TIGER TANK! Those two words have made more World War II Allied tankers blood run cold than anything else. Probably no other vehicle in the German inventory has been more studied and dissected through hundreds of books, magazines, documentaries and Internet articles. It's name has even migrated across different generations and popular culture through movies and TV, so much so that it's name is recognizable to individuals outside the realms of history and AFV buffs. The Tiger tank has become a cultural icon and is the epitome of the German war machine of World War II.
This particular Tiger has generated more discussion and controversy than any other preserved historic vehicle and is probably the most travelled. Built in Germany, shipped to France then North Africa, captured by U.S. forces and then sent to the United States where it was part of the Ordnance Museum at Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland. In 1989 it was transferred to The Auto and Technik Museum in Sinsheim, Germany on a 10 year loan (and exhibited in two other armor museums), then to military vehicle collector Kevin Wheatcroft's workshops in the UK and then back to the United States where it was delivered to the National Armor and Cavalry Museum at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Volumes of painstaking research have been published on every aspect of Tiger tanks in general - it's physical details, units assigned and combat histories. This article will briefly deal with Tiger 712's history and show through photos its current condition. Much of the historic information here was gleaned from Richard Cox's book "Tiger Without a Home" published by the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum Foundation, Inc. in 1995 while certain physical information comes from David Byden's http://tiger1.info/ site and from Alan Hamby's http://www.alanhamby.com/tiger.html site.
Tiger 712, its last tactical number before capture, was built by Henschel's Mittelfield factory between August and November, 1942. It was one of the earliest Tigers built and has the Fahrgestell (chassis) number of 250031. It also has a distinct characteristic not shared by later models. Where there would be in later Tigers a large escape hatch in the right rear of the turret, there was only a pistol port, the same as on the left rear. The first-built Tigers also had different front fenders consisting of a diamond tread plate that was later replaced by the more common smooth fender with folding edges.
The Tiger was assigned to the second company of the Schwere Panzer-Abteilung 501 in August 1942. What tactical number it first sported on the turret sides is not completely known. While the first company was shipped to Tunisia in November 1942 to join Field Marshall Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps, the second company remained in Southern France. While there, crews continued training and modifications were made to their Tigers. One modification were brackets welded to the glacis that supported spare Tiger tracks outboard of the driver's visor and RO's machine gun mount. Another bracket was welded between these two points and a section of Panzer III track was stored there. At this time, all tigers were equipped with the Feifel air cleaning system for the engine because the normal engine filters were not up for the task. This system proved invaluable in the dusty conditions of North Africa.
The second company eventually was shipped to Tunisia and joined the rest of 501 in January 1943. Within days it was seeing its first action. In February the battalion was integrated into the 10th Panzer Division, the first and second companies becoming the seventh and eighth companies of the third battalion. At this time all vehicles' tactical numbers were changed so that the Tiger now had a tactical number beginning with "8". As the Tigers dwindled due to combat losses, all of the remaining Tigers were reorganized into a single company. This is when the Tiger received its last tactical number, 712, painted in red with white outlines. The partial remains of two previous tactical numbers could be perceived in photos after its capture, 22* and 82*, the third digit being unreadable.
During combat operations, the hull and turret were damaged several times. There are two evident patches - one on the lower front hull and one on the upper right hull side. The turret was also damaged, twice on the right side resulting in a square patch welded over the damage and the other cut out and patched flush. On the left side there is a circular plate welded over the penetation. According to Len Dyer, director of NACM, this penetration was caused by a British 17lbr. anti-tank gun. There is also a repair to a crack in the armor next to the patch that was filled in with weld material.
As stated previously, the Tiger's chassis number is 250031 which can be found stamped in the hull. Normally in German turreted vehicles, the chassis number was also stamped inside the turret and matched the hull number. However this Tiger's turret has a different number, 250034. There are only two possibilities: a different turret was installed on the hull at the factory or the original turret was damaged beyond repair and replaced with a turret from another Tiger.
The battalion fought until the surrender of German forces in Tunis in May 1943. It was captured intact and still operational by II Corps in northern Tunisia. Colonel George B. Jarrett of the newly formed Foreign Material Section at Aberdeen Proving Grounds (APG), Maryland, took possession of the Tiger and it, along with many other enemy vehicles and weapons, was shipped to the United States for evaluation.
The Tiger went under intensive evaluation during the war, taken apart and put back together. After the war, the Tiger became an Ordnance artifact along with other captured material and exhibited in the Engineering Building at APG. In 1947, Col. Jarrett, now Chief of the Foreign Materials Branch, wanted to develop displays of the captured equipment. The Tiger, along with several other German vehicles, had sections of its armor cut out so that spectators could see inside. In the mid-1960's as the Vietnam War escalated, Ordnance needed the Engineering Building so all of the exhibited vehicles were placed outside. Heavy gauge metal screens were welded over the openings to prevent vandalism, but did nothing to keep out the elements. Eventually sheet metal was welded over the openings and there Tiger 712 and other vehicles and weapons sat in the open field for years slowly deteriorating.
Because of budget constraints, the only maintenance the vehicles received was the occasional coat of paint. Over the years the tanks and guns sank into the ground until around 1987, concrete pads were poured to support them. In 1989, Ordnance Museum director Dr. William F. Atwater was contacted by the Auto & Technik Museum in Germany with an offer to transport Tiger 712, a Marder II and a Panzer II F to the museum where the vehicles would be restored and exhibited for ten years. While regulations on the handling and transfer of historic artifacts may have been skirted, Dr. Atwater kept the Tiger and the other vehicles out of the elements for ten years.
After ten years had elapsed and it was ready for the vehicles to return to the United States, rumor had it that the Germans were reluctant to let the Tiger go because they had no other example of this rare vehicle and wanted to keep the cosmetically restored vehicle out of the elements at APG. Eventually, UK military vehicle collector Kevin Wheatcroft was enlisted to secure and transport the vehicles back to his shops in England in exchange for being allowed, for an unspecified time, to study and copy parts of the Tiger for his Tiger I restoration. Almost immediately AFV enthusiasts decried this development, questioning Mr. Wheatcroft's motives and filling the Internet with the accusations that he intended to keep the Tiger.
After the BRAC-mandated movement of the Patton Museum collection to Fort Benning, Georgia and the APG collection to Benning and Fort Lee, Virginia, the Center for Military History (CMH) requested of Mr. Wheatcroft an early return of the Tiger I and other vehicles. After the legalities and re-compensation had been worked out, The Panzer II and Marder II arrived at Benning in June 2012. Len Dyer travelled to England in July 2012 to oversee the collection of the Tiger and its parts and to prepare them for shipment back to the United States. In the fall the Tiger and several boxes of components was delivered to the National Armor and Cavalry Museum where it resides today.