The Tiger tank was one of the most feared weapons of World War Two. The Tiger tank was very heavily armoured and carried powerful weapons on board. In the war in North Africa in an early encounter with the Allies in Tunisia, eight rounds fired from a 75mm artillery gun simply bounced off of the side of the tank – from a distance of just 50 metres. Such was the potency of the Tiger, that it got an aura of invincibility. However, such a status was not necessarily deserved as the Tiger could be stopped and its sheer size caused problems.
The development of the Tiger began as early as 1939. The development programme was accelerated after May 1941 when the Wehrmacht asked for a 45 ton tank which had as its principle weapon an 88mm gun. The 88mm gun had already proved itself in battle as an artillery weapon. The thinking behind carrying such a heavy gun was that it would allow the Tiger to outshoot any gun carried by Russian tanks.
The first Tiger prototype was scheduled to be ready for Hitler’s birthday on April 20th, 1942. This gave the designers a limited time to produce the tank especially as the Wehrmacht was continually changing its design requirements.
Companies produced their own versions. The Henschel Company had as their first Tiger prototype a 30 ton vehicle carrying a 75mm gun. However, even before its production, it was out of date as the Russian T34 had better specifications all round. The Porsche Company also competed to produce a tank suitable for the Wehrmacht.
On April 20th, 1942, the new versions from both Henschel and Porsche were displayed in front of Hitler at his base in Rastenburg. The Henschel design was considered to be the more superior and easier to produce in mass production. The full production of the first Tiger tank started in August 1942. The official designation of the new tank was Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. H.
The Tiger I was the first German combat tank to be fitted with overlapping road wheel suspension which gave the tank very good weight distribution. For a tank the size of the Tiger, its ride was stable and was considered to be comfortable for the crew on board. The first Tigers were fitted with two types of tracks – a 20.5 inch track for travel and transportation and a 28.5 version for combat.
However, for all its formidable weaponry, the Tiger had its problems – and one of these centred on the tracks. During the winter, mud and snow would pack into the tracks and freeze up, thus jamming the tracks. When the Russians realised this, they timed their attacks for the early morning before the snow/mud could thaw out.
The original Tigers were also underpowered. The first versions were fitted with a Maybach V12 engine with a 21 litres capacity. This was later increased to 24 litres capacity in December 1943. The gearing made the Tiger easy to drive – the 8 forward gears could be used with a pre-selector.
The sheer size of the Tiger was also a problem. Few bridges were strong enough to cope with the ever increasing weight of the various different marks of the Tiger. Therefore, the first 495 Tigers were fitted with a snorkel which allowed them to cross rivers up to a depth of 13 feet. This was abandoned as an economy measure so that later versions could only operate to a depth of 4 feet.
One of the most advanced features of the Tiger was its assembly process. Flat section armour plate was used throughout the assembly process, which allowed the use of heavy armour. Various parts were made as one complete unit complete with interlocking joints that made assembly a quick process.
The hull of the first Tigers was divided into four sections; two in the front for the driver and the bow gunner and radio operator, a central fighting compartment and a rear engine compartment.
The Tiger was in production for two years, from August 1942 to August 1944. Some 1,350 were made with, at its peak, 104 being made in just one month in April 1944 – evidence, if it was needed, about the effectiveness of the manufacturing process. However, each tank cost over 250,000 marks to manufacture.
The Tiger was armed with an 88mm gun and two 7.92 MG-34 machine guns.
The Kursk offensive saw the first large scale use of the so-called ‘tank wedge’. The Tiger was slower than a medium MKIII or MKIV and its turret movement was slower. Therefore, the Tiger went into battle with the faster but less well-armed MKIII’s or MKIV’s protecting their flanks.
The Tiger first saw action in August/September 1942 in the Leningrad campaign. However, the terrain was swampy forest land – not very suited to the Tiger. But on January 12th, 1943, four Tiger’s , with eight MKIII’s, faced 24 Russian T34’s near Leningrad. The ground was frozen solid which greatly aided manoeuvrability. 12 T34’s were destroyed and the other 12 retreated. Given the correct terrain to fight on, the Tiger easily proved its fighting worth.
The Allies first met the Tiger at Tunisia. French shells from a 75mm gun bounced off the hull – from a distance of just 50 metres. The tank was also successful elsewhere – but again, behind the success, lay some major weaknesses. A journey of just 60 miles by a Tiger could eat up 150 gallons of fuel. Maintaining a decent fuel supply to Tiger columns was always a difficult process and one that could be very easily disrupted by resistance fighters.
The Tiger was the main tank spearhead for the Germans at Kursk. Here it did not do well. Many tanks had left their factories before rigorous mechanical checks. As a result, many suffered major mechanical malfunctions during the battle. In the famous tank battle at Kursk of July 12th, the Tiger could hit a T34 from 1500 metres but when the two got to close-quarter fighting, the T34 proved to be superior.
It was in the retreat from Russia that the Tiger proved its defensive qualities that were to hinder both the Russians on the eastern Front and the Allies on the Western Front. On October 18th, 1943, one Tiger led by Sepp Rannel, destroyed 18 Russian tanks. Michael Wittman, another Tiger commander, had kills of 119 tanks, including great success in Normandy after D-Day. In Normandy, Wittman’s Tigers destroyed 25 British tanks, 14 half-tracks, 14 Bren-gun carriers in a short and bloody battle around the village of Villers Bocage. However, Wittman lost 6 Tigers which were very difficult to replace – as were his experienced crew.
Within Normandy, the Tigers scored victories out of proportion to their numbers. On July 11th, 1944, thirteen British Shermans were lost of out 20 with two more captured with no Tiger losses. The Tigers did well enough to survive the onslaught at the Falaise Gap and in August just 2 Tigers held up the advance of the 53rd British Infantry division.
There were advanced versions of the Tiger. The Tiger II, which the Germans called the King Tiger, first saw action on the Eastern Front in May 1944. The King Tiger first saw action on the Western Front on August 1944. Weighing in at 68 tons with a 690 bhp engine, the Tiger II was a formidable weapon. It also used a vast amount of fuel which the Germans were finding very difficult to produce due to Allied bombing of fuel plants. The Allies also bombed the factories that made the Tigers and only 100 were available for the Ardennes Offensive (the Battle of the Bulge) in the winter of 1944-45.
At the Battle of the Bulge, the Tigers did very well to start with but they literally ran out of fuel and men from Joachim Peiper’s SS unit had to abandon their tanks and walk back to their lines.
The Allies did develop weapons to counter the Tiger’s impact on the battlefield. The British introduced the Sherman Firefly which was armed with a 17-pounder super-velocity gun. It was more deadly than the Tiger’s 88mm gun. The tank-busting Typhoon fighter also carried armour-piecing rockets which were more than a match for the Tiger’s armour. The Russians also developed 100mm and 152mm guns that could be fatal for a Tiger.
By the end of the war, other tanks had been developed that outclassed the Tiger – the Joseph Stalin II and the American M26 Pershing were among them.