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
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
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
“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
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
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
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
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
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
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.