Friday 30 December 2022

The Elusive Maus

Great Britain and the USSR actively exchanged information on the enemy during WWII. The USSR even shared its trophies, for instance, Panther and Pz.Kpfw.III Ausf.L tanks captured in the USSR were sent to the UK. However, these relations soured after the end of the war and the exchange of information ceased. As both experimental Maus prototypes ended up in the hands of the Red Army, the British had to collect scraps of information on this tank across their occupation zone. How well did British investigators do and how truthful was the information they collected?

The Final Squeak

The Maus is first mentioned in the DRAC (Director, Royal Armoured Corps) Technical Intelligence Summary for May 1945. The description is rather brief:
“Developments in German tank design appear to have been mainly limited to the super-heavy class. Three equipments falling under this heading have so far been examined as follows:
Maus (Mouse). This is a tank with an estimated weight of 200 tons mounting a 12.8 cm Kw.K.82 (L/55) and a co-axial 7.5 cm Kw.K.44 (L/36.5) in a turret with 360° traverse.”
The summary also described the E-100 tank and Grille SPG, but there was likewise little information on those vehicles.

 Officers of the 1st Polish Armoured Division and three sets of Maus armour parts, Krupp proving grounds in Meppen.

Monday 26 December 2022

British Carrier as a Soviet Tractor

There is a common misconception that tankettes disappeared by the mid-1930s. On the contrary, some nations (for example Japan) continued to produce these vehicles even during WW2. There is also a question of classification. Tankettes were multipurpose vehicles. Their initial purpose was a machine gun carrier. The first Carden-Loyd tankettes didn't even have a roof for the gunner and driver. This classic British tankette evolved into a vehicle that some call an APC. In reality, this was a machine gun carrier that had a few seats in the back (like the T-27 tankette, for example). This means the most produced armoured vehicle in history is, in fact, a tankette. This would of course be the Universal Carrier. 113,000 units were built during its time in production, which is about as many as all Medium Tanks M4 and T-34s put together.

The Universal Carrier carried 2 crewmen plus 4 riders in the back. In practice, as many as 6 could fit in the back.

Thursday 22 December 2022

All the King's Horses

The heaviest mass produced tank of WWII appeared on the Eastern and Western Fronts almost simultaneously. Unlike the Tiger, which the Western Allies had a taste of in Africa, and the Panther, information on which was available from the USSR, the forces that landed in Normandy on D-Day had to go into battle against the “King Tiger” blind. How did the Western Allies learn about the last member of the German “Big Cats”?

Bits and pieces

The Panzerkampfwagen Tiger Ausf. B saw its first battle on July 18th, 1944, in France. Two tanks from the first company of the 503rd Heavy Tank Regiment were knocked out. In addition, one tank fell into a bomb crater and got stuck there. Despite being aware of a “new mark of Tiger … having a sloping sided turret and hull” as early as May of 1944, the British learned very little from these knocked out vehicles, if anything at all. Judging by the somewhat inaccurate description of a new 66.4 ton Tiger tank with the 8.8 cm KwK 43 cannon described in the September 1944 edition of the A.F.V. School Gunnery Wing Information Bulletin, any available information was collected from intelligence sources rather than from the knocked out tanks. Even this limited information was more than what the Americans obtained. The head of the American military mission in the USSR, Major General John R. Deane, sent a request to Lieutenant General Lebedev, the head of the Red Army Main Directorate of Armoured Vehicles (GBTU) on October 4th, wishing to know more about the new enemy tank. Judging by the fact that Deane used neither the official index of the tank nor its commonly used nickname, but the term “Tiger Imperial”, the Americans had precious little information about the vehicle.

Photograph of the King Tiger tank from the January 1945 issue of the Intelligence Bulletin magazine. The photograph is annotated with the thickness of the tank’s armour plates.

Tuesday 20 December 2022

The AA Tank That Came Too Late

The story of a SPAAG on the T-60 chassis that was not fated to enter mass production.

SPAAGs were a sore spot of the Soviet tank design program. It’s not that there weren’t any of them by the start of the Great Patriotic War, but they looked nothing like what was originally envisioned. A class of SPAAGs on tank chassis was conceived and such vehicles were even built. The best example would be the SU-6, a SPAAG on the chassis of the T-26 light support tank. It was even accepted into service with a pilot batch built, but mass production never came. Development of SPAAGs on light tank chassis continued. The T-50 chassis was considered a candidate for a SPAAG, armed with either a pair of MP-6 23 mm auto cannons or a 37 mm 61-K. The actual result was quite sad: two experimental SPAAGs on the T-26 chassis were built in Leningrad and that was it. Mechanized units were covered against air attack by a variety of systems on a truck chassis.

The GABTU considered the installation of a T-90 turret on the T-60 to be a quick fix.

Further work went down the road of creating a universal chassis using T-60 tank components. The chassis was developed under code 31 at factory #37 in Sverdlovsk. The prototype designated SU-31 was quite a good vehicle for its time. The 37 mm 61-K auto cannon was an effective weapon against enemy aircraft. However, work dragged on and factory #37 was rolled into UZTM. Instead of the T-70, it was used to build T-34 tanks. Meanwhile, a German airplane was shot down in late June of 1942. A report was found on board detailing the trials of a Henschel Hs 129A ground attack aircraft. Its 30 mm MK 101 gun could penetrate even the armour of the KV-1 tank. The news that SPAAGs on truck chassis had poor off-road mobility were also bad. The combination of these factors gave rise to the idea of building AA tanks.

The SPAAG only entered trials in July of 1943. Compare this arrival to the due dates in the GKO decree above.

Saturday 17 December 2022

Tank Archives is now on Mastodon

With the current migration away from Twitter, I decided to cover all my bases and open an account on Mastodon. The content there will be similar to what I already post on Twitter, but the added benefit of a much longer character limit. See you there!

Friday 16 December 2022

Tougher Armour

 "Order of the People's Commissar of Tank Production #562s

July 31st, 1942

The meeting called by the People's Commissariat of Tank Production in Moscow on the topic of improving quality of hulls produced from high hardness armour reviewed and approved the draft technological process guidelines for all stages of armoured component production and hull welding presented by the 3rd Main Directorate of the NKTP. In order to rapidly bring these processes to production and improve the quality of armour and armoured hulls, I order that:

  1. Directors of the following factories: UZTM (comrade Muzrukov), #200 (comrade Sochivko), #264 (comrade Suvorov), #112 (comrade Rubinchik), #183 (comrade Maksarev), #174 (comrade Katsnelson), #176 (comrade Fedotov), #177 (comrade Volkov), #178 (comrade Skiba), #180 (comrade Orlov), #37 (comrade Frezerov), and #38 (comrade Yakovlev) must develop production instructions based on the approved technological process guidelines and send them to the 3rd Main Directorate of the NKTP after approval by the factory chief engineers. Develop all instructions within ten days of receiving this order or no later than August 15th of this year.
  2. Factory directors must provide the 3rd Main Directorate of the NKTP with reports on the quality of armour plate and armoured hulls with reports of rejected components by reason of rejection.
  3. Factory directors must keep in mind the necessity of highlighting the importance of quality assurance at every stage of production as well as the strengthening of laboratories and metallurgical departments.
  4. Director of TsNII-48 A.S. Zavyalov must:
    1. Compose and publish a list of minimal technical qualifications for workers of all specialties that are connected to production and finishing of armour within one month.
    2. Compose and publish directions for engineering-technical workers connected to production, finishing, and welding of armour within two months.
  5. Directors of all factories must compose a list of minimal technical qualifications for all technical processes among foremen, foremasters, and technologists. Put all welders and cutters through exams. Only permit welders and cutters with appropriate diplomas to work on armour.
  6. Director of factory #183 comrade Maksarev must order his design bureau to work on the T-34 hull with the aim of reducing the amount of welding, components welded onto armour, change in dovetails, reduction of the welding seam length within possible limits. Check these developments with NII-48.
Deputy People's Commissar of Tank Production, Zernov"

Monday 12 December 2022

A Shortage of Guns

Practice shows that processes in the army that flow slowly tend to rapidly accelerate after the first combat engagements. This observation applies to the German SPG program. The Germans began working on these vehicles in the second half of the 1920s, but achieved very little by the start of the Second World War. This was in part due to unrealistic expectations, particularly in the case of tank destroyers. The Germans army dreamed of high speed tank destroyers with a fully rotating turret on a halftrack chassis. Such vehicles were even built, but only as prototypes and small production batches. As a result, the Germans quickly had to build tank destroyers out of whatever was available after the war began.

Vehicles of the 128th Tank Destroyer Battalion. The vehicle in the front is the best known conversion of a Pz.Kpfw.II tank carrying a 50 mm Pak 38 gun.

Friday 9 December 2022

Well Fed Sherman

In 1942 the British asked the Americans to develop a tank based on the Sherman with improved armour. The Americans gave them the Assault Tank T14, but didn’t take much interest in the idea themselves. However, the idea of such a tank returned in 1944 and eventually culminated in the M4A3E2 or Sherman Jumbo.

Assault tank in a hurry

Until 1944 the American army was certain that the ordinary Sherman was more than capable of facing German medium tanks. Sure, the Germans had Tigers and Panthers, but based on experience in Africa and Italy these dangerous tanks were very rare. Nevertheless, the Americans decided to play it safe and develop a heavily armoured tank. It was clear that the Heavy Tank M6 was not suitable for battle and the Medium (future Heavy) Tank T26 would not be ready until the end of 1944 at the latest. US Army Ground Forces command proposed three temporary solutions in February of 1944.

The first idea consisted of a basic Medium Tank M4 with thicker armour. An extra 2 inches (50 mm) was welded to the front and 1 inch (25 mm) to the sides. This kind of modernization took 200 man-hours to complete and increased the weight of the tank by 6870 lbs (3.1 tons). This conversion could be performed in a field workshop.

An M4A1 Sherman with additional armour drives past a knocked out Pz.Kpfw.IV. This kind of additional armour was installed in field workshops and its design varied from vehicle to vehicle.

Wednesday 7 December 2022

Panzerfaust Usage

 "To commanders of formations and units of the 1st Mechanized Krasnograd Corps
Copy to: 37th MBr

Recent battles showed that the enemy is using "Faust" grenade launchers against our tanks and SPGs. In street fighting they are used against infantry, firing positions, etc.

When the enemy retreats, the "Fausts" are left behind in large amounts in working condition and can be used to combat enemy tanks, SPGs, personnel, and objects fortified for long term defense.

However, most commanders do not allocate the necessary attention to collecting, storing, studying, and using this simple and highly penetrating weapon.

Monday 5 December 2022

The Doomed Victorious AA Tank

The T-90 AA tank developed by the Molotov GAZ factory that won the tender but never entered mass production.

The situation in Soviet tank production changed radically in the second half of 1942. The experience in 1941 and the first half of 1942 clearly indicated new priorities. It was clear that T-34 production had to increase, as this tank turned out to be the optimal combat vehicle. It had the necessary mobility, decent armour, and powerful armament. The T-34 was often the only tank that could move cross-country in later 1941 and early 1942. The KV-1 was too heavy and the T-60 was too weak. The T-70 light tank that appeared in early 1942 was better than the T-60, but Soviet leadership had no illusions about it. It was clear by the spring of 1942 that the T-70 would not be built at as many factories as the T-60 was. The situation was difficult in the summer, and a decision was made to even spin up T-34 production in Chelyabinsk at the cost of decreasing KV production. Additionally, a decision to build the T-34 in Sverdlovsk at the site of the former factory #37 was made. Only two factories remained for the T-70: the Molotov GAZ in Gorky and factory #38 in Kirov. They would also have been used for T-34 production, but they proved unsuitable.

Status of the work on AA tanks at the GAZ as of September 1942. AA tanks on the T-60 and T-70 chassis are mentioned. In reality, they only worked on the future T-90.

Front line experience in 1942 showed that the decision to change priorities was correct. The first use of the T-70 tank revealed that it had issues when it came to crew comfort and, most importantly, armour. This was not a surprise. The age of light tanks was coming to an end, and the Germans also ceased production of these vehicles in the summer of 1942. Soviet light tanks clinged on for longer, but it was clear that their time had come. This did not mean that light vehicles would disappear altogether. The chassis of light tanks was necessary for the creation of SPGs, which were not obsolete until the very end of the war. Self propelled guns with powerful armament than the tank they were based on were in demand at the front, which experience proved time and time again as the war went on. The development of Soviet self propelled artillery did not differ much from the path it took abroad, even considering that the first SPGs went into production in the summer-fall of 1941 (including SPAAGs).

The T-90 tank prototype, September 1942.

Friday 2 December 2022

Americans at the Right Place, at the Right Time

The first foreign tanks sent to the USSR as military aid arrived in the fall of 1941. These were British Matilda III and Valentine II tanks. They arrived in time to briefly take part in the defensive fighting of late November-early December of 1941. It's hard to say that they played a key part, but it would be incorrect to dismiss their contribution. The situation with American tanks was similar. They first convoy arrived at the end of December of 1941, but shortages of ammunition and other problems delayed their debut to May of 1942. It is often said that the 114th Tank Brigade achieved almost nothing at Kharkov, but that is not correct. The American tanks took part in the offensive on Chepil, which temporarily penetrated the encirclement. An evacuation was organized thanks in part to Soviet tankers fighting in American tanks.

Tanks of the 258th Independent Tank Battalion before battle, early September 1942.