Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E (Sd.Kfz.181) or Tiger I

Blogging about a tank, and not just any tank, but the venerable Tiger 1 is bound to meet with scrutiny from people who read this blog and are more thoroughly read on the subject than I am.

The marriage of the 8.8cm Kw.K. 36 L/56 gun in the turret. (This gun was derived from the 8.8cm Flak 18 and Flak 36 guns and delivered similar ballistic performance.) and the heavily armored chassis was the stuff of legend, but the Tiger 1 had weaknesses too. As with all tanks developed during wartime, it was subject to continual modifications, so taking a snapshot of a Tiger 1 and evaluating it requires care with the context.

The only Tiger 1 crewman I ever met lived in England. As a serving US Naval Officer, seconded to HM Royal Marine Commandos, mid-70’s, I met the man at a bakery where he worked. He married a pretty lady who owned the bakery and went to work there. He was not German, he was Hungarian. When the Russians invaded Hungary in 1956, he was fighting with the Free Hungarian Army (which Eisenhower betrayed) as a crewman in a Tiger Tank. He told the story that the Tiger was an excellent tank, and his tank knocked out over a dozen Russian T-34/85’s before they blew off a one of the Tiger’s tracks. He said it was a matter of time and the tank took several very hard hits, he had been knocked out and was hauled from the tank, injured. He was airlifted to Great Britain as a war refugee (while injured) and ended up meeting and marrying a British girl. So that was his story. He used the tank in a city environment where mobility wasn’t a significant issue, and many shots were made at point-blank range, so the Tiger’s excellent optics weren’t an issue either.

Although development of a heavy tank can be traced back to 1937, the Tiger itself is a product of the sudden encounter with the Soviet KV-1 and T-34 tanks after the invasion of the Soviet Union. The need to outclass these tanks was urgent, so several areas of development and testing had to be rushed or simply ignored. With a lot of heavy tank development already completed the Tiger was, in some ways, an accidental design.

During the Soviet 1943 Offensive, the impact of the Tiger was  felt when, despite operating not more than seven Tigers in the field at any time, they are credited with nearly a quarter of all Soviet tank losses, hardly surprising as the Soviet 76mm F-34 tank gun was unable to pierce even the side or rear armor on the Tiger.

The first large scale combat action for the Tiger I took place in July 1943, during Operation Citadel at Kursk, when 146 Tigers were used.

Russian, British and American medium tanks had very little chance of success against a Tiger 1 in an open battlefield. The gun was slow to traverse and the tank was relatively slow, but it could deliver punishing punches and could absorb significant damage and remain in the fight. The 8.8cm Kw.K. 36 L/56 gun firing an AP round could punch through the frontal armor of enemy tanks (where the armor was thickest).

The Tiger lacked sloped armor but that was rarely a problem.

Swarm tactics against tigers where half a dozen allied tanks attacked at once in a game of Russian roulette, reducing the range and hoping that one tank would make it close enough to deliver a fatal shot to the rear of the Tiger became the only tactic with a chance of success, however, if there were two or three Tigers operating together, the odds were slim.

They were expensive to produce. Would the Germans have been better off building more Panther (Panzer V, Ausf.D, etc.) medium tanks? Or was the mere presence of the heavy Tigers a psychological advantage that was worth nearly 2X the cost?

Armchair warriors re-fight the wars with the wisdom of hindsight, and can make their points and score their victories, but the Tiger 1 will go down as a significant war fighting machine in their age.

12 COMMENTS

    • Similar to American tanks – commander, loader, driver, assistant driver/radio operator, gunner.

      Engine: Maybach HL230 P45 V-12 (690 horsepower)

      Improvements were made during the war and there was an engine upgrade at some point but the crew was kept at 5.

    • Between the A-10’s and AH-64’s, survival in a tank opposing the US is a short term matter.

  1. The Tiger I was a successful design when you consider how the Germans used it, mostly defensively in the later years of the war. Heavy armor and that formidable cannon made it an opponent to fear.

    But awfully slow and heavy, which isn’t that much of a detriment on defense.

    One of my favorite tanks. (The Tiger I, the Tiger II or King Tiger, not so much.)

    • The sloped armor of the Panther was a better bang for the buck, but it lacked that wicked, high velocity gun (except in the Jagpanther). Was the T-34 the best tank of the war? Or was it the M-4 Sherman? The virtue of those tanks was that there were a LOT of them. One Panther against a Sherman (Tommy Cooker) (Ronson) was one thing, but it was usually one Panther against six Shermans and some P-47’s and/or Typhoons. That’s providing that the Panther wasn’t blown up when the train exploded on its way to the Western Front.

      • There are only four surviving Tiger Tanks. The Hungarians had a few (with spares) after WW2 and put them into action, and lost them all eventually.

  2. Larry, you might be interested in the videos by a youtuber known as ‘The Chieftain’. He’s an ex-tanker who does two things: climbs around old tanks and evaluates them, and digs into the national archives for old documentation about tanks. Search for ‘Why the Sherman was what it was’ – an excellent discussion about the Sherman in context of global war, logistics, and tank design. Also cheerfully destroys the myths about it being a crew-killer and other interesting facts.

    • The M-4 evolved during the war and the T-34 ended up with an 85mm gun so trying to put your finger on which was better requires a lot of context. The Tiger had great armor and a great gun and as defensive armor (not unlike the Merkava today) was very tough to kill.

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