Thursday, October 9, 2014

King Tiger II, Lord of the Battlefield

Tiger II, or "King Tiger"


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Königstiger II convoy under the Castle of Budapest, 12 October 1944

The Tiger II was perhaps the most fearsome tank of World War II. It was the ultimate tank of the conflict. There were bigger tanks and more numerous ones, but none that could command a battlefield like a Tiger II.

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German heavy Tiger II tank preserved at Bovington Tank Museum, UK. The final official German designation for the Tiger II was Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B, often shortened to Tiger B. The ordnance inventory designation was Sd.Kfz. 182. It is also known under the informal name Königstiger (the German name for the "Bengal tiger"), often mistranslated as King Tiger or Royal Tiger by Allied soldiers.

With actual experience from the battlefield of the Tiger I, and after observing further developments in enemy tanks that had been encountered, destroyed or captured on the battlefield, the German tank designers continued upgrading their tank plans throughout 1942 and 1943. The Tiger II was the end result of this intense study.

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The Allies were not standing still, either; the Soviets were up-gunning their T-34 and cranking out larger tanks, while the Americans had the Pershing tank almost ready. While the Allied tanks were more numerous, one-on-one they were pretty much all inferior to the Tiger II.

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German tank development 1935-1945

The story behind the Tiger II is straightforward. The Germans were in a bind. The Panzer IV was useful and remained the backbone of the panzer arm, but clearly it was reaching the limits of its development. The Tiger I was competitive with any tank in the world, but it had a few glaring flaws that could be fixed without too much effort. These flaws included a flat front glacis plate that would be better if it were sloped so that some shots deflected off of it rather than having nowhere to go but penetrate the massive armor.

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Capacity for a bigger gun and thicker armor also would be useful. Germans tanks had to be better, not just equal, because the Wehrmacht would always be at a numerical disadvantage to its enemies. So, it was back to the drawing board.

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King Tiger worldwartwo.filminspector.com
King Tiger Tank, Tiger II is the common name of a German heavy tank of the Second World War. German designation was Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf.B, The ordnance inventory designation was Sd.Kfz. 182. It is also known under the informal name Königstiger, which translates as 'Bengal Tiger.'

The tank designers acknowledged the problems of the initial version of the Tiger and continued improving upon it. However, there was only so much that could be done with the technology of the day.

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Interior of the Tiger II. It had power steering and a semi-automatic gearbox. All of this was cutting edge (neither standard equipment in US cars until the '50s), so if the auto transmission failed, there was a pair of tiller levers. The seat and cut steering wheel raised up so that the driver could use the hatch when he wasn't being shot at. 

For instance, engines were only so powerful, and transmissions to move such massive weight were easily broken given the metals available under wartime conditions.

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This appears to be an assemblage for the Ardennes campaign

Tank treads lasted only so long, usually at most for a few hundred miles of use (which is one reason tanks were moved almost exclusively by train when not actually in battle).

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A British Firefly shell that didn't do the job against a Tiger.

The strain on moving parts from all the weight was immense, especially given the fact that Germany did not have access to metals that would have enabled the use of stronger alloys. With better raw materials, all of the German tanks would have been superior to how they turned out. Still, the designers understood the limitations and worked within them.

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Tigers. Don't like us? Screw you. Come and get us. Probably Kursk, 1943.

The Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B/Jagdtiger Panzerkampfwagen Tiger B/Panzer VII was the ultimate result. It is known popularly as the Königstiger (Royal Tiger or Bengal Tiger, its literal translation), King Tiger and Tiger II. True tank experts hate the "King Tiger" and "Tiger II" names because those were not its official designation, but they are a lot handier than "Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B" or its official inventory number, Sd.Kfz. 182. Using the technically correct Sd.Kfz.182 would just confuse everyone. To get more confusing, there also were command Tiger II tanks (Panzerbefehlswagen) designated Sd.Kfz. 267 and Sd.Kfz. 268 (distinguished by more radio equipment). So, apologies, but we'll go with King Tiger and Tiger II for convenience. The Germans themselves were not particularly picky about official names and often referred to weapons with colloquial expressions in official documents (a good example is the Bf 110 fighter, called the "Me 110" in some internal documents).

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Königstiger - King Tiger tank & Sherman tank, side by side.

The King Tiger carried a 128 mm PaK 44 L/55 main gun, capable of out-ranging and defeating any Allied tank (or just about anything else). Only 492 King Tigers made it to the field starting in September 1944, as compared to 1347 Tiger I Tanks. The Tiger IIs were kept separate from other tank formations and committed to battle only by the highest leadership. Hitler often would talk about this or that battalion of Tiger tanks being in the process of moving here or there by train, that is how closely he monitored their movements.

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PanzerKampfWagen VII, The King Tiger Tank

Many Tiger IIs were lost, and usually not from enemy action. This was due to lack of fuel or when untrained crews damaged the sensitive transmission. Moving them back to a repair shop was a major operation, one that often could not be accomplished in time on fluid (meaning, with the Germans retreating) battlefield.

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Preparing for the Battle of the Bulge. This was Germany's last major armored reserve

The Tiger II tank was invariably too heavy to be recovered except in those rare instances during its use when the Germans were advancing, 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 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). Feldwebel (Senior NCO, roughly Corporal) Knispel 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 killed right before the end of the war.

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, the only thing unique about Tiger Tanks was their renowned deadliness.

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Tiger II knocked out. A commenter below noted that it currently is on display at La Gleize (I need to get there). It likely was one of Peiper's tanks.

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. They tried this in several areas, most spectacularly with their missiles and advanced Luftwaffe jets, with very few products that affected events on the battlefield and a lot of unfulfilled promise. Their greatest practical success was with their tanks.

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. Make no mistake: everyone respected the Tiger tank. It was effective and maximized the talent and experience of the warriors who drove them. The only question was whether it made sense from an overall strategic (cost versus benefit) perspective. It most likely did - it had a greater effect on the war, for instance, than that amount of steel simply plowed into the increasingly vulnerable Panzer IV tank that were the true backbone of the Wehrmacht's tank force straight through to the end of the war.

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One Tiger got stuck in a ditch, so another helps it out. Tankmen of all armies will recognize this as a typical situation with tanks. Ukrainian fields are crisscrossed with these crevasses at regular intervals, most deeper than this. It can be hard to judge depth with little perspective offered from the low vantage point of a tank driver's seat, and difficult to stop short (and perhaps dangerous to the transmission). With all the mud, it was easy to slide into gullies or off dirt roads no matter how careful you were, and then retrieval was a massive undertaking.

Handled by a pro like Wittmann or Knispel, a heavy tank like the Tiger - well, the Tiger but in particular the Tiger II - could be the most formidable weapon on a battlefield and change the course of events all by itself. Many battles late in the war were either outright won or prolonged because of the presence of Tiger II tanks.

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Tiger II, south Bastogne. It may have run out of gas.

It 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. Their major drawback was lack of supporting infrastructure - sufficient panzergrenadier troops and artillery and, most importantly and decisively, air support.

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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 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.

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 King Tiger of the 509th Heavy Panzer Battalion during the failed relief of Budapest, February 1945

Going into battle without a full load of ammunition is practically a suicide mission for the tank, with its return from the battlefield (whether or not the crew survived) extremely unlikely. Incredibly, there were some scattered King Tigers in action during the street fighting in Berlin in April 1945.

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The end - King Tiger during the Battle of Berlin, Berlin Pariser str.27

There were too few tanks, too few men, and too little fuel to run them. But when the King Tigers fought - they were supreme.

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Koenigstiger with the Porsche turret. This turret design created a shell trap for frontal attacks. Later production Tiger II's had the Henschel designed turret.

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German and Hungarian soldiers on a Pz.Kpfw. VI Ausf. B “Royal Tiger” from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion in Budapest. They are preparing for Otto Skorzeny's Operation Panzerfaust in October 1944.

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Shark bite! One of the Tiger Tank of the schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502 is painted with tiger shark’s teeth on the muzzle brake, summer 1943.



2014

5 comments:

  1. Good article about the most imposing tank of WW2. For the fans, the only one working TigerII tank is at Musée des Blindés (Saumur France) Just hearing the engine is impressive! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kv3XZjSiaa8

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    1. Thank you, Hugo. I did not know about the running tank at Samur, I hope I can visit that at some point. James

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  2. You made some mistakes here.

    The allies baptised the Tiger II “Kingtiger”, which got then (unjustly so) translated to “Königstiger”, the Germans themselves never used that name.

    The image titled “Tiger IIs at their peak: etc” actually shows Panthers.

    The image titled “Tiger II lying in wait” depicts an abandoned vehicle. It got abandoned because half its barrel was shot away. This vehicle is currently on display at La Gleize Belgium. They “restored” the barrel by welding on part of a Panther barrel.

    The image titled “Eastern Front” shows a Panther too btw.

    And Kurt Knispel wasn't SS.

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    1. Good comments, appreciate them, will look at those and make the corrections.

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  3. Here you can find some info on the La Gleize Tiger II:

    http://www.december44.com/en/tiger-213.htm

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