Key point: Berlin wanted larger and larger tanks. Nazi Germany, however, went overboard with its “Maus” idea.
As early as 1941, the German high command had visions of military technology that was far ahead of its time, and many innovative technological concepts were becoming reality. Had some of them been produced in a more expeditious fashion or in greater numbers, most historians agree that they would have doubtless prolonged World War II, if not altered its outcome entirely.
Many of these “wonder weapons” were highly practical concepts and have as their progeny the cornerstones of modern military arsenals— the world’s first assault rifle, intercontinental ballistic missiles, and jet fighters to name a few. And then there were some bizarre concepts, which appear on the surface to be nothing more than an extension of their inventor’s ego. The Maus (German for “Mouse”) super-tank certainly falls into the latter category.
The Panzerkampwagen (PzKpfw.) VIII Maus was a 188-ton behemoth developed by Porsche at the behest of Hitler himself. Impractical does not begin to describe it, and the timing of its introduction was stupefying. Why, when Nazi Germany had lost the oil fields in Africa and was starting to run short of fuel for the vehicles they had, would they introduce a gas guzzling monster that would obviously be very costly and time consuming to produce? This kind of decision making was one of the great intangibles about Hitler, which confounded his staff as much as it does modern observers. Hitler jumped from one fad and crazy idea to another. The Maus was probably influenced by a trend toward producing heavy tanks that many Allied armor developers were experimenting with during the middle years of World War II. Of course Hitler had to go them one better.
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The Americans were developing the 45-ton M-26 Pershing tank, and, of more personal concern to Hitler, the Russians debuted the 45-ton JS-2 Stalin. While most military planners would have been more focused on the thousands of Soviet T-34 medium tanks the Russians were churning out that would eventually be rolling toward the Fatherland, Hitler obsessed with outweighing and outgunning the handful of Allied heavy tanks that were going into production. After the D-Day invasion and the Allied experience of being bogged down in the hedgerows of Normandy, heavy tanks were a subject of major controversy among military planners on both sides. Were they worth their weight? Did they gain more in protection and firepower than they sacrificed in mobility and fuel economy? Hitler had presumably already made up his mind several years before this defining incident and ordered Porsche to get to work.
Porsche’s Quest to Create an “Indestructible” Tank
The earliest development of the Maus super heavy tank started in 1941, when Krupp began studies of super heavy Soviet tanks such as the KV series. In early 1942, Krupp produced designs of a hybrid Tiger/Maus prototype, which eventually became the PzKpfw. VIII, and another super heavy design, the predecessor of the Maus, known as the the PzKpfw. VII Lowe, or “Lion.” In early March 1942, the order for the heavier tank, the Maus, was placed, and the Lowe never reached the prototype stage. Later that month, Porsche received the official contract for the new 188-ton Maus, specifying that it was to carry 100 rounds of ammunition and would be armed with the high performance 105mm L/60 or L/72 gun.
Maus production was to be overseen by Professor Ferdinand Porsche, who would develop the chassis, and the Krupp Munitions Works would be responsible for developing the hull, turret, and armament. The original Maus project was supported by the Heereswaffenamt (Army Weapons Office) as a competitive design. Porsche received approval for his project from Hitler at a time when none of his other designs had been selected for production. It has been theorized that perhaps Hitler might have compensated Porsche for his past failures as a military designer by awarding him the Maus contract. It could easily be argued that Porsche was being set up to fail yet again—the description of the tank Hitler wanted included the word “indestructible.”
The contract set a deadline for an operational prototype to be developed by the spring of 1943. On June 23, 1942, Porsche provided its design for an improved Maus armed with turret mounted 150mm (L/37) and 105mm (L/70) guns. Porsche promised that its first prototype would be ready in May 1943. While contract specifications demanded that armament should consist of the 150mm L/40 gun and 20mm MG151/20 heavy machine gun, usage of the 128mm L/50 was under consideration. In December 1942, new armaments such as a 127mm naval gun and the 128mm flak gun were also tested and considered for the tank’s main gun.
Testing a Turretless Maus Tank
In January 1943, Hitler interfered again in the development of the vehicle and ordered that the Maus be fitted with turret mounted 128mm and 75mm guns, while turret mounted 150mm or 170mm guns were specified for future use. Instead of the standard 7.9mm coaxial machine gun, the Maus would have a 75mm antitank gun next to the main gun, and a machine cannon for antiaircraft was to be mounted in the turret roof alongside a smoke grenade projector. Indecision seemed to reign supreme on this crucial design element. The specification for ammunition storage space of 100 rounds was never met, and consequently the space was decreased, sacrificed at the altar of even further armament modifications.
That same month, the first backsliding by Porsche began when it was restated that first vehicle would be ready in the summer instead of spring 1943, and that would be followed by the production of only five vehicles per month. The first official name for the new super tank was VK10001 Porsche Type 205 and nicknamed the Mammoth. The tank was renamed Maeuschen (or “Mousy”) in December 1942 and finally Maus in February 1943.
With Krupp producing hulls, turrets, and armament, a firm called Alkett was responsible for assembly of the components. On December 24, 1943, the first prototype, minus the turret, was completed by Alkett and was put through extensive tests. During the tests, the Maus could barely move due to its enormous weight. It became obvious that the powerplant was woefully inadequate. The first prototype was powered by a modified Daimler-Benz MB 509 engine (developed from the DB 603 aircraft engine), which could not provide the planned speed of 20km per hour. It could manage only 13km per hour, and that only under ideal conditions. In December 1943, the V1 prototype was fitted with a Belastungsgewicht, or simulated turret, which represented the weight of the actual turret, and was tested. For some curious reason, this first prototype was applied with camouflage paint and marked with a red star, hammer, and sickle and disguised as a captured Russian vehicle.
The Maus V2 Prototype
In March 1944, the second prototype Maus V2, which differed in several details from the V1, was finally finished. This new V2 lacked a powerplant, which was later fitted in mid-1944. On April 9, Krupp delivered the turret, which was mounted on the V2 and tested in June. It was mounted with a 128mm KwK 44 L/55 gun, a coaxial 75mm KwK 44 L/36.5 gun, and a 7.92mm MG34 machine gun, providing the Maus with enormous firepower. The Maus main gun could penetrate the front, side and rear armor of the American Sherman, British Cromwell and Churchill, and Russian T-34 and JS-2 tanks at ranges over 3,500 meters. Its own armor was no thinner than 7 inches anywhere, and was up to 14 inches thick at some points.
The turret included mounts for a Zeiss rangefinder, but it was not fully finished and some of the missing components were shipped later. The Maus I was to be fitted with Krupp’s second turret, but it was never delivered and remained fitted with a simulated turret. On July 25, 1944, Krupp reported that two hulls would be available soon and two more were in production. Two days later, Krupp was ordered to scrap all four hulls. On August 19, Krupp informed Porsche that it was ordered to stop further work on the Maus. By September 1944, however, testing had begun on the second prototype. It was installed with a Daimler-Benz MB 517 diesel engine that made little difference in comparison with the previously used engine. Designing an engine sufficiently powerful for the gigantic Maus was obviously a serious problem. Though the Germans tried two engines, both around 1,200 horsepower as compared to the Royal Tiger’s 590 horsepower, neither could provide a speed of more than 10 to 12 miles per hour.
Another interesting feature of the Mouse from the engineering point of view was the return from torsion bar suspension—such as was used in the PzKpfw. III, the Panther, the Tiger, and the Royal Tiger—to a spring suspension. An improved torsion bar design had been considered but was abandoned in favor of a volute spring type suspension. Its running gear was designed by Skoda and consisted of double wheeled trucks supported by 12 return rollers with 43.3-inch wide tracks. In order to reduce the ground pressure so that the tank could have some mobility, the tracks had to be made very wide. With the tracks taking up over 7 of its 12 feet of width, the Maus presented a very strange appearance from either the front or the rear, and its 12-foot height gave it a very high target profile. The width had to be kept to a maximum of 12 feet so the Maus could fit on rail cars, as this was intended as a primary means of transport, and a special 14-axle railroad transport car was produced by Graz-Simmering-Pauker Works in Vienna just for the Maus.