The signifier of that family of weapons systems was the Panzer VI, better known as the Tiger I. The Tiger lent its aura to the whole German armored force. Even experienced British and US troops were likely to see Tigers behind every hedgerow and leading every counterattack. A cursory search turns up at least a hundred books in English, French, and German devoted to the Tiger’s origins and performance. The vehicle’s genesis can be traced to a 1935 Army Weapons Office report describing a 30-ton vehicle with a 75mm main gun capable of piercing the armor of French heavy tanks.
Redesignated “escort tank,” “infantry tank,” then “breakthrough vehicle,” the concept sputtered along through the 1930s, reflecting a lack of consensus on how the tank should be armed and used, and the problems of designing a chassis able to support the projected weight and an engine able to move it.
The firm of Henschel and Sons made just enough progress to spark Hitler’s interest. Following the Third Reich’s common approach of pitting competitors directly against each other, in the fall of 1940 automobile engineer Dr. Ferdinand Porsche was commissioned to design a 45-ton tank. Krupp, fearing to be shut out of potentially lucrative contracts, offered Porsche a turret designed around an adaptation of its 88mm Flak as the main armament. Not until May 1941, however, did the project begin taking material form—and that reflected concern for the heavily armored British infantry tanks encountered in North Africa rather than anxiety about what might await in Russia.
Gun power was a key issue in the discussion. It was generally agreed that the new tank’s main armament be able to penetrate around four inches of armor from a distance of a mile. This was a major leap forward, but the army was looking a long distance ahead. It projected the Henschel design to mount a completely new kind of weapon: a tapered-bore gun of around 75mm. Tapered-bore began as a German effort to increase the effect of small- caliber antitank weapons by squeezing the round as it traveled through the barrel, thus improving muzzle velocity and penetrating power without raising the gun’s size and weight. That enabled a tank to carry more rounds—an important factor, given the proven difficulty of replenishing ammunition in the midst of a battle—and allowed for a lower weight, with corresponding advantages using roads and bridges.
Germany produced two major versions. The 28mm model, usually mounted on an armored car or half-track, was issued to the mobile troops to improve their firepower despite its still relatively limited effect against tanks. The 75mm tapered-bore closed its round down to 55mm. Its performance was well above its conventional counterpart, and correspondingly attractive to panzer technocrats. Though the guns were complex and expensive, the critical problem involved raw materials. The armor-piercing rounds required tungsten cores. Tungsten was also necessary for the armament industry’s machine tools, and neither Germany nor its victims had any indigenous sources. Supplies had to be brought in by blockade runners—a small-scale and unpredictable process—or imported from Spain, which was not much easier given Allied pressure on Franco’s government. Finding enough of the metal to produce and supply more than a token number of large-caliber, tapered-bore weapons was a corresponding impossibility. But it required Hitler’s direct intervention to “convince” the army and the firm of Henschel that they were pursuing a dead end.
The tapered-bore issue merits discussion because of the familiar trope that Hitler was solely responsible for the technical dead ends that plagued the armored forces during the war’s second half. The generals too suffered from technocratic grandiosity, and entertained visions whose implementation depended on final, total victory. When it came to the projected heavy tank, Hitler’s principal technical criterion was relatively modest. He accepted pursuing the tapered-bore solution, but as a backup wanted the Krupp 88mm to be replaced by an 88mm whose effectiveness was equal to a more powerful Rheinmetall design. Krupp unsurprisingly replied that a direct switch to the Rheinmetall gun was technically impossible. Nor could Rheinmetall develop and produce a conventional 75mm gun to match either the theoretical tapered-bore weapon or the existing 88mm in time to meet production schedules. Krupp’s gun and turret was therefore adopted for both the Porsche and Henschel designs as much by default as intention.
No more than its design parameters were the Tiger’s production schedules developed on an emergency basis. Even the appearance of the KVs and T-34s during Barbarossa failed to concentrate German minds and efforts. Instead Porsche and Henschel were told to have a half dozen of their respective designs available—by the summer of 1942. After all, the Russians would be crushed before the new tanks could take the field, in any case.
The first Tiger was a birthday present for the Führer in April 1942. Its production runs were set modestly, at 15 a month by September. The Porsche and Henschel versions competed through the summer. In October, the Henschel won the contract for what passed for mass production in the Reich—not especially surprising, given its insider position on the project.
The leading authorities on the Tiger agree that it was no purebred. Its technical genesis was ad hoc, incorporating components from several firms and several design projects. Modifications continued on the production lines, ranging from mud guards on the hull to a redesigned turret. Though the vehicle’s final size and weight—57 tons—enabled it to absorb the changes with relative equanimity, it was always high maintenance. That does not mean unreliable. “Tiger was not a lady,” in the words of one old hand. “But she was like a good woman. If you treated her right, she’d treat you right.” Extending the metaphor, Tiger was also no cheap date. Range on a full tank was only 125 miles. Speed was on the low side of adequate by previous panzer standards: about 20 miles per hour on roads, half that and less cross-country. But with an 88mm gun behind more than 100mm of frontal armor, the Tiger could outshoot anything on any battlefield. Through the rest of the war, for most Allied tanks to have a chance at penetrating a Tiger’s armor, they had to maneuver within the killing range of its gun. No one ever sought the experience a second time.
The Tiger was all muscle, a slab-sided beast as sophisticated as a knee in the groin—and no less effective. Its cross-country mobility was as good as most of its contemporaries. Far from being a semi-mobile Möbelwagen (furniture van), it was intended for offensive operations—not merely breakthrough but exploitation, if proper attention was paid to refueling. The Tiger’s technology nevertheless completely inverted the army’s existing armor doctrine. It was twice as heavy as anything else in the inventory of a panzer arm that from its beginnings had emphasized speed and maneuverability. Its tactical doctrine, always flexible, improvised, or random depending on perspective, developed into three primary missions. Tigers were expected to lead armored attacks against strong positions, to break through prepared defensive works and overcome enemy defenses generally, and to destroy heavy tanks and equivalent targets at long ranges.
The first two points are essentially identical with British practice in World War I and French theory in the 1920s and ’30s. The third, whose relative importance increased by the month, reflected material and numerical circumstances in Russia that offered an unusually target-rich environment. That is to say a Tiger company could expect to find ample numbers of poorly handled Soviet tanks within range of its guns.
There were things the Tiger could not do. The first three battalions had two companies each of nine Tigers and ten Panzer IIIs with the idea that the lighter tanks could perform screening and scouting missions more effectively and economically. The Tigers’ usual employment, however, favored their concentration into “pure” companies of 14, three to a battalion, with the battalions deployed as army troops to cooperate with the panzers in the kind of decisive sectors where Panzer IIIs were little more than targets.
The Tigers benefited from a policy of allowing recruits to volunteer for Tiger duty; from having their own training facilities; and from building crews, whenever possible, from experienced men, be they casuals, recovered wounded, or transfers. They later benefited by converting existing tank formations. The resulting mix of still-enthusiastic seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds with still- crafty old hands proved as effective as it usually does in war. Success was enhanced as well by the Tiger’s high survivability rate. Not only did displaced crews usually live to fight again; they were likely to regard the loss of their vehicle as an accident rather than a certainty waiting to happen. That sharp contrast to the men who took Shermans and Cromwells into action after D-Day did much to sustain morale and effectiveness in Tiger battalions throughout the war.
Like their British predecessors in 1916, the Tigers were initially fed into combat on small scales. One battalion went to Leningrad in August 1942 to shore up a front eroding under steady Russian pressure. A second was dispatched to Tunisia in November as a response to the Allied invasion. The third, Heavy Tank Battalion 503, was assigned to Army Group Don in December 1942. It made its bones in a series of rearguard actions and small-scale counterattacks that reduced it to two operating Tigers by the time it was withdrawn in late February. In two months, however, the 503rd accounted for more than 70 Soviet tanks and 55 antitank guns for the combat loss of only three Tigers—a kill ratio that more than compensated for maintenance problems resulting more from enemy fire than mechanical defects. As for mobility, one company covered more than 65 miles in ten and a half hours with no breakdowns—an impressive achievement for a complex vehicle with limited field testing.
The Panzer VIB, the “King Tiger” or “Royal Tiger,” could trace its conceptual roots all the way to the spring of 1941. Prototypes emerged in 1943; the first production models appeared in January 1944. The VIB was best distinguished by a redesigned turret with a rounded front and a cupola for the commander. Its second characteristic feature was an 88mm L/71 gun (that translates as 19 feet long!) that could take out any allied tank at extreme ranges. Its frontal armor, more than seven inches in places, was never confirmed as having been penetrated by any tank or antitank gun. Its Maybach 700 horsepower engine gave it a reasonable road speed of 24 miles per hour. But if the King was dipped in the River Styx for strength, it was also left with an Achilles heel. Its weight was immobilizing. Only major road bridges could support it. The tonnage increased fuel consumption when fuel supplies were a growing problem, and also overstrained the drive system to a point where breakdowns were the norm.
The point was initially moot, since only five VIBs were in service by March 1944. But the situation was replicated in other end-of-the-war designs. The Jagdtiger was a tank destroyer version of the VIB carrying a 128mm gun—not only the heaviest weapon mounted on a German AFV, but an excellent design in its own right. At over 70 tons, however, and with only 20 degrees traverse for its main armament, the vehicle was only dangerous to anything unfortunate enough to pass directly in front of it.