Fire in the Steppe:
The T-35 Land Battleship, Part 1

During the brief period of military cooperation between the Soviet Union and Weimar Germany, a team of German armored vehicle designers worked on a heavy breakthrough tank for the Red Army. They produced a sophisticated prototype, but the cooperation ended before this project came to fruition.

Instead, the Red Army’s Directorate for Motorization and Mechanization directed the design bureau attached to Leningrad’s Bolshevik factory to prepare plans for a 35-ton breakthrough tank of its own. The new vehicle should have great firepower and be able to engage both “soft” targets and enemy tanks, and most importantly its production should be within the current capabilities of Soviet industry. Handed a six-month deadline, the shock workers of the design bureau had their prototype in hand only 20 days late, a remarkable achievement.

The new tank, designated T-35, had five turrets much like a British design known as the Independent, viewed by a Soviet delegation in 1930. The rounded main turret, raised above the others, mounted a short-barreled 76.2mm gun. Two turrets, one fore and one aft, each mounted a high-velocity 37mm gun; next to each a turret of the same size carried a single machine gun. Uniquely for the time, the tank’s glacis (front) plate was sloped to increase its relative thickness. Six medium-sized road wheels drove the tracks on either side.

Testing did not favor the new tank, and the design bureau – now made independent of the factory – produced a new prototype. At the direction of Josef Stalin himself, for ease of production the revised tank would have the same main turret as the T28 medium tank. It also received a new engine, transmission and gearbox.

Those changes improved performance enough to generate a production order, and in June 1933 the second prototype went to the Kharkov Locomotive Works to serve as the template for series production of ten copies of the new vehicle. The engineers there apparently took the tank and the plans enclosed with it as a suggestion, and re-designed the tank. The main turret remained – Stalin’s input could not be overridden – but they replaced the secondary turrets with those from the BT5 light tank. That led to more changes, to the hull shape and length, which in turn required another pair of road wheels on each side. And the machine-gun turrets had to be re-designed.

The two T-35 prototypes parade through Moscow.

Kharkov Locomotive Works assembled the T-35 from nine separate modules, several of them delivered by sub-contractors. The modules did not always fit together, and severe production problems arose when one of the contractors provided armor plate that was too thick and did not fit in the space allotted. The factory could not obtain the special steel specified for the tracks, and substituted a different type so the tracks snapped easily. The engine easily overheated and the gearbox cracked. The factory made its deadline, however, and provides six of the impressive machines for the 7 November 1934 parade in Moscow. All of them, plus the two prototypes, made it to the end of the parade route without breaking down.

Production continued at a slow pace, and as reports came back to the factory from field-testing by the mechanized troops, the engineers made alterations. Most of these seem to have been unofficial, and did not apply to every tank built. Photographic evidence shows that very few T-35’s were identical; almost every one of them varied in some detail.

The high point of T-35 output came in 1936, when 15 machines were delivered. In mid-1937 the State Defense Committee demanded an increase in protection, including new conical turrets – the same order went to producers of other tank models. Design work went very slowly; many of the engineers and draftsmen had been imprisoned or executed during the Party purges. Kharkov Locomotive Works finally built six of the upgraded machines in 1939, ending the T-35’s production run at 61 tanks (plus the two prototypes). Keeping with the pattern of earlier production, some of these machines had machine guns at the rear of their turrets, some did not, and some had a slightly different turret design. The six late-model T-35’s had a stronger suspension to help bear their increased weight, but retained the same inadequate engine.

A heavily-retouched photo of a 1939-model T-35, also on parade.

The huge tank had a crew of a dozen men. In keeping with Red Army practice, all had to be very short, to fit inside the cramped vehicle. The commander, a senior lieutenant, rode in the main turret where he helped load the main gun and also fired the machine gun. A gunner and radio operator rode with him. Each 45mm turret had two men, and each machine-gun turret one. Finally a navigator, driver and mechanic rode in the control compartment located forward. Several of the men doubled as maintenance technicians; the formal table of organization recognized this need speaks volumes to the tank’s mechanical unreliability.

Initially all of the big tanks went to the 5th Heavy Tank Regiment, soon re-designated the 5th Independent Heavy Tank Brigade. Stationed in Kharkov, the brigade maintained a rigorous training schedule which likely did little for the durability of its T-35 tanks. Every November, the brigade shipped a small number of its tanks (usually no more than 10) to Moscow for participation in the annual parade to mark anniversary of the October Revolution. The big tanks also went to other Soviet cities to roll along in parades, often appearing in Kiev.

The 5th Heavy Tank Brigade had no infantry or supporting arms, just three tank battalions, a training battalion (eventually spun off into a separate 3rd Heavy Tank Brigade, a training unit) and a maintenance battalion. In the spring of 1939 the brigade moved to the Kiev Special Military District, taking up station in Zhitomir and a new designation as 14th Heavy Tank Brigade.

In the summer of 1940, a commission studying Soviet tanks split on its recommendations for the T-35. One suggestion would have converted all of the hulls into heavy self-propelled artillery, the other would have parceled out the tanks at one or two per tank regiment to lead military parades and otherwise remain out of action. In the best bureaucratic tradition, the Red Army ignored both suggestions and instead kept the T-35 in service.

In March 1941 14th Heavy Tank Brigade provided the cadre for the new 34th Tank Division; some sources indicate that 5th Heavy Tank Brigade did so as well but these were the same unit. Third Heavy Tank Brigade, the T-35 training establishment, probably was folded into the division as well.

A T-35 in winter camouflage, trailed by an early-model T34.

Thirty-Fourth Tank Division concentrated all of its T-35 tanks in the 1st Battalion of the 67th Tank Regiment, with 51 KV-1 heavy tanks equipping the 1st Battalion of the 68th Tank Regiment. The division’s other six tank battalions operated a mixture of T-34 and BT tanks. Forty-eight of the land battleships were available for action when the Germans attacked on 22 June 1941, with two of them in Moscow, six at the Saratov and Kazan tank training schools, and five at Kharkov Locomotive Works undergoing heavy maintenance.

We’ll look at proposed upgrades to the tank in Part Two.

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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.