By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
The original Tiger tank made its combat debut in September 1942
and proved very powerful against Soviet armor. However, the
Tiger’s designers had failed to meet their specifications,
which called for installation of the massive 88mm KwK 43 L/71
cannon. Instead, the Tiger I carried the shorter L/56 model
(the number referring to the gun’s caliber, a multiplier
of the bore to equal the barrel’s length: thus the L/56
cannon was 4.928 meters long and the L/71 a stunning 6.248
The huge weapon simply would not fit on the Tiger I chassis,
and although Henschel und Sohn had designed a powerful machine
they soon received orders to create one that would carry the
bigger gun. A wooden test version was ready in October 1943
with a turret designed by Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, the famed
Austrian helicopter designer who also dabbled in automobiles.
An early-model Tiger II, with Porsche turret.
The big tank came in at 68 tons, compared to 25 for a late-model
PzKw IVH main battle tank or 45 for the very large PzKw VG
Panther. It had very thick frontal armor (150mm on the superstructure;
180mm on the turret) and the same armor on sides and rear
as the Tiger I (100mm sides, 80mm rear).
The cannon, an adaptation of the famous 88mm anti-aircraft
gun, could punch its armor-piercing rounds through just about
anything short of a battleship’s hide. And the thick
armor could only be defeated by the very largest Allied anti-tank
guns, and then only with a lot of luck on the gunner’s
side. But there were compensating disadvantages.
The tank’s diesel engine strained to move it at anything
more than 30 kilometers an hour (18 mph). In cold weather
the big Maybach was very difficult to start, and all Tigers
came equipped with a giant flamethrower-like torch to heat
the engine compartment. Unfortunately for the crews, this
torch was highly prized by infantrymen, rival tank crews and
all manner of rear-echelon types, who used it to start fires
and just to play with (armies are made up of young men; young
men just plain like to start fires), and many tanks lost their
torches. Once started, the Tiger’s engine ran very hot.
This necessitated huge cooling fans on the tank’s after
The Tiger II did not enter series production until early 1944,
by which time Germany was already reeling from Allied attack
and production targets climbed while bombing hampered the
German economy. As a result, many Tigers had sloppy workmanship
thanks to use of unskilled labor and the sabotage efforts
of unwilling slaves. American tank crews, after examining
knocked-out Tiger II tanks, realized that the armor plates
often had unsealed openings at the corners wide enough to
fit fingers through. When the Tiger II was hit by a smoke
or phosphorous round, those massive cooling fans would suck
the gasses through those gaps and into the tank’s fighting
compartment. The crew, unable to breathe,
would then bail out of an otherwise undamaged vehicle.
Barring the Road to Berlin.
The Tiger II also lacked an electric traverse for its turret:
The huge armored box and its very long cannon had to be cranked
around by hand. If the Tiger lay on a slope, the crew often
simply could not muscle the cannon uphill. It was also an
unbalanced beast: Even at its top speed of 18 miles per hour,
inexperienced tank drivers managed to flip over quite a few
otherwise undamaged Tiger II tanks and both models of Tiger
rarely moved at their “book value” speed. The
record is full of tanks plunging through bridges or becoming
bogged down in roadside ditches as well. Standard German recovery
vehicles often could not move the huge tanks, and a special
Bergetiger recovery tank had to be developed.
But when allowed to remain stationary and choose its targets,
the Tiger II’s huge cannon took an incredible toll on
Allied tanks. The first vehicles went to training units in
February 1944, and the Tiger II entered combat in July 1944
both in Normandy and on the Eastern Front.
Henschel built 489 vehicles before production halted in
March 1945. Five of them went to the 60th Panzergrenadier
Division, with the rest being reserved for the separate heavy
tank battalions of the army and Waffen SS.
The slow but powerful tank appears in Elsenborn Ridge and Liberation 1944, along with its slightly smaller but better-balanced cousin.
Order Elsenborn Ridge today!
Order Liberation today!
Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects.
He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.