The Story of the Tiger

At 11 o'clock in the morning, on the 20th of April, 1942, which was Hitler’s birthday, an echelon carrying an unusual load arrived at the Fuhrer’s staff in Wolfschanze. The platforms carried two Tiger prototypes: VK 4501 (î) by Henshel and VK 4501 (ò) by Porsche. The Henshel machine was so large that its "tracks protruded over the edges of the platform by 50mm from each side" (M.Baryatinsky). During the development both of the tanks gained almost 6 tons in weight, while their armor thickened from 60 to 100 mm. But most importantly the weapons were changed: both tanks that arrived to Hitler's birthday were equipped with a tank version of the 88-mm AA gun (the famous 8,8-cm Flak 18/36 by Friedrich Krupp AG).

In fact, the mishaps, that followed the “Tigers” throughout their military career, started already right after the machines were unloaded off the train: the Porsche prototype got stuck in the mellow ground the moment it rolled off the wagon. The machine had to be pulled out of the mud with a heavy crane, and the next day both tanks were demonstrated to the leader of the Third Reich. Below is the narration of this episode rendered by Mikhail Baryatinsky in his article "Tiger Heavy Tank: The Story":

"According to the memoirs of Erwin Anders (ed: the developer of the Henshel Tiger), by 10:00 the Reich and Wehrmacht chiefs started to gather. Gebbels and Hering were not present. When Hitler showed up at 11.00, the employees of the manufacturing companies were lined up for the introductions. After that, Ferdinand Porsche was awarded with a 1st Class Iron Cross for military merits. After the celebration part Hitler spent about half an hour examining the Porsche machine, attentively listening to the explanations of the designers. He then committed two or three minutes to look at the Henshel tank, asked Aders one question and stepped off. Then it was time for the tanks to show themselves in motion." Despite Hitler's liking to Ferdinand Porsche, these improvisational tests and the actual runs at the tank range at Berka demonstrated low propulsive performance of the VK 4501 (ò) prototype, and, as a result, it was the Henshel tank that was added to the arsenal. The new machine was designated as Pz.Kpfw.VI (Sd.Kfz.181) Tiger Ausf.H1 and in August of 1942 went into batch production. And the 90 chassis that had already been produced for the Porsche version became the basis for a small batch of 88mm Ferdinand howitzers, which participated in the Kursk battles, and later became christened Elephants after they had been upgraded in October of 1943.

All in all, the final version of the Tiger made quite an up-to-date tank, difficult as it was to transport. The design of the machine even featured a series of technical novelties which were quite uncharacteristic for war times:

"Thanks to the use of an automatic hydraulic servo-drive controlling a 56-ton tank hardly required any noticeable physical force. Gears could literally be switched with one’s little finger. Making turns required only a slight steering of the wheel. And the overall controls were so simple that any member of the crew could take upon them, which proved to be quite an important quality in a combat situation." (M. Baryatinsky) Another set of special equipment allowed the tank to cross small water obstacles and to stay underwater (at a small depth of course) for several hours, special mortars for fragment and smoke grenades helped the machine against the enemy infantry and allowed to set smoke screens, while the hi-power cannon was a menace to all types of enemy tanks at practically all distances. Its setbacks however were low maneuverability, the necessity to replace tracks and disassemble the first row of rollers for railway transportation (a Tiger with "combat" tracks did not fit into the standard dimensions of the 3rd Reich railways). In addition to that not all the bridges would hold the 56-ton giant and thus the mobility of tank detachments staffed with Tigers seemed quite questionable.

In the meantime Hitler could not wait to see his "super-weapon" in action. Contrary to all the written and unwritten laws of strategy he decided not to wait for the start of the batch production of the new type of tanks in order to surprise the enemy by unexpectedly bringing a large number of Tigers to the fronts, but ordered to test the "iron beasts" under Leningrad already in August of 1942. The first planned test of the Tigers did not happen – the machines simply did not make it to the frontlines, falling victims to unreliable transmission and other "childhood diseases". After repairs and re-manning of the detachment (the first "Tigers" were assigned to the 502nd heavy panzer battalion) they finally entered the battlefield, but this only happened on the 22nd of September of 1942 under Mga. The results of these tests of the wonder-weapon are very graphically described in the book by Tank Industry Commissar V.A. Malyshev:

"An odd-looking tank started moving against one of our squads down a narrow corridor that separated the Volkhov and Leningrad fronts. Our antitank rifles could not stop the heavy machine. It continued moving to Slisselburg. However at that moment the troops of the 18th rifle division approached the road and opened direct cannon fire at the tank. The shells did not do the panzer any harm, but... as Col.-Gen. Romanovsky, the commander f the 2nd strike army, thinks, apparently the driver of the tank got scared and rolled off the road intending to climb the Sinevsky hill. However, when making the U-turn the nazi tank, which turned out to be quite laggard, got into a peat bog, slipped