Every type of tank goes through many changes occurring over their time of service. The Tiger I is no exception. Despite only 1346 being built there was a constant series of changes made during the two years the Tiger I was in production.
Some of these changes are immediately obvious, others much less so. This post will look at some of the ones that are easiest to spot.
Every German armoured fighting vehicle was given a unique Fahrgestall Nummer, or chassis number. The range allocated to Tiger Is began with 250001 and ran to 251346. Tiger 131 was built in February 1943 and has Fgst Nr 250122, making it an early example of the tank.
One change that had already been made by the time Tiger 131 was built was the elimination of the driver’s K.F.F.2 twin periscopes, used when his armoured visor was closed. They had been replaced by a larger periscope in the driver’s hatch on the hull roof. Holes for the K.F.F.2 were drilled in Tiger 131’s hull, but then filled in. They can still be seen.
Tiger 131 was fitted with Fiefel air filters to keep dust and debris out of the engine. These are mounted on the back of the hull above the tracks. They were dropped from new tanks in October 1943.
One major, but virtually invisible change was a new engine. The original Maybach HL210 was replaced by the more powerful HL230 from May 1943. Had 131 not been captured, and if it had survived long enough, it would likely have been refitted with the new engine eventually. Field conversion kits were issued to units for this purpose. During its restoration by The Tank Museum an HL230 was fitted to Tiger 131, which powers it to this day.
A major change was introduced in July 1943. This was a completely new turret. Although it looks almost identical, in fact virtually every component was replaced. The most obvious difference is the new commander’s cupola.
The original cupola, as fitted to Tiger 131, was quite tall and had a vertically opening hatch. It had five direct vision ports protected by bullet proof glass. Lessons learned in combat influenced the design of its replacement.
The new cupola was much lower and the hatch now opened horizontally. The vision ports were replaced with seven periscopes, allowing the commander to observe from inside the well armoured turret rather than raise his head into the more vulnerable cupola.
Another obvious change, made from February 1944, was to fit new road wheels, and fewer of them. The older wheels had solid rubber tyres, but due to shortages of this vital material the new wheels were steel-rimmed. They used a smaller amount of rubber that was sandwiched between the inner and outer metal layers to act as a cushion.
At the same time the outer layer of road wheels was removed, reducing the number from 24 per side to 16. The two types were not interchangeable, but crews could and did replace the wheels on older Tigers.
Comparing Tiger 131 with the Tiger preserved at Vimoutiers in France (Fgst Nr 251113, built May 1944) shows these differences clearly.