In the movie Saving Private Ryan, there is a scene where American soldiers drop a grenade into a Tiger tank.
This is an exciting cinematic scene, but is such a thing possible? Could it actually happen during a real war?
The context of the scene in the movie is important when considering the plausibility. The American soldiers did not pry open the hatch before dropping the grenade in. The hatch was opened by the tank commander who was covered in blood. With his eyes half-closed, he is unable to see the soldiers who have climbed onto of the tank and are waiting for him, and he is shot. The hatch almost slams shut as he falls back into the tank, but is caught by the barrel of a rifle.
This is important because it is unlikely that a Tiger tank hatch could be pried open when already shut. These tanks have locking mechanisms which secure the hatch during combat.
To lock the hatch, the Tiger I tank has three metal bars which are activated through a small wheel. You would have to turn the wheel to lock or unlock the hatch.
In the movie, the hatch is clearly opened from the inside instead of being forced from the outside, so to this extent, the move is plausible.
When one of the soldiers shoots the commander, he falls back into inside the tank, the hatch almost closing as he tumbles backwards. However, a rifle barrel is in the way, stopping the hatch from closing and allowing three of the soldiers to throw in their grenades inside the tank.
A tank hatch which is closing is unlikely to be stopped by a rifle barrel. This is a twist in the tale that is pure Hollywood.
So, while it is possible that the soldiers could drop grenades into a tank, there is no clear way of knowing if such an event occurred during battle other than eyewitness testimonies.
In A Bridge Too Far, Cornelius Ryan does mention that the 1st Airborne at Arnhem dropped explosives into tanks.
The circumstances were different from that in Saving Private Ryan as the soldiers dropped the explosives from windows above the tanks. The tanks had their hatches open and it is stated that at least three tanks were destroyed in this way.
Destroying tanks might be possible if certain types of explosives were used. Hand grenades would not be able to destroy a tank completely, even if it detonated inside. A modified grenade would have a better chance of this as you use the grenade as the fuse.
The explosives described in A Bridge Too Far were plastic explosives and not grenades. Explosives such as C4 would be able to destroy a tank from the inside. Anti-tank grenades were not widely used during WWII.
The British and American forces were not the only ones to have stories of grenades being thrown into tanks.
Corporal Einar Schadewitz was a Finnish soldier who fought against the Soviet Army during the war. He recalled a time, on February 12, 1940, when he dropped a hand grenade into a Soviet tank.
According to Schadewitz, he jumped on the back of the enemy tank only to realize that he needed to drop a grenade into the hatch to stop it. Taking his knife, he tried to open the tank hatch at the side slot. As noted above, with the locking mechanism in place, the hatch would not budge.
In frustration, he banged on the hatch with one of the grenades he had. He states that he yelled at the tank troop to open the hatch. He would later tell his fellow soldiers that he shouted, ‘Open up Ivan, death is knocking.’
It is impossible to know what the tank crew thought about the noise above them, but they did open the hatch slightly. The soldier holding the hatch open reflexively closed it again when he saw the enemy fighter, but not before Schadewitz had dropped his grenade through the gap.
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The question of whether the scene in Saving Private Ryan is plausible can be answered with a maybe. It would rely on the tank hatch being opened by the crew of the tank (as it was in the movie).