Hitler's Monstrous 'Jagdtiger' Tank Destroyers Were a Colossal Failure

Hitler's Monstrous 'Jagdtiger' Tank Destroyers Were a Colossal Failure

And a complete waste of time. 

To some minds, bigger is always better—but size can create is many new problems as it solves. 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—and still heavier than modern M1 Abrams and Leopard 2 tanks! But the vehicle’s terrifying bulk proved to be its own worst enemy.

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.

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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.

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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.