The Tiger Tank–Overcoming Misperceptions

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A thorough study of various battles and engagements from Allied unit histories and published historical accounts reveals strong biases within the Allied forces. Among the Allied armies, units continually reported that Tiger tanks were in their sector or that they had destroyed Tiger tanks. A casual reading of many Allied accounts during the battle of the Bulge, for example, would indicate that at least half of the German tanks employed there were Tigers. Actually, no more than 136 Tigers were involved, with the vast majority of German tanks in the battle being Panthers and Panzer IVs. The Soviet reports also have to be treated with the same skepticism in some instances. Soviet propaganda, for example, claimed that 700 Tigers were destroyed during the battle of Kursk. This number is five times more than the actual number engaged in the fighting.

Generally, this phenomenon should be attributed to the formidable reputation of the Tiger among its adversaries, and sort of parallel to the insistence by many American infantrymen that they were being continuously shelled by “88s,” when, in fact, they were almost always being bombarded by the 105mm and 150mm howitzers standard to a German divisional artillery regiment. Just as the deadly 88mm artillery piece was the most dreaded German gun, so also was the Tiger the most feared-and therefore, most often misidentified- German tank.

To obtain the most accurate picture possible, this study uses many different sources. Tank kills reported by the heavy tank battalions against the British and U. S. were verified in specific engagements from a variety of records, including unit histories, after-action reports, diaries and other personal accounts. Not surprisingly, Soviet tank losses were often omitted in their unit histories and in personal accounts, making an accurate count much more difficult to obtain. Several western sources provide some analysis of Soviet tank losses in several battles and were used to evaluate German claims.

A source of confusion in reporting tank losses and kills is the definition of what constitutes destruction of a tank. Tanks of World War II, especially the Tiger, were robust and resilient and could be repaired and put back into action if they were recovered and brought back to a maintenance unit. One side may have claimed the destruction of an enemy tank, but in reality, that tank was repaired and returned to service.

The German heavy tank battalions submitted regular reports on Tigers destroyed and also on the quantity that were operational. An unserviceable tank required the unit to make a report, identifying the chassis number, a survey of the damage, and an estimate of the time needed for the repairs. A second report was made at a higher level, indicating the number of tanks in working order for the unit, and the number of tanks under repair.” In all cases, clarity and accuracy were required. This makes obtaining an accurate accounting of the number of German tanks destroyed easier with one notable exception. The records for the King Tiger equipped units, especially those fighting the Russians, are incomplete because the unit war diaries and other unit records were either destroyed or captured by the Soviets.

The accuracy of German reporting, in terms of Tiger losses, can be verified literally almost down to the last vehicle against American and British forces. This is in part from the outstanding historical coverage by both the American and British military establishments at many different levels, from small unit journals to official army level reports. Included in these are a number of battle studies, including the “official histories,” which received exhaustive coverage after the war, incorporating documents and sources from all sides. Another reason is that there were never more than three heavy tank battalions committed against American and British forces at any one time, thereby reducing the overall number of Tigers employed against them. In other words, when American and British forces destroyed a Tiger, it was a noteworthy event.

The result is that, at least in the West, the German daily strength reports- and therefore losses-can be verified with a relatively high degree of accuracy. Usually, in cases where a conflict exists, records and a small amount of research will reveal the truth. For example, on 17 December 1944, in the Ardennes, a King Tiger of SS-Heavy Tank Battalion 501 was immobilized and subsequently abandoned as a result of a strike by P-47 “Thunderbolt” fighter bombers of IX Tactical Air Command. Later, as German forces withdrew, the commander of an American Sherman from the 740th Tank Battalion reported destroying it. Although both forces justifiably claimed the King Tiger, the end result was still only one loss for the Germans.

Given the credibility of German reporting in the West, there is no reason to doubt the veracity of German Tiger losses in the east. Caution must be exercised, however, in assessing the number of tanks operational. As a member of the 1st Panzer Division stated:

I must honestly confess that since 1942 we always reported we had 15-20 percent less than our actual combat-ready strength available to be put into action . . . . Any commanding general of any panzer division at that time was very happy if he could assemble 20 or 25 tanks. For that reason, as we well knew, if he reported we had 60 tanks, we were sure that on the next day, as we defended on our own front line 40 kilometers wide, we would have only 20 tanks because the high command would take them away to where the more critical points were.

Due to extended frontages and heavy demand from higher echelons, it is logical and possible that some heavy tank battalions employed in the East also followed this unofficial practice of reporting fewer vehicles operational than were actually available. Unit commanders, however, wanted replacement vehicles as soon as possible and a replacement vehicle could only be requested if a vehicle was lost, not just inoperable, so it is highly likely that the heavy tank battalions would have been meticulously accurate in reporting the loss of any Tigers. The primary obstacle to overcome in researching engagements in the East against Soviet forces is confirming the kills made by Tigers.

While their accounts and reporting may indeed be accurate for the most part, German sources normally fail to provide a contextual background for the account, especially at the operational level of war. If an opponent’s actions are included in the German account at all, it is usually cursory, superficial, focused at the tactical level, and does little to help explain the reasons behind German actions that resulted in failure or success. German sources may simply state, for example, that a large number of Tigers were destroyed by their own crews to avoid capture after they had broken down. They fail to include in their account how or why those Tigers were threatened with capture and what action their opponents had taken to put those vehicles in an untenable position. Rather than being an impediment that cannot be overcome, however, the lack of context in German accounts simply reinforces the necessity of using sources from as many different perspectives as possible.

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2 thoughts on “The Tiger Tank–Overcoming Misperceptions

  1. Occasionally I will wake up stupid, perhaps today. Is there a link to the “this study” or is this article “this study”? I’d like to read “this study” if it is a separate text and would you be so kind as to post a link. If there is no separate study and if this article is the “study”, then well done. It ties together deception, confusion, self-deception, wilful lying, falsehooding, camouflage…. all the factors that make any ‘history’ of war, less than fully grounded in factual truth or accuracy. cheers

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  2. For anybody with an interest in the subject I highly reccomend any of the books by Jentz and Doyle if you can find them as Thomas Jentz past away a few yeas ago.

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