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Soviet Tanks, Part III
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
December 2014

The Red Army of Workers and Peasants began the Great Patriotic War with a number of new armored vehicle designs just starting to roll off factory assembly lines. The 1940 program included light, medium and heavy tanks, with some signal faliures (the T-40 light tank), some mediocre performers (the KV heavy tank) and the outstanding T-34.

The T-34, soon to be world-famous as the “Hammer of the Proletariat,” outclassed anything the German invaders had in their arsenal. It was faster, better armed and better protected than any tank in the world. But the Soviet technological brain trust knew that they would have to keep improving their weaponry as the Germans strove to upgrade their own tanks. Light tanks had suffered enormous losses during the first years of combat, yet the Red Army continued to receive them by the thousand. Soviet tractor and truck factories had been designed for rapid conversion to produce combat vehicles, but many of the lighter assembly lines could not accomodate the big T-34 chassis and were only suitable for smaller tanks.

Rubber Mallet of the Proletariat. The T-70 light tank.

The T-60, hurriedly designed in 1941 and rushed into production, suffered from a number of flaws, chiefly a weak main armament (a 20mm automatic cannon). The Astrov design bureau began work on a replacement almost immediately, and by April 1942 had the T-70 ready for production. The T-60 chassis and basic layout were retained, including a turret offset to the left. The 1938 model 45mm tank gun was fitted in a small one-man turret, forcing the tank commander to also load and fire the weapon — an extremely inefficient arrangement.

Over 8,000 T-70 light tanks were issued to the combat forces before production stopped in late 1943; another 120 T-80 models with a two-man turret appeared in late 1943. The production lines then converted to more useful light self-propelled artillery. Those tanks still in the inventory continued to be used right up to the end of the war, but they were steadily replaced by T-34 models or Lend-Lease Stuart tanks.


While the Red Army stopped the German offensive at Kursk cold in its tracks in the summer of 1943, they accomplished this only at an enormous cost in casualties. The Fifth Guards Army alone lost 377 tanks on a single day of combat. New German tanks designed to fight the superior Soviet vehicles had entered the battlefield and shown themselves greatly superior to the T-34: the PzKpfw V Panther, the PzKpfw VI Tiger, and even the old PzKpfw IV upgraded with a long-barreled 75mm gun could now destroy the T-34 from outside the Soviet tank’s effective range. Red Army generals did not want to see their fanatically brave crews reduced to ramming German tanks with their own outclassed vehicles.

Hammered by the proletariat. A T-34/76 speeds past a destroyed German PzKpfw IV.

In August 1943, the Defense Committee of the People’s Commissariat directed that future models of the T-34 would carry an 85mm tank gun. The Krasnoye Sormovotank factory designed a new, enlarged turret but the new 85mm gun suffered a series of developmental delays. The new weapon was finally approved in January 1944 — six weeks after the tank had been formally accepted by the Red Army. About 100 early models carried the 85mm DT-5 gun intended for the KV-85 and JS-1 heavy tanks, but this compromise proved unworkable as this weapon required a much heavier mount. Over 29,000 models with the new ZIS-S-53 85mm guns were produced by the end of the war.

As redesigned, the T-34/85 gained less than two tons over the 1943 model T-34/76 and lost only a slight edge in speed though it exerted somewhat more ground pressure. The hull was identical to the older model, but the larger turret and its overhang made the tank an easier target for German gunners. But tank crews considered these disadvantages more than offset by the bigger gun: the ZIS-S-53 fired a round half again as heavy as the 76.2mm F34 tank gun, and with far greater effect. Where the older weapon could penetrate 69mm of armor at 500 meters, the new one was credited with punching through up to 110mm. It had greater range and yet maintained the same rate of fire.

The T-34/85 equipped the vast majority of Soviet tank units in the last year of the war and proved an extremely deadly weapon. It would soldier on for many years after the war as well, seeing action in Korea, the Middle East and elsewhere.

The T-34/85, the weapon that won the Great Patriotic War.

Soviet doctrine included heavy tanks, a category that had proved a consistent disappointment in the war’s early years. The T-35 had been slow, poorly protected and poorly-armed; the KV-1 introduced in 1940 had excellent protection but was also painfully slow and carried the same 76.2mm main armament as the T-34.

In 1942 a new model of the KV appeared with thinner armor, which improved its speed somewhat. But what the tank truly needed a heavier cannon to fulfill its breakthrough role. In late 1943 the new cast turret for the JS-1 heavy tank, with the DT-5 85mm tank gun, was fitted to about 130 late-model KV hulls and sent to the front as the KV-85. Some were still in action in 1945, but the KV-85 was only a stop-gap solution while the new J.V. Stalin series came into full production.

At the same meeting where the T-34 was ordered upgraded to carry an 85mm gun, the Defense Committee of the People’s Commissariat approved a new heavy tank to enter production as quickly as possible. N.F. Shashmurin’s design bureau had started work in the spring of 1942. As new data on German projects became available, the design specifications grew. This vehicle should carry a bigger gun than the T-34/85, one able to out-range German anti-tank guns and defeat the armor of the huge Tiger tanks. It should itself be protected against the long-barreled 75mm gun of the Panther and the dreaded 88mm gun, and if not as fast as the T-34 it should at least show better performance than the KV.

Sledge Hammer of the Proletariat. The Red Army’s JS-2 heavy tank.

Shashmurin drew heavily on the KV, but gave his tank much better protection in part with better armor distribution and in part by widespread use of casting techniques, especially for the turret. Improved gearing helped balance increased weight; the tank had the same 600 horsepower engine as the late-model KV. Designed around the new 85mm DT-5 tank gun, the JS-1 failed to provide an increase in firepower over the T-34/85 when it entered service in the fall of 1943 and the design team worked frantically to provide a bigger gun while the first 100 models went to the front with the 85mm weapon.

The D-25 T tank gun was an adaptation of the 122mm artillery piece. It fired a much larger shell than the 85mm gun, with somewhat better armor-piercing capability. The first models rolled off the assembly lines at Chelyabinsk in January 1944, and a month later they were in action. By the end of the war almost 4,000 had been produced. Most served in heavy tank regiments assigned to tank corps. The JS-3, an improved model with better-designed armor and the low-slung, thickly-armored “frying pan” turret that would become a standard feature of post-war Soviet tank design, appeared in the spring of 1945 but did not see combat against the Germans.

The T-70, T-34/85, KV-85 and JS-2 all appear in Road to Berlin, some of them in very large numbers. Both players command large forces of the period’s heaviest tanks, and JS tanks get to challenge Germany’s Tiger II several times.

Take on the Tiger! Click here to order Road to Berlin.

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.