Monday 31 October 2022

Tiger Killers

The German Tiger tank gained significant renown during the Second World War and remains a popular topic in discussions of this period even today. While some modern interpretations paint the Tiger as a semi-mythical wonder weapon, its contemporary evaluations are much more reserved. Let’s take a look at the conclusions drawn by British specialists who studied this tank and the measures they devised to fight it.

Clash of heavyweights

The Western Allies first encountered the Tiger tank around the same time it appeared on the Eastern Front. A successful offensive in North Africa forced Hitler to take severe measures, including deploying his latest weapon. The 501st Heavy Tank Battalion began its landing at Bizerta, Tunisia, on November 23rd, 1942. It first saw battle on December 1st, but the scale of combat was limited. It’s not surprising that Allied intelligence obtained relatively little information on this tank around this time. An article in the Tactical and Technical Trends magazine dated February 11th describes a new enemy heavy tank weighing on the order of 50 tons, equipped with an 88 mm gun, and with 80 or 100 mm of armour. This tank was called Mark VI or Pz.Kw.6.

“German heavy tank”, Tactical and Technical Trends #20, March 11th, 1943.

The first tank that fell into Allied hands was knocked out on January 31st, 1943, but the Germans managed to demolish the tank on February 1st before the British had a chance to examine it. Despite the demolition, the British learned a lot from this wreck. The March 11th edition of Tactical and Technical Trends contained a bounty of information on the new kind of tank. The estimated weight was updated to 56 tons, it became known that different tracks were used for transport by rail and for operational use, and most importantly the details of the tank’s armour became available. The front armour was up to 102 mm thick with the sides up to 82 mm thick. It was estimated that the 75 mm gun of the Sherman, the best tank available in the Allied arsenal at the time, could penetrate only its side from 500 yards. The latest British tanks with the improved 6-pounder Mk.V could penetrate it from 1000-1200 yards. It was hoped that the new American 76 mm gun would be able to penetrate it from 2000 yards.

More precise information became available quickly.

Most importantly, the Allies knew the thickness of this new tank’s armour. An opportunity to learn more about the Tiger soon presented itself. Operation Ochsenkopf, a German offensive towards Sidi Nsir, began on February 26th. A group of Tiger tanks was attached to Kampfgruppe Lang for use in this operation. An attempt to use the Tigers to break through British defenses at Hunt’s Gap ended in failure. Only 2 Tigers out of the initial 14 that participated in the attack remained in action as of February 28th, and none were left by March 1st. This victory did not reveal as much about the new tank as could be expected, as British sappers demolished Tigers that were immobilized in order to deny them to the enemy. On March 17th the scraps of the 501st battalion transferred their remaining materiel to the 504th Heavy Tank Battalion. It was this unit that finally delivered a Tiger in good condition to the British. Tiger 131 (1st company, 3rd platoon, 1st vehicle) turret number 250639 chassis number 250122 was captured on April 24th, 1943. The tank was engaged and knocked out by a battalion of Churchills from the 48th Royal Tank Regiment. Two shots from their 6-pounders hit the tank: one shot blasted off the left side turret lifting boss, another jammed the turret by striking in a favourable spot between the gun mantlet and the hull roof. The crew abandoned the tank and continuous fire from British artillery prevented the Germans from recovering it. This put the tank in less than ideal condition, but it was still a much more useful object for study than minefield wrecks. There were also enough disabled Tigers that it could be put back into service. The tank was shown to King George VI and Winston Churchill, after which it was sent to the School of Tank Technology to study.

Tiger 131 at the Bovington Tank Museum, the only surviving Tiger tank in working order today.

Know your enemy

A detailed study of the tank was conducted even before the tank was sent to the UK. Its weight was estimated at 56-60 tons, as there was no way to weigh it precisely in Tunisia. The hull armour was previously known, but this was the first time measurements of the gun mantlet were taken. The cast mantlet had a complicated shape, as thick as 150 mm (near the gun sight opening) and even 205 mm (near the gun), but the examining officer judged this kind of variable thickness to be of questionable value, evaluating the protection offered as equivalent to that of a 100 mm plate. Since the vehicle was a runner this was the first time the tank’s speed could be measured. A result of 18 mph (29 kph) was achieved. Closer inspection of the gun showed that it was similar to the 8.8 cm Flak 36 that the Allies were already familiar with.

A drawing of a Tiger tank with a snorkel attachment. The Tiger could be sealed to travel underwater, leading the British to assume that it was built for an invasion of the British Isles.

While it was concluded that “the Germans have produced a very formidable tank”, there were caveats. Its thick armour and powerful gun were offset by excessive size and weight. As the report concluded:
“The tank bristles with every sort of complication, and one would think that it would be at least twice as difficult to produce as either of its predecessors. This may have a bearing on the numbers that are likely to be met with in the future and the degree of dilution by Mk.III’s and IV’s.”
The tanks that remained in Tunisia were also put to good use. Samples of armour were taken from the disabled vehicles. Analysis showed that the 62-82 mm thick places had a hardness of about 310-320 BNH and were not surface hardened like those previously seen on German tanks. The quality of the armour was not high. According to British specialists, it was too brittle and tended to crack and flake. The front armour was higher in quality and on par with British I.T.80 armour. The gun mantlet was also high quality, at the very least no penetrations of this part were found when inspecting Tiger wrecks.

The side armour of the tank was prone to cracking and spalling when hit.

Theory was also put into practice. A more or less intact tank was found in a minefield near Hunt’s Gap. Traces of a small fire at the floor of the tank were discovered, but the specialists who inspected the tank deemed that it did not compro`mise the tank’s armour. As it was unsafe to move the tank to a better shooting position, engineers cleared the minefield within 100 yards of the tank to give some room for tanks to fire. The hull of the tank was tilted by 5 degrees, but nothing could be done about that. A Sherman tank firing 75 mm M61 APCBC penetrated the 62 mm thick lower side armour at 30 degrees from 100 yards. The upper side could only be penetrated at an angle of 16.5 degrees and could not be penetrated at an angle of 18.5 degrees. The testers estimated the critical angle of penetration to be 17.5 degrees. The armour was indeed quite brittle, and fragments of the armour were knocked out when it was penetrated.

6-pounder AP shot did not perform as well, failing to penetrate the side of the tank. A penetration of the lower side armour was achieved with a 2-pounder gun. The 2-pounder could only penetrate the side armour if the shot hit the side clear of the wheels. Both British guns used in this test were quite worn, and thus it was impossible to establish the impact velocity with certainty. The testers concluded that the side armour of the tank must have been surface hardened, which is why uncapped shot performed poorly and capped 75 mm shot performed well.

View from the inside. Penetrations of the Tiger’s armour were accompanied by severe flaking.

This theory was confirmed when the guns fired at other Tigers. The 6-pounder proved capable of penetrating the side of the Tiger from 1250 yards (one plate was penetrated from 1650 yards). A 6-pounder penetration was recorded in combat from 600 yards at 30 degrees. The rear (82 mm at 20 degrees) could be penetrated from 1050 yards. Even the front plate was not immune: the 102 mm thick plate sloped at 10 degrees was penetrated from 650 yards, but the lower front sloped at 20 degrees was not. However, a crack formed after two hits at 300 yards. 17-pounder AP shot could penetrate the front of a Tiger at 1800 yards, although the projectile shattered in the process. 75 mm guns were not used in further tests, but inspection of knocked out tanks showed another weakness: two 75 mm rounds were found to have ricocheted off the mantlet of Tiger tanks and through the driver’s compartment roof. PIAT attack against the front armour was not successful.

A Sherman’s 75 mm gun could not penetrate the front of a Tiger barring a ricochet from the gun mantlet, but it could penetrate the side and rear.

These trials confirmed the initial suspicions. The armour was generally harder than British plate of equal thickness (320-340 BHN). In rare cases, German armour performed slightly better than British armour, but in many cases its performance was significantly worse. Penetrations were accompanied with cracking and spalling. One 82 mm plate was penetrated by a 6-pounder gun at a range where only 65 mm of British made armour could be penetrated. The front armour was both softer (285-300 BHN) and closer to the quality of British plate.

The performance of the 17-pounder against the Tiger tank was very encouraging. AP shot could penetrate the front from 1800 yards and the improved APCBC shot was effective from an even longer range.

The report ended with a very optimistic conclusion:
“If the armour tested so far is typical of recent German production, the outlook is distinctly encouraging. There is nothing like the same consistently high quality that was found in specimens of the thinner German machineable quality armour taken from the Pz.Kw.III and Pz.Kw.IV. The hardness of the thicker plates does not materially increase their ballistic resistance above that of softer British armour, hence there is no compensation for worse behaviour of the German plates when overmatched.”
Inspection of the captured and knocked out Tigers also revealed a lot of information about its operation. Precise dimensions and armour thicknesses were obtained. Some conclusions about the operation of the tank were also made. Both the gunner and the commander’s spaces in the turret were cramped due to the massive gun breech splitting it down the middle. The loader had a larger section to himself, but he needed every inch he could get given the size and weight of the ammunition he had to handle. The heavy gun also made the gunner’s job more difficult. The turret traverse was slow and the gun was muzzle-heavy, making it difficult to elevate. The tank showed a top speed of 18 miles per hour in brief driving trials.

While the 6-pounder was not an ideal weapon against the Tiger, it could penetrate both the front and side armour of the new German tank.

British intelligence also obtained some information on how Tigers were used in battle. POWs reported that Tiger tanks were used as mobile artillery in support of lighter vehicles, sometimes even through indirect fire or from prepared hull down positions. A battalion had about 20 Tigers, with the rest being made up of medium tanks. The extreme size and weight of the Tiger made it difficult to use on bad terrain, and thorough reconnaissance was absolutely critical to success.

Rematch in the Mediterranean

While Allied specialists were studying captured Tigers, the German forces in North Africa surrendered. It was time to strike at the “soft underbelly of Europe”: Italy. Here the Allies would once again face off against Tiger tanks, this time from the 504th and 508th Heavy Tank Battalions. The 508th was the first to arrive at the front. This unit was nothing like the early mixed Tiger battalions. Instead of 22 Tigers fleshed out with Pz.Kpfw.III tanks this battalion arrived with a full 45 Tigers… except far fewer actually made it to the front lines at Anzio. Over a year had passed since the Tiger tanks first saw battle and one would expect that teething problems would have been resolved and the commanders would know their tanks like the back of their hands. The actual situation was far less ideal. 60% of Tiger tanks that were delivered to Italy broke down on their way to the front and one tank even caught fire on the march and burned up.

American troops in Italy marching past a disabled Tiger. The tank is short-tracked, indicating that the crew attempted to tow it after encountering final drive trouble, but was unable to do so.

The Tigers that did make it to the front went into battle on February 16th, 1944, but failed to overcome the Allied defenses. Marshy terrain confined them to roads, where the tanks were vulnerable to aircraft, artillery, and mines. Constant artillery barrages prevented the Germans from using unarmoured engineering halftracks to recover tanks that were bogged down or disabled. A Tiger could theoretically be used to tow another Tiger, but this was a risky operation that could easily result in the loss of both tanks. Captured Sherman tanks with their turrets removed were finally used to evacuate a few disabled tanks. The Tigers returned to Rome having failed at their objective to push the Allies back into the sea. Only 12 tanks out of 45 remained in service by March 1st.

An American soldier inspecting a hole in the side of a Tiger tank. Despite their thick armour, they were far from invincible.

It would be some time before the Tigers would see large-scale fighting again. An overstrength company (16 tanks) was assembled to counterattack American forces that broke through near Cisterna. On May 23rd three broke down while crossing a railroad embankment on their way to battle. The rest of the tanks got soil into their barrels from scraping the ground and had to be stopped and cleaned immediately. A shell fragment hit the radiator of one tank, disabling it. The company was down to just 12 tanks with hardly any enemy involvement. The situation worsened on the next day. Six Tigers tried to evacuate those that had broken down, but four more tanks encountered transmission trouble. Four functional tanks were used to tow four broken ones to Cori, leaving four functional Tigers in combat. Two of those also suffered transmission trouble and one was knocked out by artillery fire. Finally, the last Tiger broke down on the night of May 25th. It was towed away with the two captured Shermans, the rest of the tanks were demolished. The rest of the Tiger company soon met the same fate. The Allies had broken through German defenses and the 9 remaining tanks could not be kept out of their hands.

An American column navigates around broken Tigers near Cori.

The 504th Heavy Tank Battalion arrived in Italy on June 20th, 1944, just in time to take part in a large-scale retreat. Both the 504th and 508th left many Tigers behind on their way north. By July 1st the 504th only had 17 tanks left and the 508th only 10. Officially, only 5 tanks were recorded as lost in combat, but German accounting recorded tanks that were damaged in combat and then blown up by their crews when they could not be evacuated as non combat losses. Captured German instructions indicated that the loss of a Tiger was not an out of the ordinary event. One memo reminded tank crews that a Tiger cost the German people 300,000 Reichsmarks and that such an investment should only be used with great thought and care. Another memo urged that the legend of the Tiger’s invulnerability should be “destroyed and dissipated”, as the enemy now had plenty of weapons that were capable of defeating it. It doesn’t look like these memos had the desired effect. British intelligence reported that Tiger crews were cavalier as usual, breaking away from their supporting troops and becoming easy prey for PIAT crews. At the same time, Tigers were sensitive to artillery fire, preferring to retreat when shot at rather than engage. Perhaps their crews realized that even insignificant damage could result in the total loss of their tank.

A New Zealander measures the width of a Tiger’s track with his arm. The wide track was not enough to support the Tiger’s weight outside of roads, which limited the tanks’ usefulness in Italy.

Allied reports also remarked that the percentage of broken down Tigers seems high. An investigation report titled “Who killed Tiger?” dated June 1944 makes a very damning conclusion.
“Tiger is not yet sufficiently developed to be considered a reliable vehicle for long marches. He suffers from frequent suspension defects and probably, also gearbox trouble. When pushed, as in a retreat, those troubles are too frequent and serious for the German maintenance and recovery organization to deal with. Tiger killed himself.”
This was the same conclusion arrived at back in Britain. Tiger 131’s engine broke down twice during gunnery trials, both times in the same manner, suggesting a design defect. An inspection of the Tiger’s air filters at the Department of Tank Design revealed that they were “considerably below the requirements of this Department” in terms of effectiveness. Nor had the Germans done any work to improve the Tiger’s dependence on roads. The Tiger’s mobility in mud during British trials was summarized in two words: “very poor”. Post-war investigations revealed that the Germans had no research programs to explore the behaviour of AFVs in mud. According to the British, the official German policy was to suggest that tankers simply avoid it.

The Tiger’s Maybach HL 210 P 45 engine proved unreliable even when subjected to relatively gentle treatment.

With this information at hand, it’s not surprising that the opinion that the war could be won by Sherman tanks with 75 mm guns was so prevalent. The Tiger was a dangerous opponent in ideal conditions, but it was available in negligible numbers, and its ranks were further thinned by abysmal reliability and mobility. The Tigers demonstrated no significant success in either Africa nor Italy. Like the Tiger crews, the Allied would eventually pay for their self-confidence, but that’s a whole different story.

  • Archive of the Canadian Military Headquarters, London (1939-1947) RG 24 C 2
  • The National Archives (Great Britain)
  • Christopher W. Wilbeck, Sledgehammers: Strengths and Flaws of Tiger Tank Battalions in World War II
  • Wolfgang Schneider, Tigers in Combat I

1 comment:

  1. I feel like these figures, that the front plate is 102mm and side are 82mm, just comes from the fact that they were meassured in inches and then turned to metric again, rounded up :D