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 armor 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 labor 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 favor of the Tiger II.
The tank was given its nickname Tiger listen 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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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 armor; this was the Durchbruchwagen II, which would have had 50 mm (2 in) of frontal armor and mounted a Panzer IV turret with a short-barrelled 7.5 cm L/24 gun. The 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 favor of the larger and better-armored 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.
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 armor 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 armor 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 favor of the VK 45.01 project.
Further improvements such as 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 armored 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.
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 caliber 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 armor, 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.
The Tiger differed from earlier German tanks principally in its design philosophy. Its predecessors balanced mobility, armor, and firepower, and were sometimes outgunned by their opponents.
While heavy, this tank was not slower than the best of its opponents. However, at over 50 tonnes dead weight, the suspension, gearboxes, and other such items had clearly reached their design limits and breakdowns were frequent if regular maintenance was not undertaken.
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 armor, the larger main gun, the greater volume of fuel and ammunition storage, larger engine, and a more solidly built transmission and suspension.
The Tiger I had frontal hull armor 100 mm (3.9 in) thick, frontal turret armor of 100 mm (3.9 in) and a 120 mm (4.7 in) thick gun mantlet. The Tiger had 60 mm (2.4 in) thick hull side plates and 80 mm armor on the side superstructure/sponsons, while turret sides and rear were 80 mm. The top and bottom armor was 25 mm (1 in) thick; from March 1944, the turret roof was thickened to 40 mm (1.6 in). Armor plates were mostly flat, with interlocking construction. The armor joints were of high quality, being stepped and welded rather than riveted and were made of maraging steel.
The 56-caliber long 8.8 cm KwK 36 was chosen for the Tiger. A combination of a flat trajectory from the high muzzle velocity and precision from Leitz Turmzielfernrohr TZF 9b sight later replaced by the monocular TZF 9c made it very accurate. In British wartime firing trials, five successive hits were scored on a 410 by 460 mm (16 by 18 in) target at a range of 1,100 meters (3,600 ft). Compared with the other contemporary German tank guns, the 8.8 cm KwK 36 had superior penetration to the 7.5 cm KwK 40 on the Sturmgeschütz III and Panzer IV but inferior to the 7.5 cm KwK 42 on the Panther tank under ranges of 2,500 meters. At greater ranges, the 8.8 cm KwK 36 was superior in penetration and accuracy.
The ammunition for the Tiger had electrically fired primers. Four types of ammunition were available but not all were fully available; the PzGr 40 shell used tungsten, which was in short supply as the war progressed.
- 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.
Engine and Drive
The rear of the tank held an engine compartment flanked by two separate rear compartments each containing a fuel tank and radiator. The Germans had not developed an adequate diesel engine, so a petrol (gasoline) powerplant had to be used instead. The original engine utilized was a 21.35-liter (1303 cu.in.) 12-cylinder Maybach HL 210 P45 developing 485 kW (650 hp) at 3,000 rpm. Although a good engine, it was underpowered for the vehicle. From the 251st Tiger onwards, it was replaced by the upgraded HL 230 P45, a 23.095 liter (1409 cu.in.) engine developing 521 kW (700 hp) at 3,000 rpm. The main difference between these engines was that the original Maybach HL 210 used an aluminum engine block while the Maybach HL 230 used a cast-iron engine block. The cast-iron block allowed for larger cylinders and thus, a greater displacement which increased the power output to 521 kW (700 hp). The engine was in V-form, with two cylinder banks set at 60 degrees. An inertia 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 rear hull roof. In comparison to other V12 and various vee-form gasoline engines used for tanks, the eventual HL 230 engine was nearly four liters smaller in displacement than the Allied British Rolls-Royce Meteor V12 AFV powerplant, itself adapted from the RR Merlin but de-rated to 448 kW (600 hp) power output; and the American Ford-designed precursor V12 to its Ford GAA V-8 AFV engine of 18 litre displacement, which in its original V12 form would have had the same 27 litre displacement as the Meteor.
The engine drove the front sprockets through a drivetrain connecting to a transmission in the front portion of the lower hull; the front sprockets had to be mounted relatively low as a result. The Krupp-designed 11-tonne turret had a hydraulic motor whose pump was powered by mechanical drive from the engine. A full rotation took about a minute.
Another new feature was the Maybach-Olvar hydraulically controlled semi-automatic pre-selector gearbox. The extreme weight of the tank also required a new steering system. Germany’s Argus Motoren, where Hermann Klaue had invented a ring brake in 1940, supplied them for the Arado Ar 96 and also supplied the 55 cm disc. Klaue acknowledged in the patent application that he had merely improved on existing technology, that can be traced back to British designs dating to 1904. It is unclear whether Klaue’s patent ring brake was utilized in the Tiger brake design.
The clutch-and-brake system, typical for lighter vehicles, was retained only for emergencies. Normally, steering depended on a double differential, Henschel’s development of the British Merritt-Brown system first encountered in the Churchill tank. The vehicle had an eight-speed gearbox, and the steering offered two fixed radii of turns on each gear, thus the Tiger had sixteen different radii of turn. In first gear, at a speed of a few km/h, the minimum turning radius was 3.44 m (11 ft 3 in). In neutral gear, the tracks could be turned in opposite directions, so the Tiger I pivoted in place. There was a steering wheel instead of either a tiller or, as most tanks had at that time, twin braking levers making the Tiger I’s steering system easy to use, and ahead of its time.
The suspension used sixteen torsion bars, with eight suspension arms per side. To save space, the swing arms were leading on one side and trailing on the other. There were three road wheels with one of them double, closest to the track’s center on each arm, in a so-called Schachtellaufwerk overlapping and interleaved arrangement, similar to that pioneered on German half-tracked military vehicles of the pre-World War II era, with the Tiger I being the first all-tracked German AFV built in quantity to use such a road wheel arrangement. The wheels had a diameter of 800 mm (31 in) in the Schachtellaufwerk arrangement for the Tiger I’s suspension, providing a highly uniform distribution of the load onto the track, at the cost of increased maintenance.
Removing an inner wheel that had lost its solid rubber tire which was a common occurrence required the removal of up to nine other wheels first. During the rainy period that brought on the autumn rasputitsa mud season and onwards into the winter conditions on the Eastern front, the roadwheels of a Schachtellaufwerk-equipped vehicle could also become packed with mud or snow that could then freeze. Presumably, German engineers, based on the experience of the half tracks, felt that the improvement in off-road performance, track and wheel life, mobility with wheels missing or damaged, plus additional protection from enemy fire was worth the maintenance difficulties of a complex system vulnerable to mud and ice. This approach was carried on, in various forms, to the Panther and the non-interleaved wheel design for the Tiger II. Eventually, a new 80 cm diameter steel wheel design, closely resembling those on the Tiger II, with an internally sprung steel-rim tire was substituted, and which like the Tiger II, were only overlapped and not interleaved.
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