The heaviest tank produced during World War II, the Tiger II was also known as the King Tiger in literal translation of the German Königstiger, or Bengal tiger. At 63.5 tonnes (62.5 tons), it outweighed any other heavy tank deployed in appreciable numbers. Its 88mm (3.5in) KwK 43 L/71 high-velocity gun was the finest implement of warfare of its kind in the German arsenal when production began in earnest in mid-1944. Although the Tiger II was a formidable foe in combat, fuel shortages and mechanical failures resulted in a number of the massive tanks being abandoned in the field or destroyed by their crews to prevent capture.
Although many features of the Tiger II were actually ahead of their time, the tank was plagued by mechanical issues. Many of the problems stemmed from an unreliable drivetrain. Its tremendous weight strained the Maybach powerplant and resulted in frequent breakdowns, while the suspension was also suspect in varied weather conditions. The weight of the Tiger II contributed to difficulties with cross-country movement, particularly over marshy terrain and across rivers. Long-distance travel was accomplished on railway flatcars.
The cost of Tiger II production was prohibitive as well, several times greater per unit than that of other German tanks. Each Tiger II further required the investment of 300,000 man-hours to complete. Fuel consumption was extreme and limited the range of the Tiger II, particularly during the crucial hours of the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944.
Following their destruction of Army Group Centre in the summer of 1944, the Red Army launched a massive offensive across the Ukraine and into Eastern Poland against Army Group North Ukraine.
It culminated in the seizure of bridgeheads on the western bank of the Vistula River, notably in the region of Sandomierz. Despite their losses, the German forces were still full of fight and threw whatever units they could muster against the Soviet enclaves.
One of these units was 501st Heavy Tank Battalion, newly equipped with Tiger IIs and under the command of Major von Legat. In common with most of the German heavy tank units in the latter part of the war, the 501st was fated to become a ‘fire brigade’ force, transferred from place to place as the situation demanded and denied the time to build up an operational relationship with the units it supported.
However, its baptism of fire as a Tiger II unit was yet to come, as, on 6th August 1944, all serviceable vehicles were loaded onto flat cars and shipped to Poland, leaving behind 14 of these brand new, but temperamental monsters in the battalion workshops.
In the vicinity of Staszow, at the southwestern extremity of the Sandomierz bridgehead, the Soviet 6th Guards Tank Corps was in the van of the Russian advance; the village of Ogledow its latest conquest. However, resistance had hardened and reconnaissance led Corps HQ to order its tank units to pull back and establish defensive positions west of Staszow.
The German heavy tank battalion had just arrived in Poland with their new Tiger IIs (first unit with the Tiger II in the East). After unloading at Kielce, 45 Tigers set out for Ogledow 30 miles or so away, only 8 Tigers made it with the rest failing on route.
On 12 August 1944, a lone T-34/85 under Lieutenant Aleksandr P. Oskin of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade employed its 85mm gun against the latest German heavy tank, the Tiger II. Lt.Oskin was outside of Ogledow hiding in a corn field.
Oskin observed three Tigers along a dirt road and realized that from his concealed position he could fire at their flanks. At a range of 200m (656ft), Oskin ordered his gunner, Abubakir Merkhaidorov, to fire at the second tank in line. The shell penetrated the turret. Two more hits were scored. The fourth shell set the Tiger alight. As the first Tiger in line rotated its turret, Oskin got off four rounds. Three did little damage, but the fourth set the Tiger ablaze.
Blinded by smoke and fire from the other two German tanks, the third Tiger began to withdraw, but Oskin manoeuvred behind it. A single round destroyed the tank. Oskin had demonstrated what the T-34/85 could do in combat and was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union.
Prisoners captured prior to the action had revealed the arrival of a new heavy tank battalion, but the Russians appear to have had no idea that it was equipped with the Tiger Is replacement. In fact 501st Heavy Tank Battalion had only been able to muster 11 serviceable vehicles for this attack, due to the mechanical problems that dogged most of the late war German ‘super weapons’, which tended to be rushed into service without sufficient field trials.
With this assault beaten back the Soviet forces launched a counter attack, surprising the German forces and recapturing Ogledow. Amongst the spoils were three Tiger IIs, allegedly still in running order and abandoned by their crews. It is likely that these had suffered minor malfunctions and, as no other vehicle was capable of towing them, couldn’t be moved in time.
Other clashes followed, which, according to Soviet sources, resulted in the loss of more Tigers to the guns of Soviet tanks, including the IS-IIs of the 71st Independent Guards Heavy Tank Battalion. Seven King Tigers attacked Soviet positions from the height 272.1. Waiting in an ambush near Mokre Guards Lieutenant Udalov in his IS-2 tank (with number 98 painted on the turret, fitted with the D-25 cannon) let the German tanks to come to the distance of 700-800 metres and started firing. After few hits the first tank was set on fire and the second was knocked out. German tanks reversed and moved back. Udalov drove towards enemy and from the edge of the forest fired again. With one more tank burning Germans retreated. Soon King Tigers attacked again, this time towards Poniki, where Guards Lieutenant Beliakov’s IS-II set up the ambush. He commenced fire at the distance 1000 metres and after third round had set enemy tank on fire. The Germans realized the grave situation and retreated again.
During three days of continuous fighting between August 11th and 13th, 1944, in area of Staszów and Szyldów the 6th GTC destroyed and captured 24 enemy tanks, 13 of them were newly introduced King Tigers.
“From 9th to 19th of August 1944, the 52nd GTBr took 7 POWs and eliminated 225 soldiers and officers, destroyed one machine gun, captured three cannons, destroyed 6 tanks, 10 trucks and 2 other vehicles.”
Whatever the full truth, the German heavies had been poorly deployed in ill-judged frontal attacks and after the action Major von Legat was replaced as the unit commander.
Plans for the T-34/85 tank gained impetus following the pivotal Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. By March 1944, the upgunned variant of the original T-34 medium tank was being deployed with elite Guards units of the Soviet Red Army.
The long barrel of the high-velocity 85mm (3.35in) ZIS-S-53 gun enhanced the sleek, streamlined profile of the T-34/85 medium tank with its turret forward atop the hull. The design was characteristic of Soviet tanks for decades to come.
T-34/85 medium tank
The improved firepower of the T-34/85 medium tank came about following analysis of the T-34 performance during the Battle of Kursk. Three 85mm (3.35in) weapons were considered before a decision was made to mount the ZIS-S-53.
Following the victory at Kursk in July 1943, thwarting the German offensive Operation Citadel, the Soviets began to assess the performance of their T-34 medium tank in combat with the German PzKpfw V Panther and PzKpfw VI Tiger tanks. The T-34 was equipped with a 76.2mm (3in) main weapon, while the German tanks mounted high-velocity 75mm (2.95in) and 88mm (3.5in) guns respectively.
Both sides lost tanks in great numbers, but it was determined that the T-34’s main weapon did not provide sufficient muzzle velocity to penetrate German armour at a reasonable distance, compelling the Soviets to execute mass charges to close rapidly with the Germans in something resembling a Wild West shootout.
The initial conclusion was that the T-34 required more armour and additional plating was affixed to a small number of the tanks. During testing it was determined that the additional armour so eroded speed and manoeuvrability that the experimental model, the T-43, was discarded.
The Power of Suggestion
The designers came to the realization that the answer to enhancing the T-34’s combat capability laid in a new main weapon. Soviet records indicate that during a meeting on 25 August 1943, V.G. Grabin, the chief designer at Artillery Factory No 92, suggested arming the T-34 with a more powerful 85mm (3.35in) gun. Three separate designs were tested before the ZIS-S-53 gun, sponsored by General F.F. Petrov, was accepted. The gun was also used in the KV-85 and IS-2 heavy tanks, as well as the SU-85 tank destroyer.
The one-piece cast turret was enlarged to accommodate a third crewman, bringing the total to five, with the commander no longer required to serve the main gun in combat. The new configuration substantially improved the combat efficiency of the T-34/85. The commander was positioned in the rear of the turret to the left with the gunner in front of him and the loader on the right. The driver and a second machine gunner were positioned forward in the hull. The basic turret redesign was completed within weeks at Production Works No 112 in Gorky.
Other changes to the T-34/85 from the original T-34 included a commander’s cupola atop the turret with five vision slits. A hatch was installed in the turret roof for the loader and included ventilation slits to evacuate fumes from the main weapon and a turret-mounted 7.62mm (0.3in) DT machine gun. A second machine gun remained in the hull. Pistol ports were placed on the turret sides.
Due to space restrictions, the size of the fuel tanks was reduced, slightly curbing the T-34/85’s range compared to the earlier T-34. The heavier turret also required that stronger springs be introduced to the Christie suspension to adjust for the additional weight.
The exigencies of war greatly influenced the hurried production of the T-34/85. By 15 December 1943, on the strength of proven hull designs – three of which were in production with only slight differences between them – the Soviet State Defence Committee ordered production of the T-34/85 to commence. The turret itself, however, had not been finalized and its designers were required to catch up with the pace of hull production.
Production Works No 112 actually began manufacturing the new tank in January 1944 and the first T-34/85s were delivered to elite Guards armoured units in March 1944. During the spring, two more manufacturing facilities, in Omsk and Nizhnij Tagil, were assigned to produce the T-34/85. Most of the new tanks actually were produced in Nizhnij Tagil. Throughout wartime production, the turret and other components of the tank were refined and improved. At one time, the three factories were producing three slightly different turrets.
The T-34/85 indeed brought better combat survivability to Soviet armoured forces. The greater range of the new main weapon and its muzzle velocity of 780 metres per second (2559 feet per second) improved penetration of German armour plating with armour-piercing ammunition. Combat experience revealed the need for additional protection against German anti-tank weapons such as the shoulder-fired Panzerfaust. Additional thin plating or wire mesh was welded into areas around the hull and turret that were susceptible to ‘trapping’ shells or hollow charges. These were often successful at deflecting otherwise damaging strikes.
Approximately 22,500 T-34/85 tanks were produced during the war and production continued into the late 1950s. Variants included the OT-34/85, mounting an AT-42 flamethrower instead of the hull machine gun. The flamethrower was capable of emitting a stream of fire up to 100m (327ft).