The SU-76 – unloved, but ultimately effective.

With its open top and rear, the SU-76M was not popular with its four-man crews; however, with the exception of the T-3 4, it was the most widely produced armoured vehicle in the USSR during World War II. Armed with a 76.2mm (0. 3in) ZiS-3 field gun, it had a maximum speed of 45km/h (28mph).

 

An SU-76 assault gun battalion (with sixteen vehicles) was added to the Guards’ divisions, replacing the former towed anti-tank battalion. This was eventually applied to the standard rifle division TO&E in June 1945. A Tank corps, January 1945 would have on paper 24  SU-76s in a Light Assault Gun Regiment.

If there was an award given for the least appreciated armored vehicle of World War II, it would probably go to the SU-76. This 12 ton assault gun was based on the chassis of the T-70, an admittedly poor design from the desperate days of 1942 when Soviet industry followed a ‘it’s better than nothing’ philosophy to their light tank designs before doing the sensible thing and abandoning the light tank concept for any use except reconnaissance. When the more desirable T-34 became available in sufficient quantities to equip Soviet tank brigades, the T-70’s design was altered into the much more usable SU-76 by lengthening the chassis, adding a road wheel and replacing the turreted 45mm gun with an armored casement containing the same 76mm gun found on the T-34.

Under-armored since it was built on a light tank chassis, it was not liked by its crews, who called it ‘The Bitch’ and it did not inspire any special fear or awe from its enemies. Because of this, not much has been written about the SU-76 or the battles it participated in, even though over 14,000 were produced and it undoubtedly had a greater impact on the outcome of World War II than either the Tiger or Panther. The reason for this is that it could get where it needed to and provide support to the units it was attached to in sufficient quantities to make a difference. Mere utility, however, does not excite the imagination. While it’s true that a Panther or Tiger could destroy an SU-76 in most encounters, what’s missing from such an equation is the likelihood of such an encounter ever taking place. Soviet vehicles could go through their entire service careers without ever encountering one of the German heavies.

How did such a mediocre vehicle exert such a profound influence? A large part of the answer is the sheer number produced. The quote from Stalin, ‘Quantity has a quality all its own’ is often used in a dismissive sort of way, as if to imply the allies in general and the Soviet Union in particular only won World War II through massive quantities of materiel that was of questionable worth. They are correct in the sense that mass conquers all, but how does a nation achieve such an unstoppable force? In short, mere numbers do not equal mass. Mass is achieved by an army with a sufficient quantity of adequate, reliable vehicles that can be sustained through long operations by good logistics and communications. It must have superior leadership capable of wielding it and political leadership capable of giving it realistic goals. The vehicles must also be supported by artillery, infantry, engineers and mechanics that can swiftly return damaged vehicles back to combat. Simply having massive quantities of vehicles accomplishes nothing, as demonstrated by the Soviet Union during the disastrous Barbarossa campaign of 1941. Creation and proper application of mass is an art – achieving it means victory, failure means defeat. The ideal tank, then, will be one that can fulfill the requirements of mass – it first and foremost must be reliable, easy to repair and recover, be able to traverse difficult terrain and have long range and be fuel efficient. Once these qualities are met, the best possible armor and gun can be fitted, but only to the point where the tank’s decisive qualities aren’t compromised.

  1. A. Astrov’s team developed the T-70 with the intention of creating a light tank with more robust armour, stronger armament and greater mobility than the T-60. After modifications to the power system, re-designing the turret in flat armour plate rather than copying the T-40’s construction, and placing it on the left of the hull with the engines on the right for easier construction, the T-70 was accepted for production in March 1942. Despite the Astrov team’s best endeavours, the T-70 was at best a modest improvement on its predecessor, and in some areas, even worse.

At first glance, the T-70’s 45mm (1.77in) ZiS-19BM gun – which was mounted in a turret on the left of the hull – and 45mm (1.77in) frontal armour did increase its protection and firepower. However, at that time, German modifications to the guns and armour of their medium Panzer III and IV tanks largely negated these armament developments which had been made in the T-70M.

Further problems in combat stemmed from a having a two-man crew. This forced the commander to double up as gunner, greatly inhibiting his ability to direct the driver and his fire accuracy when in contact with the enemy. The restrictions caused by a two-man crew were common to all Soviet light tanks, other than the T-26.

The T-70 design’s greatest shortfall was in its mobility. The T-70 chassis was a copy of the T-60, modified to front rather than rear-wheel drive. Reliance on other existing technology to cut costs and speed construction led to the unusual design of using two GAZ-202 lorry engines side by side, each powering a single track. This was not a complete success in manufacturing terms; more critically, the T-70’s speed was only slightly greater than the T-60’s, and its cross-country range of 180km (111.8 miles) was 70km (43.5 miles) less, and half that of the T-34 Model 1943. Clearly the T-70 was even less suited to taking part in the fast, deep-armoured operations envisaged by Soviet military planners. The overall unsuitability of the T-70 saw production end in 1943 after 8226 vehicles had been built.

The introduction of the SU-76 self-propelled gun, with many components of the T-60 and T-70 but with heavier firepower, was a better use of resources than light-tank production.

SU-76 SELF-PROPELLED GUN

In 1942 the Soviets initiated a number of projects to produce mechanized artillery guns to support infantry and armoured formations. The design of the light gun was given to the Zavod Nr 38 team at Kirov. They began by basing their design on the existing T-60 chassis. The prototype OSU-76 had mounted a 76.2mm (3in) ZiS-3 gun at the rear of the hull in a crude casemate armour box. Problems with the T-60 chassis mounting the gun’s weight led to the adoption of the longer, more robust T-70 chassis.

This vehicle, designated SU-12, was a joint project between the Zavod Nr 38 and the Zavod Nr 92 team from Gorki. The GKO accepted the prototype for production in December 1942 as the SU-76. A major re-design of the forward hull was undertaken by Astrov’s team in spring 1943, and engine performance enhanced by replacing a side-by-side configuration for the GAZ-202 engines with an in-line set-up. This improved design was manufactured as the SU- 76M, and all earlier models withdrawn.

The SU-76M appeared too late in the war to make an effective tank destroyer, but was valued in an infantry support role. The open top and rear and thin armour made the SU-76M vulnerable to light weapons and small-arms fire, especially in built-up areas. It was unpopular with crews, earning it the nicknames Suka (bitch) and Golozhopil Ferdinant (Naked Ass Ferdinand, after its profile’s similarity to the German Ferdinand). Even so, the number produced in World War II was only surpassed by the T-34.

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