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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, August 19, 2018

Flamming Tiger

From the 13th of June to the 13th of July 1944, the New Zealand 20th Armoured Battalion was given a rest period in the Liri Valley, after its part in the push to Rome. It was a time of training and refitting for the Sherman equipped unit. On the morning of the 13th the Battalion began its march back to the war, this time it was to be part of the attack on Florence. By the 17th the Battalion was in position near the front for a brief rest at Lake Trasimene. Then on the evening of the 22nd the Battalion moved again some 70 miles to Siena, and finally to Tavarnelle on the 26th. The 27th was the day the war returned, a reconnaissance patrol dodged enemy mines but was halted by a blown bridge. On the return journey one tank slipped off the tracks it had made on the journey out and hit one of the mines. Over the next few days in association with strong infantry support the regiment pushed the enemy back through Cigliano and Pisignano, with several casualties. The enemy had armoured support in the shape of Tiger tanks. On one occasion a Tiger lurched out in front of a Sherman and hit it with its coaxial machine gun, but did not fire the main gun, presumably due to a lack of ammunition.

Two troops of tanks were given the objective of capturing the high ground near the village of Giogoli, as well as the village. These troops advanced with their infantry support on the 3rd of August. A few machine gun nests were quickly silenced by the tanks and by 0900 7 troop was on the hill and 6 troop was in Giogoli itself. The infantry had pushed further out the other side of the village by about a mile and were calling for support from the tanks. No 6  troop under Lieutenant Bill Heptinstall moved out to help the infantry After a short while they entered an olive grove and the low hanging branches caused damage to the tanks antenna compounding the earlier problems they had had with radio communication. Then one of the branches hit an open commanders hatch, ripping it from its mounting and badly injuring the Troop Sergeant, who lost part of his hand in the incident.
Even worst, this time messing about in the trees meant that contact with the infantry was lost.

Lt Heptinstall brought his troop out onto a road and began to advance at speed. The first living person they saw was a German armed with a Panzershreck. Luckily for Lt Heptinstall his hull gunner reacted quicker than the German. The road ran through a cutting then dipped steeply. The veteran New Zealand tankers halted knowing it was an obvious ambush point.
Lt Heptinstall tried to work his way around to flank the position using a promising looking narrow track. However, this ended at a farm house, and there was no means of travelling further. On the narrow confines of the track Lt Heptinstall got his tank turned around and returned to his troop. The infantry were still out of contact, however Lt Heptinstall had managed to re-establish contact with his regimental HQ, who said the infantry were ahead of him and under fire in need of help.
As he needed to advance Lt Heptinstall decided to take the road at full speed, with his other two tanks providing overwatch. At the bottom of the cutting there was a sharp left turn, and Lt Heptinstall intended to turn into it to get out of the suspected killzone

His Sherman raced forward at full power. Just before he was due to make his turn the wall that lined the side of the cutting opened up to the gates of the Villa La Sfacciata, beside the old villa was a rather more modern shape, that of a Tiger tank. It fired, hitting the fast moving Sherman, killing the driver outright. The Sherman skidded off the road and the rest of the crew bailed out, into a hail of German machine gun fire. The only person not hit was Lt Heptinstall. 
Looking up from a ditch he found himself in Lt Heptinstall could see the other two tanks of his troop advancing towards him, they had no idea what had happened, but were coming to investigate. Lt Heptinstall ran to the tanks to explain what had happened. The mad dash managed to halt the tanks before they blundered into the Tiger lying in ambush. Lt Heptinstall borrowed a Tommy Gun from the tank and returned to look for his crew.

As he approached he could see they were all dead, and then before he could close up German infantry on the hill side above him began to throw hand grenades at him. Lt Heptinstall was forced to retreat. On his way back, he was going much more cautiously and stumbled into a German machine gun nest, occupied by two Germans and their machine gun. Lt Heptinstall had walked past these men twice, and they hadn't opened fire, instead preferring to remain in their weapons pit in safety. Lt Heptinstall took both Germans prisoner, which they seemed willing to accept and returned to his troop. Meanwhile the rest of his tanks had been laying effective fire onto the German infantry who had tried to grenade Lt Heptinstall. The closest weapons pit was just ten yards away from the Sherman's, and a 75mm at that range was utterly devastating.
At this point a composite troop consisting of the Squadron HQ, some extra Shermans and a pair of M10's appeared, bringing much needed support. For the rest of the day both sides traded artillery, and a lot of it was aimed at the Tigers position. Later in the day the M10's were firing towards Point 199, when one was destroyed by return fire.

The next day the advance resumed and two burnt out Tigers were discovered. One had rolled down the hill whilst on fire, the one from the Villa La Sfacciata was now sitting next to the Sherman it had destroyed. It is likely that both tanks were destroyed by their own crews as they lacked the fuel to retreat (although one newspaper cutting says it tried to drive away from the position but was destroyed by fire from the Allies). With the two Tigers gone the Germans had lost the lynch pin of their defence and the fighting in the area ceased apart from the occasional skirmish.
Lt Heptinstall's Sherman next to the burnt out Tiger the morning after the battle.
Lt Heptinstall was awarded the Military Cross for his actions. Schwere Panzerabteilung 508 were the owners of the two Tigers, and their records say they lost a single man killed in action, likely from the artillery fire.

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