Tigers – The Heavy Punch I

The Tiger I heavy tank was the most famous tank of World War II. Built in relatively few numbers, rather slow and prone to mechanical problems, its 88mm gun and heavy armour made it a feared opponent on the battlefield. In the hands of a panzer ace such as Michael Wittmann it became almost invincible. The Tiger II tank, on the other hand, was less of a legend, and most fell prey to mechanical problems rather than Allied anti-tank rounds.

No tank epitomized the German panzer force better than the Tiger tank. The mere presence of a single Tiger on a World War II battlefield would send Allied tanks crews into a panic. These armoured monsters were almost invulnerable to Allied anti-tank weapons, and their powerful 88mm cannons could cut through the armour of American Shermans or Soviet T-34s like a hot knife through butter. On top of their armour and firepower superiority, German Tigers were always manned by the best panzer commanders and crews in the Third Reich, who were highly skilled at getting the best out of their machines.

Thankfully for the Allies, they never had to face large numbers of Tigers. The monster tanks were expensive and difficult to build, while Allied bombing further delayed and disrupted production. Germany’s reputation for its superb engineering even worked against the Tiger. Its very complexity, for example, made it hard to maintain, so that more were lost to breakdowns than enemy action.

There was more than one member of the Tiger family, which grew to include two tanks and two monster assault guns. This, however, was more by accident than design. The titans of the German armaments industry, Henschel, MAN, Daimler Benz and Porsche, all produced designs for heavy tanks during the late 1930s, as they rushed to win contracts to produce the weapons needed in Hitler’s rearmament programme.

Not much happened until late 1941, when the appearance of the T-34 in Russia caused a major panic. The new Soviet tank had revolutionary sloped armour, a powerful 76mm cannon and the Christie suspension system. German weapon procurement was in a highly chaotic state, the German Army’s weapons office placing an order with Henschel for its design of a new heavy tank and Hitler later being swayed by Dr Ferdinand Porsche to give the go-ahead for his design.

Tiger Production

Eventually the modified Henschel design got permission to proceed, and later became known as the Tiger E or Tiger I after production began in August 1942. Some 1300 were built before construction ceased two years later. Some 90 Porsche chassis had already been built by the time the project was cancelled, and so they were later converted into assault guns armed with fixed 88mm cannons. A version of the Tiger I fitted with a 380mm mortar for demolition work was also built in small numbers. Late in 1942 work began to develop a new improved version, the Tiger II or King Tiger, with heavier sloped armour and a more powerful version of the 88mm cannon. Henschel and Porsche again competed and the former won. Different turret versions, however, were eventually built by both companies. Just under 490 Tiger IIs were built from January 1944 until March 1945. Weighing in at 71 tonnes (70 tons), compared to 58 tonnes (57 tons) for a Tiger I, the Tiger II was the heaviest German tank to actually see combat during the war. The final version of the Tiger family was the Jagdtiger tank hunter, which was based on a Tiger II chassis and sported a fixed 128mm cannon. Only 80 were eventually built.

Everything about the Tiger was impressive. The frontal armour of the Tiger I was 100mm (4in) thick and impenetrable to almost every Allied anti-tank weapon until 1944, when the British 17-pounder and Soviet 122mm guns appeared. In 1943 one Tiger on the Russian Front reported surviving 227 anti-tank rifle hits, 14 52mm shell hits and 11 7.62mm anti-tank guns hits – none of which penetrated the tank’s armour. The Tiger II was even better protected, with 180mm (7in) frontal armour that was sloped. This made the monster impossible to knock out except by attacking its side armour. The L/56 88mm carried by the Tiger I, and later the L/71 88mm of the Tiger II, were superb weapons that were able to destroy all but the most heavily armoured Allied or Soviet tanks, such as the Churchill or Josef Stalin, at ranges in excess of 2000m (2188yd).

The Tiger I and II were designed along conventional lines, with the main armament mounted in a rotating turret. They both required a crew of five: a commander, gunner, loader, driver and a hull machine gunner/radio operator. Fighting inside the Tiger was often a confusing and terrifying experience. When closed down for battle, the crew could only view the world through their small vision ports or periscopes. Only constant running commentaries from other tank crews over the radio kept them fully abreast of what was happening around their vehicle. When enemy infantry got close or anti-tank fire started bouncing off the armour, Tiger crews became very nervous. Mutual support from other Tigers often proved the best protection.

The tank’s sheer bulk created new challenges for the Tiger crews. The tank’s great weight of armour put a heavy strain on the engines, transmissions and tracks. Maintenance was a nightmare, and crews had to spend far more time keeping them going than other German tanks. If one Tiger should break down, the only way to recover one was with another Tiger. As the German Army began its long retreat from Russia in 1943, it was very common for broken-down Tigers to be abandoned because they could not be moved.

Initially it was intended to provide every panzer regiment with its own company of about a dozen Tigers, but soon afterwards the Army High Command decided this was a mistake. The Tigers were to be concentrated in independent heavy tank battalions, containing some 45 vehicles, for decisive shock action. Tigers were intended to be used en masse to overwhelm opponents with firepower. The new battalions were to be assigned to panzer corps for specific operations, rather than parceled out to individual panzer divisions. The Waffen-SS Leibstandarte, Das Reich and Totenkopf Divisions, as well as the army’s Grossdeutschland, had already formed their Tiger companies before the new structure was decided on, so they had small detachments of Tigers for most of 1943 until they could be expanded to battalion strength.

From the beginning it was envisaged that the Tiger battalions would be the elite of the German Army’s panzer troops. Only veteran panzer crews were posted to the new units when they began forming in early 1942, while the first Tigers were still on the Henschel production line at Cassel. The first two companies were formed in February 1942, and by May moves were made to activate the first three heavy battalions even before production tanks were ready. As the new tanks began to take shape the Tiger crews were sent to the factory to spend several weeks helping to build them, so they could master every intricacy of their construction. In the factory grounds and proving grounds, the crews put the Tigers through their paces for the first time. They then took their tanks to training grounds around Germany to learn how to drive, maintain and fight their new vehicles. The gunners zeroed their weapons, commanders tested out basic tactics, and drivers got the measure of their new charges.

It was intended only to commit the new units to battle when they were fully trained and equipped, so they could have a decisive impact and achieve maximum surprise over the enemy. Hitler, however, was impatient for his new toys to see action and so, in August 1942, ordered four Tigers of the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion to move immediately to join the attack on Leningrad. The tank crews were not yet fully trained and, not surprisingly, the deployment was not a success. On their first mission, the tanks got stuck in swampy ground and had to be abandoned by their crews. Eventually three were recovered and the remaining tank was destroyed to prevent it falling into enemy hands. It was a far from impressive performance, and confirmed the Army High Command’s view on how the Tigers should be employed en masse.

Tiger Tactics

By the end of 1942 the Tiger force was ready for battle, and the Soviet winter offensive provided ample opportunity for the new tanks to prove their worth. On the Leningrad Front in January 1943, the 502nd Heavy Tank Battalion’s detached company found itself called to rescue an infantry division being overrun by 24 T-34s. When the “Snow Tigers” arrived on the scene they were able to pick off 12 of the Soviet tanks at long range for no loss. For over three months, the Soviets sent in attack after attack against the same stretch of front, providing the Tigers with easy pickings. When a Soviet attack materialized, the “Snow Tigers” would drive forward from their hides to firing positions behind the German infantry and devastate the T-34 attack waves before they could reach the forward edge of the German line. During this time the Tiger company claimed more than 150 kills, beginning the legend of the “Tiger ace”.

In southern Russia, Field Marshal Erich von Manstein was soon to launch his famous counteroffensive to drive back the Soviet armies from the eastern Ukraine. The Waffen-SS and Grossdeutschland Tiger companies were to be in the thick of this action, when his panzer divisions turned on their pursuers in February 1943 and advanced to retake the city of Kharkov.

Exhausted by nearly three months of continuous offensive action and short on supplies, the Soviet armies in the Ukraine were in no condition to resist von Manstein’s panzer strike. In the first days of the offensive, German panzer units took the Soviet columns by surprise, catching anti-tank guns still attached to towing vehicles and tanks stuck between supply trucks. Von Manstein’s panzers enjoyed easy prey, shooting up almost defenceless convoys of panicked enemy troops. As the drive north to Kharkov gathered momentum the Tigers were in the lead. Now the Soviets had recovered their composure and the Germans began to run into whole brigades of anti-tank guns, dubbed “pak fronts”, dug into prepared positions and backed by scores of T-34s. The Tigers came into their own, because they were the only German tanks that could engage the pak fronts from a safe distance. If a direct frontal assault was required, then the Tigers could also safely advance and overrun the Soviet gun line. More lightly armoured tanks, halftracks and self-propelled guns followed in close behind, ready to exploit any gaps created by the Tigers. This tactic became known as the “panzer wedge”.

This tactic came into its own during Operation Citadel, the Battle of Kursk, when the Soviets deployed so many interlocking pak fronts that it was impossible to outflank them. The only thing for the Germans to do was to try to batter their way through by pushing the Tigers to the fore. At Kursk the Tigers made easy work of the pak fronts, but it was slow work and losses were heavy. Huge minefields protecting the Soviet positions slowed the advance and knocked out many of the Tigers. Pioneers had to be repeatedly called forward to clear a path through the Soviet minefields, so the advance could begin again.

A week into Operation Citadel the Tiger force was badly depleted, with only a handful of operational tanks left in each company. Only superhuman efforts by repair crews, who night after night ventured onto the battlefield to get the damaged tanks working again, kept the Tiger force in action. The tank crews were worn out and exhausted after continuous action. The offensive was fully defeated on 12 July after the Soviets committed their strategic reserves during the Battle of Prokhorovka. In the largest tank engagement of the war, more than 850 Soviet tanks surged forward in huge waves against II SS Panzer Corps. Across a flat open steppe, the brunt of the attack fell on the Leibstandarte’s panzer regiment. With barely 70 tanks and assault guns, including only four Tigers, the regiment fought a desperate action throughout the day, taking on and defeating wave after wave of Soviet tanks. The Tigers’ 88mm cannons gave the Leibstandarte a huge range advantage, allowing Soviet tank brigades to be decimated before they got to within firing range of the German lines. Almost 200 Soviet tanks lay burning in front of the division at the end of the day. One Waffen-SS Tiger commander, Michael Wittmann, established his reputation as one of the war’s best tank commanders during the fighting at Kursk. His kill total by the end of the battle was 30 tanks and 28 anti-tank guns.

After Kursk, Hitler’s armies were forced on the defensive in Russia and a growing number of Tigers were assigned to the Eastern Front, where they played a vital role in the futile German attempt to hold back the Soviet steamroller. Tiger battalions were thrown into a series of desperate battles, often holding long sections of front against overwhelming odds. However, during the winter of 1943–44, the effect of unending combat, mechanical breakdowns and unreliable supply lines meant Tiger battalions could often only put a dozen tanks into the field.