Unlike the United States, the Soviet Union came into World War II with an extensive tank industry-one the Soviets had unashamedly based on American-style mass production. This made sense, since many Soviet factories had been designed and built by Americans during the 1920s and 30s, when the Communists, working to improve the Soviet industrial base, aspired to the American production model. Indeed, Albert Kahn himself had designed the tractor factory at Stalingrad. And the Soviets weren’t just hiring American architects, but also American production engineers and tool manufacturers.
But by mid-1941, the German invasion had badly disrupted Soviet industry. During that disastrous summer, the invaders had captured, besieged, or threatened the Soviet Union’s western industrial cities. In six months, the U. S. S. R. effectively lost 40 percent of its gross domestic product and population, and 60 percent of its coal and steel production. In the face of this disaster, Russia hurriedly rushed equipment and skilled workers from hundreds of factories onto trains and sent machines and men east to the Ural Mountains.
The Soviets relocated the salvaged equipment to four towns: Nizhny Tagil, Omsk, Sverdlovsk, and Chelyabinsk. Each possessed an existing railroad equipment or tractor factory; the arriving equipment expanded those facilities. As workers set up the machine tools again, sometimes in the naked elements until buildings could be constructed, existing plants at Gorky and Stalingrad “kept the lights on” through 1942, producing enough vehicles for the Red Army to continue fighting. By the time the Stalingrad factory finally fell to the Nazis in October 1942, the new Ural plants were going full tilt.
This massive industrial exodus left the Russian railroad system on the brink of collapse by 1942. Overtaxed track had gone without proper maintenance; rolling stock and engines needed repair or replacement. This led to an effort to minimize railway freight tonnage, which in turn powered an emphasis in Russian factories on centralization and vertical integration- meaning that the Russians concentrated more of the entire process, from manufacture of subcomponents to final assembly, at individual factories. Doing so reduced efficiency, as even the largest factories couldn’t achieve the economies of scale that, say, an engine provider like Germany’s Maybach or the United States’ Ford could. But it helped keep the Soviet Union’s transportation network functioning.
The Ural facilities were huge: the largest in the world, in terms of manpower committed. The Chelyabinsk tractor works, for instance, was known simply as Tankograd: “Tank City.” Tankograd could fabricate nearly everything needed to make an AFV except the gun. It cast steel and armor; produced the engine, transmission, and other components; and assembled the vehicle. It even produced ammunition. The number of workers at the new facility skyrocketed: from 21,000 in 1937 to 40,000 in 1942. By 1944, while Chrysler had 19,500 workers engaged in tank production at the Arsenal and subsidiary plants, Tankograd had 60,000 people under its roof, most of them women, teenagers, and old men. Working conditions were primitive: hot, smoky, cramped, and dimly lit. But Tankograd and the other Ural facilities poured out vehicles.
One principle the Russians adopted with a vengeance from the Americans was planned obsolescence. In a manufactured product, it makes no sense to have subcomponents that last longer than the product itself. The Soviets weren’t dummies. They had carefully studied battlefield data and realized that the average lifespan of a tank on the Eastern Front was less than six months. In combat, tank lifespan was about 14 hours. These were disposable vehicles, with disposable human beings inside. This brutal insight clarified everything about vehicle design, leading the Soviets to embrace a methodology that might be called “The Zen of Shoddiness.”
Viewed this way, there was no sense in building a tank engine or transmission good for more than 1,500 kilometers (932 miles); the tank would be dead by then. The Soviets realized they could machine those components to looser tolerances, using lower-quality metals. And they replaced machined parts with stamped metal components whenever possible. Paint jobs were lamentably bad; welds often crude-although the Soviets did experiment with innovative technologies. At Nizhny Tagil, welding tank hulls underwater hastened cooling and sped up the manufacturing process.
At the same time, the Soviets did everything possible to reduce cost. They standardized Soviet tanks and self-propelled guns on just three chassis: the KV-1 heavy, T-34 medium, and T-70 light. And they kept production runs long and design changes to a minimum, implementing a change only if it made a vehicle simpler or cheaper to manufacture. With the T-34 medium tank, for example, manufacturers simplified 770 parts and eliminated more than 5,600 from 1941 to 1943. During that period the tank’s cost fell by half, from 269,000 rubles to 135,000. While everyone knows that time is money, the inverse is also true: less money meant less time on the line. Components were machined more quickly. And as workers learned the intricacies of assembling the same vehicle over and over, assembly time went down, too. Taken together, the overall labor cost of the vehicle plummeted.
None of this should imply that Soviet tanks were poorly designed. Quite the opposite: the T-34 was a great tank. Its firepower, protection, and mobility surpassed any AFV the Germans fielded until the end of 1942. Cosmetics and comfort simply didn’t concern the Soviets; natty paintjobs and ruler-straight welds didn’t kill Germans; the T-34’s 76mm gun did. That component of the vehicle worked very much as advertised. True, the tank’s loader had to scramble around inside the hull, because the T-34 had no turret basket in which he could sit. In Russian tanks, the things that mattered worked well enough; the things that didn’t were afterthoughts.
While it’s easy to ridicule the simple, sometimes shoddy, weapons the Soviets cranked out, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that the philosophy underlying the Russian manufacturing approach was nothing less than brilliant. From an emasculated industrial base that left the Soviets under-producing Germans in coal and steel by a ratio of one to four, Soviet factories turned the tables, out-producing Germany nearly three to one in tanks during the vital 1942-1943 period. This monumental achievement was crucial to the war’s outcome.