Friday, 1 July 2022

Captured Containers

Practice shows that stock fuel tanks are often not enough for long marches. This was especially critical for tanks that undertook lengthy marches away from supply units. This situation arose in the interwar period. For the USSR, this was most critical when it came to BT fast tanks. Even before the war, BT-7 tanks were equipped with 33.5 L external tanks. They were located on top of the fenders when driving on tracks or below the fenders when driving on wheels. These were the first ever specialized fuel tanks developed for armoured vehicles. These fuel tanks later migrated to the T-34. They were now attached not to the fenders, but the upper hull sides. As with the BT-7 the tanks were used during marches and were removed before battle, although this did not always happen.

T-34-85 tank with a Jerry can rack developed at BTRZ #1, April 1944.

Other nations ran into issues with fuel shortages during WW2. Until then, tank units did not make such long marches, especially in isolation from their supply units. Improvisations were quickly developed, both by the Germans and their enemies. This was most commonly observed in North Africa. The British developed special racks for fuel canisters in 1940, but these were not the canisters we are used to today. The British Flimsy can consisted of a box-like shape with a handle and a cap that was opened with a special key. It was built in three main types: 1 Imperial gallon (4.5 L), 2 gallons (4.5 L), and 4 gallons (18 L). The Flimsy was not very convenient and quite complex, but the British kept using them until the end of the war. Tanks also received racks for fuel cans. The 2 gallon Flimsy was the most popular, balancing a stout design with convenience of carrying and a good size.

Eight canisters were carried on the right side.

Fuel canister racks became truly popular after the Germans began using them. They began to think about using fuel canisters back in the mid-1930s. The Germans targeted a large size from the start: 20 Liters. These new canisters would replace the triangular 20 L canister that turned out to be quite inconvenient, although could still be seen on a number of vehicles (mostly armoured cars). As a result, production of a canister developed by the Müller company began in 1937. This was a huge breakthrough. The canister was very comfortable and could be carried by two men if necessary. The flat shape made the 20 L canister very compact. A whole load of them could be packed into a truck, making them a much better alternative to 200 L fuel drums used by the Wehrmacht. Officially, the 20 L canister was called Wehrmacht-Einheitskanister (Wehrmacht Unified Canister) but the British nicknamed them Jerry cans. The Germans began to install racks for these canisters in 1940, but 1941-42 saw a true bloom of this phenomenon. However, these cans were never officially adopted as stock equipment of tanks. Individual units may have done whatever they wanted with them, but unofficially. 

7 canisters were mounted on the left side.

The British had a different opinion. The Flimsies were officially approved by the War Office, and the Red Army used specially designed external fuel tanks. These also appeared on the KV-1. They were first built at the Kirov factory in Leningrad, but they appear rarely. The design created at the Chelyabinsk Kirov Factory after evacuation in the fall of 1941 was a much more common sight. It is not known whether this was a local design or if it was made by Leningrad engineers evacuated to Chelyabinsk, but blueprint KV-sb58-810 created in the fall became a true classic. This was a cylindrical 100 L fuel tank with handles on both ends. This tank was much heavier than a canister, but it also took up less space. These fuel tanks were mounted on fenders. The fuel tank outlived the KV-1 and migrated to the IS and ISU family. It was also used on SU-122 SPGs. The T-34 did not get it right away. First, there were box fuel tanks mounted on the rear. These were used until 1943. Finally, in 1943 the cylindrical fuel tanks migrated to the T-34 and other vehicles from its family. The volume of the fuel tanks was reduced to 90 L. 

The T-34-85 tank with a D-5T gun is a rare phenomenon in and of itself, but this one also has this unusual conversion.

German canisters did not find a place on Soviet tanks. They were first discovered in the summer of 1941. Intelligence reports mentioned that the Germans use canisters instead of fuel barrels, also providing diagrams of stowing them on trucks. However, this novelty was not used on tanks for a number of reasons. Unlike the Americana and British who copied the German canisters (the British copied them entirely while the Americans created a new can inspired by the German one), the USSR paid little attention to this method of transporting fuel. Captured cans were used, of course. This became especially common after the defeat of the Germans in Stalingrad when trophy teams collected massive amounts of German equipment. Nevertheless, the canisters were rarely found on tanks, with exceptions. Let us discuss one such exception.

It is not known how common this system was. The Repairs Directorate spoke out against this initiative by BTRZ #1 and the GBTU.

The USSR had a whole system of repair factories. BTRZ (Armoured Vehicle Repair Factory) #1 was located in Moscow near the Oktyabrskoye Pole subway station (where a T-34-85 tank stands today). In addition to tank repair, BTRZ #1 converted refurbished KV-1, KV-1S, and T-34 tanks into tractors. The factory did not have a fully fledged design bureau, but it did have a technical department with some design skills. In April of 1944, the technical department developed a system of using captured fuel canisters on T-34 and T-34-85 tanks. This solution was not implemented on a whim. The factory was experiencing a shortage of approved fuel tanks, and there was also a large volume of trophies that had to be put to use. A factory #112 T-34-85 tank with a D-5T gun was taken as a prototype. It was supposed to have authorized external fuel tanks, but somehow ended up without them. Box racks that fit 7 racks on the left side and 8 racks on the right were installed. This held a bit more fuel than the system with three external fuel drums. These racks were bulky, but carrying a 20 L can was much easier than a 90 L drum.

German fuel drums on a T-34 tank, Lvov-Sandomierz Operation.

This work was not done on the initiative of BTRZ #1. The idea came from the GBTU Tank Directorate chief Major General S.A. Afonin. According to correspondence, it was he who gave the order to develop an alternative fuel tank solution. However, it is not a given that this was a mass produced phenomenon. The Repair Directorate considered this solution irrational. They argued that there was a shortage of captured cans (unlikely), they were not produced domestically, and it's best to use authorized fuel drums on tanks. It's possible that this design remained an experiment. Nevertheless, Afonin's idea did not come from nothing. Tanks often lost their external fuel tanks and offensive operations required them. Front line troops did all they could. Commanders often looked the other way when their subordinates found an alternative, and so tanks and SPGs carrying German 200 L fuel barrels became a common sight in 1944-1945. 

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