These behemoths are sort of known as the “Edsel” of German tank production, and a good example of what many have called German “over-engineering.” The earliest versions were called “Ferdinands,” and they came into being as a result of somewhat random circumstances: 1) the Wehrmacht had on hand nearly a hundred heavy Porsche-designed chassis that were intended but ultimately not accepted for the Tiger I project; 2) they also had more 88s than they could put on tanks; and 3) it was clear by the spring of 1943 that the German army needed as many anti-tank weapons as they could get to face the Red Army. The idea was to have the most effective gun housed in virtually impenetrable armor.
Famously, the Ferdinands were mostly a failure at the Battle of Kursk in July 1943. Because they were almost invulnerable in armor-piercing combat, the Ferdinands plowed through Soviet defenses — as planned — but so much so that they soon found themselves without infantry protection. With such an effective long-range main gun, the Ferdinands could have stood off in the distance and picked off the Russian defenses with impunity, and for that reason they had no machine gun on board. Instead, as the story goes, the unescorted Ferdinands fell victim to enemy anti-tank squads who had nothing to fear from the vehicle once they got close enough. It may also be simply that the vehicle was too big and heavy and most that were lost broke down.¹
The model here is not a Ferdinand but an Elefant. The Ferdinands that survived Kursk were shipped back home in early 1944 for an upgrade, which included a hull-mounted machine gun for protection against the kind of infantry attack that had apparently decimated them the previous summer. The new “Elefants” served on the Italian front.