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Monday, September 23, 2013

Tiger Tanks

Tiger tank
Fixing a tank in Russia (Wehmeyer, Federal Archive)

Tiger Tanks: Heaviest Tanks of World War II

Tiger tank
Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E (Sd.Kfz. 181). Marking kills. There are well over 20... so far colorized, Federal Archive).

German Tiger Tanks are the most famous tanks of all time. Nothing else - not Panthers, not Leopards, not Shermans - even really comes close. If you served in the military, sure, the tanks you personally worked with (and perhaps against) must seem like the best tanks ever and real world-beaters.

Tiger tank
Tiger ‘S21’ of the Das Reich Division moves forward at Kursk to consolidate the positions on the exposed Russian steppe in July 1943. The tank is painted in Sand Yellow oversprayed with Red Brown and had the “Gnome” painted on the turret side. This was the temporary divisional insignia adopted before Operation Zitadelle to confuse enemy intelligence.

But to the general public and the soldiers of its time, nothing approaches the Tiger Tank in terms of notoriety.

Tiger tank
A Tiger with signs of heavy use

Tigers were famous from the start. During cold nights, it was common practice for their SS crews to start Tigers up every few hours and run them for fifteen minutes to keep things from freezing up.

Panzer V Panther tank

Panzer V Panther tank

Panzer V Panther tank
A 13./SS-Panzer-Regiment 1 Tiger Tank fires its main gun into enemy position to provide suppressive counter fire near Petrovka (east of Vinnytsia), Ukraine, February 1944. This was one of the new replacement tanks that were delivered that month and has a small black 2 on the forward part of the turret and on the rear turret stowage box as a tactical identifier. 13./SS-Panzer-Regiment 1 was a schwere (heavy) Panzer-Kompanie of Panzer-Abteilung 502 equipped with Tiger tanks for the Leibstandarte Division which was established at Fallingbostel at the end of November 1942. This action was covering the retreat from Leningrad.

Nobody on the Allied side really looked forward to hearing that sound, especially if there were a whole bunch of them warming up.

Tiger tank
German Tiger I Tunisia, 1943 (Photographer Linke, German Federal Archive)

Nobody on the Allied side wanted to hear that distinctive rumble in the night, because they knew what they would face the next day.

Tiger tank
Tiger ‘114’ commanded by Alfred Rubbel of the 503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion (abbreviated s.Pz.Abt. 503) (schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503). This is during manoeuvres in May 1943 near the city of Kharkov, in preparation for Operation Zitadelle. Additional track links have been fixed to the front of the tank because you never knew when you might need them to get home (fixing them was better than walking) and they provided a little added protection for that vertical glacis plate. Small modifications were continuously incorporated on armored vehicles and here included a rain guard over the binocular telescope in the gun mantlet, fitted in the field. 

One Tiger could - and sometimes did - chase an entire Allied battalion out of town. Michael Wittmann did that in Normandy.

Tiger tank
Panzerkampfwagen VI Tigers (8,8 cm L/56) Ausf. E (Sd.Kfz. 181). Rail transport was used for all except the shortest of distances.

You could listen, from a safe location: Boom! Whirrrrrr. Boom! Whirrrrrr. Boom! Ja, das ist gut, Genossen, jeder ist tot hahahahaha!

Tiger tank
German officers inspecting a new Tiger, 1943 (Wessebach, Federal Archive)

Urgent Need for the Tiger Tank

There are different claims as to where the idea or inspiration for the Tiger tank came from. The area in dispute is when and why the Germans began working on the Tiger, not when it entered action or anything like that.

Tiger tank
King Tiger with Porsche turret

This brings up a larger point: in many areas of this field, there are very authoritative sources which will tell you completely different things. They may be correct about five things, and incorrect about four others - that's how it goes in this field. For instance, at the end of this page is a video which has lots of great facts. However, it also contains inaccuracies, or at the very least highly debatable statements (three examples: it says that the Tigers opened a corridor to the Cherkassy pocket when that is almost certainly erroneous; it states that Berlin was encircled on 20 April, when Goering is known to have driven south from Berlin after that, the encirclement date actually several days later; and it also has a very high number of lost Ferdinands at Kursk, which is the common myth, when other sources put the number much lower).

Tiger tank

The truth is that too many Germany records were destroyed at the end of the war for them to be considered completely reliable, while Soviet records are unreliable on their face and/or falsified for political reasons, or purposefully unavailable to this day (Soviet troop numbers and weapons counts inevitably are downplayed in their own records to make every battle seem more equal in terms of relative strengths, whereas their operations always somehow ended precisely where their records indicate they were planned to end the day the operations orders were issued).

Tiger tank
A unique photograph of the interior of a German 'Tiger' tank in the battle-field. An Obergefreiter Ladeschütze (Loader) holding a high explosive 8.8 cm round with percussion/contact fuse, inside the "Turm" (Turret) of a Panzer VI Tiger. He is from the 3./schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502, Heeresgruppe Nord during the Battles of Plaskau and Narwa in Estonia. Apparently, his name is not known. Photograph by courtesy of the grandson of the tank Commander, Oberfeldwebel Felix Würden.

Thus, there are few definitive answers in many areas of the Tiger Tank story. If you point at some fact about Tigers and say flatly, 'That is wrong,' well, your source and everything you have been taught about that point also might be wrong (yes, even if your professor was John Keegan himself).

Tiger I interior
The interior of the Tiger I was positively spacious compared to earlier tanks.

There is, shall we say, some 'conjecturing' going on due to the absence of hard data. So, we go with the best sources and leave it at that.

Tiger tank
The Tiger at Bovington, used in 'Fury.'

If you ask the British at the Bovington Tank Museum, they will tell you with great authority that Adolf Hitler began the "Tiger Programme" VK4501 (for a 45 ton battle tank) after he read reports about anti-tank shells bouncing off of British Valentine and Matilda tanks during the Battle of Arras on 21 May 1940. Bovington knows its Tigers, there is no question about that, as it apparently has the only running Tiger left in the world. It does make sense that these encounters illustrated the inadequacy of the Wehrmacht's standard 37mm antitank gun, which also was used on the Panzer III. The Mark IV's 75mm main gun was found wanting. Since the Panzer IV was the Wehrmacht's main battle tank at that time (with lots of Panzer IIs and IIIs around), it posed a bit of a problem for the Wehrmacht that it had trouble with Allied tanks.

Tiger tank
PzKpfw VI Tiger I from 2. SS Panzer Division Das Reich in Kursk.

The Bovington theory implies that the Germans began working up the Tiger I in mid-1940. If so, they did not make much progress that year, at least in terms of getting plans off the drafting table.

Tiger tank
Tiger I, Yugoslavia.

A practical aspect that supports the Bovington theory is that it does strain credulity a bit that the Germans would have been able to come up with the idea for a cutting edge tank and had it in battle 10 months later - which would be the case with the accepted theory. It probably is the case that, as always, the designers were constantly working up new, improved plans based on technological advances and battlefield experience. The Heer just needed a reason to get the ball rolling and actually order a new tank.

Tiger tank

My quibble with the Bovington theory is that the Battle of Arras was a one-day affair that did not stop the Wehrmacht's drive to sea in the slightest. Germans never were too worried about British armor, and they destroyed literally dozens of British tanks during that particular encounter. Experience showed that it was airpower and raw numbers that invariably made the difference when fighting the British, and that formula worked throughout the war. So, it seems a bit much for that one encounter to generate an entirely new class of tanks. A more significant flaw with the Bovington theory is that, when Hitler held at major conference at the Berghof to reform the Panzer arm in mid-February 1941, he only wanted to upgrade the main guns on the Panzer III and Panzer IV - not create new and larger tanks from the ground up. If the experiences in France had had an effect on Hitler, that would have been the time to put it into practice. Hitler didn't.

Tiger tank

There's actual indirect proof that the Bovington theory is malarkey. On 18 February 1941, Adolf Hitler held a major conference at the Berghof with his top military advisors and tank manufacturers. He demanded that the Panzer III and IV main guns be upgraded. Field Marshal Keitel protested vigorously, because he said there weren't enough trained men to do it. Hitler stood firm: find the men and upgrade the guns. The tanks themselves? They were just fine. Heck, Keitel didn't even think they needed more powerful guns (which they most definitely did, Hitler was spot on with his analysis).

Tiger tank

That meeting is germane to this discussion because of two facts:

  1. Hitler did not demand a new, heavier tank such as the Tiger;
  2. It was almost a full year after the Battle of Arras.

If Hitler had been convinced by the shells bouncing off the British tanks at Arras that he needed the Tiger tank, that February 1941 meeting would have been the time to bring it up. Hitler didn't.

Tiger tank

My conclusion? The Bovington theory is full of it.

Tiger tank

It is possible, though, to square the Bovington theory regarding the Tiger with the more commonly accepted story about the genesis of the Tiger, so let's go through that exercise also.

Tiger tank
German Army Oberleutnant Wilhelm Knauth in the turret of a Tiger I heavy tank, Russia, Jan-Feb 1944 (Federal Archives, Wehmeyer)

While Hitler may indeed have been thinking about a new tank in mid-1940, there doesn't appear to have been a particular sense of urgency about it until much later, when the Germans finally held a competition to select a new production model. Hitler was probably always thinking about bigger weapons because, well, that was his thing. But having plans ready, and actually implementing them, are two vastly different things.

Tiger tank
A Tiger Tank of the schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502 is painted with tiger shark’s teeth on the muzzle brake, summer 1943, Leningrad sector near Lake Ladoga.

The Germans only reached the breaking point with the panzer arm in Russia in October 1941; until then, their inventory of tanks (a substantial portion of which were still Panzer IIIs) were "good enough." After the attack slowed at the gates of Moscow, the existing panzers were no longer "good enough," and something had to be done. That "something" would have to be a new, more powerful tank to take on the heavy Soviet tanks. That was when the motivation mentioned above kicked in.

Tiger tank
German Tiger Tank Commanders | Heavy tank PzKpfw VI Tiger Ausf H1 Commander Hauptmann Lange. This shot nicely emphasizes the broad tracks which were so vital for operating in the Russian snow and mud.

So, the generally accepted understanding is that the Tigers came about as actual weapons and not just designs when the panzers were surprised by the quality of Russian tanks during Operation Barbarossa. This sudden realization happened during a specific incident in October 1941, which ironically was the height of the German onslaught and the time when the Russians themselves were most fearful. In other words, just when the world viewed the panzers as unstoppable, the Germans themselves suddenly realized they weren't.

Tiger tank
Tigers on barge with Panzerkampfwagen III, crossing a river. You wouldn't want to be a British Soviet patrol boat messing with this barge! Many bridges could not support them.

Stalin, it turned out, had an entirely new, secret (well, secret from the German high command, anyway) class of tanks which he held in reserve throughout the opening stages of the war. These T-34 and KV-1 tanks had been developed before the war based on plans purchased from American designer Walter Christie. Stalin had them in production for about a year when Germany invaded. However, while he had a small stockpile of them, Stalin kept these powerful new weapons away from the battlefield, in reserve, until the time was right. Amazingly, the Germans didn't even know about them.

Tiger tank
Early Russian T-34 with a 76mm main gun.

In October 1941, the time was right to unleash these new weapons on the unsuspecting Germans. The T-34 proved to be at least a match for any German tank of the time, which was quite a surprise to the Germans because they were quite proud of their tank arm. The Germans noted with alarm that shots were simply bouncing off the sloping armor of the T-34. What was most amazing, though, was that the T-34 wasn't even the biggest or most powerful of the new Soviet tanks.

Tiger tank
A knocked-out Soviet KV tank. I believe this is the first one that the Germans encountered, which caused a lot of concern.

One Russian heavy tank, a new KV (for Kliment Voroshilov, the Soviet defense commissar and politician), proved an even greater surprise than the T-34. In a famous incident, just one KV blew through an entire German regiment before being stopped at point-blank range over open sights by an 88mm anti-aircraft gun (one of the first such uses by this versatile gun). The KV was virtually unstoppable except by heavy artillery. Taken together, the T-34 and KV scared the Germans and forced them to reassess their entire tank force. That is what led to the creation of the Tiger I.

Tiger tank
A perfunctorily camouflaged Tiger I waiting patiently to greet some Russians

The Germans knew who to call upon to get some answers. General Heinz Guderian was perhaps the leading tank expert in the world. He had written extensively before the war on tank tactics. During October 1941, Guderian was at the front leading a Panzer Army (the southern pincer around Moscow). Guderian investigated incident involving the KV tank and figured out what the problems were with current panzers, and there were several. A bigger gun was necessary to handle the the dangerous new Russian tanks, thicker armor necessary to protect the crews, wider tracks to handle the Russian snow and mud, and various other smaller details. Guderian knew tanks better than anyone, and his judgment about tanks as weapons was consistently excellent (and much better than his tactical judgment, though he was competent at that and an innovator in tank tactics). He gave his quick findings to the major tank designers, who were ordered to whip up a response.

Tiger tank
Inside a Sturmgeschütz III.

The designers raced around the clock to come up with an answer in both the medium tank category represented by the T-34 (then nailed down in the Wehrmacht by the Panzer IV) and the heavy tank category of the KV (of which, amazingly, the Germans possessed not a single example at the time). The medium tank that resulted by early 1943, often considered the best tank by any army of the entire war, was the Panther. The Tiger was the heavy tank, and it was rolling by August 1942. However, first there was a process that had to be completed before the actual Tiger design was created - which once again argues against the Bovington theory that "the" design process was set in motion in 1940. In fact, the Tiger design was not set until 1942.

Tiger tank
Rejected Porsche Tiger P prototype VK4501 P.

For the heavy tank, a design competition was hastily organized among the two major vehicle manufacturers, Henschel and Porsche. Porsche actually didn't have any experience building tanks, but Hitler had a lot of faith in Dr. Ferdinand Porsche himself. Prototypes were completed by both companies in record time, with major contracts awaiting the winner. The two behemoths then faced off in an extended competition (Porsche submitted multiple versions). The version chosen was the one submitted by Henschel. The final Porsche version which was rejected, however, also had an interesting history which we'll get to below.

Tiger tank
s.SS-Pz.Abt. 101 "LSSAH", Tiger 232 northern France, spring 1944. Air attack was deadly at this point, so the tank wisely is hiding amidst the foliage. (Sobeck, Federal archive).

Hitler meddled with the design, which caused Guderian no end of frustration. The various "fixes" raised the Tiger I's weight from the projected 45 tons to almost 60 tons. Still, the engineers could handle the changes, though they did put undue strain on various parts of the Tiger's suspension, transmission and engine. Thus, many tanks broke down on the roads. This was a consistent problem with the mid-war panzers, both the Tigers and the Panthers, which was never resolved.

Tiger I

Once it won the heavy tank competition, Henschel began ramping up production immediately. The first Tigers started appearing on the Leningrad front in August 1942, ten months after the problem before Moscow, but there were issues. Two of the first four Tigers broke down before they got near the enemy. They were undoubtedly impressive and outclassed every other tank, German or Russian, but the first Tigers had engine and transmission troubles and many wound up by the side of the road - or, worse, in the middle of it. The Tigers were big, and towing them presented a problem all its own at first. Some teething problems are inevitable, especially after such a quick turnaround. Some Tigers appeared in Tunisia before the collapse of the bridgehead there, but many more probably wound up at the bottom of the Mediterranean in sunken Italian transport ships (fully half were sunk in the last few months) than actually made it to General Erwin Rommel's troops.

Tiger tank
Panzer VI 'Tiger I' (231) of 2./s.Pz. Abt. 503 during 'Operation Zitadelle' in the Belgorod area of Russia. Early August 1943. The 503rd (attached to XI. Armeekorps), took part in the southern sector of Operation Zitadelle. Four days before the start of "Zitadelle," the abteilung reported that 42 of their 45 Tiger tanks were operational. (Colourised by Royston Leonard from the UK).

Tiger tank
The same picture in the original black and white. I think there are some advantages to both the original and the colorized versions of this kind of shot - the b/w is a little sharper.

Hitler thought the Tigers were invincible and would win battles all by themselves as soon as they appeared on the battlefield. He liked to say "We shall put the Tigers in there and that will be enough. They are unassailable." Tiger tank crews were taken from successful crews of other panzers and put through a course at a special school. The most successful men were put in the most advanced tanks, creating an elite force.

Tiger tank
Tiger Tank Gunnery school in Putlos, Germany.

During the battle of Stalingrad, Hitler responded to General Manstein's pleading for more forces to rescue the trapped Sixth Army in part by noting that a trainload of Tigers was on the way and would solve everything. That was not to be, though the Tigers did have many fantastic early successes and remained fearsome to the end.

Tiger tank
A Tiger in Tunis, 1943.

It took time to figure out the mechanics of the great beasts and how to incorporate them most effectively into the Army. Once they were understood, though, Tigers indeed could accomplish things nothing else could - but only if used properly and under the right conditions, not by simply letting them loose and then counting the prisoners.

Tiger tank
Two Tigers from schwere Panzer-Abteilung (heavy panzer detachment) 503 as seen through the driver’s vision visor during an advance in the summer of 1943.

The Tigers required full support (most importantly ready maintenance) and expert handling. If provided with these two things, they performed like high-performance racecars relative to lower-grade tanks.

Tiger Kursk
The commander’s tank of the schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 opens fire with his main gun at Kursk in the summer of 1943.

Tigers were too late to help at Stalingrad. However, there were a few on the way that just didn't get there quite in time - not that they would have made any difference. They helped to stop the Soviet onslaught that continued to the west after the city itself was surrounded. They proved more useful in the brilliant Manstein counter-offensive of March-April 1943.

Tiger Rostov
Tiger ‘231’ of Leutnant Zabel from schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 was hit 252 times by fire from all calibres during combat near Semernikovo, on the outskirts of Rostov-on-Don on 11 February 1943. The tank was able to be driven a further 60km to the rear area and returned to the unit. Later, the tank was returned to Germany (note the transport tracks) but it is not known whether this tank was repaired.

The most important tank battle in the history of World War II Germany, the battle of Kursk commencing 5 July 1943, was fought with comparatively few Tigers. Without getting into a complete recap of that battle, the main attacks on both the north and south faces of the converging attack each were comprised of only a few dozen Tigers, along with a roughly comparable number of Panthers. Heavy tank battalion 503, on the southern arm of the pincer attack, had 45 tigers, of which 42 were operational at the start of the battle. It operated with III Corps, with 15 tanks allocated to each of the three divisions of the corps. The tigers performed well, and enabled Army Detachment Kempf to cover the vital eastern flank of Hoth's 4th Panzer Army. III Corps only lost three tigers during the battle. It was the only part of the entire operation that could be said to have out-performed hopes and expectations.

King Tiger tank
Tiger tanks of 503 Heavy Tank Battalion of the Army Detachment Kempf, advancing with infantry in a Soviet village during the early days of the Battle of Kursk.

Unfortunately for the Wehrmacht, though, the vast majority of panzers for the Kursk battle - roughly 3,000 in all, though the numbers vary widely depending upon what units you count (reserves? vehicles in the repair shops?) - were medium Panzer IIIs and IVs which no longer scared the Russians. The 45 tigers apiece of 503 heavy tank detachment in the south and 505 detachment in the north could not be everywhere. The roughly 5000 Soviet tanks they faced (including reserves), primarily T-34s, were too much to overcome in timely fashion. Some would argue that the Germans in fact basically won the main Kursk battle, and only had victory snatched away because of Hitler's paranoid fears about the flanks and the Allied invasion of Sicily. However, Zitadelle was a dead end: the Soviets in fact were massed on the flanks, and even if the panzers completed the pincer attack, they themselves could have wound up surrounded in an even bigger Soviet pincer attack that would have decided the war then and there. Hitler for once made exactly the right decision when he pulled units out to shore up the flanks, thereby preventing Soviet breakthroughs there, and then yanked the remaining mass of armour (including the Tigers) out before it could be encircled. Germany already had lost the battle of matériel with the Soviet Union by mid-1943, and that was something that superior tactics and weaponry could not overcome.

Tiger tank
Tiger Is of the III Panzer Corps, early 1944, riding to the rescue of the Korsun-Cherkassy pocket. Notice the ones parked in the background to the left, too (Jacob, Federal Archive).

So, as everyone knows, the Germans lost at Kursk. Tigers alone were not enough to overcome the overwhelming Soviet numbers in major strategic operations. However, in select later situations they did make a very real difference. For instance, due to Hitler's vapid insistence on holding the last remnants of the Dneiper line south of Kiev, 58,000 German forces became surrounded by the Soviets early in 1944. This became known as the Korsun–Cherkassy Pocket. Many thought these men were all but dead meat, just like 6th Army/4th Panzer Army had been at Stalingrad a year earlier.

Tiger tank
Tiger I in the field.

However, conditions were different than at Stalingrad: the weather was not as severe, the distance to the pocket from German relief forces was less, Soviet encircling forces were weaker, there were larger German troop concentrations nearby to effect a rescue, the supply situation was better, and the trapped men now knew (after Stalingrad) better than to sit around and wait for relief. Their hope was for Manstein's Tigers to cut their way through the mud and snow and the fierce Russian resistance until they were close enough for a break-out.

Tiger tank
A Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger I (8,8 cm L/56) Ausf. E (Sd.Kfz. 181) '332' of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 3./503 carefully trying to make its way out of the mud. In October 1943, the battalion was in a rest area near Znamenka, Tambovskaya oblast, Soviet Union, where it had time to maintain and repair vehicles and conduct training. This image shows recovery training that was conducted on the 4th of October 1943, but this was not some school-tank: Note the signs of an explosion that did not penetrate on the turret right behind the driver.(Colourised by Doug)

After strenuous efforts and some failures by others, the Tigers alone were able to get just close enough for the breakout to the village of Lysyanka under General Stemmerman (who perished during the escape) to partially succeed. There were vicious tank firefights that prevented the Tigers from actually closing the gap, with the Soviets dug in behind a nearby hill.

Tiger tank
Tiger on a ferry. This probably was during the evacuation of the Caucasus to the Crimea in the late summer of 1943, a highly successful operation on a par with the successful evacuation of Sicily earlier that year. That is either a Schwimmwagen or a Kubelwagen next to it. This ferry can probably defend itself pretty well against other ships, don't you think?

About 35,000 out of 50,000 (the Soviets disputed these figures) German soldiers escaped. This was only due to the absolutely brilliant abilities of III Panzer Corps and its heavy tank battalion against the dug-in Russian artillery and tanks. Without the Tigers, the Germans all would have become prisoners and perished in Russian captivity like so many other German POWs. It was one of the most brilliant operations of the entire war, almost unknown in the West. It succeeded (to the extent that it did) only by a thread, a thread held by the Tiger Tanks. Note that the Soviets contended that only very few Germans escaped - there is no referee to settle these disputes and we must proceed on the evidence available. The commanding General, Stemmerman, perished during the escape, though the Germans pretended for a time that he hadn't.

Tiger tank
SS Panzergrenadiers by a Tiger I of the 2nd SS Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich during the Battle of Kursk. They are behind a hill, ready to launch.

The Tigers weren't always so successful. For example, in the Tunisian bridgehead, the Tigers did ok, but were far from the war-winning super weapons that Hitler expected and needed. Out in the desert, they had no cover and were exposed to air attack, their deadliest opponent.

Tiger tank Christian Tychsen
Obersturmbannführer Christian Tychsen, 2nd SS Panzer Division "Das Reich." The 353rd recipient of the Oak Leaves and a veteran of the Eastern Front, Tychsen was killed by air attack in the latter stages of the Normandy campaign.

While capable of handling themselves against ground attacks, Tigers had no defense against aerial attacks. More so perhaps than on the Eastern Front, where the Luftwaffe remained effective almost to the end, the best antidote to Tigers always was a well-placed air strike. When confronted by a 500-lb bomb, the Tigers became just another vulnerable vehicle.

Tiger tank
Despite its 56-ton weight, this Tiger I was overturned by the bombing preparatory to the Allied breakout from Normandy. Three men survived. Normandy, France, July 1944. Just imagine the sheer power of the bombs to do this.

When you see pictures of overturned Tigers, it was likely air attack that did it, or perhaps a lucky hit with field artillery.

Tiger tank
Tiger tanks and crews in commemorative pose. The tanks look new. A commenter notes that this is the newly formed 2nd Company of the sPzAbt 502 (heavy tank) unit in France.

So, the first models of the Tigers did well, but did not quite meet expectations. This was only normal after their rushed design and production, as all tanks have initial teething problems. Nobody lost faith in the basic design, though, and modifications were made.

Tiger tank
German Panzer VI (Tiger I) in front of the Fascist Vittoriano (Altar of the Fatherland, later the Monument to Victor Emanuel II). Rome, Italy first half of 1944.

As their development progressed, the Tigers were modified to meet changing threats. It was found, for instance, that magnetic mines thrown at Tigers and other tanks were a danger. The Germans came up with Zimmerit, an anti-magnetic paste developed by Chemische Werke Zimmer AG. This prevented magnetic mines from sticking to the tanks' hulls and disabling them.

Tiger tank
A British soldier hiding from the rain under an overturned Tiger tank. Italy, 1944. Tigers sometimes wound up like this after they were left in the middle of a road and convoys coming later - usually the Allies - had to shove them off the road any which way to get by.

However, Zimmerit added two days to production, which was unacceptable at a time when Germany was fighting for its life. In addition, there was a false fear that the paste was flammable and would catch fire. The fear of magnetic mines was overblown anyway. Zimmerit thus was discontinued in late 1944, but it did its job and is the wavy substance seen on many tank pictures from the period.

Tiger tank
General Eisenhower passes by a smashed German Tiger tank in the vicinity of Chambois, France, on August 23, 1944. The general is without a close security escort, a routine occurrence as Ike did not like being "crowded." Still, this photo was taken very close to German lines, and it illustrates the Tigers' incredible size.

After some re-working and minor upgrading of the underpowered engine from 650 to 700 Hp, Tigers became the preferred weapon of the German tank specialists. The eternally capable Panzer IV and the deadly Panther remained the most common German designs on the battlefield through the end of the war, but the tankmen themselves aspired to a Tiger or Tiger II mount.

Tiger tank
An American Soldier sits in the Turret of a knocked out Tiger Tank, possibly 1944 in Normandy. The soldier is emphasizing the immense size of the turret, which has been blown clean off the body, most likely by air attack (colorized).

While the other tanks were distributed throughout other formations, only the Tigers were organized into their own discrete formations. These were called Heavy Tank battalions (schwere Panzer-Abteilung) and remained under the direct command of higher army leadership, often Hitler himself. Hitler, in fact, was known to keep close tabs on the movements of Tigers by rail, knowing exactly where they were in their journey to the Front.

Tiger tank
T-34 medium tank, left, and Tiger I heavy tank.

Tigers were to be used only at key points to achieve decisive results. They were operated by reliable (fanatical) SS Troops, who invariably got the best equipment whether they deserved it or not.

Tiger tank
Tiger I commander scanning for targets, most likely at Kursk.

The Tiger I was a deadly opponent with its famous 88 mm gun serving as main battle gun. The 88 (as it was universally called) originally was an anti-aircraft gun that had limited maneuverability, but once it became mobile on a Tiger, it was positively fearsome.

Tiger tank
s.Pz.Kp./SS-Pz.Rgt. 2 "Das Reich", two unidentified Tigers and a StuG III move forward during Operation "Zitadelle", Soviet Union, July 1943 (Canticler, Federal Archive).

Tigers did have their share of design problems. First, their front glacis plates were vertical, making them more vulnerable to return fire than was necessary. Instead of bouncing off sloped armor, enemy shots stuck - and thus more often pierced the armor than necessary, which meant death for everyone inside.

Tiger tank
Column of PzKpfW IV Ausf.G and Tigers of the 2. SS-Panzer-Division 'Das Reich' marching through a snowy forest, near the city of Kirovohrad, 250 km southeast of Kiev, to combat the forces of the 1st Ukrainian Front. Ukraine. 1 December 1943 (Schnitzer, Federal Archive).

The designers' decision to ignore a principle that had been known at least since the US Civil war 80 years earlier - that sloping armor vastly increases its defensive properties - and which was a key feature of the dreaded T-34, is simply odd. There may have been some over-confidence in the intrinsic power of the Tiger at play there. This glaring design fault was not corrected until the Panther and Tiger II came out.

Tiger tank
Note the snorkel tube on this Panzer VI Tiger I, being tested post-war. Being too heavy for some bridges, the Tigers were designed from the outset to cross rivers underwater. There is not much evidence of the snorkel actually being used, though, as the Tigers went over most rivers by train or sturdy military pontoon bridge.

Tigers also were too heavy for many bridges of the day, so - incredibly - they were fitted with snorkel tube and driven underneath rivers rather than upgrade the many bridges of northern Europe. In the event, the Tigers were treated so carefully that the bridge issue never received much notice.

Tiger tank
Abandoned (knocked out) Tigers, Villers Bocage, France, 1944. When defending cities late in the war, the tactic was to place available tanks at intersections and await the enemy. There are pieces of them scattered all about, must have been a big explosion. A commenter notes that these Panzer IV and Tiger "112" (Oscha Ernst) were knocked out by a Sherman Firefly of at Villers Bocage on June 13, 1944.

Tigers weren't very fast because there were no engines powerful enough to move 50 tons of dead weight at a fast clip. When they did move, they burned a lot of gasoline (no existing diesel engines were powerful enough to propel the monsters).

Tiger tank
PzKpfw. VI Tiger near the river Orne in Normandy, 1944. A commenter notes that this was SS PzAbt 102.

Their original 12-cylinder Maybach gasoline engine developed only 650 HP at 3000 RPM, which may sound like a lot, but is insufficient to move that much weight around very quickly. Henschel tinkered with the engine and slightly upgraded it to 700 HP, but the Tigers remained slow and ponderous until the end of the war. They could roll along at roughly 20 mph.

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Soldiers admiring Tigers of sPzAbt 507 in an assembly area near Ternopol, April 1944. Note the battalion HQ command tank marked "A." Thanks to a commenter for ID.

The Tigers' great weight also made them difficult to recover on a fluid battlefield when they lost a tread or had some other fixable problem. Usually, another Tiger wound up towing them back to a repair shop. However, many that could have been recovered had to be left behind, especially later in the war when the Germans were on the run.

Tiger Tank
Villers Bocage, Summer 1944. Villers Bocage was a key road junction that was fought over desperately. Here, Tiger tank 231 is getting towed by tank 222 after a breakdown. Ten days later, 231 was abandoned and scuttled in the middle of a road by its crew after it ran out of fuel. Tiger tank 231 was saved and is still around today. That is SS Untersturmfuehrer Hantusch in the motorcyclist overcoat (colorized, and thanks to a commenter for the commander's ID).

Self-help was often the answer. It was not unknown for crews to carry spare tracks into battle and then work like mad to try and replace their own treads after one was blown off. The tracks and engines had to be replaced with regularity, treads every 200 kilometers or so, though that was a problem with all tanks of the period. The turrets also turned too slowly, a fact the Allies discovered and exploited with agile weapons such as the 76 mm Gun Motor Carriage (GMC) M18 "Hellcat" tank destroyer.

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s.Pz.Abt. 508, a 2.Kp. A Tiger having work done near Aprilia, Italy, February 1944 (Vack, Federal Archive).

Even with all their problems, Tiger Tanks was the king of the battlefield. The standard rule of thumb was that it took five standard American medium tanks (Shermans) working together to overcome one Tiger I. This was borne out by experience many times. The typical reaction was for Shermans to call in heavier equipment to deal with the Tiger if such were available.

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German Panzer column comprising Tiger tanks of 506 Heavy Tank Battalion join the retreat of the German army in western Ukraine on May 4, 1944.

Indeed, five Shermans is what it took finally to overcome Panzer Waffen SS Captain Michael Wittmann in his Tiger in Normandy. Wittmann had been on a bloody reign of terror against the Allies since the invasion, single-handedly stalling the invasion of France with his fighting prowess at Villers-Bocage on 13 June 1944 and on other occasions.

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Wittmann and his crew, who have quite a collection of medals by this point.

Wittmann was a veteran tank commander with an experienced crew who knew what he was about and what risks he could take. Tanks are just hunks of useless metal without good crews. Wittmann and his men were among the best.

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The driver's seat of a Tiger, shell loading to the right.

At Villers Bocage, southwest of the key city of Caen, alone with his veteran crew in his single Tiger Tank on 13 June 1944, Wittmann established his legend once and for all. In a famous sequence, while in command of his unsupported Tiger tank in the middle of this key crossroads village being invaded by the British, Wittmann destroyed 14 enemy tanks and 15 APCs and other enemy equipment in 15 minutes.

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German tank ace Michael Wittmann's company, 7 June 1944. They are on road route nationale 316 en route to Morgny. Wittman can be seen standing out of the top turret hatch on the lead Tiger I tank #205.

Wittmann just waltzed into town while his mates waited under cover and started blasting everything that moved, exactly as you see it in the movies. The British had to turn tail and literally head for the hills as the rest of Wittmann's SS Heavy Panzer Battalion 101 moved in to finish the job. The British had nothing to match the Tiger except antitank weapons and courage. This was one of the scariest 15 minutes of the war for the soldiers opposing him, many of whom died that day. It also contained the entire invasion force, which otherwise likely would have broken out into France weeks earlier. Wittmann earned and received a promotion that day, and the Tiger Tank proved its worth - again.

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During the Battle of the Bulge, Kampfgruppe Peiper led the way. It was boosted by the King Tiger tanks of the Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 501 for its drive westwards in an attempt to reach the Meuse River. It fell just short. Here, one of its tank, on its way to Lanzerath, passes a column of captured soldiers from the US 99th Infantry Division marching toward Germany.

A couple months later in August, as the Allies were breaking out of Normandy, Wittmann in turn was killed by the British and Canadian tankers. Riding high in April, shot down in May.... Certainly Wittmann had faced odds of a similar nature on the Russian front in the past as he ultimately faced in his final battle, and worse odds, too - but everyone gets unlucky after too many brushes with death. There are some that say he actually was reckless and needlessly exposed his flank both during earlier engagements and in the course of his final confrontation. That may be true, but he was tough and brave and quite successful for a long time. He was not going to allow the enemy to invade his country, not while he still took a breath. The increasing odds against him and accumulation of risks from his aggressive style just finally caught up with him.

Michael Wittmann Tiger tank
Wittmann in command. Note all the Zimmerit paste.

The British finally caught Wittmann in a flank attack with five Shermans against his lone Tiger, and it was too much. Very few on either side matched his skill as a daring tank commander, but the preponderance of forces against him was impossible to survive forever. Wittmann killed a lot of good men, but he did so in an honorable fashion, following the rules of war, and earned the respect of many of those who survived. Of course, some will never forgive anyone who fought on the German side, and that is understandable.

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Wittmann receives his decoration and promotion for his actions at Villers Bocage.

The biggest enemy of a German heavy tank such as the Tiger wasn't an enemy tank, or even a group of enemy tanks, though a mass of tanks could be deadly. It was air attack, against which Tigers were defenseless. One plane dropping a 500 lb bomb with precision could destroy any tank.

Tiger tank Worthmann Tychsen Pavelka
2nd SS Pz.Div. "Das Reich" officers: SS-Sturmbannführer Christian Tychsen, SS-Obersturmführer Hans Pavelka and Untersturmführer Karl-Heinz Worthmann.

Of course, the Luftwaffe Stukas also destroyed a lot of Russian tanks, and would have done the same in the West if the balance of airpower had been more equal there. But the 11,000 Allied planes covering the Normandy battlefields established absolute control of the air and created the "German glance" - a look back over the shoulder to see if an enemy plane was about to make a strafing run.

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You lookin' at me? A Tiger I.

Tiger II, or "King Tiger"

With actual experience from the battlefield of the Tiger I, and further developments in enemy tanks, the German tank designers continued upgrading their tank plans. The problems of the initial version of the Tiger were recognized and major changes were made. However, there was only so much that could be done with the technology of the day.

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Tigers. Don't like us? Screw you. Come and get us.

The Jagdtiger Panzerkampfwagen Tiger B/Panzer VII/Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B was the result. It is also known as the Königstiger (Bengal Tiger, its literal translation) or more familiarly as the "King Tiger." We go with "King Tiger" because that is what everyone uses and recognizes, even if not correct under a hyper-technical definition.

King Tiger tank Königstiger
Königstiger - King Tiger tank & Sherman tank, side by side. This illustrates quite nicely how the Sherman, despite its defenders, was from a much earlier generation of tank design.

The King Tiger could carry up to a 128 mm PaK 44 L/55 main gun, capable of out-ranging and defeating any Allied tank (or just about anything else). Some apparently mounted the 88 mm, just like the Tiger I. Only 492 King Tigers made it to the field starting in September 1944, as compared to 1347 Tiger I Tanks.

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PanzerKampfWagen VII, The King Tiger Tank.

Many Tiger IIs were lost due to lack of fuel or when untrained crews damaged the sensitive transmission. It was invariably too heavy to be recovered, and many were left behind as the Germans retreated. However, on the field, they destroyed everything in sight and could only be damaged by aircraft or heavy artillery.

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Kurt Knispel was another Tiger tank expert, a  Heer tank commander in World War 2. With all due respect to Michael Wittmann, this is the man who many consider the greatest tank ace of all time. He destroyed 195+ enemy tanks on all fronts of the war, one a T-34 from 3000 meters (which required quite a fancy ballistics calculation). He fought on all fronts and was the leading expert with the Tiger tank. He fought in many major and hopeless battles, turning the tide at the last minute at Caen and Cherkassy. He never made it past Sergeant because he fought with the hierarchy all the time and they despised him. He was KIA at the end of the war, April 28, 1945.

Clearly, the Germans had a thing for huge weapons, which usually didn't work out well for them. However, as mentioned above, they were just responding to their opponents. There was nothing unusual about formations of heavy tanks in the Russian or British armies, but nobody ever talks about them as being wasteful. The only thing unique about Tiger Tanks was their renowned deadliness.

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Tiger II abandoned during the failed Peiper counteroffensive.

Based on the economic realities of the time, the Germans had no hope of matching the production abilities of the forces arrayed against them, so they had to try for a qualitative edge.

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Knocked out American M-4 tank and German Sturmgeschütz IV sit side by side in the street. Photo courtesy of estate of General Charles Day Palmer, a United States Army four-star General.

It was a pretty hopeless strategy, but it was all they could do. In a one-on-one collision of a Tiger and a Sherman, the Sherman was at a huge disadvantage; but such confrontations were not the norm. More often, it would be several Shermans against one Tiger.

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King Tiger II.

This they managed to achieve with the Tiger I and II. Even then, they were just slightly ahead of their enemies, who also were busy designing and building tanks that were almost as large and deadly.

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Mud recovery training of sPzAbt 503 (heavy tank company, see another photo of same scene above). Ukrainian fields are crisscrossed with these crevasses at regular intervals, many much deeper than this. Some you can cross, others you get stuck in, so recovery training was essential.

Handled by a pro like Wittmann or Knispel, a heavy tank like the Tiger - well, the Tiger and in particular the Tiger II - could be the most formidable weapon on a battlefield and change the course of events all by itself.

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Captured Tiger II, south of Bastogne, January 1945.

The Tiger II was actually much closer to the dominating weapon that Hitler sought than any other super-weapon such as the V-1 or V-2 rockets.

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The proud crew of an early Tiger in Russia, late 1942.

A weapon is only as good as its crew, and the Tiger IIs had some of the best: Kurt Knispel, Johannes Bölter, Ernst Barkmann, Otto Carius and Michael Wittmann.

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King Tiger (Tiger II) Jagdtiger ("Hunting Tiger") tank destroyer with young crewman, perhaps in the Hitler Youth Division. This was the heaviest tank destroyer of the war and the heaviest tank ever to reach series production. This bad boy was big. You don't think of little kids like that in one of them - but they were at times. Note that in this version, the turret was part of the cast iron frame and could not move.

There simply were never enough of them or sufficient fuel and resources to adequately supply them for the Tigers to make a decisive difference. Towards the end, tanks were even going into battle without even a full "basic load," or full supply of fuel and ammunition.

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A nest of King Tigers - not something the Allies looked forward to fighting.


The Porsche heavy tank which lost the heavy tank competition to the Tiger still went into service despite having only a very limited production run. It initially was called the Ferdinand in honor of Porsche company leader Ferdinand Porsche. The common name later changed to "Elefant" after some upgrades because of the weapon's distinctive profile. An easy way to remember the name change is that the tanks were called "Ferdinands" while operating on the Eastern Front, and then "Elefants" after being transferred to Italy.

This Elefant has hit a mine during operations against the Allied beachhead at Anzio-Nettuno. It was part of the 1./653 (1. Kompanie of schwere Panzerjager-Abteilung 653) (Federal Archive).

Only about 88 Ferdinands were made, and all were used in the northern sector (Model's sector) of the Kursk battle. The Soviets feared the Ferdinands and made special note of their presence. In fact, they thought the southern (General Manstein and SS General Hausser) wing of the Kursk attack had the Ferdinands when in fact it had none. This fear factored into their battle plans, an example of "psyching out" your enemy before the first gun is fired.

Ferdinand being inspected by Allies.

Model had no success in his sector at Kursk, so the Ferdinand developed a bad reputation early on that has stuck with it. However, that reputation is unjust. It is true that the Ferdinand was an enigma of a weapon. It was prone to breakdown, caught on fire frequently, was slow and had no defensive machine gun. As such, in offensive roles it was a disaster. Many were destroyed before even reaching the front line, and if a Ferdinand outran its infantry support it was doomed; with no secondary armament the Soviets could run over and attach mines to it or simply pour gasoline over the engine vents and set it on fire. Some 39 were lost in Kursk, many to mines, others to Russians sneaking up on them. Once disabled, Ferdinands became sitting ducks for air attack or artillery. This didn't happen nearly as often as later legend would suggest, but that it could and did happen at all was not a good sign for the Ferdinand. Tanks that couldn't operate independently required a lot of support, which was hard to come by as German forces dwindled.

Destroyed Ferdinands.

As a defensive tank in Italy in a properly constructed combined-arms operation with adequate defending ground troops and artillery, Ferdinands became incredibly effective. On average, they destroyed 355 enemy tanks for every Ferdinand lost (some say it was only 10:1, which is still the best ratio for a class of tanks in history), making it the most successful tank killer of the war. At least, that is the claim that some make, and who knows if that is accurate, but it sounds good. Anything like that would be quite an achievement, certainly a better ratio than the fabled Tiger.

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Tiger column, north of France. A colorized shot from the same movement is below (Scheck, Federal Archive).

The fact that the Ferdinands were withdrawn from the Russian Front made many later authors assume that they were complete failures. That is far from the truth. Hitler also intended to transfer other formations to Italy at the same time because of the Allied invasion of Sicily. These transfers did not signify failure, in fact, Hitler chose elite formations such as the Leibstandarte Division. However, the transfer actually worked out well for the Ferdinands (now called Elefants), because the mountainous and woody terrain of Italy was ideal for their deployment as defensive tank killers. Air attack also was not as much of a problem in the Italian mountains with some ground cover.
This color shot shows the camouflage. It is a column of three German heavy tanks “Tiger I” of the 101st Heavy Tank Battalion of the SS. They are running along road 316 to Morgny (Normandy, France), June 7, 1944. The commander of the tank closest is Unterscharführer SS Ewald Möli. This battalion was home to tank ace Michael Wittmann, known for his Famous 13 June solo attack in the battle of Villers-Bocage, where he destroyed a large British force.

Despite their record of success, production of the Ferdinand was never restarted, perhaps because Porsche now was busy with the even larger Maus. However, if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, the Italians flattered the Elefant by designing their own tank destroyer, the Semovente 105/25, that had a somewhat similar silhouette with a stronger main gun. If nothing else, this confirmed the wisdom of using the Elefant in the mountainous territory of Italy, where they weren't as conspicuous, rather than the featureless Russian steppes.

Italian Semovente