Thursday 4 December 2014

World of Tanks History Section: Mikhail Koshkin

In the history of tank building, Mikhail Ilyich Koshkin played an important role as a man who was not afraid to take responsibility and to stubbornly absorb and analyze everything new. It is known that the T-34 contains the designs of others: A.O. Firsov, A.Ya. Dik, and other colleagues, but it is not known what fate awaited the project had it not been for Koshkin's effort and organizational talent.

Childhood was perhaps the most difficult time in the life of the future chief engineer. Mikhail Koshkin was born on December 3rd, 1898 in the village of Brynchagi, Yaroslavl county. He lived poorly: his family had little land, three children, and his father had to be away from home often to find work. In 1905, he died in a logging accident. His mother had to become a labourer to make ends meet.

At 10, young Misha finished school at his local church and left to find work in Moscow. Koshkin managed to find work at a confectionery factory, where he worked until the age of 17. His money was sent to his mother and sisters, who remained at home.

A harsh military life in a newly forming country steeled Koshkin's character. In February of 1917, he was drafted into the army as a private. In August, he was wounded and demobilized, but on April 15th of the very next year, he volunteered to join the ranks of a newly formed railroad Red Army squad.

In the summer of 1918, Koshkin fought at Tsaritsyn, and was transferred to Petrograd in 1919 along with his battalion, to the Northern Front. There, he fought to take Arkhangelsk, and it is possible that this is where he first saw a tank. However, it will be long before he starts an engineering career. On the way to the Polish front, Koshkin fell ill with typhoid. Upon his recovery, he was sent to the South Front to fight Wrangel's forces.

In the Red Army, Koshkin showed promise in political work. After the end of the Civil War, Koshkin studied at the Sverdlov Communist University. He finished his studies in 1924, and was given a job as a manager of a confectionary factory in Vyatka. He moved up the Party line as a talented manager and activist.

Koshkin's ability to inspire people and work with a team helped him later in life. The trust he earned was perhaps responsible for making the Kharkov factory a Soviet tank building giant.

In 1929, thousands of communists in manufacturing were enrolled in technical colleges. Koshkin was sent to the Leningrad Machine-Building Institute. The country needed modern tanks and talented engineers to make them. Koshkin worked at the Kirov Factory in Leningrad from 1934, taking part in the design of T-29 and T-111 (T-46-5). His work on the latter vehicle earned him the Order of the Red Star.

Work at the factory was going well, and Koshkin was promoted to deputy design bureau chief. In 1936, he was sent to Kharkov to organize assembly of tanks at the Kharkov Locomotive Factory (#183), which was converted to serve military needs.

At the time of Koshkin's arrival, the factory was at a time of crisis. The previous manager, A.O. Firsov, did not meet production quotas. Now, alongside building BT-7 tanks, new vehicles had to be designed.

In this difficult atmosphere, through constant inspections and interrogations of his engineers, Koshkin tried to set up his design bureau. New projects were met with little enthusiasm; resources were lacking. As a result, his first Kharkov project, the BT-9, was declined, as it did not meet the technical requirements.

In February of 1939, the Committee of Defense had a meeting at which two of Koshkin's designs were approved: the A-20 and A-32 (A-20G). The first was an improvement of the BT-20 design, the second was a tracks-only version of the first. At first, the factory was only assigned the A-20, but Koshkin defended the need for both vehicles.

He understood that convertible drive vehicles could not keep growing their armour and armament. The final decision, of course, was influenced by Koshkin's personality and character. He was a reliable man, with a distinguished past. His word that both prototypes will be ready in time was enough. As a result, Stalin said that he believes the factory was capable of it, and issued the funds for a second project.

With its wheels, the A-20 was faster than its competitor. However, the A-32 surpassed it in armament, armour, and off-road performance. It was decided that a new tank will be built with it as a foundation: the T-34. The factory built two pre-production prototypes to show off to Moscow, indexed A-34. The problem was with testing requirements: the tanks did not have the time to pass reliability trials.

It was possible to delay the demonstration or send the vehicles over before they were sufficiently tested, but it was decided to combine the trials and transport to Moscow. The route was chosen through rough terrain, around cities and roads. The tanks left the factory at 16:00 on March 12th, and were at the walls of the Kremlin by early morning of March 17th.

During the trip from Kharkov to Moscow, Koshkin fell ill. Despite his illness, he refused to return to Kharkov by train. In April, he accompanied his tanks on the journey back to the factory. The stress, combined with his illness, eventually cost Koshkin his life. He caught pneumonia, but even in this condition, he continued to direct work on the T-34. His poor health meant that he could not attend the final meeting of the trials commission. Soon, his condition worsened, and he had a lung removed. During his recovery, on September 26th, 1940, Koshkin died. In 1942, he received a Stalin prize posthumously "for the development of a new type of medium tank".

An interest in the engineer's life awoke only in the 1980s. Books were written about him, a movie called "Chief Engineer" came out. In 1989, the Council of Veterans of Pereslavl-Zalesskiy sent a letter to the Soviet leadership to ask for a posthumous award of Hero of Socialist Labour. The order to do so was signed on October 4th, 1990. Memorials and statues of Koshkin have been put up in Kharkov, Kirov, Saint-Petersburg, and in the village where he was born.

Article author: Nikolai Nevskiy is a historian, specializing in Soviet tank production in the Great Patriotic War.

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  • V.L. Karnatsevich, 100 Znamenityh Kharkovchan, Kharkov, Folio, 2005
  • I.G.Zheltov, A.Yu. Makarov, A-34. Rozhdeniye Tridtsatchetverki, Moscow, Tactical Press, 2014
Original article available here.

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