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Armoured Confusion: Start of the Great Patriotic War

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One of the most popular topics of discussion in Soviet tank circles is their use in the Great Patriotic War. As strange as this may sound, the production and use of Soviet tanks during the war is not a very well studied topic. This is caused by shallow surface level research and resilience of "common knowledge", little of which overlaps with any facts. There are so many of these myths that it's impossible to cover them all in a single article. Let's examine only the first half of the Great Patriotic War and misconceptions linked to this period.

Quantity over quality

A favourite pastime of many self proclaimed experts is the counting of tanks available to various armed forces. This activity is interesting, but largely pointless. This author recently wrote an article dedicated to French interbellum tank building. Without repeating the content of the article, let us just say that merely counting tanks does not give an accurate picture. The French had many tanks, but they were largely ineffective and many had armour that was better on paper than in reality.

The most common type of tank in the Red Army at the start of the Great Patriotic War was the T-26 (9987 units as of January 1st, 1941). A number of these tanks needed repairs, plus a large fraction was made up of two-turreted T-26 tanks that were to be converted into SPGs. This is a large number of tanks, but only on paper.

If one carefully and most importantly objectively evaluates the armoured vehicles fleets of the USSR and Germany as of June 22nd, 1941, one can make some unexpected conclusions. For one, the Red Army was chiefly using armoured vehicles produced between 1933 and 1939, whereas most of Germany's tanks were built in 1939-1941, especially their medium tanks. These tanks were either built with the lessons of the 1939-1940 campaigns in mind or were modernized to reflect them. In case of the Pz.Kpfw.III, which was the main German medium tank at this time,  the tank received a 50 mm gun and either applique armour or 50 mm thick monolithic armour. This protected it from the Soviet 45 mm gun, the typical armament of Soviet pre-war production tanks and infantry units.

The same improvement affected the Pz.Kpfw.IV and Pz.Kpfw.38(t), although in case of the latter the quality of the armour largely made this reinforcement pointless. The Pz.Kpfw.II was also of some use on the battlefield, although it was clear by 1940 that the time of these tanks was coming to an end. Nevertheless, Germany fielded 1074 of these tanks in 1941, and most of them had modernized front hull and turret armour. It still could not protect from the 45 mm gun, but the penetration distance decreased, and the 20 mm autocannon could very well penetrate the bulletproof armour of the BT and T-26 tanks.

The BT tank was in a similar situation. 7752 BT tanks were available as of January 1st, 1941, but as with the T-26 this is just the total. A large portion were far from the border, including tanks stationed in the Far East, and a portion were obsolete BT-2 tanks. Like the T-26, these tanks had bulletproof armour and could be penetrated not just by tank guns, but also by 20 mm AA guns.

Out of the 1440 Pz.Kpfw.III tanks on the front lines on June 22nd, 1941, most (1090) already had 50 mm guns. There were also 754 Pz.Kpfw.38(t), 170 Pz.Kpfw.35(t), and 517 Pz.Kpfw.IV, as well as some units with captured French tanks. At least 3955 combat ready tanks can be counted, and well over 4000 if one includes French tanks. This list also does not include the StuG III or other SPGs built in 1940-1941. Soviet production of tanks in 1940-1941 consisted of 788 BT-7M tanks, 1244 T-34s, 424 KV-1, and 213 KV-2. In the case of T-34 and KV tanks, these are tanks that were produced, not tanks that were delivered. Those numbers vary quite a lot. There is also a large difference between the total number of Soviet tanks and those that were stationed close to the front lines. The most interesting conclusion can be drawn when one compares tanks with similar characteristics. It suddenly becomes apparent that the number of tanks was not that different, and that's not including German SPGs.

A typical German tank for the summer of 1941. These tanks surpassed the BT and T-26 in firepower and armament, and the Pz.Kpfw.III armed with a 50 mm gun could even engage the T-34. German tanks surpassed Soviet ones in observation, which was a notable advantage when fighting anti-tank guns, the main enemy of the tanks.

This is only the top of the iceberg. The Pz.Kpfw.III, Pz.Kpfw.IV, and Pz.Kpfw.38(t) had been in production for years, and many "growing pains" were already resolved. In case of the T-34 and KV-1, they had only completed the "breaking in" process and their modernizations were ready only on paper. As a result of the war the modernization of these tanks was greatly postponed. For instance, the T-34 only gained a commander's cupola in the summer of 1943 and a dedicated commander even later, with the arrival of the T-34-85.

The problem did not lay in just tanks. The Red Army was in the process of rearming in the summer of 1941. The issue of training units to use the new tanks was a pressing one. To compare, the Germans already had two years of war experience and the element of surprise, which was the key to success in the first few weeks of the war. Fans of alternative history continue to spread the fairy tales about a preemptive strike, but the truth is that Red Army wargames held in 1941 followed the same scenario. The Western force attacks first, and the Eastern force defends, with the border guards delaying the enemy for long enough that the main force can form a steel fist that delivers a crushing blow against the aggressor. The Red Army was not training to attack first. Application of these plans could be seen at the Battle of Senno, but events developed in a way that the Red Army did not predict.

The list of German armoured vehicles often excludes self propelled artillery. This is an oversight. The Germans had hundreds of SPGs in use by the summer of 1941, which were largely dangerous opponents for Soviet tanks.

Fans of counting tanks often forget the most important thing. The tank's job is not to fight other tanks, but to support infantry. Most Soviet tanks were not lost to German Panzers, but to anti-tank guns. For instance, in battles for Nemirov and Magerov on June 24-25th, 1941, the Germans did not have a single tank, but Soviet tank units took heavy losses. The same pattern can be seen when it comes to losses of German tanks. Guns up to corps level artillery and high power artillery were unexpectedly used to defend against tank attacks. Here is where two years of war often played a key part. Let's be honest: the Germans were much better prepared to fight in 1941 both technically and tactically. Their issue was that they didn't carefully consider their forces. The USSR was different from France, and not just when it came to its size.

A sense of invulnerability

The second myth that is a direct descendant of the first has to do with the new tanks built by Soviet industry starting in 1940: the T-34, KV-1, and KV-2. There were 1881 of them built by June 22nd, 1941, not a small number, but also not taking into account how many of them were actually delivered to their end users. Nevertheless, it seems that in such large amounts and with shell-proof armour these tanks should have played a more significant role. Practice showed otherwise. The Germans only noticed the T-34 in the fall of 1941. What happened?
 
Trials held in the spring of 1941 showed that the T-34 could be penetrated in the side with the 37 mm gun at close range.

The T-34 and KV-1 were indeed the best medium and heavy tanks respectively at the moment of creation. Their thick armour was combined with high mobility and powerful armament. However, numerical characteristics are not enough to draw conclusions. If one looks at a history of new armoured vehicles, they will see that their debut never goes according to plan. This is true for Soviet, German, British, American, and French vehicles. The KV-1 saw limited use in the Winter War and the KV-2 was born from it, but the T-34 was still without combat experience. This factor needs to be considered carefully, as front line service often reveals many drawbacks not seen at factory or proving grounds trials.

There were already a lot of plans to improve the T-34's characteristics in the spring of 1941. The purchase of a Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.G tank played a role. It turned out that the T-34's design needs work, and it was supposed to be replaced by another tank where a number of drawbacks were resolved: the T-34M. A similar process was taking place with the KV-1. The KV-2 was going to be removed from production as it was more of an SPG than a tank. The KV-2's M-10T gun was also considered inadequate for the task of bunker busting.

The T-34's most dangerous opponent in 1941 was the 50 mm Pak 38 anti-tank gun. This T-34 tank photographed at the Nemirov-Magerov highway won its duel against the Pak 38, but was destroyed by a leFH 18 howitzer.

One could argue that the T-34 and KV-1 had thick armour, but it's not so simple. The T-34 had light shell-proof armour. Thanks to the slope of the front armour it could resist 37-45 mm caliber shells and even 76 mm shells, although there were weak spots: the hatch and machine gun ball. The sides were vulnerable not only to the 45 mm anti-tank gun, but also to the 37 mm Bofors gun. This meant that the German 3.7 cm Pak penetrated the T-34 as well, albeit at point blank range. Flanking fire at point blank range was not such a rare thing, especially in 1941. Daring "cavalry style" raids combined with limited visibility were the cause. As for the larger 50 mm Pak 38 guns, these were available from the first day of the war in large amounts and were a dangerous opponent for the T-34.

As for the KV-1, their biggest enemy was the Flak 18 AA gun. German AA guns could defeat Soviet heavy tanks from medium distances.

The T-34 wasn't only fighting against anti-tank guns. The 105 mm leFH howitzer was a common weapon of infantry divisions, and these weapons were used in an anti-tank role as of 1940. Practice showed that they were not a guaranteed countermeasure, but there was a chance of destroying a T-34. There were also other guns that were used against tanks: the 15 cm sIG 33 and 15 cm sFH 18. The Germans also used improvised weapons like mines and grenade bundles. The KV-1 was a tougher target, but the Germans had techniques that were polished in France, primarily the 88 mm Flak 18 gun. This gun was classified as a dual purpose weapon in 1938. Infantry weapons like the 105 mm K18 were also used against tanks. Recall that it is not necessary to defeat the tank's armour to stop it. Destroying the running gear is enough. The T-34 tank with the L-11 gun also had a weak point. The gun mantlet was only 30 mm thick, and there were many cases where it was penetrated.

The KV-2 was also often lost for mechanical reasons. This was the cost of an overloaded chassis.

Tanks weren't lost to just enemy fire. As mentioned earlier, the rearmament process was just getting started, and experience in using the new vehicles was rare. As a result tanks were lost due to being stuck in swamps or on soft soil. As with the KV-2, it was not infrequently lost for mechanical reasons. The KV tank was initially developed with a mass of 40 tons in mind, but the assault version weighed 52 tons. The extra load on the gearbox and other components made itself known. Similar issues happened with the Char B1 bis, but greater in magnitude.

Of course, the new Soviet tanks weren't just passive observers. There were cases where they caused plenty of trouble for the Germans, but nevertheless the full potential of these tanks was not used in the summer of 1941. Evidence shows that the T-34 was only "noticed" in the fall of 1941. For instance, the tanks in Katukov's hands at Mtsensk made such a stir that a special commission arrived to inspect them in November of 1941. In part, this revelation came because the T-34 finally became the Red Army's main tank.

An unlikely replacement

Some publications dedicated to the Soviet T-50 tank claim that nearly 14,000 units would be built. This is a consequence of using numbers without knowing where they came from. Such numbers appear in a document detailing plans for tank production in March of 1941. The document calls for an inventory of 13,802 T-26 tanks in peacetime and 15,872 in wartime. However, authorized strength and reality are two different things. Recall that the Red Army had just 9987 T-26 tanks as of January of 1941. As for the T-50 (referred to as the T-SP) there was no such grandiose plan. 400 units were expected in all of 1941, later this number grew to 500. Meanwhile, there were 350 T-34s on hand but 2850 were expected by January 1st, 1942. This did not fully cover the requirement (4200 units) but served to illustrate priorities.
The letter that is cited as a source for 14,000 T-50 tanks. As you can see, the reality is somewhat different.

The start of the Great Patriotic War naturally increased these plans, but there was no hope for 14,000 T-50 tanks. Even in the most optimistic variant the plan was to build 1500 tanks in 1942, of them 600 with a radio and 900 without. 15,000 T-34 tanks were expected in the same period. It was already clear by July of 1941 that the T-50 will not be produced in great numbers, which is why Astrov's proposal to build the T-60 was accepted with great enthusiasm. A truly great amount of T-60 tanks was expected in 1942: 27,500 units. The T-50 never had a chance as the Red Army's most numerous tank.

Sights and scopes

Vision is deservedly considered one of the drawbacks of Soviet pre-war and in part wartime tanks. While this may be the case, some people rush to complain about bad Soviet gun sights as well. This claim can only be made by someone who is not familiar with Soviet sights at all and confuses sights and observation devices.

Soviet gun sights, especially those on the T-34 and KV-1, were high in quality and were among the best tank sights in the world at the time of their introduction.

Soviet gun sights evolved in the 1930s just as Soviet tanks did. The sights used in the T-34 and KV-1 were especially progressive. They had markings for two types of shells as well as the coaxial machine gun. Corrections could be made with two knobs in the vertical and horizontal plane. Neither the Americans nor the British had anything like this at the time. Production quality is another important factor. Despite some claims, Soviet sights were very high in quality. Americans who studied Soviet tanks during WW2 noted as much, saying that the sights were some of the best in the world. Gun sights that survive to this day can easily dispute the claim of poor quality.

The telescopic sight could be corrected in two planes and also had markings for firing the machine gun. British and American sights had none of these features.

Observation devices are a different thing entirely. As pre-war experience showed, vision slits were not enough for observation, plus they were priority targets. The T-34 had periscopic observation devices that were similar in principle, but much safer to use. The issue was that the devices worked based on a system of mirrors made from Stalinite glass: tempered glass that came in small plates. The driver's periscopes had a similar design, as did the periscopes in the KV's turret. Practice showed that the plates often burst when the gun fired.

The observation devices on the other hand were much worse. Soviet tanks had insufficient visibility and the observation devices were flawed. This drawback was only fully corrected by 1944.

Suggestions to replace Stalinite with prisms were made in 1941, but some tanks continued to use Stalinite periscopes until 1942. Prisms fully replaced them only in 1943, but their quality was not high to begin with. The manufacturing process was only perfected by 1944. As for observation, work on correcting it began in 1941, but did not finish due to the start of the war. Issues with the KV_1 were corrected in the summer of 1942 with the KV-1S and the T-34 got its commander's cupola even later, in 1943. The problem was only fully resolved by 1944. In summary, Soviet tanks did have issues, but not those that many authors claim.

Build APCs!

A popular theory often discussed in pseudo-historical circles is that there was no need to build T-60 tanks. Proponents of this theory suggest that APCs and artillery tractors were a better use of resources. This idea came up long ago, but it still causes little more than a smile.

GAZ-22 artillery tractor on the T-40 chassis, early 1941. One of the reasons why this vehicle failed trials was the lack of an appropriate engine.

Don't think that the GABTU and GAU were staffed by people who knew nothing about tank building, unlike their descendants. The proponents of the "APC theory" miss one interesting fact: there was a tractor on something similar to the T-60 chassis developed even before the war. It was called GAZ-22 and it used the chassis of the T-40 amphibious reconnaissance tank. The GABTU rejected it because of the engine, as it was unsuitable for being used in a tractor. It's not surprising, as the GAZ-11, a copy of the Chrysler Flathead, was developed for use on cars.

The GAZ-11 was later used on trucks and wheeled APCs, but there is a difference between tracked and wheeled vehicles. Wheeled tractors had a higher priority, such as the GAZ-61-416. This vehicle was selected as the prime mover for the 57 mm ZIS-2 anti-tank gun. The start of production was delayed and only about three dozen were built. APCs on the T-40 and GAZ-62 chassis were also designed, but the engine issue affected them too. The GAZ-11 workshop at the GAZ factory was given to the People's Commissariat of Aircraft Production to build M-105 aircraft engines. Even T-40 production was hanging by a thread until the summer of 1941, after which APCs were forgotten in light of bigger problems. Some bring up German APCs as an example to follow, but there were not that many of them. Only 5-6 thousand of Sd.Kfz.251 vehicles, or a third of the total production run, were produced as APCs. Like in the Red Army, the most common APC in the Wehrmacht was any tank or an SPG that was driving in the necessary direction. The USSR even began installing handrails for infantry riders in 1942.

Tactical-technical requirements for the APCs that alternative history enthusiasts think they invented. After the Great Patriotic War began these ideas were swept away.

The claim that the T-60 was unnecessary is also worth a few words. Recall that the Germans produced the Pz.Kpfw.II Ausf.F, a peer of the T-60, from March of 1941 to July of 1942. By coincidence, the two tanks were removed from production in the same month, but Germany continued producing light tanks with 20 mm autocannons until January of 1944. Light tanks with 20 mm autocannons were far from an anachronism in the eyes of the military at the end of 1941. Meanwhile, the GABTU had no illusions about the ShVAK's abilities and almost immediately gave the order to install a 45 mm gun into the T-60 tank. The fact that the T-60 remained in production for so long has to do with limitations of the industry, as the plan was to replace it in the spring of 1942 with the T-70.

The GAU considered the best artillery tractor to be an SPG. The SU-32 was developed to meet requirements issued in late 1941.

There is another interesting factor. The GAU was perfectly aware that factories began producing tanks instead of artillery tractors. The artillery branch also understood that there will soon be nothing to tow guns with. The solution chosen by the GAU was to develop light, medium, and heavy SPGs. The SPG was considered to be the best artillery tractor, and so the SU-12's appearance in late 1942 as the first truly mass produced Soviet light SPG was no accident. If you look at this vehicle, you will see the same chassis that the theorists claim should have been used for tractors and APCs. This universal chassis was even initially designed to use T-60 components.

Trials of the NATI-D tractor that later turned into the Ya-11, 1942.

The "pure" tractor was not forgotten either, and various requirements and prototypes were also born in 1942. One of these projects, the NATI-D, was a success. It was accepted into service as the Ya-11. The GAZ-M1 engine was later replaced with the American GMC engine and later with the ZIS-16 when supplies of American engines dried up.

A limited edition tank destroyer

The fate of the T-34 tank with a 57 mm gun is a complicated one. It is often called T-34-57, but this index was never used by Soviet tank builders. There is a lot of conflicting information about these tanks, both regarding production volumes and which factories built it. There are sometimes claims made that 40 such tanks were built, but the real number is much smaller. Analysis of documents also shows that no factory other than #183 had anything to do with this tank.

The first ZIS-4 prototype on trials. One often sees a photo of another tank with the same gun. This is a retouched image of a tank that tested the experimental 76 mm F-34.

It is necessary to first have ZIS-4 guns at the factory in order to build a tank with them. This is the key when tracing these tanks. Some sources claim that factory #183 (Kharkov), STZ (Stalingrad), and factory #112 (Gorky) received these guns, but only factory #183's correspondence mentions them. The altered gun mantlet to accept this new gun was also developed at Kharkov. Examination of archive documents also shows another piece of evidence. The ZIS-4 gun was accompanied by the TMFD-7 sight, whereas the regular T-34 had the TOD-6 sight. Once more, the TMFD-7 sight is only mentioned in factory #183's letters. Factory #183 and the GABTU actively exchanged correspondence regarding this vehicle in early August of 1941. The plan for T-34 tanks with these guns had already arrived in Kharkov and they were awaiting the weapons themselves. 10 ZIS-4 guns and 20 sets of sights were sent only on August 24th.

There were more sights of this type produced. In August of 1941 factory #69 began producing them with markings for the F-34 gun. STZ received a batch of 147 sights on September 15th, and a total of 173 sights in all of September. Sights for 57 mm guns were renamed TMFD-8 to avoid confusion. According to documents, only 10 sets of these sights actually arrived in September of 1941. 22 ZIS-4 guns arrived in September of 1944, with the caveat that factory #92 mixed up the order and sent tubes for the ZIS-2 instead. Neither STZ nor factory #112 ever received guns of this type. Factory #92 reports 31 guns of this type sent out as of September 16th, 1941. There is no record of where these guns ended up. 

All T-34 tanks with ZIS-4 guns were sent to the 21st Tank Brigade. No more tanks of this type were built in 1941.

It was impossible to build more than 22 T-34 tanks with ZIS-4 guns even in theory, and in practice there were even fewer. As mentioned above, factory #183 only received 10 TMFD-8 sights. 10 tanks were built, one per sight. All of them were sent to Vladimir to equip the 21st Tank Brigade. The remaining 12 ZIS-4 guns were evacuated with factory #183. Their presence was accounted for at the factory, but the ZIS-4 project quietly died in November of 1941. The reason is not "excessive penetration" as some sources say, but rather that the requirement for F-34 guns increased (the ZIS-5 gun installed in the KV-1 was essentially an adapted F-34). There were also problems with defective barrels. In short, any tales of T-34 tanks with 57 mm guns built at STZ or factory #112 are fiction.

Dreams of a Soviet Tiger

There are many opinions regarding how the KV-1 tank could have developed. The designers that actually developed the KV and IS tank series had some opinions of their own, for instance N.F. Shashmurin wrote in his memoirs that it was possible to save the KV-1 if it had a new gearbox and an 85 mm gun. There were other alternatives that all stream towards the same outcome: the creation of a Soviet analogue of the Tiger tank. This idea is not a new one, but practice shows that it would have been a fruitless endeavor.

The ZIS-5 gun with a 50 caliber barrel is listed as an 85 mm gun in Grabin and Shashmurin's memoirs.

As strange as it may sound, even Shashmurin didn't know what was happening with the KV-1 in 1941-42. For instance, he claimed that factory #92 installed an 85 mm gun into the KV-1's turret in 1941. In reality this was the experimental 76 mm ZIS-5 gun with a 50 caliber long barrel. Another variant went into production that had more parts in common with the F-34, including the barrel. As for the 85 mm gun, the only weapon with this caliber that was created by Grabin's team in 1940-1941 was the F-30. IT was so large that a new turret had to be designed, which was later installed on the T-220 tank. The 85 mm U-12 gun was designed later in Sverdlovsk, but this gun was never built.

Attempts to develop a gun of this caliber were repeated, including at factory #92, but only drafts were made in 1942. The result was the same every time: the KV-1's turret was too small. The issue was finally solved in 1944 with the S-28 85 mm gun, but there was no longer a purpose for it. There was no way to assemble a Soviet Tiger out of components that existed in 1941-42.

Conclusions regarding the KV-1's development in late 1941. There was also a proposal to thicken the KV-7's armour to 115-120 mm and do the same on the KV-1 if that worked out.

Another avenue of development was the increase of protection. This topic came up back in 1940, and gave birth to the T-150 heavy tank. The armour thickness increased to 90 mm all around and the mass grew to 50 tons. A new variant of the V-2 engine was developed to deal with this increase, the 700 hp V-5. The reliability decreased as a result and the demand on the cooling system increased. Nevertheless, the improved T-150 tank indexed T-222 would have gone into production as the KV-3, although that index was soon reassigned to another tank. The GABTU seemed to have no single opinion regarding this issue, as the T-220 weighed 62.7 tons and turned out to be even less reliable than the T-150. This is why there was a backup T-222 variant with 120 mm of front armour weighing 54-55 tons and armed with that same ZIS-5 gun mentioned above.

The idea of replacing the KV-1 was dropped after the start of the war and the KV-1 tank slowly ballooned to 50 tons anyway. The idea of thickening the front armour to 120 mm and installing a 700 hp engine returned, but vanished just as quickly. It turned out that the KV-1 was already overloaded, which had an impact on the engine and transmission. Steps to lower the armour thickness to make the tank lighter and more reliable were taken in the spring of 1942. The result was the creation of the lighter KV-1S with Shashmurin's 8-speed gearbox. This gearbox was initially meant to go into the T-222.

The 85 mm ZIK-1 gun. It was developed for the T-34 and KV-1 in the spring of 1942, but it remained as a draft.

It turned out that simply modernizing the KV-1 with more armour or better armament was not the solution. The only correct way forward was to develop the lighter KV-1S and work on a principally new tank in parallel. The IS turned out to be lighter than the KV even though it had thicker armour. It's interesting to compare the KV-85 and IS-85. The two tanks have the same turret, but even though the former had thinner armour it was 2 tons heavier.

Mass is not an issue

To wrap up, let us mention a vehicle that is often the victim of many misconceptions: the KV-13 tank developed at factory #100. This tank was called IS-1 at the factory. This tank weighed only 32 tons, which led to some confusion about what kind of tank it was supposed to be. Even famous tank designers classified the KV-13 as a light tank. There was even talk that the KV-13 was supposed to replace the T-34, a brave idea to say the least.

Requirements for fast heavy tanks. The KV-13 and T-34M model 1942 were developed to fulfill them. 

There is a separate article on the KV-13, but many have not read it. To summarize, 30 tons was a respectable mass for a heavy tank in 1939-1941. If one studies tank building in other nations, they may be surprised to discover that German heavy tanks started at 30 tons. In the case of the KV-13, the 30 ton requirement came from the GABTU. The cause was simple: combat in late 1941-early 1942 showed that there is a need for a mobile heavy tank. It could be obtained by either supercharging the KV-1's engine or developing a radically new tank. The GABTU chose the latter. The result was a tank with heavy armour but the dimensions and mobility of the T-34. The reworked T-34M project was also counted as a mobile heavy tank. As the KV-13 developed it turned into the 44 ton IS-85 tank, but from the start it was classified as a heavy tank that was supposed to replace the KV-1, not the T-34.


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