Monday 27 September 2021

Armoured Confusion: Victorious '45

There are many misconceptions about the use of tanks in 1945, same as any other period of the Great Patriotic War. These myths muddle the characteristics of tanks, their application, and sometimes even introduce tanks that were not there at all. The final chapter in the series dedicated to myths on Soviet armour in the Great Patriotic War is dedicated to this period.

Dead or alive

The IS-6 is one of the least studied tanks of the late war period. The project began semi-legally and had such a mixed reception that it was swept under the rug. The tank was initially supposed to compete with the Object 701, but it turned out that it didn't have enough armour. The tank then competed with the IS-2, but it was already clear that the tank was not suited for that by the fall of 1944. Its reliability in trials was poor, especially the reliability of the road wheels, which lasted only 200-300 km. Despite attempts to resolve these issues and Zh.Ya. Kotin's decision to send the tank to Moscow to show to the Soviet government, the IS-6's case was hopeless. It lost to its new competitor, the Kirovets-1, which then transformed into the IS-3

Some publications claim that the Object 253 burned up on its first outing and was not used any more, but factory #100 has a different opinion. This document fragment shows that the tank drove for 186 km in June of 1947 and 1025 km in total.

There is a very widespread myth about the second variant of the tank, the Object 253 with an electromechanical transmission. For starters, trials of this tank could not happen in 1944 or even early 1945, since as of February of 1945 assembly was not even finished. Considering the issues with the Object 252's road wheels, this tank used IS-2 wheels. The tank's later history is no less interesting. A fire broke out in the transmission compartment on its first outing, but that didn't mean that the trials were over. The tank was repaired in late 1946 and trials continued. The 1025 km long trials finished only in June of 1947, and the only surviving photographs of the Object 253 were made even later.

Phantom fighter

Myths surrounding the Object 253 pale in comparison to those linked with the IS-3. A number of publications about the IS-3 tank and the Battle of Berlin claim that it was used there. These tanks also pop up in German memoirs. Russian writers fan the flames by listing the regiments which allegedly used these tanks for battlefield trials. Particularly unscrupulous persons even try to present photos of these tanks knocked out in Berlin, although on closer inspection these photos turn out to be IS-3 UKN tanks destroyed in 1956 in Budapest.

ChKZ production figures tell a story on their own. There could have been no debut in Berlin.

These theories are worth nothing more than a sad smile. Assembly of the first production tanks began only on April 20th, 1945, and they were accepted in May. These tanks could not have fought in Berlin even if they were put on an express train and started firing from the train station. There were some pilot tanks built before that, but no one in the right mind would have used them in battle. These tanks overheated and in April of 1945 it turned out that their turrets were insufficiently robust. As a result the pilot tanks remained in Chelyabinsk where they were used as test beds for new components and Guinea pigs for solutions to the cooling issue. One tank was sent to the NIBT Proving Grounds. Delivery of production tanks began only in June of 1945. The overheating issue was only solved in July.

The IS-3 made its Berlin debut in September of 1945.

Issues with the IS-3 were exacerbated by the fact that the production quota hit 250 tanks per month starting in June of 1945. However, many publications exaggerate these issues. First of all, tanks built in 1946 when the arms race was over were much more reliable. These tanks went through the UKN modernization program last. Secondly, the new tank was indeed less reliable than the IS-2, but there are caveats here too. For one, the IS-2 was produced in no less of a hurry. IS-2 tanks were indeed more reliable by the second half of the 1940s, but no one counted how many times they went through minor and medium repairs, plus the lifespan of IS-2 tracks was still 800-1000 km. Issues with hull rigidity were also present on the IS-2. It was no accident that IS-2 modernization was performed in two steps. The first step overlapped with the UKN program for IS-3 tanks and continued after it was done, the second step was taken before deep modernization of IS-3 tanks. It seems that the issues with IS-2 tanks and ISU SPGs were simply not called out as much.

Uneven conditions

Another tank that is often teleported into Berlin is the T-44. There are fewer believers of this claim than those who believe in IS-3s in Berlin. Even though the first deliveries to troops were made in April of 1945, these vehicles were not combat capable due to a series of defects. Further shipments were quite staggered as there were shortages of ball bearings and gearboxes as well as other issues. In these conditions front line trials would be a hard sell.

Factory #75 a year before T-44 production began. It would take a year and a half to two years in order to produce vehicles at the same level where factory #183 was in the spring of 1941. The factory was initially supposed to build tractors, but was suddenly given a task to master production of a completely new tank in half a year.

There are many more questions about other claims. Some publications claim that there was no need to put the T-44 through front line trials since it was so similar to the T-34-85. Others say that the results of tank production at factory #75 in 1944-45 confirm that setting up T-44 production at factory #183 would have been a bad choice that would decrease tank production for a long time.

Both of these claims are quite bold. The claim that the T-44 was similar to the T-34-85 in performance is entirely baseless. For starters, the T-44 greatly surpassed the T-34-85 in armour. The T-44 had equivalent protection to the IS-2 tank with a straightened front but without the weak spot created by the removable turret front. The driver's station had better vision and there was no weak spot from the driver's hatch.

The claim that the T-34-85 was much more reliable is also questionable. A number of issues with the T-44 were due to substandard work by subcontractors rather than design flaws. In addition, issues with road wheel tires (one of the most frequent complaints) were also common on the T-34-85. Units did not only send complaints about the vehicles, but also praise of their agility. The tank was much more mobile than the T-34-85. The only downside was the 85 mm gun, which was weak for 1945. Nevertheless, the difference between the T-34-85 and T-44 is very obvious. The situation with quality is a curious one, as the T-44 became the USSR's most reliable tank in the late 1940s. It was the only tank that avoided a minor modernization program. Even the T-44 tanks used in Budapest in 1956 were "pure" T-44s and not T-44Ms.

Despite issues, the T-44 was the only Soviet tank in the late 1940s that did not go through a modernization program. Claims of poor reliability need to be examined in context.

When it comes to production, there are several reasons why production at factory #75 could not have gone smoothly. For starters, less than a year passed between the liberation of Kharkov and the delivery of the first T-44 tanks (then still called T-44A). Factory #75 was initially not rebuilt to produce tanks at all. The semi-ruined factory repaired tanks and was also supposed to produce AT-45 tractors. The task of building T-44 tanks was given to the factory because the NKTP had no others. The NKTP understood that starting production at factory #183 would negatively impact T-34-85 production. It is also incorrect to compare production of a "foreign" tank at a factory that was not yet completely rebuilt with production of the same vehicle at factory #183.

A lot of issues came from documentation, which had to be reworked. The distance between Kharkov and Nizhniy Tagil made cooperation complicated, same as the distance between factory #75 and factory #264 in Stalingrad, which was producing T-44 hulls. The fact that factory #75 delivered 880 tanks in 1945 is heroic in itself. In a similar situation, Kirov factory in Leningrad delivered only 10 IS-2s and 100 ISU-152s. Compare this to the IS-3: 250 units of a completely new tank were being built only three months into production. To summarize, it's incorrect to compare a "main" factory like #183 and a "secondary" factory like #75.

Bedsprings and Panzerfausts

The Berlin operation is surrounded by many myths, some of which tenaciously persist to this day. Some of these myths have to do with the alleged effectiveness of single use Faustpatrone and Panzerfaust anti-tank rocket launchers. These RPGs became a symbol of WW2 on par with goose-stepping Aryans. Many consider these weapons to be responsible for most losses of Soviet tanks in 1945, and the Berlin operation in particular.

It's true that Soviet tank forces took considerable losses in the Battle of Berlin, but there are still many myths about how these losses came about.

No doubt, these weapons were a headache for the Red Army, as a child from the Hitlerjugend or pensioner from the Volkssturm were capable of destroying a tank. However, these effectiveness should not be overstates. Surviving documents clearly outline losses from various types of weapons. In total, tanks of the 1st Belorussian Front made 20,378 sorties in April of 1945, losing 3781 vehicles, 911 of which were total losses. 269 tanks were lost to RPGs, 165 irreparably. To compare, 1846 tanks were lost to artillery, of them 719 were write-offs. In May armoured forces of the 1st Belorussian Front made 1208 sorties, losing 275 vehicles, 50 irreparably. Only 42 were lost to RPGs, 20 of which were total losses. Artillery fire claimed 127 and 27 respectively. As you can see the percentage was indeed high, but the Panzerfaust was hardly a superweapon.

The statistics on total losses are also interesting. Claims that a hit with a Panzerfaust inevitably results in total loss are naïve at best. Recall that this is also the worst case scenario: city fighting where infantry often fell behind and the tanks were facing enemy Panzerfaust troops on their own. Here you can also see the difference between the T-34 and the IS/ISU, many of which were equipped with DShK AA machine guns. Out of 419 IS-2 tanks lost in April of 1945, 39 were hit by Panzerfausts, 12 were total losses. In case of the ISU-122, only 8 of the 170 losses were due to Panzerfausts, and only 2 were total losses. The ISU-152 is in a similar position: out of 278 knocked out SPGs only 5 were hit by Panzerfausts and 3 were lost irreparably. The SU-100 has a higher percentage: 20 out of 142, 7 irreparably. Note that requests for AA machine guns on the SU-100 were made from the very beginning of their use in combat.

Sketch of IS-2 Panzerfaust netting. There were at least two different variants installed by different units.

Another myth has to do with bedsprings that were allegedly used as spaced armour. Anyone making this claim either needs to visit an optometrist or look up what a bedspring looks like. Mesh armour used by Soviet tanks was an original design made from scratch. These solutions were implemented within specific units, for instance the 20th Tank Brigade of the 11th Tank Corps. They are not encountered often and the designs themselves differ both in design and location. There were at least two different types of mesh armour installed on IS-2 tanks (one per regiment). The end of work on spaced armour in 1943 didn't mean that this topic was closed forever. Anti-HEAT armour was still in development.

Built for comfort and speed

The Kirovets-2 or Object 704 SPG was among the new armoured vehicles created in 1945. This vehicle is sometimes called ISU-152 model 1945, but this index was never used. The history of this vehicle is usually summarized thusly: it was developed, built, tested, then dropped due to a series of drawbacks. As it often happens, the real history is somewhat different from the "canonical" one. This applies to the items that were listed among the drawbacks, for instance poor crew conditions.

Staff of the NIBT Proving Grounds didn't consider the vehicle cramped or uncomfortable.

Work on the Kirovets-2 began in January of 1945. The goal was not just to build a better protected vehicle, but to improve the comfort of the driver. Those who write about how uncomfortable the driver in the Kirovets-2 was clearly never sat in an ISU-152. There is only one observation device, no periscopes unlike in the IS-2. The driver could only see the world through his vision port. The fuel tank was also hanging over him from the left, a rather questionable neighbour. In the Kirovets-2 the driver's station was moved forward and lifted up by 600-700 mm. The driver's seat could rise for him to look out of a hatch during travel and he had a MK-IV periscope to look through in battle. The claim that the driver's working conditions were worse runs up against many inconsistencies. Neither the NIBT Proving Grounds in the summer of 1945 nor the Gorohovets ANIOP in late 1945 thought the driver's conditions worsened. Just the opposite, both remarked that the driver's station was more comfortable than before.

The Gorohovets ANIOP also did not list any issues with the driver's station.

The claim that the prototype was difficult to drive is also unfounded. As mentioned above, the first IS-3 tanks had issues with the cooling system, and so the Kirovets-2 built in May of 1945 had a different one. Water temperature of 90 degrees was recorded during trials, about the same as that of the IS-2 and ISU-152. There were no notes about any difficulty. 

The reasons why the Kirovets-2 did not enter production have nothing to do with its fighting compartment or reliability. The IS-3 chassis was not considered future-proof enough, unlike next generation heavy tanks what were supposed to serve as a chassis for even more powerful SPGs.

Fear and fantasy

To wrap up, let us mention a myth born not of some kind of confusion in military history publications, but rather poor understanding of processes in Soviet tank building. This is the topic of "what if the war had gone on for another year", a popular topic with fans of German tanks who fantasize about the E-series (Entwicklung - project). These people have great hopes for vehicles that in many cases did not exist outside of a general concept for a chassis. It's especially funny to see attempts to compare these paper tanks with Soviet tanks and SPGs that were actually in production. Foreign historians do this quite often without any idea what kind of monsters they would unleash if they gave Soviet vehicles the same treatment.

GBTU plans for production in 1946-1950.

If one looks at tactical-techncial requirements and plans drawn up in 1945, one can see what the Germans wanted to achieve with their E series. For instance, light AFVs consisted of something like the Jagdpanzer 38(t) but more mobile. Meanwhile the GBTU was drawing up plans for a light tank with more armour than a T-44 and comparable armament. The same chassis would be used to build an SPG with a 100 mm gun or 122 mm howitzer and front armour that was impenetrable for the 88 mm KwK 43 L/71. The Germans did not have this gun on either light or medium tank destroyers.

A whole family of SPGs was planned on the Uralmash-1 chassis. It included two vehicles with an open fighting compartment and either a 122 mm gun or 152 mm howitzer. The same chassis would be used to build a SPAAG with two 57 mm autocannons. As for heavy SPGs, there were two of them: one with a 152 mm gun (likely the M-31) and one with the 130 mm S-26. The Object 701 served as a chassis for both. Work on the Kirovets-2 was concluded to work on this duplex.

152 mm M-31 gun. These cannons were earmarked for prospective heavy SPGs on first the IS-4 and then the IS-7 chassis.

Medium and heavy tanks were also interesting topics. The T-54 tank that entered trials in the spring of 1945 wouldn't have been accepted into production. If factory #183's design bureau was not suddenly repurposed for completely unrelated work, the T-54 could radically change in the summer of 1945. As for the heavy tanks, there was a rapid jump in requirements. The Object 257, the first tank to be called IS-7, already existed before that. By the fall of 1945 the tank evolved into a whole series of armoured vehicles, Objects 258-261. These were radically different from their predecessor. The tank became heavier, better protected, and gained a 130 mm gun. The third variant of the tank, Object 260, was selected for production. In other words, the Germans were badly outmatched even on the "paper front". The monsters that Soviet designers began to conceive in 1946 are a whole separate story. Compared to these tanks, German projects seem like children's toys.

Original article by Yuri Pasholok.

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