King of the bulge

One of only a handful left, this King Tiger is perhaps the best known of the lot. Located in the picturesque town of La Gleize in the Ardennes, Belgium, this is the only Tiger II visible from the public road. Because of the incredible amount of photos I have taken, I decided to split this walk-around into multiple parts. In this first post I will dive into the events that would eventually lead to the loss of this Tiger. In upcoming parts, the Tiger and all of its components will be featured in more detail.

Leibstandarte during the Ardennes offensive ​[1], [2]​

Tiger ‘213’ was one of the tanks of schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 501 attached to 1. SS-Panzer-Division ‘Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler‘ during the Ardennes offensive. This last-ditch effort of the Third Reich saw the mustering of three armies: 6th SS-Panzerarmee, 5th Panzerarmee and the 7th Armee. On 16 December 1944 these armies attacked the allied position along a 100 kilometres long front between Monschau and Echternach. Their goal was to cross the Meuse river and head for Antwerp to cut off the bulk of the allied armies on the western front. Hitler was convinced that cutting off the allied armies in the low countries would force them into peace negotiations.

On the northern shoulder of the offensive the 6th SS-Panzerarmee attacked over five so called Rollbahnen. The roads, often single-file and filled with mire, were completely unsuitable for heavy traffic, let alone the movement of entire armies which resulted in enormous traffic jams. Spearheading the attack of Leibstandarte was Kampfgruppe Peiper commanded by Joachim Peiper. KG Peiper made its way over Rollbahn D in direction of Werbomont to Baugnez via Büllingen1 and Faymonville. At Baugnez crossroads just south of Malmedy a tragedy took place: 84 POWs were shot in cold blood on 17 December.

In search of a crossing over the Amblève river, the Kampfgruppe moved towards Stavelot where a bridge was successfully captured on the 18th. KG Knittel and multiple Königstiger of sSS-PzAbt 501 joined Peiper here. Travelling along the west bank, Trois Ponts was reached, but all three road bridges were blown by its defenders, blocking the route to Werbomont. The drive westward was continued in direction of La Gleize. At Cheneux the bridge was found intact, but the convoy was strafed by P-47 Thunderbolts, severely delaying their advance. When approaching the bridge over the Lienne near Habiémont, it too was blown. On the same day a regiment of 30th Infantry Division made its way to Stavelot and Peiper now faced the risk of being cut off from resupplies and reinforcements.

Desperately looking for another crossing, Peiper attacked Stoumont on 19 December. The village was taken after heavy fighting, but attacks towards the station failed. US engineers managed to destroy the main bridge over the Amblève in Stavelot, separating Peiper from the rest of his division on the southern bank. The net was tightening around Peiper as Americans also appeared on the road between La Gleize and Trois Ponts. With inadequate strength to defend Chenaux and Stoumont, all troops were withdrawn to La Gleize on the 21st. Peiper’s last life line was cut when the narrow wooden bridge over the Amblève at Petit Spay collapsed under the weight of a Panzer IV/70.

The Tigers at Wérimont, 21-22 December ​[4]–[6]​

Preparing to defend La Gleize, Peiper organised his defences around the town. All command posts were situated in cellars, sheltered from the heavy artillery bombardments that the 30th Infantry Division brought to bear. Tiger commanders SS-Obersturmführer Wilhelm Dollinger and SS-Untersturmführer Georg Hantusch are ordered to withdraw to the southern outskirts of La Gleize. They take up positions near the command post at Wérimont farm overlooking the Coo-Roanne road. Dollinger had assumed command of 213 after his own tank broke down, and Hantusch commanded 221 ​[7]​​. The next day, about 15 tanks of Task Force McGeorge appear from the direction of Roanne. A firefight ensues, but no hits are scored by either Tiger. 213 is hit, losing about 1/3 of its barrel, rendering it inoperable. 221 is also struck after which its electrical firing mechanism fails. With fuel supplies critically low, there is no way to recover these tanks and both crews bail. This encounter goes to show that even the invincible Tiger II could be knocked out due to the large number of tanks the American were able to field. Moreover, the use of the Tiger II in forested areas, like the Ardennes, was disliked by its crews: the long barrelled gun prevented traversing the turret and the limited room for manoeuvring made the tank vulnerable from the sides ​[8]​.

Without fuel, Peiper was unable to manoeuvrer let alone break out from the encirclement. On the 23rd, crippled by a lack of fuel and ammunition, Peiper received permission to withdraw. Leaving behind all heavy equipment, 800 men retreated towards Trois Ponts and Wanne to meet with their parent division. A tremendous amount of materiel was left in the area around La Gleize after Peiper’s chaotic retreat, including no less than six Königstiger. While most of the Tigers are recovered and scrapped by US engineers, 213 is saved by interference of Madame Jenny Geenen-Dewez who buys the tank at the price of a bottle cognac ​[4], [9]​. After the war it is towed to Place Publique besides the presbytery near the church.

In November 1951, the tank was subsequently moved to its currently place with help of the Belgian army ​[9]​. September 1970 saw the lifting of the tiger onto a more solidly build underground. Monsieur Gérard Gregoire bought a piece of a Panther’s 7,5 cm barrel which was attached to the severed barrel in 1975, giving the tank a more authentic look ​[9], [10]​.

Some people might assume the barrel on display at the museum is an original piece from 213, but this is untrue. After inquiring at the museum, I learned this is actually a piece of a Panther gun.

Through the years, the tank has been liberated of many of its sheet metal components and fittings. Only the front fenders are original and the remaining pieces of track guard were been recreated and welded on in the early 90s2.

The chassis number is 280273, indicating that it was assembled by Henschel in October 1944. It has the series production turret, mounting a 8,8 cm KwK 43 L/71 gun. The gun is stuck in full recoil and it is likely the recoil buffer was drained before firing its last shot. Photos of the turret interior clearly show the gun out of battery. The turret traverse gear, normally located underneath the gun, is visible to the right of the gun.

In the next part we will take a closer look at the engine deck and turret. Stay tuned.

  1. [1]
    A. Beevor, Ardennes 1944. Penguin Books, 2016.
  2. [2]
    L. Marriott and S. Forty, The Ardennes Battlefields: December 1944–January 1945. Casemate, 2017.
  3. [3]
    H. Cole, THE ARDENNES: BATTLE OF THE BULGE . OFFICE OF THE CHIEF OF MILITARY HISTORY DEPARTMENT OF THE ARMY, 1965.
  4. [4]
    “KING TIGER #213,” December 44 Historical Museum La Gleize. [Online]. Available: http://www.december44.com/en/tiger-213.htm
  5. [5]
    W. Schneider, Tigers in Combat, vol. 2. Stackpole Books, 2005.
  6. [6]
    G. Walden, “The Battle 21-25 December: The Cauldron of La Gleize, and the Final Struggle for Stavelot,” Tigers in the Ardennes, 23-Jan-2010. [Online]. Available: https://web.archive.org/web/20120603083814/http://www.ss501panzer.com/Battle_21-25_Dec.htm
  7. [7]
    H. Wenkin and C. Dujardin, Stavelot – La Gleize : le destin des Tiger de Peiper, 2nd ed. Caraktère publishing, 2015.
  8. [8]
    G. Walden, Tigers in the Ardennes: The 501st Heavy SS Tank Battalion in the Battle of the Bulge. Schiffer Military History, 2014.
  9. [9]
    G. Walden, “The Restoration of 213,” Tigers in the Ardennes, 23-Jan-2010. [Online]. Available: https://web.archive.org/web/20120604081657/http://www.ss501panzer.com/213_restoration.htm
  10. [10]
    “Kampfgruppe Peiper,” MIA project. [Online]. Available: http://www.miaproject.net/the-battlefield-then-now/kampfgruppe-peiper-2/