On April 20th, 1942, Hitler was shown experimental heavy tanks developed by Henschel and Porsche. They impressed the fuhrer, and he gave the order to mass produce both. However, a series of reasons forced the choice of Henschel's model exclusively. At the same time, the need for a self propelled mount for the Rheinmetall 88 mm PaK 43 arose. The project required 200 mm of front armour, and limited the mass at 65 tons. Unused Porsche chassis served as a basis for the SPG.
Work started in September of 1942. The project was developed by Porsche and Alkett. Due to the long gun, Porsche selected a rear casemate placement, and engine placed in the middle. There is an opinion that the chassis was reversed. That opinion is false: both the tank and the SPG "looked" in the same direction. This can be seen by looking at the drive wheel: in both vehicles, it is in the rear.
In February of 1943, Hitler personally named this vehicle "Ferdinand", in honour of its creator. On February 16th, 1943, Nibelungenwerke started producing Porsche's creation.
The casemate of the SPG consisted of a truncated four-faced pyramid. It was made with cemented naval armour. The front armour of the hull, initially 100 mm thick, was reinforced with another plate, which was held on with rivets. The side and rear armour was thinner: only 80 mm. The rear of the casemate had a round hatch for removing the gun, loading ammunition, and emergency crew evacuation.
The gun opening was covered with a pear-shaped mantlet. It was quickly discovered that this was a poor solution, since when the mantlet was hit, small shards and molten metal droplets entered the vehicle. To mitigate this, nearly all Ferdinands got a square armour plate welded to their mantlet.
Because the fighting compartment was in the rear, and engine in the middle, the crew was separated. The casemate had the commander, gunner, and two loaders. The front had the driver and radio operator. The compartments were separated with metal walls, which made using an internal communication system necessary.
The thick armour and powerful gun made the Ferdinand a dangerous enemy. Its shells could penetrate Soviet tanks from 1000 meters, while Soviet tanks had to get much closer, or the German armoured monster would be invincible.
However, nothing is ideal. Porsche's creation was too heavy, had poor off-road performance and mobility. Before every mission the route had to be thoroughly scouted.
If you examine memoirs, you will find that Ferdinands were produced by the thousand, and fought on every section of the front. In reality, only 90 were built, and the only massed use of them was at the northern part of Kursk, next to the Ponyri railroad station and Teploye village, between two divisions.
The Ferdinands met their trial by fire there, and it was not an easy one. Armour played its part, and most losses were due to mine fields. Only one vehicle was met with concentrated fire from seven Soviet tanks and a 76 mm gun battery, and was found with a breach next to its drive wheel. Three more Ferdinands were destroyed by hits from an incendiary bottle, large caliber howitzer shell, and a direct hit from a bomb, respectively.
The only Soviet vehicle capable of fighting the Ferdinand one-on-one was the SU-152. They knocked out four Ferdinands in one battle.
After Kursk, Ferdinands were recalled to France and Austria for repairs and modernization. One of the most important changes was a machine gun in a ball mount in the front of the hull. Previously, the vehicle had no defense against infantry, and this could prove fatal in real combat conditions. A commander's cupola was added, and the mantlet shield was flipped, welding seams out. This made it easier to attach. The ammunition capacity increased to 55 shells. The SPG was renamed to "Elefant", but it was more frequently called by its original name, "Ferdinand".
Despite relatively few Ferdinands fighting in the Eastern Front, they became a bit of a legend. Any German SPG could be called a Ferdinand, even if it looked nothing alike. Also, anyone that destroyed a Ferdinand would receive an order, which caused many to assign themselves such a notorious victory.
An attempt to use Ferdinands in 1944 in Italy was a failure. 11 vehicles were sent there, but it turned out that local ground is not suited for them. The SPGs sank under fire, and the Germans had no chance to evacuate them due to constant artillery fire. Several vehicles were knocked out by American aircraft. On August 6th, only 3 Ferdinands returned to Austria.
On May 1st, 1945, two last Ferdinands were captured by Soviet and Polish soldiers during battles near the Karl-August square.
Original article available here.