History create tank T-34 fell during the period of "great terror" and was largely tragic for its creators. According to canonical Soviet historiography, the creation of the T-34 is associated exclusively with the name of the chief designer Mikhail Koshkin, who replaced the repressed Afanasy Firsov in December 1936. It should be noted that to develop a breakthrough design of the tank, a design genius was needed, but Koshkin was not.
Start of development of the first Soviet tank
For an objective assessment of the contribution of each of them, it is necessary to return to the time when the Soviet tank school was just beginning to take shape. Until the end of the 20s, the Union had no tanks of its own design, only in 1927 the military issued requirements for the development of the first Soviet “maneuverable tank” with machine gun and cannon weapons. The development of the tank was transferred by the Main Design Bureau of the Gun-Arsenal Trust to Kharkov at the KhPZ named after The Comintern (Plant No. 183), where a specialized design group was created for the development of the tank (transformed in 1929 into the T2K tank design bureau), which was headed by a young talented designer Ivan Aleksenko (1904), who led the design bureau until 1931. The same young designers worked in the group, including the future chief designer Alexander Morozov.
In a short time, the designers developed documentation for the tank, and in 1929 a prototype T-12 tank was made. According to the test results, the tank was converted into a T-24 tank, a pilot batch of 25 vehicles was manufactured, and according to the test results, completion of their design began, but in June 1931 it was ordered to stop and begin designing the BT wheel-caterpillar tank.
This was due to the fact that the military leadership decided not to “develop from scratch” the development of domestic tanks, but to borrow the experience of Western designers and produce foreign tanks under license: the American “Christy” M1931, which became the prototype of the fast BT-2, and the English “Vickers” six-ton ”, which became the prototype of the light T-26. BT-2 production was placed at KhPZ, and T-26 at the Bolshevik Leningrad plant. So in the Union began to take shape two schools of tank building.
In Kharkov, the KhPZ management and designers opposed such a turn of events, were in no hurry to introduce BT-2 into production, and tried to complete the T-24 refinement. Moscow insisted on its decision, and work on the BT-2 slowly began to gain momentum. The head of the T2K design bureau, Aleksenko, believed that copying foreign equipment was unpatriotic, that you need to create your own tank school, and in disagreement filed an application and quit.
Only young people worked in the design bureau, mainly without a higher technical education, supporting Aleksenko with the aspirations to bring their T-24 tank. To strengthen the design bureau by the decision of the OGPU board in December 1931, the head of the design bureau was appointed a talented and experienced engineer Afanasy Firsov, who was sitting in one of Moscow "sharashka", sentenced to five years in prison for "wrecking activity". Firsov’s appointment played a crucial role for the Design Bureau and Soviet tank construction.
Who is Firsov
Firsov was born in 1883 in the family of a Berdyansk merchant, after graduating from a railway school, he received higher education at the Higher Technical School in Mitweide (Germany) and the Polytechnic Institute in Zurich (among other things, he graduated from Albert Einstein), specialized in the design of diesel engines. After graduating, he worked as a designer at the Zulzer plant.
In 1914 he returned to Russia, at the Kolomenskoye Machine-Building Plant he began to work on the creation of diesel engines for submarines, then he became the chief mechanic of the Krasnaya Etna plant in Nizhny Novgorod, and in 1927 at the Andre Marty Nikolaev plants, he became the chief engineer for diesel construction.
In 1929, as a representative of the "old regimes", he was involved in a case of a counter-revolutionary wrecking group at a factory, he pleaded not guilty and was not proved, but in connection with such suspicions he quit in 1929 and moved to Leningrad, where he was invited as a specialist to the factory "Russian diesel".
The year 1930 was on, the trial of the members of the Industrial Party began, among the accused there was a close acquaintance of Firsov, he was reminded of the "Nikolaev case", arrested, and sentenced to five years in prison. A qualified specialist, he worked in one of the Moscow “sharashka” under the direct supervision of Ordzhonikidze, here he began to deal with the problems of tank building, and in 1931, under guard, was sent to Kharkov to head the “rebellious” tank design bureau.
At first, the team of creators of the T-24 did not very warmly welcome the appointee “from above,” but the gifted and versatile Firsov, an engineer with encyclopedic knowledge, quickly gained authority and respect. According to contemporaries, being under round-the-clock control of the OGPU and living at the factory, since the family remained in Leningrad, he plunged into work with his head. Firsov was able to well and clearly organize the work of his subordinates, restrained, balanced in communication, he sought to convey his experience to subordinates. Together with them he studied technical innovations of foreign companies, encouraged the study of foreign languages.
Development of a family of BT tanks and a B2 diesel engine
Firsov was given the task of organizing a high-quality production of BT-2 tanks at the plant, which had many flaws and defects in the main units, power plant and chassis units. The Liberty engine, purchased in the United States, was capricious, often overheated, and there were cases of ignition during start-up. The development of serial production of these tanks was also difficult due to the lack of a base at the plant capable of mastering the production of a new tank in such quantities. Complaints about the failure of gearboxes often came from the army.
Firsov with a team of young designers put a lot of work to refine the design of the tank and improve its production technology. Gradually, the problems disappeared, under his leadership the BT-5 and BT-7 tanks were developed, which continued the line of vehicles of this family. In 1935, for the development of the BT-7 tank, Firsov was awarded the Order of the Red Banner.
Since 1932, at the plant, under the leadership of the chief of diesel cladding, Konstantin Chelpan, the development of the 400-strong tank diesel engine BD-2 (high-speed diesel), the future B2, was carried out. Chelpan has repeatedly testified that a qualified diesel specialist Firsov made a great contribution to the creation of this engine. The military and Stalin personally closely monitored the progress of diesel work. The first sample of the DB-2 was demonstrated to the country's leadership in 1934. For this development, the plant, director Bondarenko and Chelpan were awarded the orders of Lenin.
The concept of a new tank and repression
While improving the BT wheeled-tracked tanks, an experienced engineer Firsov saw that this was a dead end, there could be no breakthrough. He began to look for ways to create a fundamentally new tank, under his leadership a small group of Alexander Morozov, Mikhail Tarshinov and Vasily Vasiliev during 1935 led the development of such a tank.
Firsov laid the primary technical appearance of the future T-34 and its main technical characteristics. Vasiliev recalled:
Already at the end of 1935 on the desk of the chief designer lay elaborated sketches of a fundamentally new tank: protivosnaryadny booking with large angles of inclination, long-barrel 76,2 mm gun, V-2 diesel engine, weight up to 30 tons ...
From the tank of the BT family, the new tank inherited a completely welded hull and a Christie suspension, and a wheel-tracked mover was abandoned in favor of a purely tracked one.
In 1936, KhPZ them. The Comintern is renamed to factory No. 183, and KB T2K is assigned the KB-190 index, the design bureau is working on the components and assemblies of the new tank, but in the summer of 1936 repressions begin at the factory. The reason was the mass complaints from the troops due to the failure of the BT-7 tank gearboxes. There really were constructive flaws in the tank’s design, in addition, the troops were carried away by spectacular ski jumping from the springboard, which naturally affected the BT-7’s performance. The car began to be called a "wrecking tank", Firsov was removed from his post, but left to work in the design bureau.
Instead of Firsov, in December 1936 Ordzhonikidze, who knew Mikhail Koshkin well, transferred him from Leningrad to Kharkov and appointed him head of KB-190. Firsov personally met the new chief designer, who continued to work in the design bureau until his arrest and painstakingly brought him up to date.
In a short time, Morozov, under the leadership of Firsov, developed a new gearbox, put it into production, and the issue was closed, but 1937 and the Great Terror were approaching. Firsov did not forget his "wrecking activity" in Nikolaev and Leningrad. In March 1937 he was again arrested and sent to prison in Moscow. For some time he was kept there together with another “pest” - aircraft designer Tupolev.
The repressions affected not only Firsov, who was soon shot, but many of the managers and engineers of the plant and design bureau. In 1937, a commission was sent to the plant from Moscow to find out the reasons for the low quality of the BD-2 engines, which revealed flaws in the design of the engine and non-compliance with its production technology.
According to the results of the commission's work, the engine was finalized, making up to two thousand changes to it, but organizational conclusions were made. Chelpan was removed from work and in December 1937 was arrested along with the designers: diesel engineers Trashutin, Aptekman, Levitan and Gurtov, everyone except Trashutin was shot for "wrecking", the latter was released in 1939. The chief engineer of the Lyashch plant, the chief metallurgist Metantsev and many other engineers and military representatives are being arrested. In May 1938, the director of the Bondarenko plant was arrested and soon shot.
According to Vasiliev, the repression caused a real phobia in KB-190. He recalled:
"I must say, I personally suffered this phobia very hard, slept and listened to the sounds of the approaching" black raven "with a couple of people in civilian clothes, inviting you to politely follow them."
Under such conditions of fear and expectation of arrest, the development of a new tank continued.
Who is Koshkin
After Firsov, KB-190 was adopted by Koshkin. Who was he before? Koshkin was a party functionary and established himself as a good organizer. He was personally acquainted with Ordzhonikidze and Kirov. Two years before his appointment to Kharkov, he graduated from the Leningrad Polytechnic Institute and then worked as a designer in the tank design bureau of the Leningrad Plant named after Kirov. On this his experience in the development of tanks ended. Ordzhonikidze sent him to KB-190 as an experienced organizer to resolve the difficult situation at the tank factory.
Koshkin really turned out to be a talented leader, he appreciated the young team of designers and the uniqueness of the new tank concept proposed by Firsov. Prior to that, he worked in fairly high administrative and party positions and was a member of the higher courts, where he managed to prove the prospects of working on a new tank and persuaded him not to continue repressions against KB employees. Under the leadership of Koshkin, work on the tank in that difficult situation continued.
Confrontation Koshkin and Dick
To strengthen the KB-190, in June 1937 an adjunct of the Moscow Military Academy of Mechanization and Motorization was sent to a 3rd-rank military engineer Dick with not entirely clear goals. Part of the designers subordinated to him, and dual power reigned in the bureau, which could not end in anything good. During this period, the Design Bureau worked on the modernization of the BT-7 tank and the development of a new BT-9 tank, distinguished by the presence of six driving wheels, a diesel engine, a conical tower with a 45-mm or 76-mm cannon and inclined armor. The joint work of Koshkin and Dick did not work out, they accused each other of incorrect design decisions, of disrupting, and sometimes sabotaging, the works. The number of mutual complaints grew, but the work did not move.
The Moscow leadership was tired of conflicts, and in September 1937 the tank KB-190 was divided into two. A separate design bureau, led by Dick, was directly subordinated to the chief engineer of the plant, and Doroshenko, Tarshinov, Gorbenko, Morozov, and Vasiliev became the heads of sections in the design bureau. The design bureau was to replenish 50 graduates of the military academy, and as a consultant they brought in the famous tank test captain Kulchitsky.
Koshkin remained the head of KB-190, which was supposed to be exclusively engaged in the development of modernized versions of the BT-7, and the design bureau was to develop a new tank BT-9 (BT-20), serial production was supported by KB-35.
In October 1937, a TTT was issued for a new wheeled-tracked tank with three pairs of driving wheels, a frontal armor thickness of 25 mm, a 45 mm or 76,2 mm cannon and a diesel engine.
The development of the new tank was based on the concept of Firsov, which was further developed by Morozov and Tarshinov. The wave of arrests that swept through the plant in November-December 1937 disorganized the work on the new tank, Dick was accused of disrupting the work, who was arrested in April 1938 and sentenced to ten years, this ended his career.
Koshkin completes the development of the tank
Further it is not entirely clear how Koshkin in those conditions creates a KB-24 and continues work on a new tank. At least in mid-March 1938, at a meeting of the board of the Armored Command and at the end of March at a meeting of the Defense Committee, the design of the wheeled and tracked tank was presented by Koshkin and Morozov. The preliminary design of the tank was approved with comments increasing the reservation to 30 mm and installing a 76,2 mm gun. At the same time, under the direction of Koshkin, at the end of 1938, the BT-7M tank with a B2 engine was developed and put into serial production, which confirmed the possibility of using a new diesel engine on the tank.
Koshkin continued to fight for the tracked version of the tank, and in September 1938 the plant was tasked with developing two versions of the tank: the wheel-tracked A20 and the tracked A-20G (A32).
To combine efforts, all three design bureaus of the plant are combined into one KB-520 headed by Koshkin, Morozov became deputy chief designer, and Kucherenko became deputy head of the design bureau. In the shortest possible time, tank samples were made, and in June-August 1939 they were tested at the training ground in Kharkov. Both tanks passed the test, but the design of the A-32 was much simpler due to the lack of complex wheeled propulsors and had a margin of weight.
In September, when showing armored vehicles to the leadership of the Ministry of Defense, the A-20 and A32 participated, where the latter performed very effectively. According to the results of tests and shows, it was decided to stay on the tracked version of the A-32 tank, increasing its armor protection to 45 mm.
Urgent production of two A-32 tanks began at the plant. Knots and parts of the tank were carefully made and meticulously assembled, threaded joints were saturated with hot oil, and the exterior surfaces of the hull and turret were carefully finished. Experienced apparatchik Koshkin knew perfectly well that when showing tanks to the top leadership there are no trifles.
Then there was the well-known tank run from Kharkov to Moscow, the successful showing of tanks to Stalin in the Kremlin, the run back to Kharkov, Koshkin’s illness and tragic death. After the show at the highest level, the tanks were tested on the Kubinka and the Karelian Isthmus, the tank was highly appreciated by Stalin himself, he was given a ticket to life.
So, the design genius of Firsov and the organizational talents of Koshkin were able to create a machine that became the symbol of Victory in that terrible war under the conditions of the unfolding repression and misunderstanding by the military of the prospects for the development of tanks. Both of them, undoubtedly, made an enormous contribution to the creation of this machine, but to attribute all laurels only to Koshkin is unfair.
The concept of the tank and its layout was conceived by Firsov, under his leadership, the main components of the tank were developed in the design bureaus, and specialists who began to design the tank under the guidance of Firsov completed the development of the tank. The backbone of the leading designers was saved, and Koshkin in that tragic situation organized the work to complete the development of the tank and secured its adoption. The names of Firsov and Koshkin, as the main designers of the T-34, can worthily stand nearby.