Monday 4 January 2021

Intermediate Tank

GKO decree #6209s "On organizing T-44 tank production at factories #75 and #264" was signed on July 18th, 1944. With this order, Stalin gave permission to produce a replacement for the T-34. However, the T-44 never truly replaced the T-34-85. It was only produced at a backup factory and production volumes were small compared to the T-34-85. 1823 tanks is a very small number, and even in 1946 2701 T-34-85 tanks were built. The T-44 shouldered the problems of a revolutionary tank, although its service was long and it even saw battle.

Artisanal improvements

As with many tanks that were accepted into service during wartime, the T-44 needed improvements and was unsatisfactory as is. The second T-44 variant had insufficient armour protection and failed trials at the NIBT proving grounds. This tank was accepted into service conditionally. In addition, the GBTU released new tactical-technical characteristics for a "medium tank" which represented their own vision of the T-44. This tank weighed 32 tons and had 90 mm thick front hull armour and a 115 mm thick turret.

The hull of the first T-44A tank, factory #183, July 1944.

Factory #183's KB-520 already knew that the T-44 would have to be altered by the end of July of 1944. Under A.A. Morozov, work on a tank called T-44A began. According to the factory's report on experimental work for the first half of July of 1944, the hull of the improved tank was ready on July 13th. Improvements were introduced into the T-44A from the very start. For instance, the suspension arms were supposed to be cast in a single piece, but due to manufacturing defects composite arms like those on the T-34-85 were used. The experimental hull also had different armour thicknesses than planned. The blueprints had 85 mm thick front upper and lower plates, in reality they were 90 mm thick. The sides were supposed to be 70 mm thick, but the experimental hull had 75 mm thick sides. The roof was 15 mm thick instead of 13.

The rear of the hull is still straight.

The T-44A didn't just have thicker sides and front than its predecessors. The front of the tank changed significantly. KB-520 stopped experimenting with a driver's cabin and simply raised the driver's compartment roof to the same height as the engine deck. The resulting hull was still a little lower than a meter tall, of course the turret was raised along with it, but this was a worthwhile sacrifice. Instead of a cabin, the driver received an observation slit with a bulletproof glass block. The robustness of the front plate increased and the driver now had enough vertical space. He was also given a new hatch with a flap that lifted upwards and twisted to the side. This design was inspired by the Panther, although everything aside from the opening principle changed. A MK-IV observation device that rotated along with the hatch was installed in front of the flap. This improved the driver's visibility significantly. Thanks to the new hatch design, the driver could also operate the tank in an elevated position while looking out of the hatch.

A T-44A variant with a 100 mm gun. It is often called T-44V, but this is incorrect. Interestingly enough, the old style of hull can be seen with the upper front plate lacking an observation slit. The draft composite turret with a cast front and rolled sides is also shown.

Many changes were made not only to the front of the hull, but the entire chassis. The T-34-85 style drive sprockets were reduced in size to 530 mm in diameter and the number of rollers was reduced to five. The suspension arms were shortened almost by half and their mounting points were retracted into the hull. The diameter of the road wheels returned to the same size as the T-34-85 had (830 mm). More changes were introduced into the hull after it was completed. Initially the rear plate was straight, later on another component assembled from two pieces was attached to it. This improved the work of the cooling system. Since the rear was welded onto the back of the existing hull, the prototype had spaced armour. The ammunition rack was revised again, and there were now 58 rounds of ammunition carried for the 85 mm ZIS-S-53 gun. Interestingly enough, a new turret was originally planned. Its front was cast, 115 mm thick, and the sides were rolled, 90 mm thick. KB-520 planned on returning to the composite turret planned for the T-44 initially, but this project was never put into production.

Reworked position of the radiator. The extra "tail" attached to the tank before it was finally assembled can be seen.

Assembly began on July 14th, and the running gear was installed on July 25th. In addition to changing the suspension arms, the new tank had a different weight distribution among the road wheels, which helped avoid overloading the rear. The T-44A finally received the V-44 engine that factory #75 took half a year to provide. Assembly was delayed due to a number of deviations from the blueprints. A trial dry run showed numerous issues such as leaking oil and high temperature of the cooling fan drive. The mass of the tank was 30.7 tons. This time an increase in protection didn't result in an increase in mass. It was even lighter than the second T-44 prototype. The turret was borrowed from this old tank, but it was also equipped with a target designation mechanism and commander's backup electric turret traverse handle.

Experimental T-44A prototype, August 1944.

Trials of the third T-44 variant began on August 18th, 1944. The tank already drove for 376 km for factory trials. By September 9th it had travelled another 1033 km. This wasn't the end, and the tank drove for another 597 km before the end of the trials for a total of 2006 km. The requirements for additional mobility trials came from Marshal Fedorenko. The tank was trialled in Nizhniy Tagil, even though Fedorenko's letter dated September 2nd demanded that it be tested at the NIBT proving grounds in Kubinka.

The tank was better protected and lighter than its predecessor.

The tank's average speed on a dirt road was 25.5 kph, and 36.6 kph on a cobblestone highway. The commission's overall verdict was positive and approved the tank for mass production. However, there was a wide variety of drawbacks, some of which were quite traditional. Wear on road wheel tires and suspension arm bosses was high, there were issues with final drives. A list of 30 defects and suggestions was made.

It's clear that the rear part of the hull is an add-on and was not present from the beginning.

NKTP order #573s was given as a result of the trials on September 23rd, 1944. KB-520 was required to improve the design of the T-44A. Factory #75 was also joining the process. This factory was going to be producing the tank, and so N.A. Kucherenko was being sent there as a representative of the chief designer to coordinate production between Nizhniy Tagil and Kharkov. Factory #183 was tasked with developing documentation, including the instruction manual. The order included a list of 20 improvements that had to be made, chiefly to do with the driver's station. Work on the tank was approaching the finish line. On November 23rd, 1944, Stalin signed GKO order #6997ss "On acceptance of the T-44 tank into production and ensuring a supply of V-44 engines". The T-34's replacement was finally going into production. As for the experimental T-44A, it was sent to factory #183 after repairs.

A new old place

The issue of where to produce the T-44 was first raised in February of 1944, when the first prototypes had just been built. Malyshev prepared a draft decree titled "On organizing T-44 medium tank production at factory #183" on Stalin's orders. According to the decree, the first 25 tanks were expected from factory #183 in May, 50 in June, 150 in July, 300 in August, 500 in September, 650 in October. T-34-85 production gradually decreased and would stop in September of 1944. However, due to issues experienced during trials the decree was never signed. Factory #183 lobbied to produce the T-44, but this never happened.
Draft decrees launching T-44 production at factory #183, the Kolomna factory, and STZ. Factory #75 was the fourth choice, the last option among those considered for production.

The issue of T-44 production was raised again in April of 1944. This time factory #183 was not even mentioned. The NKTP rightfully assumed that tasking the main T-34-85 producer with a new tank was a risky proposition. The T-34-85 was badly needed and it would take some time before the T-44 could replace it. For this reason, Malyshev presented two variants of the GKO decree on April 8th. The variants differed in the location where the tanks would be produced. The first variant authorized construction of a new plant at the Kolomna factory. The factory would be responsible for producing hulls, running gear, and final assembly. The issue with this plan was that two factories already producing SU-76M SPGs had to be sacrificed for it to work. Factory #38 would be returned to Kolomna from Kirov. Its resources would allow production to quickly reach 300 units per month. Secondly, factory #40 in Mytishi would be used to produce transmission components for the T-44.

Plant #500 formerly belonging to factory #183 in Kharkov after liberation.

Another alternative was the revival of tank production at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory. The factory lay in ruins and STZ would not be able to deliver more than 175 tanks in 1944. STZ was also already allocated for tractor production, which would have to be delayed until the end of 1945 if the T-44 was built there. Factory #264 would build the hulls for STZ, and so hull production would have to be restored there. This factory was soon pulled into making casemates for the ISU-152, and so this option was discarded as well. Malyshev preferred the Kolomna option. The first 25 tanks could be delivered in July and monthly production would reach 300 by December. This variant was also unsatisfactory. Neither option was good, as in one case only GAZ would remain as a light SPG producer, and considering that factory management cancelled new projects after the war, the USSR would be left without light SPGs at all. In case of STZ the enter production line would have to be rebuilt from scratch.

Factory #75 by the summer of 1945.

A third alternative appeared in the summer of 1943. After Kharkov was liberated on August 23rd, the territory formerly occupied by factories #75 and #183 was used to repair tanks. Since no one expected factory #183 to ever return, the ruined factory was renamed "factory #75" in early 1944. On February 6th, 1944, GKO decree #5122ss ordered factory #75 to begin AT-45 artillery tractor production. It was based on the T-34 chassis. To produce the tractor the assembly lines would have to be at least partially restored. There was a twist: the AT-45 had a torsion bar suspension, same as the T-44. Even though  parts of factory #75 still lay in ruins in the summer of 1944, the work that had been done by then made it the optimal platform for T-44 production.

T-44 hull assembly, summer of 1945.

GKO decree #6209s signed on July 18th, 1944, was a compromise between the two proposals. The idea to move factory #38 was taken from one proposal and the idea to organize hull production at factory #264 from another. Hull production also involved the Mariupol Ilyich factory, factory #183's main subcontractor before evacuation. Mariupol would produce turrets for the T-44. STZ was also involved, as it would build V-44 engines. Factory #38 would have to be sacrificed for the T-44 to be built. Some historians underestimate the damage caused by this move, as Kirov was home to the center of light SPG development. As a result, the Red Army and later the Soviet Army suffered from a lack of light SPG designs. This loss was only made up in the mid 1950s. However, nobody thought about this in the 40s, as building a new medium tank was a higher priority job.

Installing the ZIS-S-53 gun in a turret.

Factory #183 and ChKZ's engine plant were called upon to help organize T-44A production (the index T-44A was used for some time, but later the letter A vanished). By December of 1944 factory #75 was fully supplied with electricity, although there were periodic blackouts. Theoretically, the issue of metallurgical plants and hull production was also resolved, although the quality of the hulls was quite poor. Factory #75 cursed KB-520 for their incomplete technical documentation. M.N. Schukin stepped in as the head of factory #75's design bureau after the move. He was the former chief designer at factory #38. This wasn't his first career change. Mikhail Nikolayevich worked on locomotives before the war, then switched to tanks, later to SPGs. Now he was tasked with figuring out how to build the T-44. Documentation on the tank was redone at a rapid pace. The hull and running gear were thoroughly changed. There were also issues with mechanical plants. Equipment arrived, but there was a shortage of tools and skilled labour. All these factors had a direct impact on the T-44's fate.

T-44, January 1945 production, at the NIBT proving grounds. The serial number starts with the letter L, like vehicles built at factory #38 used to have.

The first 5 production T-44 tanks (out of a quota of 25) were delivered before the end of November of 1944. The NKTP had no illusions about the quality of these tanks. Knowing what tribulations factory #75 was going through, these tanks were classified as "combat-training". The GBTU insisted on testing one of the tanks to determine if the defects discovered in the T-44A prototype were corrected. A tank with serial number 411004 was selected. By December 20th the tank had travelled 148 km, mostly across dirt roads. The average speed was 26.58 kph. Over the course of this run three road wheel tires were torn off, one wheel was out of alignment, and a track link on the right track cracked. After 682 km of travel 15 various defects were recorded.

The engine produced at STZ broke after 276 km of travel.

A technical meeting was held at factory #75 on December 15th where it was decided that a batch of 25 tanks would be built with deviations from blueprints and technical requirements. Factory #75's design bureau was tasked with reworking the blueprints over the course of one month. The first tanks already had differences from the T-44A. The floor consisted of 10 plates rather than 3. The hull joints were different. Turrets produced at the Mariupol factory had issues with thickness, the same issue as was experienced with early IS tank turrets.  In some places the thickness was up to 30 mm greater than expected, which made the turret heavier. Due to a mistake in blueprints, the driver's hatch fouled the turret. There were 33 deviations in all. The biggest issue was that the tanks produced in December had no fewer defects than those produced in November, and there were also not enough of them: 20 out of 75. 1944 production tanks cost 235,000 rubles each, not much more than a T-34-85.

This production tank with serial number L41252 was built in February of 1945. The numbering system changed in March of 1945.

These problems led to a significant revision of T-44 production plans. GKO decree #7332 issued on January 18th, 1945, lowered the quota for January to 20 tanks, 35 tanks in February, and 60 in March. Even this kind of reduced target was very difficult to achieve for factory #75. As of January 28th not a single tank had been accepted. They were all delivered on the night of February 1st. The quality was still low. Failures of the gear train and ventilation fan drive were observed, the suspension arm axles bent, the right rearmost road wheel on one tank fouled the drive sprocket and the front left wheel fouled the idler. The factory was anything but idle and fought against these defects, but the situation at first was dire. In February, things were even worse. 20 tanks were delivered instead of 35, and each had a whole battery of defects. This reduced the rate at which the tanks were being delivered. Shipments were made only to training units, as no one would ever send such unrefined tanks to the front. Military QA noted that the work was badly organized, the plants were not heated (February was very cold), and there were not enough instruments. However, output improved by March. The reliability of gear trains also increased (factory #75's design bureau modernized them), although the quality of the T-44 overall was still low.

The same tank seen from the rear.

Order #178 was given at factory #75 on March 3rd. It criticized the condition of work at the factory's workshops and demanded that their normal operation be restored. The tanks were still delivered at the end of the month, although at least this time there wasn't a large burst of them on April 1st. On March 30th the factory delivered 40 tanks, the rest were delivered on the following day. The plan for Q2 of 1945 called for 65 tanks in April, 75 in May, and 85 in June. 10 tanks were delivered by April 10th, 18 by April 20th, and 37 by April 29th, or more than half of the quota. Only 28 more tanks were due on May 1st, which was achieved. The quality was still low, but military QA noted that the amount of defects decreased.

Issues with torsion bars caused significant delays in acceptance of April's tanks. QA noted that the factory managed to create a buffer sufficient for the next month of work. While there were still issues with quality, QA raised fewer of them in May. Improvement can be seen in the rate of delivery; the factory delivered 11 tanks by May 10th, 33 by May 21st, and 60 by May 27th. The plan for 75 tanks was met without a sweat. Even though there were issues with ball bearings in June, delivery was still consistent. 18 tanks were finished by June 10th, 51 by June 20th, and 80 tanks out of the required 85 were delivered by June 30th.

The first production tanks had many differences from the T-44A, including plate joints.

The improved situation allowed for an increase in quotas. Factory #75 was required to deliver 100 tanks in July, 120 in August, and 135 in September. However, the cost increased to 290,000 rubles (to compare, an IS-3 tank cost 295,000). The issue was that the tank was complicated to produce. The quota for July was met, but not without issues. There were significant problems with gearboxes, specifically jamming and destruction of needle bearings of the 2nd and 3rd gear sprockets. A widespread remediation program had to be launched, which slowed down production. Factory #75 did not meet the quota by September 1st. Knowing about the factory's issues, the quota was lowered to 85 tanks, but issues continued. As a result, the plan for October was lowered even further to 50 tanks, but the factory couldn't meet that quota either. Only 35 tanks were delivered in October, and 45 out of 85 in November. This was the result of the GBTU putting its foot down on delivery of tanks with clear serous defects.

The war was over, and so there was no sense in rushing production. A production record was set in December: 170 tanks were delivered for a quota of 135, although mostly this was due to completion of previously started tanks. In total, factory #75 delivered 880 tanks in 1945, not bad considering the amount of problems it had. To compare, recall the Kirov factory in Leningrad that completely failed to meet its IS-2 production plans in 1945 and produced only 100 ISU-152 SPGs.

No serious changes were introduced into the T-44's design after this.

The end of the Great Patriotic War resulted in a significant decrease in production numbers. Only 30 T-44 tanks were required in January of 1946, although the plan for Q1 was significant: 250 vehicles. The factory only delivered 50 tanks instead of 90 in February. There were good reasons for this: deliveries of bearings did not arrive, plus there were issues with electricity and steam. The Ministry of Transport Machinebuilding (created on March 15th, 1946) did not expect factory #75 to deliver more than 170 tanks in Q1, but the factory managed to overfulfill the quota for March and deliver 130 tanks. The quota for April was sparing, only 50 tanks, which factory #75 met. In the meantime, production of the T-34-85 also decreased. Factory #183 stopped building it altogether while preparing for production of a more modern tank, the T-54. As for factory #75, it was slowly being tasked with peacetime products, namely locomotives. Issues with bearings and new expectations reflected on the factory's output. Instead of 250 tanks factory #75 delivered 189 in Q2 (90 in May, 49 in June), just half of the quota.

The serial number format changed in March of 1945. In this case, 64 means May 1945.

The plan for Q3 was also sparing. 270 tanks were due in total, 50 in July, 110 in August, 110 in September. The same thing happened: the quota for July was fulfilled, but only 85 tanks were delivered in April. This was again caused by defects and issues with subcontractors. Track links received from factory #183 were defective and STZ was late with engines. The shortfall in September was even greater, and only 40 tanks were delivered. To be fair, other factories weren't doing much better. Production of the T-54 and IS-4 were lagging far behind schedule. The 4th quarter was no different. Only 14 tanks were delivered in October out of a quota of 14, again due to bearings. There were enough engines, hulls, and other components to make 63 tanks. This shortage of bearings directly impacted November's numbers, plus now there was also a shortage of turrets. Factory #75 delivered 50 tanks out of 90. 80 more were delivered in December, for a total 718 T-44 tanks built in 1946. 

In addition to warranty trials the tank was tested with a mine roller.

Production of the T-44 might look like a nonstop series of problems, but it's hard to expect anything else from a revolutionary design. In addition, a large number of issues came from subcontractors. Meanwhile, it was clear that the T-44's time was coming to an end by early 1947. Even though factory #183 didn't quite manage to set up production in 1946, this tank was the future. Only 200 T-44 tanks were expected in 1947. Existing issues were still getting in the way of meeting this quota. Even the reasonable goal of 120 tanks was difficult to achieve. 28 tanks were delivered in January, 19 in February, 44 in March. The second quarter was no better. 23 tanks were delivered in April (with a quota of 20), but the factory reported that it had no turrets for May production. 23 more tanks were delivered in May.

Production increased to 33 units in June with a quota of 28, 27 more in July, and the last 3 T-44 tanks came out of factory #75 in August. After that factory #75 began preparing for T-54 production (to compare, the main producer of T-54 tanks, factory #183, built only 22 of these tanks out of a quota of 250). As for the T-44, 1823 tanks of this type were built excluding prototypes. This was more than any other next generation Soviet tank in the second half of the 1940s.


The difficult situation with T-44 production meant that use of these tanks in combat was impossible. Tanks built in 1944 were not treated as combat capable due to the number of defects. Additionally, factory #75 was going to radically rework all documentation. Nevertheless, the first four tanks left the factory in December of 1944. The Kharkov Guards Tank School and Stalingrad Tank School each got one, the 4th Training Tank Brigade got two. Complaints to the factory followed, although they were coupled with comments about high mobility, greater than the T-34-85. There were also small shipments made in January of 1945. One tank was sent to the 9th Training Tank Brigade (Chuguyev), 5 more to the Kharkov Guards Tank School. Deliveries began to increase as of February 1945. 15 tanks left factory #75, one of them (L41238) was sent to the Gorohovets ANIOP and then to the NIBT proving grounds. 27 tanks shipped out in March.

T-44 at factory trials.

Full scale deliveries began starting with April of 1945. Factory #75 sent out 72 tanks that month, 88 in May, 104 in June. That's when issues with bearings and gearboxes began, so only 83 tanks left the factory in Q3 of 1945. Large scale deliveries resumed before the end of the year: 218 tanks in October, 90 in November 29 in December. These bursts continued, as the factory still experienced periodic waves of defects.

Just two tanks out of six passed 300 km trials.

The quality of the T-44 deserves a separate focus. The reader might think that factory #75 staff dropped the ball when it came to the T-44, but the situation is not as clear as it might seem. Recall that the main participants in the T-44's production were factories that were rebuilt from ruins. They had to master production of a brand new tank and the V-44 engine, which also had untested components. Production of the T-44 at any of the three major T-34-85 factories would not have been any easier. Warranty trials also shine a light on the situation. Two tanks out of six passed 300 km trials held between February and May of 1945, not that many, but also not that few. One of the defects experienced during these trials, failure of road wheel tires, was also typical of T-34-85 tanks. In addition, 4 tanks passed 300 km trials between January and October out of 9. This seems like few, but out of 18 SU-100s tested only 4 passed. The highest reliability (21 out of 22 vehicles) was seen among ISU SPGs, but there was a twist: not a single ISU or T-44 passed 1000 km trials, while two out of four SU-100s did. Mention of the tanks' defects require a footnote.

The welding seams remained an issue even in 1945. Fire from the 88 mm Pak 43 failed to penetrate the front of the tank, but the lower plate fell off.

Another interesting comparison can be made to tanks produced in the second half of the 1940s. The IS-3 didn't earn serious criticism in 1945-46, but later became the star of meetings dedicated to resolving defects. Work to improve its reliability lasted until the mid-1950s, and after that the tanks went through the UKN (correction of design defects) program. The IS-3's replacement, the IS-4 tank, was also the source of many headaches. The issues were so serious that production stopped in 1949 and a modernization program began. By early 1949 it was clear that another tank was needed, a lighter one. Work on the T-10 heavy tank began as a result. The T-54's fate was even more interesting. As mentioned before, production did not truly start in 1946. It only really took off in 1947, but then stopped in early 1949. It turned out that the design was very raw and had a number of issues. Factory #183's design bureau had to urgently work to resolve them, and the so called T-54 model 1946 required a thorough modernization. As a result, the T-44 turned out to be the most reliable and numerous tank produced in the five years following the war, despite all of its issues.

Deliveries to the army began in the summer of 1945. Most T-44 tanks ended up in either the 5th Guards Mechanized Army or the 8th Mechanized Army.

The fighting effectiveness of the T-44 was intermediate. At the time of its acceptance, the GBTU had already increased requirements for armour, but not for armament. As a result, the tank was protected from both the 75 mm KwK 42 and 88 mm KwK 43, but could not penetrate even the Panther's upper front plate. The GBTU only realized that it would be nice to have a 100 mm gun in the fall of 1944, when preparations for production were already underway. As for the protection, it was tested on a T-44 tank produced in September of 1945. An 85 mm gun firing at 100 meters could not penetrate either the upper or lower front plates. An 88 mm Pak 43 L/71 couldn't penetrate the front of the hull either, but there were issues with welding seams. When hit, the lower front plate broke off. There was also a crack found in the floor of the tank. 

T-44 tank from the 8th Mechanized Army, Budapest, November 1956. Unlike the first T-54 tanks, which were essentially training vehicles, the T-44 managed to fight without a deep modernization.

The T-44's career was rather quiet. The first tanks of this type were sent to the 5th Guards Tank Army. In the spring of 1946 it was reformed into the 5th Guards Mechanized Army. T-44 tanks were also sent to the 8th Mechanized Army. The tanks lasted in the 5th Guards Mechanized Army until about the mid 1950s, after which they were replaced with T-54s. As for the 8th Mechanized Army, the tanks served for much longer. The tanks also saw their first and last use in combat here. Tanks of the 8th Mechanized Army took part in Operation Whirlwind, the suppression of an uprising in Budapest. The T-44 was the only tank built in the second half of the 1940s that fought here without a modernization.

The T-44 served for a long time, but mostly as a training tank.

In the late 1950s all T-44 tanks issued were modernized into T-44Ms. The only tank of this type that was not modernized is currently on display in Kubinka. This tank has the serial number Zh13613. It was built in November of 1945. This tank was being tested at the NIBT proving grounds and ended up at the proving grounds museum. This is why it survived without a modernization.

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