Overlord'S Blog: Tiger gets the Bird
Despite what many say the British anti-tank guns of World War Two were always a match for their targets. This happened simply because the British tended to look forwards. Just as the two pounder was coming into service design work started on the six pounder. Equally as the six pounder was just entering production design work started on its replacement. The replacement was to be the famous 17 pounder which was required to penetrate 120mm-150mm of armour. This 3 inch gun hurled its shot at over 800 m/s. This performance was achieved with the shell technology of the time such as normal armour piercing rounds. Later developments such as ballistic caps and even APDS (armour piercing discarding sabot) meant the gun stayed a devastating AT gun throughout the war.
Although the gun was ready in early 1942 the design of the chassis lagged behind, leaving the gun with nowhere to go. Luckily the six pounder was more than capable of dealing with the German armour then in the field.
Then the War Office received worrying news. Ultra intercepts had determined that a new German heavy tank was being deployed to the African front, this was of course the famous Tiger. While the 6 pounder could deal with the Tiger, it required skill, nerves and a spot of luck. So the War Office issued an urgent requirement for the 17 pounder to be deployed. The solution was to mount the 17 pounder gun on a 25 pounder chassis. Although the 25 pounder carriage was used to firing a much lower velocity round the study construction stood up to the punishment inflicted on it by the forces of the 17 pounder. When fired it was described as " [...] something of a lively weapon.”
One curiosity is the 25 pounders turntable. Some sources say it wasn't used, while others indicate it was. As most of the pictures show the turntable in place it is likely that it was used.
To prevent German intelligence getting wind of the surprise in store for their shiny new tank the 17/25 pounder, as it was officially known, was codenamed "Pheasant". In October 1942 59 guns were shipped to Tunisia, with a total order of 150 pieces completed by December that year.
In early 1943 The Afrika Korps was planning a spoiling attack against the 8th Army. But again the British had been warned the attack was coming. So they prepared to hold in the area of Medenine. More and more preparations were made, and by the start of March Stephen Wier, one of the officers involved in the defence, said 'I have so many anti-tank guns I am having difficulty in siting them."
This array of fire-power included everything from 2 pdr's all the way up to and including 3.7" AA guns. It also included the Pheasants.
The defensive line was covered by fake minefields. These were placed so as not to restrict any counter attack by British tanks. But by clever positioning they were placed to force the German panzers to expose their flank to the Allied gunners. The troops were issued with orders not to engage until the AT guns had opened fire.
Due to still being secret weapons the Pheasants were sited to the rear, with orders not to fire unless the front line was breached.
On the morning of the 6th of March thick fog covered the battlefield. When it lifted the area to the front was covered by the German army as it advanced. In accordance with their orders the defenders held their fire. The Germans spotted the false minefields as they advanced. Even with tempting targets such as exposed tank commanders the troops held their fire. The German tanks followed the line of the false minefield and as planned they exposed their flank. The anti-tank gunners let fly instantly knocking out the first 4 tanks. Another tank had its tracks blown off by a salvo of mortar bombs. The rest of the day long battle was the Germans trying to advance into the face of overwhelming fire-power.
During the next week the 17 pdr's came into action as they were used to snipe from forward positions against the Germans. There is one fragmentary report of a single Tiger on a road and the suggestion that the Commonwealth troops tried to stalk it with a Pheasant. But no records have been found of the two ever having an engagement. So as yet I've not been able to find out when the first meeting between these two famous weapons happened.
nzetc.victoria.ac.nz, www.desertrats.org.uk and en.wikipedia.org
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