Sunday, July 26, 2015

Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger II Ausf B (SdKfz 182) Part II

One of the last Tiger IIs produced by Henschel during March 1945 and collected by 3./s.H.Pz.Abt.511.

While medium armored fighting vehicles such as the German Panther or Soviet T-34 possessed a balanced triad of firepower, mobility, and protection that permitted them to undertake a variety of combat roles, the Tiger II's greater weight relegated it to more limited defensive operations. Its size made movement through urban environments or along narrow roads difficult, while its drivetrain was under-strength, the double radius L801 steering gear was stressed, and the seals and gaskets were prone to leaks. Limited crew training could amplify these problems as inexperienced drivers could inadvertently run the engine at high RPMs or move over terrain that overly tasked the suspension. Extended travel times under the Tiger II's own power stressed the swingarms that supported the road wheels and made them susceptible to bending. Such axial displacement would probably strain the tracks and bend the link bolts to further disrupt proper movement. Over-worked engines needed to be replaced roughly every 1,000km. Although wide tracks aided movement over most terrain, should the vehicle require recovery another Tiger II was typically needed to extract it. Requirements for spare parts were understandably high, and maintenance was an ongoing task, all of which reduced vehicle availability. 

The Tiger II's long main armament, the epitome of the family of 88mm antiaircraft/antitank guns that had terrorized enemy armor since the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), fired high-velocity rounds along a relatively flat trajectory. In combination with an excellent gunsight, the weapon system was accurate at long range, which enabled rapid targeting and a high first look/first hit/first kill probability. However, the lengthy barrel's overhang stressed the turret ring, and made traverse difficult when not on level ground. Optimally initiating combat at distances beyond which an enemy's main armament could effectively respond, the Tiger II's lethality was further enhanced by its considerable armor protection, especially across the frontal arc that provided for a high degree of combat survivability. Although the vehicle's glacis does not appear to have ever been penetrated during battle, its flanks and rear were vulnerable to enemy antitank weapons at normal ranges. 

In the hands of an experienced crew, and under environmental and terrain conditions that promoted long-range combat, the weapon system achieved a high kill ratio against its Allied and Red Army counterparts. 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion, for example, was estimated to have scored an estimated 500 "kills" during the unit's operational life from January to April 1945. While such a figure was certainly inflated as accurate record keeping was hindered by the unit's dispersed application and chaotic late-war fighting where the Soviets eventually occupied a battlefield, it illustrated the success of the weapon system if properly employed and supported. Of 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion's original complement of 39 Tiger IIs only ten were destroyed through combat, with the remainder being abandoned or destroyed by their crews due to mechanical breakdowns or lack of fuel. As 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion never received replacement tanks like its brethren in 501st and 502nd Heavy SS Panzer Battalions (which were given 2.38 and 1.7 times their respective 45-vehicle TO&E allotments), its Tiger II combat losses averaged less than 50 percent.

Because of the chaotic combat environment throughout Pomerania, and the need to quickly allocate resources to several threatened sectors at once, the Tiger IIs were frequently employed singly, or in small groups, often at the will of a local senior commander. In much the same way as with the French in 1940, 503rd Heavy SS Panzer Battalion's armor acted more in an infantry-support capacity than as a unified armored fist. The Tiger IIs would perhaps have been better used organizationally to fill a Panzer regiment's heavy company by strengthening existing, depleted parent formations; but instead they remained in semi-independent heavy Panzer battalions until the end of the war. Forced to rely on small-unit tactics, Tiger II crews played to their strengths by adopting ambush tactics to minimize vehicular movement and pre-combat detection, especially from enemy ground-attack aircraft. 

As tankers regularly spent long hours in their mounts the Tiger II's relatively spacious interior helped reduce fatigue, and made operating and fighting within the vehicle somewhat less taxing. A good heating and ventilation system improved operating conditions, which then reduced crew mistakes that were all too common during a chaotic firefight. Although the Tiger II had well-positioned ammunition racks that facilitated loading, projectiles that were stored in the turret bustle were susceptible to potentially catastrophic damage caused by spalling or projectile impacts. Even after Henschel incorporated spall liners to reduce such debris, concerned crews would often leave the turret rear empty, which correspondingly made room to use the rear hatch as an emergency exit.

The cost to produce the Tiger II in manpower and time (double that of a 45-tonne Panther), and its high fuel consumption, brought into question why such a design progressed beyond the drawing board considering Germany's dwindling resources and military fortunes. It was partly a response to the perpetual escalation of the requirement to achieve or maintain battlefield supremacy, and much of the blame rested with Hitler and his desire for large armored vehicles that in his view presumably reflected Germany's might and reinforced propaganda. By not focusing resources on creating greater numbers of the latest proven designs such as the Panther G, German authorities showed a lack of unified direction and squandered an ability to fight a war of attrition until it was too late to significantly affect the outcome. Limited numbers of qualitatively superior Tiger IIs could simply not stem the flood of enemy armor.

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