Entering service in 1942, the Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E, or the Tiger I, was a heavy tank whose main assets were thick armor that its common adversaries could not penetrate except from close range, and a powerful 88mm gun that could wreck its foes from prodigious distances, giving the Tiger an extensive safe standoff distance within which it was practically invulnerable. Tigers were scary, and they exerted a powerful psychological hold on their enemies’ imagination: few if any Allied tank crews relished the prospect of coming across Tigers.
On the downside, Tigers were heavy, slow, guzzled fuel at prodigious rates, had a limited range, were difficult to transport, were overengineered and notorious for their mechanical unreliability and propensity to breakdown, became immobilized when their overlapping wheels got jammed with snow and mud, and were expensive to produce and difficult to manufacture, with only 1300 built during the war – a number lower than the typical monthly production figures of T-34s or Shermans. When Tigers worked, they were terrifyingly good, but fortunately, the Tigers often did not work, and there were too few of them make a difference in the war’s ultimate outcome.
On the Western Front, where the Allies lacked powerful armor capable of taking out Tigers, other than up-gunned Sherman Fireflys and M10 tank destroyers, Tigers maintained their superiority until the war’s end. But on the Eastern Front, that superiority was increasingly challenged by T-34/85s, IS-2s, and IS-122s whose guns could destroy Tigers from various ranges.
In 1944, Tiger I production was discontinued in favor of the Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B, more commonly known as the Tiger II or Royal Tiger, of which 492 were manufactured by the war’s end. Weighing 77 tons, the Tiger II replaced its predecessor’s thick flat armor with thicker sloped armor that was significantly more difficult to penetrate. It was exceptionally well protected, and between January to April 1945, Tiger IIs were credited with destroying over 500 tanks on the Eastern Front at a cost of only 45 Tiger IIs, most of them destroyed by their own crews to prevent their capture after they broke down or ran out of fuel. On the downside, Tiger IIs suffered most of their predecessors’ mechanical problems plus a few more, and were slower, capable of only 9 to 12 m.p.h. cross country.