Monday 18 January 2016

Lend Lease Trade-In

Somewhat recently, I wrote about the common myth about the 1st Mechanized Corps trading in their T-34s for Shermans. A reader emailed me and asked me about examples of swapping our domestic vehicles for imported ones. I thought of a good example from the archive of the 16th Independent Tank Brigade.

The brigade started its fighting in 1944 with 32 T-34s, 9 T-70s, and 7 T-60s. In early February, they were taking a heavy beating, with 2-4 T-34s and 3 or 4 light tanks fighting at any given time. They fought in this difficult condition until March, when they were finally given an order to settle down in Dno for the time being. After a six week long 553 km offensive, they deserved a rest, as well as some new tanks.

The next time I can see a full enumeration of the brigade's resources is on July 5th, and it got a little more colourful. 31 T-34s (11 undergoing repairs, 1 in need of evacuation), one T-34 engineering tank, 5 T-70s (2 undergoing repairs), 2 Valentine MkIIIs (1 undergoing repairs), 4 Valentine MkIXs (1 undergoing repairs, 1 in need of evacuation), and 4 Shermans (1 undergoing repairs, 1 in need of transport). This rag-tag gang of unlikely heroes has a strange fuel situation: 7 full resupplies of 1st grade gasoline, 2 of 2nd grade, but only 2 resupplies of diesel.

A subsequent report explains why. The brigade was equipped with whatever was available, as soon as it was available, and with a very flexible definition of "available". Only 7 T-34 tanks received did not require repairs, everything else required medium to major repairs, to be performed by the brigade and 31st Army Repair Base. Brigade mechanics complain about shoddy work by the base's technicians that has to be re-done. Since parts were in short supply, they had to be scavenged from knocked out tanks over a large territory (220 km in radius). By July 9th, the brigade had 27 T-34s, 1 Valentine MkIII, one Valentine MkIX, and 5 Shermans. Only 27 T-34s and one T-70 were capable of driving, and "the technical condition of the tanks (aside from 7 T-34s that arrived from Saratov factory) was not inspiring". While still not fully equipped, the brigade received orders for a 110 km march. The Lend-Lease vehicles were left behind, and 27 T-34s, 4 T-70s, and 3 SU-85s attempted the trek. It took 12 hours, with 2 T-34s, a T-70, and a SU-85 falling behind. The journal complains about a significant amount of dust on the road, causing a breakdown of the engines. Thankfully, once the brigade arrived at their destination, they received 30 new T-34-76 and T-34-85 tanks.

The summer must not have been kind to the brigade, since the brigade receives reinforcements again on August 20th, and what reinforcements are these... 55 Matildas and 11 Valentine MkIXs, "arrived from repair factories and having already fought on the fronts of the Patriotic War". The journal also mentions that two battalions had a T-34 each. As per tradition, it seems, the brigade begins a lengthy 160 km march over difficult terrain, leaving behind 10 Matildas and one Valentine on the way due to breakdowns and 18 Matildas due to a lack of oil. Another 30 km march loses 8 Matildas and 2 Valentines. The conclusion is predictable: "The vehicles received and the crews were not ready for battle... The crews that arrived knew the MkII and MkIX tanks poorly, their drivers were taught little, as a result of which 27 tanks fell behind for technical reasons over a 180 km march."

At the start of September, the brigade ended up with 4 combat ready T-34s (the two they saved plus two more that were repaired), 23 combat ready Matildas, and only one combat ready Valentine. 7 more Matildas and 9 Valentines were knocked out on enemy territory, 13 Matildas and one Valentine were recovered and need medium repairs, and 9 Matildas need major repairs. Only 3 Matildas burned up. I can't tell why (the photocopy is really bad), but by September 4th, the brigade is down to 2 T-34s again, with the other two sent off to another unit.

Sometime in early September, the brigade picked up a few SU-85s to supplement its antiques roadshow, which is good, since there were Panthers ahead. The repair guys again complain about the multitude of vehicles they have to fix up, commenting that parts for the Lend-Lease tanks were not available and had to be scavenged from damaged tanks. The T-34 engineering tank is mentioned again as being the primary method of recovering bogged down tanks. Despite the large amount of Matilda tanks the brigade started out with, there are no working ones left at the end of the month.

The bloodied brigade was then moved to the Stavka's reserves for restructuring. It was transferred to the 1st Polish Army on January 5th, 1945, and received 85 shiny new T-34-85 tanks in February. After such a colourful set of vehicles, it met the end of the war with a full complement of modern fighting machines.

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