Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the Germans soon found themselves facing formidable Soviet armor. The T-34 was called “the finest tank in the world” by Field Marshal Paul von Kleist and was viewed as vastly superior to existing German armor. This spurred the Germans to develop the Panther and Tiger tanks. Further developments led to the production of the “Ferdinand” heavy tank destroyer. Like other panzerjägers, the Ferdinand’s primary focus was hunting and killing enemy armor. Production began in early 1943, with orders from Hitler they be available for the summer offensive. The Germans produced 91 Ferdinands by May 1943, and 89 were sent to the Eastern Front.
The Ferdinand’s baptism of fire came in July during Operation Citadel. Too few in numbers to provide a significant advantage, they nevertheless proved their worth on the battlefield. While the Ferdinands’ 88mm main gun proved devastating to Soviet armor, the lack of secondary armament left the Ferdinand vulnerable to Soviet infantry. It was recorded that some crews would fire personal weapons through the main barrel. Despite its vulnerabilities, the Ferdinands would gain an impressive record in the Battle of Kursk. One battalion (Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 653) would destroy over 300 Soviet tanks, with a loss of just 13 Ferdinands.
After Kursk, the remaining 50 Ferdinands returned to Germany for refitting. Machineguns were mounted, the tracks were widened, and additional armor panels were added for protection. The additions increased its weight to 70 tons, and on 1 May 1944 Hitler renamed them the “Elefant.” The Elefants would next serve on the Italian front. They struggled to traverse the difficult terrain in Italy, and many were lost due to mechanical problems. In January 1945, a company of Elefants took part in the Vistula-Oder offensive but again were too few in numbers to provide any significant contribution. They few remaining vehicles would see combat in the Battle of Berlin.
Today there are two surviving Elefants. One captured by the Soviets at Kursk, is located at the Kubinka Tank Museum. The other is located at the US Army Ordnance Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia. This vehicle was captured by American troops during the Battle of Anzio in Italy. The Ferdinand/Elefant had an impressive combat record (despite the mechanical and defensive issues). Historians estimate the vehicle had a 10-to-1 kill ratio and was one of World War II’s most successful tank destroyers.