Another Quora question about tanks! I was happy to answer this one, it’s the sort of thing you see brought up a lot in conversation about vehicles from World War 2 and even today.
Answer by Agares Tretiak:
Thank you for asking me to answer!
There’s a lot involved in the design of a tank, beyond the immediate concerns of armor, mobility, and firepower, that have significant and long-ranging effects. Sure, on one hand you can always build a tank with immense levels of protection, but ditch your mobility or favor any one of the other basic ‘aspects’ that determines a tanks underlying characteristics. But an adjustment and change of these matters is not enough.
The ‘legendary’ Tiger I. Could it be improved? Well…
The Tiger I was a vainglorious failure, and a good example of the larger issues surrounding the design of tanks. So, let’s cover these from a strategic bent, since the only way you’ll win any war is through strategy. First, I’ll just list some of the major failures of the Tiger I on a design level, ones that may not immediately be apparent, then cover the even bigger picture involving it.
So… here we go.
- The Tiger 1 was extremely heavy for its era, though its ground pressure was not terrible due to wide tracks, it made strategic mobility a pain and was a hindrance when the vehicle broke down.
- It had a finicky final drive and transmission that, if abused by a driver, could become an absolute nightmare to repair or replace.
- It had an extremely low parts commonality with other vehicles in the Werhmacht. Things like the road wheels, track links, even nuts, bolts, and wires were largely incompatible with other AFVs. This gives it (and other german AFVs) enormous logistical footprints.
- It was designed and put into production very quickly, not allowing major flaws in its design to be worked out and addressed before it was thrown into combat.
- It had largely vertical or near vertical armor surfaces, especially along the frontal arc.
- It was very time consuming and difficult to build each Tiger I, due to the high level of complexity involved in its construction. This again relates to its logistical footprint.
- Turret traverse speed was abysmal, making the vehicle less able to operate in close quarters or aim at targets at a wide arc quickly.
- Its gas engine, while sufficient to the task of moving the vehicle over short distances, was not well suited for efficiency in terms of range or lengthy operation.
All of these issues point to a sort of… myopia, a nearsightedness regarding the wider picture and place of the Tiger I in a strategic role. The Germans were looking for a tank that could win battles. Well, they did make one. The Tiger I, when it came out, was an absolute beast in a lot of ways. But it was not a tank that would win wars.
Why? Because it was a logistical nightmare. The German military relied on two main forms of transportation. One was the train, which it made relatively effective use of until it lost control of the skies. But trains could not go everywhere.
The other was horse carts.
German supply cart stuck fording a swollen river on the Eastern front.
A Tiger I being looked over by its crew during winter.
You are not going to cover as much ground with these, in the long run, over trucks.
While the Wehrmacht had access to trucks like the Opel Blitz, they did not have them in large quantities. Moving around supplies and equipment via long baggage trains comprised of horse carts severely hampered strategic mobility for the entire German military. Horses could not feasibly be used to tow the Tiger I out of mud or on a trailer (they had vehicles that could, but they were in high demand and increasingly less common as the war dragged on and material losses increased). A horse cart carried less fuel, moved less ammo, and hauled fewer spare parts. This was a major issue, one that affected the distribution of supplies for virtually the entire war.
Strategically, the tanks needed a larger portion of the trucks, simply to keep up with their mobility, but this meant that other sections, like artillery, AT guns, and infantry had to largely make do with horses. It meant that some supplies could be moved quickly while others had to wait on carts. This is a terrible scenario for us to consider running a war in. But let’s keep going, since we’re more focused on the Tiger I.
The Tiger I was difficult to repair, though all contemporary accounts I’ve read, shower endless praise on the work done by maintenance units to keep these vehicles running at all times. It’s also clear that supplies were always tight as, in Otto Carius’ “Tigers in the Mud” he states they had to sometimes cannibalize a Tiger in order to repair others and this became more common as the war progressed. While it makes sense to do so in lieu of supplies, it also underlines how really bad the logistics situation was for even the beloved Panzer units.
The German myopia in the design of the Tiger extended into its other inefficiencies, such as its overall size and the complexity and fragility of so many parts it possessed that made it a large waste. A lot of things could have been simplified and standardized to improve the logistics around it, even small ones changing things by a significant margin.
Right, so I’ve beaten the logistics horse,
a lot today, but I cannot stress just how important logistical concerns play into winning a war, or as the questioner put it, “beating the world”. The Tiger I was not designed with strategy in mind. It was built around the idea that it would win a fight, not a war. So it won fights, and helped lose the war in the process.
That poor horse :(
What could be improved on the Tiger I? First and foremost, a very heavily redesigned vehicle that focused on increasing its parts commonality with say… Panthers and Panzer IVs or even the Panzer III. Even a 10% increase in standardization would have been a big victory for the logistics. Albert Speer did help spearhead the Entwicklung Series of tanks, but this was far too late (and still myopic, the E-100 anyone?), to change the course of the war in any significant manner.
Simplifying the design of the Tiger while improving overall durability of the parts and the speed of manufacture for the gun, suspension, engine, transmission, final drive and steering system… its a long list, but it could have been done if the Germans were looking at the matter strategically speaking.
Improvements in crew visibility (each man in the turret should have a swiveling unity sight at the least). Better armor angling, while an effort to reduce the general size of the vehicle, at least somewhat. Overlapping instead of interleaved road wheels would have kept the performance characteristics in general of the suspension, without being quite as heinous a task to repair.
“Ok, yes, it does distribute weight well, but what do we do when we need to reach ones of those back wheels, guys? …guys?”
Ditching the cringe-worthy “Vorpanzer” concept before the thing left the drawing board. The below link offers an explanation of what that was and why it was ditched… after the tank went into production.
What the Germans had built with the Tiger I, Panther, Tiger II, etc, were the tank equivalents of Ferrari’s or Buggati’s or (hahaha) Porsche’s. They might be high performance, but they aren’t what you want to use off-roading or moving around heavy loads. A truck or (real) SUV will serve you infinitely better, despite being perhaps less glamorous in nature.
I’ve always argued had they focused on doing all of these same things for the Panther and just ignored the Tigers altogether, it would have been a sounder strategy to pursue in the broader sense of things. We can commiserate, fantasize, and armchair general the bejeezus out of the Tiger I, but in the end we should probably focus more on what it was, where it was, when it was, and that it happened, over these fun but ultimately less-than-productive mental exercises. Though I could probably ramble on, at length, for hours on pretty much these very same topics (and have numerous times before).
Even if the Germans in WWII had built a ‘perfect’ tank, it would not have saved them from all the other, wider, and much more important issues at play that heralded the inevitable demise of the Third Reich.
Build lots of standardized, simplified Panthers instead, replace the military command structure with one that didn’t wait hand and foot on Hitler’s whims, switch the economy to a total war standing right off the bat… there’s so much involved, that the Tiger was a symptom of, that cost Germany the war. Oh yeah. Not be Nazis. That would have helped too. :(