“It is the most emblematic tank of the Second World War. The one who most marked the spirits as he was feared. This is also why it appears in many novels, many video games, in the cinema…” Adrien Guinebault, cultural mediator at the armor museum from Saumur (Maine-et-Loire), does not hide his enthusiasm. The establishment, owned by the Ministry of Defence, launched in February the restoration of a machine like no other: a authentic Tiger 1, a famous German assault tank that appeared on the battlefields in 1942. There are only six examples left in the world. “The one in Saumur is the only one with period mechanical parts,” assures Adrien Guinebault.
Measuring 8.45 meters long and 3 meters high, this 57-ton tank, which can carry five soldiers, impressed with its technical capabilities. “Its wide tracks made it very mobile despite its weight. It could go up to 40 km/h on the road. But, above all, he was extremely strong. Its thick armor was able to withstand most shells. Its cannon could hit an enemy more than 2 kilometers away. He was the pride of the Third Reich, which widely celebrated him in its propaganda. »
From adversary to liberator
But what makes the Armored Museum model even more special is its history. This Tiger 1 was in fact on the front line in an attempt to repel the Allies after the Normandy landings in the summer of 1944. “We are conducting research to find out its exact role during the Battle of Normandy. But we know that he found himself trapped in the cliff pocket [Calvados]. Ironically, it was a collision with another German tank, in full confrontation, on August 20, 1944, which would have put an end to its mission. “The crew was taken prisoner. The Tiger, damaged, was abandoned. »
Six months later, the tank was recovered by French resistance fighters (FFI), restored to working order, and used to liberate Saint-Nazaire! He then joined the French army, then was transferred to occupy Germany, before being used as a study tank. “He will have known several lives, going from adversary to liberator, underlines Adrien Guinebault. It joined the museum in 1968 but had never been restored since. »
The work, which will last two years, consists of restoring the Tiger to working order and giving it back “the appearance it had when it was recovered by the FFI, including its original camouflage”. To achieve this, all the elements of the tank will be renovated, “repaired with period parts or replaced with identical”. The first phase, until September, concerns the turret, the gun and the tracks, which have been dismantled. A crowdfunding campaign will be launched before the summer to raise 220,000 euros to complete the project, which will remain accessible to the public. At the same time, archival research continues to “better know” the “mythical” machine.
“They are witnesses of history”
Eventually, the Armored Museum wants the Tiger to be able to parade, as a “liberating tank” as other vehicles in the museum already do, on the occasion of July 14 for example. “The very special history of this tank, its place in popular culture of the Second World War, makes it an absolutely exceptional piece in our collection,” insists Adrien Guinebault.
Unknown to the general public, the Armored Museum of Saumur is one of the main exhibitors of war vehicles in the world. No less than 750 tanks from different countries, recovered during conflicts or through exchanges, are part of his collection. Around 200 are shown to the public, including around 50 in running condition. Almost all armored models having served for the French army are present there, the oldest of which dates from 1917.
“These are more than tools of war, they are witnesses of history, believes the cultural mediator of the place. A tank is impressive. When it starts, it’s noisy, the ground vibrates. We understand that it transported men, that it took factories to build it. This museum contributes to the duty of memory. Up to 70,000 visitors walk through its aisles each year.