Thursday, April 3, 2014

Some thoughts on Soviet tank reliability in WWII

The Eastern front was the largest land campaign of WWII and millions of soldiers fought and died there in the period 1941-45. Although infantry dominated the fighting both sides used a large number of tanks and armored vehicles and these played a big role in breakthrough operations. Most historians focus on the ‘paper’ characteristics of tanks and the production statistics however a very important aspect of complex weapon systems is their reliability and kill/loss ratio. In the East the Germans were always outnumbered but the exchange ratios were in their favor. I’ve often wondered of how much that has to do with poor reliability of Soviet equipment.

Here is something I read recently from ‘Moscow to Stalingrad: Decision in the East’ by Earl F. Ziemke, in page 363:
Active as it was, the Soviet armor was apparently not giving fully satisfactory performance at this stage, and in early August, it became the subject of the following Stalin order:

‘Our armored forces and their units frequently suffer greater losses through mechanical breakdowns than they do in battle. For example, at Stalingrad Front in six days twelve of our tank brigades lost 326 out of their 400 tanks. Of those about 260 owed to mechanical problems. Many of the tanks were abandoned on the battlefield. Similar instances can be observed on other fronts. Since such a high incidence of mechanical defects is implausible, the Supreme Headquarters sees in it covert sabotage and wrecking by certain elements in the tank crews who try to exploit small mechanical troubles to avoid battle.’
Henceforth, every tank leaving the battlefield for alleged mechanical reasons was to be gone over by technicians, and if sabotage was suspected, the crews were to be put into tank punishment companies or "degraded to the infantry" and put into infantry punishment companies.'"

Were the problems really caused by sabotage and wreckers? Apparently not, since captured T-34 tanks used by the Germans in summer 1944 had the following problems:
Regardless of our limited experience, it can be stated that the Russian tanks are not suitable for long road marches and high speeds. It has turned out that the highest speed that can be achieved is 10 to 12 km/hr. It is also necessary on marches to halt every half hour for at least 15 to 20 minutes to let the machine cool down. Difficulties and breakdowns of the steering clutches have occurred with all the new Beute-Panzer. In difficult terrain, on the march, and during the attack, in which the Panzer must be frequently steered and turned, within a short time the steering clutches overheat and are coated with oil. The result is that the clutches don't grip and the Panzer is no longer maneuverable. After they have cooled, the clutches must be rinsed with a lot of fuel.

Also T-34 tanks captured by the Americans in Korea (built in 1945) continued to suffer from the same issues. According to Zaloga’s ‘T-34-85 Medium Tank’, p21-22
An analysis of a T-34-85 captured in Korea by the American tank producer Chrysler, conducted in 1951, provides a good assessment of the T-34- 85……………………. The study, found the following negative features about the tank:…………………………………. Wholly inadequate engine intake air cleaners could be expected to allow early engine failure due to dust intake and the resulting abrasive wear. Several hundred miles in very dusty operation would probably be accompanied by severe engine power loss.' The report was also critical of the lack of a turret basket, poor fire fighting equipment, poor electrical weatherproofing, lack of an auxiliary generator to keep the batteries charged, and lack of a means to heat engine oil for cold weather starts. The report noted that although Soviet manufacturing techniques were adequate for the job, there were many instances where poor or unskilled workmanship undermined the design, and where overworked machines led to course feeds, severe chatter or tearing of machined surfaces, a consequence no doubt of the extreme pressures placed on plants to ensure maximum output. For example, in the tank inspected (manufactured in 1945) the soldering job on the radiator was so poor that it effectively lost half of its capacity.

It’s also worth noting that even in 1941 German reports on captured Soviet T-26 and BT tanks pointed out serious productions issues. For the T-26 tank: The Pz.Kpfw.Zug created by the division is no longer operational. One Panzer is completely burnt out due to an engine fire. Both of the other Panzers have engine and transmission problems. Repetitive repairs were unsuccessful. The Panzers always broke down after being driven several hundred meters on good roads. As reported by technical personnel, both of the engines in the Panzers are unusable because they were incorrectly run in.
And for the BT tank: ‘B. T. (Christi): The main cause of failure is a transmission that is too weak in combination with a strong engine that should provide the tank with high speed, but is over-stressed when driven off road where the lower gears must be used for longer periods. In addition, as in the T 26, problems continuously arise that are due to entire design and poor materials, such as failure of the electrical system, stoppages in fuel delivery, breaks in the oil circulation lines, etc.’

Finally there are the Aberdeen tests on a T-34 tank:
'On the T-34 the transmission is also very poor. When it was being operated, the cogs completely fell to pieces (on all the cogwheels). A chemical analysis of the cogs on the cogwheels showed that their thermal treatment is very poor and does not in any way meet American standards for such mechanisms.’

The deficiency of our diesels is the criminally poor air cleaners on the T-34. The Americans consider that only a saboteur could have constructed such a device
The reliability issues of Soviet tanks during WWII point to serious problems with Soviet industry. The only other explanation is that a huge Nazi/White Guard wrecker movement existed in Soviet factories…

I think that even comrade Stalin would find this idea implausible!


  1. Very interesting article. We'd like to quote from it on our podcast (about a tactical wargame called Advanced Squad Leader).

    1. I've never heard of Advanced Squad Leader but sure why not?