Monday 8 August 2022

The Unluckiest Next Generation Tank

The history of mass production and use of Soviet T-50 infantry tanks and why it was doomed to fail

Initially, small tanks (later support tanks and then combined arms tanks) became the most numerous of their kind in the USSR. The MS-1 (T-18) and then T-26 became the most numerous tanks of the Red Army. The T-26's abilities were quite sufficient to escort infantry, and its relatively low speed compared to the BT also made it a more stable firing platform. Since the T-26 had nearly no oscillations after a sudden stop, it could conduct aimed fire much more accurately than the BT, which would rock back and forth. The T-26 was also 1.5 times cheaper and produced in larger volumes.

First prototype of the T-50 after improvements, spring 1941.

The biggest problem was that it took a very long time to come up with a worthy successor for the "combined arms tank". The T-26 seemed modern into the mid-1930s, but the more time passed the more pressing the need for a replacement became. The convertible drive T-46-1 tank never took off. It was too raw and too complicated. The second attempt at replacing it, STZ-34/STZ-35, was even less refined. T-26 production continued in the meantime and the tank kept improving, but the Winter War clearly showed that the tank was approaching its twilight years. The armour was no longer sufficient, nor was there any reserve for improving it. A decision was made to develop a new generation infantry support tank. Work began in early February of 1940. Factory #174's design bureau developed the T-126 tank and the Kirov factory developed the T-211. Both vehicles were unsuccessful. In addition, the USSR was actively studying the German Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.G tank after purchasing a sample in the spring of 1940. Council of Commissars Decree #427ss ordering both factory #174 and the Kirov factory to produce two samples each of the T-50 tank was issued on November 19th, 1940. The tanks were required to be finished by January 15th, 1941.

The production tank was expected to look more or less the same.

Factory #174 handled the task better. The Kirov factory took its sweet time, but their competitors worked with enthusiasm. There was little doubt about the expected winner. Assembly of two T-50 prototypes began in late December 1940 and the tanks were presented on January 12th, 1941. It seemed that everything was going according to plan, but reality was not so accommodating. The design was still quite raw. In particular, the oil in the gearbox overheated and the tracks tore after 300-400 km of driving. As a result, trials ceased on February 17th, 1941. Factory #174 was instructed to resolve these defects, which delayed the tank's entry into service. A torrent of correspondence erupted between the GABTU and factory #174's management (particularly S.A. Ginzburg who was responsible for the project). Despite these circumstances that were quite problematic for the tank, the factory was already preparing for mass production. The T-50 was officially accepted into service by Committee of Defense decree #1025-420s on April 16th, 1941. This was the last Soviet tank accepted into service before the start of the Great Patriotic War. The start of the war is often blamed for the tank's failure, but in reality it had a lot more problems than that.

Not the most numerous

The infantry support tank was still the most common type of tank by 1941. A fleet of 13,802 tanks of this type was authorized in peacetime and 15,872 in wartime. Seeing as how there were only 9987 T-26 tanks in service by 1941 it would appear that there was plenty of room for the T-50. However, that was only in theory. In practice, only 500 tanks were scheduled to be delivered in 1941. This was less than any other new generation tank. The T-34 was the undisputed leader. 4200 units were called for, in part to replace the convertible drive BT tanks. The KV-1 breakthrough tank came in second with 2100 units expected. Finally, 700 new T-40 tanks were expected to replace T-37A and T-38 amphibious reconnaissance tanks. 

The first order for T-50 tanks called for only 500 units. This was in part because of sufficient numbers of T-26 tanks on hand.

Factory #174 was already preparing for production while the T-50 prototypes were racking up kilometers on the proving grounds. It was clear that the tank would go into production despite a rough start, and preparations were well underway by March. In part, work had to be done to set up V-4 engine production. The difficulty with engine supplies was known ahead of time, and so the excuse of insufficient engines coming from Kharkov was a poor one. Recall that factory #174 satisfied its own requirements in T-26 engines. This was also the expectation for the V-4. However, the factory was not in any particular hurry to set up V-4 engine production.

Even though factory #174 urged the GABTU to hurry and accept the T-50 into service, it was in no rush to begin production.

According to a report dated March 15th 1941, the factory performed almost no work to set up V-4 engine production. Allegedly, this was because factory #75 did not have any documentation for this engine. In practice, everything was simpler. Since factory management knew that they were expected to build 500 tanks in 1941 and also expected 500 engines from Kharkov. Only 100 engines would be assembled at factory #174 in 1941. Furthermore, the complaints about documentation look like thin excuses. As noted by Senior Military Representative at the factory, Military Engineer 1st Class Bykov, the V-4 engine shared 80% of its parts with the V-2. The attempt to shift responsibility to factory #75 didn't fool anyone.

A fragment of the report describing the situation with V-4 engine production. As of March 15th "almost no preparations at factory #174 are being made".

The situation with other aspects of the tank was also curious. As of April 1st 1941 the Chief Designer's Department delivered 48 out of 49 blueprint groups. The limiting factor was the track link, which still had reliability issues. Meanwhile, Ginzburg's rush to put the tank into production was not supported by the factory's preparations. Out of 1400 tools needed for production, only 183 were ready by March 15th. 1100 were expected by May 1st. Factory #174 was supposed to cooperate with factory #183 and ZIS, but preparation of blueprints for tools was moving very slowly. 8th GPI (modern day Transmashproyekt, St Petersburg) was tasked with producing blueprints for tools, but did not release a single one by March 15th. The situation was also difficult when it came to stampings. Here, the factory made the situation difficult for themselves. Who could even think of engines in these conditions? On April 1st Bynkov wrote that if production ended up beginning in May-June of 1941 then the output would be only individual vehicles rather than mass production.

The T-50 was the only Soviet mass produced tank with a pair of DT machine guns in one mount. Based on descriptions of use in combat, this system performed well.

The Izhora factory poured oil onto the fire. According to Committee of Defense decree #1025-420s the factory was supposed to produce 10 sets of hulls and turrets in April and 25 in March, but not a single hull or turret was delivered by May 22nd. One could forget about T-50 production in May. The factory was being bombarded with letters that it was the limiting factor in T-50 production, but this was only an attempt to shift blame. By May 6th only 1100 out of 1538 tools were ready for production and only 289 were actually produced. 412 stamps were ready out of 539, 139 of which were produced. Factory #174 produced 739 components out of 1239, most of which were the easiest ones. 405 tools, 144 stamps, and 875 components were ready by mid-May. Attempts to blame the Izhora factory seem curious at best. In the meantime, track link trials held on May 15th failed again. The situation looked little better by early June. There were enough components to build 5 tanks by June 6th.

Situation with production by the start of July. Not a single vehicle had been delivered and the situation with preparation was less than ideal.

The contract called for delivery of 10 tanks in May and 20 in June. Only 5 tanks built in June were scheduled to have radios. One vehicle cost 298,000 rubles, just 100,000 less than a T-34. Of course the price would have been lower in 1942, but not that much lower. All of this is just theory, since the factory delivered no tanks in May and June. The situation was not much better by July 3rd. Out of 3093 items only 2815 were sent to production and 1074 were ready. 903 stamps were ready for production out of 1036 and 303 were ready. 1355 auxiliary tools were designed, 1212 were delivered to production, and 862 were finished, plus a few were taken from T-26 production lines. The assembly plant had 10 hulls and 9 turrets. Two vehicles were undergoing factory trials. They ended up with gearbox issues and needed new turret rings. Production of torsion bars was just picking up, the cooling system turned out to be raw, and there was a shortage of observation devices. Only 3 engines were available. There was no discussion of production of V-4 engines at factory #174 since spring.

A T-50 tank in production. The driver has a minimum of observation devices and not all the slots in the commander's cupola were filled either.

In face of these circumstances, the report from Lieutenant General Ya.N. Fedorenko where he plans 14,000 T-50 tanks looks rather naive. This report is often cited, but there are some nuances. First of all, 4000 of these 14,000 tanks would be delivered in 1942 and then 10,000 in 1943. In the meantime, 12,000 (4500 + 7500) KV-1 tanks and 23,000 (8000 + 15,000) T-34 tanks were expected in this time. The T-50 would not have become the USSR's main tank in any case. This was indisputably the T-34's title. It could also be clearly seen that factory #174 was struggling even with the program for 1941. Factory #37 in Moscow was supposed to become a second T-50 production line. The factory knew about this and didn't even complain at first, but the situation in early July of 1941 later showed that this plan would result in a complete production stoppage at factory #37. This resulted in the famous letter from Astrov and Okunev that kicked off the T-30 and T-60 tanks.

Openings for side observation devices were plugged.

One can confidently say that factory #174 orchestrated the catastrophic situation with the T-50 on their own. No one stopped them from organizing production of the V-4 engine on their own. A number of other aspects were neglected, which meant that even a reliable supply of engines wouldn't have helped. Major production problems could have been resolved by the fall, but what can you do when the driver's flanking observation devices were never installed? Mass production T-50 tanks had their slots welded over so that the driver could only look forward. 40 tanks were expected in July (10 with radios) but only 15 were actually delivered. 60 T-50s were expected in August (20 with radios) but only 35 were delivered before evacuation. This was the end of T-50 production in Leningrad.

Today this tank can be seen at Patriot Park.

The issues with track links were not resolved either in July or August, and so the tanks were delivered with two sets of tracks. The torsion bars were weaker than expected, the cooling system was never refined, the number of observation devices in the commander's cupola was reduced to 6. The tank's mass already reached 14 tons, but there were proposals to increase the front hull armour and front and side turret armour to 50 mm back in June of 1941. This would have increased the tank's mass to 14.5 tons and no doubt introduced additional issues with the tracks and cooling system, but this theory was never tested.

Characteristics of the T-50 by the fall of 1941. The increase in weight by half a ton would have had an impact on the temperature of the engine and track lifespans.

The title of "best light tank" awarded to the T-50 in many publications is premature. In reality, the tank was very raw and the issues with the cooling system and tracks limited further modernizations. Recall that it took a lot of effort to solve the same problems on the T-70 tank. Any attempt to install a better gun or thicker armour would have to be coupled with a new cooling system, since the existing one was working at its limit.

Just a light tank

All 15 T-50 tanks delivered in July of 1941 had radios. 14 of them were shipped off to the army by August 2nd. The first 3 tanks were sent to the LBTKUKS (Leningrad Armoured Command Training Courses) on July 16th. Factory #174 did its best to track down the fate of its tanks, so it is known how the tanks were used in the training regiment. Not a single tank of this type remained in action by August 15th. One T-50 was hit in the lower front plate and burned out, the second was stuck in a swamp and could not be evacuated, the third disappeared along with its crew during the fighting at Peleshi on August 8th 1941.

The first T-50 tank lost in battle. Vicinity of Petrozavodsk, July 1941. This tank can be seen at the tank museum in Parola Tank Museum in Finland.

11 tanks of this type were sent to the 2nd Tank Regiment of the 1st Tank Division. The first tank was sent on its own on July 21st 1941 and was lost on July 24th near Petrozavodsk. This tank (serial number K-11217) had an interesting fate. The tank was captured by the Finns and evacuated. It later received applique armour of the hull and turret alongside with the registration number Ps.183-1. This tank is now displayed at the Parola Tank Museum.

Likely a tank from the 150th Tank Brigade, October 1941. The tank was hit in the rear of the hull.

Most of the T-50s from the 1st Tank Division lasted longer. The height of their career was the defensive fighting of August 11-15th. 3 tanks burned up, 3 more were issued to the reconnaissance battalion and disappeared without a trace. 2 more vehicles were lost irreparably later, one was knocked out and evacuated. According to the information obtained by the factory, having two coaxial machine guns paid off. On the other hand, the armour was insufficient, especially the rear. There were instances of the tanks being penetrated from that angle. The tanks generally did not achieve much in these battles.

This tank was used to test camouflage paint.

The same thing happened to tanks of the 150th Tank Brigade. 9 T-50s were sent to Kubinka on August 13th, of those 8 went to the 150th Tank Brigade. This was the only batch of vehicles that did not go to a unit from Leningrad. The ninth tank stayed at Kubinka for some time where it was used to test camouflage patterns. Later, the tank ended up in the 22nd Tank Brigade, likely in that same winter camo. Just like the experimental A-20 tank that served in that brigade, its career was over in a flash. It arrived there, served, and then vanished to parts unknown.

This tank later fought in the 22nd Tank Brigade.

The situation with the 150th Tank Brigade was not too different from what happened near Leningrad. The tanks did not have a chance to show off, largely supporting other vehicles. There were also complaints about the transmission. The peak of their combat career took place in October of 1941. 4 tanks burned up, 3 were knocked out and later restored. The brigade had no T-50 tanks left by the end of the month. However, at least one T-50 (serial number K-11232) survived the fighting at Glukhovo. This vehicle ended up in Chkalov (modern day Orenburg) where factory #174 was evacuated to. It was repaired, after which it was sent to the Chkalov Tank School and later the 488th Independent Tank Battalion.

The driver of a 220th Tank Brigade T-50 tank receives his party membership.

The T-50 was used in large numbers on the Leningrad Front in the fall-winter of 1941, mostly in the 84th and 86th Independent Tank Battalions. These tanks were still encountered later, but in small numbers. By the end of 1942 the 220th Tank Brigade that the 84th Tank Battalion was a part of had 4 left. It is not known if these tanks were used in the breakthrough of the Leningrad Blockade. The vehicles are not mentioned in the brigade's documents after January 13th.

Gone but not missed

Even though T-50 production stopped after factory #174 evacuated, the tank was still in GABTU's plans. For starters, the T-30 and T-60 small tanks produced at factory #37, GAZ, and others were still not a fully fledged replacement for the T-50. Second, the T-50's chassis was still considered promising for SPGs. Even in late 1941 when it was clear that the tank was in trouble there were still 1500 units planned for 1942: 600 with radios and 900 without. The GABTU initially planned for 5000 tanks in September of 1941, but it was clear that the plans had to be scaled back.  Compared to the T-60 these numbers are still a drop in the bucket.

Proposed simplified T-50 turret with flat plates and no commander's cupola.

T-50 production was pitched to plants in Barnaul and Kurgan in addition to factory #174 in Chkalov. Barnaul would also become home to a V-4 production facility. Finally, factory #173 was organized in Omsk, subordinate to factory #174. Hull production was also organized, including involvement of factory #180 in Saratov. The span of production plans was indeed huge. In the meantime, work on simplifying and modernizing the tank continued. Tanks produced in Chkalov would have stronger road wheels. There was also a proposed turret without a cupola. Production in Chkalov ended up starting, although not without issues. 9 tanks went through QA by December 23rd and 6 were accepted. The shortage of components was already being felt. Of course, the engines were the main limitation, but there was also a shortage of gearboxes. There was also another issue that many do not consider when evaluating the viability of the T-50 tank. ChKZ was one of the main contractors involved in T-50 production, and it had its hands full with KV-1 production. A choice had to be made between the KV-1 and another tank with an uncertain future. Meanwhile, T-60 production was well underway and factory #173 could be repurposed to build a more powerful tank. It is not surprising that Stalin signed GKO decree #1114ss "On cessation of T-50 tank production in connection with start of T-60 production and preparation of the Omsk Locomotive Repair Factory for T-34 production".  

Stalin personally sealed the T-50's fate.

Formally, the T-50 was replaced by the T-60 with tougher armour. Ginzburg opposed this decision with a torrent of letters, but they were useless. There was no objective reason left to keep the T-50 in production. Factory #174 delivered 10 tanks in December of 1941, 8 tanks in January of 1942, 5 in February, and 2 in March. T-50 hulls left over at factory #180 were used to make armoured sleds. The Chkalov-built T-50s and three repaired tanks ended up in the 488th Independent Tank Battalion. The battalion fought in the North Caucasus as of October 1942.

Tanks produced in evacuation looked like this. The road wheels with ribs are the most distinctive feature.

The battalion did not distinguish itself either, but the tanks from this unit had a wild history. These were the longer surviving T-50s. 10 tanks of this type were located at BTRZ #66 in Tbilisi by early 1944. Another tank was already repaired. A number of these tanks were returned to service, but no longer fought. One of the tanks from the 488th OTB survives to this day. This is the only T-50 in Russia, the T-50 tank with serial number K-11232 that also fought for the 150th Tank Brigade. The tank was restored to running order at Patriot Park.

Record of the T-50 tanks at BTRZ #66 in Tbilisi. The T-50s stayed here the longest.

In conclusion, one can say that in many ways the T-50 was simply unlucky. The start of the war shattered all plans for production. The tank was far too raw in 1941 and needed another year to refine it. A large part of the fault lies with factory #174 that had a strange approach to organizing production. Finally, despite all of the T-50's virtues, it was the odd tank out by the start of 1942. The T-60 had many flaws, but it didn't take away from resources used to build T-34 and KV tanks like the T-50. For example, the factory in Barnaul earmarked for building V-4 engines build V-2s instead. Using up ChKZ's resources at an inopportune time was unlucky indeed. Using factory #174 to build T-34 tanks was the correct decision. This tank was a lot more useful. However, the idea of a T-50 analogue came up again and again, although without any notable results.

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