Tiger I is the common name of a German heavy tank developed in 1942 and used in World War II. The final official German designation was Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf.E, often shortened to Tiger. It was an answer to the unexpectedly formidable Soviet armour encountered in the initial months of the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, particularly the T-34 and the KV-1. The Tiger I design gave the Wehrmacht its first tank mounting the 88 mm gun, in its initial armored fighting vehicle-dedicated version, which in its Flak version had previously demonstrated its effectiveness against both air and ground targets. During the course of the war, the Tiger I saw combat on all German battlefronts. It was usually deployed in independent tank battalions, which proved to be quite formidable.
While the Tiger I was feared by many of its opponents, it was over-engineered, used expensive and labour intensive materials and production methods, and was time-consuming to produce. Only 1,347 were built between August 1942 and August 1944. The Tiger was prone to certain types of track failures and immobilizations, and limited in range by its huge fuel consumption. It was, however, generally mechanically reliable but expensive to maintain. It was also complicated to transport, and vulnerable to immobilization when mud, ice and snow froze between its overlapping and interleaved road wheels in winter weather conditions, often jamming them solid. In 1944, production was phased out in favour of the Tiger II.
The tank was given its nickname Tiger listen (help·info) by Ferdinand Porsche, and the Roman numeral was added after the later Tiger II entered production. The initial official German designation was Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausführung H (‘Panzer VI version H’, abbreviated PzKpfw VI Ausf. H), but the tank was redesignated as PzKpfw VI Ausf. E in March 1943. It also had the ordnance inventory designation SdKfz 181.
Today, only a handful of Tigers survive in museums and exhibitions worldwide. The Bovington Tank Museum’s Tiger 131 is currently the only one restored to running order.
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Earlier Designs – Henschel & Sohn began development of a large tank design in January 1937 when the Waffenamt requested Henschel to develop a Durchbruchwagen (“breakthrough vehicle”) in the 30–33 tonne range. Only one prototype hull was ever built and it was never fitted with a turret. The Durchbruchwagen I’s general shape and suspension resembled the Panzer III while the turret resembled the early Panzer IV C turret with the short-barrelled 7.5 cm L/24 cannon.
Before Durchbruchwagen I was completed, a request was issued for a heavier 30-tonne class vehicle with thicker armour; this was the Durchbruchwagen II, which would have had 50 mm (2 in) of frontal armour and mounted a Panzer IV turret with a short-barrelled 7.5 cm L/24 gun. Overall weight would have been 36 tonnes. Only one hull was built and no turret was fitted. Further development of the Durchbruchwagen was dropped in 1938 in favour of the larger and better-armoured VK 30.01 (H) and VK 36.01 (H) designs. Both the Durchbruchwagen I and II prototype hulls were used as test vehicles until 1941.
Another Attempt – The VK 30.01 (H) medium tank and the VK 36.01 (H) heavy tank designs pioneered the Schachtellaufwerk, the overlapping and interleaved main road wheels for tank use. This concept was already common on German half-tracks such as the SdKfz 7. The VK 30.01 (H) was intended to mount a low-velocity 7.5 cm L/24 infantry support gun, a 7.5 cm L/40 dual purpose anti-tank gun, or a 10.5 cm L/28 field gun in a Krupp turret. Overall weight was to be 33 tonnes. The armour was designed to be 50 mm on frontal surfaces and 30 mm on the side surfaces. Four prototype hulls were completed for testing. Two of these were later modified to build the “Sturer Emil” (12.8 cm Selbstfahrlafette L/61) self-propelled anti-tank gun.
The VK 36.01 (H) was intended to weigh 40 tonnes, with 100 mm (4 in) of armour on front surfaces, 80 mm on turret sides and 60 mm on the hull sides. The VK 36.01 (H) was intended to carry a 7.5 cm L/24, or a 7.5 cm L/43, or a 7.5 cm L/70, or a 12.8 cm L/28 cannon in a Krupp turret that looked similar to an enlarged Panzer IVC turret. The hull for one prototype was built, followed later by five more. The six turrets built were never fitted and were used as part of the Atlantic Wall. The VK 36.01 (H) project was discontinued in early 1942 in favour of the VK 45.01 project.
Further Improvements – Combat experience against the French Somua S35 cavalry tank and Char B1 heavy tank, and the British Matilda II infantry tanks during the Battle of France in June 1940 showed that the German Army needed better armed and armoured tanks.
On 26 May 1941, Henschel and Ferdinand Porsche were asked to submit designs for a 45-tonne heavy tank, to be ready by June 1942. Porsche worked on an updated version of their VK 30.01 (P) Leopard tank prototype while Henschel worked on an improved VK 36.01 (H) tank. Henschel built two prototypes: a VK 45.01 (H) H1 with an 8.8 cm L/56 cannon, and a VK 45.01 (H) H2 with a 7.5 cm L/70 cannon.
Final Designs – On 22 June 1941, Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. The Germans were shocked to encounter Soviet T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tanks, and, according to Henschel designer Erwin Aders: “There was great consternation when it was discovered that the Soviet tanks were superior to anything available to the Heer.” The T-34 was almost immune from the front to every gun in German service except the 8.8 cm Flak gun. Panzer IIIs with the 5 cm KwK 38 L/42 main armament could penetrate the sides of a T-34, but only at short range. The KV-1 was immune to all but the 8.8 cm Flak gun.
An immediate weight increase to 45 tonnes and an increase in gun calibre to 8.8 cm was ordered. The due date for the new prototypes was set for 20 April 1942, Adolf Hitler’s 53rd birthday. Unlike the Panther tank, the designs did not incorporate sloped armour, an innovation taken from the T-34.
Porsche and Henschel submitted prototype designs, each making use of the Krupp-designed turret. They were demonstrated at Rastenburg in front of Hitler. The Henschel design was accepted, mainly because the Porsche VK 4501 (P) prototype design used a troubled gasoline-electric hybrid power unit which needed large quantities of copper for manufacture of its electrical drivetrain components, a strategic war material of which Germany had limited supplies with acceptable electrical properties for such uses. Production of the Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. H began in August 1942. Expecting an order for his tank, Porsche built 100 chassis. After the contract was awarded to Henschel, they were used for a new turretless, casemate-style tank destroyer; 91 hulls were converted into the Panzerjäger Tiger (P) in the spring of 1943.
The Tiger was still at the prototype stage when it was first hurried into service, and therefore changes both large and small were made throughout the production run. A redesigned turret with a lower cupola was the most significant change. To cut costs, the submersion capability and an external air-filtration system were dropped.
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