lauantai 25. heinäkuuta 2015

Red Army Tank Commander on the Tiger Hunt

Vasiliy Krysov, the Panzer Destroyer, was an extremely lucky Red Army soldier to survive the war to tell his story in this book. He started the fighting at Stalingrad, soldiered on through the massive tank battle of Kursk, crossed the mighty river of Dnepr to liberate Kiev and finally ended up his war capturing Königsberg, present time city of Kaliningrad in the former East Prussia. His first assignment was to be the leader of a KV-1S tank. Not before long he changed over to the assault guns. There he was to become a platoon and soon a battery leader having as a tool of war SU-122 self-propelled howitzer and later SU-85 tank destroyer. Krysov ended up the fighting commanding the best battle tank Russians could offer: the T-34/85. There are 15 chapters in his memoirs leading the reader from the initial tank training boot camp to the fighting and post war officer training school in Leningrad. The reader is pleased to use fine tactical maps, Index and helpful Notes to amplify the experience.  Although there are just few pictures available in the book, they give an interesting and rarely in the West seen insight to the world of Soviet tankers.

Panzer Destroyer opens up the game with no modesty. On the 29 the of July 1942 there was a battle of Lipologovo taking place in a village near Kalats na Don. Krysov claims the Soviets captured there thirty Panzer IV -tanks and other armoured vehicles intact while Germans, horrified by Katjusha rocket launchers, fled the battlefield.

It gets even better as he describes the battle of Jastrebenka village near Kiev in November - December 1943: he claims he destroyed as many as eight Tiger I -tanks with his own SU-85 self-propelled gun. The opposing troops were no less than the elements of 1st Waffen-SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. It becomes clear what is the main issue of this book - it is exaggeration, we may even say hyperbole. In the book Germans are presented as an incompetent and weak combatant. One may wonder why and by whom there were any casualties on the Soviet side at all. Krysov says he once saw an entire German infantry company equipped with submachine guns. That's not very likely to be true. It was customary for Germans to have Kar98k rifle as a standard weapon for infantry soldier, submachine guns were reserved for squad leaders or other officers. What really may amaze the reader is the number of Tiger I –tanks Krysov claims to have seen or destroyed on the battlefield. Where did all these Tigers come? Since Tigers were a scare resource deployed only with small numbers to the elite Waffen-SS troops and the Gross Deutschland elite Wehrmacht division.

On July 1944 Krysov, with his unit, crossed the river Bug into a "neighbouring country" as he labels the territory of the East-Poland. Thus he actually approves and confirms the notorious Molotov-Ribbentrop -pact and the partition of Poland between the Nazi-Germany and Soviet Union.  Battles fought alongside the crossing gave Krysov more fame, at least he thinks so. He claims his battery of five SU-85 self-propelled guns destroyed uncounted numbers of Tigers of the 5th Waffen-SS Panzer division Wiking by penetrating Tigers through the frontal armour with their 85 mm D-5T cannons. Near the Polish village of Stulno Krysov and another SU-85 backed up with some submachine gunners destroyed a whole German motorized infantry regiment.

How to call the enemy, that's the question for Krysov! He fought from Stalingrad to Königsberg, it was a long and hard way to go. Through the time - until the very end - he confronted, according to his statement, Germans, Fritzes, Nazis and Fascists. He does not mention having any battles against Italians. So we can count out Fascist forces, especially when Italy withdrew from the Eastern front after the disaster of Don late 1942. Why does Krysov claim to have a fight against fascists when there was no such opponent around? Fascists were Italians who wanted to build corporate state according to their view of socialism. Fascists were not the Nazi-German Wehrmacht forces you might think. Why all this controversy? The answer is quite simple: Stalin wanted to fade out any logical links between the two rivalling forms of socialism, which were the Soviet International communism and German National socialism. It was imperative for the Soviets to obscure the reality of the struggle of two similar ideologies by labelling Germans as Fascist or Fritzis (the latter was a non-political, more like a nation based definition). Unfortunately comrade Stalin was more than successful in his mission to misinform, since even the modern day media in the western world can not make a clear distinction between the two. So even today we have to read news where reporters do not have any clue of realism or they are constantly abusing political terms. To make it simple: Nazis, Fascist and Communists were all the same leftist lot! It was only a matter of details which made the difference between them, like the question: are you for nationalism or internationalism?

The strength of the book can be found in its occasionally presented honesty. For instance, Krysov openly describes one of the dubious practices of the Red Army, that is to say the PPzh front wives. The name is a reference and Russian language wordplay to the famous PPSh -machine gun. Again, in this book it is easy to see how the Red Army officers or Stavka did not have much sympathy at all for their subordinates.  On one particular occasion, near Königsberg, Krysov had to roast some loaves of bread in a frying pan using engine oil as a substitute for frying fat.

Krysov claims he destroyed 19 tanks and set on fire 12 ones. Of those, he says, eight were Tigers and one a Panther. He was never decorated nor mentioned by the Red Army.  It seems his story contains a strong element of personal bias. For instance he can’t understand why German civilians fled to the West as the advancing Red Army was approaching their homes. Krysov concludes the German civilians were merely betrayed by the Fascist propaganda to flee. After all this being said the memoirs of Vasiliy Krysov give an interesting and vividly told insight to the everyday life and fighting of the Red Army tankers.

Kryzov, Vasiliy: Panzer Destroyer - Memoirs of a Red Army Tank Commander, English translation by Vladimir Kroupnik, Pen & Sword, Barnsley 2010, 205 pages.

About the armoured fighting vehicles used by Vasiliy Krysov

Soviets had in the early 1930s started their tank mass production by either buying licences (T-26) or simply copying foreign models (T-28, T-35, BT-tanks). The Spanish civil war, Hahin-Gol skirmishes against the Japanese tanks and the Russo-Finnish Winter war had clearly shown the need for a new generation of tanks.

The rise of Nazi-Germany made the modernization programme a priority for the Soviet Union. Thus a new range of airplanes and AFVs were introduced at the opening stages of the Second World War. The Soviet tank core received two battle tanks, KV-1 and T-34/76, which were to play key roles in the battles ahead. The latter one would prove to have a huge and profound impact on the tank design and the history of armoured warfare.


Wikimedia Commons

The first of the new tanks to reach the front line service was KV-1 also known as Klimenti Voroshilov. The name of the KV-1 was carefully chosen. The father-in-law of the chief designer of the tank, S. Kotin, was no one else than the Marshall of the Soviet Union Klimenti Voroshilov. He was then the People’s Commissar for Defence of the Soviet Union and close aide to Stalin himself.

S. Kotin saw it clearly how the single turreted prototype of KV-1 was far superior to the two or more turreted vehicles. To verify his testing results KV-1 was sent in December 1939 to the Russo-Finnish War. While in the Karelian Isthmus the new tank was designated to infantry close support role. The positive demonstration of ruggedness and combat survivability led to the decision to start mass production of KV-1 in December 1939.  The KV-1 shared some components with T-34. Both tanks had the same engines and later on same main gun, the 76,2 mm F-34 (for the KV-1 the gun was named ZiS-5). As the KV-1 was more than 10 tonnes heavier than T-34, it was natural that speed, off road manoeuvrability and ground pressure values of the KV-1 were inferior. The mechanical reliability of the tank was dismal; especially this was true with the powertrain of the tank. However, the KV-1 was heavily armed and armoured. It proved to be a formidable opponent on the battlefield.

Germans had no tank to put up against the KV-1 in the summer of 1941.  The only effective way to kill a KV-1 was to either call Junkers Ju-87 Stukas in or try shoot it with 8,8 cm FlaK 18 Anti-Aircraft cannon. On the other side KV-1 had poor cross-country manoeuvrability, mechanical defects and almost non-existing optics to observe the battlefield. In fact if the hatches were closed, the KV-1 was virtually blind. To make things worse the crew layout was poorly-designed: the vehicle commander was at the same time employed as the gun-loader and he did not have his own hatch or cupola to monitor the battlefield. There was an obvious need for upgrade.

To fix the well known defects of the KV-1 a new version came out of production lines in August 1942. The new design was called KV-1S, suffix S stood for skorostnoi – speedy.  KV-1S was much lighter due to thinned armour: protection had been traded for mobility. Improved powertrain and overhead armoured cupola for the tank commander to observe the battlefield were among the upgrades. The turret had been totally redesigned.  While it was smaller it housed a dedicated tank commander as the fifth crew member. This is how the Soviets learned to follow the German crew layout which had proved to be superior. Despite the upgrades KV-1S was manufactured only for the period of one year. After 1370 units were completed the arrival of new heavy German Tiger and especially Panther tanks made KV-1S obsolete. To meet the new opponents the Soviets composed an interim model of KV-85 while waiting for their own ‘heavies’ like IS-2.

The KV-1S tanks rolled out of production lines just in time to take part of the battle of Stalingrad. In fact, Krysov had his tank from the Stalingrad Tractor Factory overhaul line to have his baptism of fire.

KV-1S technical data

Weight: 42,5 ton
Crew: 5 (commander, gunner, loader, driver, co-driver)
Engine: V-2K-s, four-stroke V-12 diesel, liquid cooling
Max horsepower: 600 hp / 2000 rpm
Power to weight ratio: 12,9 hp / ton
Top speed: 42 km/h
Range: 250 km
Ground pressure: 0,72 kp/cm2
Steering system: clutch-brake
Suspension system: Torsion bar
Gearbox: forward / reverse 5 / 1
Armour thickness: 82-30 mm
Communication: radio and intercom
Main gun: 76,2 mm ZiS-5 / 41,5 calibre

Penetrating performance of the standard armour-piercing round against steel armour at 90 degree angle from 500 metres: 92 mm


 Foto © Historix

The real flagship and legacy maker of the Soviet tank industry saw its birth in the summer of 1939 as the upgraded prototype of A-34 emerged. This version would later be known as the T-34/76 medium tank. Actually the hole range of Soviet medium and later main battle tanks (MBT) were related to T-34/76 basic design and engine. For instance T-72 MBT used the same basic engine layout, only to be upgraded and improved by many ways and fitted with a turbocharger. The first Russian MBT with no connection to the T-34/76 is T-14 Armata.

It is extraordinary for a tank to get such a fame that the T-34 range achieved. But this time Russians had developed something that the world had never seen before: a successful combination of highly advanced technical solutions. The tank was well ahead of its time and later a model for other foreign combat vehicles to come. Perhaps the best known example of this is the mighty German PzKpfw V Panther. The armour of T-34/76 was a result of a huge innovation to use highly-sloped steel plates at the angle of 30 degrees. While the frontal armour was only 45 mm thick, it offered up to three times better protection against an AP-shell than normal 45 mm steel plate at 90 degrees.

Another big innovation was the use of a brand new V-2 diesel engine. This would increase the operational range. Which, in turn, would be exploited by the use of Christie type suspension with wide tracks. The combination enabled T-34/76 to run through swamps or high snow like no other tank. The new T-34/76 tank was simple by design and very robust. It had as its main weapon the 76,2 mm F-34 cannon, which in fact was a loan from KV-1 design. The long barrelled cannon proved to be superior against any opposing tank until late 1942 as the Tiger I came to front line service.

Naturally there were downsides offsetting the battlefield superiority of the T-34/76: the tank was hard to command. Optics were of poor quality and there weren't enough of them. The commander of the tank had to work as a gunner at the same time. Interestingly enough, inside the turret of KV-1 it was the loader who had to be also the commander of the tank. Only a small number of T-34/76s were equipped with radios or intercom. This, of course, made it impossible to command a tank unit during the battle. In this respect the most advanced tank of its time was no better than its predecessors from the early 1930s, namely the T-26 and BT-7.

During the summer of 1941 it was astonishing that Germans had no idea that they would soon meet new Russian tank designs like T-34/76 or KV-1. What a nasty surprise T-34/76 must have been for German tankers who in disbelief saw how their PzKpfw III and IV tanks could practically do  nothing against the enemy tank. This obviously led Germans hurriedly to build something to match the new threat. The interim solution was the introduction of 7,5 cm Pak 40 anti-tank cannon and its tank cannon version of 7,5 cm KwK 40 L/43. New German cannons reduced the battle worthiness of T-34/76 and balanced the situation for Germans. It was, however, the introduction of German heavy Tiger I and medium Panther V tanks that made T-34/76 obsolete.

It was the turn of the Red Army to find a countermeasure against the new menace. The improved T-34/85 design was not yet ready for mass production. As a stopgap solution Russians introduced a new tank hunter SU-85.  It combined a battle worthy chassis and hull of T-34/76 but had bigger and more potent 85 mm anti-aircraft cannon in a fixed superstructure. This cannon was to be the new main weapon of the T-34/85.

As the new T-34/85 got to the front lines in spring of 1944, it was a design with many improvements over the older version. The most important one, besides the stronger cannon, was the introduction of a dedicated tank commander operating with better prisms in his own cupola. Now all T-34/85s were fitted with radios and intercoms. The monstrous four speed gearbox had been changed to new five speed one for the joy of every T-34/85 driver. The new medium tank didn't altogether solve the very basic problem Russians still had: they did not possess a cannon with adequate penetrating power against German late-war tanks like Tigers and Panthers. ZiS-S-53 cannon, the main weapon of T-34/85, and its principal AP-shell BR-365 could destroy a Tiger only when shot from the very favourable position and worse to come: BR-365 couldn't penetrate the frontal armour of a Panther at all.

Despite its obvious limitations T-34/85 was mass produced well into the late 1950s. In fact Soviets released two upgrading programs for the tank in the 1960s. Most post war T-34/85 tanks were exported into the Third World countries and Middle East. As the Soviets attempted to improve their tank inventory, the hull of the T-34/85 was redesigned which gave birth to T-44. This proved to be an unsatisfactory model since it still carried the old 85 mm ZiS-S-53 cannon and was mechanically unreliable. When the turret was redesigned and enlarged to house a 100 mm D-10T naval cannon, a new highly successful family of tanks was born: T-54 and T-55. The production of T-54 started in the late 1940s and its further improved successor T-55 turned out to be a real export hit and universal tank soldiering on all around the world. It is estimated that some 80 - 100 000 pieces were produced. What a legacy for the T-34/76 tank indeed!

T-34/85 technical data

Weight: 32 ton
Crew: 5
Engine: V-2, four-stroke V-12 diesel, liquid cooling
Max horsepower: 500 hp / 1900 rpm
Power to weight ratio: 15,8 hp / ton
Top speed: 55 km/h
Range: 300 km
Ground pressure: 0,85 kp/cm2
Steering system: clutch-brake
Suspension system: Christie
Gearbox: early forward / reverse 4 / 1,  late forward / reverse 5 / 1
Armour thickness: 70-22 mm
Communication: radio and intercom
Main gun: 85 mm ZiS-S-53 / 51,5 calibre

Penetrating performance of the standard armour-piercing round against steel armour at 90 degree angle from 500 metres: 111 mm


SU-122 in Kubinka
Wikimedia commons

The Soviet heavy industry managed to design and produce in the Word War II a wide range of armoured fighting vehicles for special roles.  One of the AFVs used by Krysov, the SU-122 medium self-propelled howitzer, was a sound example of this. The SU-122 had a five-man crew in an armoured casemate with limited traverse on a chassis of the T-34/76 tank. The production started by the fall of 1942 and it came to frontline service by the beginning of 1943.

The armament of SU-122, 122 mm Howitzer M-30 barrel length just 22,7 calibre, gave a hint of its designated role on the battlefield. It was to support tank units on the offensive with direct and indirect fire. One additional mission, which, however, proved to be quite unsuccessful, was to fight against enemy tanks. Krysov boasts to have killed Tigers in the battle of Kursk with his SU-122.  There was indeed an anti-tank round available for M-30 howitzer, but it had no real armour penetrating power. So it seems more likely that if there were Tigers destroyed by the fire of SU-122s then the most probable cause would have been the kinetic energy of the HE, or High Explosive, round. It could have severely damaged the turret of the Tiger or even torn it away from the hull. Anyway, the Soviets quickly replaced SU-122s with more potent models based on the chassis of the KV-1.


Wikimedia Commons

As the Soviet tank core was obligated to wait for the new medium T-34/85 tank until the spring of 1944, a stopgap solutions were pressed into service. One of these was the SU-85. It was fielded to operate in a strictly dedicated anti-tank role. The given role was more than ambitious: the SU-85 was to fight up against Tigers and Panthers to protect the less well-armed T-34/76 tanks still widely in use.

SU-85 tank destroyer, or Istrebitelj as the Soviets called it, had its baptism of fire by the September of 1943 when The Red Army was crossing the river Dnepr. The annoying battle experience was that even the 85 mm cannon didn't have adequate penetrating power to fight on equal basis against new German tanks.

By the summer of 1944 the T-34/85 had become widely available and the production of four man SU-85 was cancelled. To improve the anti-tank hitting performance, the rugged chassis of SU-85 was fitted with an 100 mm D-10S naval gun. The subsequent tank killer was designated the SU-100. Due to production problems of the 100 mm guns, some early SU-100s had to arm with old 85 mm guns. These variants are known as the SU-85M.

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