German tank builders started producing tanks with greater characteristics than those of their competitors since late 1942. First was the Tiger Ausf.E which had no equivalent for over a year. The Panther Ausf.D debuted in the summer of 1943. This tank was even more dangerous. As practice showed, the Panther's gun was more powerful than a Tiger's, and its upper front hull plate was impervious to 76-85 mm guns at any range. The Ferdinand heavy SPG debuted alongside it. The USSR, USA, and Great Britain had to catch up. Soviet tank builders ended up producing a worthy opponent with the IS-2 and ISU-152. The Tiger Ausf.B was supposed to be Germany's answer, but it never reached the status of «king of beasts» like the Tiger did. Its influence on Soviet tank building was also far lesser.
The great slaughter at Sandomierz
The future replacement for the Tiger Ausf.E first came up at a meeting on May 26th, 1941, when it turned out that the turret of the VK 45.01 was not big enough to fit the 88 mm L/71 gun. Since only the turret needed to be changed, at first the VK 45.02(H) was the same as a Tiger Ausf.E, but with a new turret. This tank later changed several times over and little remained of the original. The thickness of the armour and its mass grew with each iteration. There was also an idea to unify the VK 45.02(H) with the VK 30.02(M) medium tank. This also had a significant effect on the heavy tank chassis, so much so that it is often called a further development of the Panther tank.
The idea of unification continued in the Tiger III and Panther II projects, although only the Panther II was ever built in metal. The Tiger III turned into the Tiger II. The concept of the tank that would be accepted into service as the Pz.Kpfw.Tiger Ausf.B fully formed in the summer of 1943. The second type of turret, often called the «production turret», was also already designed. Nevertheless, the first 50 turrets were inherited from a Porsche K.G. tank known as the VK 45.02(P) or Typ 180 that was never built. These turrets are often erroneously called «Porsche turrets» even though they were designed by Krupp and also meant fro the VK 45.02(H). The more common Tiger II turret is also often called the «Henschel turret», even though it was also designed by Krupp.
The result of all this work was a tank that weighed 68 tons. The first experimental vehicle was built in October of 1943, and in January of 1944 Henschel & Sohn AG began work on the first production vehicles. Production was not quick: only 14 tanks were delivered in the 1st quarter, 15 tanks were delivered in May, and something resembling mass production only began in June.
It is not surprising that the debut of the Tiger Ausf.B took place only in July of 1944. British tankers were the first to meet these tanks from the 503rd Heavy Tank Battalion on July 18th, during Operation Goodwood. The Tigers' debut went poorly: only two vehicles of this type remained operational with a large amount of losses taken due to Allied aircraft. There were also losses from enemy tanks, with the most famous one due to a ram from Lieutenant Gorman's tank. Despite such a poor debut, the appearance of the Tiger Ausf.B was an unpleasant surprise for the Allies. Work on new heavy tanks began urgently in the US. The sighting of the Tiger Ausf.B in Normandy was a similar catalyst to the American tank industry as the capture of two Tigers near Leningrad was for the USSR.
The debut of these tanks on the Eastern Front took place slightly later. The 501st Heavy Tank Battalion lost all of its tanks in June-July of 1944 and was urgently reformed in mid-July. 45 brand new Tiger Ausf.B tanks arrived on Ohrdruf on July 25th. These were June-July production vehicles, all with «production turrets». The 501st battalion was the first to receive a full set of tanks with this turret.
On August 5th the battalion was sent towards Baranów Sandomierski, south-west of Sandomierz. Such a rapid deployment (sans 1st company) was due to the Red Army's rapid progress in the region. The first stage of the Lvov-Sandomierz operation led to a slaughter of German forces. The numbers of Elefants in the 653rd Tank Destroyer Battalion dropped significantly, the 506th Heavy Tank Battalion suffered heavy losses. Peremyshl (modern day Przemyśl) was liberated on July 27th. Red Army troops crossed the river San. By August 10th elements of the 1st Ukrainian Front began crossing the Vistula. The Germans were in a dire situation and needed something to plug the holes, even with partially present units. The partial presence was caused in part by technical issues. The number of vehicles that arrived at their final destination was further decreased due to technical issues. The battalion was assigned to the 16th Tank Division in Chmielnik on August 11th. It moved out to Szydłów, losing tanks on the way. On the morning of August 12th there were only 8 tanks fully operational.
The battalion was heading to Staszow, which it was supposed to recapture in the course of the planned counteroffensive. At the moment it was defended by elements of the 6th Guards Tank Corps: 52nd Guards Tank Brigade commanded by Lieutenant Colonel M.L. Plesko, 53rd Guards Tank Brigade commanded by Colonel V.S. Arhipov, and 71st Guards Heavy Tank Regiment commanded by Guards Lieutenant Colonel A.Ye. Shapar. The brigades were equipped with T-34 and T-34-85 tanks. The German offensive was expected. The 3rd battalion of the 53rd TBr set up an ambush that the Germans were caught in. 8 Tiger Ausf.B tanks that took part in the attack came under flanking fire. Junior Lieutenant A.P. Oskin's crew excelled in this battle, taking out 3 tanks and keeping them under fire from every available gun. For this battle Oskin received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union.
The story continued. In the evening of August 12th two tanks from the 2nd tank battalion with infantry riders commanded by Major A.G. Korobov went into a counterattack. The goal of this counterattack was the capture of Ogledow, as the German tanks retreated there. Korobov's idea was a complete success. The Germans were taken by surprise and the capture of at least one tank was reported. By morning that number increased to five. The name «King Tiger» was first given to these tanks in a report on August 13th. It came from German POWs. Tanks with turret numbers 102 and 502 were among those captured. The report indicates that all captured tanks have damaged tracks, but two can be repaired. The report covered 4 different tanks: 102, 502, 234, and another with an unidentified turret number.
At least one of the tanks was captured by the 53rd TBr. The main reserve of the 6th Guards Tank Corps, IS-2 tanks from the 71st Guards Heavy Tank Regiment, was put into action on the morning of August 13th. An IS-2 tank belonging to platoon commander Senior Lieutenant V.P. Klimenkov led the attack alongside the 2nd battalion of the 294th Guards Rifle Regiment of the 97th Guards Rifle Division. The infantry took fire from a Tiger Ausf.B tank in ambush on the south-western side of the village. The infantry reported the tank to Klimenkov, who opened fire. The first shot destroyed the house next to the German tank. The Germans lurched forward in a panic, but a second shot from the IS-2 knocked off its track and the tank drove into a ditch. The crew fled and Soviet infantry took over. The tank turned its turret and opened fire at the Germans. Later, tank #234 was listed as one of Korobov's trophies. Another King Tiger was destroyed by Klimenkov's tank on the northern outskirts. This was the fifth tank that was mistakenly claimed by the 53rd Guards TBr. In this battle Klimenkov earned the Order of the Patriotic War 1st Class.
V.A. Udalov's crew had an even greater success. At 14:00 his tank ended up east of Mokre with elements of the 52nd TBr. The tank was set in an ambush. It turned out to be very timely, as a column of seven Tiger Ausf.B tanks came out of Szydłów and headed towards height 272.1. The Germans could not see Udalov's tank and were hit hard in the flank. Several shots took out two German tanks, the rest kept moving. Udalov went around Mokre using a forest road and cut off the German column, destroying another King Tiger. The remaining tanks retreated, but then returned for another attack on height 272.1. They were met by Lieutenant Belyakov's IS-2 tank, which destroyed yet another King Tiger. Udalov received the title of Hero of the Soviet Union for the battle on August 13th.
The two days of fighting turned out catastrophically for the Germans. 12 tanks were lost without any results. On August 22nd battalion commander Major von Legat was relieved of his post and replaced by Major Saemisch. Even worse for the Germans, 2 tanks of the ones lost on August 12-13th were fully functional. Soviet tankers also captured technical documentation, including instruction manuals. This allowed them to repair the captured tanks and send them to the rear.
Without waiting for trials
Like the British and Americans, the Soviets knew nothing about the Tiger Ausf.B before meeting them in combat. The first information about these tanks came after the battle for Staszow. The 6th Guards Tank Corps captured prisoners from the 501st battalion and 16th division on the night between August 12th and 13th. The prisoners talked about Panther tanks; either this was the cause of intentional misinformation or they were mistaken, as the tanks looked similar. Indeed, the theory that the King Tiger evolved from the Panther was independently created in several places. There was also a mistake regarding the translation. In reality Königstiger translates as «Bengal Tiger», but neither the USSR, USA, nor Great Britain knew about such subtleties, and so the nickname given to the tank by German tankers transformed into «King Tiger». Initially it was not an official name, but later on even official correspondence called it Königstiger.
On August 19th Marshal I.S. Konev sent a letter to Stalin and Fedorenko, reporting on the tactical-technical characteristics of the tank. They were quite precise, as the Germans managed to lose not only several functional tanks, but also technical documentation. However, the documentation pertained to commanders' vehicles which had two radio sets and an extra crewman, so that is why the crew capacity is listed as 6 men. The document also states that the tank (just one at the time) was to be sent to the Kubinka proving grounds.
The British military mission in the USSR passed on information about the new tanks several days after information about the Sandomierz trophies arrived. The description came from the tanks encountered in July of 1944, so it is not surprising that the information differed. The British encountered tanks whose turret was not as well protected as the later type. The British called the tank a Tiger, but constantly compared it with the Panther, which can be expected. The information that came from the Americans received in mid-September of 1944 was even more interesting. The Americans found two whole tanks: «a combination of the Tiger and Panther called Tiger II» and «68 ton heavy tank called Imperial Tiger». Unlike the British, the Americans did not face these tanks in the summer of 1944 and only saw knocked out or destroyed ones. The Soviet side responded quickly, clarifying that there was only one new type of tank and it looked like the Panther because the chassis was based on it. The GBTU's response was entirely correct.
Initially the plan was to ship one of the new tanks to Kubinka, later the order was increased to two. Tanks ##102 and 502 were chosen. Since work still had to be done to repair the tanks' running gear and evacuate them, the delivery took a long time. Meanwhile, the encounter with the new enemy did not go unnoticed. First of all, the 501st battalion continued to fight. It had 26 combat ready vehicles as of September 1s, 1944. The poor debut didn't mean that luck would always turn on the Germans. 1st Ukrainian Front commanders decided to test the effectiveness of towed and self propelled guns on the King Tiger. Tank #234 that was still located on the south-western outskirts of Ogledow was used. The tank was pulled out of a crater and put in position for firing. A SU-85 from the 1024th Self Propelled Artillery Regiment and 57 mm ZIS-2, 76 mm ZIS-3, and 152 mm ML-20 towed guns from the 155th Independent Gun Artillery Brigade and 37th Independent Tank Destroyer brigade were allocated.
Firing the ZIS-2 and ZIS-3 guns showed that the side armour was too much even at 150-200 meters. This wasn't news: the ZIS-3 couldn't penetrate the 80 mm thick side of a Tiger tank, and this tank had the same armour but on a slope. The use of subcaliber ammunition helped. The side could be penetrated from 300-400 meters. HE shells fired from 400 meters could destroy road wheels. Subcaliber ammunition allowed not just the ZIS-3, but also the T-34 and SU-76M to penetrate the side of the tank.
The 85 mm D-5S could easily penetrate the side from 400 meters. Failures could occur at longer ranges and the testers estimated that penetration could be achieved from 600 meters. Shells that hit the front armour ricocheted. As for the 152 mm ML-20, its shells also ricocheted off the front, but a hit to the machine gun ball resulted in a penetration. Hits to the side of the turret punched through both sides, one hit even formed a breach with a diameter of half a meter. The trials showed that the new German tank is well protected from the front, but its flanks are vulnerable. It was even vulnerable to HE shells, as they could destroy the running gear.
Comfortable and unreliable
The delivery of the two German tanks to Kubinka turned into an adventure. The tanks first crossed the Vistula, then drove on their own to the embarkation point. Issues with the running gear, engine, and transmission began to crop up. The engine and gearbox kept overheating in the 30 degree weather. Breakdowns of the idler, drive sprocket, and final drives were common. The tracks broke often and the track tensioning mechanism worked poorly. As a result, it took almost a month to ship the tanks. They arrived at the NIBT proving grounds only by September 26th. The serious issues were caused by the fact that the tanks were still new. The Germans worked for many months for the Tiger Ausf.B to reach an acceptable level of reliability, and it was never as reliable as even the Tiger Ausf.E. Such was the cost for the radically greater weight.
The «Trials Programme of the German Heavy Tiger B (King Tiger) Tank» was approved on September 29th. The tank would drive for 1000 km, 125 of them on a highway, 600 on a dirt road, 200 off-road, and 75 were reserved for special trials. Components and assemblies would be studied in parallel. Penetration trials would also be held. After the tank finished trials, it would have its components removed and subjected to the same trials as the Object 701 hull. The comparison was not an accident. The Object 701 would be the new German tank's main opponent. Interestingly, the GBTU expressed doubts that the German tank would be able to drive long enough to complete the trials even by September 26th. They had more than enough cause for this, as practice showed that the German tanks could not survive a 1000 km trip.
Tank #102 would be used for trials, #502 became a parts donor. The problem was that having a donor was not always enough. Both tanks were unusable by early October. Repairs could not be completed before October 10th. By the start of the trials the tank had driven for 444 km, not a bad result for such an unrefined tank. The right final drive was taken from the donor tank to restore #102, but even that final drive was not entirely functional. Final drive components had to be taken from the left side.
Tank #102 was repaired by the end of October 10th. On the next day some minor defects were corrected and the tank was ready for trials, although not driving trials just yet. Understanding that the reliability of the German tank left much to be desired, the commission decided to start with gunnery trials, although there were also issues here. 45 shots were fired on October 12th before the semiautomatic mechanism broke.
The next day was spent correcting the issue, but on October 14th it broke again. Firing trials continued until October 17th. 152 shots were fired in total. The gun showed high precision, about the same as the Soviet D-25T. The maximum aimed rate of fire was evaluated at 5.6 RPM. The gun also worked well when firing on the move. Testers indicated that the turret could be aimed with the pedal operated hydraulic drive. The ventilation system also worked well.
Testers evaluated the crew comfort as high. The turret traverse mechanisms were considered good, and the effort to turn the turret was no more than 2-3 kg. In addition to the manual traverse there was a hydraulic traverse. If the engine was working at top RPM it was possible to turn the turret all the way around in 20 seconds. The electric trigger was comfortably positioned. The driver and hull gunner compartments were also considered comfortable. The ability to drive looking out of the top hatch was considered a plus. The loader's position was also considered good, especially when working with the rack in the turret bustle.
Retrieving ammunition from the hull was much harder. The loader's periscope that could only look directly forward was also criticized. This was not explicitly addressed in the report, but the Tiger Ausf.B inherited the Panther's poor visibility. Only the commander could look sideways, and he had an 11 meter dead zone to the left and a 25 meter one to the right. The gunner had no sights aside from his scope, and the loader could only look forward. While Soviet tank designers worked to improve their tanks' visibility, it seemed that the Germans were working on the opposite. It's no surprise that the King Tigers took so much fire from the sides at Sandomierz.
Mobility trials began on October 18th and continued with mixed success. The left side drive sprocket crown bolts broke after 80 km of travel. The tank went out again on the 21st. By then the tank had driven only for 87 km, including gunnery trials. 4 track links and 15 track pins broke during turning trials, and 7 bolts on the same left side drive sprocket crown were torn off. The tank only drove for 2 km from the 21st to the 23rd. Mobility trials were stopped on October 25th when the sprocket crown was torn off again, and this time the torsion bar of the first left road wheel broke. The tank had driven for only 113 km. Such a short trials did not permit full evaluation of the tank's mobility. The tank never accelerated to its claimed top speed. The average speed on a dirt road was 13.4 kph, lower than the IS-2's 14.5 kph. The fuel economy was much more interesting. An IS-2 tank tested in the fall of 1944 spent 329 L per 100 km of driving, while the King Tiger consumed a truly royal 971 L per 100 km. The tank could only drive for 90 km on one tank.
Since there was no more stock of spare parts, an order was given to disassemble the tank. A portion of its components were returned to #502. Penetration trials were held in two stages. The first stage consisted of firing on the front of the hull and turret. An ISU-152 (ML-20S), ISU-122 (A-19S), SU-85 (D-5-S85), Nashorn (8.8 cm Pak 43/1) a Panther (7.5 cm KwK 42 L/70) and a 100 mm BS-3 anti-tank gun would be used. Trials took place from November 5th to the 11th.
The A-19 122 mm gun fired an HE round first. It did not penetrate the armour, but caused a fire when flame entered through the machine gun mount. A third hit from a blunt tipped AP shell from 500 m didn't penetrate the armour, but a 160 by 180 by 150 mm chunk of armour was blown off the back and the welding seam between the upper front plate and hull roof burst completely. The next shot was made from 600 m with a 122 mm sharp tipped AP shell. It resulted in a penetration, but it was not counted since it hit too close to a previous hit. The next hit did not penetrate, but tore the seam between the upper and lower front plates. It also turned out that the sharp tipped AP shell could penetrate the front of the turret from 1000-1500 m. There were no penetrations of the hull, but the trials showed that nothing good would come from facing a 122 mm gun in combat. AP hits cracked the armour and broke welding seams, which would disable the tank even without penetration. A hit from 500-600 meters was almost guaranteed to destroy the gearbox.
152 mm AP performed slightly worse. This shell could not penetrate the armour, but hits resulted in cracking. From 100 meters the lower front plate was penetrated (or rather shattered). HE shells were more effective. They did not penetrate the armour, but resulted in much more severe damage. The welding seams burst and the shockwave would have certainly destroyed the transmission.
The 100 mm BS-3 gun could not penetrate the upper front plate, but symptoms of its shells impacting were about the same as of the A-19. One hit from 500 meters caused only a dent, but a 220 by 240 by 20 mm chunk of armour was dislodged from the back, turning into a new projectile that would destroy anything in its path. Cracks also formed. The 20th shot created a huge breach in the lower front plate. Hits from German 75 and 88 mm guns had similar results. There were no complete penetrations, but cracks and back spall formed.
The penetration trials revealed the low quality of the armour. The fact that significant spalling and cracking started happening after only a few shots was a bad sign. Many discussions highlight that there were no penetrations of the King Tiger, but no penetrations were needed, especially since the armour came apart after 3-4 hits. With such poor quality of armour the thickness was not very important. Proving grounds specialists noted that 100-152 mm guns were dangerous at a range of 500-1000 m. A hit from 500-600 m with a 100 or 122 mm gun to the front plate joint would also likely result in penetration.
The second stage took place on November 21st-29th. A SU-76M, SU-85, and American GMC T70 took part. The performance of the SU-76M was no different than what was seen in September. The ZIS-3 could not penetrate the side of the hull with AP even at point blank range. However, several hits to the turret resulted in the seam between the side of the turret and turret ring bursting. A see-through crack formed in the turret ring. The turret was jammed by the 17th shot. An AP shell hit from 300 meters resulted in a 150 by 125 by 20 mm fragment dislodging from the back of the plate. Fire from several 76 mm guns would result in serious issues for the German tank. A shell fired from the ZIS-3 also took off the commander's cupola at 300 meters, completely destroying the weld seam.
The American GMC T70 (GMC M18) tank destroyer was a much more dangerous foe. Its 76 mm gun easily penetrated the side of the King Tiger from 500, 1200, and 1500 m. Penetrations could be scored even from 2000 m. The characteristics of this gun were very high, and its penetration surpassed even the 85 mm D-5S-85.
The SU-85 gace somewhat poorer results. Not all shots from 1500 m resulted in a penetration. However, the weld seams were also destroyed on a hit. Trials showed that the side of the turret could be reliably penetrated from 1000 m, and the hull from 850 to 1350 m, depending on where the hit landed.
The second stage of the trials also showed that the armour and weld seams were brittle. The tank was vulnerable to flanking fire from the T-34-85 and SU-85. Don't forget that production of the SU-100 began in the fall of 1944. Its gun could deal serious damage to the German tank even from the front. In other words, due to the declining quality of German armour making it thicker was far from a cure-all.
Dead end in German tank design
The conclusions reached at the NIBT proving grounds were not favourable for the German tank. IT was too large and too heavy, which impacted both its reliability and mobility. The armour and armament did not match the tank's size and weight. Indeed, the tank's protection was no better (and in many cases, worse) than that of Soviet tanks that were in development at the time. Not just in development, for instance the straightened IS-2 hull that protected from the King Tiger was already in production. The USSR declined to produce guns like the 8.8 cm KwK 43 back in early 1943. It was preferable to create 100-122 mm guns and gradually increase the muzzle velocity.
Of course, the tank had its upsides. Soviet testers were interested in its automatic fire extinguisher, electric heater for the batteries, automation of the gearbox, and road wheels with internal shock absorption. However, the Tiger Ausf.B was nothing special for Soviet tank designers. It did not result in any new developments, as they were already familiar with the Ferdinand, which had the same gun and equivalent protection. The quality of the King Tiger is reflected in the fact that there were nearly no attempts to use captured tanks in battle. Nobody except museums and shooting ranges cared about these tanks after the war ended.
The tank with turret number 502 survived to this day. This tank with chassis number 280080 settled down in the museum's proving grounds, although only the gearbox survives out of its original equipment. Today the tank can be seen in Patriot Park, with recreated markings initially applied by the troops of the 2nd battalion of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade in August of 1944.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Central Archives of the Russian Ministry of Defence;
- Russian State Archive of Economics;