Eric Bryan examines one of the most fearsome machines of WWII.
Germany’s advanced WWII war machinery included intercontinental ballistic missiles (the V-2), rocket planes (the Me 163 Komet), and jet fighters (the Me 262). The Wehrmacht was no less determined to attain ground superiority, and with its armour it likewise reached for the most powerful and advanced designs.
Surely one of the most fearsome machines of the War was the Elefant, a schwerer Panzerjäger, or heavy tank hunter/destroyer. The Elefant began its production life in 1943 as the Ferdinand, named after Ferdinand Porsche. When Porsche was left with over 90 spare chassis from his rejected Tiger tank proposal, the company opted to utilise them as the foundation for a new heavy tank hunter. Porsche began sketching plans for the machine in 1942.
Design, power plant, and armament
The Ferdinand used petrol-electric power via two centrally placed 296 horsepower Maybach engines. The engines ran electric generators which powered drive motors linked to the rear sprocket wheels. The placement of the engines necessitated an internal arrangement in which the radioman and driver were situated separately in the front, only being able to communicate with the rest of the crew by intercom.
The central power plant allowed space for the mounting of the 88mm Pak 43/2 L/71 antitank gun toward the rear. The Ferdinand had no rotating turret, but instead a large, posterior situated boxlike compartment which the massive gun mounted to in the casemate manner. The gun had a limited 25 degree range of lateral and vertical adjustment. With this long range armament, the Ferdinand was designed to destroy enemy tanks before the latter could get within their own firing range. With front armour almost eight inches thick, the Ferdinand weighed in at 65 tonnes.
Eighty-nine Ferdinands saw service in the Battle of Kursk. The 653rd Heavy Tank Destroyer Battalion claimed 13 Ferdinand losses against the knocking out of 320 Russian tanks. It was reported that the Ferdinand could destroy or immobilise a T-34 tank from over three miles away. But the vulnerabilities of the design were soon apparent: The Ferdinand had no machinegun to deter infantry attacks, and its weight contributed to mechanical breakdowns.
Following the proving ground of the Battle of Kursk, the remaining Ferdinands were temporarily withdrawn from service for revamping. In late 1943, 48 Ferdinands were each fitted with an anti-infantry ball-mounted MG-34, anti-magnetic Zimmerit paste (a hull texturing to prevent the attachment of magnetic mines), and a commander’s cupola which provided better visibility. These additions, plus some extra armour, increased the weight of the machine to 70 tonnes (second in weight only to the Jagdtiger tank destroyer). The improved and further beefed up Ferdinands were nicknamed Elefants, and a May Day 1944 order from Hitler made the new moniker official.
These Elefants saw action on the Italian front, in Zossen during the Battle of Berlin, and in the Soviet’s Vistula-Order offensive. Due to the Elefant’s long range firepower and heavy armour, few were destroyed by enemy fire. But the machine’s vulnerabilities were several: Its weight, which made negotiating bridges and some roads hazardous; a general mechanical unreliability; and the lack of available spare parts, which led to many Elefants being abandoned after breakdowns.
The Ferdinands and Elefants were also slow and unmanoeuvrable. The lack of a rotating turret meant the whole machine was rendered virtually helpless when a track or drive sprocket was broken, either due to mechanical failure or enemy fire.
However, with an average kills-per-loss ratio of 10:1, the Ferdinand and Elefant could be considered the War’s most effective tank destroyer. Two examples of this imposing piece of armour remain. A Ferdinand seized by the Soviets during the Battle of Kursk is on display at the Kubinka Tank Museum on the outskirts of Moscow. United States forces captured an Elefant in Anzio, Italy, and this machine (recently restored) is in the United States Army Ordnance Museum in Fort Lee, Virginia.