Friday 25 November 2022

Firebreathing KV from Chelyabinsk

Flamethrower tanks were not a rarity in the Red Army. Work on chemical tanks began in the early 1930s. Initially, they were meant to deploy chemical weapons, but “universal” chemical tanks appeared soon after that. The first of them was the KhT-26, a vehicle on the T-26 tank chassis that could fire both poison substances and flame. As a result of trials, the flamethrower mode became the priority. The KhT-26 was succeeded by the KhT-130 based on the single turreted variant of the tank. The last variant was the KhT-133, the same vehicle but based on a T-26 with a conical turret and sloped turret platform sides. The last tanks were delivered in 1940 when the concept of a “universal” chemical tank had already died. The requirements for flamethrower tanks also changed.

The KV-8 formed by the end of November of 1941 alongside the KV-7.

The experience of using chemical tanks showed that the concept had many drawbacks. In addition to a short range of the flamethrower, a lack of main gun proved to be a problem. The flamethrower could be a secondary weapon, but not a primary one. Starting in 1940, development switched to tanks with flamethrowers in the hull and a cannon in the turret. There were several variants developed, but it ended up on the upper front hull. The gunpowder flamethrower developed by factory #174 by a group led by I.A. Aristo. The flamethrower was supposed to be installed in the T-34, KV, and T-50, but flamethrowers in the T-34 and KV-1 were incredibly rare in 1941. At this point work on flamethrowers split. The T-34 and KV-1 had their own approaches to the flamethrower.

A prototype was ready by the end of December of 1941.

The chaos of 1941 and production difficulties limited the production of flamethrower KVs. The evacuation of the Kirov factory in September of 1941 also had a negative effect on production. Nevertheless, the idea of a KV with a flamethrower didn’t go anywhere. The image of a different flamethrower tank began to form by the end of 1941. The tank designated KV-8 with a blueprint index 228 was a partial return to the KhT concept, at least when it came to the location of the flamethrower. The tank was accepted into service with the Red Army on January 6th, 1942.

The tank was built in such a hurry that factory trials were never held.

No detailed records of the KV-8’s creation survive, but some information is available. ChTZ (later ChKZ) was supposed to begin production of flamethrower KV-1s in December of 1941 on orders from People’s Commissar of Tank Production V.A. Malyshev. History took a different turn. Despite quite disordered application of the flamethrower KV-1s in the 124th Tank Brigade, some information percolated up to the brass. It turned out that a flamethrower in the hull has many drawbacks. Mobility of fire was quite low, and thus ChKZ’s leadership proposed creating a different kind of tank. Considering that Zh.Ya. Kotin was simultaneously Malyshev’s deputy and the chief designer at ChKZ, the proposal was approved. It was also backed by ChKZ’s director, I.M. Zaltsman. Work on the KV-8 began in November of 1941 and the project was officially approved on November 23rd. Aristov played a direct part in this work, since he evacuated to the Urals with factory #174. He had to work on two fronts, since the T-34’s ATO-41 flamethrower was alive and well. While the T-O34 did not change its concept, the KV-8 was drastically different from its predecessor.

The vehicle was presented on January 5th, 1942.

The flamethrower moved up to the turret, to the right of the gun. The gun caliber had to be changed to 45 mm, but a large tube covered the gun barrel to make it look like a 76 mm F-32 gun. The firepower was not as high, but it was still better than just a flamethrower. The DT machine gun also remained. The crew was reduced to 4 men since the turret also kept two flamethrower fuel tanks. A third one was located on the floor of the fighting compartment. The commander now had to double as the gunner. In total, the tank carried 90 shots for the ATO-41 flamethrower, 85 rounds for the 45 mm gun, and 47 DT machine gun magazines.
Diagram of the KV-8 flamethrower. Take note that this is only the experimental tank and the final version was different.

The KV-8 was developed in a hurry and start of production was planned soon after the prototype was presented. The prototype was ready in late December and shown at factory #8’s proving grounds in Mytishi on January 5th, 1942. A commission led by Voroshilov inspected the tank. The KV-7 assault tank was shown at the same time. While Stalin’s triple barrelled idea failed trials, the KV-8 earned a different verdict. Further correspondence indicates that the design was found to be very raw. There were issues with the flamethrower (including fuel leaking into the tank), but the trials were not a failure. A special flamethrower fuel mix achieved a range of 90 meters, which was enough. On the next day, Stalin personally signed GKO decree #11100ss to accept the KV-8 into service with the Red Army. The first 10 tanks were planned in January of 1942 and 50 more in February.

Stalin personally signed the KV-8’s way into production.

It was no secret in Chelyabinsk that the prototype was unfinished. The tank was sent to Moscow without any trials, and so work on improvements began before it was shown to Voroshilov. Aristov was the senior engineer on this project as well. The flamethrower mounting was changed. A mantlet was added that was not present on the experimental tank. The turret was also improved and refuelling ports were added. They can be clearly seen in photos, although they are often missing in scale models. A plug to drain the tanks was also added in the floor. The changes were not massive, but the 228 that went into production had some differences.

The production mounting.

There was opposition to the tank’s design. For instance, the GABTU received a letter from Engineer-Major Simonov on January 6th, 1942, who proposed changing the tank further. His idea was a return to the old concept with a hull flamethrower. The proposal was quickly rejected. Nevertheless, the existing tank was not without issues. The factory failed to produce the 10 tank pilot batch. The prototype was being improved in parallel with development of documentation. The first stage of improvements was only finished on January 20th, but the rest of the work was only completed in February. The first two production tanks were only finished by February 7th, but delivery took longer. Even if everything went according to plan, there was another issue. Factory #222 finished production of flamethrowers in October of 1941 and evacuated. As of February 1942, ChKZ had only 8 flamethrowers on hand.

In practice, KV-8 production began only in April of 1942.

ChKZ signed over these two tanks in February of 1942, but they were not shipped out. Factory #222 received letters from Chelyabinsk with demands to improve the ATO-41. Trials showed that changes to the nozzle, piston, exhaust valve, etc. were necessary, 8 items in all. It is not surprising that production of the ATO-41 stalled in these conditions. Even though factory #222 was feverishly working to set up production in Toguzak, only 10 flamethrowers were sent to ChKZ in March of 1942. Meanwhile, 300 KV-8 were expected in Q2 of 1942. Every tank brigade was supposed to have 5 KV-8s, in other words every other heavy tank needed a flamethrower. This was simply impossible. In addition, factory #222 complained about the low quality of cast parts arriving from ChKZ. 50 flamethrowers were built in April, but only 14 of them were earmarked for the KV-8 and only 8 were actually shipped.

The main reason for a small production run was the shortage of flamethrowers.

Production of the KV-8 fell far short of the GABTU’s plans. The two tanks signed over in February was counted for March. Production of flamethrower KVs began to look decent only in April. 22 flamethrower tanks were delivered in the first month of the second quarter, 26 in May, 13 in June, 18 in July, 21 in August. There were no tanks actually planned for August, but they were put together from a parts backlog. The KV-8 was produced during the most difficult time for Soviet industry. For example, only 7 tanks out of the 22 delivered in April had a radio and only 13 out of 26 in May.

KV-8 tank #43 from the 507th battalion. The tank got stuck during an attack.

Rather than the typical distribution to tank brigades, the tanks were sent to independent flamethrower tank battalions formed according to TO&E #010/366 introduced in May of 1942. The battalion consisted of 10 KV-8s, 9 T-O34, and two ordinary T-34s. Three battalions (506th, 508th, 509th) went to form the 235th Flamethrower Brigade in September of 1942. The KV-8’s combat debut took place that month.

The Germans pulled it out some time later.

6 battalions left for the Volkhov Front. Three of them (500, 502, 507) were included in the 8th Army and two (501, 503) into the 2nd Shock Army, although the 503rd is sometimes reported as a part of the 8th Army. All of these battalions took part in the Sinyavino operation. This operation also saw the debut of Tiger tanks. The two 502nd battalions, the Soviet one with KV-8s and German one with Tigers, narrowly missed one another near Tortolovo.

This tank found its final destination.

This was not the best place to use flamethrower KV tanks. The area was swampy, with little cover. Flamethrower battalions fought alone without cooperation with tank brigades. Infantry was assigned to cover them, but they had their own interpretation of their orders. Reconnaissance also worked creatively. On September 6th, 1942, the 507th battalion was tasked with clearing a small forest designated “Kruglaya”. Reconnaissance reported that the area was held only by German infantry. In fact, it contained a German gun battery that freely opened fire on tanks that had no artillery support of their own. As a result 5 tanks out of 8 burned out. The infantry also misused their tanks, splitting them out one by one and sending them out in front. The 500th battalion suffered most from the first “tactic”, the 502nd from the other.

A KV-8 tank from the 235th Flamethrower Brigade.

As a result of these battles, the 500th battalion lost 7 KV-8 tanks (5 burned), the 502nd lost 6 (all burned), the 507th lost 6 (2 burned, 2 knocked out, 2 stuck). At least one tank from the 507th was captured by the Germans, evacuated, and sent to Kummersdorf.

Despite the mixed results in these first battles, the concept of an independent flamethrower battalion was deemed successful. Despite their issues, the tanks carried the weight of an offensive in a very difficult theatre on their shoulders. Both the KV-8’s design and its organisation earned praise. However, it was noted that these tanks need cover from regular tank forces. The “fire breathers” showed themselves exceptionally well in attacking settlements. The requirement for more tanks was given, but production of KV-8 tanks had ceased. The KV-8S was an even rarer vehicle. The typical flamethrower tank operated by the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War was the T-O34.

KV-8 flamethrower mount. Its fate is unknown, perhaps it was installed on the replica tank in Verkhnaya Pyshma.

The second half of 1942 was the decline of the KV-8. Heavy losses made these vehicles quite rare. Not a single whole vehicle survived, but fragments of one were found some time ago. Their current status is unknown.

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