Tanks, Part III
By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
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.
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
Rubber Mallet of the Proletariat. The
T-70 light tank.
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
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
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.
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
The T-34/85, the weapon that won the
Great Patriotic War.
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.
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.
Sledge Hammer of the Proletariat. The
Red Army’s JS-2 heavy tank.
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
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.