Saturday 4 November 2017

British Tank for Soviet Infantry

On September 29th, 1941, the first regular Arctic convoy departed from Britain to the USSR. It was indexed PQ-1. On October 11th, 11 transport ships arrived at Arkhangelsk, where they delivered 193 Hawker Hurricane fighters and other military cargo. Among it were 20 Matilda III and Valentine II tanks. So began the delivery of the Valentine tank, which became the most numerous British tank in the Red Army. 

Difficulties with initial shipments

The USSR had very little information on what kind of tanks were produced in Great Britain up until September of 1941. For example, in a report dated September 17th, 1941, it is claimed that Vickers makes an 80 ton heavy tank. According to this document, the factory produced one such tank per day. To put it mildly, this data has some inaccuracies. This situation was largely caused by the degree of secrecy that the British maintained.

In reality, the Elswick Works factory at Newcastle-upon-Thyne, belonging to Vickers-Armstrong, was building Valentine II infantry tanks at the time. The Soviet military acquired information about them only towards the end of September. Initially, Soviet documents referred to them as "Mark 2 "Star" (Valentine)". The first shipment of tanks to the USSR was expected to contain 20 vehicles of this type.

New information about British vehicles became available by late September of 1941. According to the report, the "infantry tank MKIII" was the latest design, and it was based on the "cruiser tank MKII". It was also specified that the tank was called "Valentine" in the British army. After a Soviet commission began working in England, which contained officers from the Red Army GABTU, more precise information was sent back to the USSR.

A celebration dedicated to the shipment of the first Valentines to the Red Army. BRC&W factory, September 28th, 1941.

Unlike the first shipment of light Tetrarch tanks, which contained both new and used vehicles, all Valentine tanks that arrived in the USSR were brand new. A celebration dedicated to the shipment of the first tanks was held on September 28th, 1941, at the Birmingham Railway Carriage and Wagon Company. I.M. Mayskiy, the Soviet ambassador in Great Britain, took part in the proceedings.

The Valentine tanks from the first two shipments belonged to this factory. They were built starting in June of 1941 according to contract T9867, which ordered 300 tanks with registration numbers from T.17385 to T.17684. There were no differences between vehicles destined for the British army or the Red Army. The tanks were also similarly equipped.

A diagram of faults, pointing out the ventilation openings in the turret.

Training of crews for the British tanks began on October 15th, 1941, at the Kazan Courses of Armoured Force Improvement (KUKS). Ironically, they were directly connected to the Osoaviakhim Technical Courses (TEKO), more commonly known as the "KAMA tank school", where German tankers studied 10 years beforehand, and German Grosstraktor and Leichttraktor tanks were tested.

A group of 22 men (2 British officers and 20 NCOs) arrived with the PQ-2 convoy, who were sent to organize repair workshops. On October 29th, a brigade consisting of 6 British instructors arrived at Kazan. They did not spend much time here. On November 11th, the course commander Colonel N.M. Kononov stated that the knowledge transfer was completed and there was no need for further assistance from the British. By the middle of November, 120 crews were trained. They received instructions on driving and maintenance, which were hurriedly translated into Russian.

As for the tanks themselves, they were sent from the ports to Gorkiy (modern day Nizhniy Novgorod). Military acceptance posts were organized at Arkhangelsk and Murmansk, and they quickly found themselves busy.

Valentine II on trials, Kazan, December 1941

The lack of differences between the tanks shipped to the USSR and to the British army caused a heap of trouble. The British forgot that winter is different in different places, and transport along the northern route introduces its own problems. The first convoy arrived during a relatively warm time, but PQ-2's tanks caused a major headache. Out of 84 Valentines, 27 were "defrosted". The issue was simple: water was used as coolant, which, naturally, froze at low temperatures. 20 batteries were also "defrosted". 

Another problem was that several tanks were transported on the deck, and they were splashed with water. Interestingly enough, the instructions that arrived with the tanks indicated that the tank should be fuelled with gasoline. The British were too lazy to rewrite the instructions for the Valentine I, which had the AEC 189 gasoline engine, while the Valentine II had the AEC 190.

The tank kept its maintenance markings.

There were also issues with equipment. Some of the tanks did not arrive fully stocked. For instance, 35% arrived without a tarp. Most tanks lacked a technical log, and their toolboxes were not sealed. Some of the tanks lacked Thompson M1928A1 submachineguns and Bren guns. Spare barrels were missing, and each tank only came with 5-6 ammo loads.

The GABTU did not know that the British only had armour piercing ammunition for their Valentines. There was a theory that there were HE shells, but the British did not send any. There was also a rumour that the British had an AP shell with an explosive filler. The situation with armament was so serious that the Soviets ended up building a Valentine II rearmed with the domestic 45 mm cannon.

The tank had an AA mount for the Bren gun, known as the Lakerman Mount.

The British tanks also had plenty of design flaws. Track pins broke often in November of 1941. Only three spare pins were included in the parts box, while a week of use would lead to 4-8 broken pins. The cause of these breakdowns was the insistence of British instructors that the tracks should be stretched too tightly. After a tank with slacker tracks was tested at KUKS, the wear on the track pins was drastically reduced.

Another issue was that the smooth track links provided little traction packed snow and ice. As a result, the tank's off-road mobility dropped drastically, and there was a danger of slipping into a ditch when driving on icy roads. Spurs were developed at KUKS, but they did not show themselves well: after a 15 km march, the road wheel bearings of the tank with spurs began to overheat. Instances of the rubber rims of the drive sprocket slipping off were also common. The tank was not immobilized, but the noise from the tracks increased noticeably.

A pistol port in the side of the turret distinguishes the Valentine II from the Valentine I.

Using gas oil instead of water as coolant solved the problem of freezing temporarily. As there were no spare batteries, a proposal was made to use domestic ones. There was also an issue with the starter. Its method of installation meant that it only worked reliably on level ground.

Finally, the tank was vulnerable to Molotov cocktails. Instead of a fan, the Valentine II had a plethora of openings in the turret. The strangest feature was an opening in the rear of the turret that was large enough to fit a whole hand. There were also quite a few of them in the roof of the turret.

Unsuitable for low temperatures

The NIIBT proving grounds also took part in the study of the British tank. Due to the approaching front lines, it was evacuated to Kazan. For over a year, the city became an important center for Soviet tank building. This is where trials of foreign vehicles took place. The Valentine, or "English tank MK-III*", was no exception. 

The racks on the rear are meant for British two-gallon (9.09 L) cans.

The tank with registration number T.17482 was chosen for study. The testers had a lot of work ahead of them. Aside from the trials, they had to compose a detailed technical description and write brief repair and service instructions. The tank arrived at the proving grounds in December.

The wide hatches provided convenient access to the engine.

The technical description was composed first. It's hard to call it brief. Out of the 122 page long report, 79 were about the tank directly. In addition, crew conditions and functions of individual components were studied. A study of the driving compartment revealed that it was comfortable for people of medium height, but tall tankers found it cramped. The inability to adjust the seat lengthwise was considered a fault. Since the clutch pedal was located too far back, it was most comfortable for drivers of medium height to operate the tank. 

The effort it took to drive the tank was considered reasonable. It took 35 kg to operate the side clutches, 65 kg to operate the brake pedal, 70 kg to operate the clutch, and 1.5 kg to operate the gas. The Soviet specialists liked the location of the instruments, which were split between two panels and were easy to read.

It was also easy to access the cooling system, but the heavy hatches took several men to open.

The size of the turret allowed the commander and the gunner to fit in easily. However, according to the author's personal experience, it is somewhat cramped. It's worth pointing out that NIIBT testers and GABTU specialists considered the gunner to be the commander, but that was not the case. As with American tanks, the Valentine's commander also acted as the loader, in addition to his other duties. The turret traverse mechanism and vertical aiming with a shoulder stock were considered comfortable.

Ammunition storage diagram.

The gunner and loader's stations were considered well thought out. However, the Soviet testers did not like seats themselves. They could be raised, but the size of the seats was too small, plus the gunner had no back. The large hatch was large enough to allow men in winter uniforms to get in. The ventilation system was deemed effective. Air came in through various openings and was sucked away by the engine fans. However, with such powerful suction, it was very cold in the fighting compartment.

Wireless Set No.19, the main British radio used during the war.

Mobility trials continued from December of 1941 to March of 1942, with some breaks. Overall, the tank travelled 1210 km, 971 over a highway and 239 off-road. The quality of the highway was rather inconsistent, sometime turning into more of a direction, as it was covered with 30 cm of snow. Since British oil was rejected by KUKS, the tank was filled with domestic oil of various grades.

Application of winter camouflage was a part of the trials. If nothing else, the Valentine looked much more fierce.

The tank reached a speed of 32 kph on a flat segment, 8 kph higher than its rated top speed. The average driving speed was 14.1 kph, and the average technical speed was 12.9 kph. Mostly, the tank drove in 4th gear, occasionally shifting into 5th, or 3rd for snowy roads. 140 L of fuel and 2.2 L of oil were expended for every 100 km of highway driving.

Off-road driving in the snow.

The tank was not driven along dirt roads, since its tracks were wider than the road. If the snow was deep enough, the tank bottomed out. Other than that, the tank had few problems during off-road driving. The average speed when driving across 30-70 cm deep snow was 10.4 km. The tank expended 182 L of fuel and 3.7 L of oil for 100 km. The tank drove in 3rd gear, with the driver sometimes switching to 2nd or 4th.

Crossing a snow obstacle during comparative trials.

One of the biggest issues of many tanks was that the engine began to overheat in difficult conditions, even in the winter. The Valentine had the opposite problem: it overcooled. It is not known how realistic this is, but, according to Soviet testers, the tank's cooling system was excessive in such a cold.

The testers had to perform experiments to try and lower the efficiency of the cooling system. Experiments showed that the easiest way to do this was to cover the radiators with a tarp, plywood, or some such material, to lower their throughput. The radiators were to be covered at temperatures of less than -5 degrees. The lower the temperature, the larger the surface that had to be covered. The testers also encountered the aforementioned problems with coolant.

Crossing two snow obstacles. The tank needed 14 minutes to get across.

The tank lost traction when driving on packed snow, and drivers had to be very careful in these conditions. The poor traction showed up in other ways. The tank could not climb a slope of over 12 degrees, and the maximum tilt was only 17 degrees. The maximum climbable slope in conditions where the tracks could retain traction was 25 degrees.

Issues with track links also plagued the vehicle on trial.

There were also separate trials, which were performed from January 27th to February 5th, 1942. Aside from the Valentine II, a PzIII Ausf. H, a T-34, and a Matilda III took part in the crossing of snow obstacles. A 1.7 m tall, 2 meter wide at its tallest section, and 3.5 meter overall wide obstacle was crossed by the Valentine from the third try, in second gear, without a running start. The T-34 could cross the same obstacle in 1st gear without a running start on the first try.

After that, the tanks attempted to cross two snow obstacles, 1.7 m in height, 4 m wide at the tallest part, and 5.5 m wide in total. The Valentine II took 14 minutes to make the crossing with a running start. It took 10 attempts to cross the first obstacle. The engine constantly stalled due to low power. The Matilda III crossed the obstacle in 21 minutes. Its engine also stalled. The PzIII took 16 minutes to cross the obstacles, taking 8 tries with a running start. As for the T-34, it had to negotiate three obstacles instead of two. With a 100 meter running start in second gear, the tank crossed all three obstacles in 10 seconds.

Armour diagram composed at NII-48 in 1942.

The next stage of the trials exonerated the Valentine. As mentioned above, a 12 degree slope was a much as it could climb. As for the Matilda, it could not climb even that much. The PzIII could not do so either. Overall, the trials showed that the winter mobility of the Valentine and PzIII were similar.

Hull joint diagrams.

The NIIBT proving grounds judged the Valentine positively as a result of these trials. Specialists classified it as a medium tank, which combined powerful armour with relatively light mass and small size. The gun was deemed to be adequately powerful. Trials against the PzIII and Pz38(t) showed that the gun could penetrate enemy tanks, except for the applique armour. The weapon was equivalent to the Soviet 45 mm gun.

The testers appreciated the 50 mm mortar in the gun mantlet. The visibility was deemed adequate. The low speed of the tank was deemed a drawback. Overall, it was judged superior to the Matilda III.

Mess in the north

The first Valentine IIs were sent into battle in late November of 1941. They were issued to crews of the 136th, 137th, 138th, and 139th Independent Tank Battalions. Since the battalions were formed in a hurry, the tankers had minimum experience with their vehicles. The issues with coolant and poor performance on ice exacerbated the situation. The units took losses, and complaints about the tanks piled in. However, this is a normal situation for any vehicle that goes into battle for the first time.

A knocked out Metropolitan-Cammell Valentine II. According to documents, this tank was sent to the 36th Tank Brigade on January 13th, 1942. Most likely, it was lost during the battle for Kharkov in May of 1942.

The issues that cropped up were resolved in cooperation with the British. They reacted swiftly to complains that there were no spare parts. On November 22nd, 1941, convoy PQ-3 arrived in Arkhangelsk, which delivered 317 tons of spare parts, in addition to 50 Valentines. General Frank Noel Mason-Macfarlane, the head of the British Military Mission in the USSR, played a key role in the acquisition of contacts. British instructors and translators were sent to Kazan, Gorkiy, and Arkhangelsk to facilitate cooperation. The next convoy, PQ-4, delivered another 700 tons of parts.

The British learned from their mistakes, and began to fill their tanks with antifreeze (60% ethylene glycol and 40% water). New types of lubricants were introduced. The issues with batteries were solved in a similar fashion. Each Valentine was shipped with 520 rounds of ammunition (about 8.6 loads), which solved the problem with a lack of ammo. The responsiveness of the British Military Mission and cooperation with Soviet specialists resolved the issues that were uncovered during usage.

Inventory is a whole separate matter. Until November 28th, 1941, it was not kept at all. Even manifests of arrivals were kept sporadically. Satisfactory records only began to appear in December, and even they had some nuances. For instance, the list of recipients was missing the 136th Independent Tank Battalion, which allegedly only had Matildas. In reality, not only did it have "Valentins" (as they were sometimes called), but also lost them.

The problem was that official delivery documents could sometimes only contain the first recipient. After that, the tank could be sent anywhere. In 1941-42, this was the normal course of events. The actual recipient can often only be found through the specific unit's records, assuming there was a regular record of arriving and departing tanks and crews. Transfer of tanks from one unit to another only complicated matters, and it was a routine procedure during the war.

A typical delivery record. Soviet quartermasters could distinguish various modifications of tanks. The record also demonstrates the condition in which tanks arrived in the USSR by the summer of 1942.

Nevertheless, GABTU's records and delivery records from Arkhangelsk allow us to determine what kind of tanks arrived in the USSR in general. It is impossible to establish the precise numbers of every type of Valentine that arrived. It was normal to produce different modifications within the same contract. In addition, Valentines were built at three factories, which makes determining precise numbers even harder.

It's considered that Valentine IV tanks, which had the American GMC 6004 diesel, only began arriving in the USSR in 1942. The delivery records disagree. According to them, the 131st Independent Tank Battalion was sent 7 Valentine IV tanks, which were built at Elswick Works for contract T1284 13 (WD numbers T.47098-T.47343). At the same time, the 131st ITB was sent Valentine II tanks, produced by Metropolitan-Cammell for contract T9866 (WD numbers T.27421-T.227720). The Valentine II tank on display in Patriot Park belongs to this series. Contract T9866 also covered the production of 86 Valentine IV tanks.

Tanks produced at Metropolitan-Cammell for contract T2009 (WD numbers T.32471-T.32720, 81 Valentine II and 149 Valentine IV tanks) began arriving in the USSR starting in late January of 1942. According to official data, the USSR received 161 Valentine II and 520 Valentine IV tanks. 25 and 71 were lost on the way, respectively. In reality, this number is somewhat inaccurate, since Valentine IIs can be seen among Valentine IV shipments and vice versa. Despite some domestic historians' claims, military acceptance could tell the difference between various modifications, especially later in the war.

Elswick Works Valentine IV, 1944.

After an initial wave of negativity, more detailed information on how the Valentine handled itself in combat began to arrive. As it turned out, the Valentines (also sometimes called MK-III or MK-3 in the Red Army) performed decently in the winter. The tanks could drive in second gear through 40-45 cm deep snow, whereas Soviet T-30 and T-60 small tanks could not drive in those conditions at all. The guns performed flawlessly, but a lack of HE shells reduced their effectiveness. There were also complaints about BESA ammunition belts jamming. The engine had to be kept running for 4-5 hours a day to remain serviceable in the winter.

The longer the tanks remained in use, the less complains there were. They were mostly used as light tanks. In this respect, they had their advantages over the Soviet T-60 and T-70, as well as the American M3 light. They fell behind on the highway, but caught up when it came to off-road driving.

The Valentine had a noticeable advantage: its armour. Despite the rather primitive assembly method (rivets), 60 mm of armour was a serious argument on the battlefield. As a result, the Valentine was the last light tank to be received by the Red Army in large amounts. The Valentine was the most numerous tank the was shipped to the USSR in 1942. Some of these tanks continued to serve into 1944.

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