Tiger I is the common name of a German heavy tank of World War II. The initial official German designation was Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausführung H (abbreviated PzKpfw VI Ausf. H, Ausführung is German for "version") but the tank was redesignated as Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. E in March 1943. The tank also had the ordnance inventory designation SdKfz 181.
The Tiger I was in use from late 1942 until the German surrender in 1945. It was given its "Tiger" nickname by Ferdinand Porsche (the Roman numeral was added after the Tiger II was produced). The design served as the basis for other armoured vehicles, the Sturmtiger heavy self-propelled gun and the Bergetiger amoured recovery vehicle.
The Tiger I represented a new approach that emphasised firepower and armour at the expense of mobility. Design studies for a new heavy tank had been started in the late 1930s, without any production planning. The real impetus for the Tiger was provided by the quality of the Soviet T-34. Although the general design and layout were broadly similar to the previous medium tank the Panzer IV, the Tiger weighed more than twice as much. This was due to its substantially thicker armour, the larger main gun, and the consequently greater volume of fuel and ammunition storage, larger engine, and more solidly-built transmission and suspension.
The Tiger I had frontal hull armour 100 mm thick and frontal turret armour of 110 mm, as opposed to the 80 mm frontal hull and 50 mm frontal turret armour of contemporary models of the Panzer IV. It also had 80 mm thick armour on the sides and rear. The top and bottom armour was 25 mm thick; later, the turret roof was thickened to 40 mm. Armour plates were mostly flat, with interlocking construction. The armour joints were of high quality, being stepped and welded rather than riveted.
The tank was too heavy for most bridges, so it was designed to ford four-meter deep water. This required unusual mechanisms for ventilation and cooling when underwater. At least 30 minutes of setup was required, with the turret and gun being locked in the forward position, and a large snorkel tube raised at the rear. Only the first 495 units were fitted with this deep fording system; all later models were capable of fording only two meters.
The rear of the tank held an engine room flanked by two floodable rear compartments each containing a fuel tank, radiator, and fans. The petrol (gasoline) engine was a 21-litre 12-cylinder Maybach HL 210 P45 with 650 PS (641 hp, 478 kW). Although a good engine, it was inadequate for the vehicle. From the 250th Tiger, it was replaced by the uprated HL 230 P45 (23 litres) of 700 PS (690 hp, 515 kW). The engine was in V-form, with two cylinder banks at 60 degrees. An inertial starter was mounted on its right side, driven via chain gears through a port in the rear wall. The engine could be lifted out through a hatch on the hull roof.
The engine drove front sprockets, which were mounted quite low. The eleven-ton turret had a hydraulic motor powered by mechanical drive from the engine. A full rotation took about a minute. The suspension used sixteen torsion bars. To save space, the swing arms were leading on one side and trailing on the other. There were three road wheels on each arm, giving a good cross-country ride. The wheels had a diameter of 800 mm and were interleaved. Removing an inner wheel that had lost its tire (a common occurrence) required the removal of several outer wheels also. The wheels could become packed with mud or snow that could then freeze. Eventually, a new 'steel' wheel design with an internal tire was substituted.
The tracks were an unprecedented 725 mm wide. To meet rail-freight size restrictions, the outer row of wheels had to be removed and special 520 mm wide transport tracks installed. With a good crew, a track change took 20 minutes.
The internal layout was typical of German tanks. Forward was an open crew compartment, with the driver and radio-operator seated at the front, either side of the gearbox. Behind them the turret floor was surrounded by panels forming a continuous level surface. This helped the loader to retrieve the ammunition, which was mostly stowed above the tracks. Two men were seated in the turret; the gunner to the left of the gun, and the commander behind him. There was also a folding seat for the loader. The turret had a full circular floor and 157 cm headroom.
The gun breech and firing mechanism were derived from the famous German "88" dual purpose flak gun. The 88 mm Kwk 36 L/56 gun was the variant chosen for the Tiger and was, along with the Tiger II's 88 mm Kwk 43 L/71, one of the most effective and feared tank guns of World War II. The Tiger's gun had a very flat trajectory and extremely accurate Zeiss TZF 9b sights. In British wartime firing trials, five successive hits were scored on a 16"x18" target at a range of 1,200 yards. Tigers were reported to have knocked out enemy tanks at ranges greater than a mile (1,600 m), although most World War II engagements were fought at much closer range.
Another new feature was the Maybach-Olvar hydraulically-controlled pre-selector gearbox and semi-automatic transmission. The extreme weight of the tank also required a new steering system. Instead of the clutch-and-brake designs of lighter vehicles, a variation on the British Merritt-Brown single radius system was used. The Tiger's steering system was of twin radius type, meaning that two different, fixed radii of turn could be achieved at each gear, the smallest radius on the first gear was four meters. Since the vehicle had an eight-speed gearbox, it thus had sixteen different radii of turn. If a smaller radius was needed, the tank could be turned by using brakes. The steering system was easy to use and ahead of its time. However, the tank's automotive features left much to be desired. When used to tow an immobilised Tiger, the engine often overheated and sometimes resulted in an engine breakdown or fire, so Tiger tanks were forbidden by regulations to tow crippled comrades. The low-mounted sprocket limited the obstacle-clearing height. The tracks also had a bad tendency to override the sprocket, resulting in immobilisation. If a track overrode and jammed, two Tigers were normally needed to tow the tank. The jammed track was also a big problem itself, since due to high tension, it was often impossible to disassemble the track by removing the track pins. It was sometimes simply blown apart with an explosive charge. The standard German Famo recovery tractor could not tow the tank; up to three tractors were usually needed to tow one Tiger.
Although the Tiger I was one of the most heavily armed and armoured tanks of the war, and a formidable opponent of Allied tanks, the design was conservative and had some serious drawbacks. The flat armour plates were unsophisticated in comparison to the sloped armour of the Soviet T-34, requiring a massive increase in weight to provide for sufficient protection. The tank's weight put severe stress on the suspension, whose complexity made maintenance difficult. The sophisticated transmission system was also prone to breakdowns.
A major problem with the Tiger was its very high production cost. During the Second World War, over 40,000 American Sherman and 58,000 Soviet T-34s were produced, compared to 1,355 Tiger I and some 500 Tiger II tanks. The German designs were expensive in terms of time, raw materials and Reichsmarks, the Tiger I costing over twice as much as a contemporary Panzer IV and four times as much as a Stug III assault gun. The closest counterpart to the Tiger from the United States was the M26 Pershing (around 200 deployed during the war) and IS-2 from the USSR (about 3,800 built during the war).
Henschel & Sohn began development of the vehicle that would eventually become the Tiger I in January 1937 when the Waffenamt requested Henschel to develop a Durchbruchwagen (Breakthrough tank) in the 30 ton range. Only one prototype hull was ever built and it never was mounted with a turret. The Durchbruchwagen I general shape and suspension greatly resembled the Panzer III while the turret would have greatly resembled the early Panzer IV C turret with the short barreled 7.5cm L/24 cannon. Before Durchbruchwagen I was completed a new request was issued for a heavier 30 ton class vehicle with thicker armour.
This was Durchbruchwagen II which would have carried 50mm of frontal armour and mounted a Panzer IVC turret with the 7.5cm L/24 cannon. Overall weight would have been approximately 36 tons. Only one hull was ever built and a turret was not fitted. Development of this vehicle was dropped in Fall of 1938 in favor of the more advanced VK3001(H) and VK3601(H) designs. Both the Durchbruchwagen I and II prototype hulls were used as test vehicles til 1941.
On September 9th 1938 Henschel & Sohn received permission to continue development of a VK3001(H) medium tank and a VK3601(H) heavy tank. The VK3001(H) was intended to mount a 7.5cm L/24 low velocity infantry support gun, a 7.5cm L/40 dual purpose anti-tank gun, or a 10.5cm L/28 artillery piece in a Krupps turret. Overall weight was to be 33 tons. armour was designed to be 50mm on frontal surfaces and 30mm on the side surfaces. Only four prototype hulls were completed for testing. Two of these were used to create the 12.8cm Selbstfahrlafette L/61, also known as Sturer Emil.
The VK3601(H) was intended to weigh 40 tons, carry 100mm on front surfaces, 80mm on turret sides and 60mm on hull sides. The VK3601(H) was intended to carry a 7.5cm L/24, or a 7.5cm L/43, or a 7.5cm L/70, or a 12.8cm L/28 cannons in a Krupp's turret that looked very similar to an enlarged PzIVC turret. One prototype hull was built followed later by five more prototype hulls. The six turrets intended for the prototype hulls were never fitted and ended up being used as static defences along the Atlantic Wall. Development of the VK3601(H) project was discontinued in early 1942 in favor of the VK4501 project.
German combat experience with the French Somua S35 cavalry tanks, Char B1 heavy tanks, and the Matilda I and Matilda II infantry tanks in June 1940 showed that the German Army's Panzer arm needed a better armed tank with better armour protection. Superior German tactics overcame the problems with the superior enemy armoured units but the Germans did take notice.
On May 26th 1941, at an armaments meeting, Henschel and Porsche were asked to submit designs for a 45 ton heavy tank to be ready by June 1942. Porsche worked to submit a updated version of their VK3001(P) Leopard tank prototype while Henschel worked to develop an improved VK3601(H)tank. Henschel built two prototypes. A VK4501(H) H1 which used the 88mm L/56 cannon and a VK4501(H) H2 which used the 75mm L/70 cannon.
Unlike the Panther tank, the designs did not incorporate any of the innovations of the T-34: the width benefits of sloping armour were absent but the thickness and weight of the Tiger's armour made up for this.
On June 22nd, 1941 Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Germans were surprised to find themselves opposed by Soviet designs that completely outclassed anything they were currently fielding. These were the T-34 medium tank and the KV-1 heavy tank. The T34 was almost immune to everything but the 7.5cm L/46 PAK40 anti tank gun and the legendary 88 mm gun flak 18/36. Panzer III's with the 5cm L/60 and the 5 cm PaK 38 anti tank guns could penetrate the sides of a T-34 but had to be very close. The KV-1 was immune frontally to all but the 88mm FLAK 18/36.
The emergence of the Soviet T-34 was a great shock; according to Henschel designer Erwin Aders, "There was great consternation when it was discovered that the Soviet tanks were superior to anything available to the Heer". An immediate weight increase to 45 tons and an increase in gun calibre to 88 mm was ordered. The due date for new prototypes was set for 20 April 1942, Adolf Hitler's birthday.
Porsche and Henschel submitted prototype designs and they were compared at Rastenburg before Hitler. The Henschel design was accepted as the best overall design, especially because of the problem-burdened Porsche gasoline-electric power unit and its use of large quantities of copper, a strategic war material. Production of the Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. E began in August 1942. Porsche, awaiting orders for his Tiger tank, had built 100 chassis with some of them used for his Tiger prototypes. After not winning the contract it was ordered to use these chassis for a new heavy assault gun/tank hunter. In Spring 1943 ninety-one hulls were converted into the Panzerjäger Tiger (P), also known as Ferdinand, and after Hitler's orders of 1 February and 27 February 1944, Elefant.
The Tiger was essentially still at the prototype stage when first hurried into service, and therefore changes both small and large were made throughout the production run. A redesigned turret with a lower, safer cupola was the most significant change. To cut costs, the submersion capability and an external air-filtration system were dropped.
Tigers were capable of destroying the American Sherman or British Churchill IV at ranges exceeding 1,600 m. In contrast, the Soviet T-34 equipped with the 76.2 mm gun could not penetrate the Tiger frontally at any range, but could achieve a side penetration at approximately 500 m firing the BR-350P APCR ammunition. The T34-85's 85 mm gun could penetrate the Tiger from the side at over 1,000 m. The IS-2's 122 mm gun could destroy the Tiger at ranges exceeding 1,000 m from any aspect.
From a 30 degree angle of attack the M4 Sherman's 75 mm gun could not penetrate the Tiger frontally at any range, and needed to be within 100 m to achieve a side penetration against the 80mm upper hull superstructure. The British 17-pounder as used on the Sherman Firefly, firing its normal APCBC ammunition, could penetrate frontally out to over 2,000 m. The US 76 mm gun, if firing the APCBC M62 ammunition, could penetrate the Tiger frontally out to just over 500 m, and could be at ranges in excess of 1,000 m to achieve penetration against the upper hull superstructure. Using HVAP ammunition, which was in constant short supply and primarily issued to tank destroyers, frontal penetrations were possible out to just over 1,500 m. It is worth mentioning that many of the penetration capabilities at longer ranges had little relevance compared to combat engagements of the real war, especially that which was fought in Western Europe, where engagements rarely happened outside of one kilometer due to dispersion and chance for human error, which is amplified greatly as range increases regardless of the ability of any cannon. For example, while a 17pdr could penetrate the front armor of a Tiger I at two kilometers in tests, during real combat, a 17pdr gunner would probably never find himself in a position to actually attempt such a feat.
As range decreases in combat, all guns can penetrate more armour (with the exception of HEAT ammunition, which was rare in World War II). The great penetrating power of the Tiger's gun meant that it could destroy many of its opponents at ranges at which they could not respond. In open terrain, this was a major tactical advantage. Opposing tanks were often forced to make a flanking attack in order to knock out a Tiger.
The Tiger was first used in action in September 1942 near Leningrad. Under pressure from Hitler, the tank was put into action months earlier than planned and many early models proved to be mechanically fragile. In its first action on 23 September 1942, many of the first Tigers broke down. Others were knocked out by dug-in Soviet anti-tank guns. One tank was captured largely intact, which gave the Soviets a chance to study the tank and prepare a response.
In the Tiger's first actions in North Africa, the tank was able to dominate Allied tanks in the wide-open terrain. However, mechanical failures meant that there were rarely more than a few in action. In a replay of the Leningrad experience, at least one Tiger was knocked out by towed British six-pounder antitank guns.
The tank's extreme weight limited the bridges it could cross and made drive-throughs of buildings, which may have had basements, risky. Another weakness was the slow traverse of the hydraulically-operated turret. The turret could also be traversed manually, but this option was rarely used, except probably for a fix of a few mils.
Early Tigers had a top speed of about 45kmh over optimal terrain. This was not recommended for normal operation, and was discouraged in training. Crews were told to not exceed 2600RPM due to reliability problems of the early Maybach engines at their maximum 3000RPM output. To combat this, the Tiger's top speed was reduced to about 38kmh through the installation of an engine governor, capping the RPM of the Maybach HL 230 to 2600RPM (HL 210s were used on early models). Despite being slower than medium tanks of the time, which averaged a top speed of about 45kmh, the Tiger still had a very respectable speed for a tank of its size and weight, being nearly twice as heavy as a Sherman or T-34. The Tiger had reliability problems throughout its service life; Tiger units frequently entered combat understrength due to breakdowns. It was rare for any Tiger unit to complete a road march without losing vehicles due to breakdown. The tank also had poor radius of action (distance a combat vehicle can travel and return, in normal battle conditions, without refueling). Surprisingly for such a heavy tank, the Tiger had a lower ground pressure bearing than many smaller tanks, the most notable exception being the Soviet T-34.
The Tiger's armour and firepower, however, were feared by all its opponents. In tactical defence, its poor mobility was less of an issue. Whereas Panthers were the more serious threat to Allied tanks, Tigers had a bigger psychological effect on opposing crews, causing a "Tiger phobia". Allied tankers would sometimes evade rather than confront a Tiger, even a tank that only looked like one, such as the Panzer IV with turret skirts applied. In the Normandy campaign, it could take four to five Shermans to knock out a single Tiger tank by maneuvering to its weaker flank or rear armour; the Soviet T-34s fared similarly against the German tanks, as had the German PzIII earlier against the Soviet heavy tanks. An accepted Allied tactic was to engage the Tiger as a group, one attracting the attention of the Tiger crew while the others attacked the sides or rear of the vehicle. Since the ammunition and fuel were stored in the sponsons, a side penetration often resulted in a kill. This was a risky tactic, and often resulted in the loss of several Allied vehicles. It took a great deal of tactical skill to eliminate a Tiger.
Tigers were usually employed in separate heavy tank battalions (schwere-Panzer-Abteilung) under army command. These battalions would be deployed to critical sectors, either for breakthrough operations or, more typically, counterattacks. A few favoured divisions, such as the Grossdeutschland or some of the low-numbered Waffen-SS divisions had a handful of Tigers.
On 7 July 1943, a single Tiger tank commanded by SS-Oberscharführer Franz Staudegger from the 2nd Platoon of 13th Panzer Company of 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler engaged a group of about 50 T-34s around Psyolknee (the southern sector of the German salient in the Battle of Kursk). Staudegger used all his ammunition in destroying 22 Soviet tanks, while the rest retreated. For this, Staudegger was awarded the Knight's Cross.
On 8 August 1944, a single Tiger commanded by SS-Unterscharführer Willi Fey from the 1st Company of sSSPzAbt 102, engaged a British tank column, destroying some 14 out of 15 Shermans, followed by one more later in the day using his last two rounds of ammunition. sSSPzAbt 102 lost all of its Tigers during fighting in Normandy, but reported 227 Allied tanks destroyed in six weeks.
The Tiger is particularly associated with SS-Haupsturmführer Michael Wittmann of schwere SS-Panzerabteilung 101. He worked his way up, commanding various vehicles and finally a Tiger I. In the Battle of Villers-Bocage, he destroyed over two dozen Allied vehicles including several tanks; and single-handedly held up the advance of the entire 7th armoured Division until his tank was knocked out and abandoned.
Over 10 Tiger tank commanders had over 100 vehicle kills on their account, including: Kurt Knispel with 168 kills, Otto Carius with 150+ kills, Johannes Bölter with 139+ kills, and Michael Wittmann with 138 kills.
On 21 April 1943, a Tiger of the Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 504 with turret number 131 was captured after a fight with Churchill tanks of the British 48th Royal Tank Regiment in Tunisia on a hill called Djebel Djaffa. It was repaired and displayed in Tunisia before being sent to England for a thorough inspection. The Western Allies, however, did little to prepare for combat against the Tiger despite their assessment that the newly-encountered German tank was superior to their own. This conclusion was partly based on the correct estimate that the Tiger would be produced in relatively small numbers. It was also based on the doctrine of the United States Army, which did not place emphasis on tank-versus-tank combat, relying instead on the use of tank destroyers.
In contrast, the British response after assessing the Tiger was to hasten their efforts to get Cruiser tanks armed with 17 pounder guns into operation. The A30 Challenger was the result of this, but this tank was fielded in only limited numbers. However the 17 pounder armed Sherman, the Sherman Firefly, a notable success even though it was only intended to be a stopgap design. Fireflys were responsible for a significant number of Tiger kills. A Firefly might have been involved in the demise of famous German tank ace Michael Wittmann.
On 25 September 1951, the captured tank was officially handed over to the Bovington Tank Museum at Bovington Camp in the UK, by the British Ministry of Supply. In June 1990, preparations were made for restoring the Tiger to full running order. In December 2003, Tiger 131 returned to the museum with a fully operational engine after extensive restoration by the Army Base Repair Organisation (ABRO).
The first production Tigers were sent to the Eastern Front in December 1942, and a tank captured in January 1943 led the Soviets to respond. Until the appearance of the Tiger, the Soviet focus had been on production numbers; quality improvements were foregone since they would disrupt production. The Soviet response took a few forms. The crash development of a 152 mm self-propelled gun was ordered. Contrary to belief the SU-152 was planned before the Tiger was encountered rather than being a stop-gap initiated after the fact. Indeed it was created out of the dire need for mobile heavy artillery to support attacks against the largely unchallenged German forces of the time. These Heavy Assault Guns would use their large High Explosive shells to obliterate enemy tanks through sheer force. However due to the size of the shells reloading was slow (maximum rate of fire 2 rounds a minute for the SU-152). The SU-152 went from design concept to field trials in a record twenty-five days, and an understrength regiment of guns was sent to the battlefield at Kursk in May, where 12 SU-152 howitzers destroyed 12 Tigers and 7 Ferdinands during battle [this wartime Soviet claim is doubtful, the German loss records only note one Ferdinand lost to an SU-152 (source: The Combat History of schwere Panzer Abteilung 654, by Karlheinz Munch, pages 67-69) while the Tiger unit deployed with the Elefants, sPzAbt 505, only suffered five total losses to all causes in the entire battle (source: Tigers in Combat I by Wolfgang Schneider, page 263)].
By late 1943 the SU-85, one of the Red Army's first true tank destroyers, was put into production in an effort to quickly get the 85mm gun out into the field. The SU-100, mounting one of the best guns of the war for armour penetration, followed in 1944. In late 1943, the Soviet heavy tank program was renewed, after being nearly cancelled due to the poor performance of the KV-1 tank. This resulted in the Iosef Stalin (IS-2) with a 122mm gun in early 1944. Lastly, the T-34 was given a new three-man turret with the 85mm gun in early 1944.
The Tigers were originally designed to be offensive weapons but by the time they came into action, the military situation had changed dramatically, and their main use was defensively as tank killers.
Furthermore, against the Soviet and Western Allied production numbers, even a 10:1 kill ratio would not have been sufficient for the Tigers. Some Tiger units did exceed the 10:1 kill ratio, including 13. Kompanie/Panzer-Regiment Großdeutschland (16.67:1), schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 103 (12.82:1) and schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502 (13.08:1). These numbers must be set against the opportunity cost of building the expensive Tiger. Every Tiger built, for example, cost as much as four Sturmgeschütz III assault guns. One measure of cost-effectiveness, therefore, would be whether the Tiger's kill ratio was four times as high as the Sturmgeschutz III.
Given the number produced very few Tiger I survived the war and the post-war scrap drives. Many large components have been salvaged over the years but a discovery of a (more or less) complete vehicle has so far eluded enthusiasts and collectors.