Sunday 5 June 2016

Tetrarch in the USSR

The British light Tetrarch tank is most often remembered in connection with the landing in Normandy. While it was the first tank used for this purpose, initially the Tetrarch was designed for something else. The adventures of the Tetrarch in the British army are well known, unlike the use of the tank in the Red Army. That story is still full of omissions.

Have a Taste

Soviet military intelligence had little interest in British light tanks before the war. In April of 1941, GABTU knew about the Light Tank Mk.VI, Mk.I and MkIII cruiser tanks, the Mk.I infantry tank, and some kind of "heavy tank model 1940". Even in September, when negotiations about supplying the USSR with British vehicles were underway, the information on available tanks was sparse. The Light Tank Mk.VI and Light Tank Mk.VII "Tetrarch" got mixed up into one tank. The resulting "light Vickers tank" had a 37 mm gun with a coaxial machinegun, maximum armour thickness of 17.5 mm, weighed 8.5 tons, and had a maximum speed of 30 kph.

Data on tanks loaded on the first convoy in late September of 1941 is even more interesting to researchers, as it contains a "Light Tank Mk.8". This index was carried by the "Harry Hopkins" tank, but the characteristics listed show that it is undeniably a Tetrarch. The document said that 20 such tanks will arrive with PQ-1, but instead a batch of 20 Matildas and Valentines was sent. Supplies of lighter tanks were paused for the time being.

In early October of 1941, thanks to military intelligence, GABTU received characteristics of nearly all tanks built by Great Britain and the United States. In early December, GABTU received detailed information about production of British tanks. The numbers retrieved match up very well with modern data from British sources. The first 15 Mk.VII tanks were built in the fourth quarter of 1940, 30 in the first quarter of 1941, and 20 in the third quarter. 35 more tanks were awaited before the end of the year.

These numbers match perfectly with Tetrarch production numbers. Their registration numbers range from T.9266 to T.9365, or 100 tanks overall. Intelligence reports indicated that no tanks were planned for production in the first quarter of 1942, which indicated that production was being shut down. Reports also described plans for a new Light Tank Mk.8 with a mass of 10 tons and thicker armour.

Tetrarchs in the 21st Independent Training Tank Regiment, March 1942, near Shaumian.

By then, a batch of Tetrarchs was finally sent to the USSR. The light tanks were the first to come through the south passage. On December 27th, 1941, 20 tanks arrived at Zanjan, Iran. This batch was also the last, since due to the rather humble characteristics of the Tetrarch, further orders were pointless.

Photos and letters about this shipment indicate that at least a portion of the tanks were used. Among them were some of the first built Tetrarchs, T.9266, T.9267, and T.9268, built back in October-November of 1940. Photos of these tanks show insignia of the 10th Royal Hussars Regiment from the 1st Armoured Division. This unit was the first to receive Tetrarchs and used them as training tanks. To be fair, not all tanks sent were used. Serial numbers T.9315 and T9319 pop up in letters, and the tank currently displayed at Patriot Park has the serial number T.9328, all of which were built in the third quarter of 1941. These tanks had no markings and were not used as training tanks.

Photo Scandal

A small problem arose when receiving the tanks, as the receiving party required the presence of two British instructors. The first was responsible for teaching driving, the second dealing with armament. In addition, the issue of ammunition and spare parts for each tank was discussed. The issue of tank instructors had to be personally resolved by General Frank Noel Mason-MacFarlane, the head of the British military mission in the USSR. An officer of the British military mission was sent to Zanjan from Tbilisi.

In early January of 1942, the tanks were finally received and sent to Baku. The issue of parts took longer to resolve. In February, it was decided that parts and instruments will be sent through Arkhangelsk. While organizational issues were being resolved, the tanks stayed in Baku. In early March of 1942, they were transferred to the 21st Independent Training Tank Regiment, located in Shaumian, near Yerevan, Armenia.

Tank training. The tank in the photo is the second production Tetrarch. This photo caused a scandal in May of 1942.

The story of these tanks is connected with a small scandal. In March of 1942, Mark Redkin, a photographer from TASS, visited the regiment. The quick British tanks rushing across the mountain roads caught his attention. He took a series of photos and left for Moscow. On May 5th, 1942, a letter from General Mason-MacFarlane arrived at the external affairs department of the People's Commissariat of Defense.

"The British Ministry of Information reports that the TASS agency in London received a photograph from the TASS agency in Moscow a photo of the British light Tetrarch tank. I am also told that the photograph was sent over radio.

The tank is still on the classified list.

I ask you to stop publishing any photographs of this tank in Soviet media and take care not to show these photos to the public. It is known that a photo was displayed in the windows of TASS.

I ask you to notify me if any photographs of this tank were already published in Soviet media. If so, I ask you to tell me the date and name of the newspapers."

A scandal broke out, which was quickly extinguished. Order to not publish any photographs of Tetrarchs or Churchills as secret tanks were sent out. The story didn't end there. In June of 1942, Redkin's photos were sent to the American Associated Press agency, which published them. Another letter from the British mission followed, and an investigation lasted another month.

Border Patrol

While investigations were going on, the tanks pictured in the photos were relocating. On May 25th, 1942, the 151st Tank Brigade began formation in Leninakan, Armenia. It was headed by Colonel V.A. Kornilov. According to documents, the Tetrarchs and their crews were included in the brigade. On June 20th, the brigade was included into the 45th Army of the North Caucasus Front.

The North Caucasus Front, especially its tank units, was a rather interesting formation. The most popular tank here (remember, this is the summer of 1942) was the T-26. The T-26 was also the most numerous in the 151st Tank Brigade. In total, as of early June of 1942, the brigade had 25 T-26es and 20 Tetrarchs, listed as MK-VII or MK-7.

Column of British tanks on the march. One tank clearly shows the insignia of the 1st Armoured Division and a 53 in a red square. This was an insignia used by the 10th Royal Hussars.

The main goal of the 151st Tank Brigade in the 45th Army was guarding the border. The army, commanded by Lieutenant-General F.N. Remezov was located on the border with Iran. On May 21st, 1942, in the port city of Bandar Shah (now Bandar Torkaman), a receiving department for imported tanks was formed. The tanks themselves were only shipped to the USSR in the end of the summer, but trucks and various other Lend-Lease cargo used that route as well. The 45th Army and the 151st brigade guarded those supplies. In July, Tetrarch T.9328 was sent to Kubinka.

The results of almost a year of Tetrarch use in the mountains were summarized in a note sent to Moscow, to the repairs and supplies deputy chief of the Transcaucasian Front ABTU, Engineer-Lieutenant-Colonel Galkin, on November 29th, 1942.

"Based on information received from units about the deficiencies of the MK-7 British tanks, I report that:
  1. The engine works well, but the cooling system has a drawback that does not allow the water to be fully drained without removing the engine. In addition, the cross-section of the drain pipe is 4 mm, which is insufficient, quickly clogs, and freezes. Work in the winter even on the Transcaucasian Front requires antifreeze.
  2. Many parts and assemblies are not robust, and break down even with light use on good roads.
  3. The wheel carriers are not robust enough and tend to crack in the corners.
  4. The drive shaft gear wears out quickly.
  5. The armour has the following drawbacks:
    1. The turret roof is poorly held, the seven 4-5 mm thick brackets can be torn off with a crowbar.
    2. The hatch lock is loose.
    3. Openings are present in the turret and rear that could be easily avoided, strengthening the tank against bullets and incendiary fluid.
  6. The layout of certain components (gearbox, differential, brake drums) is poor, as they are located underneath the engine and require its removal for maintenance.
  7. Access to the idler wheel gear carrier is difficult.
  8. The track and track links do not have good traction with the ground and slip often on wet or snowy roads.
The aforementioned drawbacks disable the tanks for long periods of time due to a lack of spare parts."

The deficiencies regarding driving on soft terrain and the engine were also voiced by the British, who tested the Tetrarch in the Middle East in 1941.

Battle for the Caucasus

On January 1st, 1943, the 151st Tank Brigade (25 T-26es and 19 MK-7s) from Leninakan, as well as the 563rd (21 M3 Lights and 9 M4A2s) and 564th (10 T-34s and 20 T-26es) Independent Tank Battalions were transferred to the Black Sea group of the Transcaucasian Front. Initially the tank brigade was subordinate to the 47th Army, where it faced its first battle.

Tanks driving along a mountain river. Soviet Tetrarchs fought under these conditions.

On January 19th, the commander of the 47th Army gave the order to regroup near Shapsugskaya station. After that, enemy defenses at Shibik #2 and Sheptalskiy settlements would be breached, and the Krymskaya railroad station would be captured. The 151st TBr was attached to the 176th Infantry Division. The weather did not aid the January 26th offensive: it poured the whole day before, which caused rivers to widen and roads to become impassable. This impacted the development of events.

At 13:00 on January 26th, the 47th Army began its offensive. The 151st Tank Brigade was delayed due to the widening of the Abin river. Engaging in battle for Height 117.7, the tanks of the 1st battalion led the infantry. The chief of communications of the 1st battalion, Senior Lieutenant V.S. Smirnov distinguished himself, personally leading the tanks forward. The unit embedded itself in enemy defenses, but Smirnov's tank hit a mine and he was killed. The deputy commander of the 2nd battalion, Senior Lieutenant N.V. Bal personally led the tanks to the front line of the enemy defenses, suppressing two pillboxes with his tank. In total, the tankers of the 151st TBr claimed 15 destroyed pillboxes.

Tank with registration number T.9328, NIIBT proving grounds, 1944.

Alas, the heroism of the tankers could not change the flow of events. Due to poor communication with artillery and retreat of the infantry, the tanks also had to fall back. Later days were spent in futility trying to break through the enemy's defenses once more.

Another tank from the 1st tank battalion was knocked out on January 27th. Thanks to energetic action on behalf of Senior Technical Lieutenant I.I. Fetisov, who personally drove another tank, the tank was evacuated from the battlefield. For his initiative, Fetisov received the "For Battle Merit" medal.

To strengthen the attack on January 31st, tanks of the 47th Army were united into one battalion commanded by Colonel Kornilov. By then, the 151st TBr reported only 14 functional tanks. On that day, the joint battalion went on to attack height 224.5. 6 tanks were lost in one day, including Bal's tank. By then, the tanks under his command destroyed 18 pillboxes and killed 70 enemy infantrymen. When Bal's tank was knocked out, he managed to drag wounded gunner Taranov from the tank, take him to the rear, and return to battle. Leading 50 infantrymen, the Senior Lieutenant managed to take the surviving pillboxes. For this, he was awarded with the "For Courage" medal. Sadly, even such heroism did not alter the overall battle.

The same vehicle from the side. You can see that the registration number is doubled.

As of February 1st, 1943, Kornilov's joint battalion contained 9 functional MK-7s. On that day, the tanks attacked again, but the offensive stalled without infantry support. Taking losses, Kornilov's tanks retreated to their initial positions. On the next day, the joint battalion was sent to the reserve. On February 11th, the battalion was transferred to the 216th Infantry Division, with which the tanks attacked height 224.6 the next day. The results were the same: the infantry did not support the tanks. The result was 4 burned and 5 knocked out vehicles. The attacks on subsequent days went about the same way. On February 28th, the 151st Tank Brigade was transferred to reserves and moved to the 56th Army.

In mid-March, the brigade received new tanks, including captured ones. Its own tanks, including 14 MK-7s (4 of them nonfunctional) were sent to the 563rd Independent Tank Brigade on March 19th, which took part in an unsuccessful landing at Novorossiysk. The nonfunctional tanks were sent to the 3rd Infantry Corps which used them as pillboxes in defense of the Shapsugskiy bridge.

The same tank from the front. The registration number is written on the upper front plate.

Gradually, the Tetrarchs broke down. By the end of May, only 7 remained functional. They were transferred to the 132nd Independent Tank Regiment, which was likely not happy about this new addition. Thanks to a lack of parts and heavy use, only two tanks worked by September. There is information about transfer to the 5th Guards Tank Brigade, but it requires confirmation. One thing can be said for certain: the combat career of the Tetrarch in the Red Army was over in the fall of 1943. Not bad for a tank that served almost two years in total.

Automotive Escort

On August 9th, 1943, Engineer-Lieutenant-Colonel Kalinin wrote a short note about the use of the Tetrarch for the GBTU:

"The MK-7 is a light speedy tank designed presumably to escort automotive columns. The armour is thin and of low quality: can be penetrated by mine fragments. The tank turns with a steering wheel. The steering wheel is connected to the front wheels through pull rods which often break. The tank's suspension includes hydraulic shock absorbers which weaken when used on bad roads. When the shock absorber lines break (which has happened), they collapse, and the wheels fall under the hull. 

Design flaws of the MK-7 include rapid wear of the 1st, 2nd, and reverse gears, as well as the final drive gears.

  1. The MK-7 tank has a powerful 120 hp engine and a high speed.
  2. With its weak suspension, gearbox, and final drive, it must be only used on good (not rocky) dirt roads.
  3. The tank turns poorly and has to be used on flat terrain where sharp turns can be avoided.
  4. The tank has weak armour (much weaker than domestic light tanks) which offer poor protection for the crew.
It is reasonable to use this tank to escort car columns in situations where ambushes by enemy submacinegunners are possible. The MK-7 tank can also be used to pursue and cut off a retreating enemy when his anti-tank defenses have completely collapsed."

One week later, on August 15th, a conclusion from the NIIBT proving grounds finally arrived. Recall that the tank was sent there back in July of 1942. Instead of a complete thorough examination, the trials were short, and the report only took up 9 handwritten pages. The results were that the MK-VII was a complex, clumsy, weakly armoured tank that does not present an interest as a weapon for the army. Better late than never.

The same Tetrarch in Kubinka, modern times.

The last mention of Tetrarchs in the Red Army dates back to January of 1944. Repairs factory #66 (Tbilisi) lists 3 MK-7 tanks. 6 such vehicles were brought to the factory in 1943, but 3 of them were written off by January. The same fate awaited the remaining tanks, as no spare parts were found to repair them.


  1. Great article. Would it be possible to explain who/what GABTU and NIIBT were? Is GBTU a typo of GABTU?


    1. I have a glossary here:

      GABTU is the Main Auto and Armoured Tank Directorate GBTU is the same organization but slightly reorganized, I think that Auto part was moved out to some other organization at that point.

  2. Fab blog. How do I get you on my blogroll/join your site...I don't do twitter.