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Soviet Tanks - Early Developments

The earliest tanks appeared just before the Great War in different countries. The Imperial Army knew about tanks only from hearsay, as Russia had no tank development of its own in pre-revolutionary times, apart from a handful of loose projects and experimental models.The tsarist Russia was engulfed by revolutions at that time and could not implement the ideas of the first Russian tank engineers: V.D. Mendeleyev, A.A. Porokhovschikov and N.N. Lebedenko. In 1914-1915, several basic tank designs were proposed. Those tabled by military engineers Alexander Porokhovshchikov and Nikolai Lebedenko were vastly different from each other, although they were equally useless in military terms. The first was essentially an armored all-terrain vehicle that resembled a fat bug.

The second was a 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 in 1916. 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. 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.

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 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.”

In the Soviet Union the meaning of a new weapon was realized quickly but no tanks were available in 1920's. The first Soviet tank "Freedom Fighter Comrade Lenin" was manufactured in St. Petersburg. Though a handful of captured Mk V (in Russia known as Ricardo) served in the Red Army their performance was not satisfactory. The first tank adopted for serial production in Russia was the Renault FT, however the Russian-built Renault was even worse than its French prototype and only a small series was built. The Army demand for a good tank was answered in 1927 when the MS-1 (T-18) vehicle was developed using the FIAT 3000 as a starting point.

The T-18 took part in the Russian-Chinese border conflict in 1929, and less known - in the initial phase of the WW II in 1941. Most were used as pillboxes, while others that were still able to move - as tanks. The next step was the T-19 - the first attempt to make a main battle tank with sloped armor but it never made it to serial production. T-12 - the cruiser tank prototype was more lucky as it was put into serial production under the T-24 name.

The Soviet High Command was interested in the production of light wheeled caterpillar tanks. Two Christie tanks were purchased in the US for this purpose, and one was delivered to the Kharkov Locomotive Works. In 1931 BT-2, a light wheeled caterpillar tank based on Christie tank was created at the Works by a group led by N.M. Toskin, a military engineer. Tankmen liked these fast-moving tanks that were affectionately nicknamed "Betushkas". When compared to other tanks, the BTs were more agile, but they were harder to drive.

By 1936 the Soviet Army had an operational level doctrine and four mechanized corps of almost 600 tanks; each with a complement of mechanized and tank brigades, regiments and battalions ready for employment at the tactical and operational level. Unfortunately, Stalin reversed the trend of operational thinking and design by eliminating most of the Army's senior leaders and leading theorists. Stalin's purge of 1937-1938 eliminated Tukhachevsky, Egorov, Kamenov, Svechin and many others. Moreover, any senior officer who survived distanced himself from their ideas. Stalin's purges could not have come at a worse time for the evolution of operational doctrine in the Soviet Army was at a critical juncture. The tank corps had existed prior to 1937, but were dismantled, their forces parceled out in support of infantry armies.

The General Staff view was that the full potential of tanks had not been displayed in Spain and that the Red Army should continue to pursue plans to use tanks, but on a mass scale, with full artillery support. Georgiy Zhukov's successful use of mechanized formations in his defeat of the Japanese Kwangtung Army at Khalkhin Gol in 1939 further reinforced the advocates' view of armored warfare. The Red Army reorganized its tank force in 1938, enlarging the four mechanized corps and renaming them as tank corps. In addition, many of the scattered tank battalions and regiments were consolidated into twenty-five independent tank brigades. The first Russian heavy tank designed by N.N.Lebedenko was tested near Dmitrov. Soviet designers recognized that the tank needed a variety of firepower immediately available during the attack, so they hung a variety of weapons systems on the tank. The Soviet T-35 heavy tank weighed 50 tons, had an 11-man crew and carried a 76.2mm cannon, two 45mm cannons, and six 7.62mm machine guns. These awesome five-turret monsters were produced from 1936 to 1939, but proved too cumbersome for the battlefield.

From the beginning, the technical problems with heavy multi-turret design precluded the reliable armoring and very soon it became clear that the possibilities of these designs were limited. The Russians had produced a limited quantity of heavy tanks KV-1 and KV-2. About 2400 tanks KV-1 were build in the USSR in 1939-1942. With the weight of 43.5t and armor thickness 30-95 mm it was the biggest contemporary heavy tank in the world.

It was only in the mid-to-late 1920s that the Soviet leadership fully grasped that the next large-scale war in Europe would be a clash of armored vehicles. In 1924, the authorities set up a technical office at the General Directorate of Military Industry, a centralized authority that would run the design, testing and adoption of new tanks into the Red Army. Finally the state got to grips with the task of producing this essential weapon, and work became a national priority.

It was 1926 when the first three-year Soviet tank building program got under way, although how the "iron horses" would actually be used in combat had still not been thought through. The tank was mainly conceived as a means to support the infantry and this was the task envisaged for the first combat models, due for completion in 1929. Once again, development co-opted features of existing foreign models. During the Polish-Soviet War in 1920, Soviet cavalry had captured an Italian Fiat 3000 tank, which was also based on the very same Renault. The Soviets then took the design further.

The resultant T-18 (MS-1) small escort tank was the first all-Soviet product and looked relatively good for its time. Armed with a 37-mm cannon, carrying 8-mm bulletproof armor and able to move at 10 miles (16 km) an hour, the design was quickly adopted as the core element of the Red Army's tank forces. Around 1,000 T-18s had been built by 1931, but by this stage plans already existed for an upgrade. Despite attempts to extensively modernize the T-18, the limitations of the resultant T-20 showed that the scope for improving on the original Renault design had been exhausted.

But before the Soviet designers really came into their own in the 1930s, there was still one vital chapter of foreign influence to come: American engineer and tank enthusiast John Walter Christie, who was a major source of inspiration. In his work for the U.S. government, Christie’s various projects had qualitatively changed the understanding of how to build these machines. But while his talents remained largely unrecognized and fulfilled in his homeland, they came to maturity in the Soviet workshops. Christie is best known for developing the Christie suspension system used in a number of World War II tank designs, notably the Soviet BT and T-34 series.

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