The PzKpfw VI Tiger I is perhaps one of the most famous tanks in the History. Officially designated as Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, but simply known as Tiger, it was a German heavy tank used during the Second World War. It became one of the symbols of the German military technology of the time.
The concept of a heavy tank for the Wehrmacht had origin several years before the outbreak of the war, with the first projects developed between 1938 and 1941. Only with the beginning of operation Barbarossa in June 1941, though, the encounter with the impressive Soviet tanks gave an urgent impulse to the design of a heavily armed and armoured vehicle. In April 1942 a prototype built by the Henschel company was chosen.
The tank was heavily armoured, protected by rolled steel plates. Their thickness varied from 120 mm (4.72 in) in the gun mantlet to 80 mm (3.15 in) in the side and rear hull. Consequently, overall weight was high, reaching in the latest versions 57 metric tonnes (63 short tonnes). On the other hand, the maximum speed was still relatively high (45 km/h, 28 mph), due to a V12 23‑liter, 690 hp gasoline engine.
Another strength of the Tiger was the cannon, a powerful and precise 8,8 cm KwK 36 L/56 with a caliber of 88 mm (3.46 in). It was capable of destroying from long range every Allied or Soviet tank (except for the heaviest ones, like the IS‑2 or the M26 Pershing). There were also two 7.92 mm (0.311 in) MG‑34 machine guns. One was coaxial with the gun and operated by the gunner, the other in the front hull, used by the radio operator.
A major weakness was the heavy weight, which put a lot of stress on engine, brakes and gearbox, and caused an high fuel consumption. This also complicated the recover of immobilized vehicles (many of the losses were due to mechanical failures rather than to enemy fire).
Another drawback was the complexity and the difficult maintenance of the overlapped and interleaved road wheels (Schachtellaufwerk). Though efficiently distributing the weight on the tracks, they were prone to jamming with snow or mud – especially the infamous Russian rasputitsa. Last but not least, the cost was excessive in terms of money and manpower, due to the technological complexity and to the advanced materials used.
Towards the end of the war, moreover, its armour became more and more vulnerable to an increasing number of enemy weapons. This was also due to the fact that its plates weren't inclined (as were instead in the T-34 or in the Panther), so it was easier for the rounds to penetrate them rather than ricochet.
The Tiger was used for the first time in Russia and Tunisia in the end of 1942. It soon earned its reputation among both allies and enemies, and fought in all theaters until the end of the war. Its production, reaching 1347 units, ceased in August 1944 in favor of the better armoured and armed Tiger II.
Today only a handful of them survived, displayed in museums in Germany, Russia, UK, France and United States. Among them, the vehicle with the turret number 131 (visible in the photo below) has been recently restored in running order. Displayed at the Bovington Tank Museum, in the United Kingdom, it appeared in the 2014 movie Fury, the first Tiger to do so after more than 60 years.