Saturday 1 August 2015

World of Tanks History Section: How Japan Bought a Tiger

The Japanese armed forces were typical for any island nation. The navy and air force came first. Land forces weren't left out entirely, but they lagged behind their European counterparts that were more adapted for fighting a land war.

This was very noticeable when it came to tanks. Even the best Japanese tank, the Shinhoto Chi-Ha, was no match for a Soviet T-34, German PzIV, or American Sherman. There were no heavy Japanese tanks at all.

The Motherland is in Danger

The inferior quality of Japanese tanks was not a consequence of a mistake. The Japanese mostly fought on Pacific islands, where everything had to be delivered by sea, which put a limit on the weight of their vehicles. Island landscapes also did not allow for the use of large and heavy tanks. Japan's only large continental enemy, China, was poorly armed. Japanese tanks were more than sufficient.

On December 7th, 1941, Japan attacked the United States. After that, the victorious march of the Imperial Army across Pacific islands began. The Japanese captured the Philippines, many Oceanic islands, parts of New Guinea. In order to change this situation, the Allies had to spend a lot of time and effort.

During their domination of the Pacific, the Japanese created a sort of defense perimeter where islands acted as strongholds. Bit by bit, the Americans started bending the odds in their favour. In June of 1942, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers at Midway. The 6-month battle for Guadalcanal ended with an American victory and took away Japanese strategic initiative. The defense perimeter cracked under pressure and slowly, island by island, the Americans drew closer and closer to Japan.

Japanese military commanders had to think about the possibility of American soldiers landing on Japanese soil. The heavy tanks necessary to counter such an offensive were still in planning stages. However, Japan's ally already had a successful new heavy tank, the Pz.Kpfw VI Tiger.

Cargo with no Future

At first, Germany gladly offered assistance to its Axis allies. The Japanese ambassador Hiroshi Oshima was invited to Kummersdorf and to see the production process at the Henschel factory. The ambassador was pleased and began negotiations with the Ministry of Armament.

Two sets of documentation on microfilm were sent in 1943. The issue was the purchase of the tank itself. In 1943, the Tiger cost 300,000 Reichsmarks. The Ministry of Armament and Henschel asked for 645,000. The price was inflated, but it was not necessarily because the Germans decided to make a profit off their allies. First, the tank was fully equipped, including ammunition, optics, and a radio. Second, the Germans were willing to disassemble and pack the tank for shipment to Japan themselves. In addition, the cost of documentation was included in the price.

Why take it apart? The main difficulty was not the purchase itself, but the delivery. Taking it by transport ship was too dangerous, the Allies dominated the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The solution was to use a submarine, but what submarine could old a massive 30-ton hull? Underwater aircraft carriers capable of carrying such a weight were still being built, so the tank would not make it to Japan any time soon. The most optimistic estimates placed the date of delivery in December of 1944.

Nevertheless, the tank was sent to the French port of Bordeaux. In February of 1944, the Japanese paid for their order, and the tank belonged to them, while remaining a dead weight with a questionable future. In the summer of 1944, the Allies landed in Normandy and left Germany in a difficult situation.

On September 21st, 1944, OKH decided to rent (other sources say simply seize) the Tiger and transferred it to the German army. It was lost somewhere on the Western Front.

Original article available here.


  1. It really was amazing that Hirohito predicted the Japanese would only have 6 months to make progress. This was proven nearly to the day with the Battle of Midway.

    1. I thought that was Yamamoto's prediction:

      "In the first six to twelve months of a war with the United States and Great Britain I will run wild and win victory upon victory. But then, if the war continues after that, I have no expectation of success."

  2. The very idea of buying a *single* Tiger to stem the envisioned American invasion seems bizarre.

    For starters, without spare parts and people skilled in maintenance the thing would have eventually died due to wear-and-tear.

    Secondly, there's no such thing as an "invincible" tank. Tanks can die in combat in a million ways, not just to enemy AT fire but fire from enemy artillery, to enemy infantry AT teams, to mines, to air power, and more. And by 1944, the Tiger was far from an invincible tank; just considering the AT weapons fielded by enemy AFV it faced, it was frontally vulnerable to the US 76 mm and Soviet 85 mm to 1000 m, and to the US 90 mm, the British 17-pounder, and the Soviet 100 mm, 122 mm, and 152 mm at longer ranges. Even a regiment of Tigers, let alone a single one, would have had less impact on any envisioned US invasion of Japan than did the Soviet KV-1 in 1941 (and in 1941, relatively speaking, the KV-1 *was* more "invincible" compared to the AT fire it faced than the Tiger of 1944 would have been.

    The only practical use I could think of that the Japanese could have gotten from a single Tiger would be to disassemble it, to perhaps find development shortcuts to speed development of their own line of heavy tanks.

    1. That was not the idea... they wanted the documentation to build there own copies, and having one on hand to study and test would greatly help that process ..

    2. I would have then just asked for the blueprints/documentation; it's a lot easier to deliver that and proceed thusly. Going to the trouble to actually send a specimen just complicates the process and would be a "nice to have" but maybe not a "need to have". A Japanese "Tiger" would almost certainly differ anyway on a number of characteristics due to supply-chain considerations (available guns and ammo for starters).

  3. The Japanese purchased a Tiger I and three Panzer III tanks and got blueprints as well. If you have a blueprint and a sample it's much easier to figure out how to build something.