Monday 25 July 2022

T-20 Komsomolets

The Red Army is often criticized for its vehicle fleet. On one hand, there is plenty to criticize. On the other hand, if one examines the situation carefully, it is often much better than claimed. This is especially true for tracked tractors. Even when you include civilian tractors, not everything was hopeless. Sure, the S-65 was not exceptionally quick, but in most armies of the world the only alternative would be a horse. If you count that as an alternative for the Red Army, the situation becomes different. Keep in mind that the S-65, STZ-3, and other slow moving tractors were only a temporary measure. The Red Army was not sitting idle and work on specialized vehicles was underway.

Komsomolets tractor during a demonstration at the War Motors festival.
The Red Army started with tractors produced under license. The best of them was the Communar tractor, a German Hanomag WD Z 50 copy. It was modernized at KhPZ and its engine power was increased from 50 to 90 hp, raising its speed from 7 to 15 kph. This might not sound like a lot, but this was a typical movement speed of a vehicle column. The S-65 tractor was a development of the S-60, a copy of the Caterpillar Sixty. KhPZ later produced the Comintern tractor, a very good model for its time that could accelerate up to 29 kph. The Comintern's advantage was not only in speed. This was a fully fledged artillery tractor with a comfortable closed cabin and a truck bed that could carry either ammunition or a gun crew. As for medium and light tractors, those were all designed from scratch. There were simply no foreign models that could be put into production. 

Only two vehicles in this condition exist today.

The Red Army defined four classes of artillery tractors by the end of the 1930s: anti-tank artillery tractors, divisional artillery tractors, corps artillery tractors, and special power artillery tractors that could also be used as ARVs. The corps artillery class was a problem, but work on the other classes went very far. The Red Army became a leader in tracked anti-tank gun tractors when factory #37 in Moscow put the Komsomolets tractor into production in 1937. This was the most common vehicle of its kind and it would be fair to say that it was the best one, especially if one limits themselves to pre-war designs. 

Not a lot of these vehicles survive to this day. Only two authentic ones remain. The first vehicle, a third series late production tractor, is displayed at the Museum of National Military History. Today we will talk about the second: an early third series vehicle from the collection of Yevgeny Shamansky. It can be seen at the War Motors exhibition in Moscow.

The driver had good visibility, especially for a vehicle of this type.

The British served as an example to follow for the Red Army in the early 1930s. Some of their vehicles were put into production, such as the Carden-Loyd tankette or Vickers Mk.E tank. Others, like the A4E11 amphibious reconnaissance tank, offered ideas for development of domestic equivalents. There were also cases where a British vehicle inspired a Soviet one that was so radically different that it's hard to see the connection. This was the case with the Vickers Utility Tractor, a multipurpose vehicle created in 1932. It was developed in several variants: light artillery tractor, machine gun carrier, APC. The tiny vehicle could fit anywhere from 1 to 7 men. In the latter case, removable seats for infantry had to be installed. The Vickers Utility Tractor was used both in Great Britain and in other nations, although with limited success. 

Komsomolets tractors from the third series and later had this kind of rear.

The Soviet analogue to the Vickers Utility Tractor was developed at the NATI (Auto-Tractor Scientific Institute) by 1935 under the direction of A.S. Sheglov. It is claimed that the Marmon-Herrington tractor was used for the chassis, but there are many signs of its British ancestry. The tractor, codenamed Pioneer, had the driver sitting in the center with the engine behind him. The gun crew sat on the left and right. The single suspension bogey was taken from the T-37A tank. Other components were taken from the T-37A as well. The Pioneer was accepted into service and even produced at factory #37 in Moscow, but its lifespan was short. The vehicle was too small, oscillated just like the Vickers Utility Tractor did, plus the lack of armour was considered unsatisfactory for an anti-tank gun tractor.

The vehicle was quite popular with visitors.

Improved variants of the Pioneer were created at NATI in 1936. This vehicle was longer and wider. It received an armoured cabin that housed not only the driver, but also the commander. The latter had a DT machine gun in a ball mount at his disposal. There were two variants that differed slightly: Pioneer A and Pioneer B. Interestingly enough, factory #37 received an order to develop a similar vehicle. N.A. Astrov, the chief designer of the factory's tank department (later department #22), had a leading role in this project. There was also a third project; I.P. Shitikov's tractor. It turned up in October of 1936 and is often mistakenly referred to as the predecessor to the Komsomolets. Not only were these two vehicles built in parallel, but only a reader with a very active imagination could consider the tractors as relatives. Essentially Shitikov modified his experimental tank to make something terrifying and senseless, especially from the gun crew's point of view. It is not surprising that the idea went nowhere, but Shitikov's suspension migrated to the Komsomolets project.

The tractor looked like this in March of 2012.

Astrov personally saw both the Pioneer A and Pioneer B. This was recorded in his memoirs but can also be "read" in the design of the Komsomolets tractor. However, Astrov also understood what not to do. NATI's design was still plagued by the key drawbacks of the Vickers Utility Tractor. A different vehicle was needed, a larger one. This was the start of the Komsomolets tractor, indexed T-20 at the factory. A.V. Bogachev and Ye.P. Ordanovich played key roles in the design of this vehicle. The tractor that went into trials in January of 1937 was a true breakthrough. It got rid of some of the drawbacks of the Vickers Utility Tractor and turned the gun crew into first class citizens. The vehicle's mass grew to 3 tons, but it was clearly superior to its predecessors in the role of an anti-tank gun tractor.

The restored Komsomolets was first shown in March of 2020 in Sokolniki. Puzzlingly, it was shoved to the very corner of the Old Timer Gallery.

This was Astrov's first completely new vehicle. The T-38 tank was a further development of the T-37A, but the Komsomolets was a completely new design. It was not without its drawbacks, but the Red Army had nothing better. The T-20 was accepted into service and put into production in 1937. As mentioned above, the Komsomolets was designed as a field artillery or anti-tank gun tractor. It had to carry a weight of up to three tons. In practice, its main task was transporting 45 mm guns. It could also carry 76 mm model 1927 regimental guns and 120 mm mortars, but the 45 mm anti-tank gun and its limber were a more typical load.

The vehicle can now be seen at the War Motors exhibition alongside the STZ-5 and Comintern tractors that were also restored by Shamansky's workshop.

Production of this vehicle is often grouped into series. Some say there were three, but really there were more. The first one had a trapezoidal machine gun blister and did not last long. The last road wheel was used as an idler during trials, but a proper idler was installed before they ended. The trials revealed many other defects, but the fact remained that the Komsomolets was the only tractor that had the necessary mobility. Production of the second series began soon after. These vehicles partially resolved the issues of the first series. It had a different machine gun blister, observation hatches, and other elements.

DT machine gun blister.

Komsomolets tractors from the third series were the most common. They were the most typical type used in Red Army campaigns of 1939-1940. From the front, this vehicle can be distinguished by a port for cranking the engine that was moved here from the rear. The rear also changed. The fenders changed towards the end of the series to prevent the mud from spraying the gun and its limber. The fourth and final series was the most perfect version of the Komsomolets. It also had a whole number of changes that distinguished it from its predecessors, including a welded cabin and new hatches.

Rear view mirrors could be installed in the open hatches.

7780 tractors of all series were delivered by later July of 1941, 4401 of them by January 1st, 1941. Production ended here, and not just to focus on tanks. The 45 mm anti-tank gun was being replaced by the 57 mm ZIS-2, which the Komsomolets could barely pull. Astrov himself blamed his choice of the GAZ-AA truck engine for this. The ZIS factory and its superior ZIS-5 truck was located nearby, but for some reason the weaker engine was chosen. The result was a ticking time bomb that left the Red Army without a gun tractor at the start of a new war.

The driver's compartment could comfortably house even a tall man.

Not a single Komsomolets was left in Russia by 1992. A vehicle from the fourth series was found in 1992. It is now displayed at Poklonnaya Gora. The hero of this article had a turbulent fate. It became a German trophy. The Germans modified it to their liking. For instance, the tow hook was German. The tractor was knocked out by the Red Army during the crossing of the Dnieper. It was recovered in 2010 and officially returned to Russia where it was restored by Yevgeny Shamasky's workshop. The Komsomolets was first shown at the Old Timer Gallery exhibition in March of 2012. The first test drives after restoration took place in 2019 and the vehicle was presented in March of 2022, although it was shoved into the corner of the exhibition. A worthy presentation took place later at the international War Motors exhibition. That is where it can be seen today.

The vehicle had dual controls, a high tech feature for the time.

The Komsomolets does not occupy the most honourable place in Soviet armoured vehicle history. This is unfair, as the features of this tractor surpassed those of many pre-war tanks. For starters, the tractor had dual controls. If necessary, the commander/machine gunner could drive the vehicle himself. He even had a second dashboard. The vehicle also had a fixed firefighting system that could be triggered from the driver's compartment. Try finding that on a tank from the 1930s.

Engineer Shitikov took part in development of the running gear. It had to be improved before production.

It is enough to look at the driver's compartment to understand how high tech the Komsomolets was. The tractor was full of various devices and instruments that you would not expect in a humble tractor. Even the Germans would be jealous. Yevgeny Shamansky's vehicle even has the rear view mirrors that could be installed in the open side hatches.

If necessary, the engine access hatch could be locked open. This improved cooling.

The production vehicle weighed more than 3 tons, but it also had the new GAZ-MM-6002 engine (GAZ-M1 passenger car engine with a GAZ-AA truck gearbox). The result was quite a mobile vehicle with a better placed engine than on its British predecessor. The engine access panel could also be locked open if needed to help with cooling.

The seats could transport up to 6 crewmen.

The gun crew seats deserve a separate description. They are not as simple as they seem. There is another function that many forget about. If necessary, they could be folded into a truck bed, making the Komsomolets into a semi-armoured tracked cargo carrier. 

The seats could transform into a truck bed.

The only drawback of this vehicle was that its engine was too weak to tow heavier guns. The Komsomolets itself was entirely satisfactory. A similar vehicle called ATP-1 was developed during the war. Further work led to the AT-P semi-armoured tractor created under Astrov's direction, but at factory #40 in Mytishi instead of factory #37. The AT-P was a completely new vehicle but its ancestry is not hard to identify. The pre-war tractor system was restored with the AT-L instead of the STZ-5, AT-S instead of the S-2, and AT-T instead of the Voroshilovets. All of these vehicles have their own history.

The gun crew could communicate with the commander through this opening.

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