ARTICLE: The Tiger Tank Story by Noel Feeney

 
 
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(Tiger I)

“And the lord was with Judah
And he drove out the
The inhabitants of the mountain
But he could not drive out
The inhabitants of the valley
Because they had chariots of iron”

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The German Tiger tank, or to give it its full name Panzerkampfwagen VI Sonderkraftfahrzeug 181 Tiger Ausfuhrung E, meaning armoured combat vehicle no. 6 special purpose vehicle no. 181 model E, abbreviated to (PzKpfw VI SdKfz 181 Ausf E) was one of the most feared and famous tanks of WWII but with only 1354 being produced there was never enough of them to have a real impact on the war. It is believed that Ferdinand Porsche gave the tank its nickname Tiger.

The Tiger I first made its appearance in august 1942 near Leningrad. Four Tigers were put into action on marshy ground which proved too soft for the 57 ton beast. All four tanks had to be recovered and repaired. A month later they went out again with the same results but this time one of the tanks had to be destroyed by its crew to prevent capture. The Tigers were successful in their third outing in January 1943. The 502nd supported the 96th infantry division in fighting an attack by Russian tanks. Four Tigers knocked out twelve T-34s and the rest of the T-34s pulled back. But on the 16th of January the Russians captured their first Tiger near Leningrad. The tank was sent to Kubinka proving grounds for inspection, the Tiger was no longer a secret.

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 Many historians believe that it was a bad move on Hitler’s behalf to send in the first few Tigers so soon, as he gave away the secret of his super tank before he had enough of them ready for proper combat. General Guderian “it was not only the heavy losses, it was the loss of secrecy and surprise in the future

Let’s take a look at the Tiger’s history. This is just a brief history of the tank; there are many detailed books, DVD’s and web pages on the story of the Tiger tank if you want to go deep into its story.

 The story of the Tiger 1 begins in 1941, that’s when the first serious efforts to design heavy panzers began. The main concern was British tanks and anti-tank guns. But when the Germans encountered the T-34 and KV-1 they began to put full effort in to heavy panzer design. The result was a specification for 45 ton tank with heavy armour powerful gun and good speed and manoeuvrability. Porsche and Henschel were the firms that began working on the new tank design. Krupp was the company chosen to design the turret and main gun. The prototypes had to be ready by the 20th April 1942, Hitler’s birthday.  Both tanks were ready on time and put to the test. The Henschel tank was the one chosen due mostly to its manoeuvrability. There are many myths about the Tiger being too heavy and slow but it was in fact quite a nimble tank. The Porsche Tiger hull was later used to produce the Ferdinand and Elefant tank destroyers, but that’s another story in itself.

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The tank production started in august 1942 using the Henschel hull with the Krupp turret using the 88 gun which was a modified version of the highly accurate and powerful 88mm anti aircraft gun. There were also two MG34 machine guns in the tank. One in the turret beside the main gun and one in the hull’s front plate.

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 There were many small changes to the Tigers design throughout its short history due to feed back from combat experienced crews (there were five crew members) which lead to three different models, the early production Tiger, mid production Tiger and late production Tiger. The changes were very subtle, most obvious being the wheels and commanders cupola.

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The Tiger was prone to breakdowns and needed a lot of maintenance. It took two massive prime mover halftracks to tow a Tiger. It was not permitted to tow a Tiger with another Tiger, to avoid strain and engine damage but this rule was ignored most of the time. When properly maintained the Tiger was a superior tank.

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Zimmerit anti-magnetic paste was used from 1942 and applied to all vertical surfaces to prevent enemy magnetic mines being stuck to the tank. It was a mix of ingredients; zinc sulphide, barium sulphate, pine saw dust, ochre and pine crystals dissolved in benzene. It was used on other vehicles too. Near the end of the war it was withdrawn because it was taught to be flammable but this was later found to be caused by the Zimmerit not being dried properly and rushed out to the front with the benzene still damp and hence flammable!

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The Tiger tank was renowned for its armour. It was made from rolled homogeneous nickel-steel plate electro-welded interlocking-plate construction, there’s a mouth full! The front of the hull or glacis plate to give it its proper name was around 100 mm thick, that’s almost 4 inches, it reached 120mm on the mantlet, that’s the area around the guns base on the turret. The hull sides and rear were 80mm thick as was the turret sides. The hull and the turret tops were around 25mm.

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There are many stories of tank men watching dumbfound as their shells bounced off the Tiger. One of the more famous stories is from the commander of a British Churchill tank who had an encounter with Tiger 131(the only running tiger tank in the world .it can be seen at Bovington tank museum UK) the story goes….” We had not only heard a lot about the Tiger but had also seen its effect on the Churchill tanks. When we arrived at the railhead we saw the hulls of our tanks stacked up with massive holes punched through their armour, even at the thickest parts! As we advanced towards our objective we could see no sign of the enemy, but suddenly my fellow tank erupted in an enormous explosion. Blowing the crew from the turret and setting the tank on fire. Before I had time to locate the enemy tank my own Churchill was hit by an 88 shell from the Tiger which passed through the front of our tank and all the way through to the engine at the back setting it on fire. We managed to bail out with minor injuries, not like our poor friends in the other tank. Tiger 131 that had been firing at us was hit by another one of our tanks and the shell got stuck under its gun which stopped the gun from turning and the Germans abandoned their tank. The British had captured a Tiger.

The engine was made by maybach. There were two versions of the engine, the HL 210 TRM P45 and the HL230 TRM P45. The HL210 was the first engine which proved to be a little underpowered, so after 250 Tigers were fitted with the first engine the HL230 was introduced which was basically the HL210 with a different block which had the cylinders bored bigger as it was not possible to fit a bigger size engine into the engine bay!  HL was for hochleistungsmotor (high performance motor) the TRM was for trockensumpfschmierung mit schnappermagne (dry sump lube with impulse magneto) and the P was panzermotor (tank engine). The HL210 was a 21ltr V12 petrol engine and the HL230 was a 23ltr engine! These engines used almost 3 gallons of petrol per mile. The Tiger could only do 68 miles of distance off road at 12mph before running out of fuel and about 60 miles of distance at 23mph on the road. Not a great performance but don’t forget this beast was around 57 tons!

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The interior of the tank had 3 men in the turret, the commander who sat under the cupola and the loader and the gunner who sat either side of the gun. If you look closely at the Tiger’s turret from the front of the tank you will see that the loaders side of the turret is slightly wider to give him a bit more room to move around.

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The gunner also operated the MG machine gun. In the hull you had two men the driver and the radio man, each man sitting either side of the massive transmission. The radio man also operated the hull MG machine gun. The driver had a steering wheel which was a first in German tanks. The engine bay was at the rear of the tank and isolated from the crew compartment.

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I found a story where two German infantry men get a lift in a Tiger tank. It gives a little insight into what it was like inside a Tiger tank during the war.

The story is from Russia during the winter… “We had just begun to attack the rock hard ground with our picks when we heard the sound of an engine.

“A truck!” The young fellow shouted.

”A truck? You’re crazy! Don’t you hear the treads?”  He stared at me. “A tank? Is it a German tank?” “How the hell would I know?” “But we’re behind our lines, aren’t we?” “Oh, for God’s sake….of course…. I hope so.” People who need long explanations at moments when everything depends on instinct have always irritated me.

“What are we going to do?” he asked. “Get the hell off the track, and hide in the snow.” I was already moving back. The noise had grown terrible. The tank was nearly on top of us, and was still totally invisible. I know of no other experience which twists the guts harder than that. We waited for what seemed an eternity before we perceived a squat silhouette sliding smoothly over the ground.

The noise was overwhelming. I stared through the darkness, trying to catch some distinguishing details. Finally, drawn by an inexplicable force, I got up, and moved forward cautiously, leaving my astonished companion to his own devices. After a moment, he joined me, staring at me with anguished, questioning eyes. “It’s a Tiger, one of ours.

We’ve got to try catch it.” “Let’s run after it!”. “We have to be careful, though. They might think we’re Russians.” “But if we catch up with them they could take us along.” “Exactly.” We began to shout like mad men, running after the tank with some anxiety but as hard as we could. The noise of its engine drowned our voices, and it passed us by. “Grab your things,” I yelled at the recruit. “We’ve got to catch them.”

We began to run along the ruts left by the treads. Although the tank was moving slowly, it was still going faster than we could run. We were already gasping for breath. I quickly realized that we were never going to catch it, and that we would have to take a chance. I grabbed my Mauser and fired into the fog, into which the tank had almost disappeared.

This, of course, was extremely dangerous. The tank crew might think they were being attacked and let us have it with their machine guns. The tank stopped. They must have heard the shot. We shouted, “kamerad!” as loudly as we could. The engine was idling, and making much less noise. We heard someone from the turret: “Was ist da?” We rushed forward, drawing on all our strength.

We were now very close. The fellow in the turret must surely have had his finger on the trigger. “Only two of you?” he yelled when he seen us. “What the hell are you doing here?” “We’re trying to find our units, Kamerad. We’re lost.” “I’m not surprised. We’re lost too.” We noticed with relief that he was wearing a white helmet stencilled with tiger stripes, which meant that he belonged to the Gross Deutschland. We explained our situation, and they pull us into the tank. “You’re both Gross Deutschland?” “Yes.” The interior of the tank, which seemed to be painted with orange lead, was filled with the dim, yellowish light of a metal mechanic’s lamp which hung from the ceiling.

There were two fellows in the turret, and probably a couple more up front. The engine made so much noise that it was almost impossible to talk, but it warmed the air agreeably, and filled it with the smell of hot oil and exhaust. Despite the ample dimensions of the turret, the steering gear and ammunition cases took up so much room it was a squeeze to fit us in. The tank commander was keeping his eyes and ears open, thrusting his head from the turret at closely spaced intervals. He wore a think winter hat which looked quite Russian.

The tank crew told us that they too were looking for their unit. Some engine trouble had held them up for nearly two days. Now they were trying to orient themselves by the batteries and companies they passed, a dangerous business, because a solitary tank is like a blinded animal. They didn’t have a working radio, and their group leader seemed to be doing nothing about them. Maybe he had already classified them as missing. They also told us that the new panzers were coated with an anti-magnetic mine paste, and exterior fire extinguishers.

The most dangerous weapon for them was still the rocket launchers which the Russians had perfected after encountering our panzerfaust. They said that none of the Russian tanks could stand up to up to our Tigers. In the spring, on the Rumanian frontier, we would see Tigers in action for ourselves. The T-34’s and KV’s discovered the Tiger’s superiority for themselves, the hard way. An hour later the, tank stopped. “A signpost!” shouted the commander. “There must be a camp near here!”. It had begun to snow large feathery flakes which clung to every surface.

A post bristling with signs loomed unexpectedly out from the darkness. One of the crew brushed the snow off the signs with gloved hand, and read out the directions. It seemed that the company the young recruit was looking for, along with three or four other companies, were somewhere to the east. The rest was to the northeast, which was the way the Tiger was heading. The young soldier who was arriving at the front for the first time had to say goodbye, and walked off alone into the darkness. I can still see the expression of terror on his white face.

Twenty minutes later we ran into my unit, and the tank crew decided to stop for the night. I jumped down.”

Now let’s have a look at some specifications before we finish with a look at the few Tigers that remain in the world.

Measurements

Length (with gun)8.45m (27.7 ft)
Length (without gun)6.316m (20.66 ft)
Width with combat tracks3.72m (12.2 ft)
Width with transport tracks3.14m (10.3 ft)
Height to hull1.78m (5.8 ft)
Height to cupola3.00m (9.8 ft)
Combat weight57,250kg (126,214.5 lbs)
Transport weight52,250kg (115,191.4 lbs)

Engine Specifications

Engine modelMaybach HL 210 P45
Maybach HL 230 P45
Engine typeWater-cooled V-12
Displacement(HL 210) 21 litres, (HL230) 23 litres
Horsepower (max)(HL 210) 650 @ 3000, (HL 230) 700 @ 3000 rpm
TransmissionMaybach Olvar Type OG 40 12 16, 8 fwd, 4 rev gears

Firepower

Primary weapon8.8cm Kw.K. 36 L/56 rifled cannon
Effective range3000 m with armour piercing and 5000 m with HE rounds
Capacity92 rounds, sometimes modified to carry 106 or 120
Traverse360° (hydraulic and hand traverse)
Traverse speed25 to 60 seconds depending on engine speed
Secondary weapons2 x 7.92mm MG-34 (1 coaxial in turret, one in hull ball mount)
Ammunition4800 x 7.92mm

The last survivors. Of the 1350 Tiger tanks made only six survive today that we know of. I have heard two stories of other Tiger tanks but I can’t seem to find any further information on them. The first is of a Tiger tank that was dumped into a lake by the crew in Germany or Belgium but I can’t remember which. The story goes that the aurthories said they will never allow the lake to be touched or the tank removed! How true this story is we will probably never know. The second is about a museum in Germany that bought a load of scrap tank parts from a scrap yard in the seventies and in this pile of scrap is the makings of a tiger, all be it from different tanks. Apparently they are going to build a full tank. I have seen some photos on the internet of a Tigers front glacis plate and other parts, so there’s more chance of this story being true.

The six we know of are the Bovington Tiger an early production model and the only running Tiger I tank in the world. This tank was captured in 1943 in Tunisia when its crew abandoned it after the turret got stuck after being hit by a British shell.

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The second is in Vimoutiers France. It is a late production model. This tank is out doors and in reasonable condition. All the hatches have been welded shut. In my opinion the tank should be indoors away from the weather. The tank lay in a ditch where it had been bulldozed by a Canadian division after it was abandoned by its crew when it couldn’t manage an incline, until the seventies when it was pull out and put on display as a monument.

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The third is at Musée des Blindés, Saumur France, a late production model in good order. This tank has its narrower transport tracks on. It was abandoned in the retreat from Normandy and was then used by a French resistance group before being used for evaluation purposes and eventually being handed over to the museum.

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The fourth is at Kubinka Tank Museum Russia, this one is a mid production model in good order. It was used as a command tank which meant it had a few different radio modifications from a standard Tiger. This tank was captured while retreating in January 1945.

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The fifth is at the Military Historical Museum, Lenino-Snegiri Russia and is a late production model in very bad condition. Another tank that should be moved indoors and giving some attention, don’t forget how few of these tanks remain! The tank was captured in Latvia and then used as target practice.

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The sixth tank is a bit of a story, it was captured in Tunisia in 1943 and brought to the Aberdeen Army Ordnance Museum, USA.it is an early production model. It had some sections of one side cut away for display purposes. This tank was then given to Germany on loan and was to be restored as part of the deal. Then there was some kind of dispute and the tank was sent to the UK and ended up in a private collection, The Wheatcroft Collection. But now it is believed that the tank is back in the US, the US Government made a statement “it has now been returned to the USA and restoration will be completed by them using their facilities, the USA wish to thank Mr Wheatcroft for his assistance in recovering the vehicle” and further quotes that “the USA confirm that Mr Wheatcroft is welcome to visit the tanks and their museum in Georgia for research and look forward to welcoming him there in the future”. Kevin Wheatcroft of the Wheatcroft Collection will utilize that invitation to continue working with the US government to help complete their Tiger I.”

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And so ends our story of the Tiger I tank. As I said this has been a short history, if you found it interesting you can find much more in dept information on the Tiger tank including its combat history and its famous commanders.

By Noel Feeny for War History Online