“Everything about it was over-engineered (to an almost absurd degree)… but in the hands of an expert commander a lone Tiger could knock out dozens of enemy machines in a single engagement.”
By Ben Hollingum, GermanWarMachine.com
THE PANZERKAMPFWAGEN VI or Tiger tank was never a common sight on the battlefields of World War Two.
During the roughly two years that the vehicle was in production, only 1,347 were built – a number that is lower than the monthly production figures for the M4 Sherman and Soviet T-34 at the height of the war. Any other fighting machine that was produced in such limited numbers would be quickly forgotten, but the Tiger’s impressive combat performance has left a mark on history that far outweighs the tank’s strategic significance.
Everything about the Tiger was over-engineered (to an almost absurd degree). Its 88-mm main gun was so formidable that shells often blasted straight through enemy tanks and came out the other side. Its armour was so thick a crew could more or less park in front of an enemy anti-tank gun with little fear of harm. Its engine was so powerful that the 54-ton hulk was able to keep pace with tanks less than half its weight.
Along with its successor, the King Tiger, it’s frequently ranked among the finest tanks of the war. Here are six little-known facts about what is probably the most written-about armoured fighting vehicle in history:
1. Each Tiger came with an owner’s manual
The Wehrmacht was adamant that crews actually read the Tiger’s manual before charging into battle with one of the Third Reich’s most vital (and expensive) pieces of hardware. But experience showed that young tankers had little interest in poring over pages of dry instructions and boring schematics. Knowing this, Panzer general Heinz Guderian allowed engineers to load the official Tiger handbook with off-colour jokes and crude pictures of scantily-clad women to keep readers interested. Known as the Tigerfibel, the document stands out not just for its humorous and playful tone, but also for its striking graphic design, which ironically was inspired by the ‘degenerate’ and ‘communist’ Bauhaus school of the 1930s so detested by Nazi ideologues. Each page of the groundbreaking document was printed using just black and red ink with the text broken up by illustrations, cartoons, and easy-to-read technical diagrams. It provided an influential model for future army manuals, including the Panther’s Pantherfibel and, to a lesser extent, post-war American publications like PS Magazine.
2. The Tiger wasn’t Germany’s first monster tank
The Wehrmacht’s original heavy tank was the PzKpfw NbFz V, a multi-turreted design from the mid-1930s. To mask its production, which was a clear violation of the 1919 Versailles Treaty‘s ban on German offensive weaponry, Berlin designated the machine the Neubaufahrzeug or ‘New Construction Tractor’. It was built by Rheinmetall and although it never reached full production, three prototypes did see action during the German Invasion of Norway. Trundling along at around 10 mph (16 km/h), the Neubaufahrzeug belonged to the same generation as the Soviet T-35, the British Vickers A1E1 Independent, and the French Char B-1. These oversized fighting machines were engineered around the Jules Verne-like concept of the ‘land battleship’ – enormous heavily armored beasts designed to dominate the battlefield. The Neubaufahrzeug had a large main turret that mounted the same 75-mm short-barreled gun that was later fitted to the Panzer IV, as well as two smaller secondary turrets – borrowed from the production line of the Panzer I – mounted fore and aft.
3. It was a mechanic’s nightmare
The Tiger was built with combat performance in mind; everything else was a secondary consideration. This made it a firm favorite with Panzer crews, but an object of hatred for mechanics. The problems with the Tiger’s design came not just from its complexity, but also from the lack of thought that was given to how a component could be removed for repair or maintenance.
Take the Tiger’s wheels for example. Each suspension arm held an axle with three wheels on either side. These combined to form two interleaved courses, known as a schachtellaufwerk, supporting each track. If one of the inner wheels became damaged, mechanics had to remove as many as nine wheels from the outer course (undoing 54 bolts in the process) before they could access the damaged inner wheel. Furthermore, not all the wheels were the same, so service personnel had to carefully label each one as they removed it to make sure it was reattached in the correct position – hardly a task one would want to undertake when standing ankle deep in mud or snow in a field maintenance depot somewhere in the Soviet Union.
4. It could have been even more complicated
Bad though the Tiger was for maintenance teams, it could have been much worse. While evaluating the prototypes, then known as the Henschel VK4501H, Berlin considered going with Ferdinand Porsche’s competing VK4501P design.
Instead of the Tiger’s demanding but excellent Maybach V-12 engine, the Porsche tank had two highly temperamental V-10 gasoline engines, which sat side-by-side in a cramped and poorly ventilated engine compartment. Predictably, overheating was common and the cramped design made for difficult maintenance access. Worse, neither of the engines directly drove the wheels. Instead, they were connected to a pair of generators that ran two electric motors. These in turn powered the drive wheels. More than 70 years before the Toyota Prius, and decades before it was really technically feasible, Porsche had designed a hybrid.
VK4501Ps broke down constantly during trials and some even caught fire. Nonetheless, it was enough of a contender for the heavy tank contract that Porsche still felt it was worth committing himself to a production run of 90 vehicles. When the VK4501P got the chop, the famous automaker was forced to come up with a variety of unconventional uses for his surplus hulls including the Ferdinand tank destroyer and the Rammtiger, a turretless ram used for knocking over buildings. (It was as stupid an idea as it sounds).
5. Off to a slow start
Sources differ on the exact date of the Tiger’s battlefield debut (although it was probably sometime between Aug. 19 and Sept. 22, 1942). It is generally agreed that Tigers first saw combat somewhere near the town of Mga (about 70 km southeast of Leningrad). Four machines from the 1st Company of the newly formed 502nd Heavy Panzer Battalion were reportedly involved in the action. Moving up to the frontline over swampy ground, two of the new Tigers became bogged down and were unable to take part in the attack. The remaining pair fired several rounds in support of the infantry, but encountered no enemy tanks and withdrew without incident. Afterwards, one of the immobilized Tigers was pulled from the mud by a recovery vehicle; the other was completely stuck. The tank stayed where it was until November, when the commander of the 502nd – worried that it might be captured by the Red Army – ordered it to be destroyed with demolition charges.
This engagement was fairly typical of the Tiger’s early combat record. Many losses were attributed to the unnecessary haste with which the Tiger was rushed into service. Many crews had no more than a week or two of familiarization with the enormous vehicle before heading into the field. Inexperienced Tiger crews frequently blundered into impassible terrain and became stuck. This premature deployment gifted the Red Army a fully functional Tiger, hull number 250427, when it became stuck in a marsh near Leningrad in January 1943. The model proved to be an invaluable resource for Soviet intelligence.
6. Tigerphobia wasn’t as common as you’d think
The Tiger’s ability to terrorize enemy troops tends to be somewhat exaggerated. Many stories of British or American tankers refusing to engage Tigers reflect different tactical doctrines, rather than fear. Allied fighting vehicles were simply not supposed to engage Panzers in gunnery duels; that was the artillery’s job. If a Sherman crew sighted a Tiger, they were trained to radio the position to the artillery and get the hell out of there. Furthermore, with the Tiger being such a rare sight on the battlefield avoiding confrontations with them was a sound strategy. Allied troops just had to keep their heads down and hope that the Tiger didn’t do too much damage before it ran out of fuel and returned to base.
This is not to say that the Tiger wasn’t scary, but the same could be said of pretty much any large fighting vehicle. Tanks are, after all, giant armored beasts bristling with machine guns and cannons. As one Russian veteran put it, ‘when you’re crouched in a slit trench, every tank looks like a Tiger’. There were undoubtedly occasions when tank crews fled or abandoned their posts to escape Tigers, sometimes endangering their comrades in the process, but this was not an endemic problem. Typically, Allied commanders had more of a problem with excessive bravery – Shermans or T-34s launching doomed charges against Tigers – than they did with fear or cowardice.
This article is printed with permission from GermanWarMachine.com. You can find out more about the Tiger tank in the FREE “Rapid Read” ebook Tigers in Normandy ’44, available for a limited time on the German War Machine website: www.germanwarmachine.com. Follow them on Twitter @GermanWarM