For the Record: Secret German Tank Project
It is no secret that Heinz Guderian, a leading thinker in the German school of armoured warfare, was greatly impressed by the Soviet T-34 tank. In October of 1941, one of his subordinates from the 4th Tank Division wrote: “Immediately create copies of the 26-ton Russian tank, and use captured 26- and 52-ton tanks. Each tank regiment should have one company of these tanks.” It is also known that Fast Heinz’ plan to clone the T-34 was unsuccessful. What is less known is what happened later, when Guderian ran into one of the more underrated tanks of the war, the T-60. The T-60 was one of the most numerous tanks of the Second World War, but, as a light tank, it lacked the thick armour or impressive firepower of the T-34, IS, Tiger, Panther, and other famous tanks of the war. Little is written about it, which is a shame, as Guderian saw much promise in it. Torsion bars, that Russian hard steel he was a fan of, sloped armour, easily obtainable and reparable engines. The design was far superior to that of German light tanks, and even the captured Czech tanks in the Wehrmacht’s service were starting to show their age. The T-60, a modern light tank, was what the Wehrmacht needed. Better yet, the factory at Kharkov was not evacuated completely before the Germans captured it, giving them a manufacturing base. However, the T-60 had its downsides. The tank only had two crewmen, and a 20 mm automatic cannon was not exactly the impressive armament the Fuhrer was pushing for. The captured factory was put to work. Experiments began to improve the firepower of the vehicle. By Spring 1942, German engineers reached a solution that maximized both use of newly available resources and compatibility with the Wehrmacht’s existing vehicles. A PzIV turret mounted on the modified hull increased the firepower of the tank, while increasing parts commonality. The hull, of course, was much different from the original T-60. The driver’s hatch had to be removed and mufflers and exhaust system were moved sideways, to maximize area available for the turret ring. Even so, the tank could only fire within a limited arc, otherwise it would flip over. Guderian’s new creation had to be kept under strict secrecy, as Hitler was pushing for bigger and heavier tanks, and a light tank project, especially one using equipment created by sub-human Slavs, would not be approved. Guderian decided to first prove the tank’s worth in battle. A perfect opportunity presented itself in the battle for Mukhosransk. The combination of winter snow and spring mud made the area impossible to traverse for anything but light tanks, and a brilliant design such as this could turn the flow of battle. In late March of 1942, a platoon of PzIV/473(r) tanks (473(r) being the index for captured Soviet T-60 and T-70 tanks in Wehrmacht service) arrived near the city. What happened next is told by Junior Lieutenant Soldatov in his diary. “April 1st, 1942. The Germans brought in new tanks. Most of my men have not ever seen a tank before, aside from the T-40s supporting our platoon, but I have seen too many. As soon as I saw this one, I knew that it was odd. Never before have the Germans used tanks with armour like this. Lacking anti-tank weapons, I ordered my platoon to lay low in the forest and let them pass. We did not see these tanks again.” Indeed, these tanks do not show up in any other diaries or memoirs, only in one photograph, taken in the aftermath of the battle. Guderian did not get his brilliant victory to barter for the project’s continued existence. It is likely that all of these experimental tanks either perished here, swallowed up by the seemingly infinite Russian forest, or were destroyed at their factory in order to hide their failure.