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Fire in the Steppe:
The T-35 Land Battleship, Part 2

While the T-35 heavy tank made for an impressive parade vehicle, from its earliest days Red Army officers doubted its combat potential. T-35 crews reported constant problems with the engine, suspension, drive train and cooling system, and as a result no parade ever mustered more than 20 of the big vehicles, with most of them featuring far fewer.

Fixing those problems proved difficult, as the politics of the time demanded that they be blamed on deliberate sabotage by enemies of the people. A number of the engineers and managers who should have fixed them were arrested and imprisoned or even shot. Western writers, particularly popular historians, have blamed much of the Soviet Union’s pre-war weakness on “the Great Purges,” and while there’s truth to that, it’s usually also overstated. Many of those purged certainly did not deserve the harsh penalties they faced, but neither did they need to remain in their positions due to incompetence, poor motivation or the widespread alcoholism that marked Soviet society.

One of the early proposals to improve the tank involved replacing its 560-horsepower gasoline engine with a new-mode diesel that could put out 800 horsepower. Others involved centralized fire control, to help the tank commander direct the fire of five separate turrets. But the Red Army’s Automotive and Tank Directorate determined that a re-design of the T-35 would not be cost effective due to its paltry numbers and limited mobility.

In 1937, the Directorate ordered a half-dozen improved machines, with additional armor, a stronger suspension, greater gasoline stowage and re-designed conical turrets. They finally rolled out of the factory in early 1939. The design bureau suggested further improvements, including adopting the 76.2mm L10 tank cannon carried by late-model T-28 medium tanks, but the Directorate overruled the designers, telling them that the 45mm secondary guns gave adequate protection against enemy tanks and the KT-28 was sufficient for attacking soft targets.

But the 76.2mm divisional gun was already falling out of favor with the Main Artillery Directorate, as directives to increase the firepower of light artillery battalions could not be carried out without increasing the size of the guns. In November 1937 chief artillery designer V.N. Sidorenko proposed development of a new 95mm piece to replace the venerable 76.2mm, the mainstay of Imperial Russian and Soviet field batteries since the turn of the century.

In February 1938 the Main Artillery Directorate ordered drawings of the proposed artillery piece, and a month later two plants began constructing competing prototypes. The first prototype was complete by November 1938, but did not enter testing until February 1940. The Main Artillery Directorate had already decided to go with a larger piece, which became the 107mm M1940. That would give the Red Army a light artillery piece in the same class as the German 105mm, and provide substantial anti-tank capability against the thickly-armored tanks the Soviets believed the Germans to be developing. And the Red Army already fielded 107mm pieces, which would simplify ammunition production as compared to the completely-new 95mm caliber.

Before the project’s cancellation, the design team also sketched a version that could be mounted in a tank. Similar to the KT-28, a shortened version of the 76.2mm Model 1927 field gun, the F39 tank gun would be a shortened version of the F28 95mm divisional gun. It had considerably better performance against armor than the KT-28, and lobbed a high-explosive shell just slightly more than double the weight of the 76.2mm round.

A proposal to upgrade the T-28 with the new weapon appears to have prompted design of the tank-mounted version, which would have greatly increased the fighting power of the medium tank. The T-28 and T-35 shared the same main turret, so the weapon would have been available to upgrade the gigantic land battleship’s armament as well. The turret probably would have needed an increase in size, and the new gun would have needed a version of the hydraulic system that limited the recoil of the KT-28.

The new weapon would have greatly enhanced the new-model T-35 proposed by the Kharkov Locomotive Works’ design bureau. Improved armor, mechanical reliability, engine speed and the fitting of a much more powerful cannon would have made the T-35 a more formidable opponent, but would not have altered its fundamental weaknesses. It still presented a huge target to enemy gunners, it remained very slow even with its proposed new engine, and the tank commander still had to coordinate a crew of a dozen men operating five separate turrets.

Thanks to the compartmentalized nature of the Red Army’s bureaucracy, the designers in Kharkov likely remained unaware that other design teams in Leningrad had drafted their own replacements for the T-35. The T-100 and SMK heavy tanks drew heavily on the T-35, but carried only two turrets, one for a 45mm anti-tank gun and another, elevated turret with the new 76.2mm L11 gun (which would also arm the early versions of the T34/76 medium tank). On their own initiative, the design team at Kirovski Works also drafted a version of the SMK with only the main turret, and this tank – known as the KV-1 – became Stalin’s choice for the Red Army’s standard heavy tank.

Our Golden Journal Number 25, a new-model small magazine-style publication, includes these proposed T-35 revisions, in battalion strength. There’s the T-35B with the initial improvements proposed by the Kharkov bureau: the new 800-horsepower diesel engine, better armor design, new conical turrets and stronger suspension. It makes for a tank that’s a little faster in game terms, but otherwise not any different than the version found in Fire in the Steppe (where the T-35’s mechanical shortcomings mostly manifest themselves in the tanks not showing up on the battlefield at all).

And there’s a full battalion of the more-powerful T-35C. This tank has the 95mm F39 tank gun, giving it much-enhanced firepower against both armored and soft targets. It also has thicker armor, which still leaves it more vulnerable to enemy fire than the T-34/76 or the KV-1, but at least gives it an edge over the older models or the T-28 medium tank.

Rounding out the set are four examples of the T-28C, with the same 95mm F39 as the T-35C and improved armor protection. It becomes an effective infantry-support tank in this guise, and very effective against any of the German panzers in the game. And there are four platoons of SMK heavy tanks, one of the proposed successors to the T-35.

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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.