How Nazi Germany Created the Biggest Tank of World War II
Midway through World War II, Nazi Germany decided to take its huge 128-millimeter antiaircraft gun and stick it on its biggest, baddest tank. The result was the monstrous Jagdtiger (“Hunting Tiger”), then heaviest tank to see action in World War II
Here's What You Need To Remember: It’s a fitting irony that the best recorded footage of the humongous tank destroyers was filmed as Ernst’s last three Jagdtigers rolled in an orderly formation into Iserlohn’s Schiller Square before assembled American troops and local civilians. This dignified act of surrender was arguably the finest moment of a beastly weapon of war.
During World War II, German factories churned out numerous turretless assault guns (Sturmgeschutz) and tank destroyers (Jagdpanzers) based on each major tank chassis. Though the lack of a turret made them less capable in offensive operations, they were cheaper to build, could carry heavier guns and armor, and remained highly effective at ambushing enemy tanks or providing fire support. Therefore, a turretless version of the huge seventy-ton Tiger II tank was seen as a natural platform for the 128-millimeter gun. A full-scale wooden mockup of the Jagdtiger was presented to Hitler on October 20, 1943, and the führer enthusiastically approved production.
The Jagdtiger was nearly eleven meters long and three meters tall, and tipped the scales at seventy-nine short tons—or eighty-three fully loaded with ammunition and a crew of six. Much of that weight went into 250 millimeters of armor protection in the casemate superstructure housing the main gun; however, the lower hull had only fifteen centimeters, and the sides and rear eight. Thus, while the front armor was practically invulnerable, it remained susceptible to shots to the side, rear and top.
The gargantuan vehicle retained the same 690-horsepower Maybach HL 230 P30 used on the Panther tank—even though the Jagdtiger was 60 percent heavier. Theoretically capable of going twenty-one miles per hour, the “moving bunker” was reduced to nine miles per hour cross-country, and its fuel-gulping characteristics limited range to fifty to seventy-five miles. The motor simply lacked adequate power, and predictably broke down with alarming frequency.
The 128-millimeter Pak 44 gun measured fifty-five calibers and had only ten degrees traverse to either side. Its sixty-pound shells traveled at 950 meters a second, with a range of up to fifteen miles if used for indirect fire. The forty rounds of two-piece ammunition had to be assembled by two loaders before each shot, and the gun had to be leveled to evacuate the breech. The Jagdtiger also mounted a machine gun in the hull, and sometimes a second antiaircraft machine gun on the rear engine deck.
Tiger ace Otto Carius was not thrilled with this “secret weapon that could still save Germany,” as described in his autobiography Tigers in the Mud:
“Any large traversing of the cannon had to be effected by movement of the entire vehicle. Because of that, transmissions and steering differentials were soon out of order. . . . A better idea for the travel lock of the eight-meter long cannon of our ‘Hunting Tiger’ was also necessary. It had to be removed from outside during contact with the enemy. Locking down the barrel during a road march was necessary, of course. Otherwise the mountain brackets would have been worn out too quickly and exact aiming would have been impossible. . . . We discovered that the cannon, because of its enormous length, was battered about so much as a result of even a short move off the road that its alignment no longer agreed with that of the optics.”
The Jagdtiger was intended to “snipe” enemy tanks from two or three miles away while remaining immune to return fire. This was a fine concept, but Germany already had the Pak 43, a smaller seventy-one-caliber, eighty-eight-millimeter gun that could still penetrate the heaviest Allied tanks such as the Churchill VII and IS-2. This was already deployed on the Jagdpanther, a fifty-ton tank destroyer with superior mobility and still formidable armor protection.
The Pak 44 had roughly the same maximum penetration as the Pak 43, though admittedly its heavier shells retained greater energy for long-distance shots. However, even standard German seventy-five-millimeter guns were highly effective versus the most numerous Allied tank types, the American M4 Sherman and Russian T-34. Despite its niche advantages, the Pak 44 was a classic case of overkill.
Between February 1944 and May 1945, the Nibelungenwerk factory in St. Valentin, Austria produced only eighty to eighty-eight Jagdtiger chassis. Most had nine-wheel suspension systems, though eleven featured a cheaper but less sturdy eight-wheel configuration designed by Porsche. A shortage of 128-millimeter guns reportedly led four Jagdtigers to be outfitted with Pak 43s.
The 653rd Show Up Late for the Battle of the Bulge
By the end of World War II, German forces were afflicted by crumbling morale, desperately limited fuel supplies, rapid loss of territory and deteriorating supply lines. In this bad situation, Jagdtigers consumed copious fuel and parts, frequently broke down attempting to move short distances and were difficult to tow—reportedly requiring a Bergepanther recovery tank plus two Sd.Kfz. 9 prime movers. As a result, for every Jagdtiger destroyed by enemy fire, four more were abandoned or destroyed by their own crews due to engine breakdowns, exhausted fuel or minor battle damage.
The 653rd Heavy Panzerjäger Battalion, which had previously operated similarly oversized Elefant tank destroyers, began receiving its first Jagdtigers in September 1944. Though the Jagdtiger would have been a good counter for Soviet IS-2 heavy tanks, Hitler instead personally committed the tank destroyers to fight the Western allies in the Ardennes Offensive, believing they were more likely to fold. However, though some American units mistakenly claimed to have encountered Jagdtigers in the Battle of the Bulge, in reality winter weather and mechanical problems prevented them from reaching the frontline.
A platoon of three Jagdtigers did participate in Operation Nordwind, a follow-up offensive aimed at Strasbourg, France. The combat debut on January 4, 1945 was inauspicious: while providing overwatch from a slope near the French town of Rimling, Jagdtiger 134 was struck in its vulnerable side armor by either a bazooka or an M36 tank, detonating the ammunition and killing the crew; two accompanying Jagdtigers withdrew. The heavy tank hunters were more successful later that month in knocking out several reoccupied Maginot Line bunkers and a couple Shermans.
By January 23, the 653rd finally attained its full authorized strength of forty-two Jagdtigers, backed up by six Möbelwagen and Wirbelwind antiaircraft tanks. However, a week later, after a 125-mile road march, breakdowns left only twenty-two Jagdtigers operational. After spending February using their guns as improvised artillery, March saw the unit engage in a series of sharp battles, starting with the destruction of a Sherman tank column on March 14. The following day the battalion launched a counterattack, but five were swiftly knocked out by P-47 Thunderbolt fighter bombers and artillery fire.
On March 22, three Jagdtigers took up positions just outside of Neustadt and ambushed a column of Shermans and M10 Wolverine tank destroyers. The Jagdtiger unit took out the lead and rear vehicles of the column and then claimed to have destroyed twenty-three additional armored vehicles, shrugging off all incoming shells before retreating into Neustadt—where two of them broke down and were abandoned. The same day, a Jagdtiger platoon in Böhl destroyed nine tanks and two half-tracks, but one of the huge vehicles broke down and another was destroyed by artillery.
The 653rd would not experience many further successes. In a series of engagements at Schwetzingen, Kirchen and Klingenberg, several Jagdtigers were knocked out by French and American tanks—and ten were abandoned and destroyed by their crews while retreating. One Jagdtiger blew up when a maintenance crew blew compressed oxygen into the wrong pipefitting; another was lost when it caused the Mangfall Bridge of Kolbermoor, Austria to collapse under its weight. The unit’s last four Jagdtigers were detached to fight a last stand with the First SS Panzer Division—but at the end of a long march, surrendered to Soviet forces on May 5 in Amstetten, Austria.
The 512th and the Fall of the Ruhr Pocket
Back in February, an additional Panzerjäger battalion formed using Tiger tank veterans, who were not pleased to serve in turretless vehicles. At its peak, the 512th counted only two companies of ten Jagdtigers commanded by Albert Ernst and Otto Carius, plus a third half-strength company that briefly saw action alongside Tiger II tanks in the defense of Paderborn.
In March, the 512th was dispatched to counterattack to the Allied breakthrough over the bridge of Remagen—but it took the unit ten days to reach the frontline. Again the Hunting Tigers arrived too late. Attempting to intercept Sherman tanks streaming down the autobahn, four of the precious Jagdtigers broke down and had to be destroyed their crews.
More were lost in various absurd episodes. One was misidentified by friendly infantry and destroyed by a panzerfaust rocket. Another became immobilized in a shell hole at night. Carius recounts an incident in which two Jagdtigers spotted an approaching American column at long range but the platoon leader refused to open fire, fearing to expose himself to Allied aircraft. Instead he retreated—but both vehicles broke down and were abandoned.