Boris Kavalerchik, tank expert and author of the Journal of Slavic Military Studies article ‘Once Again About the T-34’ has published a book on ‘The Tanks of Operation Barbarossa’.
When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 the Red Army had four times as many tanks as the Wehrmacht and their tanks were seemingly superior, yet the Wehrmacht won the border battles with extraordinary ease the Red Armys tank force was pushed aside and for the most part annihilated. How was this victory achieved, and were the Soviet tanks really as well designed as is often believed? These are the basic questions Boris Kavalerchik answers in this absorbing study of the tanks and the tank tactics of the two armies that confronted each other at the start of the war on the Eastern Front. Drawing on technical and operational documents from Russian archives, many of which were classified until recently and are unknown to Western readers, he compares the strengths and weakness of the tanks and the different ways in which they were used by the opposing armies. His work will be essential reading for military historians who are interested in the development of armoured warfare and in this aspect of the struggle on the Eastern Front.
Q&A with Boris Kavalerchik
The author was kind enough to answer some of my questions.
1) How did you become interested in WWII history and why did you decide to write a book on Soviet vs. German tanks during the 1941 campaign?
I've been reading and collecting books and magazines about all kinds of military hardware since I was 12 years old. In college, I had to go through military training and become a tank platoon's commander in reserve, so my knowledge of tanks became much deeper and more practical than before. After a while I started to realize that military hardware is nothing without the people who use it, and I began to pay much more attention to military history.
The Great Patriotic War has always had special importance for people of the USSR, where I used to live. Many of my relatives, including my father, fought in that war, and some of them were KIA. Naturally, I have heard and read a lot about these historic events and become quite interested in them. Eventually, I co-authored a book about the Soviet Union and Germany's preparations for WWII, as well as that war's beginning. Tank warfare played a very important part in determining the outcome of these battles, so I decided to dedicate a separate study to this subject. That is how my book came to life.
2) What new information have you uncovered that differentiates your book from other similar studies?
In the USSR, only officially approved historians had access to the state archives. Moreover, their work had to go through government censorship and could only support the official point of view on history, which very often was far from reality. After the collapse of the Soviet Union all archives gradually became open to regular people who were interested in events from the past. More and more original archival materials began to be published and even became available online. As a result, I managed to find a lot of information which was classified until recently and had been generally unknown, especially to western readers.
This information allowed me to reach quite different conclusions in comparison to widely held beliefs about Red Army's tanks during WWII based on old Soviet propaganda. As a mechanical engineer, I also analyzed and compared Soviet and German tanks from a purely technical standpoint, but from rarely used angles which as a rule got neglected. The results struck me as very unusual and I hope they will be of interest to my book's readers.
3) Do you think that WWII era armored vehicles truly played a decisive role in combat operations or has their contribution been exaggerated due to the ‘coolness’ factor?
I think that a very important role in WWII was played not by armored vehicles themselves but by armored forces which included not only tanks but motorized infantry, artillery, combat engineers, anti-tank and anti-aircraft units, and so on. Moreover, as a rule, armored forces fought successfully only in combination and cooperation with other services and branches of the armed forces. Tanks do have the ‘coolness’ factor, so many people mistakenly take them for wonder-weapons, capable of independently deciding the outcome of any battle. In reality, this is not the case. Nevertheless, tanks were a very significant part of the armed forces of all participants of WWII.
4) In your opinion what are the worst mistakes that popular history books make regarding German and Soviet armored vehicles and the Eastern Front in general?
In my opinion, some authors of popular history books mistakenly judge people of previous generations and their armored vehicles from today's point of view using modern criteria. Every tank, without exception, has both positive and negative aspects. In order to determine them it is necessary to know the purpose and objectives of these tanks, which were not the same in all countries or in all periods of time. So, before criticizing any tank from the past, one should determine why it was designed and built the way it was. After understanding all factors which influenced tank design in a particular time and country, we can judge these combat vehicles much more objectively.