Key point: The tank destroyer was impressive but was not always used correctly. Even then, it was not enough to change the tide of war.
World War II tanks usually had aggressive- or ferocious-sounding names, such as Hellcat, Panther, or Tiger. Yet the tendency was not universal, as with British Cruisers or the American M-3 Honey. But perhaps there was never a more unfortunately named beast than the German assault gun Sd Kfz 184, first known as the Ferdinand and later modified, as if it was an improvement, to the Elefant.
The weird and less than martial names assigned this 68-ton fighting vehicle were oddly fitting. Technically a member of the formidable Tiger family, the Ferdinand’s history is rather strange. To know the Ferdinand, one has to begin with the history of its better-known cousin, the Tiger, Germany’s first successful World War II heavy tank.
Germany entered World War II without a true heavy tank, relying on a mixture of light and medium vehicles and the superb and revolutionary military doctrine of the blitzkrieg. Nonetheless, German interest in a heavy “breakthrough tank” predated the invasion of Poland, and as early as 1937 the Reich authorized the Henschel Company to begin work on a prototype. This project does not seem to have been a high priority; the success of the panzer divisions obviated the need to do more than buy additional Mark III and Mark IV medium tanks. By May 1941, however, a design order had been issued to Henschel for the heavy tank designated VK4501 (H) and another to Porsche, VK4501 (P). Any German complacency was banished dramatically when, during Operation Barbarrosa, the invasion of Russia in June 1941, Hitler’s elite panzer units confronted superior Soviet T-34 medium tanks and KV-1 heavy tanks.
Tigers, Hellcats and Elefants
By April 1942, both the Henschel and Porsche heavy tank prototypes were ready for trials, with initial production planned for July. Evidently the Henschel design proved superior to Porsche’s and was selected for production. This tank became the excellent Tiger I, 1,354 of which were built by the end of the war. But Dr. Porsche did not wait for the completion of the trials before beginning production of his own heavy tank, with the result that 91 Porsche hulls had been completed by the time Henschel was awarded the contract.
In Nazi Germany, private defense contractors flourished, provided they produced a decent product and had the right political connections. This was true in the democracies as well, but under the Nazis a convoluted web of ideological intrigue and corruption further muddled the process. Ultimately, gaining favor with the top contracting official, Hitler, trumped all else. Hitler took a personal interest in the development and trials of the Tiger, as well as many other weapons. Did Dr. Porsche think the heavy tank contract was his, based on his favored relationship with Hitler? Or was Porsche instructed to start production of the Tiger as a hedge against an unsuccessful debut by the Henschel model?
Some sources presume the latter, despite the wasteful logic of producing a castoff design, both from the manufacturer’s and the regime’s standpoint. Porsche’s turning out Tiger hulls well after Henschel won the contract and had entered full production seems unlikely. Rather, Porsche plausibly gambled that his complex but innovative design, coupled with good connections, would secure the contract. When the gamble failed, Porsche and the Reich were left with 91 heavy-tank hulls and no contract to fill. Hitler decided to make use of the rejected tank hulls by converting them into assault guns. But this was not the simple solution it appeared to be. Nazi assault guns had their own peculiar politics.
Weaponry Upgrades Begin a Tank Arms Race
Germany pioneered the assault gun as a weapon type and was its chief exponent during the war. Originally assault guns, such as the ubiquitous Stug III, were intended to support the infantry detachments of panzer divisions. The Stug was a Mark III tank with its turret removed, enabling it to accept a larger 75mm gun, more powerful than the 37mm or 50mm guns in the turreted tank. This insight, that a turretless vehicle could carry a much larger gun, allowed the Germans to keep otherwise obsolescent designs, such as panzer Marks I through IV, in action throughout the war.
All manner of armaments and designs were utilized to build the vehicles, including captured weaponry such as the Russian 76.2mm guns used on the successful Marder assault vehicles. As the war progressed, the role of the assault gun changed from infantry support to mobile tank destroyer. Throughout the war the terms were used interchangeably, which is not to say that every assault gun was an effective tank destroyer, or vice versa.
The Henschel Tiger (Tiger I) entered service in the autumn of 1942, armed with the powerful 88mm L/56 gun, and eventually earned a formidable reputation as one of the war’s great tanks. But Hitler still sought a vehicle that could carry the longer and more powerful 88mm L/71. The bigger gun did not fit into the Tiger I’s turret. A solution availed itself in the Porsche hulls, which could be converted to build a turretless tank destroyer to accommodate the bigger gun. The result was the Ferdinand, named in honor of Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. Orders were placed in September 1942, and 90 Ferdinands were completed by May 1943, in time for the German summer offensive in the East.
Enter the ‘Ferdinand’
The Ferdinand was a powerful and technically impressive weapon. Atop the rear half of its hull sat a high, fully enclosed armored superstructure containing the big 88mm gun. Like all German assault guns, the forward-facing weapon had only a limited traverse.
Overall, the Ferdinand looked like a modern self-propelled gun, but was more heavily armored. Designers bolted an additional 100mm of armor to the hull, giving the Ferdinand twice the frontal armor of the Tiger I. With the larger gun and extra armor, the Ferdinand topped the scales at a massive 68 tons, which was 11 tons heavier than the Tiger I. Moving the machine required mounting a pair of Maybach HL 120 engines in the central hull. These replaced original Porsche air-cooled engines that, while innovative, proved unreliable in the Tiger trials.
Despite the tandem engines, the Ferdinand was still ponderous and had an inferior power-to-weight ratio than either the Tiger I or the later and heavier Tiger II. The Ferdinand required a crew of six, one more than usual in a German tank, and the vehicle lacked any mounted secondary armament, such as a bow machine gun.
The Ferdinand’s designers, with Hitler’s apparent blessing, intended the assault gun to serve as a heavy-tank destroyer capable of using its gun to hit Soviet tanks at safe ranges, and well-armored enough to absorb the heaviest counterfire. Its great weight limited its mobility and thus restricted its effective use to tactical defense, but the operational and political demands of the German 1943 summer offensive, Citadel, would demand an additional role.
Operation Citadel, on the Eastern Front, was conceived amid ambivalence and controversy within the German High Command. Hitler, for once, was unenthusiastic, reeling under the triple blows of Stalingrad, defeat in North Africa, and the increasingly deadly Allied bomber offensive. Citadel was not to be a grand strategic throw of the dice, but rather an operation in which the Germans planned to “pinch off” a huge Russian salient centered on the city of Kursk. Some German commanders wanted to launch the attack in May, but the army was exhausted, and Hitler and elements within the High Command favored an offensive only after units could be increased in strength and reinforced with new weapons, among them the Ferdinand.
The Iron Willed General’s Tank Army
Marshaling and organizing the German tank arm was the responsibility of General Heinz Guderian, in many ways the father of the panzer forces. Guderian had fallen from Hitler’s grace in 1941, but by 1943 the Führer needed Guderian and reinstated the strong-willed general. Guderian faced the difficult task of gathering sufficient German armor to launch a successful summer offensive. He wanted authority over both tanks and assault guns, the latter now making up about a third of German tank production. But assault guns were technically the province of the artillery, and the artillerists were loath to surrender authority over these prized weapons, the only means, they claimed, by which an artillery officer might win the Knight’s Cross. The parties struck a compromise, placing only the heavy assault guns under Guderian. This meant that the Ferdinand, the heaviest assault gun, was a “tank” again.
While the Germans assembled their armies, the Soviets developed their defenses around Kursk in depth. Multiple defensive lines featured thick belts of trenches, minefields, and antitank gun batteries, plus local, operational, and strategic armored reserves. A great mass of mortars and heavy artillery supported the defenses at every level. The Soviet positions were designed to defeat the classic German blitzkrieg by first savaging the German “breakthrough” infantry divisions then wearing down the follow-on panzer divisions. Ultimately, mobile reserves would exploit the depleted German attackers.