Wednesday, 13 March 2013

World of Tanks History Section: T-26

In 1929, the Red Army decided that the current armament of the RKKA does not meet the requirements of modern war. An independent solution of this problem was not possible at the time. Soviet engineers lacked experience, and the manufacturing base was weak. The only solution was to rely on foreign expertise.

In 1930, a delegation from the Directorate of Mechanization and Motorization of the RKKA, led by Innokentiy Halepskiy, bought a number of vehicles abroad, including tanks. One of these tanks was the British Vickers Mark E, more commonly known as "6-ton Vickers".

The British army was not interested in any modification of this tank. Not because the tank was bad. Military minds of Foggy Albion, let's just say, had an excessively creative approach to tank design. The 6-ton Vickers did not fit in their doctrine. The developers had to focus on marketing this tank externally.

The USSR purchased the two turret variant, armed with machine guns. These were named V-26, and did not cause much excitement in tank specialists. However, on January 8th, 1931, RKKA high command was introduced to the Vickers. They were in awe of the agility of this new tank, the ease with which they nearly flew across the proving grounds, leaped over trenches, and spun in place. The next day, Voroshilov ordered an immediate inquiry into the possibility of producing the V-26 domestically. A commission, led by S. Ginzburg, reported that the optimal solution would be to produce a "hybrid" vehicle, with some parts from the original replaced with those currently being developed for the T-19 tank. However, initial production started with no changes. Intelligence reported that Poland was ready to mass produce the 6-ton Vickers for its own army. These reports did not exactly correspond to reality, but orders are orders. The Vickers started production under the index T-26.

Manufacturing the T-26 was the job of the Bolshevik factory in Leningrad. The factory was loaded with other orders, but there was no other choice. The Stalingrad and Chelyabinsk factories were still being built. The head of production, and all further modernization, was the same S. Ginzburg.

Following the best traditions of the administrative bureaucracy, the initial order was for an incredibly unrealistic 500 T-26es by the end of 1931. Almost immediately, the order was reduced to 300, which was equally optimistic. The first half of 1931 was spend converting all blueprints to metric, prepare the manufacturing base, and create pre-production samples. This first stage was strictly closed to any changes, even if they clearly improved the design.

Soviet engineers successfully copied elements of the design. The ability of the elements once assembled, however, was limited. The 10 tanks that managed to leave the production line by summer were, at most, functional models. Their engines constantly broke down in the most creative and varying ways imaginable. The acceptable mode of operation allowed for 65% of engine parts to be discarded. Engines had mismatching dimensions, crumbling valves, the driveshaft was insufficiently hardened. Armoured hulls, released by the Izhor factory, had cracks in them. 10 mm of armour could be penetrated by a regular rifle bullet at 100-150 meters, which was considered impossible. Only by 1934, did the quality of the released vehicles drastically improve.

At first, the T-26 was produced with two turrets, located next to each other. This allowed the two gunners to fire in different directions at once, and was considered a good solution for an infantry support tank. As an alternative to a machine gun, is was possible to place a 37 mm cannon in one of the turrets.

In 1933, the T-26 underwent a change. Instead of two turrets, the tank got one, that could rotate in a full circle. The turret received a new 45 mm gun, which was superior to the 37 mm gun. Initially, all new tanks were to receive this upgrade, but due to deficits, both variants were produced until the end of 1933. The new gun and turret increased the weight of the tank, and a new engine and suspension had to be developed. The engineers did not reach great success here, and the tank became slower and more sluggish.

By the beginning of 1936, tank builders finally crossed out the half-track concept. The newly developed T-46 was too complicated and expensive. Work to modernize the T-26 had to be restarted. Bolted armour was replaced with welded, increasing its durability. The gun mantlet was altered, the fuel system was improved. The suspension was redesigned yet again. Due to new technology of electrical hardening, exceptional strength of the track links was achieved.

All of these modernizations could not hide the fact that, by the end of the 1930s, the T-26 no longer excelled in its category. Other countries had equal, or superior, tanks. An attempt was made to arm the tank with a 76 mm gun, but the project did not live long due to a manufacturing defect.

The first T-26es saw battle in the Spanish Civil War. Tanks supplied to the Republicans by the Soviet Union were used in nearly every operation, and performed admirably. A contribution to the T-26's status of a dangerous enemy was the fact that the German and Italian tanks that opposed it were only armed with machine guns. At the same time, the thin armour of the T-26 made it an easy target for AT guns. After evaluating the performance of the T-26, Soviet engineers installed additional armour screens.

Soviet tankers used the T-26 in the battle for lake Hasan. Due to incompetent commanders, many tanks were lost. During the assault on Zaozernaya hill, the tanks ran into a well prepared defensive line. Considering their weak armour, any frontal assault would lead to significant casualties. 85 tanks were destroyed, out of which, 9 burned. However, commanders reported a high survivability. A T-26 could withstand 5-6 Japanese shells. It's a shame that this quality had to be discovered in combat, and not on proving grounds.

In all conflicts the T-26 saw, its poor reliability shined through. Many vehicles were lost without participating in battle. During the Winter War, the Red Army lost 3178 tanks, 1275 of which were breakdowns. This war was difficult for all tanks. The terrain in most combat zones was poorly suited for armoured vehicles.

By June 22nd, 1941, 10 thousand T-26es of various types were in service. Its use in the first part of the war could only be described as a failure. The primary cause of low effectiveness of the T-26 was its obsolescence. The tank ceased to be exceptional in the 1930s. By 1941, it was weak. Its armour protected only from bullets. The weak engine did not provide a very high maneuverability. The poor reliability was another cause. A large number of vehicles was abandoned by their crews when there were not enough time or resources to repair them.

The second cause was the human factor. The level of commanders in the Red Army was quite low. Frequently, they had no idea how to use tanks correctly. Frontal assaults were deadly for the "cardboard" T-26. Instead of being used en masse, the tanks were subdivided up to individual vehicles. Coordination between units was lacking since there was no surplus of radios, and those that were available, were frequently poorly used. The situation with commanders' maps was a catastrophe. Frequently, hand-drawn diagrams were used. Even if the commander had a map, that didn't mean he knew how to use it. Reports and memoirs list many of these occurrences.

The combination of these two causes led to the destruction of most T-26es in the first 6 months of the Great Patriotic War.

The last operation T-26es were used in was the destruction of the Kwantung Army in 1945.

Original article available here.

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