Saturday, June 20, 2009

Tsar Tank

It's big. It's armored. It's got cannons and machine guns. And it's . . . a motorized tricycle. Oh, call it the Tsar Tank.

Conventional history tells us the British invented tanks in WWI. They came up with the brilliant idea of putting metal armor on armed, all-terrain vehicles that could climb obstacles, cross trenches, and ultimately, break the stalemate on the Western Front. Other countries saw the potential of tanks and caught on, thus making the British tanks not only the first manifestation of the concept, but also the progenitor of all future tanks to come. Right?

Wrong. The clumsy, rhomboid tanks of the Mark series that lumbered across the fields of the Somme in June 1916 were anything but the history-making ace-in-the-hole. Their cross-country capabilities were overestimated, mechanical failures all too common, and their size made them vulnerable to light artillery, not to mention the Marks looked nothing like any of the successful tanks that came after. The true ancestor of all tanks is in fact the French Renault FT-17, which can easily be called the first modern tank. Its revolutionary design is immediately recognizable as the classic tank layout today: A fully rotating gun turret on top, tracks on bottom, engine in the back, and crew in the front. The only important thing the British Marks added to tank design was caterpillar tracks. And they weren't even unique in being the first to come up with the idea of an all-purpose armored vehicle.

Meet the Tsar Tank, which must be the most bizarre armored vehicle anyone has ever dreamed of. Also known as the Lebedenko Tank after its designer Nicholas Lebedenko, the Tsar tank represented Imperial Russia’s attempt to develop a fighting vehicle which combined mobility, protection, and firepower for the attacking side.

Lebedenko, who was an employed engineer designing artillery pieces for the Russian War Department at the time, came up with the idea in 1914. You could see the influence of Lebedenko’s job on his design: the Tsar Tank resembled a very large artillery carriage. Weighing some 60 tons, the tank featured a pair of 9-meter high front wheels and a T-shaped body which tapered down to a smaller double wheel in the rear, and could hold a crew of 10 men.

Each big wheel was driven by a 240-horsepower Maybach engine, which was estimated to allow the Tsar Tank to reach a top speed of 17 kilometers per hour. The armaments were to be placed on a centrally-located top turret, a smaller belly turret, as well as on the flanks of the body. Because of its extreme size, the Tsar Tank was planned to be transported to the front lines in pieces, then re-assembled when ready for action.

A small working model of the machine was made and demonstrated to Nicholas II, who was impressed by its performance when it was able to cross some small obstacles. He then approved of the project and personally sponsored it, thus giving the Tsar Tank its nickname.

The prototype was completed in July 1915, and the first tests took place in August before a military panel. The vehicle successfully crossed some solid ground, ran over a tree, but then suddenly stopped when its rear wheels got stuck in a ditch while it was in a soft patch of ground. The failure of the tank to free its rear wheels showed that the engines were not powerful enough. A follow-up plan to develop more powerful engines never materialized because the Russian army decided to discontinue the project. The tank, which had already consumed some quarter million rubles, was too expensive, claimed the army, and its huge spoked wheels were probably too vulnerable to artillery damage.

So what became of the Tsar Tank? It sat for years in that ditch, forgotten in the midst of the Bolshevik Revolution and the Russian Civil War, before it was finally scrapped in 1923. Imagine how different the world of armored warfare would have been, had the Tsar Tank worked!


blah said...

How about the French Levavasseur project? The Levavasseur project was running around 1903, prior to the war. Imagine how the war would have been if the French had tanks. The German advance would have been shredded, and the French Plan 17 might have even worked.

Moskatoe said...

From what I understand, the Levavasseur was less of a tank and more of a self-propelled artillery piece (it was to hold a French 75mm). Its focus was not overcoming the static nature of trench warfare, as such a situation was not yet apparent in 1903. Plan 17, too, was less of an operational plan than a plan of mobilization, and my opinion is that the Levavasseur would not have contributed significantly to the French side. While the French relied on the 75mm, the real innovation was the German usage of heavy artillery to reduce the Belgian forts and portable infantry mortars for tactical situations.

blah said...

Plan 17, despite being about mobilization, also featured a plan for an offensive in Alsace-Lorraine, a region that ended up being essentially static through out the war. Essentially the Levavasseur project would have yielded a tank similar to the British Marks, except prior to the war. The Belgian forts actually held on for a longer time that expected, allowing the French some extra mobilizing time. Much of the German offensive was a result of the quick cavalry actions in front of the lines, with foot soldiers following. For example, the takeover of Liege was only accomplished due to a cavalry charge and some bluffing. Cavalry would have stood no chance against a tank or even a self-propelled artillery piece, for that matter.

Moskatoe said...

From what I understand, the forts of Leige were only reduced after the Germans brought in their large siege artillery.

Had the French had a successful Levavasseur tank, i don't think it would change the outcome of the Battle of the Frontiers, since it is likely the slow-moving tanks would have been subject to the same artillery massacre the Germans inflicted on the French infantry. Artillery, not machine-guns, was the real weapon of WWI, and tanks were built only to withstand small-arms fire

blah said...

However, in frontier battles, often times the infantry would completely outrun artillery support. At battles such as Guise and Sambre, it was more of a infantry v. infantry battle. The French could have used the unwieldy tanks as artillery pieces much more effectively than their horse drawn ones, especially when they had to retreat.