Even though the Red Army understood the need for a light SPG even before the war, the SU-76's road to the battlefield was long and difficult. Despite popular belief he USSR's manufacturing capabilities were not as great as those of the Western Allies, who didn't need to move their factories thousands of kilometers and set up in an empty field. The front line troops would have been happy to have light tanks, SPAAGs, and tracked APCs, and captured or Lend Lease vehicles of this type were happily used. However, only the SU-76 could be had in sufficient amounts, a vehicle that received mixed impressions.
The simplest way
Formally, T-70 light tanks were produced at three factories, but only the Gorky Automobile Factory (GAZ) was meeting quotas. Factory #38 in Kirov was faring poorly and factory #37 in Sverdlovsk did not manage to set up production of the more complicated vehicle and kept producing T-60 tanks. The situation was even tougher after several air raids on Gorky in the late summer of 1943, which seriously damaged GAZ's output. Since the light SU-12 SPG (later renamed SU-76) was a direct competitor of the T-70, Soviet leadership had to choose which vehicle remained.
"For example, when the vehicles turned or switched gears there were cases where the gearbox broke or the clutch came out of alignment due to insufficient robustness. When firing, the mount of the running gear was damaged by the recoil. The idler carriers burst."
In addition to that, one of the subsequent documents described the SU-12's poor off-road mobility, making it impossible to use in forests off roads.
One may also note that in addition to complains about ventilation in the closed top SPG, units that received SPGs without roofs had the opposite complaints. For instance, a report by the 1440th SAP noted that:
"As a result of use in combat, it is noted that the SU-76 has insufficient armour (and no armour on top), the components are unreliable, including the gearboxes, track pins, and idler carriers."
Need for a machine gun
The SU-76 was healed from its growing pains with time, and the "Columbina" generally showed itself well in the second part of the war as powerful and sufficiently reliable and robust fighting vehicles. Of course, senior officers' questions about the drawbacks of the vehicles had many answers. As all crews of Soviet SPGs, their first and more heartfelt desire was to give the vehicle a machine gun.
"It's desirable to add an AA machine gun with the possibility of using it against ground as well as airborne targets."
|Red Army troops and Czech uprising fighters on a SU-76M driving along the banks of the Vltava in liberated Prague.
"The enemy managed to set a SU-76 aflame near Ratten at a range of 50 meters with a Faustpatrone only because the SPGs were fighting on their own without infantry. Even though each SPG carries a captured machine gun which makes it easier to fight enemy infantry on its own, this is not enough because there are not enough crewmen. In all types of battle and on the march each SPG should be supported by 2-3 submachine gunners."
A good example of this tendency is an episode of fighting in Berlin where Lieutenant Rak, the commander of a SU-76 SPG of the 536th Independent SPG Battalion, seemingly a fan of captured German equipment, arrived in the enemy capital with two MG 34 machine guns. Both broke during the battle and one functional machine gun had to be assembled out of the two. It came in handy when the Germans tried to stop the SU-76s with Goliath remote controlled mines. The SU-76 in front of Rak's SPG was destroyed, but he managed to destroy the next Goliath in time with his machine gun.
|A SU-76M in Berlin outside of a destroyed wine store.
"The enemy opened fire from machine guns during our attack on the settlement and infantry hit the ground. It was not possible to move forward. The commander of the rifle regiment ordered the SU-76 to go forward and destroy the emplacements. The SU-76 crews moved out to carry out the order, but they had no infantry riders. The SU-76 smashed into the enemy trenches without an infantry escort. The infantry did not follow the SU-76. As a result, there was no one to fire at the enemy infantry and the SU-76 were pelted with grenades."
A Degtyaryev mount was added to the SU-76 after all, but all mentions of it in the documents were written after the war. The SU-76 made it to Berlin and Prague without a machine gun.
|SU-76M with infantry riders moving out towards the last German positions near the Vistula Lagoon. Vicinity of Heiligenbeil (modern day Mamonovo).
- The GAZ-203 engines do not provide sufficient power at slopes of 40 degrees.
- The main clutch doesn't handle slopes greater than 35 degrees (the conical gears twist up). Final drives wear out as a result of frequent turns and the disks warp.
- The brake bands do not function well at climbs and descents of 30 degrees and burn out.
- The final drives do not handle the load. The teeth of the large cylindrical gear crumble. Idlers and tracks come off during sharp turns on mountain roads.
"The gun of the SU-76 has a number of significant defects. After 500-600 shots oil starts to leak out of the rear plug. The SPG then has to be extracted from battle for at least a day for the recuperator to be repaired. When one vehicle fired while tilted the turning mechanism carrier welding seam broke."
|Crew of Senior Lieutenant Aleksey Lalak from the 1729th SAP (3rd Shock Army, 1st Belorussian Front) firing in a settlement on the way to Berlin.
"If the SU-76 is used directly near the tanks with 40-50 meters of distance between the tanks and SPGs, and a target appears to the left or the right, the SPG will not be able to fire since its traverse is limited to 13 degrees. The tanks to the left and right will get in the way."
|SU-76M during street fighting in Berlin, late April 1945.
As mentioned above, when the SU-76 replaced the T-70 in production it was saddled with the difficult task of close infantry support. Unfortunately, not all combined arms commanders understood the fact that close support doesn't mean "armour goes forward, we will hide behind it" or even "the armour can fight on its own and we'll drop by after". The Red Army often published various directions for use of SU-76 battalions, which clearly stated that:
"SPGs are not tanks. They complete the same objectives that artillery does, not tanks. It is forbidden to use the SU-76 in front of infantry or send them to capture some objective."
Unfortunately, it was often easier to correct technical issues with vehicles than make up for a shortage in training of some commanders...