August 30, 2019
By Neal S. Shera
If you were to walk down the street and just ask random strangers if they could name one tank it would likely be the German Tiger. The Tiger tank received the rather mundane Ordnance inventory designation as Sonderkraftfahrzeug (Sd.Kfz.) 181 and was known as the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E. It achieved a level of recognition and status that many other more effective and revolutionary designs, should have earned. The reason is due to the impact the Tiger had by being the right machine at the right place at the right time. Now, your average person will know the basics about the “Tiger legend”. A more involved demographic would likely list the incident best known to western observers. The event in question is where Michael Wittmann and his Tiger decimated the British at Villers-Bocage in Normandy. Yet, there are several other examples which happened on the Eastern Front, some even reaching Hollywood levels of spectacle. So let’s explore more of the truth behind this story.
The Tiger tank began reaching combat zones in North Africa and the Eastern Front at the very end of 1942. Neither its crews nor the enemy could have expected how much the battlefield would change due to this design. As the Germans were retreating from Stalingrad, the new tank was destined to be part of the counter-offensives meant to stabilize the lines, and stop the Soviet advances before the spring thaw halted all operations. In mid-February 1943, at a small collective farm near Rostov-on-Don, Tiger No. 231 commanded by Lieutenant Zabel from the 503 Heavy Tank Battalion helped to jumpstart this legend. The area was heavily defended open terrain of the steppe. Most attacks in this situation would expect suffering significant casualties to reach the objective. Tiger 231 would do what nobody thought possible given the circumstances. As this new tank crossed the open field it became the center of attention for the Soviet defenders.
For some six hours Tiger 231 was targeted by every type of gun and ammunition the Soviets had at their disposal. Soviet infantry armed with 14.5mm Anti-Tank Rifles poured their fire on it. Anti-Tank Gun units equipped with 45mm and 57mm guns tracked the German heavy tank and scored hit after hit to no avail. Larger 76.2mm field guns were also tasked with stopping the rampaging Tiger. Operating in direct fire mode they engaged it and were rewarded with multiple impacts, but the frustrated gunners saw their shells have no visible effect. The Tiger continued on despite the hail of fire. The Soviets focusing on Zabel’s tank, and other members of his platoon, brought a significant amount of relief for the lighter units involved in the attack.
During the battle Zabel’s Tiger sustained damage to its optics, tracks and engine. After taking hits by several large caliber High Explosive (HE) and Armor Piercing (AP) rounds the hatches were barely hanging on. Then, the gun mount suddenly broke, locking the long 88mm main gun in its rearward recoil position. Yet Tiger 231 remained undaunted and slowly limped off the field under its own power, traveling some 60 kilometers back to a maintenance area. Examining Zabel’s Tiger tank after the action revealed it had sustained an incredible 252 hits! The vehicle was pockmarked with strikes from 14.5mm AP anti-tank rifle rounds. In addition it had taken 14 hits from 45 and 57mm anti-tank guns. Plus, it had shrugged off 11 hits from 76.2mm field guns. At this period in time, the first two categories of weapons were more than adequate for dealing with the more common Panzer III and IV tanks. Tiger 231 went back to Germany for inspection, and weaknesses in the design were fixed in future production models. The tank was even used as an example in the Tiger training manual. While Zabel’s Tiger was a loss, the turret was repaired and used for gunnery training.
The legend of the Tiger would only grow from 1943 onward as the Allies had to determine the best way to counter this new threat. During that gap before solutions could be put in place the Tiger tank was only limited in its effects on the war by its low production numbers. As the battle of Kursk raged, the Tiger tanks bore the brunt of this ill-fated offensive, trying in vain to make an impact on the Soviet defenses for the Wehrmacht. Tiger 1322, commanded by Franz Staudegger, was forced to face an entire Soviet tank Brigade on July 8th. His Tiger stood against roughly 50 tanks from the Soviet 10th Tank Corps. Staudegger found the best spot for his deadly 88mm gun to cover the approach, and made his stand. During this engagement the Soviet T-34/76s found themselves outgunned and outmatched. Sixty-seven Soviet 76mm shells failed to penetrate the thick armored hide of Tiger 1322. Downrange from the Tiger burned at least 22 Soviet tanks smote by its 88mm gun. Staudegger depleted his tank’s entire AP shell supply before the action ended, and his last five confirmed kills were accomplished using HE shells. For their actions during this engagement they became the first Tiger crew to be awarded Germany’s highest award, the Knights Cross.
For our last entry into the Tiger legend we reach another notable commander, Otto Carius. Carius served with the 502 Heavy Tank Battalion. They were credited with over 1,400 confirmed tank kills during the war. Carius was the highest scoring “Panzer Ace” to survive the war, with 150 confirmed kills. Anyone interested in his exploits should read his book “Tigers in the Mud”. On 16 December 1943 Otto’s tank, Tiger 217, came under air attack by what was most likely a group of IL-2 Stormovik ground-attack planes. The Soviet aircraft had expended all their other ordnance and resorted to doing strafing runs on his tank. In Carius’ own words, “Kramer, upset by the unrelenting nuisance of these guys, elevated his cannon along the approach route. I talked him in. He took a chance and pulled the trigger. On the second attempt, he hit one of the “bees” on its wing. The Russian crashed behind us.” It’s interesting to note the high velocity 88mm gun of the Tiger was based on one originally intended for an anti-aircraft role. Hollywood couldn’t write a more amazing scene for an action film than this.
These stories are not an attempt to glorify the Nazi war machine in any way. They are just a few examples of how the right machine, in the right place, at the right moment can create such a profound effect. All information contained here was collected from published unit histories. Only 1,347 Tiger tanks were built during World War II, but its legacy eclipses their statistical impact. The Allies so feared this tank that they tracked the position of Tiger battalions, unlike any other unit of that size. The top four Tiger Aces accounted for 595 confirmed tank kills alone. Many of their crews survived the war despite being constantly assigned to the most dangerous battles. Every tank designed since has been influenced by this machine. One may wonder if any successor has ever truly dethroned this king.