Monday 24 June 2024

Experience in the Far East

Soviet tanks and SPGs during the Battle of Lake Hasan and its impact on Soviet tank development

Battle is the main stimulus for development of tank armament and protection. No matter how much technology evolves during peace, only war will give a proper measure of its effectiveness. A conflict where tanks was used could be analyzed to show where to go from here. Even small conflicts like the Rif War yielded valuable experience for its combatants.

T-26 crews near Lake Hasan, summer 1938.

Soviet tanks first saw battle in the fall of 1929 during the East China Railroad Conflict. The experience gained there was minimal. Spain was a much better lesson, as Soviet T-26 and BT tanks were used fairly intensively. Experience in using the T-26 in late 1936 and early 1937 in Spain gave a lot of material for Soviet tank designers. Other local conflicts were also valuable. For instance, the events at Lake Hasan that erupted 85 years ago were the first time where the Red Army used its tanks and SPGs against a peer enemy.

Heavy localized fighting

The Battle of Lake Hasan did not begin out of nothing. Having occupied Manchuria and created the Manchukuo puppet state, Japan continued to escalate in the Far East. The situation began to worsen in the spring of 1938. The USSR actively helped China, with whom Japan was at war. Light T-26 tanks supplied to the Chinese performed better than their Vickers Mk.E in battle. Meanwhile, Japan was preparing for an outright confrontation with the Red Army. Raids and border skirmishes began to happen more and more frequently. 

Marshal V.K. Blucher and the "Mikheev Crew" T-26 tank, 1937.

The situation within the OKDVA (Special Red Banner Far East Army) was far from ideal. Marshal V.K. Blucher became complacent since his victory at the East China Railroad. There were also scandalous incidents, including the defection of Commissar G.S. Luschkov to the Japanese on June 14th, 1938. Two weeks later, on July 1st, 1938, the OKDVA was reformed into the Far East Front. A skirmish took place at the Bezymyannaya hill on July 15th, and on July 24th Blucher committed a rather strange action. He took a trip to the Zaozernaya hill and demanded that a portion of the trenches and fortifications built there be removed. This cost the Marshal his position and, later, his life. On August 3rd, command of the Front was handed over to G.M. Stern, the former Chief of Staff. 

A classical image of camouflaged T-26 tanks near Lake Hasan.

Soviet infantry fought without tanks at first. However, the 2nd Independent Mechanized Brigade (OMBr) was called up on July 24th. Since it was camped 30 km from its winter quarters where all the tanks were stationed, it took them the rest of the day just to get to their vehicles. Preparations lasted for another five days. According to reports, it was lazy and disorganized to the point where brigade commander Colonel V.G. Burkov was arrested on July 28th and his place was taken by Colonel A.P. Panfilov. Burkov was lucky to escape repression, as his actions looked suspiciously like sabotage. This change of command had an impact on the brigade's cohesion and the march on July 29th and July 30th was hardly exceptional in terms of organization.

The famous song "Three Tankers" is based on the three-man crew of T-26 and BT tanks.

The T-26 (including 10 KhT-26 chemical tanks) was the most common type of tank to fight around Lake Hasan. Aside from the 2nd OMBr, the T-26 was used by the 32nd OTB of the 32rd Rifle Division and 40th OTB of the 40th Rifle Division. In addition to T-26 tanks, the 2nd OMBr had BT-5 and BT-7 tanks, including BT-7 Artillery tanks. The brigade also had SU-12 (SU-1-12) and SU-5 SPGs. The first tanks to see battle were actually the T-26es from the 40th Rifle Division, but they ended up in a swamp. Five T-26 tanks from the 2nd OMBr were left in the same swamp. Later, the brigade's second tank battalion was attached to the 40th Rifle Division and the third to the 32nd. Most BT tanks were held in the reserve of the 39th Rifle Corps.

The BT-7 Artillery made its debut at Lake Hasan.

The battles of August 6th were the culmination of tank warfare. According to Stern's instructions, the T-26 was used for its primary purpose: infantry support. This had an effect. With tanks, the 32nd Rifle Division moved towards Bezymyannaya and the 40th towards Zaozernaya. The third battalion left behind 14 T-26 tanks either in a swamp or because the tracks slipped off. Despite these losses and bad organization, the tanks reached the sloped of the Bezymyannaya hill by 8 pm. The 47 tanks from the third tank battalion were not so lucky. Many were stuck in the swamp, where they were fired upon. A commission from factory #174 that later studied the tanks found that most knocked out T-26es were stationary in the swamp. 17 tanks returned from battle after August 7th (some damaged), the rest remained in the swamp. Some crews remained in their tanks and continued to shoot. A reconnaissance battalion of 16 BT tanks also made a poor appearance. 11 tanks got stuck in a rice field near Zaozernaya.

A T-26 tank destroyed in battle.

The 2nd OMBr lost 42 T-26 tanks and 7 BT-7s. 8 were irreparable losses. Stalinets S-60 tractors showed themselves well during evacuation, while the Kommunar often bottomed out. Some sources give 85 lost tanks, but these are likely all tanks for the battle, including damaged ones. Despite the disorganization, the appearance of tanks had an effect. Japanese forces were expelled from Soviet territory and fighting ended on August 11th.


The results of the fighting that took place between July 29th and August 11th gave a lot of food for thought. It turned out that the battle performance of Soviet units, including tank units, was insufficient. This was true both for crew training and cooperation with infantry. However, it would be wrong to assume the worst. Poor cooperation between tanks and infantry was a problem for most armies of the world and persists to this day. Something reasonable is usually set up once battle experience is gained, but these abilities are lost in time and everything starts again.

A T-26 tank refurbished at factory #105 in Khabarovsk.

The most interesting conclusions for us were the ones made regarding the use of armoured vehicles, and not just tanks. Soviet SPGs first went into battle at Lake Hasan. For example, the 2nd Tank Battalion of the 2nd OMBr had a battery of two SU-12 (SU-1-12) and 2 SU-5. Overall, the brigade had 15 SU-5. The SPGs did not perform very well, especially the SU-12. Crews complained that it made a big target. The situation was worsened by the fact that the cab and engine were not armoured. The GAZ-AA's engine was too weak and the pneumatic tires quickly wore out. Crews proposed replacing them with solid tires.

The SU-12 was criticized heavily for its size, lack of armour for the front and rear sections, and a weak  overheating engine.

The SU-5 performed better, but it was also criticized. The engine was too weak, which resulted in poor off-road mobility, and it could take hours to start up in winter. The layout made the vehicle difficult to maintain and the driver's compartment heated up. When firing, the vehicles gave leaks of water and fuel lines. Intensive fire could shatter the lightbulbs or even bend the armour. There were also complaints about the suspension and the onboard ammunition capacity of just 4 shots was deemed completely insufficient.

The SU-5 SPG got its share of feedback.

The BT-7 and BT-7 Artillery earned the least ire. Most of the complaints were about the sights. Keep in mind that the BT only saw limited use at Lake Hasan, but its armour was described as superior. The same was noted at Khakhin-Gol.  

The commission notices 12 instances where turrets were torn off their turret rings.

The T-26 was the focus of the investigation. A group of engineers from factory #174 was sent to the Transbaikal region after the battles died down. They studied the damage to the tanks and helped with repairs. 35 T-26 tanks were delivered to the Kaganovich factory #105 in Khabarovsk for repairs. No vehicles with slipped tracks were counted, meaning that all tanks in this batch were destroyed by enemy fire.

The armour of the T-26 was not rated as highly as the BT-7.

The most interesting conclusions were made before factory #174's engineers even arrived in Khabarovsk. Brigade commander Krivoshein who was already responsible for analyzing the lessons learned in Spain composed a far reaching report by September 1st, 1938. There were some conclusions regarding the tactics and the design of the vehicles. The topic of shedding tracks was closely addressed. It is no accident that the T-26 instruction manual published after this battle had a separate section on it.

Variants for a turret platform with sloped sides.

The report stated that it was necessary to improve the tank's front armour, especially the driver's hatch. Losses were common among drivers, especially in early variants of the tank. Just like the engineers from factory #174, Krivoshein suggested making the sides of the turret platform sloped. Other improvements included ventilation and vision devices (the picture was tinted green whereas it should have been clear). Krivoshein suggested carrying 10-15 grenades in the tank for close defense.

Evacuation hatches were added to the floors of Soviet tanks.

The most interesting novelty was mentioned as a result of the great traffic jam in the swamp. Some crews had to spend several days in their tanks, which had not happened before. A hatch was introduced in the floor of the tank. Officially, it could be used to throw out spent brass and for evacuation of the crew. Less officially, the main reason for its appearance was to allow the tankers to carry out their bodily functions. The "hatch of heroes" was introduced on all tanks still in production after the battle. Production of T-26 tanks with sloped turret platforms began in 1939.

Special directions were developed to show how to drive a T-26 tank without losing a track.

Factory #174's commission also made some interesting conclusions. They concluded that a tank would need at least 30 mm of armour to protect from fire. This number was based on German penetration data. Next year's engagement at Khalkhin-Gol showed that even this was not enough. The Kwantung Army had a large number of anti-tank guns that had no problem with even 30 mm thick plates. Nevertheless, it was Lake Hasan that finally convinced Soviet tank designers that all tanks must have armour proof against at least light cannons.

Original article by Yuri Pasholok.

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