German commanders kept them back as a reserve to counterattack against Soviet breakthroughs, and only committed the Tigers once the focus of the Red Army attack had been properly identified. Then the Tigers rolled. These engagements quickly became deadly stalks, as pairs of Tigers often found themselves up against hundreds of T-34s. A pair of Tigers would usually be assigned a sector to hold and clear of enemy tanks. One Tiger would move into an over-watch position to cover its partner as it moved forward. When this tank reached cover, it would stand firm and the second tank would move forward to find another fire position. Tiger commanders usually stood up in their turrets, scanning the horizon for targets with binoculars, despite the risk from snipers or artillery fire. Once the enemy was detected, the Tiger commander would try to find a firing position to engage the enemy from the flank. While the Tiger’s 88mm cannon could be counted on to penetrate the front armour of almost all Soviet tanks, there were still sound tactical reasons for flank attacks. Soviet tanks had poor optical systems and few radios, so unless a target was to their front there was little chance it would be spotted. Even if one Soviet tank commander spotted a target, there was no way to share the information with other tanks.
From concealed firing positions, Tigers regularly reaped a deadly harvest of death against Soviet tank columns. Often the Russians had no idea what was happening for several minutes as Tiger fire started to rip into T-34 after T-34. Even if the Tigers were spotted, the Soviets could rarely coordinate an effective response. By then the Tigers were already pulling back into cover and moving to a new fire position, leaving burning Soviet tanks behind them.
The arrival of heavily armoured Josef Stalin tanks in early 1944 made it even more important for the Tigers to use guile to stalk their prey. It was now vital for the Tigers to get the first shot in.
In the West, Tigers retained their armour and firepower supremacy and could hold their own against vast numbers of Allied tanks. Wittmann on one occasion even engaged a whole British armoured brigade by himself and destroyed 25 Cromwell tanks, stopping a division attack in its tracks.
The greatest threat to the Tiger in the West was from Allied air supremacy. Camouflage and concealment was the best defence against prowling squadrons of rocket-armed Typhoons. During the Normandy campaign in 1944, Tigers operated from hides in woods or farm buildings and would only move forward to the front when an attack was imminent. Once they had completed their task, they would quickly move back to cover.
During the December 1944 Ardennes Offensive, the mountainous terrain and limited number of roads meant unusual tactics had to be adopted by the Waffen-SS Tiger II battalion, attached to the Leibstandarte Division. The unit spearheaded the advance of Joachim Peiper’s battlegroup into the heart of the American defences. With no room to deploy offroad, Peiper put his Tiger IIs at the head of his column. Even though this slowed up the advance it meant that whenever his columns ran into opposition, the Tiger IIs easily blasted a way through. American anti-tank gunners could only watch in horror as their shells literally bounced off the front armour of the German monsters.
What of the individual Tiger battalions? The 501st Heavy Panzer Battalion was formed in the summer of 1942. The battalion took its tanks to North Africa in December 1942 and clashed with British and American troops until it surrendered in May 1943. The unit was reformed and sent to Russia in November 1943, and fought there until it was decimated in the Soviet offensive that destroyed Army Group Centre in July 1944. After being reformed with Tiger IIs, it was sent to the Eastern Front again as the redesignated 424th Battalion.
502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion
The first Tiger I unit to be formed, it was the first one to see action on the Leningrad Front in August 1942. It remained in action on the northern sector of the Eastern Front until the end of the war. In January 1945 it was redesignated the 511th Heavy Panzer Battalion.
503rd Heavy Panzer Battalion
Perhaps the most effective Tiger unit of the war after it was sent to join Army Group South in January 1943, where it spearheaded von Manstein’s winter counteroffensive. It then saw constant action as part of III Panzer Corps during the Battle of Kursk and the retreat to the Dnieper. In January 1944 it was grouped together with a Panther battalion to form Heavy Panzer Regiment Bake, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Dr Franz Bake. This regiment neutralized a pocket of 267 Soviet tanks and then spearheaded the German relief attempt to free the Korsun-Cherkassy Pocket. After being decimated later in the spring, the battalion was reformed and sent to fight in Normandy. In the autumn of 1944 the unit was re-equipped with Tigers IIs and sent back to the East as the Feldherrenhalle Heavy Panzer Battalion. It was trapped in Budapest in January 1945 by the Soviet winter offensive and destroyed. A new 503rd Battalion was formed in early 1945 and sent to fight with Army Group Vistula until the end of the war.
504th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Most of this unit was sent to Tunisia in January 1943, where it was destroyed. Some elements survived and fought in Sicily, and it was reinforced to help defend Italy as part of the Hermann Goering Panzergrenadier Division. The units remained there until the end of the war.
505th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Dispatched to join Army Group Centre in the late spring of 1943, it then spearheaded the offensive against the northern front of the Kursk salient. It remained in this sector until the following summer, when it was almost destroyed during the Soviet summer offensive. Re-equipped with Tiger IIs, it fought to the end in East Prussia.
506th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Committed to fight with Army Group South in the autumn of 1943, the battalion fought in the Ukraine until the summer of 1944 when it was withdrawn and re-equipped with Tiger IIs, and was sent to help defeat the Allied airborne landings in Holland in September 1944. In December it was assigned to support the I SS Panzer Corps during the battles in the Ardennes and Hungary.
507th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Formed in September 1943, the unit was committed to the Eastern Front the following January and served there until February 1945, when it was re-equipped with Tiger IIs while still in the line.
508th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Sent to Italy in January 1944, the battalion spearheaded the German offensive against the Allied bridgehead in Anzio. It remained in Italy for a year until it was decided to pull it back to Germany to be re-equipped with Tiger IIs. The unit was then sent to fight on the Western Front.
509th Heavy Panzer Battalion
Ordered to the Eastern Front in November 1943, the battalion fought there for almost a year until it was withdrawn to be re-equipped with Tiger IIs, before being sent to fight in Hungary in January 1945.
510th Heavy Panzer Battalion
One of the last Tiger I battalions, it was formed in June 1944 before being rushed to the East to try to halt the Soviet summer offensive in the central sector. It remained there fighting the Soviets until the end of the war.
301st Heavy Panzer Battalion
Equipped with both the Tiger I and the BIV remote-control demolition robot vehicles, the unit was formed in the summer of 1944. Sent to the West in November 1944 it saw action during the Ardennes Offensive, where it was all but destroyed.
Kummersdorf Panzer Battalion
A scratch unit that was formed to defend Berlin in February 1945, it went into action with the Munchenberg Panzer Division the following April and was destroyed as Soviet troops swept into Berlin.
III Battalion/Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland
During the first half of 1943, the elite army division had only a single Tiger I company, but it was later joined by a full Tiger battalion late in the summer. The battalion fought with the division for remainder of the war.
SS Heavy Panzer Companies
The Leibstandarte, Totenkopf and Das Reich Divisions were all provided with Tiger I companies in late 1942, and saw action on the Eastern Front throughout the following year.
101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 501st)
Formed from the Leibstandarte’s Tiger company in the autumn of 1943 as the heavy battalion assigned to the newly formed I SS Panzer Corps. It was ready for action when the corps was sent to defend Normandy in June 1944. Michael Wittmann eventually commanded the unit until he was killed in action near Caen. It was later re-equipped with Tiger IIs and saw action in the Ardennes and Hungary.
102nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 502nd)
Formed to support II SS Panzer Corps, the unit saw action in Normandy from July 1944 onwards. By the end of 1944 it had been re-equipped with Tiger IIs.
103rd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion (later redesignated 503rd)
Originally formed with Tiger Is in 1943, it never saw action and was eventually re-equipped with Tiger IIs. It was then ordered to the Eastern Front.
653rd and 654th Panzerjäger Battalions
Formed to use the 90 Elephant or Ferdinand heavy self-propelled guns in early 1943, they used them in action on the northern wing of the Kursk Offensive. They suffered heavy losses because the vehicles lacked a hull machine gun to counter close-quarter infantry attacks. The remaining Elephants were withdrawn to Italy and fought at Anzio. Others were then sent back to the Eastern Front. The 653rd Battalion was re-equipped with the monster Jagdtigers in time for the Ardennes Offensive. Two other Jagdtiger battalions were formed in early 1945 and they fought in the West until the end of the war.
On every World War II battle front Germany’s Tiger tanks proved to be formidable opponents. Allied tank crews rightly feared these monster tanks whenever they appeared. A heavy price was always paid to put them out of action. Not only were they technologically superior to anything the Allies produced, but their crews were always professional and very determined opponents. The German Army’s Tiger battalions were always at the centre of the action, driving all before them or dying in the process. Though only just over 1500 Tiger Is were built in total, such was the reputation that this armoured fighting vehicle established during the war that it has become the most famous tanks in the whole of military history.