Tiger I is the common name of a German heavy tank of World War II. The initial official German designation was Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausführung H (abbreviated PzKpfw VI Ausf. H, Ausführung is German for "version") but the tank was redesignated as Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. E in March 1943. The tank also had the ordnance inventory designation SdKfz 181.
The Tiger I was in use from late 1942 until the German surrender in 1945. It was given its "Tiger" nickname by Ferdinand Porsche (the roman numeral was added after the Tiger II was produced). The design served as the basis for other armoured vehicles, the Sturmtiger heavy self-propelled gun and the Bergetiger amoured recovery vehicle. The Tiger's crew training manual, the Tigerfibel, became a souvenir item after WWII.
The Tiger differed from earlier German tanks principally in its design philosophy. Its predecessors balanced mobility, protection, and firepower. They were sometimes outgunned by their opponents, but greatly superior German tactics offset this disadvantage.
The Tiger I represented a new approach that emphasized firepower and armour at the expense of mobility. Design studies for a new heavy tank had been started in the late 1930s, without any production planning. The real impetus for the Tiger was provided by the quality of the Soviet T-34. Although the general design and layout were broadly similar to the previous medium tank, the Panzer IV, the Tiger weighed more than twice as much. This was due to its substantially thicker armour, the larger main gun, and the consequently greater volume of fuel and ammunition storage, larger engine, and more solidly-built transmission and suspension.
The Tiger I had frontal hull armour 100 mm thick and frontal turret armor of 110 mm, as opposed to the 80 mm frontal hull and 50 mm frontal turret armour of contemporary models of the Panzer IV. It also had 80 mm thick armour on the sides and rear. The top and bottom armour was 25 mm thick; later, the turret roof was thickened to 40 mm. Armour plates were mostly flat, with interlocking construction. The armour joints were of high quality, being stepped and welded rather than riveted.
The tank was too heavy for most bridges, so it was designed to ford four-metre deep water. This required unusual mechanisms for ventilation and cooling when underwater. At least 30 minutes of setup was required, with the turret and gun being locked in the forward position, and a large snorkel tube raised at the rear. Only the first 495 examples were fitted with this deep fording system, all later models were only capable of fording two metres.
The rear of the tank held an engine room flanked by two floodable rear compartments each containing a fuel tank, radiator, and fans. The petrol (gasoline) engine was a 21-litre 12-cylinder Maybach HL 210 P45 with 650 PS (641 hp, 478 kW). Although a good engine, it was inadequate for the vehicle. From the 250th Tiger it was replaced by the uprated HL 230 P45 (23 litres) of 700 PS (690 hp, 515 kW). The engine was inline, with two cylinder banks at 60 degrees. An inertial starter was mounted on its right side, driven via chain gears through a port in the rear wall. The engine could be lifted out through a hatch on the hull roof.
The engine drove front sprockets, which were mounted quite low. The eleven-ton turret had a hydraulic motor powered by mechanical drive from the engine. A full rotation took about a minute. The suspension used sixteen torsion bars. To save space, the swing arms were leading on one side and trailing on the other. There were three road wheels on each arm, giving a good cross-country ride. The wheels had a diameter of 800 mm and were interleaved. Removing an inner wheel that had lost its tire (a common occurrence) required several outer wheels to be removed also. The wheels could become packed with mud or snow that could then freeze. Eventually a new 'steel' wheel design, with an internal tire was subsituted.
The tracks were an unprecedented 725 mm wide. To meet rail-freight size restrictions the outer row of wheels had to be removed and special 520 mm wide transport tracks installed. With a good crew, a track change took 20 minutes.
The internal layout was typical of German tanks. Forward was an open crew compartment, with the driver and radio-operator seated at the front, either side of the gearbox. Behind them the turret floor was surrounded by panels forming a continuous level surface. This helped the loader to retrieve the ammunition, which was mostly stowed above the tracks. Two men were seated in the turret; the gunner to the left of the gun, and the commander behind him. There was also a folding seat for the loader. The turret had a full circular floor and 157 cm headroom.
The gun breech and firing mechanism were derived from the famous German "88" dual purpose flak gun. The 88 mm Kwk 36 L/56 gun was the variant chosen for the Tiger and was, along with the Tiger II's 88 mm Kwk 43 L/71, one of the most effective and feared tank guns of WW2. The Tiger's gun had a very flat trajectory and extremely accurate Zeiss TZF 9b sights.
In British war-time firing trials, five successive hits were scored on a 16"x18" target at a range of 1,200 yards. Tigers were reported to have knocked out enemy tanks at ranges greater than a mile (1,600 m), although most WW2 engagements were fought at much closer range.
Another new feature was the hydraulically-controlled pre-selector gearbox and semi-automatic transmission.
The extreme weight of the tank also meant a new steering system. Instead of the clutch-and-brake designs of lighter vehicles, a variation on the British Merritt-Brown single radius system was used. The Tiger's steering system was of twin radius type, meaning that two different, fixed radii of turn could be achieved at each gear, the smallest radius on the first gear was four metres. Since the vehicle had an eight-speed gearbox, it thus had sixteen different radii of turn. If a smaller radius was needed, the tank could be turned by using brakes.
The steering system was easy to use and ahead of its time. However, the tank's automotive features left much to be desired. When used to tow an immobilized Tiger, the engine often overheated and sometimes resulted in an engine breakdown or fire, for which reason Tiger tanks were forbidden by regulations to tow crippled comrades.
The low-mounted sprocket limited the obstacle-clearing height. The tracks also had a bad tendency to override the sprocket, resulting in immobilization. If a track overrode and jammed, two Tigers were normally needed to tow the tank.
The jammed track was also a big problem itself, since due to high tension, it was often impossible to disassemble the track by removing the track pins. It was sometimes simply blown apart with an explosive charge. The standard German Famo recovery tractor could not tow the tank; up to three tractors were usually needed to tow one Tiger.
Although the Tiger I was one of the most heavily armed and armoured tanks of WWII, and a formidable opponent of Allied tanks, the design was conservative and had some serious drawbacks. The flat armour plates were unsophisticated in comparison to the sloped armour of the Soviet T-34, requiring a massive increase in weight to provide for sufficient protection. The tank's weight put severe stress on the suspension, whose complexity made maintenance difficult. The sophisticated transmission system was also prone to breakdowns.
A major problem with the Tiger was its very high production cost. During the Second World War over 40,000
American Sherman and 58,000 Soviet T-34s were produced, compared to 1,355 Tiger I and some 500 Tiger II tanks. The German designs were expensive in terms of time, raw materials and Reichsmarks, the Tiger I costing over twice as much as a contemporary Panzer IV and four times as a Stug III assault gun.  The closest counterpart to the Tiger from the United States was the M26 Pershing (around 200 deployed during the war) and IS-2 from the USSR (about 3,800 built during the war).
Henschel & Sohn began development of the Tiger in the spring of 1937. After various side-tracks, in 1941 Henschel and three other companies (Porsche, MAN, and Daimler-Benz) submitted designs for a 35-ton tank with a 75 mm main gun.
The emergence of the Soviet T-34 rendered these designs nearly obsolete; according to Henschel designer Erwin Adlers "There was great consternation when it was discovered that the Soviet tanks were superior to anything available to the Wehrmacht". An immediate weight increase to 45 tons and an increase in gun calibre to 88 mm was ordered. The due date for new prototypes was set for 20 April 1942, Adolf Hitler's birthday. With the limited design time, the existing lighter designs were used as the basis for the new tank.
This increased weight caused much stress on the various components of the tank and considerably reduced reliability. Unlike the Panther tank, the design did not incorporate any of the innovations of the T-34: the deflection benefits of sloping armour were absent but the thickness and weight of the Tiger's armour made up for this.
Porsche and Henschel submitted prototype designs and they were compared at Rastenburg before Hitler. The Henschel design was accepted as the best overall design and especially because of the problem-burden Porsche gasoline-electric powerunit. Production of the Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. E began in August 1942. Porsche, awaiting orders for his Tiger tank, had built 100 chassis with some of them used for his Tiger prototypes.
After not winning the contract it was ordered to use these chassis for a new heavy assault gun/tank hunter. In Spring 1943 ninety-one hulls were converted into the Panzerjäger Tiger (P), also known as Ferdinand, and after Hitler's orders of 1 February and 27 February 1944, Elefant.
The Tiger was essentially still at the prototype stage when first hurried into service, and therefore changes, both small and large, were made throughout the production run. A redesigned turret with a lower, safer cupola was the most significant change. To cut costs, the submersion capability and an external air-filtration system were dropped.
Production of the Tiger I began in August 1942, and 1,355 were built by August 1944 when production ceased. Production started at a rate of 25 per month and peaked in April 1944 at 104 per month. Strength peaked at 671 on 1 July 1944. Generally speaking, it took about twice as long to build a PzKpfw VI than another German tank of the period. When the improved PzKw VI Ausf B Tiger II began production in January 1944, the Tiger I was soon phased out
Tigers were capable of destroying their most common opponents, the American Sherman, or British Churchill IV at ranges exceeding 1,600 m. In contrast, the Soviet T-34 equipped with the 76.2 mm gun could not penetrate the Tiger frontally at any range, but could achieve a side penetration at approximately 500 m firing the BR-350P APCR ammunition. The T34-85's 85 mm gun could penetrate the Tiger from the side at over 1,000 m. The IS-2's 122 mm gun could destroy the Tiger at ranges exceeding 1,000 m from any aspect.
The M4 Sherman's 75 mm gun could not penetrate the Tiger frontally at any range, and needed to be within 500 m to achieve a side penetration. The British 17-pounder as used on the Sherman Firefly, if firing its APDS round, could penetrate frontally at over 1,500 m.
The US 76 mm gun, if firing the most common APCBC ammunition, could not penetrate the Tiger frontally at any range, and needed to be within 1,000 m to get a side kill. However, if the 76 mm was firing HVAP ammunition (usually in short supply), frontal penetrations were possible at 1,000 m.
As range decreases in combat, all guns can penetrate more armour (with the exception of HEAT ammunition, which was rare in WW2). The great penetrating power of the Tiger's gun meant that it could destroy many of its opponents at ranges at which they could not respond. In open terrain this was a major tactical advantage. Opposing tanks were often forced to make a flanking attack in order to kill a Tiger.
American tank crews were told that the safest and surest way to kill a Tiger was "to get it by its ass"—that is, to manoeuver behind it and hit it in the engine compartment, where the armour was thinnest.
The Tiger was first used in action in September 1942 near Leningrad. Under pressure from Hitler the tank was put into action months earlier than planned and many early models proved to be mechanically fragile. In its first action on 23 September 1942, many of the first Tigers broke down. Others were knocked out by dug-in Soviet anti-tank guns. One tank was captured largely intact, which gave the Soviets a chance to study the tank and prepare a response.
In the Tiger's first actions in North Africa, the tank was able to dominate Allied tanks in the wide-open terrain. However, mechanical failures meant that there were rarely more than a few in action. In a replay of the Leningrad experience, at least one Tiger was knocked out by towed British six-pounder antitank guns.
The tank's extreme weight limited the bridges it could cross and made drive-throughs of buildings which may have had basements risky. Another weakness was the slow traverse of the hydraulically-operated turret traverse mechanism. The turret could also be traversed manually, but this option was rarely used, except probably for a fix of a few mils.
The Tiger's top road speed of 38 km/h compares to 37 km/h for its most comparable opponent, the IS-2. Both were substantially slower than most medium tanks. Early Tigers had a top speed of 45 km/h; the top speed was reduced to 38 km/h when engine governors were installed in November 1943.
The Tiger had reliability problems throughout its service life; Tiger units frequently entered combat understrength due to breakdowns. It was rare for any Tiger unit to complete a road march without losing vehicles due to breakdown. The tank also had poor radius of action (distance a combat vehicle can travel and return, in normal battle conditions, without refueling). Surprisingly, for such a heavy tank, the Tiger had a lower ground pressure bearing than many smaller tanks, the most notable exception being the Soviet T-34.
The Tiger's armour and firepower, however, were feared by all its opponents. In tactical defence, its poor mobility was less of an issue. Whereas Panthers were the more serious threat to Allied tanks, Tigers had a bigger psychological effect on opposing crews, causing a "Tiger phobia".
Allied tankers would sometimes evade rather than confront a Tiger, even a tank that only looked like one, such as the Panzer IV with turret skirts applied. In the Normandy campaign, it could take four to five Shermans to knock out a single Tiger tank by maneuvring to its weaker flank or rear armour; the Soviet T-34s fared similarly against the German tanks, as had the German PzIII earlier against the Soviet heavy tanks. An accepted Allied tactic was to engage the
Tiger as a group, one attracting the attention of the Tiger crew while the others attacked the sides or rear of the vehicle. Since the ammunition and fuel were stored in the sponsons, a side penetration often resulted in a kill. This was, however, a risky tactic, and often resulted in the loss of several Allied vehicles. It took a great deal of tactical skill to eliminate a Tiger.
Tigers were usually employed in separate heavy tank battalions (schwere-Panzer-Abteilung) under Army command. These battalions would be deployed to critical sectors, either for breakthrough operations or, more typically, counterattacks. A few favoured divisions, such as the Grossdeutschland or some of the low-numbered Waffen-SS divisions had a handful of Tigers.
On 7 July 1943, a single Tiger tank commanded by SS-Oberscharführer Franz Staudegger from the 2nd Platoon of 13th Panzer Company of 1st SS Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler engaged a Soviet group of some 50 T-34 tanks around Psyolknee (the southern sector of the German salient in the Battle of Kursk). Staudegger used up his entire ammunition after destroying some 22 Soviet tanks, while the rest retreated. For his achievement, Franz Staudegger was awarded the Knight's Cross.
On 8 August 1944, a single Tiger commanded by SS-Unterscharführer Willi Fey from the 1st Company of sSSPzAbt 102, engaged a British tank column, destroying some 14 out of 15 Shermans, followed by one more later in the day using his last two rounds of ammunition. sSSPzAbt 102 lost all of its Tigers during fighting in Normandy, but reported 227 Allied tanks destroyed in six weeks.
The Tiger is particularly associated with the name of SS-Haupsturmführer Michael Wittmann of schwere SS-Panzerabteilung 101, who was one of the most successful tank commanders of World War II. He worked his way up, commanding various vehicles and finally a Tiger I.
In one day, he destroyed over two dozen Allied vehicles including several tanks; and single-handedly held up an entire advance until his tank was knocked out and abandoned at the Battle of Villers-Bocage.
Over 10 Tiger tank commanders had over 100 kills on their account, including: Kurt Knispel with 168 kills, Otto Carius with 150+ kills, Johannes Bölter with 139+ kills, and Michael Wittmann with 138 kills.
On 21 April 1943, a Tiger of the Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 504 with turret number 131 was captured after a fight with Churchill tanks of the British 48th Royal Tank Regiment in Tunisia on a hill called Djebel Djaffa. It was repaired and displayed in Tunisia before being sent to England for a thorough inspection.
The Western Allies, however, did little to prepare for combat against the Tiger despite their assessment that the newly-encountered German tank was superior to their own. This conclusion was partly based on the correct estimate that the Tiger would be produced in relatively small numbers. It was also based on the doctrine of the United States Army, which did not place emphasis on tank-versus-tank combat, relying instead in the use of tank destroyers.
The British army, on the other hand, hastened their efforts to get Cruiser tanks armed with 17 pounder guns into operation after assessing the Tiger, albeit without a great deal of success.
On 25 September 1951, the captured tank was officially handed over to the Bovington Tank Museum at Bovington Camp in the UK, by the British Ministry of Supply. In June 1990, preparations were made for restoring the Tiger to full running order. In December of 2003, Tiger 131 returned to the museum with a fully operational engine after extensive restoration by the Army Base Repair Organization (ABRO).
The Soviet response
The Tiger had in part been a response to Soviet heavy tanks, namely the KV-1, as well as the medium T-34 which had some notable successes against lighter German tanks of the time.
The first production Tigers were sent to the Eastern Front in December 1942, and a tank captured in January 1943 forced the Soviets to respond. Until the appearance of the Tiger, the Soviet focus had been on production numbers; needed quality improvements were foregone since they would disrupt production. The Soviet response took several forms.
The crash development of a 152 mm self-propelled gun was ordered. The SU-152 went from design concept to field trials in a record twenty-five days, and an understrength regiment of guns was sent to the battlefield at Kursk in May, where 12 SU-152 howitzers destroyed 12 Tigers and 7 Ferdinands during battle [this wartime Soviet claim is prima facie doubtful, the German loss records only note one Ferdinand lost to an SU-152 (source:
The Combat History of schwere Panzer Abteilung 654, by Karlheinz Munch, pages 67-69) while the Tiger unit deployed with the Elefants, sPzAbt 505, only suffered five total losses to all causes in the entire battle (source: Tigers in Combat I by Wolfgang Schneider, page 263)]. Also, the Soviet heavy tank program was renewed, resulting in the Josef Stalin tank with a 122 mm gun in early 1944.
The improved ISU-152 and ISU-122 self-propelled guns were developed on the IS-2 chassis. The T-34 was given a new three-man turret and 85 mm gun by early 1944. Finally, new towed 85 mm and 100 mm antitank guns were provided. All of these new weapons systems were incremental developments of existing chassis or guns, and thus could be produced in great quantity.
The greatest challenge presented by Soviet tanks was their massive production rates compared to the meagre production of German heavy designs — only 1,350 Tigers and fewer than 500 Tiger IIs were built. By comparison, alongside the 58,000 T-34s produced there were 4,600 KV-1s and over 3,500 IS-2s. In total over 66,000 medium and heavy Soviet tanks to 1,850 Tigers.
The Tigers were originally designed to be offensive weapons but by the time they came into action, the military situation had changed dramatically, so other than a few times, their main use was defensively as tank killers.
It is questionable whether the Tiger was a much better tank killer than other German tanks. Some Panther tanks devastated Allied tanks in figures equal to those quoted of the Tiger. Overall in both the eastern and western fronts, the German tanks tended to do better than Allied tanks. For example, in the West, roughly 6,000 Allied tanks--deficient in armor, mobility and armament compared to German tanks--faced 1,400 various kinds of German tank in Normandy in August, 1944.
The Allied tank losses were about 3:1 despite Allied air superiority which stopped the German tanks from gathering in number for greater effect.
Furthermore, against the Soviet and Western Allied production numbers, even a 10:1 kill ratio would not have been sufficient for the Tigers. Some Tiger units did exceed the 10:1 kill ratio, including 13. Kompanie/Panzer-Regiment Grossdeutschland (16.67:1), schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 103 (12.82:1) and schwere Panzer-Abteilung 502 (13.08:1). These numbers must be set against the opportunity cost of building the expensive Tiger.
Every Tiger built, for example, cost as much as four Sturmgeschütz III assault guns. One measure of cost-effectiveness, therefore, would be whether the Tiger's kill ratio was four times as high as the Sturmgeschutz III.
- PzGr.39 (Armour Piercing Capped Ballistic Cap)
- PzGr.40 (Armour Piercing Composite Rigid)
- Hl.Gr.39 (High Explosive Anti-Tank)
- Sch Sprgr. Patr. L/4.5 (Incendiary Shrapnel)
Schwere Pz. Abt. 502, August 1942
SS Pz. Rgt 1, February 1943, Kharkov
Schwere Pz. Abt. 502, February 1943
Schwere Pz. Abt. 504, March 1943, Tunisia
SS Pz. Rgt 1, April 1943, Kharkov
Schwere Pz. Abt. 505, June 1943
Pz.Rgt. Grossdeutschland, July 1943
SS Pz. Rgt 1, July 1943, Operation Zitadelle
Schwere Pz. Abt. 502, September 1943
Schwere Pz. Abt. 504, June 1944, Italy
Schwere SS Pz. Abt. 101, July 1944, Normandy
Schwere SS Pz. Abt. 101, July 1944, Normandy
Pz. Rgt. Grossdeutschland, September 1944
Tiger Gruppe Fehrmann, April 1945
|Formal Designation||Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. E, Tiger I (SdKfz 181), VK4501(H)|
|Production Quantity||1354||Production Period||July 1942 - Aug. 1944|
|Length /hull (m)||8.45||Barrel Overhang (m)||2.04|
|Width (m)||3.7||Height (m)||2.93|
|Combat Weight (kg)||57000||Radio Equipment||FuG5|
|Primary Armament||88mm KwK 36 L/56||Ammunition Carried||92|
|Traverse (degrees)||360°||Elevation (degrees)||-6.5° to +17°|
|Traverse speed (360°)||n.a.||Sight||TZF9b, later TZF9c|
|Secondary Armament||2 x 7.92mm MG34 (coaxial, bow)||Ammunition Carried||4800|
|Engine Make & Model||Maybach HL210P45||Track Links||96/track|
|Type & Displacement||V12, 21.4 liters||Track Width||72.5 cm|
|Horsepower (max.)|| |
|Track Ground Contact||361 cm|
|Power/Weight Ratio||12.1 hp/tonne||Ground Pressure||13.9 psi|
|Gearbox||8 forward, 4 reverse||Ground Clearance (m)||0.43|
|Fuel||Gasoline (Petrol)||Turning Radius (m)||7.0|
|Range on/off road (km)||140/85||Gradient (degrees)||30°|
|Mileage (liters/100km)||n.a.||Vertical Obstacle (m)||0.79|
|Fuel Capacity (liters)||682||Fording (m)||1.22-1.56|
|Speed on/off road||38/16 km/h||Trench Crossing (m)||2.29|