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Jets, Bombers and Rockets: Nazi Germany's 5 'Wonder' Weapons of World War II

Battlefield survivability was a key asset of the Tiger I. Its main 88mm gun assured it could destroy any Soviet or Allied tank with a frontal shot out to 200 yards, while American-made Sherman tanks with their improved 76mm cannons had to be within 100 yards to do the same to a Tiger I. Against Russian tanks such as the T 34/85 and JS-122, the Tiger could penetrate frontal armor up to 400 and 100 yards, respectively, whereas the T 34/85 had to be within 100 yards and the JS-122 500 yards to knock out a Tiger frontally.

The Tiger I made its combat debut near Leningrad on August 29, 1942. The original goal for the Tiger was to form strike groups of 20 tanks to act as spearheads for the panzer division’s lighter tanks. By June 1943, Tiger companies contained 14 tanks. During the war Tiger Is were employed in Tunisia, Sicily, Italy, Russia, and northwestern Europe. They constituted 11 Schwere Panzer Abteilungen (Heavy Tank Battalions) with about 45 tanks in each outfit, three SS heavy tank battalions, and five ad hoc tank companies.

A measure of the worth of the Tiger I was revealed in the kill number of Soviet tanks reported destroyed by the 503rd and 506th Heavy Tank Battalions in Russia for the period July 1943 to early January 1944. A total of 714 enemy tanks and 582 antitank guns were destroyed in exchange for 37 Tiger Is knocked out. On the Western Front “Tiger Panic” gripped every GI and Tommy that faced the Tiger, and it usually took three or more Allied tanks, working in concert and angling for a rear or side shot, to bring down one of these iron behemoths.

The King Tiger

Not satisfied with the Tiger I, the German hierarchy demanded a bigger tank. The designers at Henschel obliged with the Tiger II, more popularly referred to as the King Tiger. Built on the same chassis as the Tiger I, and using almost the same automotive parts as that vehicle, the essentially modified Tiger I weighed in at 70 tons when fully combat loaded.

Armor protection was increased on the upper and lower hull to 150mm and 100mm respectively, sloped at 40 degrees. Side and rear armor was 80mm, while the front turret plate was 180mm thick at 80 degrees and its sides were 80mm at a 60-degree angle. The powerful 88mm KwK 43 L/71 cannon served as its main armament and 78 rounds were carried. Two 7.92mm machine guns were mounted on the vehicle to deal with enemy infantry.

With a maximum cruising range of 106 miles, the Tiger II traveled at a rate of 26 miles per hour on roads and about 10 miles per hour cross country. Its ability to negotiate obstacles was about the same as that of the Tiger I.

About 500 King Tigers were produced during the war, most serving with the German heavy tank battalions on the Eastern Front. Like the Tiger I, the Tiger II was a terrifying weapon on the battlefield but far too costly and time consuming to build to alter the course of the war in Europe.

The Gigantic Maus Tank

If there is any doubt that the crazed minds running the Third Reich, especially that of Adolf Hitler, never gave up the quest to have the biggest and best engines of war, the Maus puts that issue to rest. The Maus, or Mouse tank, weighed 180 tons. Hitler first saw a full-scale wooden model of this monster armored fighting vehicle at the Führer Headquarters in East Prussia in May 1943. He was ecstatic over the model.

The Maus could only be built in late 1944. Its top speed was only 12 miles per hour, and it was plagued with mechanical problems, according to Albert Speer, Reich Minister for Armaments and War Production. Speer and Inspector General of Panzer Forces, Colonel General Heinz Guderian, were vehemently opposed to the Maus tank program, but Speer’s own deputy, Carl Otto Saur, who secretly coveted his boss’s post, encouraged Hitler to demand the weapon be produced.

Porsche, one of Germany’s premiere prewar car designers and manufacturers, and since 1939 a major arms producer, was tasked with building the Maus, first designated the Type 205 Maus. Referring to the Maus concept, Hitler exclaimed to Porsche: “If I had a hundred of these, I could turn back the Russians!” But by the time the war ended, Nazi Germany had built only four Maus prototypes, none of which every saw action.

The Panzer VII, as the Maus was also known, at 33 feet long and 12 feet wide, was 50 percent larger than the King Tiger. It weighed 207 tons when prepared for combat. It was massively protected with 200mm of armor plate on its front at a 35-degree angle, 180mm on its sides, and 160mm safeguarding its rear. The turret’s front was covered by 240mm of armor; the sides of the turret had 200mm of protective armor.

The Maus’s main gun was a 128mm cannon, later intended to be replaced by a 150mm cannon. Instead of the usual pair of machine guns found on most tanks of the time, the Maus would sport two 75mm antitank weapons along with a cannon mounted on the turret’s roof to act as an antiaircraft weapon.