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The transition version (T-44 test at Kubinka)

Written by Rem Ulanov
Published on Wednesday, 28 October 2009 21:28
Last Updated on
Read 13546 times

In 1944, when four factories of our country were producing tens of thousands of new T-34s — the most mass produced tank in all the history of world-wide tank production, the designers under the leadership of A. A. Morozov created a new tank T-44. It contained a number of innovations. The main one was the transversal mounting of the engine. This bold design decision determined the construction of later modifications of the tank for many decades to come.

The decision did not come easy though. All the previous medium and heavy Soviet (and not just Soviet) tanks were assembled with the engine positioned longitudinally in the hull. In the T-34, the clutch was installed on the toe of the crankshaft together with an air turbine to cool the radiators. The power from the engine was transferred to the gearbox through a pair of conical gears. The exhaust gases escaped through the exhaust pipes out the back wall of the hull. On both sides of the hull there were two inclined radiators. The left-over space between the radiators and the engine was filled by accumulators. Those who never attempted changing the batteries on a T-34 have no idea what it was to like to install, secure and connect the terminals of four 64 kg wooden crates, all done in the dark and in the cramped confines of the engine compartment. They were inserted either through the cramped driver’s hatch or by rope, through the top turret hatches.

The skeptics (who always did and will exist) said: you can’t put a high-speed V-12 engine with a working displacement of almost 40 liters perpendicular to the direction of travel of the tank — this will inevitably cause problems that could be as severe as broken connecting rods. They also thought that decreasing the displacement of the engine compartment for the purpose of enlarging the battle compartment was unnecessary. Moving the turret rearward could limit the elevation angle. However, all of these were just unsubstantiated fear, a stubborn devotion to tradition. Rotating the engine resolved many problems. The significant decrease in the length of the engine compartment allowed the designers to shift the turret rearward, with its axis of rotation positioned in the center of the hull. It has also become possible to increase the thickness of frontal armor more than twice without disturbing the center of mass or increasing the mass of the tank. In the T-34 the thickness of armor was 45 mm all around, except for the bottom and the top. At the beginning of WWII this seemed like enough. Improvements made to the T-34 during WWII included increasing the calibre of the gun (from 76 to 85 mm), strengthening the armor of the turret and a host of other innovations. However, the hull of the tank remained weak. Increasing the battle compartment allowed the under-floor ammunition stowage to be removed (it was inconvenient because the used shells always got in the way) and be moved to the side stowage. Meanwhile, the height of the tank decreased by 300 mm, even though the turret remained essentially unchanged. Getting rid of the conical pair in the transmission permitted for a more compact gear box and for improved control of the brakes and the steering clutch. Handling the machine became much easier because now the driver’s hatch was positioned on top of the turret, instead of in the front of the hull, providing the driver with great visibility and keeping him from getting splashed during fording. The drive train received torsion bar suspension, which resulted in smoother traversal of rough ground. The T-34’s ride was rather stiff and harsh. The tracks of the new machine were borrowed from its predecessor.

The T-44 was the last Soviet medium tank with paddle-type tracks. However, the mechanism for tensioning them was significantly better on the T-44. On the T-34 to tension the tracks, you first had to loosen two lug-nuts on the crank and then pound it with a sledge-hammer in order to separate it from the hull. After tensioning the track you again had to use the sledge-hammer to set the crank back in its place. Only then could it be secured in its place. The process required up to three people and an expansive array of indecent expressions. On the T-44, the job could be easily done by one person, without the help of a sledge-hammer.

The rotation of the engine slightly complicated the transmission by introducing an additional reduction gear — gear-train and fan drive. At the same time the accessibility to the engine-transmission bay improved. Its cover now turned along with the radiator and allowed easy access to the engine and its accessories, as well as to all the elements of the transmission and the accumulators. All in all, this was essentially a new machine. My first acquaintance with the tank took place in March 1945 at the Kazan’ Senior Officer’s Technical Armor School of the Red Army (KVOTBTShKA). The beautiful machine was located in a closed and guarded parking bay. You could only see it through the slits in the garage doors. Its grace and low stance were amazing and unusual for a medium tank. Just as captivating were the two highly raised headlights above the front armor plates, the hull machine gun and the circular array of spokes on the cast road wheels.

A small run of T-44s was produced at the liberated Kharkov Factory No.75, later named after the people’s commissar of wartime tank production Malyshev. However, they did not get to see battle action. Several tank regiments were formed with these machines after the war. A tank, just like any other machine, has to go through rigorous testing. Pre-production units are subjected to factory testing. One of the tests consists of resource assessment. The amalgamation of these tests fully reveals all the traits of a machine. Such tests are essential. The positive characteristics of the new machine are know to the designers even while they are still working behind a draft board. However, whatever weaknesses it may have, appear unexpectedly. Resource tests determine the machine’s ability to perform problem-free by subjecting it to a test run, accruing a predetermined number of hours of operation, and conducting a required number of field firings. These tests are long, but they are the only sure way to properly assess the tank’s capabilities. In mid-1947, the GABTU adopted a decision to conduct resource testing of the T-44. Three tanks were set aside for this purpose, each of which had to accumulate 6000 km. The test program required that every 1500 km the vehicles undergo shooting tests, complete disassembly and wear analysis. After reassemble, the machines could proceed with their run. All in all there were 4 stages.

The testing place was chosen to be the research oriented armor proving grounds ( NIIBT) of the Red Army — Kubinka station of the Western rail road, unit No.68054. All my life I’ve been grateful for the fact that after the disbanding of the self-propelled SU-76 gun regiment, in which I served as the deputy of battery equipment, I was sent to Kubinka for further service. The staff of the proving grounds consisted of erudite and talented military engineers and tank specialists. The machines there included tanks of almost all epochs and countries. During my service there, through conversations with friends and superiors, and by becoming acquainted with many different examples of military machinery, I enriched my knowledge like I couldn’t have done anywhere else.

The department entrusted with conducting the testing was headed by engineer-colonel Karakozov. The group of test drivers was headed by a benevolent engineer-colonel Vasilii Fomich Maksimtsev and engineer-major Timofeev. Commanders of the tanks and technicians-testers were appointed to be captain Borisov, senior lieutenant Kaplinskiy and me — lieutenant Ulanov. My crew consisted of a driver senior sergeant Gorbanets, sergeant Kalistratov and junior sergeant Vedeneev. After 50 years, I still remember them clearly — after all, we spent one and a half years riding together in the same tank. Three vehicles, covered by tarpaulin, arrived on flat cars from Kharkov in July. Having unloaded ours, me and Gorbanets tried it out. There wasn’t much room at the unloading station so we couldn’t really accelerate the tank. But it was immediately clear: this was no T-34! The smoothness of the ride and acceleration dynamics were significantly better.

Most of the time was spent road-testing the tanks at the track. At that time it was a main road consisting of a 30 km circle, situated slightly to the north of the army town proving grounds. The tanks were delivered to the track on heavy-duty trailers pulled by the mighty three-axle ‛Diamond“ tractors. To provide for enough engagement weight, the bed of the tractor was loaded with 10 tons of pig-irons. The loading tank on slippery ramps, transporting it over deteriorated cobbled roads, crossing four railroad tracks at the Kubinka station — all this was not for the weak of heart. At the site there was a small building with stores of fuel/lubrication materials and a mobile kitchen. In a week’s worth of work we could average 100–150 km. The idea was to traverse at least one full lap while it was still light.

The next day the crew serviced the machine and the technicians filled out procedural documents summarizing the testing of the previous day. Each examiner was given a brown notebook with slots for pencils. In addition, each received a small wooden box with two sharpened aluminum containers with screw lids and 10 ceramic retorts. The containers were meant for collecting samples of the motor oil from the engine and transmission lubrication systems, the retorts — for the main wheel bearing lubricant. At the garrison officer’s kitchen the technicians could be recognized by their dirty overalls and containers with oil samples. After weighing the machine, the first run was performed on the smaller track on the grounds of the institute.

After a 20-km race the T-44 was weighed again. Its weight increased almost by a ton, even though on the outside it was only covered with some dirt. That’s when the hard work began. Having just barely woke up in the morning you had to run past the kitchen, which was still closed, hanging on to the ‛Belomor“ in your teeth [the «Belomorkanal» or simply «Belomor» is a cigarette's brand — Valeri Potapov], to catch the old ‛Bedford“ truck, which transported the technical examiners to the track. Being late for the truck meant upsetting the day’s testing and was unthinkable.

The summer of 1947 was a hungry one in our country due to the drought of the previous year and the extraordinary expenses necessary to restore a war-ravaged country. No less were the resources expended on developing nuclear weapons. We understood everything and tried not to whine. The ration system severely limited the consumption of bread, sugar, and other foods. Officers with families had to share their rations among all the members. Bachelors had it slightly easier. Nevertheless, the feeling of hunger never went away. By the end of the summer, it became a little easier: when we drove away from the base, we deployed a ‛landing party“ in the persona of sergeant Kalistratov, equipped with a bucket, a knife and a bit of salt, obtained by dubious means at the soldier’s kitchen. While we conducted our work, traversing the bumpy track, the ‛landing party“ secretly got hold of some potatoes, which he skinned, boiled, and mashed. Having done the lap, we stopped next to the devious Kalistratov, who was peering from the bushes, turned off the engine and started eating away at the much-anticipated meal. Since I didn’t have a spoon, Kalistratov carved something resembling one out of wood and gave it to me, laughing.

Pretty soon a competition developed between our three crews: who could accrue the most mileage. The first thousand kilometers were relatively trouble-free, but then all sorts of problems began to pop up. Due to a defective guard coupling in the fan drive, a shaft broke on Borisov’s tank. On my tank, when I was switching gears, two of them engaged simultaneously, which caused a break of a gear pinion. Kaplinskiy lost his engine. However, in this case, impudence was to blame. Trying to prove that his T-44 is the best and the strongest, he was towing a heavy JS-3 tank, which, in turn, lost its engine.

The track runs were pretty intense. Every day 10 or more machines were accumulating the necessary mileage. After the repair of my machine, which suffered from a broken gear pinion, I took it to the track. Boris Kaplinskiy, whose motorcycle recently broke down, asked me for a ride. Stretching out on the front seat of the ‛Diamond,“ he was blissfully warming himself next to the hot engine. I was sitting on the roof top of the cabin, facing rearward. Suddenly, after crossing the railroad at the Kubinka station, the trailer separated from the hitch at 20 km/h. I started pounding on the roof of the passenger compartment. The driver stopped the tractor abruptly. The trailer, coasting down the road, hit out tractor and it bounced off like a ball. Boris Kaplinskiy was thrown to the ground and found himself right in the path of an approaching trailer. Prowling the ground with the tow bar, it was slowly moving right at my friend, who was lying on the ground. The tall and stately Boris took the only reasonable course of action in this situation: on all fours, he quickly started crawling toward the roadside.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, the spectacle was so amusing that I could not contain my laughter. Everything turned out fine that time. The trailer with the tank safely came to a halt on the side of the road. Winter came and with it — new incidents. Due to an incomplete draining of the cooling system, caused by a water pump system that had been modified to reduce engine height, a small shaft broke after an impeller pump froze over. The repair of the shaft, considering the field conditions, was something of an acrobatic stunt. Two people grabbed a third one by the legs and lowered him, head-down, into the engine bay, where he had to loosen the fastening and remove the broken shaft. Then, he was pulled out and after a short breather, lowered back down to install the new shaft. If he could not complete the job in two attempts, he was repeatedly lowered until the new part was secured.

The packed winter track allowed for greater speeds. This allowed us to accumulate the desired mileage. One time, having returned from the track, I discovered that my cheeks, nose, and ears were frost bitten. During driving, the driver was supposed to be protected from rain and snow by a removable tarp cover with a small glass window. However, this set up was not successful and its use was deemed impractical. My frostbite became known to the local and Moscow authorities. Their reaction was exceptional: in three days all officers of the institute received wool sweaters, fur vests, like the ones given out during the war, new white coats, woolen boots with rubber galoshes for the engineers and padded gray winter shoes for the technicians. In addition, the testers were given padded tank helmets and fur mittens on a leather string. Pretty soon, you could see officers’ wives strutting around the town in their husbands’ overcoats. Every unfortunate event has its positive sides.

By 1948 our vehicles amassed more than 2000 km. The authorities were impatient. With their silent consent, we started running the tanks on a stretch of a snow covered Minsk highway between Golitsyn and Mozhaisk. In the test protocol, the nature of the road was described as ‛a winter, snow covered road without ditches and sharp turns.“ In two weeks the signs of testing became noticeably more prominent. Paddle-type tracks quickly became worn out. At high speeds, which at times reached 60 km/h, the upper segments of the tracks, severely bashed on the drive wheels, creating excessive stress in the drive train. The driving was conducted only during the night, when the number of cars was relatively few.

The T-44 tank was not equipped with the night vision equipment at the time. This equipment was demonstrated to us by its developers during one of the training days, which were organized 1–2 times a month. That device was highly secret. It was set up in the auditorium of the club. On the outside, the building was heavily guarded by armed soldiers from the headquarters defense company. Each officer was given a chance to look through the device at those present in the auditorium. Finally, it was my turn. I started looking around through the rows of officers. In the green-blue light I recognized the features of engineer-colonel Skvortsov. I knew that it was Skvortsov by his high forehead and glasses. Then there was Major Krementulo, sleeping in the dark room, agape with his head tilted back. Then — Lenochka from the chemical laboratory [Lenochka is a female name equal to Elena — Valeri Potapov]. Even the distorted image of the night vision scope could not detract from her beauty. We were all shocked by the capabilities of that device.

Unfortunately, track testing soon ended, and ended too bad. When one of the tanks from our group tried to pass a slow-moving truck, it collided head-on with an approaching truck, smashed it to pieces and killed the two people inside. Having torn off the cabin with its gun, the machine dragged it almost all the way to the park. The vehicle was a self-propelled ‛sotka“ artillery gun [means SU-100 — Valeri Potapov], which was used for testing motor oil additives. Its commander was a young and cheerful lieutenant Kalinin. During the field court trial, his superior, engineer-colonel I…, nick-named ‛Sperokheta blednaya“ [a Russian coarse, means somewhat like «pallid sperm» — Valeri Potapov], denied any involvement in the incident, even though he was fully aware of where and how the ‛sotka“ was being tested. Kalinin received a two-year prison sentence and was deprived of all decorations.

After that, the testing moved back to the deteriorated track. In February Kaplinskiy crossed over to the other side of Moscow river in search of a better track and found a suitable route. Its main advantage was that there were no villages nearby. On the return trip, his tank fell through the ice up to its turret. Fortunately, the water in that place was not deep. The attempt to pull the tank out without additional help was unsuccessful and the second engine went out of line.

The testing continued. After a certain number of kilometers, the tanks had to conduct field firing with live rounds: 10 shots with the turret parallel to the hull and 10 shots with the turret — perpendicular. During the trip from the park to the firing range, my driver became ill, and so I had to drive the tank myself. The number of kilometers accumulated by me and Gorbanets was about the same. After lowering the seat into the combat position, I was ready to carry out orders of the two artillery officers in charge of the shelling. Kalistratov and Vedeneev stepped out of the vehicle into a shelter. Having found myself in the cramped position of the driver I was amazed at how difficult controlling the machine has become. The pedals of the main clutch, the fuel supply, and incline brake all were now positioned much higher. The levers of the steering clutch and gear shifting became inconvenient to operate. The visibility was limited.

The shelling lasted for 15–20 minutes. Hot cartridges were rolling underfoot, just like in a T-34 or an SU-76. I was deafened and choked by the gases from the gun. After we finished firing, I started the engine, not without some difficulty, and drove in reverse out of the firing range. Taking a rest, I thought: how would the driver feel in this tank during a real battle? The three-year old war was still fresh in my mind.

The ambition to accumulate mileage was replaced by a more rigorous examination of various junctions and mechanisms of the tank. The trouble-shooting and problem analysis became stricter. It was discovered that falling-home of the road wheels appeared sooner than anticipated. To increase the service life of the road wheel drive train, the new tank was set up with a slight camber of the paired road wheels. However, this resulted in greater stress on the outer rollers. As the run progressed, camber disappeared, and both wheels — the outer and the inner were loaded equally. The last stage of the run proceeded with the falling-home of the road wheel, where the inner wheel became more loaded. On our tanks, falling-home began to appear after 2500 km. To successfully complete a 6000 km run, it was necessary to replace expensive parts of the drive train.

By the middle of the third thousand the tank became worn out. Boris Kaplinskiy, loyal to his negligence, ruined an engine by not submitting motor oil samples to the chemical analysis lab. This was his third engine. It has to be mentioned that the expert staff of the chemical lab could predict any problems an engine might have with a high degree of accuracy by analyzing the oil. After being reprimanded by his superiors and calming his grief, Kaplinskiy took me to the ‛Mukhran.“ That was the nickname of a blue-painted beer stand. The name was derived from captain Mukhrankiy’s last name, because his wife worked at the stand. The captain played the role of both husband and rationer. He measured out the beer from barrels with the help of air cylinders used to start the tank. And if you were nice to his wife, she could pour you a hundred grams of the hard stuff.

The engine of my machine got old and worn out and could no longer start properly. The oil pressure dropped to 2–3 atmospheres. Under heavy loads, it started smoking, spewing out black smog out the side. The tracks got ripped several times. The last rip could have ended quite tragically.

On a rainy autumn day, Gorbanets was driving the machine on the track, and I, as usual, was boldly sitting on top of the hull next to the driver’s hatch (this way it was more convenient to monitor the instrument panel) and taking notes in the issued notebook. We were required to record the revolutions of the crankshaft, oil pressure and temperature, and water temperature every 30 minutes. In one place the track passed pretty close to a steep Moscow river bank. To save me from getting splashed by mud, Gorbanets tried to circumnavigate a large puddle on the right and approached the bank at full speed. Just at the moment the left track ripped. I didn’t realize it at first, but when the tank started pulling to the left, it finally hit me what had happened. The tank stopped, the engine died and it slowly started to slide toward the precipice. I quickly jumped to the ground and while trying to prevent the tank from sliding, started yelling to the driver to start pushing the tank. But the tank kept on sliding and even together with Kalistratov and Vedeneev, we couldn’t possibly hang on to a 32-ton beast.

The disaster was prevented by a lonely little tree growing on the edge of the bank. It strained and bent under the load, but the tank stopped. We secured the tank a much as we could with tow cables, dumped anything that we could get hold of under the drive wheels, and started waiting for the next machine to pass by. After 10 minutes or so, a ‛sotka“ appeared and pulled us out to safety. At the department everybody understood that the results of testing were quite sufficient to develop a comprehensive picture of the machine’s operational characteristics. Some of the test materials were sent to NTK (Technical Research Committee) and the Chief Directorate even before the testing ended. The machines had exhausted their resources and showed everything that they were capable of. It was clear that they could not run for 6000 km without major repairs. After 3000 km the testing ended.

Shortly afterwards, a batch of T-54, guarded and covered by tarpaulin arrived from Nizhnij Tagil for testing.

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