Pz Kpfw VI Ausf E (Sd Kfz 181) 'Tiger I'

Steering System
Overview of Tiger I
Eastern Front
North Africa
D-Day and Normandy
SS Units

The PanzerKampfWage VI Ausf E 'Tiger I' was one of the most famous tanks of the Second World War, and was a heavily armed and armoured tank capable of taking on any of its Allied opponents. However it was produced in relatively small numbers, and was mechanically unreliable, and these combined to reduce its impact on the course of the war.


The Tiger I was the end product of two separate design processes. The main body of the tank was produced by Henschel, and was the last stage in a series of heavy tanks designs that began with the Durchbruchswagen 1 of 1937-38. The turret was designed by Krupp, but was originally intended to go on a Porsche heavy tank, the VK 40.01 (P) or Porsche Tiger (the 'Tiger' name also came from the Porsche project). The Henschel vehicle and Krupp/ Porsche turret were paired up to produce a working tank after Porsche were unable to solve a series of problems with the power train on their tank, and the tapered bore gun that the Henschel VK 36.01 (H) was expected to carry was abandoned due to a shortage of tungsten.

Tiger I abandoned after a direct hit to the turret
Panzer VI Ausf E (Tiger I)
abandoned after a
direct hit to the turret

The Henschel project began at the start of 1937, when the company was asked to design a 30 ton tank to be armed with the same short 75mm gun as the original Panzer IV. Henschel's Durchbruchswagen (break-through tank) was recognisably a precursor to the Tiger, with a similar, although much smaller, boxy hull and superstructure and torsion bar suspension. Two prototypes were produced - the D.W.1 and D.W.2, and the turretless chassis underwent trials during 1938.

On 9 September 1938 Henschel was authorised to develop an improved version of the D.W., the VK 30.01 (Vk for fully tracked, 30 tons, version 1). This used a similar hull to the D.W., the same 75mm gun and a similar 300hp Maybach HL 116 engine. The biggest change on the VK 30.01 was the introduction of interleaved road wheels. There were four rows of narrow road wheels on each side, with three on the outside, then two rows of four, and a final row of three closest to the hull. This allowed more road wheels to be mounted in the same space, and made it easier to cope with the heavy weight of the new vehicle. The VK 30.01 also introduced a epicyclic double differential steering system, the Henschel L.320 C, which gave the tank three turning radii without using steering brakes. Three VK 30.01 (H) hulls were ordered in 1939 and another eight in 1940, with the first delivered in the summer of 1941. Eight turrets were also ordered. By the time the hulls and turrets were ready, it was clear the VK 30.01 was under-armed. A series of attempts were made to up-gun the tank, but all failed.

The D.W. hull was also the basis of a parallel project, the VK 36.01 (H). This began in 1939 when Krupp was asked to design a turret that could carry a 10.5cm gun on a new tank. Their initial design was far too heavy, and in the summer of 1940 work began on a project to mount the 10.5cm gun on the 30 ton D.W./ VK 30.01 chassis.

The fate of the VK 36.01 (H) was sealed at a meeting with Hitler on 26 May 1941. The 10.5cm gun was abandoned, and the tank was to be redesigned to carry the tapered bore 75mm Waffe 0725 (later produced in tiny numbers as the 7.5cm Kw.K 42). However the shells for this gun needed a tungsten core, so the change would only take place if there was a big enough supply of tungsten. By June 1941 it was clear that this wasn't the case, and the 75mm armed VK 36.01 (H) was cancelled. One chassis was completed and used for trials in November 1942 and work began on converting six turrets into fixed fortifications, although they were still at the Krupp works at Essen at the end of the war.

Luckily for Henschel there was already an alternative turret. Porsche had been involved in a separate heavy tank project since 1939. This began as the Typ 100 VK 30.01 (P), and was designed to carry a 88mm gun in a Krupp-designed turret. It would use a petrol-electric drive train, as Porsche didn’t believe a conventional transmission would work in such a heavy tank. This consisted of two petrol engines, each of which drove an electrical generator. The electricity was used to power two electrical motors, one for each drive wheel. The tank could be steering by controlling the speed of the motors, in theory making it easy to steer. A single Typ 100 chassis was produced and used for testing.

Work then moved onto the heavier VK 45.01(P), which had thicker armour, more powerful engines, and the same 88mm gun and turret. An order was placed for 100 VK 45.01(P) hulls in July 1941, alongside one for 100 turrets. However this order was premature - Porsche was never able to solve a series of problems with the drive train, and  in November 1942 production of the Tiger (P) was cancelled. This left a large number of perfectly good Krupp turrets without a use.

Tiger I ramming a building

One of the other orders to emerge from the 26 May meeting was that work should begin on mounting a 8.8cm Kw.K on the Henschel VK 36.01, in case the 7.5cm tapered bore gun couldn't be used. Work on the new design was thus already underway when the VK 36.01 (H) was cancelled in June 1941. By July the 88mm armed version had the designation VK 45.01 (fully tracked, 45 ton, model 1). By October it was officially the Pz.Kpfw.VI Ausf.H1 (VK 4501), and it remained the 'H1' until March 1943, when it finally became the more familiar Ausf E.

A number of components were taken directly from the VK 36.01, including the steering gear and final drives, torsion bar suspension, idler and drive wheels. A great deal of work still had to be done. The new tanks would be too heavy for many bridges, and so it was decided that it needed to be able to ford 4.5m deep rivers. This required a new watertight engine compartment, suitable cooling systems and an air intake snorkel. Ammo storage for 88mm shells was needed. A new powered turret drive, which was to take its power from the main drive was required. A new cooling system was also needed.

In the aftermath of the May 1941 meeting an alternative turret was developed by Rheinmetall. This was to be armed with a 7.5cm KwK L/70, in the hope that this would have the same armour penetration as the heavier 8.8cm used in the Krupp turret. The turret design was ready by February 1942, and the plan was to introduce this turret on the 101st Henschel Tiger. This plan was abandoned in July 1942, after improved armoured piercing shells gave the 8.8cm Kw.K L/6 gun the required armour penetration.


The Tiger used a more complex version of the interleaved road wheel layout introduced on the VK 30.01 (H). That had seven sets of road wheels, in four rows. The Tiger had eight sets of road wheels, in six rows. The outer row had a wheel in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th positions. The second and third rows had wheels in the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th positions. The fourth and fifth rows were repeats of the outer row and the sixth row (closest to the hull) was the same as the second and third). There were single rows of wheels on either side of the setup and double rows in the middle.

Tiger I from the left
Tiger I from the left

The drive wheels and idler wheels were the same width as the inner four rows. The outer rows were outside the superstructure and drive wheels, and allows for the use of a very wide combat track. Sloped sheets of armour extended out from the base of the superstructure to protect the top of the outer road wheels. This armour and the outer two rows of wheels could be removed and a narrower travel track installed when the tank was moving by rail. This reduced the width of the tank by 33cm, from 3m 56cm to 3m 23cm.

The interleaved suspension gave the tank a soft and stable ride, and decreased the ground pressure, but the complex arrangement easily sucking in mud and slow, and in the Russian winter could freeze solid. It also made maintenance difficult - if one of the inner road wheels needed replacing all five of the outer rows had to be removed, a total twenty wheels. It was even worse if the torsion bars needed work.

The superstructure extended across the top of the tracks (covering the four inner road wheels, drive wheel and idler wheel). This extra space was added to allow for a larger turret ring and to provide space for large cooling radiators for the engine.

The turret ring had an outer diameter of 210mm and the amount of free space inside the ring was 1820mm. The hull was about 2000mm wide with a free inner space of 1800mm, so the turret ring only overlapped the tracks by a small amount. The bottom half of the turret rested on the top of the hull, so was able to rotate within the larger superstructure area.

The expanded superstructure meant that there was no longer any space for track return rollers, and so the track returned along the top of the road wheels.

The road wheels themselves were flat conical steel discs, with hard rubber tires.

The turret was horse-shoe shaped, made from a single plate that was bent into shape. The gap at the front was filled by the gun and its thick armoured mantlet. It had originally been designed to use an electrical traverse system on the Porsche tank, and had to be converted to a hydraulic system on the Henschel tank. The commander's cupola was at the left-rear. Early versions were cylindrical with vision slots. The commander had two seats. The lower seat allowed him to use the cupola's vision devices. The upper seat was for when he was looking out of the open cupola, and could be folded up to become the backrest for the lower seat.

The gunner's seat was towards the front-left of the turret and the loader's seat towards the front-right. The massive gun was between them.

Panzer VI Ausf E (Tiger I) knocked out near Rouen
Panzer VI Ausf E (Tiger I)
knocked out near Rouen

The turret was mounted centrally on the Henschel Tiger, a much better position than on the Porsche design, where it had been near the front of the tank. The central location meant that the tank was better balanced, and reduced the overhang of the long gun.

Normal Tiger's carried a single Fu 5 radio set. Platoon leader's tanks also got a Fu 2 receiver.

Internally the driver sat at the front left and the radio operator and gunner at the front right, within the fighting compartment. Their seats were down in the hull, between the wheels, their upper bodies in the superstructure. The hull machine gun was carried in a all mount in front of the gunner's position.

The engine was carried in a closed compartment to the back of the fighting compartment. Two fuel tanks were carried inside the engine compartment. There were also two separate panniers, built into the rear part of the overhanging superstructure. These each contained a fuel tank, a radiator and a cooling fan.

Early Tigers were powered by a 650hp Maybach HL 210 P45 V-12 engine.

The Tiger only carried 534 litres of fuel. It used 500-900 litres per 100km, so at speed could quickly run short of fuel.

Steering System

The steering system used two epicyclic gears, one for each track. The output from the gearbox powered a single axle which rotated the annulus, or housing, of the epicyclic system. The housing drove two planetary gears, which were directly connected to the output shafts. If nothing else was engaged, both output shafts rotated at the same speed, depending on which of the eight gears was selected.

Side view of Panzer VI Ausf E (Tiger I)
Side view of Panzer VI Ausf E (Tiger I)

There were four clutches involved in steering the tank, although these were controlled hydraulically from a steering wheel. The steering input came from the gearbox input, and drove a second axle. At each end was a directional clutch - one for left and one for right. If either of these was selected, then the second axle would begin to rotate in one direction or the other. The steering input drove either a low speed clutch or a high speed clutch - the low speed clutch was for shallow turns, the high speed clutch for harder turns.

When one of the steering clutches was engaged, it drove a third axle, which in turn drove the sun gears on each side in opposite directions. If the driver was steering left, then the left-hand sun gears would act to slow down their planetary gears, and the right-hand sun gears would act to speed up their planetary gears. The tracks would thus move at different speeds, allowing the tank to turn.

Because the annulus was driven by the gear box output and the steering was driven by the gear box input, this system produced sixteen different angles of turn - two for each gear, with lower gears producing tight turns and high gears producing shallow turns. In first gear the low speed clutch produced a turning circle of only 3.57m, the high speed clutch 10.85m. By eighth gear this had risen to 57m and 173m respectively. It was also possible to conduct a neutral turn (turning on the spot) by engaging the steering gear while the main clutch was disengaged.

When all was going well, all of this was hidden from the driver. The steering wheel controlled the hydraulics, activating the left or right clutches, and switching from the low speed clutch to the high speed clutch and back as required.


A large number of modifications were introduced during the production run of the Tiger I, although not enough to justify a change of designation. Most elements of the steering and transmission needed modifying, often because the original version wasn't strong or reliable enough.

Front view of Panzer VI Ausf E (Tiger I)
Front view of Panzer VI Ausf E (Tiger I)

In August 1943 the requirement for running submerged was removed and replaced with one for a wading depth of 1.5m. This allowed many of the waterproofing elements to be withdrawn.

In May 1943, starting with the 251st machine, the HL 201 engine was replaced by a more powerful Maybach HL 230 P45.

In February 1944 a new type of road wheel was introduced. These had steel tires with rubber cushions, and the number of road wheels per axle was reduced from three to two, reducing the number of rows of wheels from six to four. The first and fourth rows had wheels in the 2nd, 4th, 6th and 8th positions. The second and third rows had wheels in the 1st, 3rd, 5th and 7th positions. The new system was thus the same width as the old rail tracks. From the outside this was the opposite arrangement to the earlier system - the first version had an outer wheel in the first position, the new version had an inner wheel in that position. 

One of the biggest changes was hardly visible from the outside. Starting with the 392nd turret, on the 391st machine, a new turret was used. The external shape was the same, but the cupola, pistol port, loader's periscope, armour guard for the ventilator, details of the hydraulic traverse, counterbalance for the gun, ball bearing race for the turret ring and other components were changed. The new commander's cupola was the most visible of these changes, and had seven periscopes in place of the vision slits.


Henschel received eight production contracts for the Tiger I.

The first, in July 1941, was for three trial chassis.

This was followed by the first contract for series production, for 100 tanks armed with the 88mm gun.

The third contract had already been issued by April 1942, and was for 200 tanks armed with the 7.5cm Kw.K.42 L/70 gun. In July 1942 the alternate gun was cancelled, and all Tiger Is were to be completed with the 8.8cm gun. 285 of the first 300 tanks were expected to be ready by 12 May 1943 in time to take part in Operation Citadel, the last major German offensive on the eastern front.

A fourth contract, for 124 tanks, was placed in August 1942.

Tiger I knocked out by PIAT, Italy, 1945
Tiger I knocked out by PIAT, Italy, 1945

In October 1942 the decision was made to start production of the VK 45.03 (Tiger II) in September 1943, but despite this a fifth contract for 250 Tiger Is was placed in November 1942.

The sixth and largest order, for 490 tanks, was placed by March 1943.

The seventh order, the last one for new vehicles, was placed by 12 April 1943, and was originally for 118 tanks, but was later increased to 128.

The eighth contract, eventually for 54 tanks, covered new tanks that were built by reusing armour from badly damaged vehicles returning from the front.

Separate orders for the turrets went to Wegmann Waggonfabrik of Kassel.  

Krupp completed the first armoured hull by 3 January 1942 and the first turret by 11 April 1942. Henschel had completed the first running Tiger by 15 April 1942, and it was demonstrated to Hitler only five days later, on 20 April (Hitler's birthday).

Perhaps inevitably, it took some time for production to get up to speed. One machine was delivered in April 1942, but there was then a gap until August, when eight of that month's ten were accepted (putting production twenty tanks behind schedule). After that things improved. In November 25 tanks were delivered, beating the target of 18 (only 17 were accepted, but most of the rest were accepted in December instead). From then onwards acceptances normally equalled the monthly target, and production ran at a steady, although not terribly impressive rate, between then and August 1944. At the peak of production, in the spring of 1944, 104 tanks were accepted in April and 100 in May. The original target of 285 tanks in time for the 1943 offensive was almost met.

One drop in production, in the autumn of 1943, demonstrated the impact of the Allied bombing campaign. Henschel was hit in October, and missed their target in October, November and December, falling 79 tanks behind.

Eventually 1,346 Tiger Is were produced over three years.

Overview of Tiger I

Tiger I from the front-left
Tiger I from the front-left

The Tiger I was a very powerful, very well armoured tank, more than capable of defeating any Allied tank of the period in a head-to-head clash. However it did have flaws. The design was quite elderly, so it lacked the sloped armour of more modern designs (much to the surprise of some of the first German tank crews to get the new tank). It really was too heavy, both for its own engine and for the rest of the German army's equipment. The same engine was fine in the 45 ton Panther, but underpowered for the heavier Tiger. This meant that engine and transmission were often under too much pressure, causing some of the frequent breakdowns.

The second problem was that the Tiger was too heavy for the German army's standard tank recovery vehicles. It needed two or three half-track prime movers, each of which could pull 18 tons, to safely move the Tiger, and these vehicles were in short supply. It was possible to use other tanks to tow a damaged Tiger, although very careful instructions had to be issued. One Tiger could also tow another, but only at the risk of damaging the new tank's own running gear. Many Tigers had to be destroyed by their own crews because they had been immobilised by mines, by hits to the running gear or to

The reliability problems can be over-stated - they weren't unusual for the time, and could be dealt with by the normal engineering services of the German Army, but by 1944-45 those services were starting to crumble, and with the Germans retreating on all fronts tanks that would have been recovered in earlier years were lost. However figures from the Eastern Front show that it was very rare for more than half of the Tiger I's officially available to actually be operational. The peak (for both the numbers available and operational) came at the start of June 1944, when 242 out of 301 Tigers Is were operational, but 108 of these tanks were lost during the month. 


Pz Bef Wg mit 8.8cm KwKL/56

A number of Tiger's were converted into command tanks (Panzerbefehiswagen). The coaxial machine gun was removed to allow for an extra radio to be carried in the turret. Two versions were produced. Both carried a Fu 5 radio with a 10 W transmitter in the turret The Sd.Kfz.267 also carried a Fu 8 with 30 W transmitter in the hull, and the Sd.Kfz.268 carried a Fu7 with a 20 W transmitter in the hull.

The Panzerbefehlswagen kept the crew of five, but their roles were changed. The gunner became a signals officer/ gunner and the loader became a radio operator/ loader.


The Tiger was issued to four main types of units and a number of smaller units.

Panzer VI Tiger I from the Front
Panzer VI Tiger I from the Front

Ten independent heavy tank battalions were set up (Schwere Heers Panzer Abteilung 501 to 510).

Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland was equipped with the Tiger - first as a single company, then from 1 July 1943 a full battalion.

Single Tiger companies were formed for the panzer regiments of the first three Panzergrenadier Divisions (1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, 3rd SS Panzer Division Totenkopf).

Three Tiger battalions were formed (schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, 102 and 103). The 101st and 102nd were allocated to SS. Panzer Korps, the third (103rd) was issued with the Tiger I for training, but converted to the Tiger II before entering combat.

Four of the first eight Tigers went to the 1st Platoon, 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung, part of Army Group North. Three of the four arrived with faulty transmission, and although they were accepted by the army in August, they didn't make their combat debut until 16 September 1942.

The original plan was to use the Tiger as the spearhead for each Panzer division. At first each company was to have 20 Tigers, but this was then changed to a mixed setup, with nine Tigers and ten Panzer IIIs in each company. The idea was that the light tanks would act as scouts and messenger tanks, leaving the Tigers free to concentrate on combat. The first five independent heavy tank battalions (501st to 505th) and the companies allocated to the Grossdeutschland and first three SS panzer regiments used this configuration.

After the Tiger's combat debut in the east, this plan was abandoned, and on 3 March 1943 a new organisation was adopted, with fourteen Tigers and no light tanks in each company. All but one of the existing units had converted to the new setup by June 1943.

Eastern Front

The majority of Tigers were used on the Eastern Front, where they were able to defeat much larger numbers of Soviet tanks, but without having much impact on the overall course of the war, simply because there were never enough of them. The Tiger arrived on the Eastern Front while the Germans were still able to carry out large scale offensives, and took part in Manstein's recapture of Kharkov and the battle of Kursk.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 502

1 Company, 502nd schwere Panzerabteilung was the first unit to get the Tiger. Four were rushed to the Leningrad front in August 1942. Three of the four needed repairs almost immediately, and it isn't entirely clear when the Tiger had its combat debut, with either 29 August or 22 September given as alternatives. On the 22 September one of the Tigers became bogged down, and had to be destroyed by the Germans.

The original 2 Company, 502nd, moved to the front with the 503rd in December 1942-January 1943, and became 3. Company, 503rd, on 10 February 1943. The 502nd was then given new 2nd and 3rd companies, which received their Tigers in May 1943 and reached the front in early July. As an example of the reliability issues, on 29 February 1944 the unit had 71 Tigers, but only 24 were operational. The 502nd fought on the Eastern Front for the rest of the war, mainly with the Tiger I. It was renamed as schwere Panzer Abteilung 511 on 5 January 1945.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 501

The 501s was reformed after being lost in Tunisia, and in November was posted to the Eastern Front in November 1943. It entered combat with 45 Tigers, and received six reinforcements in June 1944. However it suffered so heavily in the Russian summer offensive that it had to be withdrawn and was re-equipped with the Tiger II.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 503

The 503rd had been promised to Rommel as a Tiger (P) unit. After the failure of that tank it was equipped with 20 Tiger Is and 25 Panzer IIIs in November-December 1942, but then had to be sent east to try and repel the Soviet winter offensive of 1942-43. In April 1943 it received 23 new tanks, bringing it up to the new 45 tank standard. It took part in the battle of Kursk, and remained on the Eastern Front until April 1944, when it was withdrawn.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 505

The 505th was the last unit to be formed with the mix of Tigers and Panzer IIIs. It was equipped by March 1943 and joined Army Group Centre. By the time it took part in the battle of Kursk it was on the new setup and had 31 Tigers. The 505th remained on the Eastern Front until it was decimated during the Soviet summer offensive of 1944, and in July 1944 it returned to Germany to convert to the Tiger II.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 506

Panzer VI Tiger I from the Rear
Panzer VI Tiger I from the Rear

The 506th was the first to be formed with 45 Tigers in three companies. It was equipped by August 1943 and went to the Eastern Front in September to join Army Group South. It was completely refitted with 45 new Tigers in April 1944, but in August went back to refit with the Tiger II.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 507

The 507th was formed on 23 September 1943 and had 45 Tigers by 25 February 1944. It went to the Eastern Front in March, and was kept up to strength (it was actually over strength in December). The unit lost all but seven Tigers between 14 January and 1 February 1945 during the Russian winter offensive of 1945, and none of them were operational. On 6 February it returned to Germany to convert to the Tiger II.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 509

The 509th was formed on 9 September 1943 and had 45 Tigers by 30 September. It went to the Eastern Front in early November, and fought with the Tiger I for nearly a year, before in September 1944 returning to Germany to convert to the Tiger II.

schwere Panzer-abteilung 510

The 510th was the last of the ten independent heavy tank battalions. It was formed on 5 June 1944 and gained 45 Tigers by the end of July. It went to the Eastern Front in late July 1944 and remained there to the end of the war. During this period it received six replacement tanks, and only used the Tiger I.

Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland

Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland received it's first Tigers in January 1943, when a dedicated heavy armoured company was formed (13.Kompanie/ Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland). This company was set up on the original scheme, with a mix of Tigers and Panzer IIIs, and was sent to the front in February 1943. The company swapped to the all Tiger setup in May 1943.

At the start of July 1943 the regiment was officially given a full heavy tank battalion, III.Abteilung/ Panzer Regiment Grossdeutschland. This was to contain three companies - 9, 10 and 11 - and a total of 45 Tigers. The original 13.Kompanie became the new 9.Kompanie. It was the only one to fight with the regiment during the Battle of Kursk, which it began with 14 operational Tigers.

The other two companies were transferred from the independent tank battalions. 10.Kompanie was 3.Kompanie/ H.Pz.Abt.501 and 11. Kompanie was 3.Kompanie/ H.Pz.Abt 504. These units, and the staff company, joined the regiment on 14 August 1943, with 31 Tigers. III.Abteilung received 72 replacement Tigers during 1944, suggesting that it suffered fairly heavy losses during the year. It continued to use the Tiger I to the end of the war.

Panzer Abteilung Kummersdorf

This unit got the last five Tiger Is to be issued, on 23 February 1945. It joined Panzer Division Mucheberg and was sent east as part of the attempts to stop the Russian advance. The unit absorbed the remnants of other defeated units, and ended up with 10 operational Tigers on 15 April 1945.

North Africa

The Tiger began to earn its formidable reputation amongst the Western allies during the fighting in Tunisia. Soon after the Allied invasion of North Africa, the Germans began to flood reinforcements into Tunisia. Amongst them was schwere Heeres Panzer Abteilung 501 (heavy tank battalion 501). The original plan had been to give this unit the Porsche Tiger, as its air cooled engine was believed to be superior in the desert, but after the failure of that vehicle the unit got the normal Tiger I instead. By the end of November the unit was fully equipped with 10 Tigers and 25 Panzer IIIs, and late in the month the unit began to be shipped to Tunisia. The movement wasn't completed until 24 January 1943. Part of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 504 followed the 501st to Tunisia in March 1943.

The Tiger made its combat debut in North Africa on 1 December 1942, but it took until 22 January 1943 before any were lost. On that day two were lost - one in action and one captured but later destroyed by the British. Although a significant number of Tigers reached Tunisia, there were rarely many more than ten actually operational, and one bad incident could be very costly. On 1 March seven Tigers were lost in a single day when they hit mines near Beja and had to be blown up because they couldn't be retrieved.

On 19 April the British captured a Tiger I from the 504th. This tank is now at the Bovington Tank Musuem. On 21 April the British captured a Tiger largely intact after its crew abandoned it during a clash with Churchill tanks on the Djebel Djaffa. This tank went to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds,

The Tiger gained a formidable reputation during the Tunisian campaign. Individually it was a very powerful tank, with impressive armour that could only be penetrated by Allied tank guns at very close range or a little further away from the side. It's 88mm gun could penetrate the armour on just about any Allied tank at most combat distances. However some vulnerabilities did begin to emerge. It could be stopped by a hit to the complex running gear. The 6 pounder anti-tank gun could penetrate the side armour at 500m, making the Tiger more vulnerable when attacking Allied positions than when fighting on the defensive.

The limited number of Tigers were used as a mobile fire brigade during the Tunisian campaign, at least as long as enough fuel was available. By the time of the final battle of Tunis the Germans had almost run out of tank fuel, and their armour was increasingly immobile.

The survivors from the 501st surrendered in Tunisia on 12 May 1943. The unit was reformed on the Eastern Front, where it was almost wiped out once again, and had to be with withdrawn to reequip with the Tiger II.


Two of the independent tank battalions fought in Italy. On 13 April 1943 OKH ordered that six Tigers should stay on Sicily. These came from 2 Company, Panzer Abteilung 504, while the rest of the unit moved to Tunisia. Another 12 Tigers were gathered before the Allied invasion, all of which came under the command of the 504th, itself part of the Panzer Division Hermann Goring. The Tigers were used to attack the US landing zone on 11 July 1943, but naval gunfire defeated them,. Within three days ten had been destroyed to avoid capture, and only one of the seventeen survived to escape to Italy.

Panzer VI Ausf E/ Tiger I on Sicily
Panzer VI Ausf E/
Tiger I on Sicily

The second Tiger battalion to be posted to Italy was the 508th, which was sent to Italy in January 1944 to attack the Anzio beachhead. The Tigers had to de-train 200km from the battlefield, and suffered a 60% failure rate as they drove across the mountain roads on the way to the battle, Once there they were largely repulsed by naval gunfire. Once again the reliability problems caused heavy losses. As the Germans began to retreat from the Gothic line in May-June the 508th lost 32 Tigers between 25 May and 14 June, most of which had to be destroyed by the Germans. Many of these had even made it back to a tank workshop at Cori, but needed too much work.

The reformed 504th was sent back to Italy in response to the Allied successes in May 1944, but lost half of its tanks during June. The 504th remained in Italy until the end of the war, but only received 27 replacement tanks during this time - 12 new received in July 1944 and 15 left behind by the 508th when it went back to Germany in early 1945 to convert to the Tiger II.

D-Day and Normandy

Only three Tiger combat units actually took part in the fighting in Normandy, but this campaign also included the single most famous incident involving the type, when Michel Wittmann single-handedly broke up an Allied column that had reached Villers Bocage and that threatened to split the German line. On 12 June 1944 part of the 22nd Armoured Brigade entered Villers Bocage. Wittman's unit 2.Company/ schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, was just over a mile away to the east. Wittmann reacted quickly, leapt into one of his company's tanks, and raced into Villers Bocage, where he destroyed five Cromwells and a Sherman Firefly, as well as a number of Stuart light tanks, Sherman forward observer tanks (without a main gun), and a large number of half-tracks and Bren Gun carriers. A little later 1.Company also attacked, and between them Wittman and his colleagues forced the British to abandon their attack. What isn’t as well known is that Wittman's Tiger was actually lost during the attack, after suffering a hit in the running gearing. 1 Company also lost three Tigers. All four were permanent losses. Although the Tiger had proved itself to be a fearsome weapon, there were so few of them that even this success wasn't at a sustainable exchange rate. It also demonstrated that the Tiger was vulnerable to anti-tank guns.

The three Tiger units to see action in Normandy were schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 102 and schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503. None of these units were present on D-Day, and the first didn’t arrive for a week (the 101st). The 102nd entered combat in the second week of July, and the 503rd on 11 July. At full strength these three units would have contained around 135 Tigers, but they were rarely at full strength. Even so they made a big impact on the

One demolition unit used the Tiger I. This was schwere Panzer Abteilung 301st (FKL), which was equipped with a mix of Tiger Is and the B IV demolition tank. On 6 November it had 31 Tigers and 66 B IVs. The Tiger was used to remotely control the demolition tanks, but the B IV was fairly sizable, and was a fairly easy target. The 301st remained on the Western Front to the end of the war.

A series of smaller units were formed as the Allies approached Germany from east and west. These included:

Schwere Panzer Kompanie Hummel

This was formed as schwere Panzer Kompanie Einsatz Dunkirchen at the  Paderborn training ground. In September it was sent west to try and stop the British offensive at Arnhem, and was renamed as sch Panzer Kompanie Hummel. It remained on the Western Front, and on 8 December 1944 became part of sPzAbt 506.


This was formed with 15 Tigers on 21 October 1944


This was formed with three Tigers on 30 January 1945

Ersatz Brigade Grossdeutschland

This was formed on 31 January 1945, and had two Tigers (presumably only part of its equipment).

Pz.Abt.500 Paderborn

This unit had 17 Tigers and was formed on 2 April 1945

SS Units

The history of the SS Tiger units is rather more complex, and is perhaps best dealt with on a unit-by-unit basis.

On 15 November 1943 three heavy Panzer companies were formed, one each for SS-Panzer Regiments 1, 2 and 3, in turn part of the same number SS Panzer Division.

The first of these was formed as 4 Company, SS-Panzer Regiment 1, and was part of the 1. SS Panzer Division Liebstandarte der SS Adolph Hitler. It later became 13 Company, SS-Panzer Regiment 1. This company took part in Manstein's re-occupation of Kharkov in February-March 1943, and the battle of Kursk. In July 1943 the division moved to Italy. The company then formed part of the new Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, the heavy tank battalion for the new I.SS-Panzer Korps, and its history follows that of the larger unit.

The second formed as 8. company of SS-Panzer Regiment 2, 2.SS-Panzergrenadier Division Das Reich. It fought at Kharkov and Kursk, and throughout the rest of 1943. In mid-December the Tigers remained behind when most of the division moved west to regroup, but had to destroy its last few Tigers on 25 December. A handful of Tigers were delivered early in 1944, but these were lost by April when the company was ordered west.

The third formed as 9. company of SS-Panzer Regiment 3, 3.SS-Panzergrenadier Division Totenkopf. Once again the company fought at Kharkov and Kursk, and after that remained on the Eastern Front for the rest of the war, operating the Tiger I.

Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 was formed on 19 July 1943 as the heavy tank battalion for I.SS-Panzer Korps (confusingly this was a new unit, the original I.SS Panzer Korps have just been renamed II.SS-Panzer Korps). In August the 101st moved to Italy with the Liebstandarte, where it remained until October. The 101st was then split, with part returning to the Eastern Front with the division and part moving to the training area at Maisieres in Belgium. By April 1944 the survivors from the Eastern Front had joined the training unit, and the 101st expanded back to three companies (1./ 2./ and 13./). The 101st moved to Normandy in the days after the Allied invasion, but didn't reach the front for a week. It suffered a constant stream of losses in July-August, and lost all of its Tiger Is during the retreat from Normandy.

Schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 102 had a rather confusing history. It was originally formed as a HQ staff for the three Panzer companies in Panzer Regiments 1, 2 and 3. In June 1943 it became the heavy tank battalion for II.SS Panzer Korps. In August it operated under 2.Ss Panzer Division Das Reich. It reformed with the Tiger II.

In October 1943 the unit was withdrawn from the front, and reformed at Augustustdorf, where in November it officially became schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 102. Under this designation it fought in Normandy, entering the battle in the second week of July. The unit suffered a series of losses during July and August, and lost of its Tigers during the retreat from Normandy. It then reformed with the Tiger II.  


Although the Tiger was a powerful weapon, suggestions that it 'dominated the battlefield' are untrue. By the time the Tiger was available in significant numbers during 1943 the Allies dominated the battlefield. The Tiger could indeed dominate a small portion of the battlefield, but there were never enough of them to do more than that. When the Tiger entered combat the Germans were already fighting on two fronts - the Eastern Front and in North Africa. By the time production peaked in 1944 they were faced with the imminent Allied invasion of France, and were already fighting on the Eastern Front and in Italy. Even in the peak month of April 1944, when 104 were accepted, that was only enough for 30 for each front.

To put this in some context, the British began the invasion of Normandy in June 1944 with nearly 350 Sherman Fireflies (the nearest British rival to the Tiger), and converted another 400 between D-Day and August 1944. The majority of Tigers actually went to the Eastern Front - 74 in the peak month of April 1944, and 40 even in June 1944. On the Eastern Front the Russians produce nearly 4,000 of the heavy IS-2, so not only was the Tiger always outnumbered, it was almost always outnumbered by tanks with a decent chance of taking it out.

One of the problems is that many eyewitnesses were expecting powerful German tanks to be Tigers, so if your tank was knocked out by a long gun version of the Panzer IV, which looked very similar from the front, it was natural to believe you'd been facing a Tiger. Likewise, when your 75mm shell bounced off the frontal armour of a Panzer IV. The limited numbers of Tigers that actually reached combat means it is often possible to be certain that none were actually present in incidents where Allied eyewitnesses report having fought them.

The Tiger had originally been designed as an assault tank, with the idea that a small formation of heavy tanks would provide the armoured spearhead for an attack, supported by lighter tanks to protect the flanks of the advance and scout for the Tigers. In this role the Tiger was not a great success - although it's thick armour was effective against most enemy tank weapons, the Allies had anti-tank guns capable of taking it out, especially if they got a chance to fire into the side armour. A small number of Tigers leading an attack would always thus be vulnerable. It was most effective as a defensive weapon, where its powerful gun and thick frontal armour meant it could take a heavy toll of advancing Allied forces.

Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf E (Sd Kfz 181)
Tiger I

Production: 1,354 (July 1942 to August 1944)
Length: 8.45m
Hull Width: 3.7m
Height: 2.93m
Crew: 5
Weight: 57 tons
Engine: Maybach HL210P45
Max Speed: 38 km/hr
Max Range: 140 km
Armament: One 8.8cm KwK36 L/56 main gun, two 7.92mm MG34 machine guns






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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (1 September 2017), Pz Kpfw VI Ausf E (Sd Kfz 181) 'Tiger I' , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_tiger_I.html

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