Heir Apparent – T-54

Towards the end of the Second World War the Soviets decided that rather than maintaining large fleets of dedicated light, medium and heavy tanks they needed a good all-rounder – this resulted in the main battle tank (MBT) concept. A `one size fits all’ solution.

Soviet tank designers began to look at developing a successor for the T-34/85 medium tank and the IS (Ioseph Stalin) heavy tank. drawing on their experiences with the T-34/76, T-34/85, KV-85 and IS-1/2, in 1944 they came up with the T-44, which bore a striking resemblance to the late-war T-34/85 and was armed with the same 85mm gun.

It was essentially the same tank with a number of modifications. The main improvements to the rugged T-34/85 design were a similar-shaped turret but without the characteristic thick turret neck, plus a better-shaped hull. other improvements included a transverse-mounted engine and transmission and torsion bar suspension. The crew was reduced from five in the T-34/85 to four in the T-44.

T-44 Medium Tank

One of the designers’ tasks was to lower the height of the T-34/85 that first went into service in the summer of 1944. Upgunning the T-34/76 had resulted in a much bigger turret, which increased the T-34’s height from around 2.4m to over 2.7m. while the improvement from 76.2mm gun to 85mm gun was very welcome, it made the T-34/85’s bulky turret a much better target. Similarly, the IS heavy tank was almost 3m high.

On the T-44 one way to achieve a lower silhouette was to eliminate the prominent collar at the turret base. The hull side armour, which on the T-34 was sloped, was vertical and thicker. This was to permit a wider turret ring because the turret’s armour was more slanted than that on the T-34/85. Another way that the height was reduced was by installing the diesel engine transversely. Also the Christie spring suspension was replaced with a torsion-bar suspension. The result was that the T-44 had a height of just under 2.5m.

Improving on the T-34/85’s main armament was unsuccessful. Attempts were made to upgun the T-44 with a 122mm tank gun but the turret was too small, although experiments with a 100mm gun were slightly more promising. However, only a few prototypes were ever built and the production T-44 retained the 85mm gun. The only way to get round this problem was to design a new tank with a larger turret.

While the T-44 was very similar to the T-34, the glacis plate at the front was much steeper which meant it had to be thicker. The driver was only provided with a very narrow vision slit in the glacis and his hatch, located next to the hull machine gun on the glacis on the T-34, was repositioned to the hull roof. The hull gunner was dispensed with in line with the existing trend with Soviet heavy tanks. Protection against infantry was provided by a Degtyarev 7.62mm machine gun mounted in a fixed position next to the driver, which was fired through an opening in the glacis plate. This was a feature later retained in the T-54.

The successful T-34 five road-wheel running gear was largely unchanged, although the T-44 had a wider gap between the first and second pairs of road wheels instead of the second and third as on the T-34. one of the drawbacks of the latter was that it employed the American Christie-style suspension. This meant that bulky springs took up a large amount of space inside the tank. efforts to remedy this with the T-34M in 1941 had to be abandoned because of the outbreak of war. The T-43 partially remedied this but was swiftly superseded by the need for a larger gun and the T-34/85 which used the existing T-34 hull.

The T-44 proved problematic especially where its weight was concerned. It was supposed to be the same as the T-34/85 at some 31.5 tons, but in light of the thicker armour and lengthening of the hull, it is hard to see what the lowering of the height achieved other than to reduce the tank’s silhouette. It is suspected that the T-44 was heavier than its predecessor and suffered from problems with its running gear and transmission.

In the event only a few thousand T-44s were ever built at Kharkov and it did not see much, if any, combat at the end of the war. It was allegedly deployed briefly during the Hungarian uprising of 1956.

After proving unreliable in front-line service the tank was rebuilt as the T-44M and continued to be used into the 1970s – largely in a tank driver training role. From the design faults and teething problems it is evident that the T-44 was very much an interim design and testbed for features that were incorporated in the vastly more successful T-54.

T-54 Main Battle Tank

The key lesson that the red Army learned from the Second world war was that you needed a lot of everything, especially tanks, to wage modern armoured and mechanized warfare. It was clear from the T-34 and T-44 that they required a tank that was easy to mass-produce in vast numbers, was very reliable and armed with at least a 100mm gun. while the IS heavy tank had been armed with a massive 122mm gun, it meant that it was 20 tons heavier than the T-34/85. experience showed that there was no long-term future in heavy tanks. Thus was born the T-54 MBT.

The T-54 was effectively a Ukrainian tank. Under the designation of Obiekt 137 (or B-40) it was designed by the Morozov Bureau at the Malyshev Plant in Kharkov, Ukraine. The city had been producing T-34s at the start of the Second world war but was captured during the German invasion. It subsequently became the scene of a series of battles fought between the Wehrmacht and the red Army before being finally liberated. However, the Kartsev Bureau at Nizhnyi Tagil in Russia would take the credit for the T-54/55.

The T-54 made its debut in the late 1940s with the first prototype appearing in 1946 and initial production authorized three years later. Three factories were given the task, at Kharkov, Nizhnyi Tagil and Omsk. It and the subsequent T-55 went through numerous upgrades, rebuilds and reconfigurations and unless you are a specialist technical intelligence expert trying to identify them all is a largely fruitless task (some sources are downright contradictory or are simply incorrect). essentially the T-54 and T-55 were the same tank with detailed improvements. The following lists the key T-54 production models.

T-54-1 (Model 1946)

This bore some resemblance to the T-44, with undercuts to the front and rear of the turret. Similarly, it also had a very wide gun mantlet but was armed with the 100mm d-10T tank gun. These features made the turret vulnerable to enemy fire. It was issued to field units for trials but proved unsatisfactory and in the meantime the focus remained on T-34/85 production.

T-54-2 (Model 1949)

This was the very first low-rate production model with an improved turret that eliminated the frontal undercut, featured an overhang at the rear and was armed with the 100mm d-10T tank gun.

T-54-3 (Model 1951)

Second low-rate production model, featuring a turret undercut at the rear and a narrow, so-called `pig snout’ gun mantlet.

T-54 (Model 1953)

First full-rate production T-54 with a hemispherical turret with no rear undercut and narrow mantlet. This turret became standard on all subsequent models of the T-54/55.

T-54A (Model 1955)

This version was fitted with a fume extractor just behind the muzzle and vertical axis stabilization for the newer 100mm d-10TG gun, as well as power elevation. It was the first T-54 to have OPVT river-fording equipment, that enabled the tank to wade through water up to 5m deep and up to 700m wide. Other improvements included an electric oil pump, bilge pump, modified air filter and automatic fire extinguisher system. Some Model 1955 retrospectively had infra-red might vision equipment installed. It was also produced by Czechoslovakia, Poland and China with some modification. Confusingly it is also known as the T-54A Model 1951.

T-54B (Model 1957)

The Model 1957 was a Model 1955 with improvements to its main armament and night-vision equipment for the commander, driver and gunner. This comprised an improved 100mm d-10T2S gun with an L-2 infra-red searchlight mounted next to the barrel. The gunner’s standard MK-4 periscope was upgraded by the TPN-1 night observation device. The commander was served by a smaller searchlight known as the OU-3. This type of tank was also sometimes called the T-54B Model 1952.

T-54M (Model 1983/1988)

This upgraded the T-54A/B to T-55M standard with additional armour, the inclusion of an upgraded suspension, new tracks and interior improvements including a new engine and radio. This model was developed as the Obeikt 140. It set the benchmark for the last of the Cold War T-54/55s.

T-10: Last of the Heavies

Despite the rise of the main battle tank, the Soviet Union persisted with heavy tanks for a number of years after the end of the Second world war. The innovative IS-3, armed with a 122mm gun, appeared in the closing months of the war and was retained in service until the 1960s, though despite modifications it remained unreliable. It was followed by the short-lived IS-4 which needed redesigning.

Just after the T-54 went into full production, in 1956 the Soviets produced the largely forgotten T-10 Lenin heavy tank (or IS-10) armed with a 122mm gun. This looked very similar to the IS-3 and likewise had a round ‘mushroom-head’ turret giving the tank a low silhouette. It featured seven road wheels either side and three return rollers, whereas the IS-3 had six and three. This was presumably in an attempt to address some of the power-to-weight problems experienced by the latter tank. The IS engine and gearbox had simply not been up to the job.

Ironically, although classed as a heavy the T-10 was in fact lighter than the later American Abrams, British Chieftain and German Leopard. It proved to be the very last of the Soviet heavy tanks for good reason. The T-10 was flawed and by the 1960s did not meet the Soviet Army’s developing all-arms tank doctrine. Despite armour of up to 270mm, its slow speed, limited ammunition stowage, low rate of fire and poor depression on the main gun greatly reduced its combat effectiveness. In particular, it meant that the T-54 had to slow down to allow the cumbersome T- 10 to keep up. The IS tanks suffered the same problem in supporting the T-34 in 1945. The T-10 at 51 tons was 15 tons heavier than the T-54 and could manage at best 42km/hr compared to the T-54’s 48km/hr.

The T-10 first appeared publicly in the November 1957 Moscow parade, but it was not long before it was relegated to a tank destroyer role. It was evident it could function as a long-range anti-tank support weapon, but as a spearhead tank it was just too slow. In addition, its thick armour might have made it suitable for local counter-attacks, but little else.

Although possibly deployed in Warsaw Pact countries by the Soviet Army, the T-10 was never exported and did not see combat during the Cold war. Some sources suggest it was supplied to Egypt and Syria but there is no evidence to support this and they are probably confusing it with IS-3M exported to Egypt in the 1960s and employed in the Six Day War. It is possible that some IS-4 and T-10 were shipped to Egypt for evaluation by the Soviet advisory teams but never handed over, though this would have been pointless as the Soviets were phasing out their heavy tanks.

Although ultimately a dead end, the heavy tank legacy should not be underestimated. Soviet post-war heavy tank production amounted to about 9,000, of which around 1,000 were IS-3M/IS-4 and the rest were T-10 and T-10M. However, by this stage Soviet doctrine and tank design was firmly focused on the main battle tank as the key armoured vehicle of the Soviet Army. The T-54 remained firmly the heir apparent.



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