The last major event in The Tank Museum’s annual event calendar is Tiger Day, taking place this October. It offers a rare opportunity for visitors to see our most famous exhibit in action.
It’s a great spectacle. But few consider the effort that goes into getting it out there in the first place. Mike Hayton is a man who knows more about operating Tiger tanks than anyone else alive.
He retired as Workshop manager several years ago but remains onboard as an advisor owing to his unique experience of working with the world’s only running Tiger tank.
Before Tiger 131 participates in a display, it must be thoroughly checked over. “From an engineering perspective, we love the Tiger,” said Mike. “We learn something new every time.”
Tiger tanks have a mechanical and operational complexity that far exceeds their peers. Careless maintenance or clumsy gearchanges could cause as much damage as enemy action.
“In terms of complexity, out of 10 I would give it 11,” he joked. “To us, Shermans are boring as they never go wrong!”
In wartime, it was said that for every hour of operation the Tiger tank required 10 hours of maintenance. These days, we estimate it requires almost 200. Mike and his team recently went through some of their preparations for Tiger Day. This extended first parade alone can take a team of three several hours to complete.
Firstly, the heavy armoured back decks are lifted. Four crewmen would have done this during wartime, but we use a forklift to reduce the risk of injury. With the compact but pristine engine compartment revealed, the fan drives are disconnected to lessen the load on the engine for its initial fire up.
The engine is a Maybach HL 230, not the original HL 210 which was sectioned long ago as a teaching aid. Levels of oil, coolant and fuel are then checked. The Tiger holds a total of 560 litres in its four fuel tanks, but around 90 litres is plenty.
The tank runs on avgas (leaded four-star) with a little bit of modern petrol mixed in. This additive is beneficial for the engine and fuel system. When the tank has been static for such a long period of time, the engine must be started using the inertia starter. This gets the oil, which has drained back into the sumps, moving around the system.
Turning the inertia starter is heavy work, requiring two crewmen. Having built up sufficient speed, one of the crew must reach to press a starter button at the base of the handle. So long as the engine is appropriately primed, the engine should start. But it can take several exhausting attempts to get it right.
With the engine running, the crew keep a close watch on the oil and fuel gauges as well as visually inspecting the engine compartment and pipework for any sign of oil, fuel or water leaks. The fan drives are reengaged and checked to ensure they are pumping out the hot air generated by the engine.
We are always conscious that any time it runs could well be its last. Catastrophic failure of the engine or gearbox could occur at almost any time.
Additionally, any sign of its original running gear or drive train being damaged through overuse would see it retired as a running exhibit.
There are also a handful of “Frankentiger” restoration projects underway which, if and when completed, would challenge the uniqueness of Tiger 131.
For now, at least, if you want to see a Tiger tank in action, you must visit one of our Tiger Day events. But don’t leave it too long before you do! The next Tiger Day takes place at The Tank Museum on Saturday, 1 October 2022.