Wednesday, 24 May 2023

The Last of Stalin's Robots

Unfortunately, museums frequently mislabel their own exhibits. The biggest problem with that is an incorrect information from a museum label is going to propagate. For example, Kubinka seriously thought that they had two BA-6 armoured cars, even though one was actually a BA-3M. The collection of the Patriot Park museum which used to be displayed at Kubinka has many downright unique exhibits, some of which were also misidentified. For example, this tank is called OT-130, but that is not the case.

TT-26 tank as displayed today.

In reality, the tank currently displayed in the pavilion depicting the war against Japan is the only surviving TT-26 teletank. This tank was once the subject of Yuri Pasholok's volunteer painting team. Let us tell the tale of this unique tank with a unique combat history.

The sign says OT-130, despite what the museum's own records say.

Work on teletanks began in the USSR in 1929. Analysis of experience in the First World War coincided with the start of work on remote controlled tanks. The first trials were conducted in February of 1930 with a Renault FT tank and REKA-1 equipment. The tank was successfully driven remotely for 16 minutes. The next stage in these experiments was the T-18 (MS-1) target tank with MOST-1 equipment. The first trials of the equipment developed by the TsLPS (Central Laboratory of Wired Communications, director L.F. Shorin) were conducted in March-April of 1930. This stage of development consisted of both fine-turning experimental radio equipment and the requirements for production teletanks.

The tank is illuminated from below.

Further work resulted in a solution typical of Soviet teletanks. The concept of a telemechanical group was introduced in 1933. It contained a teletank (TT) and control tank (TU). The RKKA NIISEM (Signals and Electromechanics Scientific Research Institute) also joined the work. Since the T-18 was taken out of production in 1931, work on teletanks moved to its successor: the T-26. The work was first conducted on ordinary tanks, but later the KhT-26 chemical tank was used. It could fight perfectly well even under remote control.

The teletank is displayed across from its Japanese adversary.

Active use of teletanks in training began in 1933. Training exercises tested both the Pirit family of control devices and tactics of teletanks. At this stage, it was already decided that the teletank equipment should be removable, turning the tank into an ordinary T-26. NIISEM equipment turned out to be quite good, especially since it used the regular 71-TK radio to control the tank. A decision to concentrat development in the Moscow branch of the OsTechBuro was made in May of 1934. On September 8th, 1937, this branch was renamed NII-20. NII-20 became the leader in teletank development. A fully fledged telemechanical group with TOZ-6 equipment entered trials even earlier, in 1935.

Ordinary T-26 tanks were converted into TT-26 teletanks.

Successful trials opened the way to tanks built for combat. The tank display at Patriot Park is one of them. A number of mistakes were made in its history which migrate from publication to publication. For instance, photos of the the experimental KhT-130 are often passed off as a TT-26. The TT-131 teletank also looked similar. Unlike the TT-26, which had a regular T-26 turret, the TT-131 had a turret similar to the KhT-130 tank. The equipment was also different. The TT-131 and TU-132 had the improved TOZ-8 remote control gear. 35 TT-26/TU-26 groups were delivered in 1936-37 and 30 TT-131/TU-132 were delivered in 1938-39.

Summer 2007. The tank is in the middle of being repainted.

Officially, the "T-26 TOZ-6" were accepted into service by Labour and Defense Council within the Council of Commissars of the USSR on February 25th, 1937. By that time, most of the TT-26/TU-26 had already been issued. This was not production from scratch like the TT-131/TU-132, but conversion of regular T-26 tanks to command tanks and teletanks. The equipment for telemechanical groups was produced at NKSP factory #192. The TOS (Tekhnika Osoboy Sekretnosti, Technology of Especial Secrecy) equipment, which is another codename the TOZ went under, was very expensive. It cost 175,000 rubles, more than the two T-26 tanks it went into (80,000 each).

The painted tank and its prototype.

The telemechanical groups were initially issued to heavy tank brigades, but a decision was made to compose independent teletank battalions. This happened as the TT-131/TU-132 entered production, so the battalions were mixed in composition. There were two battalions in total: the 217th inside the 30th Light Tank Brigade and 152nd in the 36th Light Tank Brigade. It was difficult to master the equipment, which resulted in some curious decisions. For example, the 152nd battalion was used during the Polish campaign as a regular light tank battalion, without teletank equipment.

Teletanks of the 217th battalion looked like this in the winter of 1940-41.

Teletanks were only used as intended in the Winter War. The TT-26 that survives to this day also took part in it. At the time, the vehicles of the 217th Teletank Battalion were painted in 2-colour camouflage. According to documents, the battalion lost 6 teletanks irreparably during the war. These tanks were used in reconnaissance, in part to uncover minefields. The 152nd battalion was once again used as an ordinary tank battalion.

Flamethrower fuel drainage pipe. The camouflage applied in 2007 is peeking out from under the "army green".

The 217th Teletank Battalion was reformed into the 51st Independent Tank Battalion based in the Moscow Military District (Mytishi). It was used to test new developments from NII-200. The results of using these tanks were mixed. The communications range was short and there was interference from power lines. The T-26 was also not the chassis of choice by the start of the Great Patriotic War. There were plans to begin converting T-50 tanks, but the war got in the way. In any case, after spending 100 million rubles on teletanks, the result was still quite slim. For this reason, the appearance of German Borgward B-IV tankettes was met with understandable skepticism. 

KS-2 flamethrower today and in 1940.

The 152nd Teletank Battalion of the 19th Tank Division was lots in the Voinitsa-Lutsk region in the summer of 1941. The fate of the 51st Independent Teletank Battalion was different. As of July 1941, it had 28 TT-26/TT-131 teletanks and 21 TU-26/TU-132 control tanks. Orders to use them as ordinary tanks were given in the fall of 1941. According to reports from the fall of 1943, the battalion was stationed at Ryazan and managed to preserve its materiel. It was disbanded in October of 1943. By 1945, 4 TT-26/TT-131 and 6 TU-26/TU-132 were on record at the NIBT proving grounds in Kubinka. One TT-26 and one TU-26 survived. The latter can be seen at the Central Museum of the Armed Forces in Moscow. It had no teletank equipment and the turret was the same, so it was labelled OT-130 (in reality, KhT-130, since it was classified as a chemical tank).

Two antenna cups: a clear sign of a teletank.

Since the TT-26 were converted from regular T-26 tanks, they have some differences from chemical tanks. First of all, a regular T-26's turret is shifted to the left of center, not the right. The ventilation fan on the turret platform remained in place. The smokescreen device characteristics of chemical tanks is also missing. The presence of a drainage system on the right side of the hull and the opening in the rear is also a distinguishing feature of the hull. This is the same system used on KhT-26 and KhT-130 tanks. The hull was still riveted, even if the Izhora factory was already building welded hulls by 1936.

Fighting compartment of the TT-26 as of 2007.

There were also minimal changes to the turret. The 45 mm gun was extracted and a KS-2 flamethrower was installed. Some sources claim that this was a KS-25, but that flamethrower was only installed on the TT-131. Another distinguishing feature in the turret is the presence of two antenna cups. Otherwise, the turret is the same as any other T-26 turret built in 1934-37. Today the flamethrower is partially disassembled. It used to have the same cap as the one on the KhT-26 at the Museum of National Military History.

A 400 L flamethrower fuel tank made the commander's station uncomfortable.

Since the TT-26 was designed for remote control, the work of the sole crewman in the turret was difficult. The need for more comfortable working conditions led to the design of the KhT-130 and its KS-25 flamethrower. The commander/gunner stood in the center of the fighting compartment. It was difficult to work with the aiming mechanisms. However, it's important to remember that the tank was operated by hand only in an emergency. In regular operation, the human was replaced by a more compact control mechanism. The crew only sat inside on the march and chased away enemy infantry with the machine gun,

The commander sat here during travel.

A big difference of the TT-26 from the KhT-130 was the presence of a single fuel tank for the flamethrower. It was located in the left rear corner of the fighting compartment, causing additional discomfort for the commander. The same 400 L fuel tank was used on the KhT-26. This was enough fuel to make 40 shots to a range of 30-35 meters. The fuel was launched with compressed air. Three air tanks were used, the same as on the KhT-26.

The same compressed air tanks were used on the T-26.

The driver's station was the same as for a regular T-26 with a cylindrical turret. The remote control equipment did not impede his work. The "robots" of the day were quite simple and could only perform basic functions, which is why a human drove the tank outside of combat. Only minor changes were introduced to mount the teletank equipment.

Driver's station.

A volunteer painting team completely stripped and repainted the tank in 2007. It was painted with the camouflage scheme that tanks from the 217th battalion carried in 1940. The sand yellow spots were off, but the green was based on the original paint preserved by layers of newer paint. Today the tank is painted in random markings that it never had in real life and stands in the Japanese pavilion. Perhaps some day the museum will learn about the history of their own tanks.

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