Weighing an astonishing 188 tons, this was the monstrous terror that never quite was. The Panzer VIII Maus – which is mouse in German in case you are wondering – remains the heaviest tank ever built, an accolade it has held since 1944.
Designed by none other than the founder Italian sports car manufacturer Porsche, the Panzer VIII Maus arrived late in the game during World War II and has often come to be associated with the inflated, most likely psychotic, ego of Adolf Hitler. It was to be truly colossal, but with the Soviet Army barreling towards the factory, only two hulls were ever built, only one of which was fully completed.
Say what you will about the Nazis, but they knew how to produce some truly next-generation weaponry. Take your pick from the world’s first assault rifle, the StG 44 which appeared in 1943, the world’s first ballistic missile, the V-2, which began to rain down on Britain in 1944 or the world’s first fighter jet, the Messerschmitt Me 262, which had its first flight in 1941 and entered service in 1944. The Nazis have rightly gone down in history as one of the most despised groups ever, but they sure knew how to build killing machines. No wonder so many scientists were quietly repatriated to the UK and USA after the war.
As World War II broke out, Europe was taken by surprise by the relentless speed of the German advance, which came to be known as the blitzkrieg, or lightning war. These rapid advances typically saw columns of Panzer tanks, often supported by infantry, crashing through defences at speeds that left defenders disoriented and unable to hold the line. This was a new form of warfare, and it was incredibly successful.
German tanks underwent considerable evolution during World War II. The early Panzer I was quickly followed by – you’ve guessed it – Panzer II, III, IV and V – all growing in both size and weight.
But as the Germans made their ultimately doomed venture into the Soviet Union, they eventually met their match – the indomitable Soviet T-34 tank. In response, Hitler ordered something even bigger be built, the Panzer VI – better known as Tiger 1. Next came the largest and heaviest mass-produced German tank of the entire war, the Tiger 2, weighing a massive 69.8 tons – equal to about 10 elephants.
Tiger 2 appeared in 1944, just as the war began to unravel for the Germans. But waiting in the wings, was something of absurd proportions. Would it be enough to help turn the tide of war? No – but you already knew that.
We’ve actually jumped along a little far here. To start the story of the Panzer VIII Maus, we need to return to 1942 – a time when everything in Hitler’s world was going well. His armies had smashed their way across Europe and North Africa, the British had been forced into a chaotic retreat at Dunkirk, and his non-aggression pact with Stalin meant that the eastern border of the new Greater Germany was secure. But what do you get a man who has everything already?
Ferdinand Porsche first suggested the design of what was then the VK 100.01 / Porsche Type 205 to Hitler sometime in June 1942. This was the super-heavy tank Hitler had been craving and shortly after, Porsche received the go-ahead to build a full-scale mock-up. In reality, the idea of a super-heavy tank wasn’t new, but a series of plans for such a tank had already been rejected as being unfeasible.
Now, before we carry on, a little back-story on Ferdinand Porsche. Born in 1875, the Austrian-German automobile engineer held the interesting distinction of having three separate citizenships throughout his life; Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia and finally Germany. He founded Porsche in 1931, but will also be best remembered for the ‘people’s car’ – the Volkswagen Beetle, which appeared in 1938. Conveniently, the year after he joined the Nazi party and the SS – which I’m sure was just a coincidence.
As the war progressed, Porsche was often labelled as a ‘mad scientist’ as his tank designs became more and more complex. His VK4501 design had earlier been rejected by Hitler, but it seemed that Porsche was eager to do his bit for his adopted fatherland. This is an interesting point and has led some to question the feasibility of the entire project. How much of it was simply driven by Porsche’s desire to please his Fuhrer, while being encouraged to do so by the maniacal brain of Adolf Hitler?
Porsche had until spring 1943 to produce a working prototype. Considering he was planning to build a tank more than twice as heavy as any German tank before it, this was no easy feat. His initial plan included a 150mm L/40 gun and a 20mm MG 151/20 heavy machine gun, but over the next year, several alternatives were tested, including even a 127mm naval gun.
But who cares about testing when your boss knows best. In January 1943, Hitler interfered in the project and stated that the tank must now come with 128mm and 75mm guns as well as a machine cannon to be used against aircraft. And this is where the problems begin because the initial design could not support such an increase in space for further ammunition.
Shortly after, and most likely related to this issue, Porsche announced that the first prototype would be ready in the summer, rather than the spring of 1943. To make things slightly more complicated, the production process was to be shared by two different companies. Krupp would construct the chassis, turrets and armaments while Alkett was responsible for the final assembly.
In May 1943, a full wooden mock-up was presented to Hitler, who seemed to like what he saw and ordered 150 of them. He also made another alteration, changing the gun back to the 150mm version, because, in his own words, the 128mm looked like a toy gun on such a large tank.
On Christmas Eve 1943, the first prototype (minus the turret and known as V1) finally arrived and went into immediate testing, but this was far from a glorious start. The weight of the tank meant that it could barely move, with the Daimler-Benz MB 509 engine inside struggling to get the tank above 13km/h (8 mph) under optimal conditions (its expected speed had been 20km/h – 12mph).
The One and Only
The only Panzer VIII Maus to be fully completed was the V2, which arrived in March 1944 and received its engine a few months later, an upgraded MB 517 V12 diesel engine producing 1,200 horsepower – the same as the new Chevy Corvette ZR1, which is set to go on sale over the next couple of years.
In terms of its firepower and armour plating, this was a fearsome proposition for enemy tanks. Its weapons included a 128 mm KwK 44 L/55 gun, a coaxial 75 mm KwK 44 L/36.5 gun and a coaxial 7.92 mm MG 34 (coaxial guns mean that they are mounted parallel to the main gun of the tank). The main gun was capable of punching a hole in the American Sherman, British Cromwell and Churchill, and Russian T-34 and JS-2 tanks from a distance of over 3,500 meters (11,482 ft).
The armour plating that encased the Maus was also substantial. The front of the hull was 22 cm (8.7 inches) thick, while the sides and rear were 19 cm (7.5 in). The front of the turret came with 24 cm (9.4 inches) and the sides and rear 20 cm (7.9 inches). Certainly not indestructible, but a pretty good start.
The tank came with several interesting engineering quirks. It was far too heavy to use bridges to cross rivers, so had been designed to ford rivers, meaning it would just drive straight across – well, not quite. The Maus would have to travel across rivers in pairs as it couldn’t keep its engine running while underwater – for obvious reasons. The solution was for one Maus to remain on the shore, while the other crossed. They would be connected by an electrical cable which, in theory, would provide auxiliary power to the tank enabling it to travel across the riverbed. And this feature gets even better. A large snorkel would be attached to the tank, providing oxygen to the crew inside and allowing it to move underwater at depths of up to 7.9 metres (26 ft).
The Maus would come with a crew of six, a commando, a gunner, a radio operator, a driver and two loaders. It had a main fuel tank with a capacity of 2,700 litres (710 gallons) and an external auxiliary fuel tank capable of holding an extra 1,500 litres (500 gallons) located at the rear of the tank, enabling it to travel up to 160 km (100 miles) before refuelling.
The tank came with an electric transmission which was fairly revolutionary at the time. This meant that the Maus did not require a gearbox. Instead, the engine span a dynamo (small electric generator) to produce electricity, which in turn powers a motor and after the drive sprocket, which propels the tank forward. In theory, this should have provided a smooth, continuous ride without the need to change gears, but it was a design that was plagued with problems from the outset.
The End of the Road
The summer of 1944 was not a good one for Adolf Hitler. The successful Allied invasion in Normandy had begun the slow process of pushing the German army back towards Germany, while on the eastern front, Soviet forces had begun Operation Bagration, which would eventually lead to the largest defeat in German military history. The noose was beginning to tighten, and to top it all off, there was the failed assassination attempt of Hitler on 20th July.
Exactly one week later, Hitler ordered work to cease on further Maus tanks. Exact reasons are not known, but it’s thought that with an ever-increasing Allied air superiority, the Maus would have proven easy pickings. Another suggestion is that Hilter had hoped that the Maus would be ready to fight off the Allied invasion coming from Britain, but of course, it missed that deadline by a considerable margin.
Testing on the V2 did, however, begin in September, with decidedly mixed results – and I’m probably being generous there. No matter what they tried, it seemed impossible to get the tank to move at more than 16 to 19 km/h (10 to 12 mph) and it suffered countless engine failures. Testing was made even more complicated by the continuous attacks by Allied bombers. It’s highly unlikely the Allies knew what was being built below, but in general factories and manufacturing centres were attacked at a relentless pace.
The number of impracticalities regarding the Maus was quickly stacking up. They found that, if a Maus broke down, it was so heavy it would require two Maus to pull it. It was also horribly vulnerable to close-quarter attacks because of its hull openings and many grills needed to ventilate the giant beast. Lastly, the auxiliary fuel tank included at the rear of the tank would act as a bullseye for any would-be attacker, and a direct hit would likely to lead to an almighty blaze.
With the Soviet forces closing in, the end for both V1 and V2 came in April 1945. While there are fanciful stories of them being sent into combat as a defiant last stand, these are almost certainly inaccurate. The most likely scenario was that they were purposely destroyed by the retreating Germans, probably with explosive charges.
But they didn’t even do a good job of that. While V2 was badly damaged, V1 managed to escape with only minor injuries and was discovered by Soviet forces in the Krupp factory in Essen. They also found the remnants of V2 in Wünsdorf, which had been one of the Nazi headquarters. While the hull of the V2 was destroyed, the turret had survived and the decision was made to combine the hull of V1 and the turret of V2 before sending it back to the Soviet Union for careful analysis. It arrived in the USSR in 1946, and eventually found its way to the Kubinka Tank Museum, where it remains on show to this day.
The Tank that Never Was
The question of how the Panzer VIII Maus would have fared on the battlefield has intrigued historians since its discovery. Would it have been enough to turn the tide in Hitler’s favour? Most agree no. Considering the catalogue of problems that came up during testing, it’s difficult to imagine it would have been much help on the battlefield, and possibly more of a hindrance.
The Maus is remembered more like a vanity project, than a viable piece of military hardware. But with its fearsome firepower and thick armour plating, had they managed to address its biggest issues, this could have been one hell of a tank.
But quite astonishingly, amid the rubble that had become Germany, the Allies found plans for tanks that would have eclipsed even the Maus. Apparently, the Germans had been developing designs for a series of super-heavy tanks. The blueprints for the Landkreuzer P. 1000 Ratte called for a tank weighing 1,000 tons, and a crew of over 20.
But we’re not finished. The Landkreuzer P. 1500 Monster would have weighed at least 1,500 tons and had a crew of over 100. In all fairness, this would have been more of a mobile artillery gun than a conventional tank, and this is some doubt just how serious this proposal was, but still, thank god Hitler never got his hands on some of those.
The Panzer VIII Maus is today remembered as a failure, too big, too heavy and with complex engineering that needed years more work to perfect. It was a project that drained German designing, manufacturing and testing at exactly the time it couldn’t afford it.
Hitler’s monster, that never quite was.