three days before the 3rd Armored Division's final combat action
of WWII, a Super Pershing of the 33rd Armored Regiment met and
defeated the most powerful and most heavily armored German tank
of the war - the legendary 77-ton King Tiger, also known as the
Tiger II or Tiger Royal. It would be the first and only meeting
between a King Tiger and the Super Pershing, a modified standard
M26 Pershing weighing 7 tons heavier at 53 tons - an almost "secret"
tank that, to this day, remains largely an enigma to military
Only two Super Pershings were ever built, and the 3AD had the
only one in the European Theater - an experimental version with
its remarkably long barrel. Arriving very late in the war (March,
1945), it was field tested and modified inside Germany and subsequently
saw about ten days of actual combat action, beginning several
days after the Battle of Paderborn and ending with the Battle
of Dessau near the Elbe River.
The Super Pershing (aka T26E4-1) was equipped with a new long-barreled
T15E1 90mm gun that was designed to out-perform the German high-velocity
88mm on the King Tiger. In testing, this new U.S. gun had successfully
penetrated 8.5 inches of armor at 1,000 yards at 30 degrees.
Even more remarkable, it had penetrated 13 inches of armor at
100 yards. The special 90mm ammunition had produced a muzzle
velocity of 3,850 feet per second, or some 600 feet per second
faster than the 88mm of the King Tiger. The new 90mm round also
proved to have superior range and accuracy over the previous
Army ordnance technicians (in the U.S. and Europe) had been anxious
about getting the new tank into combat, hoping to match it against
a King Tiger. But by April, 1945, German armor west of Berlin
had dramatically thinned out, not to mention an extreme shortage
of fuel, and the odds of spotting the monster German tank were
slim. But in Dessau on April 21, "luck" would befall
the Super Pershing crew commanded by SSgt Joe Maduri, a veteran
3AD tanker in his tenth straight month of combat.
The 3AD had begun a four-pronged attack on the city, which
was heavily defended. Division armor were finally able to enter
the city slowly after numerous concrete tank barriers were destroyed.
With 3AD tanks fanning out, and 36th Infantry riflemen following,
the Super Pershing reached an intersection and began to round
a corner to its right. Unknown to its crew, a King Tiger had
apparently been waiting in ambush at a distance of two blocks
or roughly 600 yards away, and in the same direction that the
Americans were turning into.
At this distance, easily within its capability, the Tiger
fired at the Super Pershing. But its infamous high-velocity 88mm
shell, of the type that had destroyed so many American tanks
and vehicles during the war, went high and was not even close.
Gunner Cpl John "Jack" Irwin, only 18 years old, responded
almost instantly with a round that struck the Tiger's huge angled
glasis, or front plate. But the shot, a non-armor-piercing high
explosive (HE) shell, had no effect. Ricocheting off the armor,
it shot skyward and exploded harmlessly. The Super Pershing had
been loaded with an HE only because Irwin had been expecting
urban targets, such as buildings, personnel, and light anti-tank
guns. "AP!", he shouted to his loader "Pete,"
which meant an armor-piercing shell would be next.
Maduri and crew then felt a concussion or thud on the turret.
It was never known if this shot came from the Tiger, or from
some other anti-tank weapon. In any case, no serious damage was
done - probably a lucky glancing impact. In the next instant,
Irwin aimed and fired a second time, just as the royal monster
was moving forward and raising up over a pile of rubble. The
90mm AP round penetrated the Tiger's underbelly, apparently striking
the ammo well and resulting in a tremendous explosion that blew
its turret loose. With near certainty, the entire crew was killed.
But there was no time to examine their "trophy."
A battle was raging, and the Super Pershing continued down the
street, passing the lifeless and burning King Tiger. Tough fighting
still lay ahead, as German bazooka, Panzerfaust, and machine-gun
fire came from windows and doorways.
The encounter with the King Tiger had been "short and sweet,"
lasting less than twenty seconds. It may not have been the titanic
"slug fest" that could have occurred on an open field,
but it was an overwhelming victory for the quick-reacting Super
Pershing crew. The battle for Dessau would end completely on
the following day, but not without the Super Pershing destroying
another German heavy tank (believed to be a 50-ton Panther Mark
V) with two shots. The first disabling its drive sprocket, and
the second round completely penetrating the tank's side armor.
That apparently set off an internal blast, again probably from
stored ammo. And, still in Dessau, that was followed by Maduri
and crew forcing the commander of a German medium tank to surrender
without firing a shot. For the German crew, out of ammo for their
main gun, the intimidating "look" of that long-barrel
90mm gun that must have destroyed any remaining will to fight
[Note: Sources include the book Spearhead in the West
(1946 edition); the book Death Traps by Belton Cooper;
and the book Another River, Another Town and personal
writings by John P. Irwin.]