudegger realized the other crew would hear the explosion, shouted a warning to his own Tiger crew and quickly proceeded to climb on the other T-34. Surely enough, the other Soviet crew opened the hatches to see what’s going on, at which point Staudegger, already waiting for that, threw the second grenade inside the other T-34 and bailed out. Another explosion tore thru the second Soviet tank. Staudegger then returned to his Tiger and resumed his return to his unit. The very next day, he was awarded with an Iron Cross 1st Class for this action.
To knock out two T-34′s with grenades only was quite a feat, but in the end it was overshadowed by what came three days later.
Operation Citadel was one of the turning points in the war. The Tigers of the LAH were one of the strongest German units and they were assigned to hammer the Soviet defenses on the southern part of the designated area. However, the fighting took a heavy toll and many of the steel titans were damaged. Staudegger’s Tiger was one of them and on July 8th, 1943, he was unable to participate in the upcoming attack. Frustrated, he just sat around, watching his Tiger being fixed, thinking he wouldn’t see action that day. However, that was not to be the case.
Around 10AM, a message came to the company repair camp at Teterevinovo, that a Soviet assault force of 50-60 tanks is approaching from the northwest. Staudegger’s Tiger was the only available tank to counter it – all the other Tigers were already committed to other goals. Staudegger decided quickly: he and his crew would perform some emeregency repairs on his Tiger and meet the threat head on. His crew (Herbert Stahlmacher – driver, Gerhard Waltersdorf – radio operator, Heinz Buchner – gunner and Walter Henke – loader) agreed.
After the quick repairs were completed (the tracks were barely holding together however), the Tiger slowly advanced towards the Soviet onslaught. They arrived just in time to rescue elements of the infantry batallion “Deutschland” from being overrun. Two Soviet tanks were already burning, destroyed previously by the infantry. The arrival of the steel behemoth changed the tide of battle. The Tiger crew, guided by the infantry, quickly took out three Soviet T-34 tanks.
In the following brutal hours of combat while changing his position carefully but constantly to avoid being too easy target – Staudegger knocked out 17 Soviet tanks, before the Russians decided to call it a day and started retreating. The Tiger was hit numerous times, but its thick hide proved to be impenetrable to the Soviet 76mm guns.
At that point, Staudegger’s crew was exhausted (especially the loader, who did a tremendous job), but Staudegger wasn’t done yet: he ordered the crew to advance on Soviet positions. When the massive steel monster started moving slowly to pursuit the retreating Soviet tanks, loud cheers came from the infantry.
Staudegger didn’t have to move far. The Soviets were regrouping right behind the lines, in a forest. Not expecting to be attacked by a single tank, they were in for a shock, when they saw the Tiger slowly emerging from the woods, like a vengeful spirit of old.
The massive 88mm gun screamed its anger yet again and within minutes, 5 more Soviet tanks were torn to pieces by Tiger’s shots. At that moment, however, the Tiger was out of AP ammo and Staudegger ordered the driver to retreat. Slowly reversing back into the woods, Staudegger’s tank was again hit numerous times, while the gunner continued to shell the retreating Soviets with HE and smoke shots. By the time Staudegger returned to German lines, his suspension was heavily damaged, his track was nearly gone and the tank itself was hit no less than 67 times by the Soviet 76mm guns. The crew – including Staudegger himself – was totally exhausted and on the verge of collapse, but the Soviet attack was broken.
For this action, Staudegger recieved – as the first Tiger tanker ever – the Knight’s Cross. He was also later personally invited to appear before Adolf Hitler to recount the operation.
Franz Staudegger survived the war and died in 1995 in Frankfurt. This episode was certainly one of the highlights of the short career of the Tiger tanks, but even such victories as this one could not stem the Soviet tide, that was swallowing German armies one by one. In the end, the entire SS organization was rightfully outlawed, but that does not mean there were no brave or skilled men within their ranks. And as for the Tiger, well… no matter what happened, the Tiger will always be the legendary tanks of history, regardless of politics or ideology.
Source: Patrick Agte – Michael Wittman and the Waffen SS Tiger commanders of the Leibstandarte in WWII, vol.1