Surprisingly, British intelligence did not know of the Tiger until months after its deployment, and years after Germany launched its requirement.
The German requirement for what would become the Tiger dates back to 1937, initially for a medium tank to replace the Panzer IV.
By 1938, the requirement was for an assault tank, which was twice re-specified towards a heavier tank, before everything was specified again in 1941 as a new project – the final project leading to the Tiger’s deployment in September 1942.
Rumours of a heavy tank
In those five years, British intelligence suspected that Germany was developing a heavy tank, but did not discover any project. British intelligence seems to have been speculating about heavy tanks given German propaganda. Britain had no special insight into German technical secrets: almost all its technical intelligence was derived from open sources; the rest was derived from chance encounters between its military attachés in Germany and a passing tank or an indiscreet official.
From about 1938, British presses started reporting German tanks of enormous weights from 70 to 90 long tons (71 to 91 metric tons). These weights remained in British intelligence reports through 1942. These reports sometimes designated the alleged German heavy tanks as Panzer VI or even Panzer VII – but these were easy inferences, given that Germany had deployed a Panzer IV already, as well as a Panzer V (a pre-war multi-turreted medium tank; the appearance of another Panzer V medium tank in 1943 would prove confusing for British intelligence).
Probably British reports were derived from German propaganda, not espionage: British reports described a tank that had been deployed by 1940, but in fact the final Tiger project had not been specified by then; and the heaviest specification amongst all those German projects was for 65 metric tons; the lightest was 35 tons.
Misinformation and first deployment
British intelligence languished until October or November 1942, when British forces in North Africa captured a German technical liaison officer, probably a civilian employee from Maybach, since the report makes passing reference to his work on Maybach gearboxes. He reported a Panzer VI that was “hardly bigger” than the Panzer IV. He also described its deployment months earlier. Probably he was deliberately misinforming his captors; if so, he was successful. Years later, British intelligence continued to date Tiger’s first deployment to July 1942.
The Germans first employed the Tiger against the Soviets in September 1942. For months, the Soviets shared no intelligence. In November British intelligence reports contained some accurate specifications of a Panzer VI, probably from signals intercepts.
In December, German propaganda started to release news of Tigers arriving in Tunisia. British forces captured disabled Tigers there from late January 1943 through May.
On 30 April 1943, the British Military Mission in Moscow reported Soviet intelligence on the Tiger, but by then operations in Tunisia were almost complete.
Learn about the first Tiger I to be knocked out by the British here.