As you might expect with one of the world's most famous restored military artifacts of the Second World War, the story of 'Tiger 131' and how she came to reside in a museum in rural Dorset is a fascinating one and draws visitors from all over the world to come and see this once feared 80 year old German tank. Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger I turret number 131 was built at the Henschel tank works in Kassel during February 1943 and was destined to be one of only a handful of these mighty tanks sent to bolster Afrika Korps forces who were battling to stem the Allied tide in Tunisia.
Assigned to the 504th Heavy Tank Battalion, she was sent by rail to the port town of Trapani in Sicily, before being shipped across the Mediterranean Sea to Tunis. Once in Tunisia, this now famous Tiger was prepared for combat and as the Commander's Tank of the 3rd platoon, was given the red turret number 131. Joining up with what few existing Tigers remained in the area, the tank went into action against the British in April 1943, where she would face the Churchill tanks of the 48th RTR and determined ground forces, which at that time were very much in the ascendancy.
What happened once the tank was committed to combat had been the subject of some discussion and until only recently, shrouded in some mystery. Whilst engaged in fighting with troops of the British Army 2nd Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, Tiger 131 was hit multiple times by small arms fire and significantly, also by an anti-tank shell which glanced off the mantlet, striking the turret ring. This resulted in the jamming the turret traverse mechanism and probably seeing members of the tank's crew sustaining injury. Shaken up and probably fearful of further, more devastating shell strikes, the crew quickly abandoned the tank and ran for the safety of German lines, leaving their almost pristine new Tiger in the middle of an active battlefield.
As the chance to take the Tiger represented a significant potential war prize opportunity and something Allied military officials would be desperate to get their hands on, the Foresters attempted to hold on to their prize during the heat of battle, facing numerous enemy counterattacks, as the Germans were clearly attempting to prevent the Tiger from falling into enemy hands. It would be several days before British tank recovery crews could safely enter the area and recover the tank. Tiger 131 was the first German Tiger tank to be captured intact by Allied forces in the Second World War and as such, was a real coup for the British.
The Tiger was taken to a servicing depot nearby and assessed, before later being inspected by both King George VI and Winston Churchill in Tunis, following the capitulation of German forces in the area. Of vital importance to the war effort, the tank was transported by ship back to Britain, arriving in Glasgow on 8th October 1943 and almost immediately dispatched to the Department of Tank Design in Surrey to undergo detailed evaluation. Interestingly, it was placed on public display on Horse Guards Parade later the same year, a gift made by the British First Army to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. This would be the start of a busy period for Britain’s increasingly famous Tiger tank, as it would be used not only for display and trials purposes, but also forming the subject of a detailed military analysis, assessing both the technology employed by the enemy in its construction and its combat effectiveness. Finally, the tank was dismantled and thoroughly inspected, so engineers could understand everything about their fearsome armoured adversary.
Following the end of the Second World War and with evaluation of the Tiger tank no longer a pressing priority for the British military, the semi-dismantled tank was presented to the Tank Museum in September 1951, where it could be protected from falling into further disrepair and potentially being lost to the nation forever. The initial challenge was to prepare the tank for public display, but once the general public had the opportunity to see her, it didn’t take long before her reputation as one of the world’s most famous and historic tanks ensured she quickly assumed a status few other wartime exhibits could hope to achieve, gaining something of a cult status nobody at the museum could have ever envisaged.
Now a major attraction and a unique link to the land battles of the Second World War, one of the most significant developments in the history of this tank occurred in the late 1980s, when museum officials decided that they were going to embark on an ambitious restoration project, returning Tiger 131 to as near to her 1943 configuration as possible. Something which clearly attracted worldwide attention, this project also included their intention to return her to running order.
With this in mind, in the spring of 1990, the tank’s turret and transmission were removed from the hull and a concerted and extremely costly restoration program embarked upon. An undertaking which could not be completed using existing museum resources alone, the project owed much to a Heritage Lottery grant and the expertise of the Army Base Repair Organisation, however between them, they achieved something quite incredible in the world of military preservation. After ten long years of effort and with many tens of thousands of pounds having been spent, the Tiger was due to be driven back the short distance from the Army repair facility to the museum site in early December 2001, but unfortunately, just one week before a high profile handover ceremony was scheduled to take place, disaster struck. Whilst undergoing a test drive, the tank’s rare and original Maybach engine blew up.
Although Tiger 131 was now looking in pristine condition, the engine rebuild would mean a lengthy delay for the project and it wouldn't be until the Museum's Tankfest event almost three years later that the general public would finally have the chance to see this magnificent machine moving under its own power. Anyone with knowledge of Tiger tank operation during WWII will know that this monstrous vehicle was notoriously difficult to operate for its crews, with the engine and transmission needing delicate handling by an experienced driver, if the tank was not to suffer breakdown. As a consequence, the people charged with operating the only working example of this mighty tank in the world during public demonstrations would arguably have even greater pressure on their shoulders from an operational perspective, despite the fact that thankfully, no one would be shooting at them.
After several years of successful operation, 2010 would see the tank's Maybach engine once again having to undergo complete overhaul, whilst at the same time, the opportunity was also taken to make numerous other improvements to various components and systems, with the intention of making future powered demonstrations safer, more reliable and preserving the longevity of this famous tank. The original decision to restore Tiger 131 to running condition has been vindicated many times over the years, as the tank is now a major attraction for the Tank Museum, not to mention something of a commercial heavyweight - people just can't get enough of 'Tiger 131'. This is perhaps just as well, because the Museum have a sizeable task in ensuring the long term wellbeing of their star tank attraction.
In 2013, Tiger 131 added an impressive new string to her already sizable armoured vehicle bow when she made a triumphant appearance in the feature film ‘Fury’, operating flawlessly on set and adding real historical authenticity to this wartime story. Being only too aware of this tank’s incredible and enduring public appeal, the museum now holds regular ‘Tiger Days’, which attract thousands of visitors to the museum, each one hoping to experience the sight and sounds of the only genuine Tiger tank to be seen running anywhere in the world. As it rumbles around the museum’s outdoor arena in a way only Tiger 131 can, you can quite literally see the crowd all leaning forward as one, desperate to get their first glimpse of a tank which is famous the world over and even though it may be 80 years old, is regarded by many as the epitome of tank design, efficiency and fearsome reputation.
Tiger 131 is a 50 ton armoured behemoth which has captivated the British public ever since she arrived in the country back in 1943 and it's astonishing to think that she continues to attract huge crowds of admirers from all over the world and is in arguably better condition than she was when she made her combat debut in Tunisia during WWII. She may be a military relic from a time most people would prefer to forget, but she is also a unique link to the machines we only usually get to read about in books and see in a handful of grainy black and white pictures from the Second World War. A restoration project which started over thirty years ago has seen the Tank Museum raise its profile exponentially over that time, putting them on the world map as the custodians of the most famous military vehicle in the world and ensuring this captured WWII German tank continues attracting many thousands of visitors to the fair county of Dorset.
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