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PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tank

Written by Sakhal

The origins of the German program for a heavy tank dated back from 1937, when it was discussed for the first time the convenience of a tank that weighed from 30 to 35 tonnes. The company Henschel was ordered to develop two vehicles having the same specifications than the Durchbruchswagen (Breakthrough Vehicle) DW 1. A prototype was already being built when the company was ordered to focus in a heavier vehicle, the VK 6501. This one was a 65-ton vehicle - armed with a 75-millimeter cannon and multiple machine guns in secondary turrets - which was intended to be denominated PzKpfw VII. But the project was cancelled in 1940, when two prototypes had been already finished and they were in phase of evaluation. Meanwhile Henschel continued working in a "lighter" heavy tank, of which a prototype had been built: the DW 2 with a weight of 32 tonnes, a crew of five and an L/24 75-millimeter cannon, the same one mounted in the PzKpfw IV. When in 1940 the German Ministry of Armament convoked Daimler-Benz, Henschel, MAN and Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, president of the German Committee of Tanks, to present their plans for a 30-ton tank, the proposal by Henschel was based in the DW 2. It was asked to the company to build four prototypes of the Vollketten Kraftfahrzeug (Motorized Tracked Vehicle) VK 3001 (H) for its evaluation. It was asked as well the production of prototypes to Porsche, which would be called VK 3001 (P). The following month of March, Henschel built two prototypes and the other two six months later. The design did not differ much from the PzKpfw IV, but it had seven interspersed wheels at each side, mounted on torsion bars, and three return rollers. It was to be armed with the L/48 75-millimeter cannon but, when it was studied the Soviet tank T-34/76 captured in November, it was considered that this project had become outdated, although the tests on the chassis had been already carried. The project VK 3001 (H) was cancelled and the prototypes VK 3001 (H) were reconverted into prototypes for self-propelled guns. It was ordered to Henschel a similar prototype of a 36-ton tank, the VK 3601 (H), designed for mounting a 75 -millimeter cannon with "conical" bore (progressively diminishing caliber). This project was cancelled as well, but more because of economical reasons than failures in the design.

The inefficiency in the combat against the British and French medium tanks of the 75-millimeter cannon in service until then was confirmed during the Battle of France in the summer 1940. For instance, in Arras they had ostensibly failed their impacts against the British tank Matilda. Because of this, Hitler ordered to continue the adaptation of the 88-millimeter cannon Fliegerabwehrkannone FlaK 36 to a new tank that could destroy the armor of the Allied tanks at a distance of 1500 meters and, besides, that were able to withstand a tank of similar power. The Flak 36 was an anti-aircraft weapon, also used as towed anti-tank weapon and tested in both roles with excellent results. The development team of the Ministry of Armament sought a weapon of lesser caliber and "conical" bore, able to confer the projectile higher speed. Such weapons were already being tested as towed anti-tank weapons and they were very effective, but it was required tungsten, very demanded then, for their projectiles. The adoption of such cannon could have long-range consequences for the vehicles armed with it, which could be smaller and hence lighter. However, eventually, the scarcity of tungsten costed dearly to the plan. But it was the traumatic encounter of the Wehrmacht with the KV-1 and T-34 tanks what really led to a specification for a heavy tank, able to carry the prestigious 88-millimeter cannon in a full-rotating turret and sufficiently armored to withstand any anti-tank weapon existing. The manufacturers Henschel and Porsche would take the challenge to create the new tank, whose first specification, later delayed, was from 1937. The turret, built by Krupp, would be common to both projects. Hitler had a personal interest in this tank and he pressed to make it into service as soon as possible. In the moment of its introduction and during some time later the Tiger would be the more powerful tank in the world. The 88 -millimeter cannon equipped with 92 shells was really formidable and the thick armor guaranteed protection against any projectile coming from the front. In the Western Front the Tiger was so effective that the Allies had to develop special tactics to engage against it, even though in some occasions it worked so ineffectively that in no way could be thought that it was putting in practice all its capacity. But it was a fact that the apparition of the Tiger was a shock for the Allies and soon this tank earned the reputation of being the biggest threat on the battlefield.

They were ordered two prototypes of tanks that could mount the 88-millimeter cannon Flak 36 - which was denominated KwK 36 L/56 -, one to Henschel and the other to Porsche, in May 1941, as the VK 4501 (H) and the VK 4501 (P). Both companies based their projects in the work previously made in the 30-ton tanks. The project by Porsche was moved by gasoline and electricity, with longitudinal torsion bars and other new details. However, in the tests it was the more conventional Henschel tank the one that won, despite having surpassed the stipulated weight in 10 tonnes. The prototypes that competed to become the PzKpfw VI Tiger were exhibited for the first time the 20th April 1942, 53rd birthday of Hitler. The production of the VK 4501 (H) was ordered in August 1942, being denominated PzKpfw VI Tiger Ausf H; as a precaution, it was ordered to Porsche to build 90 chassis of his model, just in case Henschel had unexpected difficulties. But Henschel had no problems in the production and the chassis projected by Porsche were adapted as tank destroyers, with the denomination Ferdinand (later Elephant). Meanwhile, the Henschel Tiger was gaining strenght gradually. Despite coming later than the PzKpfw V Panther, the PzKpfw VI Tiger was clearly a design of a former period. It had none of the sloped lines present in the Panther, being more similar to the PzKpfw IV in this regard; with such profusion of vertical surfaces, it relied solely in the thick armor for its protection, which contributed to add unnecessary weight to the tank. The frontal armor was 110 millimeters thick, the upper side part of the hull was 60 millimeters thick and the lower one was 82 millimeters thick. The bottom of the hull and the top of the turret were 26 millimeters thick. The armor was made with large plates welded, to improve the solidity of the hull, which on the prototype showed ostensible flexings when firing the cannon in any angle, except forwards. The sides and the rear part of the turret were built in a single piece, by using a 80 millimeters thick plate - obtained by casting - curved like a horseshoe; this plate was complemented by a 100 millimeters thick flat plate for the frontal part in which a hole was made to hold the long and heavy cannon, whose mantlet was 110 millimeters thick. The turret was built as well with vertical surfaces, albeit the rounded shape helped to compensate for this deficiency. It was not a great ballistic profile, but worse things had been seen. The rotation of the turret was made by a hydraulic motor that took energy from the gearbox, so when the engine was stopped, the turret had to be rotated manually. The slow rotation of the heavy turret was one of the handicaps of the Tiger.

PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tank

Five views of a PzKpfw VI Tiger Ausf H from the First Panzer Division SS "Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler". The schematic camouflage is a model used in the Russian front. Note also the interspersed wheels, the smoke dischargers on the turret, the towing cables and the spare tracks.

The first 250 tanks Tiger had installed an engine HL 210 giving 645 horsepower; the subsequent ones were equipped with the HL 230 of 700 horsepower - albeit in the practice there was very little difference in performance between both engines - which gave a maximum speed of 37 kilometers/hour. Speed was too low due to the need of a high reduction in the transmission. Weight was excessive for the normal driving system by clutch and brake, so Henschel adapted the British regenerative unit attaching it to a Maybach eight-speed preselective gearbox. The interior of the Tiger had all the comfort possible in a tank. The crew was placed in four compartments in the hull. The driver and the hull gunner were separated in the fore part with the gearbox between them. The driver used a steering wheel apart from the two levers usually found in tanks for driving, and the instruments were of the most complete and perfect used then. The turret was completely normal, even though space was restricted when all the 92 shells were stored. The cannon was balanced by a heavy spring in a tube, in the left part of the turret. The 88-millimeter projectiles could penetrate a 112 millimeters thick armor at a distance of 450 meters, which was enough for all the armored vehicles of the time when the Tiger was introduced. The excessively restricted operational range was a problem during the operations; with a fuel capacity of 567 liters, the Tiger could make only 120 kilometers by road with two stops to refuel; in cross-country the operational range was about half of that. The lessons that Henschel had learned with the suspensions of the VK 3001 and the VK 3601 were invaluable for the project of the Tiger, which had eight wheel hubs on each side, each of them with a large road wheel. These were interspersed forming two rows. The wheel axes were supported by torsion bars; the wheels had such a diameter that return rollers were unnecesary. That was the first time that such a characteristic system was installed in a German tank.

The first tanks Tiger had road wheels with rubber tires which, from February 1944, were replaced by fully metallic wheels with inner springs. However, the Tiger Ausf H - which later and with retroactive character was renamed as Ausf E - never had the problems to keep the tires that characterized the Panther, whose crews had an exhausting work regarding the road wheels. The Tiger Ausf H came with two sets of tracks: ones for combat that were 725 millimeters wide and others for marching that were 520 millimeters wide. Due to the excessive weight, the Tiger had been equipped with unusually wide tracks, and this supposed a problem for transporation on railway, so the narrower tracks were introduced facing transportation on railway or normal circulation on road. To install the marching tracks it was required to dismount the outer road wheels, which had to be mounted again when installing the combat tracks. The shift of tracks - which would take about 15 minutes - was tedious and expensive, contributing to restrict mobility. The interspersed disposition of the road wheels granted a gentle and stable march in surfaces of any type, but it had a disadvantage: the soft mud and the snow accumulated between the two rows of wheels could freeze when the tanks stopped during long time in the winter nights. For example, if the Tiger tanks stopped during night after having been traveling in such conditions, they were often found immobilized at dawn. The armored units of the Red Army soon realized about this and attacked in the opportune moment when the Tiger tanks were jammed.

The Tiger was intended to be assigned to special batallions of 30 vehicles under the control of a corps in the headquarters. In general terms this was carried to practice, although some armored divisions received their own Tiger batallions, particularly the Waffen SS. The Tiger entered action for the first time in September 1942, during the Siege of Leningrad, where the conditions of the terrain were undesirable for any tank. The Tiger, very sparse and in short number, found themselves alone in open field, with very little coverage and in a situation very exposed to well emplaced heavy anti-tank cannons. As a consequence, they suffered heavy losses. In the period of the large battles in the Western Front, after the Allied landings in Normandy, the crews of the Tiger already knew that their tanks performed better in ambushes, in limited spaces, where they benefited more from their thick armor and powerful cannon than in open field, where their tactical mobility was limited, their speed was scarce and their operational range was short. As a consequence of this, it was in the battles for containing the Allied advance in 1944, in the "bocage" areas of Normandy, with their narrow roads, high hedges, wide fences and small orchards, where the Tiger found itself in its element, where its cannon could inflict the maximum damage and its armor allow for a respite on the counterattack. In one occassion in 1944, an armored batallion from the British 7th Armored Division - known as the "Desert Rats" - lost at least 25 of their tanks and many auxiliary vehicles from a sole Tiger. It has to be noted that not all the British losses were in tank combats, albeit, on the other hand, much higher numbers are given regarding Allied destroyed armored vehicles.

The incident happened the 13th June 1944, near the town of Villers Bocage, during the Operation Epsom, which formed part of the Battle for Caen. The Tiger tank was commanded by SS Obersturmfuhrer (Lieutenant) Michael Wittmann, from the 11th Abteilung Schwere Panzer SS (Heavy Batallion Panzer SS). Wittmann accounted then for 119 destroyed tanks (or 138 according to other sources) during two years as tank commander. A translated version of the story said that "in the morning of that day Michael Wittman watched from the peepholes in the turret of his Tiger the movements of a British armored column that meandered on the road to Villers Bocage. Along with his crew, always the same, Wittman had fought in Russia, destroying 119 Soviet tanks in nine months. If Commander Carr, second-in-command in the British armored column, had known about his presence, he probably would have advanced with more caution, but the column continued sparse along the road. Suddenly the Tiger bounced into an esplanade that ran parallel to the road, and in very little time it destroyed 20 tanks, four tank destroyers, one command vehicle, 14 armored personnel carriers and 14 Bren Carriers." The Tiger demonstrated as well its worth, one and another time, during that winter, in the Battle of the Bulge, in the mountains of the thick forests in the Ardennes. It was there and in Caen where the Tiger earned its reputation of being invincible against any armored vehicle that it faced. The Tiger was in fact very feared by the crews of the Sherman tanks. It was a reasonably compact tank, but so heavy that it could not cross the German bridges and the first 400 units had to ford the deep rivers to cross them. The requirement of shifting tracks was very laborious and the wheels had problems because of overweight. The Allied discovered that their more agile tanks could surpass the maneuvering capacity of the Tiger and attack it from the rear. This along with other limitations rendered this tank obsolete in 1944. In August of that year 1300 units had been built, not so many having into account its reputation and effect on the Allied morale.

Apart from its standard tank version, some Tiger were fitted as command vehicles (Panzerbefehlswagen). They were provided with tactical panels and plans, with two additional radio devices: one for direct air support and other for linking with the headquarters of the divisions; but these modifications were made at expenses of losing storage space for the ammunition of the cannon and the co- axial machine gun. Some Tiger served as well as armored recovery vehicles (Bergepanzer) and as assault tanks (Sturmmtiger) carrying launchers for 380-millimeter rockets (Raketenwerfer) instead of the 88-millimeter cannon.

Crew: 5

Armament: One KwK 36 L/56 88-millimeter cannon, one MG 34 7.92 millimeters co-axial machine gun, one MG 34 7.92-millimeter machine gun in the hull

Ammunitions: 92 x 88-millimeter cannon, 4500 x 7.92-millimeter machine guns

Armor: 26-110 millimeters

Length: 8.25 meters

Width: 3.73 meters

Height: 2.85 meters

Weight: 55 tonnes

Ground clearance: 47 centimeters

Ground pressure: 1.04 kilograms/square centimeter

Power to weight ratio: 12.93 horsepower/tonne

Engine: Maybach HL230 P45 with 12 cylinders in V, refrigerated by water, developing 700 horsepower at 3000 revolutions per minute

Speed (road): 38 kilometers/hour

Speed (cross-country): 20 kilometers/hour

Operational range: 100 kilometers

Maximum surmountable trench: 2.5 meters

Maximum surmountable step: 0.8 meters

Maximum surmountable slope: 35 degrees

Maximum fording: 1.2 meters

PzKpfw VI Tiger (SdKfz 181) Ausf. E

PzKpfw VI Tiger I heavy tank

1 - L/56 88 mm cannon :: 2 - 7.92 mm MG 34 co-axial machine gun :: 3 - 7.92 mm MG 34 machine gun :: 4 - 7.92 mm ammunition :: 5 - Smoke dischargers :: 6 - Escape hatch :: 7 - Commander's seat :: 8 - Manual mechanism for turret rotation :: 9 - Porthole for small guns :: 10 - Hydraulic mechanism for turret rotation :: 11 - Commander's shield :: 12 - Gunner's manual mechanism for turret rotation :: 13 - Gunner's manual mechanism for cannon elevation :: 14 - Gunner's seat :: 15 - Machine gun firing pedal :: 16 - Binocular telescope :: 17 - Air depuration system :: 18 - Maybach engine :: 19 - Radio :: 20 - Containers for 88 mm shells :: 21 - Control pedal for turret rotation hydraulic mechanism :: 22 - Turret rotation hydraulic mechanism :: 23 - Disc brake drum :: 24 - Steering mechanism :: 25 - Steering wheel :: 26 - Gearbox :: 27 - Driver's seat :: 28 - Hand brake :: 29 - Throttle :: 30 - Pedal brake :: 31 - Clutch :: 32 - Shock absorber :: 33 - Suspension torsion bar :: 34 - Interspersed wheels :: 35 - Commander's cuppola/hatch :: 36 - Ventilator clutch lever :: 37 - Air admission valve control :: 38 - Fuel priming pump :: 39 - Gasoline deposit cap :: 40 - 7.92 mm ammunition storage

Article updated: 2014-12-24

Categories: Tanks - World War Two - 20th Century - [General] - [General]


Website: Military History

Article submitted: 2014-06-26

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