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Fire in the Steppe:
Soviet Tanks, Part One

When Nazi aggression brought war to the Soviet peoples in June 1941, the Red Army of Workers and Peasants had more tanks in its inventory than any other army on the planet; possibly as many as all the rest combined.

These tanks had heavier armament and thicker armor than those behind the Nazi blitzkrieg, yet proved unable to stop the Germans. Poor maintenance, poor tactics and poor leadership all combined to hamstring the powerful Soviet tank force.

In Panzer Grenadier: Fire in the Steppe the Soviet arsenal includes a huge array of vehicles. Here we look at just a few of them; those designed and produced under the Revolutionary War Council’s 1931 effort to create a large and modern armored force. The council identified four types of vehicle: a small infantry-support tank that could be produced in huge numbers; a fast cavalry tank; a medium support tank to provide artillery support; and finally a huge “land battleship” to break through enemy fortifications. All of them remained in the Red Army’s arsenal when the Hitlerites attacked a decade later.


Helmsman of the Soviet Peoples

Josef Stalin’s January 1931 speech regarding the First Five-Year Plan addressed his country’s defense needs. With Japanese troops pouring into Manchuria, war in the Far East seemed imminent. The Red Army would repel the invaders using the most modern techniques and weapons.

“We refuse to be beaten!” Comrade Stalin ordered. “One feature of the history of the Old Russia was the continual beatings she suffered because of her backwardness. ... All beat her — because of her backwardness, military backwardness, cultural backwardness, industrial backwardness, and agricultural backwardness.”

The First Five-Year Plan, launched in 1928, accelerated even faster when the Sixteenth Party Congress called for “The Five-Year Plan in Four Years” in the summer of 1930. Massive effort resulted in rapid industrialization and great expansion of heavy industry: including hugely increased production of armored vehicles. What is noteworthy about these tanks is their modern design (for the time) and the ability of Soviet industry to begin pouring out hundreds of them within months of the Red Army placing its orders.

Vickers, the British armaments conglomerate, introduced its “Six Ton” tank in 1928. Hundreds of them were exported to countries ranging from Bolivia to Thailand, and licensed versions were built in Poland, the United States and the Soviet Union. The British Army, however, did not adopt the tank.

The Revolutionary War Council accepted the vehicle as the T-26 in February, 1931 and ordered it into series production before testing was even complete. They liked its simple design, which would allow production in multiple factories using existing equipment, and relative ease of maintenance. They found its low speed acceptable for an infantry support vehicle, although even when new the T-26 had a tendency to break down.

The earliest versions carried only machine guns, in small twin turrets, but in 1932 a new model appeared with a single turret carrying a 45mm gun. This became the standard, and by 1936 over 5,000 had already been built. Over 300 of them were shipped to Spain for use in the Spanish Civil War, and others were exported to China and Turkey.

Experience in Spain led to a re-design, and the T-26S (sometimes called the T-26C or T-26 Model 1937) had a conical turret designed to deflect shellfire. This is the vehicle depicted by the T-26 game piece; the handful of 1932 models still in service in 1941 did not have sufficiently different characteristics to warrant their own piece and available records don’t distinguish between them in the Soviet inventory.

T-26 tanks armed only with machine guns appear on the inventories of several Soviet tank divisions involved in the Brody-Dubno tank battles, but these were relegated to training purposes by 1941. Many were not even mobile, and few if any appear to have seen actual combat.

Along with the Vickers tank, the Revolutionary War Council had also purchased two examples of the American engineer W.J. Christie’s T-3 fast tank. They ordered their own version, to be known as the BT-2, into series production in May 1931.

Like the British Army, the Red Army sought two types of tank: one for infantry support and another to equip fast cavalry-like formations. The BT series had great speed on its tracks, and these could be removed to allow it to run on its wheels alone at even greater road speeds. Unlike most of the world’s tanks, which were steered by levers changing the relative speed of each track, the BT series had a steering wheel like an automobile. Each of the road wheels had a hard rubber tire; but the ability to run directly on them meant each also had its own suspension. This made maintenance a nightmare for the crew, and the BT broke down early and often.

The BT-2 met its speed requirements, but Soviet tankers found the turret cramped and its 37mm gun weak. In 1933 a new version appeared, the BT-5. This tank had the same turret as the T-26 Model 1932, with a 45mm gun. The BT-5 saw action against the Japanese in 1939, and 64 of them went to Spain.

The BT-5 appears in Fire in the Steppe. Only a few of these remained in service, mostly with the tank regiments of mechanized and cavalry divisions rather than the tank divisions. A number of the tank divisions stationed in Central Asia and the Far East that came to the front in July and August 1941 still had this vehicle.

In 1935 the BT-5 gave way on the production line to the BT-7, a very similar tank. The BT-7 had a new welded turret; the earliest handful had the old cylindrical turret but soon a conical one designed to deflect shells took its place. The BT-7 also had a welded hull, thicker armor and a new, more powerful engine. They still had insufficient protection for the battlefield of 1941, but appeared there in large numbers. They remained in production until 1940, when the new T-34 took their place.

The Revolutionary War Council had a busy 1931; along with the Six-Ton and Christie samples they also tested the Vickers 16-ton Medium Tank Mark III. Designers at the Kirov Works produced a similar tank, but unlike the T-26 or BT-2 this was not a direct copy of the foreign model.

The T-28, first appearing in early 1933, was to provide artillery support to the Red Army’s tank forces. It had a short-barreled 76.2 mm gun in a wide turret, and a pair of machine guns in separate turrets as well. To aid in the support mission, unlike Soviet light tanks every T-28 medium tank had a radio. The Kirov Works produced just over 500 of them between 1933 and 1940, and they equipped the Red Army’s heavy tank brigades. Some of the last models had the same L-11 tank gun as the early models of the T-34.

These tanks did not go to other countries, but did see significant action in the Winter War against Finland and in the 1941 campaign.

The Revolutionary War Council also tested two samples of the Vickers “Independent” tank, a 32-ton monster with five turrets. The British vehicle had five turrets: one with a 47mm gun, the other four each bearing a machine gun. Soviet designers went much further, building a tank with a 76.2mm short-barreled gun in a central raised turret, two turrets (the same as those on the T-26 Model 1933) with 45mm guns, and two more (identical to those on the T-37 tankette) with machine guns.

The T-35 weighed 45 tons and had a crew of 10. The Kharkov Locomotive Works built 62 of them in 1935, and six more improved versions in 1939. The T-35 served in the showpiece 5th Heavy Tank Brigade stationed in Moscow, and rumbled through the city during military parades. During the 1940 reorganization this became part of the 34th Tank Division. The 34th Tank Division fought in the Brody-Dubno battles. A handful of other T-35 tanks attached to armored training schools also fought the Germans in 1941. The T-35 is the coolest-looking tank ever built there are three of them in Fire in the Steppe.

Soviet tank designers continued in their fascination with multi-turreted tanks. In August 1938 the State Defense Committee directed the Kirov Works to develop a new heavy breakthrough tank to replace both the T-28 and the T-35. Engineer S.J. Kotlin put three proposals in front of Comrade Stalin later that year: the T-100 and SMK (Sergei M. Kirov), each with two turrets, and the KV (Klimenti Voroshilov), with one. Stalin liked them all and allowed development to proceed on all three.

The SMK had a 76.2mm gun in a raised turret, and a 45mm gun in a smaller turret in front of the large one. The SMK had sufficient armor to keep out 37mm shells, and did so during testing against the Finns in the Winter War. But the KV proved much superior in those same tests, and was ordered into series production instead.

The SMK does not appear in Fire in the Steppe. The KV, a mainstay of the Soviet tank force in the Great Patriotic War, belongs to the wartime generation of Soviet tanks and we’ll cover that beast in Part 2.

You can order Fire in the Steppe right here.

Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.