By Anthony Tucker-Jones. Illustrations by Brian Delf. Originally published by Pen and Sword Military in 2012, most recently reprinted in 2016.
Among the many fearsome weapons history buffs like me have come to know from World War Two, few are as iconic as the Tiger tanks of Nazi Germany. Two types of Tiger, the Tiger I and the Tiger II (related less by their design and engineering pedigrees than by their common theoretical purpose — to break through enemy defenses with superior brute force), were produced from late 1942 to 1945. During this time the Tigers earned their reputation as the German tanks “you did not want to run into” if you were an Allied tanker in an American Sherman or a Russian T-34. (Think of the frantic battle scene in the 2014 film Fury, in which Brad Pitt in his tank and two consorts come across a lone Panzer: “It’s a Tiger!” announces one crew member with fear in his voice just before the three American tanks charge forward, desperately hoping their 3-to-1 advantage will be enough…) There is an undeniable mystique around these powerful war machines. The very name “Tiger” conjures images of the most ferocious, beautiful mass of muscle in nature. For anyone with an interest in the history of armored warfare, it is difficult not to feel some measure of admiration for these tanks, even as we loathe the evil regime they served. Like it or not, Tiger tanks were bad — as in “bad-ass.”
For some readers it might therefore come as something of a surprise when Anthony Tucker-Jones begins his admirable survey of the Tiger tanks’ history, Images of War Special: Tiger I and Tiger II, by asserting that they have been “overrated.” In so many words, Tucker-Jones states his intention to impose a reality check on Tiger-mania, making the case that whatever elements of terrible “greatness” these tanks may have possessed, the impact of their quality on the outcome of the War was ultimately negligible.
Tiger I and Tiger II delivers a balanced picture of both types of Tiger and their specialized variants, starting with the design thinking and technical development that went into them, moving into their campaign histories on all fronts, and finishing with a consideration of what it was like for individual soldiers to fight in them and against them. The extensive technical descriptions, plentiful photographs and satisfying color illustrations by Brian Delf make the book a handy resource for modelers and historians alike.
We learn how the desire for something like the Tiger I was made urgent by the Soviets’ T-34, the wonder-tank whose presence had caught the Wehrmacht off-guard in the opening stages of Barbarossa in 1941. We see how some of the Tiger’s initial thunder was then squandered through its ill-considered, piece-meal deployment to the Leningrad and Tunisian fronts, when only a handful were ready, before mechanical bugs had been worked out, and in terrain that was less than ideal. Then, by the time the Tigers were fully deployed, the Germans no longer really needed the “breakthrough tank” the Tiger had been intended to be; they found themselves on the defensive much more often than not.
Nonetheless, in this history we do see the Tiger I’s greatest arenas of success, at Kursk and in Normandy. “Individually the Tigers worked wonders” (98), Tucker-Jones allows. But his overall point about the tanks comes down to this representative passage: “While the Tigers proved a great success at Kursk, inflicting staggering losses on the Soviet tanks, there were simply too few of them. The 1st SS Panzer Regiment destroyed 90 tanks in the space of three hours on one day alone, but still the enemy kept coming… Once the Soviet tankers had closed in on them, the Tigers’ advantage of range and thick armor was lost” (102). In their relatively small numbers, the Tigers could never have won the War — or even, as Tucker-Jones suggests, influenced it terribly much.
In hindsight it seems obvious. The Soviet Union produced approximately 55,000 T-34s in all varieties¹, while the United States pumped out nearly 50,000 Shermans² — to the Germans’ 1,500 Tiger Is and 500 Tiger IIs! Of course the Germans produced other tanks in greater numbers, notably the Panzer IV, but never enough to overcome these masses of enemy armor, even with the overall 6-to-1 kill ratio achieved by the Tigers. The Germans chose quality over quantity — perhaps because in their position of limited resources they felt they had to — but they appear to have chosen wrong.
The book’s operational histories of the Tiger II and all other Tiger variants, such as the Jagdtiger, Sturmtiger and Elefant, only confirm the folly of German production strategy: trying to produce huge (and hugely complex) machines, especially later in the War when steel, manufacturing and crew quality all sank, was never going to live up to Hitler’s irrational hopes. If the Tigers had been everywhere on the battlefield, perhaps the War would have turned out differently — but they weren’t, and that may be the crux of Tucker-Jones’ well supported analysis.
On a more individual level, the certainty of ultimate victory promised to the Allies by their superiority in numbers must have been cold comfort indeed to any British or American or Russian tank men who did find themselves face to face with a Tiger, like the crews portrayed in Fury. Whether it was the author’s intention to do so I am not sure, but Images of War Special: Tiger I and Tiger II actually confirms rather than checks the legend of the Tiger, especially the Tiger I, as a tank-killer par excellence. If anything was over-estimated by the Germans at the time, it was not the tank’s quality as a tactical weapon but rather its strategic ability to affect the outcome of the War.
Perhaps it is in part the very futility of the Tigers’ excellence — somewhat akin to the Yamato-class battleships of imperial Japan — that makes them so fascinating to many of us. If you are like me, this excellent volume will open your eyes to a new level of insight about these infamous tanks while offering a wealth of detail for your hobby.³
¹ Rickard, J. “T-34 Medium Tank Production,” historyofwar.org, (19 September 2008). http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_t-34_production.html
² Lewis, Adrian R. “Sherman tank.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, (25 March 2005 to 28 July 2016). https://www.britannica.com/technology/Sherman-tank