The Germans have earned a lot of respect over the decades for their tank designs which are still considered as one of the best in service if not the best. This reputation was built during the second world war when the feared Panzers (which means armour in German) alongside mechanised infantry took over vast swathes of Europe within a relatively short span of time. The Germans built a couple of tanks which would became the symbol of its tank industry during the war and decades after it. They are so well known, that almost every analyst and enthusiast knows about it and its capabilities. This article will deal with the Tiger tank, one of the most capable and feared tanks ever designed.
Starting from 1940, a trend was observed in weapons designed by Germany. They were designed to be bigger and more powerful while not being as practical. The concept of heavy tank wasn’t new as both allied and axis powers had thought about them but chose not to develop them as transportation would have been a painstaking process. The German industry had developed some concepts to gain experience so that they could be ready for an eventual requirement. One such concept was developed by Henschel, it was a 71 ton design which could be broken down and transported in 3 different loads.
The requirement for a new tank started off as a heavy tank with a small gun which was latter changed to a not so well armoured tank with a heavy gun. This program started under the designation VK 4501 (VK stands for Test Vehicle) also called as the Tiger program. It was supposed to be a 49 ton tank armed with the deadly 8.8cm Kwk 36 (Kwk is short for Kampfwagenkanone which indirectly means tank gun and the number after it mentions the year of development) L56 (L56 means that the barrel was 56 calibres long i.e. 56 times the bore diameter) anti-tank gun. Krupp was supposed to design a common turret for the prototypes while Porsche and Henschel were supposed to design the chassis. Both of the design bureaus utilised concepts developed for earlier programs like VK 3001, VK 3601 etc for VK 4501. Their respective prototypes were designated as VK 4501 (H) for Henschel and VK 4501 (P) for Porsche. The design phase began in May 1941 with the face off scheduled for summer 1942.
Panzer IV was the mainstay tank of the German armies during WW2
By mid 1941, German troops had faced the T-34 and KV-1 in the battle field and had come to a conclusion that their existing armour and anti-armour weapons were no match for them. The 3.7 cm Kwk 37 L24 and the 5.0 cm Kwk 38/39 mounted on Panzer 3s couldn’t penetrate the sloped armour of a T-34 from a comfortable range while the later’s 76.2mm could easily take out the German Panzers. Thus the weight requirement for VK 4501 was increased to approximately 60 tons by adding armour. The design bureaus were specifically asked to design a tank which could beat all allied tanks comprehensively.
T-34 proved its mettle in the battle field starting from Operation Barbarossa.
Both the prototypes were presented to Hitler on his birthday ie 20th April 1942 and by July they were being extensively tested at a tank school in Berka, Germany. Porsche’s design was light years ahead of its era but was bogged down with problems. It utilised diesel-electric drive where 2×320 hp engines powered alternators which powered the motors driving the tracks. The engines were problematic and the power output wasn’t enough for the tank which had to be often rescued from soft ground by recovery vehicles. The power train was maintenance intensive and the alternators used copper which was an essential war commodity. It had 6 road wheels per side and an idler at the front end with no return rollers. The tracks were powered by sprockets at the rear end of the tank. It was longer than the Henschel’s design which reduced its manoeuvrability while the front placed turret made operations in enclosed areas dangerous. Over all, Porsche’s design was a failure and its ultra-modern propulsion system was one of the prime reasons behind it.
Henschel had initially thought of producing two prototypes, one had Krupp’s turret housing the 8.8cm gun while the second sported an inhouse design housing the 7.5cm Kwk 42 L70 gun which was later used on the Panther tank. They eventually dropped the second and went ahead with the first. It was powered by a 650hp petrol engine which made it under-powered. Drive-train had a powered sprocket at the front and a rear idler with interleaved road wheels making sure that the track was firmly on the ground. The tank had 8 axles a side with 3 wheels per axle per side thus a total of 48 road wheels. It had a very complex gear-box which provided 8 speed settings designed specifically to cope up with its massive weight and was a departure from standard clutch and brake which were present only as backups. The gear box while being compact made the tank light on the controls which is one feature its drivers loved but the complexity made it difficult to maintain and produce. Both the tanks however sported 2xMG34 7.92mm machines guns, one co-axial and one in the hull.
VK 4501 (H)
Over all, the Henschel design won and was selected for production. Porsche was overly positive about its design and had produced 100 chassis and 5 completed tanks designated as Tiger P after getting a contract thanks to Prof Porsche’s connections with Hitler. These hulls were later used for Elefant tank destroyer. A total of 1400 Tiger Is were built based on the Henschel design in Kassel, Germany.
Tiger Is were rushed into combat to counter the very potent T-34. Its combat debut however was dismal as the first 4 tanks sent to Leningrad in August 1942 and all 4 were knocked out, however 3 of them were recovered and repaired. The Germans steadily trained crew and developed tactics which inturn wreaked havoc on Soviet tank formations during Operation Barbarossa and British and American tanks in Northern Africa. Most of the allied weapons except the biggest ones couldn’t penetrate its frontal armour, which was 100mm thick rolled homogeneous nickel steel on turret and hull. Tiger Is fired 2 basic rounds PzGr. 39 which penetrated the target with its kinetic energy and exploded inside it while PzGr. 40 was a pure kinetic energy round. The later had higher penetrating power but lacked lethality and range of the former. It is said that Tigers usually started taking their targets out at over 1km thanks to the very accurate 8.8 cm gun. The round would usually penetrate the frontal armour of the tank and exit from the back after taking out the engine and causing massive internal damage.
A couple of Tigers looking for targets as a BT-7 with its hatches open is seen to their right and a probable T-34 is seen to their left.
Armour estimations of Tiger I
There are stories of a well hidden Tiger I taking out 12 T-34s without being spotted or fired at. Another confirmed incident occurred just after D-Day when a single company of Tigers destroyed 4 Sherman Firefly, 20 Cromwell, 3 Stuart, 3 M4 Sherman, 14 half-tracks, 16 Bren Carriers and 2×6 pounder anti-tank guns. This was possible due to the impressive load out of 92 shells which could be increased to 120 with modifications. They were successfully used in all theatres Germans fought in causing widespread Tigerphobia. The phobia was only aggravated by the performance of rounds it fired. It is said that T-34s withdrew from an area on mere suspicion that there was a Tiger around them. A Tiger would usually take out several tanks before being knocked out and mass attacks from the sides were the only way to take them out.
Here is an early production Tiger I with rubber rimmed wheels.
Since the tank was rushed into service, several modifications were made to it. One of the biggest modifications was new steel rimmed wheels replacing the rubber rimmed ones which allowed the Germans to reduce the number of wheels to 2 per axle. A new 700hp engine replaced the original engine to improve the mobility of the tank. The turret also received several modifications over time. By Feb 1943, the British had obtained a Tiger I and exhaustive tests showed its excellent combination of armour and gun. The tests also exposed the problems like complex gear box which was prone to failure if not maintained properly along with the lower rate of fire of the main gun.
Late production Tiger I with steel rimmed wheels.
German records suggest, it took 300,000 man hours to build a Tiger tank costing around $1 million in today’s currency while a Sherman costed less than half that value. It required heavy maintenance to keep it in running condition. Recovering a damaged or non-functional tank was very difficult to its sheer size. The interleaved wheels had its advantages and disadvantages. While protecting the hull from shells, they tend to jam in soft or icy conditions of the eastern front.
The picture shows the older rubber-rimmed interleaved wheels of a Tiger I.
In the later stages of the war, inexperienced Tiger crews coupled with excellent allied air cover and advanced HVAP (High Velocity Armour Piercing) rounds fired from 76mm guns on Shermans aimed using superior sights evened the odds for Shermans going against the Tiger. German crews started adopting static defensive tactics to reduce running time of the drive train in turn reducing breakdowns and petrol consumption.
Even before the Tiger I had made its combat debut, a requirement for its eventual replacement was put up and preliminary work was started. Combat debuts of T-34/85, IS-2, Su-152 and Su-85 meant that Tiger I was no longer the king of the battlefield and hence a new king was needed which arrived in the form of King Tiger (also called Tiger II or Royal Tiger). Porsche and Henschel were ordered to develop a heavier tank with better armour and armament to replace the Tiger I. Porsche presented two designs based on its VK 4501 (P) with designation VK 4502 (P). One design had an aft mounted turret and engine in the centre ala Merkava while the other had a centrally mounted turret. It sported the same diesel electric drive like its predecessor and was rejected. Porsche had already ordered first 50 turrets from Krupp based on its design thinking that they would bag the order.
Henschel on the other hand went ahead with a design which looked very similar to the Panther as it sported sloped armour and shared many components like the engine and suspension. Its running gear consisted of 9 axles a side with 2 wheels on each axle thus a total of 36 road wheels. The wheels overlapped but weren’t interleaved thus reducing complexity. It had the same 700hp engine seen on late Tiger Is and Panthers. Overall, Henschel’s design designated VK 4503 (H) was very different from the Tiger I but the added weight of armour made it under powered.
A CGI of what VK 4502 (P) with rear mounted turret.
VK 4503 (H) with the early Porsche turret
Tiger II with standard production turret.
Both of the designs were supposed to be armed with a longer variant of the gun on Tiger I, thus Tiger II had an 8.8cm Kwk 43 L71 gun instead of L56. As stated above, Henschel got the contract by the end of 1943 and started churning out its design. First 50 tanks utilised the Porsche turret which was replaced with a Henschel design as the former’s curve on the front face made it a shot trap by deflecting shots onto the driver’s hatch. Around 500 of these were built before the end of the war. A new turret rotating mechanism allowed the turret to turn quicker than that of Tiger I a known weakness used by allied crews to take it out.
Tiger IIs saw combat in both eastern and western sectors starting from 1944. There is reportedly no record of its frontal armour which was 150mm thick inclined at 40 degrees on the hull while frontal turret armour was 180mm inclined at 80 degrees. The 8.8cm Kwk 43 L71 gun fired both of the Tiger Is rounds along with the improved PzGr. 43 which was based on the PzGr. 40. Early on, the combat reliability was bad but it steadily improved with improved training and modifications. Availability rates were better than the lighter Panther and only slightly less compared to the German workhorse i.e. Panzer 4. These tanks were heavily used in defensive positions which was aided by the fact that they carried 86 rounds in total off which most were stored in the hull.
Armour estimations of Tiger II
Camo being sprayed onto a Tiger II. Tigers took up static defensive positions among trees to take pot shots on allied armour before withdrawing.
(Credits-On the pic)
Tiger II’s combat performance was mixed at best. Some units were fairly successful in scoring a lot of kills while others had to abandon tanks due to lack of serviceability. Allies used flanking attacks on Tiger units to penetrate the thinner side armour on these behemoths. On a positive note, crew survival rate was high thus experienced crews could be assigned to a new tank without the fuss of training a new crew all over again. There were some interesting duels between Tigers (both I & II) and allied M26 Pershings and IS-2 which were the closest matches the Tigers had during the war.
The then commander of allied forces in Europe Gen. Eisenhower checks out the running gear of an over-turned Tiger II. We can see that the wheels are overlapping but not interleaved.
I would like to point out an important thing, a lot of the flaws which the Tiger reportedly had were magnified by the allies to reduce the Tigerphobia among its crews. Some of the flaws have been discussed below. Lastly, once and for all, the Tiger vs Sherman scene in Fury is not an accurate depiction of actual combat.
Lets list and try to debunk some myths related to the Tigers
- “It was heavy, slow and lacked manoeuvrability”
As mentioned in the article, the tank was very light on its controls and was pretty manoeuvrable for its size. Its top speed was 41kph while cross country speed was between 10-12kph which was common for all of the vehicles during the era.
- “It was a gas guzzler”
Compared to vehicles of its size, Tigers weren’t excessively inefficient. It is true that needed a lot of fuel to operate and later in the war they were used in static positions to save fuel but this was done due to lack of required fuel supply. Secondly, the tank’s range was on par with peers of that era.
- “It would get stuck in mud quite often”
This problem was aggravated due to interleaved/over lapping wheels but it wasn’t that big a problem as Tigers with wide tracks had low ground pressure and didn’t get stuck as often as claimed.
- “They were bogged down by reliability issues”
With trained crews, Tigers wreaked havoc in the eastern sector. Trained crews maintained their tanks well and kept them active for much longer time while amateurs weren’t able to keep them running which led to losses.
Overall, Tigers were the epitome of tank designs which could be practically deployed and used during conflicts. A lot of new cutting edge tech was being developed for the Tiger II when the German forces surrendered. It included advanced gun stabilisation systems, auto loader etc. The Germans would go on to develop another behemoth named Maus which would never see combat. Tiger II started a new trend in tank design by defining the requirements for a tank to be called Main Battle Tank, several types of which now serve countries around the globe. I would cover Sturmtiger and Jagdtiger in a separate article later on.
Leopard 2 sharing some moments with its ancestor the Tiger I