The Collegiate of the Chief Directorate of Military Manufacturing met at the end of 1929. The main conclusion of these meetings was that the Soviet tank manufacturing industry is incapable of equipping the RKKA with armoured vehicles. Domestic tanks were inferior to foreign ones, newly planned tanks kept getting delayed, engineers lacked appropriate experience. Factories did not have enough materials, equipment, tools, skilled workers.
Based on these conclusions, the commission decided: if we can't do it ourselves, let's use foreign expertise, Invite engineers, buy tanks and documentation. On December 30th, a delegation was sent to America, headed by Innokentiy Halepskiy, the head of the Directorate of Mechanization and Motorization of the RKKA. The delegation's task was to familiarize themselves with samples of latest tanks and purchase them. At first, the work of the Cunningham company seemed the most interesting, but it turned out that the tanks did not match the advertised performance parameters, and are far behind the Vickers tank the USSR already purchased. Further negotiations with Cunningham ceased, and the delegation switched to convertible drive vehicles developed by Christie.
Despite the fact that Christie's tanks reached record speeds, the US army showed no interest in them, as the navy was considered the main weapon of the US. The army was in a secondary role, and had few tanks (why have tanks when the odds of an invasion is negligible?). When Halepskiy familiarized himself with Christie's tanks, he hesitated. On one hand, the tank had no place in the USSR's tank doctrine. On the other hand, the engineer, although with no love for the Communists, was willing to cooperate. He was prepared to not only share all documentation on the tank, but to accompany them to the USSR. The reason for this was simple: the commission was willing to pay a significant amount of money.
The last doubts about the purchase disappeared when the commission discovered that Poland was willing to buy the tanks. If someone were to make a list of the most dangerous enemies of the USSR at the time, Poland would have made top 3. It had a powerful army for the time, with a rapidly developing tank force.
On April 28th, 1930, a contract for two Christie tanks was signed, with accompanying documentation. These were new models were named M1940. The USSR was ready to pay 60 thousand dollars. When the tanks made it to the USSR, it turned out that they were lacking turrets and armament, and the documentation was incomplete. Christie was penalized 25 thousand dollars, and was not invited to the USSR.
The vehicles were sent to trials. In order to objectively evaluate the performance of the tanks, the turret weight had to be accounted for. As the replacement turret was still in development, it was replaced with an 800 kg weight.
Trials showed that Christie's child was poorly behaved, and prone to tantrums. An attempt to turn at high speed on grassy terrain resulted in a wheel carrier falling off. Two days were spent repairing it, but it broke off again after 500 meters. It was repaired again, and failed again. Deadlines were approaching, so it was decided to keep testing in wheel mode. Even here, the tank was not performing well. The tank had great difficulty moving on harsh terrain, and was completely helpless in sand. The driver was rapidly worn out by the inconsistent behaviour of the vehicle and the fact that the steering wheel was literally jumping out of his hands. The engine was in need of constant tuning. The battery could not always start the engine, and entirely incapable of it in cold weather. The gearbox heated up after 2-3 hours, and often broke. The front hatch was too small to fit a person, and the entire crew had to climb in through the turret ring.
Despite the vehicle's questionable qualities, the army decided to adopt it. According to existing classification, it would have been named T-28 or T-29. However, since it did not match doctrine, it was given a new index: BT (fast tank).
Mass production of the BT tank was planned on the Yaroslav automotive factory. However, it was obvious that the factory would be incapable of supporting this load. The Bolshevik factory was considered an alternative, but was also overloaded. Suddenly, the Kharkov Komintern factory was freed up when an order for 200 T-24s was cancelled. The BT order was moved there.
The poor performance of Christie's tank showed that copying it would be fruitless. The turret also had to be developed anew. The task of finishing the tank was given to N. Toskin.
In 1931, 6 BT tanks were scheduled to be produced for the November 7th parade. The factory, however, was not particularly eager to produce a new, untested tank. The pressure came from the very top, and three prototypes managed to be produced, two of which made it to the parade. The third tank suffered an engine fire. This incident cast doubt on the necessity of developing the BT tank, but production continued.
Mass production of the BT started slowly. There was a deficit in everything: raw materials, tools, skilled workers. Parts shipments were constantly late. 50 sets of ball bearings were due for January 1st, 1932. 7 sets were actually produced. 8 "Liberty" engines, 3 hulls, and 4 gearboxes were produced. There was a problem with engines, overall. The "Liberty" engine was produced in the USSR under the brand "M-5", but was already removed from production at that point. It was necessary to buy all the "Liberty" engines available in the US, even broken and used ones. These engines were hard to start, constantly overheated, and sometimes self-ignited.
At this stage, the BT achieved the fame of unprecedented breakdowns. The engines broke, the tracks, made from poorly conditioned steel at the Kramator factory broke, the gearboxes worked poorly.
Most BT tanks made it to army units with no armament, as the PS-2 gun that was intended for the tank was not accepted into service. The B-3 gun was accepted instead, a mix of the PS-2 and German 1K Rheinmetall gun. However, these guns were produced in limited numbers, and it was impossible to outfit a tank with them. As a temporary measure, the gun was replaced with dual machine guns. There was a plan to replace them with a 45 mm gun, but most BT tanks stayed with machine guns. The mass produced BT had four main armament types:
-Two machine guns in one mount.
-Two machine guns in one mount and a third one separately.
-One 37 mm cannon, no machine gun.
-One 37 mm cannon and one machine gun.
396 BT tanks were produced in 1932. In 1933, the BT was renamed BT-2, and 224 more were produced.
The army was not too happy with the new tank. It was too unreliable. The only way it could make the command staff happy was by setting records when jumping from ramps. The BT-2 was seen as a training vehicle, until superior tanks were built. BT-2 tanks were almost entirely used for educational and secondary tasks.
The tank was produced from 1932 to 1933. In 1933, the tank was replaced by its modernization, indexed BT-5.
Regardless, the tank became a new step in Soviet tank-building. It was the first to use a powerful engine, convertible drive, a candle suspension, and a powerful gun for its time. If you compare the BT-2 to foreign tanks of the era, it was one of the best, and remained competitive until the end of the 1930s.
The BT-2 first fought at Khalkin-Gol in 1939, and then during the campaign in West Belarus and Ukraine. A large amount of these tanks took part in the Winter War. In the latter conflict, the largest cause of losses was not combat. The BTs broke down, and had to be sent to the factory for repairs.
By 1941, the tank was totally obsolete. Its armour protected only from bullets, and did not pose a problem for AT rifles at close ranges. Any German tank, aside from the PzKpfw I, could penetrate the BT-2 at any distance. The BT-2 was suitable for scouting, patrols, and other support tasks, as a part of a larger tank force. However, the first years of the war offered no choice.
About 390 BT tanks fought in WWII. They were included in mechanized corps, and fought through the entire front. Most tanks were destroyed in the summer and fall of 1941. However, the tanks continued to fight on the Leningrad front until 1943. A photo exists of a machine gun BT, taken in 1942. According to some sources, BTs were still used in 1944.
No BT-2s survive to this day.
Original article available here.