Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Tiger Tank: German armor and why the Tiger I got made.

 Chillin' on a Tiger's back.

   I got pretty much burned out on Middle East rioting this week so I thought I might cheer myself up and write about Tiger tanks instead. World War II armor is the kind of thing that cheers me up when I'm down. There's something about the way Germans over engineered their tanks that makes me happy. It's like even in the midst of WWII the Germans were still churning out vehicles that could win not just militarily but also on style points. Even if those production actuary tables cost them the war.

   Sure, the Germans could never win. Not with 30 million Russians punishing them on the OstFront and the Americans and British running an effective strategic bombing campaign on German factories. That's why it's fun to play "what if" with history and wonder what the Germans were thinking when they came up with the Tiger Tank. My favorite  thing is that the Germans named their new main battle tank in 1942 the "Tiger". Well actually Ferdinand Porsche gave it that name. Officially, it was known as the 'Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausführung H' which is somehow not as sexy. What was it with the WW II era Germans and sexily named vehicles? The Americans at the time tended to name their tanks after stuffy old Civil War generals like "Sherman" and "Lee". Hell, the British named one of their best tanks of the war the "Matilda", which is possibly the worst name for a tank ever. It conjures up an image of your granny in combat boots. Psychologically damaging yes, but not that scary.

   But the Germans?

   They called their tank a "Tiger" just to mess with the average infantryman's head.

   The Tiger I gets a lot of flak for being expensive, heavy, slow and prone to break downs. And it was all of those things. But it was also a damn fearsome piece of engineering. Before we talk about all the fun stuff though, first let's get to the point in the war where the Germans realized a need for such a heavy tank.

   When the Germans invaded France in 1940 and first unveiled Guderian's Blitzkrieg to the world they did so with some pretty shitty tanks. Panzer Is, IIs and IIIs. The Panzer I had paper thin armor, a two man crew and sported two 7.92mm machine guns. Yes, you heard that right. No anti tank gun of any kind fitted. One fifth of German armor in the Battle of France in 1940 was composed of Panzer Is. Keep in mind here that the French at the time were no slouches in tank design. They fielded the frighteningly powerful Char B1 which was a heavy tank with 40mm armor, a 47mm anti tank gun and, I shit you not, a 75mm howitzer poking out of its belly. Sure, it was slow and heavy but it could blow Panzer Is and IIs in half in a pitched battle.
The French Char B1. An ugly fucker but formidable if driven by anyone but the French!
   The French fielded it wrongly though and used it as some kind of movable arty piece and tended to spread them out across the front rather than bunching them together in single tank units where they might have been more effective against the oncoming Wehrmacht tank rush. The Germans merely bypassed the isolated Char B1s when they stumbled across them (the one thing the light Panzers had on their side was a top speed of 50 km/h). There is one fun story though of a Char B1 taking out 13 German Panzers IIIs and IVs (the 'better' German tanks in 1940) and returning to its staging point having been hit 140 times to no effect by German guns. Even Guderian himself relates a similar story and laments his casualties after a face to face encounter with one of these Gallic behemoths.

   But it was Barbarossa that finally convinced the Germans that they needed to up the ante in terms of heavy armor design. The single catalyst was a little Red Army tank known as the T-34. Probably the best tank of WW II, maybe the best tank ever, it deserves its own post, but, in short, it was a beast and an all rounder. Fast, with sloped armor, a reliable diesel engine, and with a nasty 76.2mm short barrel high velocity gun, the Russians spammed these from factories behind the Urals and in many cases rushed them onto the battlefield unpainted. Suddenly, for the first time in the war, the Wehrmacht found its armor totally outclassed. The German's best medium tank in 1941, the Panzer IV, was hurriedly fitted with a new 75mm gun and as much extra armor slapped on as the engine could handle and designated the Panzer IV Ausf. G. It still proved vulnerable to the oncoming Russkis.

   And this was where the Germans lost their minds.

   Much has been made of the lack of a German heavy bomber in WWII. The Battle of Britain was lost because the Luftwaffe design philosophy in the 1930s (and due to the Versailles restrictions) stipulated/forced a preference for fast twin engined medium bombers like the He 111 or the Ju-88 over four engined heavy bomber designs. That Germans were capable of producing such aircraft as the Focke Wulf Fw 200 'Condor' clearly proves that there were no technological hindrances to production of four engine bomber designs. Those Condors the Germans did produce were used as maritime patrol craft rather than pressing some variant into service as a heavy bomber and getting with the strategic bombing program that the Americans and British had such a hard on for.

   It was perhaps because of such mistakes that the Wehrmacht went decidedly overboard when they dreamed up the Tiger I. They overcompensated. Of course, another factor in this whole equation was Hitler himself, who was always interfering in every design decision and invariably fucking things up royally. When the Germans pulled off the amazing feat of producing the world's first jet fighter, the ME-262, Hitler decided it would make a good "fighter bomber" when it was obviously way ahead of its time as a high altitude interceptor. A war changing weapon was hobbled and never given its chance to turn the tide, relegating it to the dustbin of "what if's" in military history. Hitler similarly messed with the Tiger design.

   In response to the T-34, two designs for a 45 tonne plus tank were submitted. One by Ferdinand Porsche and the other by Henschel & Son, a German locomotive manufacturer. The Porsche prototype looked decidedly T-34ish in the chassis with a familiar Tiger I turret bolted on top. Porsche was zealous enough to produce over a hundred working prototype chassis before he was told that the Fuhrer had gone with Henschel's design.

The failed Porsche prototype chassis was later adapted as the Elefant self propelled anti tank gun.

   Henschel won the contract and the Tiger went into production in August 1942 at a rate of twenty five per month. Yes, I shall repeat that. Twenty five per month. Meanwhile, the American 'arsenal of democracy' Chrysler factories were churning out tin can Shermans at a rate of fourteen per day.

   Could the Germans have matched this production rate if they had a simplified generic tank? No they could not have. Could they have made life easier for themselves and come up with a simpler tank design than the Tiger I that would have made production faster? Absolutely. But they pressed ahead with their over engineered and expensive uber tank nonetheless. So what was the rationale here?

   For one thing, part of the Tiger was already proven technology. That was the main gun. The legendary German 88mm. Originally an AA gun, Rommel proved its lethality in North Africa as a potent tank killer. It had a high muzzle velocity and a remarkably flat shell trajectory which made it ridiculously easy to hit targets and penetrate 150mm of frontal armor at ranges beyond 2 km. Those stats spoke for themselves so it was understandable that the Germans would try anything to marry such a weapon to a chassis that could accommodate it.

An 88mm in action.
   Of course, having figured out how to mount an 88 in an enclosed turret and mounting that turret on a chassis that could carry it, you'd already pushed up the cost of your new tank significantly. Now, after having spent that money, the designers were almost forced to up armor the thing. I mean, after creating something so formidable attack wise you didn't want to lose it to a couple of pot shots from a Sherman or T-34. So the Germans packed on the armor plate to the point where its engine, suspension and gearbox met the stress limits of structural steel. The Tiger operated right at those limits which is pretty badass if you ask me.

   But obviously there were many design sacrifices made.

   The Maybach diesel engine was underpowered for the 60 tonne weight but even despite this the Tiger I managed the respectable top speed of 38 km/h. That's something often overlooked when historians rag on the Tiger. It was slow but not 'useless slow' as many like to portray it as. It was actually quite maneuverable and even boasted less ground pressure than a Sherman due to its 725mm wide tracks, unprecedented at the time. One big weakness was the traverse time of the turret. Housing that heavy 88mm meant a hydraulic motor was needed and it took a full minute to turn through 360 degrees. That proved problematic especially because Russian and Allied tactics dictated that when attacking a Tiger the attack was carried out by four tanks, all of them attempting a flanking maneuver to land a rear shot where the Tiger's armor was weakest. This could work but involved the sacrifice of three Shermans/T-34s before the fourth one could flank in and land a rear shot to the Tiger's ass.

   58,000 Shermans and 36,000 T-34s were produced as opposed to a mere 1350 Tiger Is. And here comes the fun part. The Wehrmacht even went so far as to develop a whole new variant, the Tiger II, otherwise known as the 'King Tiger"! Holy shit, run for the hills! Seriously, the dying German Reich under assault on two fronts attempted to rectify the Tiger's design problems and win the game on style points alone. You must admit the King Tiger wins on every metric except rationality and a reliable drive train. But doesn't it look damn beautiful?

The King Tiger. They accidentally the whole German war economy.

   I'm not sure if the Allies or Russians got to try out the four tank attack tactic on a lurking King Tiger. It must seem to the generals that sacrificing three cheap tanks to kill a really expensive one looks good on paper when you break out the actuary tables. But when you look at it from a purely human perspective, you are talking about sacrificing 15 guys to kill 5.

   Stupid me, getting all philosophical and viewing war from a "human" perspective. That's never the way to look at it right? Because, I suppose, if humans had any real perspective, there would be no wars at all.