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The Royal Tiger
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
November 2015

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 meters).

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 deck.

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.

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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.