Skip to main content

World War II German Elefant Tank Destroyers

World War II German Elefant Tank Destroyers
The World War II German “Ferdinand” (seen here) proved to be an extremely effective tank destroyer, it was improved to become the “Elefant”.

After the successful conquest of France in 1940, Hitler and the German Army realized there would be an armored warfare development race. The Germans learned some hard lessons clashing with the surprisingly good tank designs fielded by the French Army. It was only because of superior training and tactics that allowed the Germans to overcome this mechanical disadvantage. Hitler quickly ordered new designs for better tanks to be submitted. During this time the Germans had two major companies that competed against each other for these contracts. The more conservative of the two was the Henschel Company while the more flamboyant belonged to Ferdinand Porsche. Yes, that Porsche, the same man who created elegant sports cars started out building monstrous machines. Both companies submitted a new heavy tank design that would utilize a tank mounted version of the hero of the French campaign, he famous “88” or more properly the KwK 36 88mm. The two designs were radically different as Porsche was not at all afraid to take risks. His design incorporated several new technological features and was ultimately rejected as being too expensive and complicated. Undeterred he would find a new life for his project.

German-Elefant-Tank-Destroyers-2
As the last ‘Ferdinand’ leaves the factory the workers show their pride and well wishes for its success and support for Mr. Porsche’s ingenuity.

During the testing phase of the project, Porsche was so confident he would win his company built over 90 units, including test models before Henschel received the award. Henschel’s design would go on to terrorize the world as the “Tiger”. Be that as it may, ultimately Porsche upstaged his competitor by making a “tank” that would go on to achieve the highest recorded kill ratio of the war at 10 to 1.

German-Elefant-Tank-Destroyers-3
Performance of the Elefant’s 88x882R’s shell was extremely impressive as was its physical size as seen on this chart.

As the Germans realized they also needed better tank destroyers and assault guns to support the infantry Porsche seized the moment to impress Hitler. He took his existing tank hulls and modified them to house a casement and increased the armor. When finished, the new machine tipped the scales at nearly 70 tons! Its 200mm (about 7.9 inches) thick armored hide was paired with a new, more powerful 88mm gun. The StuK 42 or PaK 42/3 88mm was 71 calibers in length. It was 20.5 feet long compared to the 16.1 foot long KwK 36 on the Tiger tank. Another major difference was that this new 88mm also used a much larger case of propellant. The additional propellant and longer barrel provided a higher velocity. No tank fielded in the entire war was safe from this powerful gun. It was capable of penetrating over 170mm (6.7 inches) of armor at over a mile. Variations would be fitted to the King Tiger and several other tank destroyers by wars end due to the proven effectiveness of this vehicle. In a show of support the company would dub the design the “Ferdinand”.

German-Elefant-Tank-Destroyers-4
A pair of Ferdinands advancing across the plains at the battle of Kursk must have been a sobering sight for the defending Soviet troops.

This tank, or more correctly self-propelled gun, saw its baptism of fire at the battle of Kursk with the German 9th Army in the Northern pincer. A full regiment comprised of two battalions was used to penetrate the Soviet defenses. When Hitler finally ordered the halt of offensive operations at Kursk this unit would claim 320 Soviet tank kills for only 13 lost Ferdinands. While this claim could never be confirmed, given the Soviet tank inventory in 1943, and the StuK 42 88mm’s capability to knockout tanks at over 2 km it’s actually not that far-fetched.


German-Elefant-Tank-Destroyers-5
A rare photo of the only known Tiger (P), the Elefants progenitor, to see combat was a command vehicle for the 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion.

In the ensuing Soviet counter-offensive the weaknesses of the Ferdinand were laid bare. The limited visibility for the crew, poor mobility and lack of any defensive machine gun armament left it exposed to the dogged Soviet tank killing infantry. Accounts of commanders spotting from open hatches directing gunners to point the main gun at attacking infantry while the loader fired an ‘acquired’ MG 34 or 42 down the barrel of the 88mm were common during the battle. When they were finally withdrawn they had lost almost half their number. The one surviving example of the Ferdinand is on display in the Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia.


German-Elefant-Tank-Destroyers-6
Here is the only Elefant left in the world at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, left outside to be neglected and rust for over 40 years before intervention.

Despite its teething problems, Hitler was impressed with the vehicle’s performance and allowed Porsche to bring the remaining units back to Germany for modification. These included a commander’s cupola, hull mounted machine gun and other mechanical changes to aid in mobility. Its name was changed officially to the Elefant. Some scholars point to the success of the Tiger and Ferdinand at Kursk and say it heavily influenced Hitler’s obsession with even bigger tank designs. 

A new unit, the 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion, was formed around the product improved Elefants. If you want to learn more about this unit there are several excellent books published about its history. The 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion would also utilize not only the only completed Porsche Tiger or Tiger (P) to see combat but also the only Panzer 5/4 hybrid. In early 1944 most of the unit would race back to the Eastern Front, but one company went to Italy to support the encirclement of the Anzio landings. A very intact example would be taken by the Americans. While most the 653rd’s vehicles were left on the Russian steppes the last combat accounts of an Elefant placed it defiant to the end in Stossel, on the outskirts of Berlin in 1945.

German-Elefant-Tank-Destroyers-7
One last reunion as the last Elefant sits powerfully with a Tiger I at the Bovington Tank Museum before being shipped back to the US. Courtesy of the Tank Museum.

The Americans took their Elefant to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds for testing and eventually it became an outdoor display piece like so much other equipment. Then in 2008 it was decided that the tank should be restored to a more presentable level. The process was even documented on video in a cable series called ‘Tank Overhauling’, copies can still be found on Youtube. Sadly shortly after the process was completed the government ordered a base shutdown and realignment (BRAC) and the whole Aberdeen display was moved to different locations. Its fate would remain in doubt for serval years. Then it was decided to buy it some time, and it was made into a training aid for the new Training School at Fort Lee, Virginia. While waiting for the facility to be built it was loaned out to the Bovington Tank Museum in England for their encompassing Tiger Display, showcasing all existing examples of the Tiger tank family. For two years thousands had a chance to marvel at it before February 2019 when it had to return to the States where sadly it will now be hidden from the public. It and many other significant historical examples are being forcibly ignored by our elected officials. Only with public intervention can we ensure that future generations can look at something more than just old photos.




GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Springfield Hellcat OSP Review

Springfield Hellcat OSP Review

Patrick Sweeney takes the Springfield Hellcat OSP to the range to test it out!

DL Sports SLR 762 Carbine

DL Sports SLR 762 Carbine

Patrick Sweeney tests out the DL Sports SLR 762 Carbine, an AK47 has been refined and civilized by Dave Lauck and DL Sports.

Pioneer Arms PPS-43C Pistol

Pioneer Arms PPS-43C Pistol

The PPS-43 served Poland and the Russians during WWII. It is now available as a pistol for the US market.

See More Popular Videos

Trending Articles

For the first time in its 35-year-history, the annual Gun Rights Policy Conference hosted by the Second Amendment Foundation and Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms will be a virtual online event, due to the current COVID-19 situation.2020 Gun Rights Policy Conference Is Online Event Due to COVID-19 Industry

2020 Gun Rights Policy Conference Is Online Event Due to COVID-19

Second Amendment Foundation - July 16, 2020

For the first time in its 35-year-history, the annual Gun Rights Policy Conference hosted by...

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has unanimously ruled that New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal is “subject to the jurisdiction of Texas courts” in a First Amendment case brought by Defense Distributed, a Texas-based firm, and the Second Amendment Foundation.SAF, Defense Distributed Win Court Victory in 3D Gun Case 2nd Amendment

SAF, Defense Distributed Win Court Victory in 3D Gun Case

Second Amendment Foundation - August 22, 2020

The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has unanimously ruled that New Jersey Attorney General...

Governor Mike DeWine's STRONG Ohio anti-gun bill is facing strong, unified opposition.Opposition to 'STRONG Ohio' Remains Strong 2nd Amendment

Opposition to 'STRONG Ohio' Remains Strong

Buckeye Firearms Association - August 24, 2020

Governor Mike DeWine's STRONG Ohio anti-gun bill is facing strong, unified opposition.

We go behind closed doors at the factory to see how SIG Sauer's ammo is developed and manufactured!SIG Sauer Ammunition — How Good Is It? Ammo

SIG Sauer Ammunition — How Good Is It?

Tom Beckstrand - August 20, 2020

We go behind closed doors at the factory to see how SIG Sauer's ammo is developed and...

See More Trending Articles

More Historical

Lessons from the Ghost of the Weimar Republic.Communists, Antifa, and Fighting in the Streets Historical

Communists, Antifa, and Fighting in the Streets

Ned Scott - June 17, 2020

Lessons from the Ghost of the Weimar Republic.

The stories behind the guns are as fascinating as the guns themselves.Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms Historical

Collecting Battle-Damaged Firearms

Will Dabbs, MD - April 27, 2020

The stories behind the guns are as fascinating as the guns themselves.

The German Panther was a purpose-built tank killer while the American Sherman could do it all, but which was the best tank of World War II?Panther vs Sherman — Which WWII Tank Was Better? Historical

Panther vs Sherman — Which WWII Tank Was Better?

Neal S Shera - August 04, 2020

The German Panther was a purpose-built tank killer while the American Sherman could do it all,...

This heavily armored British infantry tank proved more than a match for the Italians' best.The Matilda Tank in North Africa Historical

The Matilda Tank in North Africa

Neal S. Shera - July 09, 2020

This heavily armored British infantry tank proved more than a match for the Italians' best.

See More Historical

Magazine Cover

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW OUR CURRENT ISSUE Arrow

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Firearms News subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit mymagnow.com and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now