Of all of the operational combat tanks fielded in the World War 2, the German "Tiger II" (or "King Tiger") was the best combination of armor protection, firepower and mobility to be had. While showcasing excellent strengths, she was ultimately limited by the deteriorating German war effort in the closing months of the conflict. Therefore, she was produced in low numbers and underpowered for her size and mechanical issues were never fully ironed out.
Planning for the Future
Even with the Tiger heavy tank entering production, German authorities sought to improve armor protection and penetration capabilities and issued a new requirement for a newer heavy tank design. Part of the initiative lay in foreseeing any future Soviet tank developments to avoid the surprises by the German Army that occurred with the introduction of the T-34 medium and KV-1 heavy tank series. Hitler ordered the Army Weapons Office to undergo such a development in August of 1942 with the requirement to include 150mm frontal protection in a "ballistics-friendly" design and mount a 8.8cm (88mm) main gun.
Henschel Versus MAN
Henschel and MAN were tabbed for developing the next generation of German heavy tank. Both were proven contenders with the former having addressed a similar issue with their Tiger tank development and the latter delivering the formidable Panther series. In essence, the next incarnation would be a culmination of both awesome tank lines to produce one excellent fighting machine for the German Army. Dr. Ferdinand Porsche, maintaining close ties to Hitler, was asked to submit a design as well.
Porsche Inevitably Jumps in
Porsche was quick to respond with a 150mm-armed design based on their earlier, failed Tiger bid - the VK4501(P) prototype that was rejected against a previous Henschel submission (this to become the Tiger proper). Once again, the German Armaments Ministry rejected the Porsche design mainly due to its use of the 152mm main gun for the armament of choice was still the fabled German "88" L/71 KwK 43 - the 8.8cm gun that began life as a Flak 41 anti-aircraft system and graduated to field use as an artillery tank-killer before being fitted to a tank for the first time in the original Tiger. Porsche delivered a revised design (Porsche Type 180) that fielded the "88" in Wegmann-produced turrets specific to the Porsche tank but its selection of a complicated gasoline electric transmission system doomed it to history for it required heavy amounts of copper to produce - a resource in short supply for war time Germany. So sure was Porsche that his design would be selected that his assembly lines had already begun outputting Wegmann turrets in quantity for expected use in his new tank.
The MAN and Henschel Submissions
MAN delivered their own prototype as the VK4502(MAN) but this one was slated to become the "Panther II", a successor to the original Panther then in service. However, the Panther II was never to be for the war ended before production of the new machine had begun. By this time rival Henschel delivered their VK4502(H) prototype which was reject but led to the revised VK4503(H). The program was largely delayed for the requirement was changed and updated based on the changing war situation for Germany. As the new Panther heavy tank series was finding success of its own on the battlefield, facets of what made it a successful design was soon incorporated to the new heavy tank project. Originally, it was envisioned that the new tank would borrow heavily from the original Tiger tank design. The VK4503(H) design was finalized in October of 1943 complete with Henschel-specific Krupp turret assembly. The Henschel submission was eventually elected to succeed the Tiger as the "Tiger II", in effect making the original Tiger the "Tiger I". The newer version was assigned the formal designation of PzKpfW VI Tiger II Ausf. B (SdKfz 182) and production began - concurrently with the Tiger I - at Henschel Kassel plant in December of 1943. Full-scale production was reached in January the following year and would continue on through March of 1945 to which the war ended in May. The first 50 (three prototypes and forty-seven production models) Tiger II tanks were produced with the original Porsche-Wegmann turrets before switching over to a Henschel-Krupp produced version. Production established a rate of 20 vehicles per month by late 1944 though an optimistic value of 145 was, at one point, envisioned. However, peak production never surpassed 85 units per month.
Tiger II Production
In all, between 474 and 485 Tiger IIs were eventually completed (sources vary), this total owing to the complexity of the tank's design and scarcity of available production components. As the war noose closed about Berlin, factories soon were overwhelmed with Allied troops and production was cancelled in turn. The Tiger II and the Panther tanks shared the distinction of being the only two German turreted German tanks to see production through to the end of the war. At any rate, two Panther tanks could be completed for every single Tiger II. To help full mounting losses towards the end of the war, attention was given specifically to production of Panther tanks to which Tiger II production fell to just twenty-five examples in March of 1945.
Early production Tiger IIs had a telescoping snorkel installed to facilitate water fording but this novel feature was ultimately removed in future production forms. "C-hook" provisions were added to the front hull in April of 1944 and a turret guard was installed for improved protection - the latter update forcing a redesign of the engine compartment screens. The area of the glacis plate near the radio operator's bow machine gun was slightly revised to incorporated a noticeable notch. The gunner's vision sighting device, originally a binocular TZF 9b/1 piece, was not a monocular TZF 9d scope. The commander was now given a vane sight at his position. The gun barrel was also redesigned from a single-piece tapered cylinder to a two-piece stepped unit. The drive sprocket was redesigned to showcase just nine teeth as opposed to the original's eighteen. Track connection links were revised as solid over the original's flexible component to help minimize the tracks jumping off of the drive sprocket. In August of 1944, Tiger IIs were factory painted in a three-tone scheme and the commander's cupola was now bolted on instead of welded. In January of 1945, a new standardized paint scheme was introduced. Tracks were changed from a double-link design to a single-link, bringing back the original 18-spike drive sprockets as a result. Only a few production Tiger IIs featured the single-link track arrangement before the Tiger II facility was overrun by the Americans.
The Tiger II in Combat
The Tiger II entered combat for the first time in May of 1944 along the Eastern Front against the Red Army of the Soviet Union. It was not until August of 1944 that Tiger IIs were fielded against the Allies in the West following the successful Normandy landings in June. These Tiger IIs were, in fact, seeing combat in Normandy proper. After experience against this new enemy tank, the Allies dubbed the mammoth machine the "King Tiger" and "Royal Tiger". The Germans nicknamed her the "Konigstiger" (also meaning "King Tiger").
Tiger II Walk-Around
Externally, the Tiger II shared more in line with the design of the Panther tank that the original Tiger. She fielded similar sloped armor facings that were not common with the straight-faced Tiger Is. The vehicle was crewed by five personnel made up of the driver, radio operator, commander, loader and gunner. The driver was situated in the left front of the hull with the radio operator to his right. The gunner was at the front left of the turret with the commander behind and the loader to the right of the turret. The main gun split the turret spacing into two equal halves. The turret was powered and mounted a longer-barrel version of the "88" (88mm / 8.8cm / 3.46in KwK 43) as found on the original Tiger. Sides and rear were heavily sloped. The hull was equally heavily sloped especially along the glacis plate. Armor was thick, particularly along the front hull. Defense was handled by a 7.92mm machine in the bow (operated by the radioman) and a 7.92mm coaxially fitted to the turret. Like other tanks in the arena, the Tiger II crew was issued standard AP (Armor Piercing) rounds for use against enemy tanks and HE (High-Explosive) rounds for use against infantry concentrations and fortifications. 84 x 88mm projectiles were generally carried aboard while 5,850 x 7.92mm ammunition was supplied.
The Hull, Turret and Engine
The hull component was generated from all-welded steel construction and showcased a thickness of 150mm at the glacis plate. Likewise, the turret assembly was also of welded steel and delivered up to 100mm of armor protection. The engine - the same Maybach HL 230 P30 12-cylinder gasoline engine as found on later production Panther tanks - was conventionally fitted to a rear compartment. This proved a liability for the heavier tank for it substantially lowered the power-to-weight ratio of the system, creating a more plodding beast than the lighter Panther was. This directly affected overall mobility for the Tiger II line and proved a detriment to a fluid, mobile front. The engine supplied the massive machine a top speed of 24 miles on road and 11 miles off road. Range was 75 miles on paved surfaces and 50 miles cross country. It was said that the Maybach powerplant used up to 400 gallons of gasoline for every 100 miles of travel.
Tiger II Tracks
Like the Panther and Tiger before it, the Tiger utilized an arrangement of overlapping road wheels with a wide set of tracks. This was a proven method to help displace the immense weight of the vehicle across more ground area and allow the tank to (conceivably) pass over softer terrains such as mud or snow (such uneventful passage was not always guaranteed however). Wider tracks were a proven commodity with the Soviet T-34 (as were large road wheels) and American tank crews soon learned of their own limitations when operating their thinly-tracked M4 Shermans across similar terrain. Such overlapping road wheels soon proved problematic in the winters of the Soviet front where there were prone to collecting mud, stones and snow only to freeze overnight. This then required crews to free their road wheels before moving out for the day - of note is that the Soviet Army was also keen in launching their attacks during this critical morning hour. The track drive sprocket was mounted at the front while the track idler was at the rear. An armor "skirt" protected the portion of the hull just above the road wheels.
Tiger II Firepower Advantage
In practice, the inherent strengths and limitations of the Tiger II soon shown through. She was extremely well armored, capable of withstanding direct hits from any Allied tank gun. Her improved 88mm main gun - coupled with excellent German optics and a trained crew - ensured that the Tiger II held the advantage in range and firepower for a true "shoot first" capability. Allied tanks had to approach within the range of her main gun to apply their brand of firepower and even then, multiple Allied tanks were required to destroy a single Tiger II.
Tiger II Limitations
The sheer size and weight coupled with an underpowered engine led to a less-than-mobile battlefield centerpiece. Her engines proved unreliable as the weight of her components added strain and stress during the length of her short tenure and fuel shortages added to many-a-Tiger II being abandoned by the crew. Spares were a logistical nightmare to come by for the German war infrastructure was taken apart by the Allied air campaign and subsequent ground advances. In effect, more Tiger IIs were lost to abandonment than to actual combat attacks. Regardless, the Tiger II developed a mythical reputation for the Allied tankers "lucky" enough to come across her.
The Jagdtiger Tank Destroyer
The Tiger II family line grew with the arrival of the Jagdtiger B which utilized the same chassis. This beast was armed with a 128mm main gun and intended as a dedicated tank destroyer. The gun was fitted into a fixed superstructure that offered only limited traverse and required the tank to be turned in the direction of the enemy for full effectiveness. However, only 48 or so of these creations were produced before the end of the war.