|Dr. Ferdinand Porsche.|
The Porsche heavy tank entry which lost the heavy tank competition to the Tiger prototype from Henschel still went into service despite having only a very limited production run.
|German "Elefant" tank destroyers on the assembly line.|
The Ferdinand has become one of the more controversial weapons of the war because there are many misunderstandings about it. Many people know the name, and that it was a failure. That isn't quite accurate. In brief, these were a Schwerer Panzerjäger ("heavy tank-hunter") of the Wehrmacht. They were built in small numbers in 1943 under the name "Ferdinand." The Ferdinands used tank hulls that had been produced for the Tiger I tank competition, but which were rejected in favor of the competing Henschel design. The name commonly used to describe them later changed to "Elefant" due to their distinctive profile.
|Two Ferdinands on the prowl|
These initially was called Ferdinands in honor of Porsche company leader Ferdinand Porsche, but as with many German weapons systems the official and common names were quite different. It was the soldiers who later changed the name to "Elefant." The name change was more or less accepted by the Wehmracht - they were very casual about official names, it was the vehicle number that really mattered. Over time, there also was a desire to minimize Dr. Porsche's involvement, because it was not considered a major success and Hitler still expected great things from the auto designer.
|A surviving Elefant at Aberdeen|
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 was after the tanks were sent back to the factory and changed to incorporate a commander's cupola and machine gun, among other extra touches derived from battlefield experience.
|The Porsche Tiger - a second try that also failed, but looking a bit more like the eventual winner.|
First things first: this was second a design submitted from Porsche that competed against the Henschel Tiger (after the original Ferdinand design was rejected). A prototype PzKpfw VI Tiger (P), also known as the Porsche Tiger, was never a serious contender against the Henschel Tiger - but it could have been. This second Porsche entry had superior armor, but during test trials it also proved a failure like the first: the power steering often broke, the engine overheated, and it got stuck in mud too easily (a hugely important consideration on the Eastern Front). The version was rejected and the Henschel tank chosen.
Only five of these second "Porsche Tigers" were produced before Porsche gave up. Only one saw combat, but the design did not go completely to waste. Later the chassis design for this second version was used for the Elefant/Ferdinand tank destroyers that did enter combat.
|Dr. Porsche, front left fender, during a test ride of the Ferdinand.|
So, the Ferdinand had a kind of hybrid, accidental, extended development. In the end, it worked out well, perhaps not as a perfect tank, but certainly a useful vehicle that out-performed its limited expectations.
|This Elefant has hit a mine and lost a wheel during operations against the Allied beachhead at Anzio-Nettuno. It was part of the 1./653 (1. Kompanie of schwere Panzerjager-Abteilung 653) (Vack, National Archive).|
Only about 88 Ferdinands were made (some sources say 90, the exact number is difficult to pin down), and all were used at first in the northern sector (von Kluge and Model's sector) of the Kursk battle. The Soviets feared the Ferdinands and made special note to look for them and adopted specific ways to attack them. However, the Soviets were looking in the wrong place.
|Elefant of the Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653. The batallion crest - The Nibelungen Sword (on the turret)|
The Soviets wrongly thought that the Ferdinands would be in the southern (Generals Manstein and Hoth, along with SS General Hausser) wing of the Kursk attack. In fact, that pincer had none. This fear factored into the Soviet battle plans and deployments, an example of "psyching out" your enemy before the first gun is fired. Soviet after-action reports repeatedly cited the Ferdinand on the southern sector when in fact the opponent had been a Stug, a Marder or some other vehicle with a vaguely similar profile. Its notoriety on the Soviet side was enormous, its actual effect on the Eastern Front in a battle sense minimal.
|Elefant captured by the Soviets (see below for explanation).|
General Model had no success in his northern sector at Kursk despite having all the Ferdinands. His offensive was stopped cold after a minor breakthrough at a well-defended ridgeline. He then had to fight for his life to avoid encirclement. Since the Ferdinand was supposed to be a cornerstone of this prong of the offensive, it developed a bad reputation early on. It certainly is true that it was an enigma of a weapon. The Ferdinand was prone to breakdown, caught on fire frequently, was slow and had no defensive machine gun. As such, in poorly supported offensive roles against heavy defenses such as Kursk, the Ferdinand was a disaster.
Many were destroyed before even reaching the front line by mines and breakdowns and the like. That actually is fairly common for a new tank. In addition, when a Ferdinand outran its infantry support it was doomed. Alan Clark in his book "Barbarossa" makes the Ferdinand sound like an Edsel. As he notes, with no secondary armament the Soviets could run over and attach mines to it, pour gasoline into the engine, or use various other simple tricks to knock them out when there weren't any panzergrenadiers around.
|Date and location unknown|
So, some 39 were lost in Kursk (again, sources vary), many to mines, others to Russians sneaking up on them. Once disabled, Ferdinands were sitting ducks later for air attack or artillery. They were heavy and thus required special equipment to tow. On a fluid battlefield which the Germans were forced out of, that was seldom possible. More than one was blown up by its own crew to avoid capture.
The breakdowns and so forth didn't happen nearly as often as later legend would suggest. That it could and did happen at all was not a good sign for the Ferdinand, of course. Tanks that couldn't operate independently, such as a Henschel Tiger, required a lot of support. This was hard to come by in offensive operations such as Kursk, and increasingly rare as the war went on.
|Elefant, rear view. Somewhat vulnerable to an antitank gun with that flat panel - don't turn your back on the enemy|
Legend has it that Ferdinands destroyed 355 enemy tanks for every Ferdinand lost (a more conservative guess is 10:1, which is still the best ratio for a class of tanks in history). Some would argue that this makes the Ferdinand/Elefant the most successful tank killer of the war. That's certainly a better ratio than the fabled Tiger. Note that in Italy, the Elefant was no longer facing T-34s or Stalins, it was only up against tin-can Shermans. So, all figures must be taken with a grain of salt for numerous reasons.
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 to shore up the Italian defenses. In any event, the Ferdinands were handy and ready to ship to Italy, plus the forces in Russia were not in love with them, so off they went.
|Elefants on the move|
The transfer worked out particularly well for the Ferdinands (now called Elefants), because the mountainous and woody terrain of Italy, plus the availability of ample infantry, was ideal for their deployment as defensive tank killers.
Air attack also was not as much of a problem in the Italian mountains as opposed to the flat, featureless Ukrainian plains. In addition, the tight western Europe railroad and road networks were better for the bulky beasts to move around to decisive points where they were most useful. The Italian defense was localized and had all sorts of convenient choke points, perfect for a massive weapon like the Elefant which could sit back under cover and blast away.
|This color shot shows the camouflage of the time. A column of Tigers heading toward the front in France|
Despite their record of success, production of the Ferdinand was never restarted, perhaps because Porsche now was busy with the even larger (and truly ridiculous) 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.
The Elefants did their job in Italy, but they were big targets and they weren't building any more of them. Eventually, all were knocked out or broke down/ran out of gas and left behind on the battlefield, to be taken to the scrap yard during and after the war. Only two survive, one in Moscow, the other in Virginia. The bottom line is that this is one weapon that may have profited the Germans if they had built more.
What Might The Ferdinand/Elefant Look Like Today?
The Ferdinand/Elefant gets a bum rap in many quarters due to its being passed over in favor of the Henschel Tiger. The implication is that the Ferdinand/Elefant was a failure and mistake. However, that view is unfair, because the Ferdinand/Elefant was a valuable weapons that gave good service once used properly (in a defensive role with adequate support). The Ferdinand/Elefant was a prescient design that remains alive today through imitators.
Rather than go through an exhaustive list, I'll just give an example. The NORINCO PLZ-45 is a Chinese self-propelled howitzer (155mm / L45 howitzer) developed for both the home and export markets in the 1990s. It is based in part upon technology obtained from Austria in the 1980s, so there may indeed be a direct link to the Ferdinand/Elefant. Regardless of any such connection, the similarities between the two weapons can be taken in at a glance. Draw your own conclusions.
|PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzer.|
|PLZ-45 self-propelled howitzer.|
The Chinese PLZ-45 remains in service in Algeria, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and China itself.
Some More Photos
There are a lot of photos of Ferdinand/Elefants despite their limited production run. Below are additional photos.
|The surviving Ferdinand taking a ride|
|A Ferdinand in Russia|
|The surviving Ferdinand in Virginia|
|Remannts of a German Elefant tank destroyer in the streets of Naples / Italy|
|German troops (note the MG42) passing a knocked out Elefant, March 1944 (Koch, Federal Archive).|
|Nice profile shot of a Ferdinand (and its dead crew). Note the vision slits and headlights on the hull front corners, and the flat commander's hatch|
|Another rear view shot|
|Gone but not forgotten|