It is hard to argue with the claim that the German PzKpfw VI Tiger tank is a symbol of the armoured forces of the Third Reich. Despite being far from perfect, this armoured vehicle became one of the pinnacles of the German tank building school in WWII.
Initially, German tank doctrine did not anticipate the need of a more powerful tank than a PzIV with a short 75 mm gun. After looking at their neighbours, the Germans realized that this vehicle was insufficient to storm the heavily fortified Maginot line. British Matilda tanks were also too armoured for the German Panzers to deal with them effectively. In 1937, the German armed forces ordered a breakthrough tank. Initially, the Henschel company took up this task, led by Erwin Aders. It created the DW1 and DW2 vehicles which, despite not going through to mass production, allowed Aders to gather valuable experience for creating the Tiger tank.
Despite the general opinion, Germany did not start the war with countless indestructible tank forces. The Wehrmacht's victories depended more on sudden and effective doctrine than technological advancements. Only after attacking the USSR, and meeting T-34 and KV-1 tanks, did the Germans realize they needed a new tank, and fast. It cannot be said that the Tiger was the answer to this need. The long-barreled 75 mm KwK 40 was adopted much earlier, allowing combat with "thick-skinned" Soviet tanks.
The idea of a heavy tank with thick armour and powerful armament was proposed to Hitler in May of 1941. Every tank unit was to be assigned 20 of these vehicles to increase its power. The project to create this idea in metal was assigned to two companies. The first was Aders' bureau, which was currently developing the VK 36.01(H). The second was Porsche, Hitler's favourite, despite his experience with automobiles, rather than tanks. The experimental vehicles were to be presented to the Fuhrer in May-June of 1942.
Henschel built their experimental VK 36.01(H). Thanks to tried and true components, the tank started out with a reliable suspension and transmission. However, the armament was problematic. The 75 mm squeezebore gun, developed by Krupp, fired armour-piercing shells with 1 kg tungsten cores. Such a wasteful use of expensive and rare metal was unacceptable, and the tank was rejected.
Aders' competitor Porsche decided to re-use some components from his previous experiment, the VK 30.01(P). His new creation, the VK 45.01(P), posessed the same layout and electomechanical transmission. Porsche's prototype was built with an 88 mm KwK 36, based on the famous FlaK 18/36 AA gun. The tank variant of the gun had a muzzle brake and an electric firing mechanism. Porsche, knowing Hitler's preference, counted on victory in the tender, and did not hesitate to order turrets and hulls for his tank.
Aders, despite his rejected prototype, did not give up. He redesigned his tank to use the same gun as Porsche. As a result, when the chassis was finished, there was not yet a turret for it. At the same time, Hitler had the idea to send both prototypes to the front, without trials. After that, he demanded 60 tanks from Porsche and 25 from Henschel by the fall. This was not possible, but the engineers did not date tell Hitler. To produce at least some tanks before the deadline, Aders' chassis was equipped with Porsche's turret.
The vehicles were presented to Hitler on his birthday. Here, Porsche made a mistake. He decided to have his tank drive off the railroad platform. The heavy tank sank into the ground. Aders did not take any risks, and unloaded his tank with a crane. During trials, both vehicles demonstrated strengths and weaknesses. Porsche's vehicle was faster, but Henschel's was more maneuverable. The VK 45.01(H) engine caught fire, and the VK 45.01(P)'s transmission was unreliable. Initially, Hitler wanted both vehicles to enter production, but his generals convinced him that Erwin Aders' vehicle was preferable. The Fuhrer, despite his preference for Porsche, was forced to agree. The unwanted hulls that Porsche ordered were later used to build Ferdinand tank destroyers.
The new tank was named PzKpfw VI Tiger. Its production started in August of 1942. Throughout the war, the tank was built in one modification, but with many small changes and improvements.
A special tank unit was created just for the Tiger: the Heavy Tank Battalion. Depending on the situation, the battalion would fight independently, or re-enforcing another unit. New crews were trained on the Paderborn base of the 500th reserve battalion. Tankers were picked both from experiences crews and recruits. Initially, all of these were volunteers, eager to try out these wonder-tanks.
The first Tigers made it to the Eastern Front in August of 1942. The 1st company of the 502nd battalion unloaded at the Mga station, close to Leningrad. Hitler insisted that these new tanks see action, and the hurried engineers did not have time to properly tune the vehicles. They started breaking down as soon as they arrived. The engine of one Tiger caught fire. The mechanics spent until the middle of September repairing the tanks. Some parts had to be flown in from Germany.
The first combat experience of the Tigers was very unfortunate. One tank stalled, and had to be abandoned. Three more were stuck in a swamp, and towed out with great difficulty. The abandoned tank was blown up. In January of 1943, another Tiger, undamaged, was captured by Soviet forces on the Volhov front. After studying these two trophies, guides on how to combat Tigers were written.
Further battles against Tigers at Rostov, Kharkov, and Leningrad proved that the tank can be a menacing opponent. Its thick armour could withstand the majority of guns. Reliable penetrations could only be achieved at the sides and rear. The tanks were also often disabled by knocking off their tracks with a shell or grenade. Incendiary bottles were also widely used, and were very dangerous to Tigers. Burning fluid, leaking through air ducts, ignited the engine.
Tigers first entered battle in Africa on December 1st, 1942. A company from the 501st heavy battalion was sent to assist Rommel's retreating forces. At Tebourba, the Germans achieved total victory, destroying 134 American and British tanks with minimal losses. However, the company commander died in that battle. Tigers continued to fight in groups of 2-5 vehicles, delivering heavy losses to the Allies.
Africa was a difficult test for the Tiger. Constant overheating, dust, and poor roads led to frequent breakdowns. Drawbacks of the design that nobody had time to fix made themselves known.
In April of 1942, the Germans were totally defeated in Africa. All Tigers that were still operational were either destroyed or fell into the hands of the Allies.
139 Tigers fought at Kursk. Due to this small amount, they were unable to affect the course of the battle, especially since they were scattered in small groups. However, at the time, the Tiger's fame was rampant, and any German tank could be mistaken for a Tiger, especially PzIVs. The Tigers served well in combat, especially when given the opportunity to open fire at a distance from which Soviet tank and anti-tank guns could not penetrate it.
Tigers fought throughout the entire war, remaining a dangerous opponent for any Allied tank.
Overall, Erwin Aders created the best German heavy tank of the war. Its armour and armament were well balanced. For its mass, the vehicle was decently maneuverable. The smooth travel of the interleaved road wheels allowed fire on the move. Driving the tank was so easy, that the Germans had a saying: "You are so unskilled, all you can drive is a Tiger!". On the other hand, it was exceptionally expensive and difficult to repair. Repairs of a damaged road wheel could take up to 3 days. The gearbox could not be replaced without removing the turret.
Tiger crews reflect well on its combat abilities. Aders himself earned the honourable title of "Father of the Tigers". The tank remains popular to this day. Many books are written on it, many scale models are manufactured, you can see the tank in many video games. Many examples of this tank survive, some of which are still operational.
Original article available here.