Friday 21 July 2017

Superheavy Trophy

The German superheavy Maus tank left a mark in the history of tank building. This was the heaviest tank in the world, developed as an assault tank, practically invincible to enemy fire. In many ways, its fate was the same as the fate of another giant, the French FCM 2C, which holds the title of the world's largest tank to this day. Like the French heavyweight, the German tank never saw combat. In both cases, the tanks were blown up by their own crews. Another similarity was that the tanks became the subject of a careful study.

Defender of the German General Staff

Work on superheavy tanks and SPGs in Germany was cancelled in the latter half of July 1944. In practice, even the order of the 6th Department of the Armament Directorate to turn over the already built hulls and turrets, given on July 27th, was not followed. Krupp hid the existing parts in their warehouses, where they were later found by British and American soldiers.

On August 19th, Krupp's management informed Porsche that the Armament Service ordered the cessation of work on the Typ 205. Specialists assembling the second prototype left Boblingen. However, this did not mean that trials of the Maus were finished. In the fall, the second prototype of the tank, called Typ 205/II, was equipped with a new engine. Instead of the gasoline Daimler-Benz MB.509, the tank received the diesel MB.517 engine. The first proposal to install this engine into a tank was made in the fall of 1942. This time, the engine was turbocharged, which increased its power output to 1200 hp. It is not known when the MB.517 was installed, but correspondence dated December 1st, 1944, states that the engine was installed into the Typ 205/II, but trials have not yet been performed.

Porsche managed to install the engine behind the back of the SS, which curated the project. By the time the SS-men took notice, one of the two 125,000 Reichsmark engines was already installed in the tank.

The last photograph of the "living" Maus tank, taken at the Ruhleben railway station in January of 1945.

The only effective way to stop work on the tank was the confiscation of Porsche's favourite toy. In late December of 1944, both Maus prototypes were taken from Boblingen to a warehouse near the Ruhleben railway station. The tanks were left there until at least January of 1945, after which they were sent to the Kummersdorf proving grounds, 25 km south of Berlin. Here, a technical description of the second prototype (the only one with a turret and armament) was composed, after which the tanks were parked in a garage that Porsche had no access to.

It is not known what happened to these vehicles between January and March of 1945. There is no credible information about any sort of trials. However, it's possible that the first prototype, the Typ 205/I, underwent ballistic trials at this time.

This is how Soviet forces discovered the Typ 205/II.

In March of 1945, the Typ 205/II was driven to Wunsdorf, 2.5 km south of Zossen, home of the German General Staff. In Soviet documents, this location is often referred to as Stammlager. The tank was included in the list of vehicles that protected the General Staff. The outer ring of Berlin's defenses also went through Zossen.

Much was written about the use of the Typ 205/II in the Battle of Berlin, and many flame wars were fought. One can only say with certainty who Porsche's superheavy tank could have potentially fought. Elements of the 3rd Guards Tank Army were advancing on Berlin from the southeast. On April 21st, 1945, the 6th Guards Tank Corps from this unit reached the Töpchin-Zelendorf line. Zossen was very close by, and it was taken on the night of April 22nd. Thanks to the chaos, the German General Staff managed to escape from Zossen while it was being captured by the 6th Guards Tank Corps. According to memoirs of the commander of the 53rd Guards Tank Brigade, the SS-men executed some of the staff, and took the rest with them.

The same tank from the rear. A ruined movie theater is seen in the background.

As for the Maus, its combat career was short and sad. The engine broke down during maneuver. The immobilized vehicle was stuck at the crossroads of Zeppelinstrasse and Zerensdorfstrasse in Wundsdorf, near the General Staff. It stopped in a place where it could not be used as a bunker. Because of this, the crew had no choice but to blow it up. There was no heroic defense: the superheavy tank turned out to be a colossus on clay feet.

Damage from the left side was minimal. The guard building can be seen in the background. A tourism agency stands there today.

Arkhipov's memoirs refer to the Maus V2, but with some distortions.

"We captured two enormous tanks in the town. Their hatches were open, everything was fine on the inside, even the ammunition was prepared for battle: factory grease was wiped off. The tanks were so huge that even the King Tiger would look like a tankette next to one. The turret was flat, like a pancake, armed with a 155 mm gun. It was a very impressive tank, but just like the King Tiger, I am certain that its mobility was poor."

The explosion tore off the external fuel tank. The bathhouse can be seen in the background.

Either the editor mixed in the Tiger II tanks captured on the Sandomierz foothold or Arkhipov himself mixed something up, but the reality was different. The tank was captured by the Red Army in destroyed condition. The force of the explosion tore off the right side of the hull and the turret along with the turret ring.

Underestimation of mass

Thanks to the overall chaos, no one had time for the destroyed tank at the crossroads. Soviet specialists only discovered that the Germans designed and built superheavy tanks after the end of the war. A thorough study of the Third Reich's military-technical heritage scattered around its capital only began towards the end of May. On June 29th, 1945, reports were sent to the State Committee of Defense, including Stalin and Beria, signed by the GABTU Chief, Marshal of the Armoured Forces, Ya.N. Fedorenko.

"I report that Soviet occupational forces in Germany discovered two superheavy tanks.
One of them, with a turret and a diesel motor, is 40 km south of Berlin, near Stammlager. The second tank, with a dummy turret and a gasoline engine, is 62 km south of Berlin, near Kummersdorf. 
Defining features of the superheavy tanks include an electric transmission and a large caliber gun (128 mm) with a coaxial 75 mm gun.
German engineers that used to work at the tank proving grounds report that the superheavy tanks were designed by Porsche near Stuttgart-Boblingen, and were built at Nibelugenwerke (Austria).
In late December of 1944, both tanks were delivered to the proving grounds for trials, from where one prototype (armed) drove to Stammlager in Mach of this year.
I attach the tactical-technical characteristics of the tank. The characteristics are approximate, as both tanks were blown up and have not yet been studied by specialists. I will report more precise information after the specialists have examined the tanks thoroughly."

The second prototype was the most interesting. Even though the explosion dealt heavy damage to the interior, it was the one that was studied. The issue was that the first prototype had no armament, and a dummy was installed instead of the turret.

The explosion blew out the turret hatches.

Specialists arrived at the scene of the discovery, and began studying the tank. For starters, a technical description of the vehicle was composed. The report was short, only 18 pages. This was caused by an order from above to finish the report urgently. The rush seemed reasonable, as the tank appeared to be a much more dangerous enemy than any encountered before.

The explosion destroyed the gun mechanisms.

Contradictory results of interrogations and significant damage resulted in a series of errors in the description. For example, the mass was recorded as 120 tons. The error was not the fault of the Soviet military. German prisoners of war taken by the Western Allies reported the same mass. This was not intentional misinformation, as the Maus indeed weighed that much at one point. However, that was still at the paper stage, as this was the initial mass of the project, dated June of 1942. Since then, the prototype managed to "fatten up" to 1.5 times the weight.

A mostly accurate armour diagram composed by Soviet specialists.

Another serious error was made in describing the armament. Aside from a 128 mm long barreled and a 75 mm short barreled gun, the description included two 7.65 mm machineguns. An even more surprising addition is a 20 mm AA autocannon. It likely appeared in the description due to reports from POWs. As strange as it may sound, this was not disinformation either. In early 1943, the Maus designs had the 20 mm MG 152/20 as AA armament. However, the idea was discarded, as it could only be aimed vertically, and using a massive tank turret to aim an AA gun was deemed a silly idea.

Component layout diagram.

Despite these errors, the description included a precise diagram of the tank's composition and armour. Of course, there were some errors here, but they were relatively mild.

MB.517 diesel engine, the breakdown of which forced the Germans to blow up the tank.

Soviet specialists paid close attention to the engine and transmission of the superheavy tank. Almost half of the description was dedicated to these components. This is not surprising, as the USSR actively worked on an electric transmission a year beforehand, and the work was largely unsuccessful. Now, the Soviet army had a tank with an electric transmission, and a superheavy one at that. The engine was disassembled and studied on the spot. The same thing happened with the transmission mechanism and drive sprocket. The suspension was also thoroughly studied.

Study of the electric transmission of the destroyed tank.

The technical description was sent to Moscow in the mid-summer of 1945. Meanwhile, the captured Kummerdorf proving grounds were gradually studied by Soviet specialists. Captured German soldiers and engineers were also questioned. Available information on German superheavy tanks was accumulated. The Soviet military got their hands on documents from the German Ministry of Armament, and precise information on the Maus was available by the end of the summer. In addition, a portion of the blueprints was found.

The perforated road wheels were replaced with the earlier type.

As mentioned above, the Red Army captured both Maus prototypes. The first was found on the Kummersdorf proving grounds shooting range. According to initial information, the Typ 205/I was also blown up, but photographs disagree. If an attempt at demolition was made, it was unsuccessful. The Typ 205/I did not receive damage comparable to an ammunition rack explosion like the second tank. It is more likely that the tank was taken apart at the proving grounds.

The first prototype was discovered at the shooting range like this. You can see marks from shell impacts on the left side of the hull and turret.

Interestingly enough, the tank had four marks from high caliber armour piercing shells on its left side. Another mark was made on the left side of the dummy turret. 

Preparations for removing the dummy turret.

It is not possible for these marks to have been made by Soviet guns. Nine similar marks were present in the front plate. The tank stood parallel to a forest, and it was not possible to shoot at the front from any other angle. By the time the tank was discovered, it was already immobile, so it was impossible to rotate it for trials. In other words, the Germans themselves shot at the tank. It's possible that the other prototype was responsible. By the time the tank was discovered, it had welded on holders for spare track links in the front, with three impact marks in the area.

Several cables had to be hooked to the turret to remove it.

Both tanks were slowly taken apart throughout the summer and in early fall of 1945. It was impossible to repair either one. In addition, the components were interesting on their own. In order to make it easier to disassemble the first tank, the dummy turret was removed. Description of components taken from the tanks were immediately recorded. In the fall of 1945, components removed from the tanks were sent to a branch of experimental factory #100 in Leningrad. It was currently at work designing a new heavy tank, one of the versions of which used an electric transmission.

The instrument panel can be seen through the opening.

The tanks themselves had a different fate. A decision was made to assembly a hybrid with the Typ 205/II turret and Typ 205/I hull. It was not easy, since the evacuation of a 50 ton turret still attached to the turret platform was complicated. The problem was solved with a whole train of German halftracks, largely Sd.Kfz. 9. This train dragged the turret to Kummersdorf, where it was possible to disconnect the turret ring. In September of 1945, the Maus that was assembled from both tanks was loaded onto a special railroad platform that survived the war.

Interestingly enough, the serial numbers of the hull and turret from different tanks coincide: hull #35141 holds turret #35141.

Maus assembled from two tanks, Kummersdorf, 1945.

The tank spent a long time at Kummersdorf in this form. Even though it was prepared for delivery in the fall of 1945, the order to ship it was only issued half a year later. According to proving grounds records, the vehicle arrived in May of 1946. Study of the tank continued, but simplified. Since all of its components were sent to Leningrad, it was not possible to perform mobility trials. Mostly, the suspension was being studied at Kubinka. Gunnery trials were also out of the question, since the gun mount was damaged by the explosion and the 128 mm gun barrel dangled freely.

As you can see, the upper front plate has markings from shell impacts.

Ballistics trials were one of the few trials held at Kubinka. The trials were shortened: one shot was fired at the front of the hull, right side, front of the turret, and the right side of the turret. All other impacts on the tank were made by Germans.

Tank from the right side.

Unlike the superheavy E-100, which the British sent to the scrap heap, its competitor was luckier. After the study, the Maus was towed to the proving ground's museum. At the moment, it was simply an open courtyard. A proper museum was only built in the early 1970s, when the Maus took its place in the German exhibit.

The idea to restore the tank recently came up, but the project did not move past the preparation stage. The idea was, of course, interesting, but the result would have been nothing more than taxidermy with questionable reliability. All components were removed from the tank, and one of the bogeys is missing. The lifespan of the track links is also low, and repairing a track on a 180 ton tank in the middle of a field is not a fun task. This is only a small subset of issues that will arise during restoration, as even transporting the tank is no simple task.

Growth booster

The influence the captured superheavy tank had on Soviet tank building deserves a separate telling. Unlike the British and Americans, which had almost no reaction to captured materials on the E-100 and Maus, the GABTU's reaction was lightning fast.

There was nothing strange about that. The Object 257 was presented on June 5th, 1945, which had improved armour and a 122 mm BL-13 cannon. The tank was supposed to be a giant leap forward for Soviet tank building. However, suddenly, a tank appears that would have been a tough nut to crack for the prospective gun, while its own weapon was effective against the Object 257's armour. 

German superheavy tank, NIABT proving grounds, Kubinka, 1946.

On June 11th, 1945, a list of requirements for a new tank was composed. Its combat mass was capped at 60 tons, the crew increased to 5 men. The armour had to protect from the German 128 mm gun. In addition to the BL-13, a new 130 mm gun was required. It's hard to give another reason for these new requirements, except the need for a "Maus killer". Because of them, the tank now known as the IS-7 was born.

The same tank from the front.

The discovery of the German tank triggered a second wave of an arms race, similar to the one that birthed the KV-3, 4, and 5. Instead of improving existing tanks, designers began creating steel monsters. Even the IS-4 now seemed obsolete: the second five-year plan of the 1940s proposed production of 2760 new model heavy tanks (IS-7) per year, starting in 1948. The Object 260 was not even the heaviest and best armed. The Object 705, designed in Chelyabinsk, had a 152 mm cannon in its heaviest configuration, which would weigh 100 tons. In addition to tanks, tank destroyers on the IS-4 and IS-7 chassis carried long barreled 152 mm cannons.

The tank at the museum, 1950s. Another hit can be seen on the front.

This whirlwind of activity did no less damage than the development of steel monsters in the spring-summer of 1941. Prototypes of the IS-7 were built, but mass production never started. The tank turned out to be exceptional, but too heavy. On February 18th, 1949, decree of the Council of Ministers of the USSR #701-270ss stopped development of heavy tanks over 50 tons in mass. Instead, a heavy tank better known as the IS-5 entered development. Later, it was accepted into service under the name T-10.

The tragedy of this situation was that four years were essentially wasted by Soviet tank designers. The only worthy opponent of the IS-7 stood at the museum courtyard in Kubinka. As for former allies, they axed the development of their own behemoths. Prospective Soviet tanks had no one to fight.

1 comment:

  1. The best detailed article I have read so far about these vast tanks. In summary an impractical waste of resources by the Germans.