Wednesday 1 February 2023

Porsche's White Elephant

Soviet tank designers began working on a number of countermeasures to the Ferdinand tank destroyer after its debut at the Battle of Kursk. These vehicles were expected to be the next step in the evolution of German heavy AFVs, but the Ferdinand and modernized Elefant only appeared a handful of times on the Eastern Front. The only other theatre of war they were used in was Italy. What did the Western Allies discover about this rare beast?

Long guns and tall tales

Like the Panther, the Ferdinand made its debut at the Battle of Kursk. Information about the new tank destroyer was available as early as July 14th, 1943, and on the next day specialists from the NIBT proving grounds arrived to examine the vehicles. A lot of information was available, as Soviet witnesses and German POWs had a lot to say about the tactics used by these new vehicles. There was also a lot of materiel to inspect. According to German reports 39 out of 91 Ferdinands made were left on the battlefield at Kursk.

The Ferdinand in three-quarters view. This drawing was made from a photograph taken at the Battle of Kursk.

Soviet representatives did not like to talk about their own tanks to their American and British counterparts, but when it came to German trophies information flowed freely. Details of the Ferdinand were published in the Tactical and Technical Trends magazine in October of 1943. According to issue #35, the 7 meter long, 3 meters tall, and 3.5 meter wide Ferdinand weighed 70-72 tons. The tank destroyer was armed with a “super long” 88 mm gun equipped with a muzzle brake and with one machine gun. The vehicle carried 70-90 rounds of ammunition for the cannon and 2000 rounds for the machine gun as well as 242 gallons (916 L) of fuel. Two 300 hp Maybach HL 120 TRM engines gave it a maximum speed of 12.5 mph (20 kph) and an average speed of 6-9 mph (9.5-14.5 kph). The running gear consisted of six individually sprung road wheels 80 cm in diameter.

The Ferdinand’s reported armour thickness was quite impressive: 200 mm in the front of the hull and casemate, 160 mm in the sides of the hul, 95 mm in the sides of the turret. The accuracy of this information left much to be desired, but more accurate information became available before too long. The British School of Tank Technology in Chertsey got their hands on a translation of a report by Lieutenant Colonel A.F. Andreyev.

Ferdinand, view from the rear. This drawing was also likely made from a photograph, hence the missing rear hatch.

Andreyev’s article began with a brief description of known German SPGs and tendencies exhibited by the German tank building school. He pointed out that the Germans actively increased the protection and firepower of their armoured vehicles. The Ferdinand, which Andreyev guessed was built for the destruction of enemy tanks and artillery during breakthroughs, fit in this trend perfectly.

A drawing from the British report, also copied from a Soviet photo.

According to the description, the tank destroyer had powerful armour: 170 mm in the front of the hull and 200 mm in the front of the casemate. The gun mantlet was thinner, only 110 mm. The sides and rear of the hull were 85 mm thick, and the sloped sides of the casemate were 95 mm thick. The 45 mm roof offered reliable protection from the air, and the 30-45 mm thick floor gave the crew a good chance of surviving a hit from an anti-tank mine.

The armament consisted of one 88 mm AA gun and one 7.92 mm MG 42 in the casemate. The ammunition included 20 AP and 70 HE rounds for the cannon and 2000 rounds for the machine gun.

The armour and firepower came at the cost of weight and size. The approximate weight of the 7 meter long, 3.43 meter wide, and 3 meter tall vehicle was 70 tons.

Ferdinand from the inside. As you can tell by the padded helmets, this drawing was made in the USSR.

There were also new additions: two 300 hp Maybach engines powered a generator, which in turn connected to two electric motors, one per drive sprocket. The average speed on roads was just 10 kph. The vehicle held two fuel tanks with a combined capacity of 1100 L, which gave it a cruising range of 100 km. Even 75 cm wide tracks did not give the Ferdinand good mobility in mud. In addition, the engines overheated easily.

The Ferdinands were used in heavy anti-tank regiments composed of three companies, each of which in turn was composed of three platoons of four Ferdinands apiece. Two more tank destroyers were reserved for the company HQ. The regiment’s HQ company had two Ferdinands of its own in addition to one Pz.Kpfw.III for a total of 44 tank destroyers per regiment. The regiment also had a recovery company with 6-7 tractors and 20 trucks.

In an attack the Ferdinands lined up into two echelons. The first consisted of two companies, the second of just one. The vehicles advanced 100 m apart and fired from short stops. The maximum range of the Ferdinand’s gun was 3400 meters, but according to Andreyev the Ferdinand’s gunner could only aim accurately from 1200-1500 meters. The crew’s visibility was generally poor. Crewmen could look only forward, as a result of which it was easy to strike the Ferdinand from the side. An infantryman could easily get close and toss a grenade or Molotov cocktail inside the vehicle through the rear hatch, which was often left open to throw out spent brass.

Andreyev suggested firing at the sides of the Ferdinand with 75 mm caliber guns from 500 meters. Anti-tank guns should be positioned in triangles. When the Ferdinand turned to engage one, it inevitably exposed its sides to the other two. Andreyev warned about firing prematurely. The Germans were well aware of the advantage granted by thick armour and often taunted anti-tank batteries from a safe distance to get them to reveal their position.

Diagram of the Ferdinand’s inner workings made based on information from the USSR.

The report was likely written based on preliminary data, as the characteristics given in it differed from reality. For instance, the tracks were actually 60 cm wide instead of 75 cm, the given thickness of the hull and casemate armour was also incorrect. The roof and floor armour was also exaggerated, the real thickness was 38 mm and 20-30 mm respectively. However, these details did not radically change the picture. The front armour was still too thick to be penetrated by even the 17-pounder, the most powerful anti-tank gun used by the Western Allies at the time. However, this information did not trigger a “Ferdinandophobia” and Andreyev’s report had no effect on American or British tank development.

Mountain Elephants

The data stopped being relevant a short time after it arrived in the UK. The Germans modernized their vehicles as a result of experience gained on the Eastern Front. The Ferdinands received 64 cm wide track links and hull machine guns. A commander’s cupola was installed on top of his hatch so at least he could see sideways. Other less noticeable changes were also implemented. The vehicles were renamed “Elefant” after modernization.

Description and tactical characteristics of the Ferdinand, published on April 22nd, 1944. By this time the vehicle’s name had already changed and it received numerous improvements.

Precise information about this vehicle was more important than ever. Allied forces struck at the “soft underbelly of Europe” on September 3rd, 1943, landing in Italy. The Ferdinands did not reach that theatre of war immediately, but Allied intelligence worked quickly. Identification drawings of the heavy tank destroyers rapidly appeared in technical intelligence summaries. There was no new information available. Allied gunners had to settle for drawings made off of photographs taken at Kursk. A new reference book on German tanks was published in November of 1943, but it still had no new information about the Ferdinand.

The British 5th Corps received a drawing of the Ferdinand made from a famous photograph.

The order to send the Ferdinands to Italy was given on February 1st, 1944. However, the vehicles were still in the process of modernization, and nobody was in a hurry to send them anywhere. The first company of the 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion composed of 11 Ferdinands and one Bergeferdinand recovery vehicle was only issued its materiel on February 15th, 1944, and arrived in Rome on February 24th. Since the full battalion was never assembled, the tank destroyers were assigned to the 508th Heavy Tank Battalion armed with Tiger tanks.

The Elefants first saw battle on February 28th. The very first battles clearly indicated that using such a heavy vehicle in difficult Italian terrain was going to be complicated. The first Elefant broke down on March 1st. Its evacuation was made difficult, especially under fire, and the Germans were forced to abandon the valuable vehicle after losing several men killed and wounded. Another Elefant was lost to a mine and had to be destroyed by its own crew. Following such a disastrous debut, the Elefants were pulled back to the rear where they stayed until May.

An Elefant that caught fire while driving and fell into American hands. The photo shows a commander’s cupola and a hull machine gun ball, surefire signs of the modernized vehicle.

Allied forces began an offensive on the so-called Winter Line on May 23rd, 1944. These fortifications stopped the Allied advance in the winter of 1943. It would appear that defensive fighting was a perfect opportunity to use the Elefants, as they could easily take advantage of their thick frontal armour and pick off British and American tanks from long range with impunity. However, the tank destroyers were quickly spotted by American forward observers and pounded with artillery, which forced the Elefants to retreat.

One Elefant was lost that day and two more were lost by May 26th. One had to be abandoned when its track slipped off, another when its engine caught fire. The Elefants’ crews claimed to have knocked out a couple of Shermans, but this did not change the situation. The tank destroyers broke down one after another. Not all were felled by artillery or American fighter-bombers, some bogged down or broke down. The speed at which the Germans were retreating made it impossible to recover them.

A knocked out Elefant. Even the thickest armour was not a guarantee of success.

All but three of the vehicles were blown up by their own crews by June 10th. The remnants of the company returned to Vienna where the surviving Elefants were repaired. They never returned to Italy. Interestingly enough, the Germans didn’t count the tanks abandoned in Italy as irrecoverable losses. According to German tallies zero Elefants were lost in May and only four in June.

Hot on the trail Allied command noticed the arrival of the German tank destroyers, albeit with a delay. Technical Intelligence Summary #22 dated July 1944 mentioned the recovery and inspection of one captured Elefant. Its recovery was considered notable as it used a novel kind of transmission. The intelligence summary mentioned that a Rogers recovery trailer was used successfully, even though it was designed for the much lighter Churchill tank.

Evacuation of heavy German vehicles was a complicated task since the Allies didn’t have recovery equipment designed for 70 ton tanks.

An inspection showed that the vehicle was not complete. Specialists found only 25 slots for ammunition, the rest of the rounds were stored loosely on the floor. The sight was also missing, and only an empty socket remained. The armour was measured only approximately. The thickness of the armour around the machine gun port was estimated at 273 mm (nominally 300 mm), the floor was judged a whopping 76 mm thick. The sides of the casemate were measured to be thinner than the actual value, just 72 mm.

The mobility could not be established as the vehicle was disabled with a hit to the left side near the idler. The transmission that was at first considered so interesting was only briefly studied. British specialists also noted that new track links were used (they were measured as 647 mm wide) and a sample was retrieved for study. Missing information (speed, weight, etc) was copied from earlier intelligence summaries.

More precise information was obtained by August 16th. It was impossible to perform detailed trials, as all three tank destroyers found by then were demolished. The explosion spared the suspension bogeys, as a result of which they could be studied closely. Each side had three bogeys sprung with a short torsion bar positioned parallel to the vehicle’s movement. The British Military Mission in Moscow enquired about the Ferdinand’s suspension in May of 1944. It seems that this component was of particularly interest to the British.

Thickness of the Elefant’s armour. Data obtained by British and Soviet specialists differed noticeably (see table).

Letter code

Thickness (USSR measurement)

Angle from vertical (USSR measurement)

Brinell hardness (USSR measurement)

Thickness (British measurement)

Angle from vertical (British measurement)











































































U (front part)






U (rear part)












W (sloped part)






W (vertical part)






Demolished vehicles were used to measure the thickness and angle of armour plates. This information was compared with data received from the USSR in May of 1944. Soviet data included the hardness of the plates, but the British never made these measurements. Perhaps the vehicles that were examined in Italy had signs of fire, in which case the hardness figures would not be representative. Either way, no detailed study of the Elefant’s armour was ever made.

The Elefant at the Bovington Tank Museum. This exhibit was borrowed from the Americans, since the British did not consider it worthwhile to recover Porsche’s tank destroyer from Italy on their own.

The Ferdinand and Elefant may appear to be ideal tank killers. 200 mm of front armour was impenetrable for most cannons used in WWII and the 88 mm Pak 43 L/71 gun was powerful enough to penetrate any Allied tank. However, proper tactics and crew training were required to turn these features into victory on the battlefield.

While one could expect some degree of success from the Ferdinand in the open steppe, it is not exactly clear what they were supposed to achieve in Italy, where even the much lighter and more reliable Sherman tanks had trouble with the difficult terrain. It’s not surprising that the expensive and heavy tank destroyers spent only a few months in Italy with the end result being a near total loss with nearly no benefit. Predictably, the British did not go to the trouble of recovering the useless 70 ton colossus even as a museum piece.

The author thanks the British Army War Diary Copying Service and Phil Loder for their assistance in writing this article.

  • Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation.
  • Canadian Military Headquarters, London (1939–1947) RG 24 C 2
  • Historical Division European Command, Operational History Branch, Project #47 Tank Losses
  • Yu.A. Bakhurin. Panzerjager Tiger(P) Ferdinand. Boyevoye Primeneniye— Tactical Press, 2014
  • Tactical and Technical Trends №35

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