The Red Army accepted the T-18 infantry support tank, better known as the MS-1, into service on July 6th, 1927. This tank was developed by Soviet specialists and was for USSR the first truly mass produced domestic tank. The T-18 was the most numerous tank of the 1920s. More of them were built in the USSR than every other country produced tanks altogether.
An answer to Chamberlain
Successful trials of the support tank opened the road to production. On June 20th, 1927, even before the T-18 was officially accepted for service, the Orudatrest (Ordnance and Arsenal Trust, or OAT) held a meeting to discuss the production of these tanks. Various production schedules were proposed, none of which were as optimistic as those announced in March of 1923. The plan that was accepted at this meeting was very realistic. 927 tanks would be built in total: 12 in 1927-28, 175 in 1928-29, 200 in 1929-30, 240 in 1930-31, and 300 in 1931-32.
The Red Army Staff asked to expedite production of the T-18, but that was not so simple. Multiple factories were needed. The Bolshevik factory was a multi-purpose facility. It built guns and tractors, which nobody was willing to sacrifice in favour of tanks. Reorganization of production at Bolshevik was discussed at the meeting of the Military Industrial Directorate (VPU) on August 2nd, 1927. A decision was made to build a new building for production of tank and tractor engines. 100,000 rubles were issued to demolish the old gas factory and relocated it. Instead, the new factory building would be built. 597,000 rubles were issued to purchase new equipment. Another 330,000 was issued to produce tools and instruments necessary for tank production.
It was not simple to buy equipment abroad. Only Germany was willing to cooperate. Nearly all electrical equipment was bought there. Pallas carburettors were used n Soviet tank motors. The German anvil was used to forge the Soviet sword.
The plan for 1927-28 was corrected on September 17th. The OAT finally approved it on October 4th. Instead of 12 tanks, 23 were expected in this period. Production of 60 tractors was also expected. The plan for 1928-29 established a quota of 85 T-28 tanks and 80 tractors. After a new plant was built, Bolshevik was expected to put out 150 tanks and tractors as well as 300 aircraft engines per year.
At the same time, increase in production as a result of involving other factories was attempted. The Kharkov Locomotive Repair Plant (HPZ) could have been one of them. However, the T-18 was never built at HPZ. Instead, a decision was made to built a maneuver tank (medium tank) also designed by Shukalov.
The start of production was scheduled for October 1st, 1927. The last tanks would be delivered by October 1st, 1928. The factory, however, did not share in OAT's optimism. A meeting of Bolshevik factory management held on October 9th, 1927, established that 23 tanks could only be delivered if certain conditions were met. Among them was the delivery of additional tools, purchase of equipment and materials abroad, designation of a subcontractor for the cannons and machine guns, and expedition of work on tank armour. The factory also needed 80 highly trained workers, which were in deficit at the time. The factory asked to buy two years worth of supplies, both for tanks and tractors.
The equipment necessary to produce the first batch of tanks had not arrived by March of 1928. Meanwhile, another tank was added to the 23 that were expected to be built: nobody cancelled the assembly of the second T-16. In March of 1928 it was also decided to build the T-18 at a second factory in Perm. The cannons were produced in the same manner as those for the Russian Renault: Kalinin factory #8 disassembled Hotchkiss revolver cannons and used the barrels to make tank guns.
The military's appetites continued to grow. Chief of Supply P.E. Dybenko proposed the increase of the quota for 1928-29 from 85 to 110 tanks. Factory management replied that additional tools and workers will be needed. The quota remained.
Meanwhile, the factory received orders to develop the T-19 support tank. Development was initiated by the Red Army command. The tank was supposed to have a top speed of 25 kph. In April of 1928 Bolshevik was assigned the development of the T-12 maneuver tank. The engine was also going to be produced in Leningrad.
Many changes were introduced into the T-18 design in preparation for mass production. The front of the hull was changed. It was now composed of one big cast component that also held the idler mounts. The engine compartment was redesigned. The air intakes were changed completely, the muffler compartment was also changed. The suspension was changed after trials were held, as the designers finally got rid of rigid mudguards. Canvas mudguards that could be installed quickly were developed. Small changes were introduced into the driver's vision slit.
Unlike the T-16, the production tank had front and rear lights, as well as a horn. This equipment was produced by Bosch and imported. The turret was also changed. Instead of an evacuation hatch, a slot for a spare machine gun ball was installed. The BA-27 armoured car, which had the same turret, retained the T-16 design.
On April 18, 1928, an agreement was reached between the OAT and OSOAVIAKhIM (Society of Cooperation with Defense, Aircraft, and Chemical Industry) to deliver 30 support tanks without armament but with accessories and equipment. Each tank cost 26,500 rubles. According to the agreement, each tank received an inscription. The due date was October 30th, 1928. This deadline was not met.
Preparations for mass production began in the summer of 1928. The first production engine was tested. On June 12th, 1928, the first T-16 was given to the Frunze camp in Krasnogorod where it was used at the Mechanical Prime Mover courses. The tank was converted in the meantime: the biggest change was a cast front, which was still different than the one used on the T-18. The T-16 was used in this configuration.
By September 14th Bolshevik assembled 21 T-18 engines, 5 of which were already tested and 4 were being broken in. The situation with hulls was worse: 6 were asembled, 6 more were still in assembly, 3 more were being riveted. The factory did not have enough assemblers and rivets. In connection with the latter, OAT permitted the use of bolts. Many track links were defective and there were only enough for 14 tanks. Only 4 tanks were in the stage of final assembly. Factory management predicted that the quota for 1927-28 will be about a month late.
Even though not a single tank from the first batch was ready, the OAT design bureau was working on a modernized T-18. The second batch was supposed to have a new idler and different return rollers. The amount of rollers increased to 4 per side. The suspension was reinforced and deflectors were added to the springs.
The 23 tanks of the first batch still had to be built first. All engines were assembled by November 3rd, 16 went through trials. Of 23 hulls, 18 were finished. 7 tanks were delivered, 4 more were on trials, 3 were nearing completion. Assembly of hulls and engines for the final 7 tanks ordered by the OSOAVIAKhIM began on December 1st. 14 tanks had been accepted by then. All 23 tanks of the first series were presented for trials by the end of December.
The tank was quite successful. It weighed 5.9 tons and had a top speed of 15.5 kph. Trials showed satisfactory results, although various defects in the engine, suspension, and brakes were discovered. A list of necessary improvements was composed after the trials were completed.
The designation «MS-1 model 1927» that is often used today is wrong. MS-1 tanks were exclusively separated by production batches. The first T-18 received the serial number 301. All other tanks were numbered from there.
Tanks from the first batch had no electric starter. The first tank to receive it was #24, the first in the second batch. It became clear during the assembly of hulls and turrets that the edges of the plates delivered by the Izhora factory had to be polished. 152 changes were made to the design of the engine of the second batch of tanks and another 85 to other components. Instead of dual Fedorov machine guns, the new DT machine gun was installed. Despite some growing pains, the DT was a huge step forward. The installation of the DT required changes to the machine gun ball as well as the ammunition racks.
Work on changes to the Hotchkiss gun began in 1926. The second variant of the gun, developed in 1927, was used in the first batch of tanks. The third variant was ready by 1929. It had a universal stock and an altered optical sight. Unlike the previous variants, this gun was built from scratch. The first samples were ready in 1929, but these guns had issues with the barrels.
In the summer of 1928 it became clear that the tanks did not fit into the price established by the contract. By October 1st, the factory spent 37,500 rubles per tank. The final price was established at 45,000 rubles. The factory asked the OAT to not set a concrete price for each of the 78 tanks due in 1928-29. Each tank of the first batch ended up costing 57,000 rubles to produce, the second batch cost 46,000 each.
The delivery of the first tanks of the second batch was interrupted by a flood in Leningrad that began on December 18th and continued until early January of 1929. Water began to flood some of the production plants and some workers had to be redirected to deal with the disaster. The flood also caused a delay in gunnery trials of the first batch of tanks. The final delivery of the tanks hinged on replacement of certain parts with new ones. The first two T-18s were only delivered by the end of March of 1928.
Tanks produced by order of the OSOAVIAKhIM had the slogan «Our answer to Chamberlain» painted on the right side. The left side had the inscriptions «Farm worker», «Moscow Metalworker», «Soviet Trade Union Member», «USSR Mountain Worker», «Railroad worker — sentry of the USSR». These tanks took part in a parade on November 7th and were later used for training. 3 tanks went to warehouse #37, 16 tanks t the 3rd Tank Regiment, 10 to the Amour Command Courses. Another atnk was sent to the Motovilikha Machinebuilding Factory in Perm, where production of the T-18 was starting.
Work on the second batch of tanks (78 units) began in April of 1929. Final assembly began in the summer. 42 hulls had been started by June 29th, 1929, of which 29 were finished. 30 engines were started, of which 8 were finished. 8 tanks were finished.
Another design change had to be made. The ribs of the drive sprocket on nearly all produced tanks began to crack. Steel cast drive sprockets were introduced. Tanks of the first batch were the first to receive them. Experiments were performed on the T-16 as well. Solid metal road wheels were tested instead of ones with rubber rims.
21 tanks from the second batch entered warranty breaking-in maneuvers by July 25th, 1929. The number of completed tanks increased to 40 by September 1st, 15 of them were already sent out of the factory. By September 23rd 50 tanks were completed. The tanks of the second batch were fully delivered in November of 1929.
Modernization with eagle claws
Work on several topics relating the the support tank was underway in the spring of 1929. First of all, development of the T-19 tank with a 75 hp engine and new running gear began. Its expected top speed was 25 kph. Second, the T-18 bis project was started. This tank developed into the T-20. This was the same T-18, but with improvements and higher mobility. Thirdly, a modernization of the third batch of T-18 tanks (150 units) was proposed on March 7th, 1929. The engine would be supercharged to 45 hp, making the tank faster. The top speed was supposed to rise to 18 kph. However, the factory was sceptical of this proposal. There were doubts about the reliability of the supercharged engine.
Shukalov proposed decreasing the armour of the second batch of tanks from 16 to 14 mm. The protection would remain the same due to increased quality of the plates. The turret would also receive a rear bustle. This was due to the development of the new more powerful 37 mm B-3 gun and plans to install a radio. The list of improvements also included cast track links without rivets. The new links were more reliable and had better traction, even receiving the nickname «eagle's claw». New idlers (blueprint 1-18-251), return rollers (1-18-233), and drive sprockets (1-18-239) were also designed. The muffler design changed now it had a one piece casing.
The factory management's pessimism was justified. Trials of the supercharged engine showed that the military needs to curb its appetite. A decision was made in July of 1929 to increase the power only to 40 hp, not 45. The tank would also receive a new 4-speed gearbox, but it had to be tested on a tank from the second batch first. The support rollers and road wheels were the same, but the idler and carriers of the drive sprockets changed. The issue of the drive sprockets was still not resolved. Something also had to be done with defects of rubber rims supplied by the Red Triangle factory.
Production quotas increased. Now the third batch numbered 180 tanks. The first 5 were expected in January of 1930, 10 in February, 15 in March, and 25 per month starting in April. These expectations were not aligned with the factory's abilities. The number of tools had to be increased to put out 25 tanks per month. Despite this, the quota increased again in early 1930, this time to 305 tanks.
The idea of joining plates by welding instead of rivets arose in early 1930. This solution was inspired by the Germans, which tested their tanks at the TEKO proving grounds in Kazan since the summer of 1929. Welding made for tougher joints and the hulls ended up cheaper. The transition to welding was supposed to be quick, but experimental work took a long time. The first welded hull was ready at the Izhora factory on July 28th, 1930. There are claims that production of welded hulls for the MS-1 was set up, but that is not the case. The development of the 4-speed gearbox also dragged on. The third batch of tanks was built without it.
The increase in quota had little effect on output: 34 tanks were ready by May 31st, 23 of which were delivered. By October 18th 216 tanks of the 305 tank quota were delivered. The rest were completed in one burst without turrets, as the Izhora factory had not delivered them. By the morning of November 1st, the factory reported that 312 tanks were ready in some form or another. 238 tanks were presented for trials on November 10th. 151 passed. 82 turrets were missing.
This situation triggered a check by the OGPU and caused the first wave of repressions that his the Soviet tank industry. Management at Bolshevik, Izhora, and other factories were arrested. Some designers from the OAT were arrested as well, including N.V. Tseits. The eventual productin totalled 305 units, the last of which were completed after the deadline.
Issues with hull production seriously limited the output. The reports from the factory are very interesting. Starting from the fall of 1930, there is a serious disconnect between them and the data sent to the Directorate of Mechanization and Motorization (UMM). For instance, the factory delivered 90 additional tanks in the last 3 months of 1930. In reality, these tanks were not delivered until the spring of 1931. The real production during this time, including 12 tanks built by the Motovilikha factory, was 317+90 tanks, or 407 in total. A number of reference books claim that 317 tanks were built in 1929 and 1930. This has to do with the change in the reporting system. In reality the first 407 tanks include tanks built in early 1931.
Tank production in the last 3 months of 1930 coincided with design changes that tanks in the 4th production batch were supposed to receive. A reinforced suspension and the 4-speed gearbox were used. Three types of drive sprockets were tested in November of 1930. The best one was the tulip-shaped design (blueprint 19595) which was put into production close to the end of December of 1930. Another change was shifting the rear light to the left.
720 tanks were expected in 1931, but by November of 1930 this number was reduced to 550. The number was later decreased several times over (to 144), but this was linked to grandiose plans for construction of 555 T-20s and 25 T-19s. However, these tanks remained on paper. The T-18 received a dangerous competitor: the Vickers Mk.E tank, accepted into service as the T-26. Shukalov tried to stand up for his tanks, but the Red Army understood that the British tank was better. Its mobility surpassed only only the T-18, but any other similar tank designed by the OAT. The British tank was also simpler, and even the two-turret variant could theoretically be armed with a 37 mm gun. A decision to begin producing the T-26 at the Bolshevik factory was made by February of 1931.
It's hard to get this story straight due to constantly shifting plans. For instance, Bolshevik planned to build 370 tanks, but the T-18 disappears from the factory's plans in the second half of the year. In reality, 1931 was the most productive for the T-18. The 4th batch was the most numerous. 430 tanks were ordered and presented for trials by January 1st, 1932. Factory documents show that 750-790 tanks were built in this time. This is physically impossible, since as of March 1932 the Red Army only had 959 T-28 tanks in service.
12 tanks of the third batch and 15 tanks of the fourth were built in Motovilikha. It was clear by the spring of 1931 that normal production rates were impossible to achieve here. The Revolutionary Military Soviet met on May 8th, 1931, to revise the tank program. A decision was made there to let the factory finish 10 tanks and not order any more from there.
In total, the two factories combined produced 961 tanks, including the experimental T-16. Soviet tank production made a step forward, if not a huge leap. No country in the world could build such an amount of tanks at the time. The USSR became a leading tank building nation.
The T-18 tanks from the first production batch were mostly spread out between training units and are nearly impossible to see on film. The first 7 tanks from the second batch that were paid for by the OSOAVIAKhIM suffered a similar fate. At least they were photographed on November 7th, 1929, when the T-18 was first presented to the general public.
Most of the T-18s were gathered in the Combined Mechanized Regiment by the end of the summer of 1929. It had 28 tanks of this type, 13 of which were from the first batch and the other 15 from the second. The regiment took part in large scale exercises held in Belarus in September of 1929. The most common defects were wear of the drive sprockets (18 vehicles) and breakdown of the road wheels (27 vehicles). Despite this, the tanks turned out fairly reliable. One of the causes for these breakdowns was that drivers were insufficiently trained.
Complaints about the low speed of the T-18 were already being made. This is why the T-19 and faster variants of the T-18 were developed.
The debut of the first mass produced Soviet tank took place in the fall of 1929. The Red Army was taking a part in the conflict on the East China Railroad at this time. 10 T-18 tanks arrived as reinforcements to support the offensive of the Special Red Banner Far East Army. One tank was severely damaged during unloading and was used for spare parts. The combat debut of Soviet tanks took place on November 17th, 1929, during the Manchuria-Zhalainuo'er Operation. The tanks had a big effect on the battle. China asked for a ceasefire only a few days after. That marked the end of the East China Railway conflict. The T-18 no longer participated in battle, at least not as a tank.
The 1st Mechanized Brigade took part in maneuvers conducted by the Belarus and Moscow Military Districts from August 20th to October 1st, 1930. The 2nd regiment of the brigade was armed with 61 T-18 tanks, the 1st regiment had 3 Carden-Loyd Mk.VI tankettes. As in fall 1929 maneuvers, the T-18 was too slow. The military needed a more mobile tank with a top speed of 35-40 kph. There were also complaints about poor visibility from the turret.
The brigade was armed with tanks from the third batch, which were the subject of additional complaints. The turret was out of balance due to the bustle. A proposal was made to swap the cannon and machine gun and move the seat in order to resolve this.
Tankers also complained about hitting their head on the walls of the turret. A tank helmet came in handy here, inspired by the Germans. Interestingly enough, the Germans themselves abandoned their helmet and adopted the Swedish model 1926 beret. Meanwhile, the German design evolved into the Soviet tank helmet that is still used in its various forms today.
By March 1st, 1931, over 500 T-18 tanks were in the field. The greatest amount was in the Independent Training Regiment of the Moscow Military District (103 tanks) and in the 2nd Tank Regiment of the Leningrad Military District (104 tanks). These tanks were a learning tool for Soviet tankers. Despite its numerous flaws, the T-18 was a truly mass produced tank that finally allowed new tankers to be trained. Most analogous foreign vehicles at the time were no better than the Soviet tank.
The peak of the T-18's career was reached in the spring of 1932, when 959 tanks were in service. Most of them (141 units) were in service with the 2nd Tank Regiment of the Leningrad Military District.
Bolshevik began producing T-26 tanks in the second half of 1931. It was clearly superior to the T-18. A third of the tanks were relegated to training units by the spring of 1932. In the summer of 1933 there were 485 T-18 tanks in combat units, about half of all produced. On May 16th, 1934, 59 T-18s were transferred to military academies, and 250 tanks were given to the OSOAVIAKhIM. The T-18 served its term and slowly made room for more advanced tanks.
862 T-18s were left by 1938, worn out and completely obsolete. Of them, 160 were used in the Leningrad Military District as fortifications. On August 1st, 1938, a decree #180ss of the Committee of Defense titled «On utilization of non-standard old types of tanks in the Red Army» was passed. It decreed that 2 T-18 tanks would be sent to the museum at the NIBT Proving Grounds and the rest would be turned into fortifications. 70 of these tanks were rearmed and equipped with 45 mm guns.
A number of T-18 tanks remained in working order until the summer of 1941. At least, some of these vehicles can be seen in German photos. Alas, not a single tank with intact running gear, let alone a working engine, survived to this day. All tanks dug up in fortification regions are empty inside and their running gear was removed. Even the original front hull part was preserved on only one tank, which is now on display at the Museum of National Military History. Only a few original track links remain as well.
Translated by Peter Samsonov. Read more interesting tank articles on his blog Tank Archives.
- Russian State Military Archive;
- Russian State Archive of Economics;
- Central State Archive of St. Petersburg;
- Gennady Malyshev's archive;
- Author's photo archive;
- Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents.