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The T-35: The Soviet Union’s Land Based Battleship

It was supposed to herald a new era of Soviet tank warfare. Rather brashly nicknamed the Land Battleship, the T-35 was without question a mighty beast of a machine, but it was also one that was loathed by its own soldiers. 

This is what happens when ego and prestige take precedent over practicalities and a perfect example of how quickly times can change. The T-35, originally designed with more First World War-like combat in mind, proved hopelessly out of place against the more nimble German tanks. It was a tank that the Soviet High Command had high hopes for, but it’s shocking performance during Operation Barbarossa quickly put paid to any illusions. This hulking tank remains a perfect example of how bigger is not always better.  

But it was also a story that came with a rather peculiar ending for one particular tank. As Soviet forces stormed towards Berlin in 1945, what did they find staring back at them but one of their own T-35 tanks now blocking their path. It was a somewhat bizarre ending for this lumbering oaf of a tank, but one that seems appropriate considering its rocky, chaotic journey.  

Soviet Tanks

The Soviets deployed some excellent tanks during World War II and some real turkeys also. By the end of the 1930s, and on the eve of war, the Soviet Union had the widest variety of tanks of any nation, while also having the largest number overall. 

When the T-34 appeared in 1940 it was widely considered the most modern, and perhaps best, tank in the world. The medium tank came with a 76.2 mm (3 inches) tank gun which at the time was more powerful than anything else in the battlefield. The T-34 was fast, reliable and packed a hell of a bunch – in short, it was an excellent tank and much of the focus fell on this workhorse that would play a huge role in the defence of the Soviet Union and the blistering surge west that finally defeated Nazi Germany. 

Many moons ago we did a video on the Soviet Five-Year Plan in which the country attempted one of the most radical grand acts of industrialisation ever seen. It only partially worked and millions died through famine as a result, but one thing they certainly managed to do was to increase industrial output, whether that be with the production tractors and trucks or tanks. At the start of the war they had roughly 20,000 tanks at their disposal and by the end, that number was over 60,000. In terms of a relentless tank producing machine, the Soviet factories were second to none.   

But as with many countries, the tanks that had been produced through the 1930s were often very different from what was left at the end of the war. The war itself was a steep learning curve as nations quickly discovered that what had succeeded in World War I, wouldn’t necessarily work in World War II.

In this aspect, the Soviets were slightly ahead, or at least on a par with the Germans. Both nations had sent tanks to fight in the Spanish Civil War, fought between 1936 and 1939, and had gained a much better understanding of how tanks would operate in more modern warfare. It became clear that tank to tank and tank to towed anti-tank gun engagements would be much more prevalent in the future. With this in mind, it was generally believed that modern tanks would need to be heavily armoured with some seriously heavyweight guns onboard. 

Developments 

The development of the T-35 began back in 1930 at the OKMO design bureau of the Bolshevik Factory in St Petersburg. Not only were the Soviets looking for a truly heavy tank, but also one that came with multiple turrets. The single turret design that had been common in World War I was now falling out of fashion and the British, French and Germans were all actively exploring multi-turret options. The addition of more turrets more often than not led to more guns, and the T-35 would be the only five-turrets tank to enter production – and probably where it got its nickname, The Land Battleship.  

Two separate designs of a heavy tank were developed concurrently, with the super-heavy 100-ton TG-5 tank not getting past the design stage. The first prototype of what would eventually be the T-35 appeared in July 1932, as a 35-ton tank with a 76.2 mm tank gun but experienced such severe problems that the project was essentially sent back to the drawing board. The design bore more than a little resemblance to the British Vickers A1E1 Independent prototype, a massive tank that was developed between the wars but never saw combat, though the Soviets always vehemently denied they had taken inspiration from the British design. 

A new prototype was accepted for production on 11th August 1933 and two batches of ten tanks were ordered. This new version came with a new engine, new gearbox and an improved transmission, which appeared to improve reliability. 

In 1935 production was widened with a further 35 being built up until 1938. These versions referred to as the T-35 Model 1935, were slightly different with a longer chassis, an improved hull and two auxiliary 45-mm guns instead of the smaller 37-mm from the previous model. Something to mention about the T-35 was the variability between individual tanks. Some had flamethrowers installed instead of their main gun while it was common to simply see minor upgrades along the way. With that in mind, it was somewhat rare to find two identical T-35s.   

The final group of tanks were the six T-35 Model 1938s which came with conical turrets with a maximum thickness of 25 mm (0.9 inches), while the general armoured plates on the front also increased to 70mm (2.7 inches). The tank’s weight had also ballooned from 42.4 tons on earliest models to 54 tons for the final series – which is roughly around the same as 100 horses. In total, only 61 T-35s tanks rolled off the production line – it was as if there wasn’t a great deal of confidence in this giant of a machine from the very start.    

The T-35

As I just mentioned, many of the individual tanks came with unique characteristics, but overall most would have seemed roughly the same to the untrained observer. The T-35 was a truly massive tank and stood at 9.72 metres (31.8 ft) in length, 3.2 metres (10.4 ft) in width and 3.43 metres high (11.2 ft). At 31.1 sq metres (334 sq ft) it had an area equal to that of just under 8 King Size beds.  

It came with an M-17L aero engine with an output of 580 hp – that’s about 4 modern Mini Coopers just in case you’re interested and had a top speed on the road of around 30 km/h (19 mph) but just 14 km/h (8.6 mph) off-road. 

The hull itself was formed of various armoured plates which differed in thickness across the tank. As I said, the front of the tank came with the largest at 70 mm (2.7 inches), while the sides had 20 mm (0.7 inches) thick plates, the roof 10 mm (0.3 inches) and the glacis (the sloped front section) and nose came with 30mm (1.1 inches). The running gear consisted of four bogies, which are external suspension components which carry a separate wheelset attached to the vehicle. Each bogie had four coiled spring suspension arms in two pairs, with two pairs of road wheels in between them. At the rear of the tank was a drive sprocket along with 6 return rollers (small rollers placed at the top of the track loop to keep it straight and tort). The tank’s track was made up of 135 separate links, each 526 mm wide (20.7 inches wide). 

The tank came with a dizzying array of firepower. There was the main gun (usually a 76.2 mm), two axillary guns, both 45 mm and 5 machine guns, each 7.62 mm. It also came with quite the collection of men needed to run it – 10 in total and 12 if you count the 2 dismounted engineering personnel.

Combat

Before we move on to the nitty-gritty, it’s worth just setting the scene first. As I mentioned earlier, the Soviets had amassed a gigantic number of tanks by the outbreak of war, some say more than every other nation put together. Numbers were certainly not the problem, both in terms of actual tanks and their crews. No, the problem the Soviets faced as Hitler’s intentions to invade the Soviet Union became clear were much more deep-rooted. 

The military purges of the 1930s had decimated officer numbers across all aspects of the army. Though others had been drafted in, many lacked the knowledge, fortitude and experience to take on the well trained German army. 

Another serious problem that the Soviet tank divisions would soon experience was the occasionally chaotic, occasionally non-existent and rarely suitable maintenance system on offer. The Soviet’s were relying on pure numbers to overwhelm their enemy, but the support that these complex machines required was far from adequate. 

The first recorded instance of the T-35s entering combat came during the Battle of Brody between 23rd and 30th June 1941 as Operation Barbarossa got underway. At the time it was one of the largest tank battles that had ever taken place, though it would be dwarfed by the Battle of Kursk just over two years later.

Operation Barbarossa
Operation Barbarossa by Bundesarchiv is licensed under CC-BY-SA

For the Soviets, the Battle of Brody was a painful introduction to a war that would push the country to the very edge. 3,500 Soviet tanks took part in the battle, against just 750 German tanks. In terms of numerical superiority, the result should have been very different. After nearly a week of fighting, the Soviets had lost over 800 tanks, many of which were the light T-26 or BT-7 tanks which were no match for the German Panzers. 

The T-35s had also fared poorly. Many had broken down and had simply been abandoned by their crews. Most nations used trucks or tractors to drag damaged tanks out of the battle and back to where they could be repaired, but the T-35’s enormous weight usually meant that two vehicles were needed. It meant that many of these costly machines were simply left to rot on the battlefield.    

Others had been little more than sitting ducks for the more manoeuvrable German tanks. The T-35 may have come with plenty of firepower but it’s lack of mobility in combat and level of armour hampered it every step of the way. Official Soviet records state that only 4 T-35s were lost in the battle, although if we’ve learned anything it’s that Soviet statistics should be taken with a healthy pinch of salt. 

As the German bullied their way mercilessly across the Soviet Union there was little Soviet forces could do to hold them up. At the start of Operation Barbarossa, we believe only 58 T-35s remained in existence, of which only 48 were combat-ready. They certainly played their part in the defence of the homeland, albeit a slightly shambolic part. In the majority of cases, the reasons that T-35s were abandoned were not down to enemy action, but rather their horrible reliability. Transmission issues seem to be the most common cause of problems, but this was worsened by the pitiful field repair on offer, which often saw the tanks used well past their recommended normal service intervals. Even when they could haul a bedraggled tank back to a vehicle workshop there were almost no spare parts available.          

The final bit of action the T-35s ever officially saw came during the First Battle of Kharkov which began on 20th October 1941. Kharkov, now located in present-day Ukraine, was an important industrial city and as the Germans closed in, Soviet Commanders ordered a last-ditch defence of the city while its factories were dismantled and shipped further east. 

As it happened, four T-35 tanks were undergoing repairs in a factory in the city at the time. They were hurriedly re-equipped and sent out into action. By this point, most of the manufacturing sector had already been evacuated, with 320 trains departing Kharkov with the equipment from 70 major factories – which was just in time because the German 6th Army took the city on 24 October 1941. It was the last time the Soviets would ever use a T-35.   

The Strange Case of the German T-35

During the First Battle of Kharkov, the Germans captured a T-35 in remarkably good condition. The sheer size of the colossus was no doubt of great interest and the tank, with the serial number 715-62, was immediately shipped back to Germany.

At the time the Germans were developing their own monstrous tanks, and if you’re interested check out our video on the Maus Panzer tank. The massive T-35 was carefully inspected and taken apart and interestingly they found a wildly different armoured thickness, even in places where it should have been the same, probably down to the poor quality of steel. 

Once the Germans felt they had learnt all they could, the tank was stripped of its armaments and installed in the museum at Kummersdorf, no doubt to exemplify the glorious power of the German army in defeating such a behemoth. 

But oh how things change. Fast forward two years and the German Wehrmacht was collapsing on both fronts, with the allies pushing from the west and the Soviets, eager for some payback, rampaging through German-held territory to the east. In April 1945, with the end now in sight, Soviet forces pushed on towards the town of Zossen, just south of Berlin. In an act of pure desperation, the Germans dragged the now immobile T-35 from the Kummersdorf museum and used it as a fortification and barricade in the way of the advancing Soviet troops. It’s not immediately clear if some kind of armament was reinstalled on the tank, or if it was simply used as a large hulking obstacle, but either way, it did little good. On 22nd April, Zossen was overrun and this T-35 which had probably been present during the earliest moments of the war on the eastern front, was also there to see the final weeks of the conflict as the Soviets entered Berlin.  

A Glorious Failure  

It’s difficult to look at the T-35 as much else than a glorious failure. A tank that was both well out of touch with the times, and deeply flawed. The idea of stacking so many turrets and guns on one tank had spectacularly backfired and it was an experiment that was never repeated. Ironically, the Germans using it as a glorified roadblock may have actually found the best use for the T-35. 

But let’s give it to Soviet designers. When the idea was first mooted in the early 1930s, the idea of a vast moving battleship with a huge amount of firepower certainly sounded like a reasonable idea. However, the speed of change and the methods of warfare quickly overwhelmed the T-35. Add on the disorganised servicing system the Soviets had in place at the start of the war and you have a recipe for disaster. This wasn’t so much a Land Battleship, but rather Jabba the Hutt with plenty of guns. 

T-35 – Wikipedia

T-35A Soviet Heavy Tank – Tank Encycopedia (tanks-encyclopedia.com)

The T-35 Was Russia’s Deadly Land Battleship (And a Total Disaster) | The National Interest

T-35 Heavy Tank (globalsecurity.org)

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