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date of publication: 10-12-2012

Tank in Action


The first combat tests of came in the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), clashes in the Far East with Japan (1938-1939), and the Russo-Finnish War (1939-1940). The great contrasts in weather, terrain and nature of the opponents in these conflicts provided diverse lessons about the tactical employment of Soviet armour, and revealed both the strengths and weaknesses of the T-26.

Tanks in Action: T-37 Model 1934 photo 1

In Spain the T-26 was to suffer from lack of coordination with Republican infamry forces that often left the tanks exposed to enemy counterarracks or artillery. With no influence over the tactical employment of Republican forces, there was relatively little Soviet commanders could do to improve cooperation with supporting forces. The T-26 itself did perform effectively on a number of occasions. During the attack on Sesena on 29 October 1936, T-26s of the 1st Battalion succeeded in penetrating Nationalist defences, and went on to shoot up their positions in the village, overrun an artillery battery, and destroy two CV 3/35 tankettes, for minimal loss (read also ). Throughout the war the 45mm (1.77in) gun on the T-26 gave it the edge against Spanish Nationalist tanks and those of theif German and Italian allies. It proved so superior that the Nationalist Army offered a bounty of 500 pesetas for any tank captured. The T-26 demonstrated a similar sllperiority against japanese armour at Lake Khasan (1938) and Khalkin Gol (1939). Unlike Spain, terrain and the all-Soviet nature of the forces allowed the T 26 to be used en masse and in coordination with supporting arms. The result was that japanese forward defences were overwhelmed by infantry supported by rapid fire from the massed 45mm (1,77in) guns of the T-26.

Tanks in Action: T-37(V) May Day Parade 1937

Yet serious weaknesses were also revealed in Spain, the Far East and Finland. The weak ness of the 15mm (0,59in) frontal- and 6mm (0,23in) side armour to new antitank weapons and direct artillery fire led to heavy losses in all three conflicts. Fighting on the Jarma River in Spain cost Soviet formations 40 percent of their strength to 37mm (1,45in) antitank gunfire. Lack of artillery and infantry support led to heavy casualties in Finland, and even when this suppon was provided, as at Khalkin Gol, substantial losses occurred. The conclusion to he drawn was that by the late 1930s, the T-26 was already highly vulnerable in performing its direct assault role, and that the emergence of more powerful antitank weapons in the near future would make it obsolete.


In light of the T-26 combat experience, Soviet tank designers undertook a series of modifications to upgrade and extend the, service life of the T-26. Fuel capacity was increased and some models received searchlights for nightfighting. In 1937 the re-designated T-26S received stronger frontal armour (25mm/0,9in) and a turret with thicker and sloping armour. Defensive improvements continued in 1939 with sloping hull armour. In light of the Finnish War, plates were added to a number of tanks to increase their armour to 50mm (1.9in). However, despite these modifications. when the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, the T-26 proved obsolete against modern antitank weapons, although its 45mm (1,77in) gun could destroy all German armoured vehicles it faced except the Panzerkampfwagen IV. Many T-26s were also lost because of technical problems with gearboxes and clutch failures. Of course, lack of crew training, inept command, fuel- and ammunition shortages, and woeful repair facilities exacerbated losses but, as the Soviets had already acknowledged by halting production in 1940, the T-26 was due for replacement. The first tanks in action of the war confirmed this view. Between 22 and 23 June, a counterattack against the 18th Panzer Division south-east of Brest Litovsk by two brigades of General Bogdanov's 30th Tank Division, composed chiefly of T-26 tanks. made no appreciable progress, whilst suffering heavily at the hands of German antitank gunfire and air attacks.


Tanks in Action: T-38 Model 1937 Small Amphibious Tank

The utility of the T-26 design was exploited by Soviet designers to create a number of variants to undertake specialized combat roles. Based on the T-26 Model 1931, the OT-26 had a flamethrower with a range of 25m (82ft) mounted in the right turret. The need to increase space for larger fuel tanks led to the left-hand turret being omitted from later versions. Even so, limitations on fuel and difficulties in operating the flamethrower in the small turret Ied to the development of the OT-130, based on the larger Model 1932 turret.

After 1937, the new OT-133 flamethrower, based on the more reliable and bener-armoured T-26S vehicle, was introduced. Both the OT-130 and OT-133 saw action in the Russo-Finnish war, but their performance was poor because the limited range of their armament forced them to come within range of Finnish defences which concentrated their fire against these detested weapons. Lack of a machine gun also made them defenceless when they had expended their main armament. This experience led to the development of better armoured KV vehicles and flamethrowing tanks with improved weapons, although the OT tanks were still being used in 1941.

A bridge-carrying variant, the ST-26, was developed and used between 1934 and 1938. Its 7m (23ft) bridge was used for crossing narrow gaps or obstacles. Other roles the T-26 was adapted for included towing tractors and forward observation vehicles for the artillery, and as smoke- and chemical weapon tanks.

T-46 AND T-50

Tanks in Action: T-40 Model 1940 Amphibious Tank

The low mobility of the T-26 across coumry compared to the BT Fast Tank, and its increasing vulnerability towards the end of the 1930s, caused the Soviets to design two prototypes to replace it: the T-46 and the T-50. The T-46 was begun in 1935 by an OKMO team in 1935. The aim was to enhance the T-26's mobility by adapting it to fit the BT American-designed suspension. A small number of T-46 tanks were manufactured, bur the complexity of design, the cost and the basic fact that it was an unnecessary, and inferior, rival to the BT Fast Tank meant that mass production was never actually sancrioned by the Soviet higher powers.

The T-50 development programme of 1939-1941 was a seemingly more pragmatic affair, being designed to supersede the increasingly obsolescent T-26 and BT tanks in action their infantry support and exploitation roles. Prororypes from the Voroshilovsky and Kirovsky factories were tested in 1940, the latter being accepted for production. Externally the T-50's sloping hull armour and welded turret gave it a strong resemblance to the . but internally it was closer to the layout of the T-26. The 37mm (1,46in) frontal armour was actually inferior to that of the T-34, but it was over twice the thickness of the BT-7 armour, and three times the armour of the standard T-26 tanks. The 40-57 degree slope of the hull further enhanced the tank's protection (read also ).

A weight of 13.7 tonnes (13.5 tons) combined with a torsion bar suspension and V-4 diesel engine gave the T-50 a remarkably low ground pressure and top road speed of 60km/h (37mph). It was armed with the standard 45mm (1.77in) gun and one co-axial 7.62mm (0.303in) DT machine gun. In the end, the T-50 was manufactured in negligible numbers for three reasons: first. the disruption caused to the tank industry by the outbreak of war; second. insurmountable difficulties in manufactu ring the V-4 engine: third, the British Lend-Lease Valentine tanks and the had proved themselves to be more than capable of carrying out its envisaged roles.