The good, the bad and the ugly of the Tiger and Tiger II.
What difference if any would have the Tiger and Tiger II made in the war and for tank warfare?
A beast, but savage or toothless?
William Blake’s famous poem quoted in the title might have been written about actual tigers, but it’s also an apt expression of the intense fascination popular culture has for the most famous of the German “big cat” Panzers: the Tiger heavy tank. But just how good was the Tiger? In this newsletter, we will overview the good and the bad about it.
The Waffenamt, Nazi Germany’s weapons development center, embarked on a quest in 1935 for a weapon that could destroy the interwar French Char 2C super-heavy tank. After a few prototypes, experience against French and British tanks during the Battle of France and the shock of encountering superior Soviet armor on the Eastern Front in 1941 gave the project the final push: the Tiger was born. Its gun was ultimately based on the iconic 88mm Flak cannon, which served well against both air and ground targets. The gun was highly accurate and powerful enough to penetrate the frontal armor of most Allied tanks from ranges where those, in turn, did not present a threat. The tiger did have a weakness, though: the traverse of the turret was very slow, taking about a minute for a full rotation. If Allied tanks did get close, like in the hedgerows of Normandy, they could flank the Tiger whose turret was just too sluggish to stay trained on its target.
Heavy armament was paired with heavy armor, up to 4.72 inches thick in the front. Its design was suboptimal, though: rather than using sloped armor which presented a thicker layer of steel to incoming shots, enemy shells could easily hit the Tiger’s surface perpendicularly, maximizing penetration potential.
At 60-63 U.S. tons depending on model, the Tiger was close to twice as heavy as lighter versions of the Sherman. Nevertheless, its speed was somewhat slower but still comparable.
Power came at a price. The Tiger was expensive in cost, manpower and raw materials. For the price of one Tiger, Germany could have produced two Panzer IVs or four StuG IIIs. Another disadvantage of the big cat was overengineering. While it was reliable with proper maintenance, its mass was pushing the upper limit of what the suspension and the gearboxes could tolerate. Consequently, it was liable to breakdowns when proper care was not available. The interleaved placement of the road wheels was also a maintenance nightmare: in order to replace a single inner wheel whenever it lost its rubber tire, which it did rather frequently, up to 9 other wheels had to be removed for access.
According to an unverifiable anecdote, a Tiger crew once shared a tavern with some Luftwaffe men. The latter bribed the waitress to put the tank crew’s dinner plates on the table in the hated interleaved pattern, sparking a fierce brawl.
The Tiger’s bulk came with inherent problems that went beyond maintenance. Small bridges couldn’t support it, so a special fording system had to be developed. Whenever it was carried by rail, several wheels had to be removed and a special, narrow transport track had to be installed so it would fit on the train; though crews usually ignored this step if they knew there were no narrow tunnels along the way.
In combat, the Tiger achieved an amazing 10-to-1 kill/loss ratio on average. When considering all losses, however, including breakdowns, this ratio drops to 5-to-1, demonstrating just how big a problem maintenance was.
The Tiger was deployed in 45-tank independent battalions. Though originally designed for massed breakthroughs, the changing tides of war forced it into a defensive role, racing from hotspot to hotspot to shore up defenses wherever needed. This greatly increased the distance they had to cover, exacerbating the mechanical problems.
The major revision came into service in 1944, two years after the original Tiger. Often referred to Tiger II, it’s actual official short name was Tiger B. It was also informally known Königstiger, incorrectly translated by Allied troops as king or royal tiger. The correct translation would have been Bengal tiger.
Weighing 77 U.S. tons, the Tiger B featured an even more powerful gun and a turret that could actually turn at a decent speed. Armor was not only thickened, but also applied in a sloped contour to increase defensive power.
With increased strengths came increased weaknesses. Early Tiger B-s had leaky seals and gaskets and were made with inferior steel. Additionally, the massive vehicle remained prone to breakdowns even after its teething problems were fixed. One particular battalion, when first deployed with 45 Tiger Bs, was left with only 8 in battle readiness after all the rest suffered drivetrain failures.
The gradual collapse of the German war industry, Allied bombardment of the manufacturing plant and the Allies tendency and ability to call in artillery or air strikes to deal with tough targets did a lot to nullify the awesome power the Königstiger would have had in a straight-up tank fight.
You can learn more about the famous, the infamous and the lesser-known tanks of World War II on our Third Reich Tours.