Today Tiger 131 is probably the most famous tank in the world. Of the six surviving Tiger I’s, it is the only one numbered 131.
However over the course of the Second World War any number of Tigers and Tiger IIs bore this number, and in fact there would have been more than one ‘Tiger 131’ in existence at any given moment. This post will take a look at what this number signified and why there were multiple Tiger 131s.
The Fahrgestell Nummer
As far as the wider German military was concerned, ‘Tiger 131’ didn’t exist. The vehicle we call by this name would have been identified by its chassis number, or Fahrgestell Nummer in German. Essentially a registration number, this was unique to each vehicle.
Going by Fahrgestell Nummers Tiger 131 is officially 250122 (to give another example the Tiger at the Musée des Blindés in Saumur is 251114). These numbers were used administratively, but within a unit a tank would have been mainly identified by its turret number, and this is where ‘131’ enters the story.
Battalions were divided into Companies, then into Platoons, then individual vehicles. Soon after it was built in February 1943 Tiger 250122 was assigned to Heavy Tank Battalion 504. It was used by the commander of Number 3 Platoon in 1st Company, and therefore received turret number 131.
That was by far the clearest way to write that sentence, but it’s misleading as it reverses the numbering sequence. In fact it runs Company (1), Platoon (3), Vehicle (1). Had 250122 been assigned to the 2nd Company we’d all be reading about Tiger 231!
Turret numbers weren’t unique to Heavy Tank Battalions; the system was also used on combat vehicles throughout the German military, including Medium tank units, Panzergrenadier mechanized infantry and anti-tank Sturmgeschütz and Panzerjäger units.
Locations and Colours
These numbers were prominently painted on the vehicle, usually on the side of the turret (or hull, if the vehicle didn’t have one). Some tanks were also seen with them on the turret rear.
The numbers needed to be easily visible so commanders could quickly and clearly locate their vehicles on the battlefield and issue orders accordingly.
The exact positioning, shape and colour of the number varied over time and from unit to unit. Solid red (as on Tiger 131), solid black, just a white outline, black with a white outline and red with a white outline were just some of the variations used.
On display at The Tank Museum Tiger 131 sported large red numbers with a white outline for many years. However detailed analysis of photographs taken after its capture in April 1943 revealed that in fact they were smaller and solid red. They were repainted in the correct pattern in 2001 during the tank’s restoration.
The Museum’s Tiger II, with Fahrgestell Nummer 280093, has the turret number 104. The zero tells us it was assigned to (in this case 1st) Company Headquarters rather than a fighting Platoon.
This tank was used by SS Heavy Tank Battalion 101 rather than an Army unit, but the numbering system was the same.
Vehicles in Battalion and Regimental Headquarters units used a variation on this system, incorporating zeros (001), Roman numerals (II01) or an R (R01) to identify their vehicles. As commanders were high-priority targets some units devised other systems that would make them less obvious.
Whilst this numbering system was the most common across the German military, individual units did devise and use alternatives, mainly to try and obscure the unit structure and hide commander’s vehicles.
See more on the Tiger here.