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Opening Salvo: Tiger I
by Michael J. Canavan, Sr
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)


Tiger tanks originated with a 1937 requirement for a heavily armored, powerfully gunned vehicle to lead armored spearheads envisioned by German armor operational experts. Henschel and Porsche worked on competing designs known as the VK 3001 (H) and the VK 3001 (P). Krupp provided the turret design for the 29.5 ton tank. Work on the design was set aside until 1941. It was revisited when the PzKpfw III and IV failed to perform as expected against Allied tanks in 1940. Experience against powerful Soviet tanks (the T34 and KV-1) in 1941 reinforced the need for a heavier German tank.

Both companies had a design that strived to meet the requirement for an 88 mm gun in a fully (360 degree) traversable turret and with both turret and hull protected by armor thick enough to stand up against all tanks currently in the field and anticipated future anti-tank weapons. The Porsche design was rejected as too unconventional, but it was revived as a self-propelled gun known as the Elefant.

PzKpfw VI Tiger I Tank

The Henschel design went into production in May 1941, designated the PzKpfw VI and named the Tiger. The original plan called for a 75 mm gun but the 88 mm anti-aircraft series gun was installed instead. The hull had to be widened to allow for a more substantial turret ring and wider tracks. Even with the widened tracks and interleaved road wheels, the heavy tank still had a ground pressure of nearly 15 pounds per square inch. In addition, the wide tracks themselves introduced a new problem -- they were wider than standard railway cars used to transport military vehicles. For transport, the outer road wheels had to be removed and narrower tracks fitted.

When it went into action in 1942, the Tiger was far more powerful than any other tank in the world. Besides the 88 mm gun, the 56-ton Tiger carried a crew of five distributed in four compartments. It carried 92 rounds for the 88 mm main gun (KwK 36 L/56 gun). It also had one 7.92 mm coaxial machinegun and one 7.92 MG 34 machinegun mounted in the hull. The armor was slightly sloped and very thick -- almost 4 inches on the front, just over 3 inches on the sides, and 1 inch on the top decks. Very few direct-fire weapons could penetrate the Tiger's armor with a shot from the front.

All shapes were kept simple for ease of production -- the turret sides, for example, were nearly vertical. The turret was traversed by means of a hydraulic motor and low gearing, or could be traversed by hand when the main engine was off. Henschel adapted the British Merritt-Brown regenerative unit to a pre-selector Maybach gear box with eight forward speeds because the tank was too heavy to use any existing German clutch or brake-steering system.

The engine was a Maybach HL 230 P 45 V12, water-cooled, in-line gasoline engine that developed 700 horsepower at 3,000 rpm. It had a road speed of 24 miles per hour and a cross-country speed of 12 miles per hour. The Tiger had a range of only 62 miles. It could climb a gradient of 35 degrees, overcome vertical obstacles up to 2 feet 7 inches high, cross a trench 5 feet 11 inches wide, and ford water up to 4 meters deep when using a snorkel for the engine. Later models were not equipped with the snorkel, but they did have roof-mounted grenade launchers for defense against infantry. Another addition in later models was a commander’s cupola supporting a machine gun ring mount for anti-air or local defense. The only official Tiger variant was the PzKpfw VI Tiger 1 Ausf E.

While blessed with a well deserved, ferocious reputation, the Tiger had significant drawbacks. Most German bridges could not bear its weight. Changing tracks before and after rail transport was time-consuming and tiring. The road wheels broke down frequently because they were overloaded. Fuel consumption was extremely high. And although its armor was effectively invulnerable to Allied weapons from the front, the slow, heavy Tiger could be outmaneuvered and destroyed from the rear.

These and other limitations caused the Tiger I to be phased out in 1944 after a production run of just over 1,300 tanks. A total of 84 Tiger Is were produced as command tanks (Befehlspanzer Tiger). These could carry only 66 rounds because radios took up significant storage space.

The first Tiger Is saw action in August 1942 near Leningrad and served on all fronts until the end of the war. Waffen SS panzer divisions had priority for the tanks. Its weight and other characteristics made it better suited for defense, and by 1945, Tigers were rarely used in the attack.

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