The new Russian blockbuster film “T-34” celebrates not only fictional Russian heroes who fight their way out of a Nazi concentration camp, but also a partially reconstructed tank.
The T-34 is the most successful tank ever built. More than 58,000 were manufactured between 1940 and 1946. But the part of the story not being told is that the T-34 was possible thanks to an American inventor and two innovative Russian military leaders liquidated by Stalin as part of the Great Purge that nearly destroyed the Russian Army.
The American inventor was J. William Christie. Christie was born in May 1865 just after the close of the US Civil War in New Milford, New Jersey. Trained as an engineer, Christie got involved with automobiles in the early 20th century. Among his inventions was what is now called “front-wheel drive”, a system that propels a vehicle where its power wheels were in the front and not in the rear, eliminating chain drives that early cars used to power rear wheels. That was in 1905.
To compliment his front-wheel-drive system, Christie developed the first front-wheel independent suspension – now common on nearly all automobiles, replacing clumsy leaf springs which poorly absorbed shock caused by bad roads. It was his front-wheel-drive and other technologies he pioneered that Christie used to design an innovative battle tank – the mother of all modern battle tanks.
Christie’s idea about battle tanks was mostly at odds with what most military organizations actually wanted. After the end of World War I, when tanks (mainly British and French) were first used in battle, they were intended to keep pace with troops seeking to overrun enemy trenches. The top speed was around 6 mph (9.6 kph). The American military subsequently eyed bigger, more heavily armored tanks, but did not see how a tank could replace horse cavalry in assaults. In fact, we now know that Hitler’s plan to invade England in 1940 (Operation Sea Lion) planned to use 650 tanks (probably more than he had then) and 4,500 horses.
Christie’s idea was radically different. Light or medium tanks could travel rapidly across fields and roadways to rapidly smash the enemy by breaking up his main forces. To achieve that goal, Christie’s tank featured a unique undercarriage suspension where each road wheel operates independently on long coil springs. He added to the suspension system rubber-road-bogie wheels that could take over for the tracks on good roads.
On tracks, a Christie tank could move at 47 mph (nearly 76 kph), but on bogies, it could hit 69 mph (111 kph). No modern tank can achieve that speed. The American front-line M-1 tank, for example, can do a top speed of 45 mph (72 kph). And, while the Christie tank was lightly armored even by the standards of the day, he also came up with the idea of sloped armor designed to deflect incoming shells and blast fragments – and today most tanks use sloped armor.
Perfect for Russians
The US Army was under political pressure to test the Christie tank and a few prototypes were delivered to them. US Army chiefs wanted a different kind of tank more in line with their conventional fighting ideas, and Christie, it turned out, became a thorn in their side. But the Russians were searching for exactly the kind of tank Christie designed, mainly because the Russians wanted a tank to lead invasions and not for defense.
Between 1934 and 1938 the director of the Soviet Motor Transport and Armored Troops was Innokenti Khapeleskii. He was tasked by his boss, Red Army Marshal Mikhail Tukhachevsky, to find an innovative assault tank design for the Russian military. Khapeleskii visited Germany (in those years the Russians were secretly supporting the Nazi military) and Czechoslovakia, but the Czechs would not help the Russians for political reasons. (The Czech tanks later fell into the hands of the Nazis and were used in the German attack on France and Belgium.) Then he went to the United States, where the Christie tank met his needs. Two tanks were exported – with the support of President Roosevelt and as part of a diplomatic deal with Russian Foreign Minister Maxim Litvinov – to the USSR as “agricultural machinery.”
The Russians used the Christie design to built their first modern tank series known as the BT tank, which was initially equipped with an American “Liberty” engine that could churn out 450 hp (also facilitated by Roosevelt as a jobs project with Ford).
In 1939 BT tanks went into battle against the Japanese at Khalkhyn Gol in Mongolia. The battle plan followed by General (later Marshal) Georgi Zhukov followed the operational ideas proposed by Marshal Tukhachevsky. It worked, but the Russians realized the tank needed better armor, expansion of the sloped armor around the tank, and a larger gun. By 1940 Russia had that tank – the T-34, which was the immediate successor to the BT.
If Zhukov emerged as a hero, neither Tukhachevsky nor Khapeleskii were around to join in any celebration. Tukhachevsky was arrested in 1938, probably tortured and “confessed” to being part of a “fascist clique.” He was executed, probably in the same year. Khapeleskii was also tried as a traitor and shot, probably around the same time.
So the blockbuster and highly patriotic movie T-34 won’t recall the American inventor whose tank formed the basis of Russia’s World War II armored forces, nor will it remember the two Russian military leaders who never lived to see the forthcoming victory, murdered by Stalin and his thugs.
It would have been a better story if it told the whole truth.
Footnote: ‘T-34’ had the best opening weekend of all time for a Russian-made movie with around 713 million rubles (US$10.6 million) in takings, according to an industry newsletter, AFP reported on Friday.