The King Tiger
Contributed by Michael Burnside
The King Tiger, sometimes referred to as the "Royal Tiger," was the last of the German heavy tanks to see combat in World War II.The King Tiger was a step in an evolution of German tank design that produced larger and heavier tanks with each design.
The Germans didn't begin the war with the largest tanks. During the invasion of France, Germany faced heavier and better armed armored opponents than themselves. The tanks that were intended to serve as the main battle tanks of the German armed forces, the Panzer III and IV, had not yet been produced in sufficient numbers for the invasion. Light tanks such as the Panzer II and even tanks intended only for training purposes such as the Panzer I, were pressed into battle.
The inadequacies of German tank design were soon exposed, however. In North Africa, and particularly on the Eastern front, German tank designs lacked sufficient armor protection and a gun powerful enough to defeat enemy armor. In response, the German army up-gunned the Panzer IV and welded additional armor plates onto the vehicle for more protection. These modifications allowed the Panzer IV to remain a viable tank throughout the war, but it was clear that the Panzer IV could never be upgraded enough to be the best tank fielded in the war.
Not satisfied with having a tank that was merely adequate, the Germans developed two new tank designs, the Panther and the original Tiger tank. Strong argument can be made for either of these vehicles as being the best tank of the war. The Panther had a high velocity cannon, sloped armor, and decent mobility once problems with its road wheels and transmission were worked out. The Tiger did not have sloped armor, but the armor it had was thick. It mounted the feared 88 cannon, although in reality the Panther's long barreled 75 provided almost the same armor penetration capability.
While both these vehicles suffered from some initial design problems, the effect they had on the battlefield was extraordinary. When first introduced, the Panther and Tiger completely outclassed any enemy armor that they met on the battlefield. These tanks allowed the Germans to take on armored forces that outnumbered them over three to one and still win. The biggest problem with both vehicles was that there were never enough of them.
The Panther and the Tiger both required more production time and material to produce than the Panzer IV. This was particularly true with the Tiger which required twice as long to build as a Panther. The result of this was that where Tigers and Panthers could put in an appearance, they could slow down the allied advance, but there were never enough of them to stem the tide. As the war progressed and the numbers of tanks arrayed against the Germans grew to levels of twenty to one or more, the Panther and Tiger were simply not enough. Not even a Tiger can deal with twenty Sherman tanks at a time. (Michael Whittman not withstanding. This Tiger commander managed to destroy over twenty British vehicles in a single engagement but they were nicely lined up for him on a narrow approach and not all of them were tanks.
The Germans were faced with two choices. They could attempt to match the tank production levels of the armies allied against them or they could attempt to produce tanks that were so technically advanced that they could defeat the numbers arrayed against them. The Germans attempted to take the technical path, quality over quantity. But in truth, neither choice actually offered a path to victory.
The Germans lacked the manufacturing capacity to match the United States or the Soviet Union even in the best of times, and with German factories undergoing round the clock bombing, it was certainly not the best of times. The choice taken, an attempt to win through technology, was equally doomed. German engineering could certainly produce some amazing equipment, but Germany lacked the time to perfect advanced war machines. The same story emerged for each "wonder" weapon that Germany produced; from the ME 262 jet fighter to the King Tiger II, a lack of production capacity, materials, and time prevented what were the best war machines designed in the war from ever reaching their full potential. The end result of the war could not be changed simply by trying to produce new equipment. Germany's fate was sealed by poor strategic decisions.
The King Tiger was designed to be technologically advanced enough to fight in an environment in which it would always be outnumbered. It was created in the hope it would keep the Germans with a technological advantage over the Soviets before the Soviets could even catch up to the existing Tiger and Panther designs.
The Tiger II was armed with a long barreled version of the 88 cannon. The long barrel created a higher muzzle velocity giving the cannon even better armor piercing capability than the powerful cannon mounted on the original Tiger. The King Tiger's frontal armor was impenetrable by any Allied tank.
However, like all of the German "wonder" weapons of the war, the stress of manufacturing such a complex machine while under constant Allied pressure forced compromises in the Tiger II's design. The Germans were forced to rely on an existing engine design that was already in mass production to power the King Tiger. This engine was the same one that powered the late war Panther design. In the Panther, the engine was adequate. In the much heavier King Tiger, it was underpowered. This also meant that the King Tiger suffered from poor fuel mileage as a much higher RPM was needed to move the tank. This was a serious liability for a German army facing severe fuel shortages.
The Germans also failed to ever produce a suspension for the King Tiger that was up to the task of handling the stress of the massive vehicle. As a result, the King Tiger constantly broke down.
More King Tigers were lost to mechanical shortage or fuel starvation than were ever lost in actual combat.
In combat, the King Tiger was indeed formidable in the right circumstances. Its cannon could punch through enemy armor at extreme ranges. Allied tanks could only hope to defeat a King Tiger by working together in large numbers, flanking the Tiger II and firing at close range into the German tank's rear and side armor, and its tracks.
However the King Tiger's limited mobility made it a poor weapon for offense. Indeed, in its most famous battle in the West, the Battle of the Bugle, few Tiger IIs ever got the chance to engage as the Ardennes forest limited where the giant tanks could travel. The slow speed of the Tiger IIs resulted in many of the heavy tanks being left behind as German commanders tried to quickly break through Allied lines. Panther and even captured Sherman tanks lead the way in the offensive. King Tigers were brought up to reduce pockets of resistance. The King Tiger had a role to play but it was ironically not suited to be the front edge of the Blitzkrieg style of warfare that had brought the German army such success.
The King Tiger was better suited for the defensive role where it could act almost as a mobile armored anti-tank bunker. A single King Tiger could bring an entire allied armored offensive to a halt for a time. If the Tiger commander was good enough, the King Tiger could pull back just before getting flanked, move to a new ambush position, and frustrate the allied advance once more in exchange for a few acres of ground.
King Tigers were an ideal weapon for extracting a heavy price for every foot of German soil that was captured. But they were not a war winning weapon. They were too immobile and reliant upon fuel supply and repair for offense and they were too difficult for them to be manufactured in enough quantity for them to turn the tide on defense.
The King Tiger was the last of the German heavy tank designs to see combat in World War II, but it was not heaviest nor the last heavy tank designed. That honor goes to the monstrosity known as the Maus, a 207 ton behemoth that would have dwarfed the King Tiger. Had it ever been produced, the Maus would have exaggerated the strengths of the King Tiger in terms of fire power and armor protection as well as exaggerated its weaknesses in mobility, reliability, and produce-ability. The Maus was a vehicle that was doomed to failure. The war came to a close before any were ever made.