The tank was first used as a battlefield weapon on 15 September 1916 at Flers-Courcelette (part of the Battle of the Somme), ushering in a new era of mechanised warfare. Despite initial progress, the full effectiveness of the tank as a weapon was not fully realised until the inter-war years, and by the onset of World War Two, the tank had become a far more efficient and deadly weapon.
Notable tanks of the time included the German Panzer tanks, the famous Soviet T-34 tank (that proved so highly effective at the Battle of Kursk) and the US M4 Sherman tank. However, it was the German Tiger tank that frequently ranked among the finest, being superior to British and American tanks for most of the war.
Why was this, and did it actually deserve its legendary status?
1. The first Tiger tank prototype was scheduled to be ready for Hitler’s birthday on 20 April 1942
After Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, they were shocked to encounter Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks that were far superior to anything they had available. To compete, orders for a German prototype for a new tank thus required a weight increase to 45 tonnes and an increase in gun calibre to 88mm.
Both the Henschel and Porsche companies displayed designs to Hitler at his base in Rastenburg for him to inspect. Unlike the Panther tank, the designs did not incorporate sloped armour. After trials, the Henschel design was considered superior and the more practical to mass produce, largely as the Porsche VK 4501 prototype design needed large quantities of copper – a strategic war material that was in limited supply.
Production of Tiger I began in July 1942, and the Tiger first saw service against the Red Army in September 1942 near the town of Mga (about 43 miles southeast of Leningrad), and then against the Allies in Tunisia in December later that year.
2. Porsche was responsible for the name ‘Tiger’
Despite Henschel’s design being chosen, Ferdinand Porsche did give the tank its nickname, ‘Tiger’, with the Roman numeral added after the Tiger II entered production.
3. 1,837 Tiger I and Tiger II tanks were built in total
The Tiger was still at the prototype stage when it was quickly brought into service, and therefore changes were made throughout the production run, including a redesigned turret with a lower cupola.
Due to slow production rates at the factories, incorporation of these modifications could take several months, meaning it took about twice as long to build a Tiger I as other German tanks. The design was simplified to aid production – partly also as a result of raw material shortages.
A large network of firms produced components for the Tiger, which were then transported by rail to Henschel’s factory in Kassel for final assembly, with a total construction time of around 14 days.
The Tiger was in production for two years, from July 1942 to August 1944. Only 1,347 Tiger 1’s were built – after this, Henschel built 490 Tiger II’s until the war’s end. Any other battlefield machine produced in such limited numbers would be quickly forgotten, but the Tiger’s impressive combat performance was worth it.
4. It had a highly unorthodox manual to encourage soldiers to actually read it
Young tank commanders had little interest in studying pages of instructions and schematic diagrams about their vehicles. Knowing these commanders would be operating their most vital and expensive piece of hardware, Panzer general Heinz Guderian allowed engineers to fill the Tiger’s manual – the Tigerfibel – with humour and a playful tone, as well as racy pictures of scantily-clad women to hold soldiers’ interest.
Each page was printed in just black and red ink, with illustrations, cartoons, and easy-to-read technical diagrams. The Tigerfibel’s success resulted in more unorthodox manuals emulating its style.
5. Nearly everything about the Tiger was over-engineered
The Tiger’s 88mm-wide mobile main gun was so formidable that shells often blasted straight through enemy tanks, coming out the other side. Its heavy armour was also so thick that a crew (usually of 5) could mostly park in front of an enemy anti-tank gun without fear of harm.
The Tiger (II) was the heaviest tank used during World War Two, weighing 57 tons, and its engine was so powerful that it could keep pace with tanks less than half its weight, at 40 kph. However, this weight posed a problem when crossing bridges. Early Tigers were fitted with a snorkel allowing them to cross rivers up to a 13 feet depth, though this was later abandoned, reducing the depth to 4 feet.
6. It was nearly impervious to Allied guns
The Tiger’s armour was 102mm-thick at the front – such was its strength that British crews would see shells fired from their own Churchill tanks simply bounce off the Tiger. In an early encounter with the Allies in Tunisia, 8 rounds fired from a 75mm-wide artillery gun were said to have ricocheted off the side of a Tiger from a distance of just 150 feet.
Meanwhile, a shot from a Tiger’s 88mm gun could penetrate 100mm-thick armour at ranges up to 1,000 metres.
7. It had an aura of invincibility
The Tiger was one of the most feared weapons of World War Two. In addition to it’s near-impervious armour, it could also destroy an enemy tank from over a mile away, and on the right terrrain, was highly effective, causing the Allies to devote considerable time to tracking their movements.
The Tiger was shrouded in secrecy – only the German army knew how it worked, and on Hitler’s orders, disabled Tiger tanks had to be destroyed on the spot to prevent the Allies from gaining intelligence about them.
Despite it’s formiddable reputation, the Tiger had chiefly defensive qualities, predominantly supporting medium tanks by destroying enemy tanks at long-range to forge breakthroughs on the battlefield, while mainly ignoring hits from smaller Allied anti-tank guns.
However, the Tiger’s ability to terrorise enemy troops is slightly exaggerated. Many stories of Allied tanks refusing to engage Tigers reflect different tactics rather than a fear of the Tiger. To the Allies, engaging tanks in gun battles was the artillery’s job. If a Sherman tank crew sighted a Tiger, they radioed the position to the artillery then exited the area.
8. It was prone to mechanical issues
Built with combat performance in mind, although superior on the battlefield, the Tiger’s complex design and a lack of thought to repairing individual components made it tricky and expensive for mechanics to maintain.
Track failures, engine fires and broken gearboxes meant many Tigers broke down and had to be abandoned.
Many crews had a mere fortnight to familiarise themselves with the Tiger before using it in combat. Unused to its foibles when driving over tricky terrain, many got stuck, with the Tiger particularly vulnerable to immobilisation when mud, snow or ice froze between its interleaved Schachtellaufwerk-pattern road wheels. This proved a particular problem in the cold weather on the Eastern Front.
The Tiger was also limited in range by its high fuel consumption. A journey of 60 miles could use 150 gallons of fuel. Maintaining this fuel supply was tricky, and was susceptible to disruption by resistance fighters.
9. It was very expensive to manufacture, both in terms of money and resources
Each Tiger cost over 250,000 marks to manufacture. As the war dragged on, Germany’s money and resources depleted. Needing to optimise their war production, the Germans prioritised building many more tanks and cheaper tank destroyers for the cost of one Tiger – indeed a single Tiger used enough steel to build 21 105mm howitzers.
By the end of the war, other tanks had been developed by the Allies that outclassed the Tiger, including the Joseph Stalin II and the American M26 Pershing.
10. Only 7 Tiger tanks still survive in museums and private collections
As of 2020, Tiger 131 was the world’s only running Tiger 1 tank. It was captured on 24 April 1943 during the North Africa Campaign, and later restored to running order by experts at the Tank Museum in Bovington, Dorset. The Tiger 131 was loaned to the makers of the film, ‘Fury’ (2014, starring Brad Pitt), to add authenticity.