World War II: Tiger I Tank

Tiger I Tank
Tiger I in North Africa, 1943. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-554-0872-35

The Tiger I was a German heavy tank that saw extensive service during World War II. Mounting the 88 mm KwK 36 L/56 gun and thick armor, the Tiger proved formidable in combat and forced the Allies to alter their armor tactics and develop new weapons to counter it. Though effective on the battlefield, the Tiger was badly over-engineered making it difficult to maintain and expensive to produce. Additionally, its heavy weight increased fuel consumption, limiting range, and made it hard to transport to the front. One of the iconic tanks of the conflict, over 1,300 Tiger Is were built.

Design & Development

Design work on the Tiger I initially began in 1937 at Henschel & Sohn in response to a call from the Waffenamt (WaA, German Army Weapons Agency) for breakthrough vehicle (Durchbruchwagen). Moving forward, the first Durchbruchwagen prototypes were dropped a year later in favor of pursuing the more advanced medium VK3001(H) and heavy VK3601(H) designs. Pioneering the overlapping and interleaved main road wheel concept for tanks, Henschel received permission from WaA on September 9, 1938, to continue development.

Work progressed as World War II began with the design morphing into the VK4501 project. Despite their stunning victory in France in 1940, the German Army quickly learned that its tanks were weaker and more vulnerable than the French S35 Souma or the British Matilda series. Moving to address this issue, an arms meeting was convened on May 26, 1941, where Henschel and Porsche were asked to submit designs for a 45 tonne heavy tank.

Tiger I
Tiger I tank under construction at Henschel plant. Bundesarchiv, Bild 146-1972-064-61 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

To meet this request, Henschel brought forward two versions of its VK4501 design featuring an 88 mm gun and a 75 mm gun respectively. With the invasion of the Soviet Union the following month, the German Army was stunned to encounter armor that was vastly superior to their tanks. Fighting the T-34 and KV-1, German armor found that their weapons were unable to penetrate the Soviet tanks in most circumstances.

The only weapon that proved effective was the 88 mm KwK 36 L/56 gun. In response, WaA immediately ordered that prototypes be equipped with the 88 mm and ready by April 20, 1942. In trials at Rastenburg, the Henschel design proved superior and was selected for production under the initial designation Panzerkampfwagen VI Ausf. H. While Porsche had lost the competition, he provided the nickname Tiger. Essentially moved into production as a prototype, the vehicle was altered throughout its run.

Tiger I


  • Length: 20 ft. 8 in.
  • Width: 11 ft. 8 in.
  • Height: 9 ft. 10 in.
  • Weight: 62.72 tons

Armor & Armament

  • Primary Gun: 1 x 8.8 cm KwK 36 L/56
  • Secondary Armament: 2 x 7.92 mm Maschinengewehr 34
  • Armor: 0.98–4.7 in.


  • Engine: 690 hp Maybach HL230 P45
  • Speed: 24 mph
  • Range: 68-120 miles
  • Suspension: Torsion Spring
  • Crew: 5


Unlike the German Panther tank, the Tiger I did not draw inspiration from the T-34. Rather than incorporate the Soviet tank's sloping armor, the Tiger sought to compensate by mounting thicker and heavier armor. Featuring firepower and protection at the expense of mobility, the Tiger's look and layout were derived from the earlier Panzer IV.

For protection, the Tiger's armor ranged from 60 mm on the side hull plates to 120 mm at the front of the turret. Building on the experience garnered on the Eastern Front, the Tiger I mounted the formidable 88 mm Kwk 36 L/56 gun. This gun was aimed using Zeiss Turmzielfernrohr TZF 9b/9c sights and was renowned for its accuracy at long range. For power, the Tiger I featured a 641 hp, 21-litre, 12-cylinder Maybach HL 210 P45 engine. Inadequate for the tank's massive 56.9 tonne weight, it was replaced after the 250th production model with a 690 hp HL 230 P45 engine.

Featuring torsion bar suspension, the tank used a system of interleaved, overlapping road wheels running on a wide 725 mm (28.5 in) wide track. Due to the extreme weight of the Tiger, a new twin radius type steering system was developed for the vehicle. Another addition to the vehicle was the inclusion of a semi-automatic transmission. Within the crew compartment was space for five.

This included the driver and radio operator which were situated in the front, as well as loader in the hull and the commander and gunner in the turret. Due to the Tiger I's weight, it was not capable of using most bridges. As a result, the first 495 produced featured a fording system that allowed the tank to pass through water 4 meters deep. A time consuming process to use, it was dropped in later models which were only capable of fording 2 meters of water.

Tiger I
Tiger I crew making track repairs in the field. Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-310-0899-15 / Vack / CC-BY-SA 3.0


Production on the Tiger began in August 1942 in order to rush the new tank to the front. Extremely time-consuming to build, only 25 rolled off the production line in the first month. Production peaked at 104 per month in April 1944. Badly over-engineered, the Tiger I also proved expensive to build costing more than twice as much as a Panzer IV. As a result, only 1,347 Tiger Is were built as opposed to over 40,000 American M4 Shermans. With the arrival of the Tiger II design in January 1944, Tiger I production began to wind down with the last units rolling out that August.

Operational History

Entering combat on September 23, 1942, near Leningrad, the Tiger I proved formidable but highly unreliable. Typically deployed in separate heavy tank battalions, Tigers suffered high breakdown rates due to engine problems, the overly complicated wheel system, and other mechanical issues. In combat, Tigers had the ability to dominate the battlefield as T-34s equipped with 76.2 mm guns and Shermans mounting 75 mm guns were unable to penetrate its frontal armor and only had success from the side at close range.

Due to the superiority of the 88 mm gun, Tigers often had the ability to strike before the enemy could reply. Though designed as a breakthrough weapon, by the time they saw combat in large numbers Tigers largely were used to anchor defensive strong points. Effective in this role, some units were able to achieve kill ratios exceeding 10:1 against Allied vehicles.

Despite this performance, the Tiger's slow production and high cost relative to its Allied counterparts made such a rate insufficient to overcome the enemy. Through the course of the war, the Tiger I claimed 9,850 kills in exchange for losses of 1,715 (this number includes tanks recovered and returned to service). The Tiger I saw service until the end of the war despite the arrival of the Tiger II in 1944.

Fighting the Tiger Threat

Anticipating the arrival of heavier German tanks, the British began development of a new 17-pounder anti-tank gun in 1940. Arriving in 1942, QF 17 guns were rushed to North Africa to help deal with the Tiger threat. Adapting the gun for use in an M4 Sherman, the British created the Sherman Firefly. Though intended as a stopgap measure until newer tanks could arrive, the Firefly proved highly effective against the Tiger and over 2,000 were produced.

Captured Tiger I
American forces with a captured Tiger I tank in North Africa, 1943. US Army

Arriving in North Africa, the Americans were unprepared for the German tank but made no effort to counter it as they did not anticipate seeing it in significant numbers. As the war progressed, Shermans mounting 76 mm guns had some success against Tiger Is at short range and effective flanking tactics were developed. In addition, the M36 tank destroyer, and later the M26 Pershing, with their 90 mm guns also were capable of achieving victory.

On the Eastern Front, the Soviets adopted a variety of solutions for dealing with the Tiger I. The first was to restart production of the 57 mm ZiS-2 anti-tank gun which possessed the penetrative power pierce the Tiger's armor. Attempts were made to adapt this gun to the T-34 but without meaningful success.

In May 1943, the Soviets fielded the SU-152 self-propelled gun which used in an anti-tank role proved highly effective. This was followed by the ISU-152 the next year. In early 1944, they began production of the T-34-85 which possessed an 85 mm gun capable of dealing with the Tiger's armor. These up-gunned T-34s were supported in the war's final year by SU-100s mounting 100 mm guns and IS-2 tanks with 122 mm guns.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Tiger I Tank." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 29). World War II: Tiger I Tank. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "World War II: Tiger I Tank." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 24, 2023).