Heavy Tank Destroyer Ferdinand Facts & Images

by Joris Nieuwint – 

The Elefant was a heavy tank-hunter—a tank destroyer—of the German Wehrmacht during World War II.

It was built in small numbers in 1943 under the name Ferdinand after its designer Ferdinand Porsche, using tank hulls that had been produced for a cancelled German heavy tank design.

Porsche GmbH had manufactured about one hundred chassis for their unsuccessful proposal for the Tiger tank, the “Porsche Tiger”. Both the successful Henschel proposal and the Porsche design used the same Krupp-designed turret.

However, the Henschel design had its turret more-or-less centrally located on its hull, while the Porsche design placed the turret much closer to the front of the superstructure.

ELEFANT_Panzerjager_Tiger_P_Elefant_Sd.Kfz_.184Ferdinand Panzerjager Tiger (P) number 501, Eastern Front Operation Citadel 1943

Since the competing Henschel Tiger design was chosen for production, the Porsche chassis were no longer required for the Tiger tank project. It was therefore decided that the Porsche chassis were to be used as the basis of a new heavy tank destroyer, Ferdinand, mounting Krupp’s newly developed 88 mm Pak 43/2 anti-tank gun.

Ninety-one existing “Porsche Tiger” chassis were converted to Ferdinand Tank Destroyers and the work was completed in just a few months from March to May 1943.

Ferdinand_Panzerjager_Sdkfz_184Ferdinand Panzerjager number 214 Sdkfz 184

The engines had already been placed in the middle of the hull to accommodate the Krupp-designed turret and that placement gave room on the Ferdinand for the anti-tank main gun armament at the rear. The gun was mounted in a simple casemate-style box structure, with slightly sloped sides, on top of this chassis.

The driver and radio operator were in a separate compartment at the front. As the engines were placed in the middle, the radio operator and the driver were separated from the rest of the crew and could be addressed only by intercom.

Add-on armor of 100 mm was bolted to the front plates, increasing the plate’s thickness to 200 mm and adding another 5 tons of weight.

Ferdinand_Panzerjager_Tiger_P_Elefant_Sd.Kfz_.184Ferdinand number 133 of the 1/653 Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung, August 1943 eastern front. Commander: Fw. Heinz Rempel.

The Maybach HL 120 TRM engines drove a single generato which powered two electric motors, one each connected to each of the rear sprockets. The electric motors also acted as the vehicle’s steering unit.

This “petrol-electrical” drive delivered 0.11 km/l off road and 0.15 km/l on road at a maximum speed of 10 km/h off road and 30 km/h on road.

In addition to this high fuel consumption and poor performance, the vehicle was also maintenance-intensive; the sprockets needed to be changed every 500 km.

Panzerjager_Tiger_P_Elefant_of_the_Panzer_Jg_Abt._653Panzerjager Tiger (P) Elefant of the Panzer Jg Abt. 653

The vehicle was fitted with an 88 mm Panzerabwehrkanone 43/2 gun. This 71 caliber-long gun had originally been developed as a replacement for the famous 88 mm anti-aircraft gun that had been used against Allied tanks in the Western Desert Campaign.

It had a much longer barrel than the L/56 guns, which gave it a higher muzzle velocity, and fired a different, longer cartridge. These improvements gave the 88 mm L/71 significantly improved armor penetration ability over the earlier 88 mm. Although it lost the competition to the 8.8 cm Flak 41 and never became an anti-aircraft weapon, it was turned into the very successful Pak 43 anti-tank gun.

As fitted, the gun was capable of 25° traverse and a similarly limited elevation.

Panzerjager_Tiger_P_Elefant_Sd.Kfz_.184_FerdinandPanzerjager Tiger (P) Elefant Sd.Kfz.184 Ferdinand

In September 1943 all surviving Ferdinands were recalled to be modified based on battle experience gained in the Battle of Kursk.

During October and November 1943, 48 of the 50 surviving vehicles were modified by addition of a ball-mounted MG 34 in the hull front for anti-infantry ability, a commander’s cupola for improved vision, and the application of Zimmerit paste.

The frontal armor was thickened and the tracks widened, increasing the weight from 65 to 70 t, the improved vehicles were called Elefant.

Heavy_Tank_Destroyer_Ferdinand_Heavy Tank Destroyer Ferdinand

Ferdinands first saw combat in the Battle of Kursk, where eighty-nine were committed, the most concentrated use of the vehicle.

The Ferdinand was optimized for destroying Soviet T-34 tanks and 76.2mm anti-tank guns from behind the front lines with its main gun at a range of over 3 kilometres, a role which it performed well.

However, after advancing through the initial line of Soviet resistance, it was hampered by a variety of flaws, such as the lack of peripheral vision blocks, a rotating turret or even a single machine gun as secondary armament.

Soviet infantry, quickly recognizing this flaw, could easily hide in their trenches until the Ferdinand advanced through their lines, then swarm the vehicle with grenades and Molotov cocktails from the sides.

Elefant_Panzerjager_Abteilung_653_eastern_frontElefant Panzerjager Abteilung 653 eastern front

While this proved a significant disadvantage which as later partially rectified by the improved Elefant version of the vehicle, a more significant problem at Kursk was mine damage and mechanical failure.

Any damage to the tracks or suspension negated the protection of the armor, as crews were forced to dismount and attempt repairs.

The extremely heavy weight of the Ferdinand made towing difficult: the standard armored recovery vehicle in German service at the time was the Bergepanzer IV, a variant of the Panzer IV which could tow a single Panzer IV without assistance.

It was insufficient for larger vehicles, with a Tiger I heavy tank requiring three Bergepanzer IVs to be towed, and the Ferdinand requiring five linked in tandem to pull the vehicle off the field.

Ferdinand_-_Elefant_88_cm_Pak_432_Sd_Kfz_184_1944Ferdinand – Elefant 8,8 cm Pak 43/2 Sd Kfz 184 1944

In the initial stages of the Kursk battle, when the Germans were on the offensive, heavy vehicles could be recovered and repaired with relative peace at night; this, at first allowed the majority of knocked-out Ferdinands to be rescued, repaired and returned to duty.

However, once the tides had turned against the Germans and they fell back on the defensive, with fewer vehicles to spare, functional Ferdinands with minor damage to their tracks or suspensions had little hope of recovery, and crews were usually forced to destroy the vehicle to prevent a mostly intact tank destroyer from falling into the hands of the Soviets.

Elefant_Panzerjager_Sdkfz_184_Caen_Normandy_1944Elefant Panzerjager Sdkfz 184

Although the Elefant modifications improved the vehicles, some problems could never be fully fixed. In 1944 the Elefants served on the Italian front, but were rather ineffective as their weight of nearly 70 tonnes did not allow them to use most Italian roads and bridges.

As at Kursk, most Elefant losses were not as a direct result from combat, but resulted when mechanical breakdowns and lack of spare parts compelled their crews to destroy and abandon them.

One company of Elefants saw action during the Soviets’ January 1945 Vistula-Oder offensive in Poland, and the very last surviving vehicles were in combat at Zossen during the Battle of Berlin.

Panzerjager_Tiger_P_Elefant_Sd.Kfz_.184_ElefantPanzerjager Tiger (P) Elefant Sd.Kfz.184 of the 3/653 Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653, Poland 1944

The Ferdinand may have been the most successful tank destroyer employed during the war in kills per loss, reaching an average ratio of approximately 10:1.

During the Battle of Kursk the 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion claimed to have knocked out 320 enemy tanks, for the loss of 13 Ferdinands.

This impressive average ratio was due to its extreme firepower and protection, which gave it an enormous advantage when used in head-on combat or a static defensive role. However, poor mobility and mechanical unreliability greatly diminished its operational capability.

Ferdinand_number_513Ferdinand number 513 of the schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 654 – 1943

The Elefant and Nashorn were both superseded by the Jagdpanther. All three of those tanks mounted the same gun, with only some minor differences between them.

The Jagdpanther was a successor to both tanks before it, combining acceptable mobility and good armour while retaining the great gun, mostly solving the reliability and protection problems the earlier tanks had.

Ferdinand_of_the_Panzer_Jg_Abt._653_eastern_frontFerdinand of the Panzer Jg Abt. 653 eastern front

Only two of these vehicles survived the war. One Ferdinand was captured by Soviet forces at Kursk, and is now at the Kubinka Tank Museum outside Moscow.

An Elefant was captured at Anzio by the Americans, and is now part of the United States Army Ordnance Museum’s collection at Fort Lee, VA. The example at Fort Lee was restored to display condition in 2007–2008.

Ferdinand_Elefant_Tank_Destroyer_rail_transportFerdinand Elefant Tank Destroyer rail transport

Elefant_Ferdinand_Schw.Pz_.Jg_.Abt_._653Elefant Ferdinand Schw.Pz.Jg.Abt. 653 Cleaning the Barrel

Heavy_tank_destroyer_Ferdinand_ElefantHeavy tank destroyer Ferdinand Elefant being resupplied

Heavy_tank_destroyer_Ferdinand_Elephant_Knocked_Out_at_Anzio_Italy_May_1944Heavy tank destroyer Ferdinand Elephant of the 1/653 Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653, knocked out at Anzio Italy May 1944.

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