Monday 20 June 2016

IS-3 in Combat

Continued from part 1.

Trial by Combat

The first time IS-3 tanks took part in any fighting was in Hungary, in 1958. A Soviet military force was maintained there to keep communications with forces stationed in Austria. In 1955, the troops in Austria were withdrawn, and in May of that same year Hungary joined the Warsaw Pact. The Soviet troops remained, now as allies, under the name "Special Corps". It included the 2nd and 17th Guards Mechanized Divisions, 195th Fighter and 172nd Bomber Air Divisions, and auxiliary units. There were no Soviet forces within the capital, Budapest.

In 1954, the authorized strength of a division included three mechanized regiments, a tank regiment, and a heavy SPG regiment. Such a division contained 46 heavy tanks. In the mid 1950s, the most numerous heavy tanks in the Soviet Army were IS-2s and IS-3.

On October 23rd, 1956, a 200,000 strong protest occurred in Budapest, initially peacefully. The Hungarians demanded the replacement of unpopular leadership who were promoting social and economic policies pushed by Moscow.

Radically anti-soviet groups hid behind seemingly communist slogans. Clashes with police broke out. People suspected of being members of state security were lynched in the streets. Anti-government slogans spread. In the evening, an armed uprising broke out.

At 23:00, the Chief of the General Staff of the Soviet Army, Marshal of the Soviet Union V.D. Sokolovskiy gave an order to the commander of the Special Corps, General P.N. Leshenko, to send his troops into Budapest and liquidate a counterrevolutionary revolt ("plan Compass"). At night, the Soviet forces entered the city.

Fighting broke out in the streets, and the rebels managed to hold several central city blocks. Tanks and APCs in the streets were vulnerable to grenades and Molotov cocktails, as well as anti-tank guns firing from the bottom floors point blank. As a result, Soviet losses in armour were significant.

In connection with demands of Imre Nagy's government to withdraw Soviet forces from Budapest, the Special Corps pulled out of the city on October 31st and fortified 15-20 km away. The rebels erected a defensive line around Budapest with antitank and AA gun positions, as well as up to 100 caponiers for tanks. In return, Soviet command developed "Operation Whirlwind" to clear the city of rebels using the Special Corps and other units. The operation began on November 4th, 1956, at 6:00. By 7:30, elements of the 2nd Guards Mechanized Division captured bridges over the Danube, the parliament building, buildings of the party central committee, the ministry of foreign and internal affairs, the city council, and the Nyugati train station. Colonel N.T. Nikovskiy's 87th Heavy Tank and SPG Regiment, which included IS-3 tanks, captured an arsenal near Fot and disarmed a Hungarian armoured regiment.

On November 5th, elements of G.I. Obaturov's 33rd Guards Mechanized Division, after a powerful artillery barrage with 170 guns and mortars, took the last rebel stronghold in the Korvin movie theater. Clearing of the city continued until November 6th, and a new government was installed on November 7th.

According to official data, the Soviet Army lost 26 tanks, including one IS-3, three T-55s, and 22 T-34-85s. There is a well known photographs of an IS-3 without a turret: its ammunition rack detonated. Another knocked out IS-3 is seen next to it. Presumably it was later reclaimed and repaired, as it is not listed under irreparable losses.

The Hungarian Uprising was the only time the IS-3 participated in combat in the Soviet Army. After modernization which was carried out until 160, IS-3M tanks were used until the late 1970s and then were either mothballed or written off. Written off vehicles were either melted down or used as range targets. Some IS-3s were used on the Sino-Soviet border as bunkers. The tanks were finally removed from service along with IS-2 and T-10 tanks in 1993.

Other Warsaw Pact countries did not produce the IS-3 or use it in their armies. Two IS-3s were sent to the Polish Army for training purposes, but no further tanks were sent, and the tanks only took part in parades. Later, one of these tanks was used as a training aid until it was scrapped. The other ended up in the Stefan Czarniecki Tank Officer School, where it is displayed in the museum.

One IS-3 tank was given to the Czechoslovak army. After the end of the Korean War, some IS-3 tanks were given to the DPRK, where they formed two regiments.

Career in the Middle East

In the late 1950s, the USSR began supplying Egypt with IS-3 tanks. By July 23rd, 1956, the tanks participated in an Independence Day parade in Cairo. In total, Egypt received about 100 of these tanks before 1967. During the Six-Day War which began on June 5th, 1967, Egyptian IS-3s along with other Soviet supplied tanks engaged Israeli armour.

IS-3 tanks were included in the Egyptian 7th Infantry Divison, which took up defensive positions along Khan Yunis-Rafah line. Another 60 tanks were a part of the 125th Tank Brigade, which was deployed near Al Kuntillah. IS-3 tanks were too slow and clumsy for modern tank warfare, fired too slowly, and their engines broke quickly in the Sinai desert. In addition, the IS-3s could not fire on the move, as they were not equipped with gun stabilizers. Nevertheless, the main factor responsible for the Egyptian defeat was not the age of their armour but low morale and a lack of training.

Neither Israeli bazookas nor the guns of the IShermans (Israeli modification of the M-50 Sherman, armed with French 105 mm CN-105-F1 guns) could not penetrate the front armour of the IS-3. Only the Magach-3 (M46A2 Patton III, also armed with 105 mm guns) tanks could penetrate the IS-3 at an acceptable distance. All Israeli tanks of this type were used here against the Egyptian army.

The Israeli army met IS-3s during the first day of fighting, during the assault on the fortifications at Rafah. Here, the Egyptian army erected a powerful defensive line with trenches, minefields, anti-tank, and anti-infantry obstacles. The 7th Infantry Division which included a battalion of IS-3M tanks occupied this line. An Israeli parachute brigade with support from a battalion of Magach-3s commanded by Colonel Uri Barom attacked the positions.

Lieutenant Ein-Gil's company, fighting in the south sector of the fortification line, was the first to achieve success. Four Magach-3s engaged six IS-3s, while five more Israeli tanks circled around their rear. From 1000 meters, the Israelis knocked out two IS-3Ms, and knocked out three more when they tried to change positions.

Four Magach-3s from another company of the battalion, commanded by Captain Dani, encountered five IS-3Ms in a counterattack. The quick Israeli tanks and their rapid-firing guns showed their advantages and knocked out all five IS-3Ms in a few minutes, but newly arriving IS-3Ms engaged them at a long range, where thick armour and Soviet 122 mm guns proved superior. Only four tanks remained in the company after that battle.

Another episode occurred at Rafah, one which is included in almost every source describing the IS-3's battle career. The Israelis managed to knock out a heavy tank by throwing a grenade through the hatch. Many foreign sources claim that the Egyptian tankers were afraid of being unable to leave the tank quickly enough in case of a fire and kept all their hatches open. In reality, the driver of the IS-3M opened his hatch to help him navigate. One of the Israeli paratroopers managed to hit the hatch with his grenade launches from 40 meters, and the grenade exploded in the fighting compartment. Two tankers died instantly, two more managed to escape, engulfed in flames.

On June 6th, General Ariel Sharon's tank group reached Nakhal, where they found many abandoned tanks from the 125th Tank Brigade, of which more than 30 were shiny new IS-3Ms with almost no mileage on them. Over six days, the Israelis captured 820 tanks, 73 of which were heavy IS-3M tanks. Part of the tanks received V-54 engines from knocked out or captured T-54A tanks and a new engine compartment roof, and served with the IDF until the early 1970s, frequently participating in military parades.

Two IS-3 tanks were used by Israel during the War of Attrition in 1969-1970 as bunkers in the Tempo (Okral) position on the Bar Lev Line, 10 kilometers from Port Said. The engine and transmission were removed, and the freed up space was used to store more ammunition. Two more of these tanks were installed in the "Budapest" position on the shore of the Mediterranean, 12 kilometers east of Port Said. Interestingly enough, the tanks were recaptured by their former owners during the Yom Kippur War. The Egyptians still had a regiment of IS-3Ms left at that time, but the author does not know of its actions in battle.

In the early 1980s, the Egyptian army officially wrote off its IS-3 and IS-3M tanks. The tanks were melted down or sold to various tank museums.

From the Pedestal - Into Battle

A new page was added to the combat history of the IS-3 in out time. In the summer of 2014, military formations of the self-proclaimed People's Republic of Donetsk (DNR) mobilized an IS-3 tank installed as a monument in Konstantinovka during the defense of Slavyansk from the Ukrainian Armed Forces (VSU). The engine was repaired and the tank drove off the pedestal on its own. Since the D-25T gun can use ammunition from the D-30 howitzer, there were no problems arming it.

According to DNR sources, the tank opened fire on a VSU checkpoint, killing and wounding several soldiers. The tank escaped return fire and was abandoned by the rebels during their retreat from Slavyansk. Currently, the tank is on display in the Ukrainian Armed Forces Museum.

Original article by Aleksei Statsenko.


  1. I recall seeing a mention of IS-3s in Osprey's book on the Yom Kippur war. IIRC a bunch of them met something of an unfortunate end during the IDF counterattack phase - they were shelling infantry who had taken up positions in some settlement when they got hit in the flank by Pattons, and were pretty summarily wiped out. :/

  2. "Radically anti-soviet groups hid behind seemingly communist slogans."

    This bit should be altered to be less political to prevent posterior discomfort in some.

    1. Don't really see why; the embarassment is entirely on Mr. Statsenko for uncritically regurgitating the contemporary (and literal) Soviet party line.

      Personally I'm just mildly surprised it still has even this much traction.

    2. My concern is mostly with this blog that i would like to stay a-political as much as possible so that we can keep reading about armored vehicles and not have to deal with politics as there are other sites for that.

      But i must say i would expect people who read this material to be old enough to deal respectfully with political (especially opposing) viewpoints.

    3. *shrug* People have their biases which only too readily slip into somewhat unrelated contexts; this writer certainly was straightforward enough about his. Revealing of the man and his views, but of little consequence to the meat of the article and I honestly cannot see how active editorial sanitising would be either ethically superior (arguably quite the contrary) or any less "political".


  3. Neither Israeli bazookas nor the guns of the IShermans (Israeli modification of the M-50 Sherman, armed with French 105 mm CN-105-F1 guns) could not penetrate the front armour of the IS-3. Only the Magach-3 (M46A2 Patton III, also armed with 105 mm guns) tanks could penetrate the IS-3 at an acceptable distance.

    Heh. Years ago back on a former American artillery officer insisted that the Americans could have handled the IS-3 because of the US 90 mm gun on the M-36 and Pershing, and HVAP rounds.

    I think real history confirms "no, they couldn't have". Even the long 90 mm that was developed for the Super Pershing (three built) would have struggled.

    1. Both the 90 mm and 20-pounder were not capable of reliably penetrating the T-54 with HVAP/APDS, which has worse armour than the IS-3. That's why Britain developed the L7.

    2. Not sure T54´s armour was worse. As a matter of fact, it was post war made, had a higher impact toughness (Charpy V-notch test)and was softer.
      At high obliquity impact, the plate is not resisting with it´s tensile strength but the fundamental principles call the plate to resist with it´s yield strength. High hardness armour is at disadvantage here.

    3. The U.S. 90mm high pressure tank gun used a fin stabilized HEAT shell, the M431 which could penetrate, at all ranges, the same armor thickness as the L7 105mm APDS at 1,000m.

      The tungsten carbide core APDS available to the Israelis during the Six Day War were not able to penetrate the IS-3M frontal armor. The more brittle tungsten carbide tended to shatter when hitting highly sloped armor (like the IS-3M frontal armor during tests conducted after the Six Day War). Ironically, the only gun / shell combination capable of penetrating the IS-3M frontally was the M51 Sherman with the D1508 105mm L51 gun firing the Obus G HEAT shell where the warhead was isolated from the spinning of the shell body using a ball race ...

      The development of tougher tungsten alloy APDS cores solved this problem. The U.S. Army also developed a fin stabilized HEAT shell - the M456 - with similar penetrative performance to the Obus G. Both were made available to the Israelis in time for the Yom Kippur War.

  4. The 122mm D-25T can fire d-30 howitzer ammo? I never knew this is that even possible/safe?