Tiger I

From Academic Kids


The Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. E Tiger I was a heavy tank of World War II developed by Nazi Germany.

The Ausf. E (Ausführung Ger. "version") name replaced the earlier name of Pzkw VI Ausf. H in March 1943.

Also known as Mark VI-E, Panzer VI-E, PzKpfw VI-E or Sd.Kfz. 181(Sonderkraftfahrzeug 181), in general it was commonly known simply as the Tiger I or simply the Tiger.

The Tiger I was in use from late 1942 until the German surrender. It was given its nickname by Ferdinand Porsche. The design served as the basis for other armoured vehicles, including the Tiger II, or 'King Tiger' tank, and the Sturmtiger self-propelled gun.



The Tiger differed from earlier German tanks principally in its size; it weighed over twice as much as the prior heavy tank, the Panzer 4. This was due both to larger size and thicker armor. The Tiger I had front armor up to 100 mm thick, with 80 mm on the sides and back. The armor, especially in the front, was very effective at stopping anti-tank rounds of most of the early- and mid-WWII tank guns at common engagement distances. At closer ranges and on the sides, the tank was more vulnerable. Its roof armor was 25 mm or 40 mm, similar to most medium tanks of the day.

The design was broadly similar to earlier German tanks, but on a larger scale. Armor plates were mostly flat, with interlocking and welded rather than bolted joints. A petrol engine in the rear drove front sprockets. The suspension used torsion bars, similar to the Panzer 3. The turret had a full circular floor with 157 cm headroom. The gun breech and firing mechanism were scaled up from earlier designs.

But the size of the Tiger forced the introduction of new technologies. The 11-ton turret had a hydraulic motor powered by mechanical drive from the engine; even so, a full rotation took about a minute. The tank had triple interleaving road wheels, giving a better cross country ride, but also making maintenance more difficult. The steel and rubber wheels were mounted on sixteen independent torsion bar axles, which gave a relatively soft and stable ride for such a large vehicle. This complex system had a number of drawbacks; one was that the wheels could become packed with mud or snow that could then freeze. The Soviets discovered this and on occasion timed their attacks in the early morning, when the Tigers were more likely to be immobilized.

The tracks were an unprecedented 725 mm wide. To meet rail-freight size restrictions, these had to be removed and substituted with 520 mm tracks; the outer row of wheels also had to be removed.

The tank was regarded as too heavy for bidges, so it was designed to submerge in 4 m of water. This required unusual mechanisms for ventilation and cooling. Even so, submersion was not a matter of driving into the water; perhaps 30 minutes of preparation was required. The turret and gun had to be locked in the forward position so they could be sealed.

Another new feature was the hydraulically-controlled pre-selector gearbox and semiautomatic transmission. The extreme weight of the tank also meant a new steering system. Instead of the clutch-and-brake designs of lighter vehicles, a variation on the British Merritt-Brown system was used.

The engine was a 590 hp (440 kW) 21 litre Maybach petrol design, which was found to be rather underpowered; this was soon upgraded to a 24 litre model.

The internal layout was typical of German tanks. Forward was an open fighting compartment, with the driver and radio-operator seated at the front, either side of the gearbox. Behind them the turret floor was surrounded by panels forming a continuous level surface. This helped the loader to retrieve the ammunition, which was stowed in both sponsons. Two men were seated in the turret; the gunner to the left of the gun, and the commander behind him. The loader had the luxury of a folding seat in the turret. The rear of the tank held an engine room flanked by two floodable rear compartments each containing a fuel tank, radiator and fans.

Altogether, the Tiger/Tiger II represent the peak of the development of the early WWII-era tank design philosophy. No design that actually was built and saw action was better-armored and -armed, at least on the Axis side. However, the drawbacks are also evident: the armor layout following the non-sloped design approach made outdated by the T-34 requires a massive increase in weight to provide for sufficient protection, and this, in turn, leads to decreased maneuvrability. The complex wheel design put a severe strain on field maintenance.

The modern approach to tank design with sloped armor to save weight was first applied in the T-34, then in the Panther tank. The Western allies did not pick up upon this philosophy until after WWII. This is the main reason for the Tiger's fearsome reputation; the fact that British troops assumed, as a rule of thumb, that 5 Sherman tanks were required to knock out a single Tiger, with only 1 Sherman having a realistic chance at survival, owes as much to the drawbacks of the Sherman in the anti-tank role as to the Tiger's capabilities. All in all, the Tiger was a capable vehicle, but its reputation is rather exaggerated - at least from a technological standpoint, it was hardly one of the best tanks of WWII, let alone the best.

Design history

Henschel began development of the Tiger in spring of 1937. After various side-tracks, in 1941 Henschel and three other companies (Porsche, MAN, and Daimler-Benz) submitted designs for a 35-ton tank with a 75 mm main gun. The emergence of the Soviet T-34 rendered these design obsolete; according to Henschel designer Erwin Adlers "There was great consternation when it was discovered that the Soviet tanks were superior to anything available to the Wehrmacht". An immediate weight increase to 45 tons and an increase in gun calibre to 88 mm was ordered. The due date for new prototypes was set for April 20, 1942, Adolf Hitler's birthday. With the limited design time, the existing lighter designs were used as the basis for the new tank. This increased weight caused much stress on the various components of the tank and considerably reduced reliability. Unlike the Panther tank, the design did not incorporate any of the innovations of the T-34: the deflection benefits of sloping armor were absent.

Porsche and Henschel submitted prototype designs and they were compared at Rastenburg before Hitler. The Henschel design was accepted but was fitted with the turret from the Porsche design. Production of the Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf E began in August 1942. At the same time, ninety of the Porsche version were also ordered, which were not used; the chassis were converted into the Panzerjäger Tiger, also known as Elefant or Ferdinand.

The Tiger was essentially a prototype when first hurried into service, and therefore small and large changes were made throughout the production run. A redesigned turret with a lower, safer cupola was the most significant change. To cut costs, the submersion capability was dropped. Stronger, non-interleaving road wheels were substituted. An external air-filtration system was dropped.

Production history

Production of the Mark VI began in August 1942, and 1,355 such tanks were built by August 1944, at which point production ceased. Production started at a rate of 25 per month and peaked in April 1944 at 104 per month. Strength peaked at 671 on 1 July, 1944. Generally speaking, it took about twice as long to build a PzKpfw VI, in comparison to the other German tanks of the period. When the improved Tiger II Ausf B began production in January 1944, the Tiger I was soon phased out.

Combat history

It is often stated that Tigers were capable of destroying a T-34 or Churchill IV at ranges up to 1300 m. In the case of the T-34, sloping armor not only increases the line of sight (horizontal) thickness of armor but also causes a deflection effect reported to be around 50%. The sloped 45 mm front armor of early T-34s gave them enough protection to prevent the Tiger's 88 mm AT round from penetrating at long range or imperfect angles. As forces closed on each other in combat the ranges were close enough that the T-34s were usually penetrated. Early T-34s had a weak gun which required close-range shots to penetrate the Tiger's armor, but Soviet up-armament prompted continual up-armoring of the Tiger. Special ammunition, such as the German tungsten-core APCR round could offer many times better performance with the 88 mm gun, but these were rare during the war and especially so towards the end. The T-34's sloped armor design was often offset by the tendency of the brittle steel armor to collapse when hit by a large "overmatching" round. Conversely, these opposing tank types were unable to penetrate the armor of the Tiger I if firing from a range greater than 500 m.

The Tiger I was capable of destroying most M4 Sherman versions at quite long range. The first Shermans were largely intended for infantry support. They had a comparatively weak low-velocity gun, meant mainly for firing HE shells at lighter AFVs, that was not capable of knocking out a Tiger I until it closed to only a few hundred metres. Even then, it usually required a flank shot. Anti-tank guns, tank destroyers and later versions of the Sherman ( with better guns more suited for the anti-tank role) had an easier time. The M36 Jackson's gun could penetrate a Tiger's front armor at over 1000 m with standard APC ammunition, and at at over 2000 with APCBC and other types that it commonly used.

In the offensive role, the Tiger was largely a disappointment, and its first uses were unimpressive. Under pressure from Hitler, the tank was put into action months earlier than planned and many early models proved to be mechanically fragile. In its first action on September 23, 1942 near Leningrad, in unsuitable marshy terrain, Soviet anti-tank gunners found it no threat. It demonstrated the disadvantages of very large tanks in speed, manoeuvrability and radius of action when used in the breakthrough role. The tank's extreme weight limited the bridges it could cross, and made drive-throughs of buildings which may have basements risky. Another weakness was the slow traverse of the manually-cranked turret.

The Tiger was, however, a very feared tank in World War II due to its successes in the defensive role. An accepted Allied tactic was to engage the Tiger in groups, one attracting the attention of the Tiger crew while the others attacked the sides or rear of the vehicle. When the Tiger was attacking, the opposing force would hide and wait until the Tiger came within range. The British forces used this tactic in their first encounter with the Tigers in North Africa, knocking the tanks out with their 6-pounders guns when they came too close.

The Tiger is partiuclarly associated with the name of Michael Wittmann who was the most successful tank commander of World War II. He worked his way up, commanding various vehicles, until finally commanding a Tiger I. In one day he destroyed over two dozen allied vehicles including several tanks, and single-handedly held up an entire advance. Eventually his tank was knocked out. One of the more common versions of the story involves it being destroyed by a Firefly with its 17 pounder.

The captured Tiger of 1943

In May 1943, a Tiger (turret number 131) of the Afrika Korps was captured and sent to England for inspection. However, the western Allies did little to prepare for combat against the German tank despite their assessment that the Tiger was superior to their own tanks. It is believed this decision was based on the doctrine of the United States Army, which did not place emphasis on tank-vs.-tank combat, believing instead in the use of tank destroyers. The failure to field a similar heavy tank was due in part to a powerful lobbying effort by the manufacturers of tank destroyers, German agents embedded within the U.S. government and military working against this, the shortcomings of the earlier M6 tank, and extensive delays in planned heavy tank development.

On September 25th, 1951, the captured tank was officially handed over to the Tank Museum at Bovington Camp in the UK, by the British Ministry of Supply. In June 1990, preparations were made for restoring the Tiger to running order. In December of 2003, Tiger 131 returned to the museum with a fully operational engine after extensive restoration by the Army Base Repair Organisation.

The Soviet response

The Tiger had in part been a response to Soviet Heavy tanks, namely the KV-1, which had some notable successes against lighter German tanks of the time.

In response to the Tiger, and in continuation of their earlier heavy tanks, the IS-2 with a 122 mm gun was eventually fielded. In addition, the Soviets also began fielding very heavy tank destroyers armed with high velocity 122 mm and 152 mm guns, such on the ISU-152 and ISU-122. The SU-122 and SU-152 assault guns were also fielded. Some of these were in development before the Tiger was first known of officially, however. Continually up-gunned T-34s also posed more challenge, especially the T-34/85, with an 85 mm gun.


  1. Although 1,350 is a common figure, World War II magazine reported the figure of 1,355 in their January 1994 edition (p.16). Jentz gives in his Die deutsche Panzertruppe (1999), the result of the most detailed investigation of the primary sources ever undertaken, a revised number of 1,347, including the prototype.
  2. Among other variants of the Tiger, a compact self-propelled mortar, today commonly known as Sturmtiger, was built.

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