The story of the Tiger I

German industry first began working on heavy tank designs in 1937, even though it was believed at the time that the PzKpfw III and IV would be more than adequate for the coming battles. But when the German Panzers in Russia encountered the Soviet T-34's and KV-1's in 1941 it was all too apparent that a new heavy tank was needed. Ultimately, this resulted in a specification for a 45-ton tank with an 88mm gun, heavy armor, speed and manuverability. The Porsche firm began working on this new tank design but encountered serious complications. The Henschel firm then began working on its own model under the direction of Dr. Erwin Aders, drawing from its previous work on heavy tank designs. The two firms were to have prototypes ready for inspection by Hitler at Rastenburg on his birthday, April 20th, 1942. The Porsche and Henschel tanks were put through trials and, in spite of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche's friendship with Hitler, the Henschel tank won, in large part due to its superior maneuverability.

Erwin Aders
Dr. Erwin Aders
The "father" of
the Tiger I.


Porsche Tiger Henschel Tiger
The Porsche prototype Tiger. The familiar shape as designed by Henschel.

Production was ordered to start in August 1942. It began at a rate of 25 tanks per month and peaked in April 1944 at a rate of 104 per month. It took 300,000 man hours to build one Tiger, almost twice as much time as a Panther required.

The average cost of a Tiger was 250,000 Reichsmarks. In comparison, a PzKpfw III cost RM 96,200, a PzKpfw IV RM 103,500, and a PzKpfw V Panther RM 117,000; all these figures are exclusive of weapons and radios. The Tiger cost $100,000 in 1941 U.S. dollars. Adjusted for inflation, a Tiger I today would cost approximately $1,282,051. By comparison, the United States current M1A1 Abrams tank costs $4,300,000.

The new tank was officially designated Panzerkampfwagen VI H (88mm) (SdKfz 182) Ausführung H1. The design program had been known as the Tigerprogram and in March of '42 the Germans began referring to the panzer as the Tiger.

Partially Assembled Tigers
Tiger hulls in early stages of production.

When it was introduced, the Tiger was the most powerful tank in the world. The 88mm gun was extremely powerful and the heavy armor made it almost impervious to attack. Even though its fearsomeness was to grow to almost mythical proportions, its combat debut was less than impressive.

The first 4 Tigers to see combat were sent to the Leningrad area in August of 1942. Unfortunately they were deployed single file over swampy terrain and in their first day of combat all four were knocked out, although their armor was not penetrated. Three were later recovered. In spite of this bad start, Tiger tactics were soon developed and other units were quickly trained and equipped with the Tiger. By the end of 1942, Tiger formations had been deployed to Russia, Africa, and Italy. Training centers were established in both Germany and France and eventually Tigers would be in service with ten Heer heavy tank battalions, one training battalion, three SS heavy tank battalions, and the Grossdeutschland Panzer Grenadier Division . A few additional formations received limited numbers of Tigers.

Tiger in Russia
The Das Reich Tiger of SS-Oberscharfuhrer Paul Egger passing panzer grenadiers near Bykowka, Russia in July 1943 during Operation Citadel.

The Tigers built an impressive record in Russia during 1943 and '44. They destroyed tremendous amounts of enemy equipment and often just the sight of a Tiger would induce the Russian tankers to withdraw. They had similiar success in North Africa and Italy, creating a powerful psychological effect on Allied troops. On Feb. 1, 1943 the British captured a Tiger intact and subsequently performed exhaustive tests on it. To their dismay, they found the Tiger was indeed an excellent gun platform and extremely well protected from all but their biggest anti-tank guns.

Firing test Firing test
The hull after British firing tests. Side armor damage from firing tests.

The influence of the Tiger on Allied morale, known as Tigerphobia, was so powerful that British General Montgomery banned all reports mentioning it's prowess in battle. Perhaps the Tiger's greatest fame was gained in a single action in Normandy where the famous commander SS Obersturmführer Michael Wittman destroyed an entire column of 25 tanks, 14 half-tracks and 14 bren-gun carriers in a few short minutes with one Tiger. Due to Allied air superiority, the Tigers in Normandy and France were employed mainly in a static defensive role. This conserved fuel as the Tiger normally consumed huge amounts of petrol. It also kept the mechanical breakdowns to a minimum.

Michael Wittman
Michael Wittman and crew in front of their Tiger.

Throughout the war, the Tiger's greatest weakness was poor mechanical reliablility. If preventive maintenance was not performed regularly, the transmission would soon fail due to the great weight of the machine. The result was a great number of Tiger's abandoned and destroyed by their crews due to mechanical breakdown. Recovery was a constant problem because of the Tiger's weight, with only the absolute largest recovery vehicles being able to tow a stricken vehicle. It often took several of these to do the job and, even though it was forbidden by regulations, the Tigers themselves were often forced to tow their comrades out of trouble. The overlapping roadwheels also caused problems, sometimes becoming clogged with frozen mud and debris. This could cause the tank to throw a track or simply be frozen in place. The sheer size of the tank was another weakness. Many bridges could not support it's weight and any routes it took had to be scouted out to ensure the roads were wide enough. Special rail cars had to be used to transport it. Special transport tracks which were narrower had to be fitted for rail travel, a job which was not relished by the crews.

Trackless Tiger
A Tiger awaiting its outer roadwheels and combat tracks.

Drive sprocket replacement
Mechanics use a crane to change a drive sprocket.

Track replacement Track replacement
Crewmen struggling to repair a track on Das Reich Tiger S33, commanded by SS-Hauptsturmfuhrer Reinhardt. Crewmen layout a track to be installed.

The Tiger's two greatest strengths were its main gun and its heavy armor. The 88mm KwK 36 L/56 main gun was the most powerful anti-tank gun then in use by any army, capable of penetrating 112 mm of armor at 1400 meters. The Tiger I had the best quality armor of any German tank. The rolled homogeneous nickel-steel plate had the best homogeneous armor hardness level of any WW II tank, meaning it was stronger and less brittle. It was used in great thicknesses on the Tiger, resulting in great weight but extreme protection. The combination of this massive armor and powerful gun made for an almost unbeatable tank. Enemy crews often watched helplessly as their shots bounced off the Tiger and their own vehicles were quickly destroyed...often from great distances. The Tiger I was very maneuverable for its weight and size, and it was only 2km/h slower than the Panzer III and Panzer IV.

The Tiger I became one of the legendary machines of World War II. It has become a popular subject for modellers, armor enthusiasts, and WWII historians. Today there are only a handful of surviving Tiger I's, the most famous being the still running Tiger 131 of the Bovington Tank Museum in England. Obsolete by today's standards, what was once the most powerful machine in the world has passed into the history books as one of the greatest tank designs of all time.

Tiger in woods
Tiger S33 of sKp/SS-PzRgt.2, SS-Panzer Grenadier Division Das Reich in the Russian woods, late 1943, near the city of Berditchev in the Zihtomir sector. Tiger S13 follows.