Russian Tanks - Early Developments
Lieutenant Nikolai Lebedenko was also working at the elusive breakthrough tank design. In early 1915, the army engineer created a machine that could feasibly breach barbed wire and enemy trenches. The 60-ton tricycle-type construction with two giant spoked front wheels that were nine meters in diameter. It was invented by Russian designer Nikolay Lebedenko. Mastodon - The Bat is prominent for its huge size, diameter of its wheels reached 9 meters, and the arms consisted of 7 guns and machine guns. This cross-country vehicle easily overcoming tank ditches and entrenchments was made only in one copy. The ‘Tsar Tank’ was named after Lebedenko’s unswerving belief that these machines could “break the entire German front in one night, and Russia will win the war,” as he told the emperor at a personal audience. Known as the “Tsar tank,” it was the largest wheeled vehicle in military history, and was eventually abandoned because it was underpowered and too vulnerable to artillery fire.
A special design feature was the chassis consisting of two large driving wheels and a rotating rail trolley. Overall, the design resembled an oversized artillery gun carriage, driven by two 240-horsepower Maybach engines. Construction of the prototype was completed in 1917, and it was immediately clear that the vehicle was underpowered when it got stuck fast in the first ditch during trials. But while unsuccessful, the Tsar Tank project saw the involvement of such future stars of Soviet engineering science as Zhukovsky, Stechkin and Mikulin. Another 1915 prototype also came from the Rybinsk plant, which mainly reproduced French designs. Crewed by four men and weighing 20 tons, the tank’s 200-horsepower engine allowed sufficient maneuverability despite its heavy cloak of 10-12mm armor. The tank carried a rear-firing 107-mm gun inside the housing, while a heavy-machine gun was placed in the front beside the driver. But despite its practical design features, the design did not impress the country’s military-technical chiefs and received no support. Another contender was the concurrent project by Vasily Mendeleev, son of the famous chemist and inventor Dmitry Mendeleev, which was presented to the Ministry of War in August 1916. Developed since 1911 on Mendeleev’s personal initiative, the tank was equipped with anti-shell armor and other technical innovations that would find application in later years. Mendeleev proposed pneumatic suspension units for the chassis, while the vehicle was steered with a servo motor. Since the main gun was a 120 mm cannon, he wanted to build a body that could be lowered during firing in order to reduce the load on the chassis and also protect the caterpillars from enemy fire. The tank was supposed to be transported on railway platforms, thereby increasing mobility and ensuring swift delivery to the front. But the cost of the various innovations was its 170-ton weight, as well as the production demands for such an ‘armored vehicle’, as Mendeleev himself called it. This all deterred the ministry from pursuing the design. Frustrated by the failed attempts to build its own tank, the Tsarist government went down the tried and tested path of buying military equipment from abroad. France was commissioned to build 300 Renault tanks for the Imperial Army, but the order was disrupted by the 1917 Russian Revolution. The tsarist Russia was engulfed by revolution and could not implement the ideas of the first Russian tank engineers: V.D. Mendeleyev, A.A. Porokhovschikov and N.N. Lebedenko. The French tank still appeared in Russia eventually, though not as an import but as a trophy of war, following the defeat of the White Russian forces in the Civil War. The Renault was brought to Moscow, dismantled, and used in efforts to design the first Soviet mass-produced tank, to be called the “Comrade Lenin freedom fighter.”
Ultimately, Russian tanks did not fight on the battlefields of the First World War. Despite the best efforts of engineers to equip the army with modern weapons, these attempts mostly failed to get beyond the test phase. Nevertheless, many of the proposed ideas found later application, with many becoming embodied in the tank battlefield’s combatants of the future.
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