By Jason Rahman
The Tiger tank fought from the steppes of Ukraine, to the mountainous terrain of Italy and Tunisia, all the way to the hills of Normandy, picking up a fearsome reputation along the way. It was because of this reputation (and Nazi propaganda) that the Tiger became possibly the most famous tank ever.
The origins of the Tiger tank went back to the mid-1930s when German armored doctrine was being devised. In this doctrine light tanks such as the Panzer II were to be used for training and reconnaissance, while medium tanks like the Panzer III would be used for exploitation and pursuit after a breakthrough had occurred. But there was one type of tank that had not been built or designed by then, a heavy breakthrough tank. So in 1937 work began on a heavy tank to meet the need for a breakthrough tank. Work on several projects went very slowly, as the consensus among the German Panzertruppen was that the Panzer III and IV designs were adequate, and that a heavy tank was not a pressing priority. That changed in 1940.
During the French campaign, the Germans found out to their dismay that the Panzer III and IV had a very hard time tackling the French heavy tanks. So in late 1940 work on two heavy tank projects, the VK 3601 and the VK 3001, sped up. However, both projects were dropped in May 1941 when a new specification for a 45 ton tank to be armed with a modified 88mm AA gun, or an equivalent weapon, was issued. Work on this project was accelerated dramatically after the Soviet T-34 and KV-1 tanks were encountered that summer.
Two companies submitted designs for the competition, Henschel and Porsche. Each company's tank was derived from earlier designs, and because of this they had to stick with vertical armor plates. The Henschel design was straightforward, with a five-man crew, standard layout and engine etc. On the other hand the Porsche design used an exotic electro-mechanical drive where a gasoline engine would drive a generator which would drive electric motors that would propel the tank. Despite the drive train differences between the two tanks, they both had the same Krupp turret mounting an L/56 88mm main gun.
Both designs were shown to Hitler on April 20, 1942, and shortly afterward the Henschel design was approved for production because it was less complex than the Porsche design, and had better maneuverability. Unfortunately Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was so sure his company's design would win because of his relationship with Hitler that 90 hulls had already been completed. These did not go to waste, however, as they were converted to heavy tank destroyers for the Battle of Kursk, but that's another subject. Production of the Tiger began in August at a painfully slow rate considering the great need of the new tank to combat the T-34 and KV-1. The next month the first Tigers went into action near Leningrad.
Between August 1942 and August 1944 over 1,300 Tigers would be produced. There were three variants produced, a command tank with extra radios, an armored recovery vehicle, and an assault gun mounting a massive 380mm rocket mortar.
The Tiger's 88mm L/56 gun was almost changed during development. When work on the Tiger's design began, so did work on a suitable main gun. Two designs were produced, the 88mm L/56 and the 75mm L/70. It was decided that the 88mm gun would initially be mounted, and after 100 tanks had been produced that the long 75mm gun would be mounted. But in late July 1942 this was changed, instead of the 75mm gun being mounted after the first models had been built a longer 88mm L/71 gun would be substituted instead. Even this didn't work out because the long 88mm gun wouldn't fit. Because it has become a daily content tradition to include a download of tanks, planes, or ships that were never built, a download of Tigers with alternate armament has been included.
The original 88mm L/56 gun turned out to be more than powerful enough. This gun, aided by high-end German optics, was able to kill T-34s at ranges as high as 2000 meters. In some cases Tiger gunners reported that their AP shells would go right through the front armor of some enemy tank and pass all the way to the rear. From 1000 meters the 88mm gun could pierce any tank the Allies could field until 1944. Not only was its anti-tank shell effective, but its high explosive shell was also very potent. High explosive shells actually made up roughly half the ammunition load of any given Tiger. Along with the 88mm main gun the Tiger also mounted, like most other German tanks, two MG34 machine guns. One was mounted in a ball mount in the hull, while the other was placed in coaxial mount next to the main gun.
The Tiger's armor package was very effective. All of the armor plates were step jointed and welded together into a single hull assembly. With 100mm of high quality face-hardened alloy steel protecting the front of the tank, and 80mm protecting everything else the Tiger was nearly immune to the T-34s 76.2mm gun and the 75mm gun that armed most American and British tanks. The only way these weapons could penetrate the Tiger's thick hide was to get a rear hit, and on the Ukrainian steppe these types of shots were very hard to get. Now Normandy and Tunisia were different stories, as American and British tank crews used the terrain to get the side and rear shots necessary to kill a Tiger.
The Tiger was actually more mobile than many people think. Its maximum road and cross county speed was actually equal to the Panzer III and IV, though drivers were ordered not to travel at maximum speed as it did a number on the transmission. Its wide tracks and interleaving road wheels gave a smooth ride and spread out the weight of the tank very evenly. The Tiger actually had better mobility than the Sherman in some respects, such as turning radius and, surprisingly, ground pressure. Despite the good ride it gave, the complex suspension also caused quite a few problems. On the Eastern Front mud and snow often got caught in the interleaving road wheels, along with plenty of other debris, and when night came the mud and snow would freeze, immobilizing the tank.
The transmission and engine also proved very troublesome, both required frequent maintenance or else the tank would break down. Even when the crew had done the required maintenance the Tiger still broke down often, and when it did someone had to find another Tiger to tow it. While the Tiger had reasonable battlefield mobility, its operational mobility was pitiful. It consumed massive amounts of fuel on road marches and the aforementioned reliability problems also showed themselves, only more so. The only way around these problems was to ship the Tiger by rail, and to do the wide combat tracks had to be removed and replace them with narrower travel ones. The Tiger required a special rail car designed to carry the 56-ton tank. Later on in the war this was even further complicated by the Allied air attacks on the German rail network.
During the Tiger's production life a number of changes was made. The first was the addition of an improved 700 horsepower engine in May 1943. That July the turret was redesigned with a new cupola and some other detail changes. Zimmerit anti-magnetic coating was first applied to Tiger tank after September 1943. Spring 1944 saw some of the biggest changes to the Tiger. During that spring a close range grenade launcher was added for protection against infantry, new steel road wheels taken from the King Tiger were added, improved turret top armor was fitted and a new scope, the TZF 9c monocular sight was mounted in place of the old binocular one.
In conclusion, while the Tiger possessed a powerful main gun and enough armor to withstand just about any weapon the Allies could throw at it, it was betrayed by poor mechanical reliability and the low numbers in which it was produced. That's just the price for over engineering a tank, something the Germans also did with the Panther and King Tiger.
The Tiger appears in Kursk: Burning Tigers, Kursk: South Flank and Elsenborn Ridge.
You can download the alternate Tiger tanks here.
You can order Kursk: Burning Tigers right here.
You can order Elsenborn Ridge right here.
You can order Kursk: South Flank right here.