On the 18th January 1945, German forces were retreating westward with the 1st Belorussian Front hot on their heals. Part of this retreat was two tank destroyers, StuG IVs to be precise, trundling in the direction of Kolo. One of the pair broke down, and was sabotaged by its crew before fleeing. The remaining Stug pushed on.
The vehicle reached the Rgilewka river which at the time was frozen over. The crew decided to attempt to drive their StuG over the ice, a risky but common practise on the Eastern Front as the ice thickness can be in the meters. Unfortunately, this time the risk didn’t pay off, and the 23 ton StuG crashed throw the ice with its crew. Of the four man crew, two managed to escape the sinking vehicle, but the other two did not.
The two surviving crew made it to the nearby village where the locals provided them with dry clothes and shelter for the night. The next day while attempting to reconnect with German forces they were captured by the Soviets, subsequently shot, and buried where they fell.
The crew that went down with the StuG remained in this frigid tomb until spring, when they were removed along with their personal belongings. Their badges showed they had served in Crimea between 1941-1942. The now empty tank destroyer would be left in this state until the mid 1950s.
In 1954 the Polish military made two attempts to remove their StuG, both ending in failure. The first attempt used two tanks to pull the StuG out, but weak cables and bogged down equipment curtailed their efforts. On a second attempt they used a railway crane to try and lift it out, but this too also ended in failure when the weight of the silt and water laden vehicle almost pulled the crane over.
They eventually gave up and left the StuG at the bottom of the river bed, to be forgotten again for 50 years.
In 2006 the tale of this lost StuG was revived by historians, who planned another attempt at removing the vehicle. It was ‘rediscovered’ still on the river bed, but now covered in 10 feet of silt and mud. Its location and condition meant experts from many different fields had to come and assist the recovery process, including heavy equipment operators, historians, engineers, divers and police as it was suspected there may still be ordnance human remains inside.
As we now know there were no bodies inside the vehicle, but there was 49 live rounds for the main gun inside.
The tank was pulled out by heavy equipment, given a brief hose down and then moved to the Armored Warfare Museum in Poznan. Here the vehicle was given a rigorous clean before being completely stripped down to the bare hull. The low oxygen environment at the bottom of the river kept the StuG in remarkable condition, even after 60 years.
The team discovered the vehicle itself was virtually new when it fell into the river, with only 211 km (131 miles) on the clock. Almost everything was intact however some damaged or missing parts needed to be sourced from elsewhere. Many collectors stepped in and offered parts free of charge to assist the reconstruction.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about the restoration process was with the engine. The Maybach HL 120 TRM was stripped, thoroughly inspected and re-assembled. There was no rust or corrosion inside the engine, and all the parts were still in perfect condition. Great care was taken before firing it up that the components were capable of surviving the intense forces involved inside an engine. The only parts that needed replacing were a few gear wheels. In 2009 after it was re-assembled and filled with fluids, the engine was fired up for the first time.
The entire vehicle was repainted and re-built by 2009, an incredibly fast turn around considering the challenges involved.
This StuG IV is one of only a few in existence.
Another Article From Us: The M24 Chaffee – Cute but Deadly