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SU-76i Assault Gun

Written by Евгений Болдырев
Published on Tuesday, 20 September 2005 20:38
Last Updated on
Read 14101 times

The first attempts to re-arm captured self-propelled guns with domestic weapons were conducted in Moscow factories in the fall of 1941 to the beginning of 1942. According to A. Klubnev's memoirs, in March 1942, when he was the commander of a platoon of T-60 tanks (33rd Army), six repaired StuG III's arrived. Three of them were armed with the original StuK gun, while «the three other vehicles were armed with early production T-34 guns» (probably the 76.2 mm Tank Gun L-11). P. Minkov also fought in the 33rd Army, and he described the same vehicle that «was armed with the gun of the KV tank.» He mentioned this vehicle was knocked out at Medyn' in the spring of 1942.

Unfortunately, I was unable to find any documented proof of such vehicles (neither photos nor documents). I suppose it was an isolated instance, and they were not production vehicles.

In January and February 1943, most newly-accepted SU-76's (SU-12's) had to be repaired because of many mechanical failures, and therefore the Red Army was deprived of important vehicles. The situation had to be improved immediately, before the beginning of the 1943 Summer Offensive. I. Kashtanov proposed to rearm the SG-122 with the divisional 76.2 mm gun (the original SG-122A was based on the chassis of the captured German Pz-III and armed with the 122 mm Howitzer M-30). This was a good proposal since the USSR possessed more than 300 ex-German tanks, which were captured after the Battle at Stalingrad. Kashtanov's project was accepted on February 3, 1943, and there was little time to finish the project, as it had to be accomplished prior to March 1, 1943.

Kashtanov and some other engineers moved to Factory #37 in Sverdlovsk, where they continued their work to re-arm the SG-122. Initially, they planned to mount the 76.2 mm cannon ZiS-3Sh on a pedestal fitted on the floor. Unfortunately, this plan did not provide reliable protection from bullets and shell fragments.

The problem was solved by using the 76.2 mm Tank Gun S-1. This weapon was designed specially for self-propelled guns, it was based on the F-34 Tank Gun, and was very cheap. The S-1 was distinguished from the original F-34 by a framework that allowed it to be easily mount directly on the frontal armor plate (i.e. without an additional pedestal).

On February 15, 1943, S. Ginzburg reported to the minister of the NKTP that «... Factory #37 started manufacture of the experimental 76 mm self-propelled gun S-1.» On March 6, the SP-gun was finished and sent to factory trials.

These trials were conducted in the Sverdlovsk area, and consisted of racing on snow (off-road) and on ice-covered roads. Despite cold temperatures (-35° C) the vehicle successfully passed all trials and on March 20, 1943, it was recommended for service under the SU S-1 designation. (I have also seen the designations: SU-76 (S-1) and SU-76i where the «i» suffix means «inostrannaya» — foreign).

On April 3, 1943, the first five production SU-76i had been sent to the Training Self-Propelled Regiment, that was located in Sverdlovsk area. In one month of intensive operation, these vehicles ran 600 to 700 kilometres and helped to train over 100 new tankers. All the tankers liked the new SP-guns but mentioned problems starting the engine while frozen: to start a frozen engine, they poured burning petrol in it (this is not a joke!)

At that time, the factory launched production of the new 20 SU-76i, which were sent to the training units. From May 1943, the SU-76i appeared on the front lines.

The first vehicles looked very spartan. Their battle compartment was of welded 35-mm armored plates on the front, 25-mm plates on the sides, and 15-mm on the rear. Initially, the roof was made of a single armored plate and fitted with bolts. Despite what some modern tank «experts» state, the absence of a roof is not an obvious disadvantage of any AFV — many Soviet crews removed the vehicle's roof to make the vehicle more habitable.

In the beginning 1943, because of a shortage of radios, a radio was installed on every third vehicle. From May 1943, almost every SU-76i was equipped with the 9-R radio.

In July-August 1943, after the experience gained from the Battle of Kursk, an additional armored shield was fitted on the gun. This shield was intended to protect the gun from jamming from shell fragments and bullets. Simultaneously, the SU-76i began to be equipped with two external fuel tanks.

The first SU-76i's were equipped with the original German commander's cupolas taken from captured PzKpfw-III's. In August 1943, a decision to produce some commander version of the SU-76i's was accepted. Each commander SU-76i was equipped with a commander's cupola and a radio of extra range. Such vehicles had reduced ammunition load.

The last SU-76i left the factory gates in November 1943. By that time, the problems with domestic SU-76 were fixed and they put into mass production, and the SU-76i was no longer needed. The Soviet SU-76 was much cheaper to manufacture, easier to maintain, and much easier to supply with spare parts. In total, Factory #37 manufactured 181 SU-76i plus 20 commander SU-76i.

SU-76i's first saw Battle at Kursk. In the beginning of July 1943, the 13th Army of the Central Front possessed sixteen SU-76i. During the defensive stage of the battle, eight vehicles were lost, three of which were burnt-out. The Voronezh Front also had some SU-76i, but unfortunately they only reported the total number of all 76-mm self-propelled guns — 33 vehicles.

It is also known that during the advance on Orel, the Central Front was reinforced with two SAP. One of these regiments had 16 SU-76i and one PzKpfw III.

On August 2, 1943, the 5th Guards Army was reinforced with the 1902nd SAP, which had 15 SU-76i. Before August 14, the regiment didn't fight, but was repairing its SU's and awaited trucks (initially there were only 10% of the needed trucks in the regiment). At that time, the regiment also received five SU-122's. From August 14 to 31, the regiment was engaged in five battles. The regiment destroyed two tanks, nine cannons, twelve machine-guns and over 250 men. According to the 1902nd Regiment Commander's report:

«...every vehicle has some damage. Some vehicles were recovered several times, all vehicles based on PzKpfw-III are depreciated and now in very poor condition. The regiment was constantly under-equipped, but the experience for the personnel was quite good.»

In September 1943, the regiment participated in fourteen battles, in every battle, the regiment used from two to seven self-propelled guns simultaneously. The most effective battles occurred from 20 to 23 September of 1943, when six SU-76i's pursued the Germans and destroyed three tanks. Usually, during pursuit or attack, self-propelled guns followed the Soviet tanks. The commander stated «...if tanks and SP-guns could be used on a more massive scale, losses could be reduced significantly.» The regiment fought until November. On November 25, 1943, the 1902nd SAP was sent as reinforcements since it lost all its vehicles.

In addition to the 1902d SAP, SU-76i's were in the 1901st and 1903rd SAPs, which also fought in August and September during the Belgorod-Khar'kov offensive operations.

Finally, during the Kursk Battle, some Soviet self-propelled artillery regiments used captured German self-propelled guns. For example, on August 10, the 1938th SAP of the 7th Guards Army had two SU-122, two SU-76 (SU-12), and two SU-75 (StuG III).

Soviet tankers liked the SU-76i because it wasn't as cramped as the SU-85, SU-122, or the captured StuG 40. Only one serious disadvantage was mentioned: the vehicle had only one hatch (by 1943, German tanks with side hatches almost completely disappeared), so there was a problem with escaping the vehicle if it was burning.

Quite interesting evidence about the SU-76i was found in German reconnaissance reports. On October 25, 1943, the Staff of the German 1st Panzer Army written a report to the directorate «Foreign armies — East»:

"In the 177th Panzer Regiment of the 64th Mechanized Brigade there are four companies of eleven tanks in each. These tanks are named «Sturmgeschutz 76 mm.» They are based on the chassis of the German Panzer III with the Maybach engine. The new battle compartment has 3–4 cm armor thickness on the front; 1–1.5 cm on the sides. The battle compartment is opened from the top. The gun has horizontal angle +15° and vertical angle ±7°."

This report is quite confusing. At first, the report is obviously describing the SU-76i. On the other hand, self-propelled guns could not be assigned to a tank regiment of the mechanized brigade. Most probably, the report is about the SAP — self-propelled artillery regiment, but in this case, the total number of the SP-guns is doubled anyway, since each SAP had 22 vehicles.

From August 1943, Kashtanov's design bureau attempted to rearm the SU-76i. On September 14, 1943, the Chief Engineer of Factory #37 received a letter from Frezerov (Chief of the Tech Department of the NKTP):

«Your new project to mount the 85 mm gun D-5-S-85 onto the chassis of the PzKpfw III (the SU-85i) cannot be realized because of a shortage of 85-mm guns and an unclear situation with Pz-III tanks.

I think this project must be cancelled, but all documents must be saved for later possible usage.»

This project ended all attempts to use chassis of captured tanks for Soviet tanks and SP-guns. In the beginning of 1944, Fedorenko (Chief of the GABTU) issued an order to transfer all existing SU-76i from combat units to training units.

In training units these vehicles were used until the end of 1945, and after that they were written off. In Kubinka, one working SU-76i was used for a very long time and was written off in 1968. Today, only two SU-76i remain. The first one was accidentally found and recovered from Sluch River and now it is displayed as a monument in Sarny (Ukraine). The second one was discovered by «Ekipazh» Searching Group and now it is displayed in museum on Poklonnaya Hill in Moscow.

Sources: «Trophies in the Red Army», Frontovaya Illustratsiya #1, 2000;
M. Kolomiets, M. Svirin «Kurskaya Duga», ExPrint NV, 1998;
«Poligon» #1, 2000.

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