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Tiger 131: History Reassessed

Photo: Dale Oscroft, with Tiger 131. [All images courtesy of The Tank Museum]

 

The latest research has begun a new chapter in the story of the last working example of history’s most famous tank New information, including an astonishing account from a previously unknown eye-witness, has dramatically changed the story of the world’s most famous tank, revealing exactly how the infamous Tiger 131 was captured.

The eyewitness recalled the moment his anti-tank round bounced off the Tiger tank as the turret turned in his direction moments before it was disabled by a lucky hit in what became the first example of the fearsome new German panzer to fall into Allied hands, intact, as British forces seized it during fierce fighting in the Tunisian desert in 1943. Such was the importance of the capture that, when visiting North Africa, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and King George VI went to be pictured with it. The lucky shot had wedged itself in the turret mechanism so it couldn’t turn, and the crew had baled-out and run.

Sgt. John Oscroft, who took on Tiger 131 before a lucky shot disabled it.

The original story of 131’s capture came from Lieutenant Peter Gudgin, who was charged with writing a detailed report about the Tiger’s capture after it had been brought back to the UK. Lt. Gudgin had been battling against Tiger tanks on 21 April 1943, with 48th Royal Tank Regiment, at Djebel Djaffa. However, after an 88mm round from a Tiger slammed into his Churchill tank, Gudgin was invalided back home.

When compiling his report, Gudgin mistakenly believed that the Tiger tank which had been captured was the same one that had hit his tank and that his comrades had subsequently stopped with the lucky shot. Since Gudgin completed his report, his version of events has always been the official story. However, new research shows that Tiger 131 was actually hit 15 miles away from Djebel Djaffa, at a place called Gueriat el Atach, and known as Point 174, during an attack there by 2nd Battalion, The Sherwood Foresters, on 24 April 1943.

Revealing Research

The revealing research was carried out by Dale Oscroft, the son of a soldier from the aforementioned battalion of the Foresters who fought that day. A 2012 visit to The Tank Museum, home to Tiger 131, began Dale’s historical adventure. His father, John, who died in 1982, had told him about his battalion’s first ‘set-piece’ attack in Tunisia when they took on the legendary Tigers. John, who was from Sutton-in-Ashfield, joined the Foresters in 1942. He fought in Tunisia, Italy, and served in Palestine before demobilisation in 1946.

King George VI inspects Tiger 131 in Tunisia.

He detailed that the battalion was able to capture a Tiger intact after jamming its turret with a lucky shot, and when Dale visited the Museum he noted how the official story Tiger 131’s capture and his father’s recollection were very similar, and so started his research.

“After ejecting the Germans, the Foresters – including my father – dug in and prepared for the counterattack which, when it materialised, comprised a number of Tiger tanks.” Explained Dale, who continued: “Having the dubious honour of carrying a PIAT anti-tank weapon, my father was ordered to creep forward and engage the nearest Tiger.

“After getting as close as he dared he took aim and fired only to see the bomb strike a glancing blow on the turret and bounce off. At this point he saw the turret begin to traverse in his direction and decided to get his head down.

“Fortunately for him, the tank was then hit by what my father was later told was an old French ’75’ which the Foresters had taken from the Germans. Much to his relief the tank crew baled-out and made off. A later inspection showed the Tiger to have sustained a lucky hit on the turret ring.

“My father speculated that the crew must have thought that the Foresters had something more potent than they actually did.”

Museum Tests

Dale carried out his research using wartime maps, photographs and documents which showed that Tiger 131 was indeed captured on Point 174 and not, as had always been believed, at Djebel Djaffa – where 48th Royal Tank Regiment and 36th Infantry Brigade won a victory at ‘Longstop Hill’ under the command of Major General Vyvyan Evelegh, the battle in which Lt. Gudgin thought Tiger 131 to have been captured. His findings were confirmed through the assistance of Tiger tank expert, David Byrden, and by the use of satellite imagery.

British troops examine Tiger 131 in North Africa.

“Dad said very little about his war, but he did tell me about the Tiger tank and how it came to be captured”, added Dale. Continuing: “After being struck by the similarities between my father’s story and the official account I began the research which has now proved that Tiger 131 was the one my father was fighting.” One question remained unanswered for Dale, however: “It is now clear that although the Foresters did capture the vehicle, they were not the ones who disabled it”.

In response to this research the Tank Museum carried out putty tests on Tiger 131’s turret which showed the shell which disabled it had not come from the captured ‘French 75’ as John Oscroft had thought. [NB. possibly a ‘Canon de 75 Mle 1897/33’, a 1933 modified anti-tank variant of the ubiquitous ‘Canon de 75 1897’ – the first modern field gun – or the ‘7.5cm Pak 97/30’, a German modification of the same weapon.] Instead, as per the story told by Lt. Gudgin, the shell had been fired from the gun of a Churchill tank supporting the Foresters as they progressed in their advance.

‘The Story Doesn’t End Here’

David Willey, Curator at the Tank Museum said: “History is re-interpreted by each generation, keen to learn their own lessons, draw their own comparisons and find their own relevance to the stories of the past. In this age, new tools have been given to the researcher, the internet, records online, e-mail, a mass audience willing to respond to questions and comment on theories – whether well informed or not.

A putty test carried out on the turret of Tiger 131 where the lucky shell hit was proven to have come from a Churchill Tank.

“But there is also simply carrying out good research, looking at and questioning the facts, finding new evidence and following up on a hunch or a theory. Here we see a case of the evidence always being there – but until Dale came to question the accepted orthodoxy – no one had looked at this evidence in a new way. Backed by the magic of technology – a new story can now be written about Tiger 131.

“Of course the story doesn’t end here as more will undoubtedly come to light, more of the picture will be filled in and we can return again to this moment in history anew.”

In that spirit, this author ponders: what really happened at Longstop Hill?

Tiger 131 is currently part of the Tiger Exhibition of five Tigers on display at the Museum’s Dorset home, and staff have now updated their story of their most famous exhibit.

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