25 April 2022
79 years after the capture of Tiger 131, The Tank Museum has had a letter donated written by a soldier engaged in the fighting that led to its capture in Tunisia, April 1943.
Tiger 131 is probably the most famous tank in the world and its story has captured the imagination of many. While this letter doesn’t change our understanding of how it came into British hands, it does add another perspective to the fighting that day.
Trooper William Ratcliffe was a Churchill tank crewman in 48th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment during the North African campaign. After the German surrender in May 1943 he wrote a long letter to his sister, as: ‘Now this campaign is over and all the fighting has finished we are allowed to say the places where we have been and the battles we have been in.’
One of the battles William described was the fighting on 24 April which led to the capture of Tiger 131. That day, William and his comrades in B Squadron 48th RTR were part of a larger tank force that was ordered to support British infantry as they attacked a position called Point 174.
The tanks were positioned on Point 151, about 500yd away but with a good view of Point 174. The attack was successful, but soon afterwards the Germans launched a counterattack using infantry, artillery, and tanks.
William and his fellow crewmen fired at the Germans and helped the British infantry on Point 174 hold on. During the battle one British shot hit Tiger 131 under the gun barrel, disabling the turret and forcing the crew to abandon the tank. After the Germans were defeated and forced to retreat, Tiger 131 fell into British hands, almost undamaged.
The following paragraph is what William wrote about the fighting that day: ‘We were ordered to move again up near Medjez el Bab but on our way up Jerry had made an advance and before we could go on he had to be pushed back so we were given the job and we went into action at 2:30pm it was a glorious afternoon the sun was shining and the birds were singing and all of a sudden the guns started shells started flying and machine guns started chattering and we gave Jerry all we had got it was a tough job and we were in for 7 hrs we lost a few tanks but they were made OK later though we had a few chaps killed and wounded but the job was done and Jerry was pushed back again.
‘The relief you feel when it’s all over and you know you are safe is terrific and you all of a sudden feel very tired and when you do at last get to bed you fall off straight away in a dead sleep.’
We will probably never know which Churchill crew fired the shot that disabled Tiger 131, but The Tank Museum is very pleased to be able to preserve and share this first-hand account of the battle from one of the men who was there.
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