World War II German Elefant Tank Destroyers
July 12, 2019
After the successful conquest of France in 1940, Hitler and the German Army realized there would be an armored warfare development race. The Germans learned some hard lessons clashing with the surprisingly good tank designs fielded by the French Army. It was only because of superior training and tactics that allowed the Germans to overcome this mechanical disadvantage. Hitler quickly ordered new designs for better tanks to be submitted. During this time the Germans had two major companies that competed against each other for these contracts. The more conservative of the two was the Henschel Company while the more flamboyant belonged to Ferdinand Porsche. Yes, that Porsche, the same man who created elegant sports cars started out building monstrous machines. Both companies submitted a new heavy tank design that would utilize a tank mounted version of the hero of the French campaign, he famous “88” or more properly the KwK 36 88mm. The two designs were radically different as Porsche was not at all afraid to take risks. His design incorporated several new technological features and was ultimately rejected as being too expensive and complicated. Undeterred he would find a new life for his project.
During the testing phase of the project, Porsche was so confident he would win his company built over 90 units, including test models before Henschel received the award. Henschel’s design would go on to terrorize the world as the “Tiger”. Be that as it may, ultimately Porsche upstaged his competitor by making a “tank” that would go on to achieve the highest recorded kill ratio of the war at 10 to 1.
As the Germans realized they also needed better tank destroyers and assault guns to support the infantry Porsche seized the moment to impress Hitler. He took his existing tank hulls and modified them to house a casement and increased the armor. When finished, the new machine tipped the scales at nearly 70 tons! Its 200mm (about 7.9 inches) thick armored hide was paired with a new, more powerful 88mm gun. The StuK 42 or PaK 42/3 88mm was 71 calibers in length. It was 20.5 feet long compared to the 16.1 foot long KwK 36 on the Tiger tank. Another major difference was that this new 88mm also used a much larger case of propellant. The additional propellant and longer barrel provided a higher velocity. No tank fielded in the entire war was safe from this powerful gun. It was capable of penetrating over 170mm (6.7 inches) of armor at over a mile. Variations would be fitted to the King Tiger and several other tank destroyers by wars end due to the proven effectiveness of this vehicle. In a show of support the company would dub the design the “Ferdinand”.
This tank, or more correctly self-propelled gun, saw its baptism of fire at the battle of Kursk with the German 9th Army in the Northern pincer. A full regiment comprised of two battalions was used to penetrate the Soviet defenses. When Hitler finally ordered the halt of offensive operations at Kursk this unit would claim 320 Soviet tank kills for only 13 lost Ferdinands. While this claim could never be confirmed, given the Soviet tank inventory in 1943, and the StuK 42 88mm’s capability to knockout tanks at over 2 km it’s actually not that far-fetched.
In the ensuing Soviet counter-offensive the weaknesses of the Ferdinand were laid bare. The limited visibility for the crew, poor mobility and lack of any defensive machine gun armament left it exposed to the dogged Soviet tank killing infantry. Accounts of commanders spotting from open hatches directing gunners to point the main gun at attacking infantry while the loader fired an ‘acquired’ MG 34 or 42 down the barrel of the 88mm were common during the battle. When they were finally withdrawn they had lost almost half their number. The one surviving example of the Ferdinand is on display in the Kubinka Tank Museum in Russia.
Despite its teething problems, Hitler was impressed with the vehicle’s performance and allowed Porsche to bring the remaining units back to Germany for modification. These included a commander’s cupola, hull mounted machine gun and other mechanical changes to aid in mobility. Its name was changed officially to the Elefant. Some scholars point to the success of the Tiger and Ferdinand at Kursk and say it heavily influenced Hitler’s obsession with even bigger tank designs.
A new unit, the 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion, was formed around the product improved Elefants. If you want to learn more about this unit there are several excellent books published about its history. The 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion would also utilize not only the only completed Porsche Tiger or Tiger (P) to see combat but also the only Panzer 5/4 hybrid. In early 1944 most of the unit would race back to the Eastern Front, but one company went to Italy to support the encirclement of the Anzio landings. A very intact example would be taken by the Americans. While most the 653rd’s vehicles were left on the Russian steppes the last combat accounts of an Elefant placed it defiant to the end in Stossel, on the outskirts of Berlin in 1945.
The Americans took their Elefant to the Aberdeen Proving Grounds for testing and eventually it became an outdoor display piece like so much other equipment. Then in 2008 it was decided that the tank should be restored to a more presentable level. The process was even documented on video in a cable series called ‘Tank Overhauling’, copies can still be found on Youtube. Sadly shortly after the process was completed the government ordered a base shutdown and realignment (BRAC) and the whole Aberdeen display was moved to different locations. Its fate would remain in doubt for serval years. Then it was decided to buy it some time, and it was made into a training aid for the new Training School at Fort Lee, Virginia. While waiting for the facility to be built it was loaned out to the Bovington Tank Museum in England for their encompassing Tiger Display, showcasing all existing examples of the Tiger tank family. For two years thousands had a chance to marvel at it before February 2019 when it had to return to the States where sadly it will now be hidden from the public. It and many other significant historical examples are being forcibly ignored by our elected officials. Only with public intervention can we ensure that future generations can look at something more than just old photos.