Science to convince: how innovative armor for the T-34 made its way

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Until now, the chemical composition of the technology for the production of armor for the T-34 tank, which was developed by a young engineer from the Izhora plant, Andrei Zavyalov, remains classified. By proposing a new method, he risked not only work, but also his life. Zavyalov was the only one who, in 1936, at a meeting with Stalin, spoke negatively about the existing Soviet tanks, calling them “walking coffins.” At the same time, the engineer was able to prove the need to modernize production and soon became the main organizer and driving force of the new tank concept. The innovative method of armoring tanks at that time largely determined the outcome of the decisive battles of the Great Patriotic War.

Perfect tank

The 37mm cannon of the German T-III tank posed no danger to the 45mm T-34 armor, while the 76mm T-34 cannon penetrated the 30mm T-III armor at all distances. Behind this superiority on the battlefield were science and people who fearlessly pushed new technologies forward. One of these innovators was the director of TsNII-48 (now TsNII KM Prometey. – Izvestia) Andrei Zavyalov. He proposed a new armor alloy and turret assembly technology that made the T-34 a work of military art. Moreover, the chemical composition and production technology of the T-34 armor have not yet been declassified.

– Yes, the compositions are not declassified. Many of our developments have not been declassified, – Alexey Oryshchenko, Director General of the Central Research Institute of KM Prometey, Corresponding Member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, confirmed this fact to Izvestia. He clarified that the chemical composition and technology of armor production developed by the institute ensured its exceptionally high quality and amazing projectile resistance, surpassing all analogues in the world.

Another know-how was the tower assembly technology. In 1939, TsNII-48, for the first time in the world, used layer-by-layer electric welding in the production of T-34 towers. At that time, the elements of tank turrets were everywhere connected by riveting. As a result, the joints are stronger and more reliable.

– Director of TsNII-48 Andrey Zavyalov made attempts to create molded armor – something that no one in the world even dreamed of at that time. And he did it, he developed technologies. Casting of the T-34 turrets began in late 1941 – early 1942. Krupp (the largest industrial concern in Germany – Izvestia), no matter how hard he tried to do it, could not until the end of the war, – stressed Alexey Oryshchenko.


Conveyor assembly of tanks at the Ural Tank Plant No. 183 in Nizhny Tagil, October 1942

Photo: RIA Novosti / Ivan Shagin

The use of foundry technologies in the creation of the towers played an exceptional role in the organization of production. The speed of their release has doubled. And the cost of the towers decreased by 40%, which, given the large scale of production of tanks, gave a multimillion-dollar savings. The transition to cast tank turrets drastically reduced their hit by shells, since it was casting that made it possible to give the turret an ergonomic shape, distributing the thickness of the armor in the right places. Scientists TsNII-48 have developed instructions on the tactics of fighting German tanks with a clear indication of their most vulnerable spots. This became possible thanks to numerous tests of the lethality of our and German vehicles by shells, which were carried out by the scientists of the institute.

Since 1942, the TsNII-48 took up the development of non-armored parts of the tank. Research was launched to improve the metallurgical production of tank and engine parts and mechanisms, to find high-strength and wear-resistant materials for new brands of tank diesel engines, and to work on the unification of technological processes.

Fateful turn

All this became possible thanks to the personal courage and perseverance of Andrey Zavyalov, said Alexey Oryshchenko.

In 1934, the 29-year-old Zavyalov headed the Central Factory Laboratory of the Izhora Plant in Leningrad. It developed a new tank armor. The production required a special composition of steel, strict adherence to production technology – smelting in an open-hearth furnace, casting into forging molds, forging ingots with upsetting. This was opposed by the old masters, who determined what and how to do on a whim. The conflict between the two technology schools went beyond the enterprise. The obstinate innovator was first fired, and then he was invited by the secretary of the Leningrad Regional Committee Andrei Zhdanov. After listening to Zavyalov, Zhdanov sent the engineer to Moscow for a meeting of the Labor and Defense Council, which took place on May 17, 1936.

– Tickets were bought one way. It was not clear whether he would return back or not, – said Oryshchenko.

At the meeting, everyone reported on their successes. And only the last speaker, Andrei Zavyalov, said about low technological discipline in production, about the insufficient reliability of the armor protection of tanks. He cited the results of tests of the 15- and 20-mm armor used at that time at the Izhora plant range. Even at a very low impact speed, firing not only from close, but also from a long distance with the smallest caliber of artillery shells, the armor pierced and split. That is, tanks with such armor, in the words of Zavyalov, were “walking coffins.”

According to Oryshchenko, he literally threw himself into the embrasure at that moment.

New armor

Together with the answers to Stalin’s questions, Zavyalov’s speech lasted about an hour. He proved the need to modernize production and became “the main organizer and driving force of a new tank concept, which was based not on the task of breaking through defenses and using firepower, but on the possibility of breaking through powerful anti-tank belts and oncoming tank battles.”, noted the student of Zavyalov, director of the Central Research Institute of CM “Prometheus” in 1977-2008, and then the president and scientific director of the institute in 2008-2015 Academician Igor Gorynin in his autobiographical book “Reflections with Optimism.”


Tankers receive a new batch of T-34 tanks to be sent to the front at a tractor plant in Stalingrad, August 1942

Photo: RIA Novosti / Georgy Zelma

That meeting with Stalin became the starting point for major changes in industry: the reassignment of factories and laboratories, the strengthening of the influence of science in production in order to create tanks that can withstand the impact of artillery shells. Zavyalov was not only reinstated at work – his laboratory received the status of a research institute. The director and chief engineer of the Izhora plant were removed from office, and Zavyalov was assigned to simultaneously perform the duties of deputy chief engineer and chief metallurgist of production.

New armor was developed at the end of 1937. In its composition, three times less expensive scarce nickel was used than before, and its durability was significantly higher. The new armor was also distinguished by the fact that the quenching was carried out in water, and not in oil, as before, which is extremely important in combat conditions.

When developing the T-34 tank, its chief designer Mikhail Ivanovich Koshkin used the full potential of these developments.

On the battlefield

The result is a legendary tank. The shape of its nose, the inclination at an angle of 45 degrees of the parts of the wheel arch liners, the strengthening of the armor protection of the most critical parts of the hull was achieved not so much by thickening the armor, but due to the location of the armor parts at large angles of inclination. The shape of the T-34 hull became classic and provided the best protection with the smallest dimensions and weight of the vehicle.

“When Guderian (inspector general of the armored forces of the German army. – Izvestia) attacked Smolensk, no one doubted that German troops would enter the city without a fight, as was the case elsewhere,” says Alexei Oryshchenko. – But he writes in his memoirs that as soon as the offensive began, they were suddenly not approached, but incomprehensible tanks ran out at high speeds and shot the entire advancing division in an instant. He further admits that at that moment he realized the terrible: the German troops had lost their leadership in the construction of tanks.

T-34 tanks during an attack on the right bank of the Dnieper

T-34 tanks during an attack on the right bank of the Dnieper

Photo: RIA Novosti

Heinz Guderian, in Memoirs of a Soldier, describes how his 24th Panzer Corps was subjected to a fierce counterattack northeast of Orel on 11 October 1941: “Many Russian T-34 tanks took part in the battle and inflicted heavy losses on German tanks. The quality superiority that we had until now has now passed to the enemy. “

Field Marshal Kleist stated: “Their T-34 was the best in the world.” General Blumentritt noted that “this tank adversely affected the morale of the German infantry.” General von Mellenthin considered the T-34 “the most significant example of an offensive weapon in World War II.”

After the war, the Central Research Institute of KM “Prometheus” developed compositions and materials for the hulls of the entire surface and submarine military and civilian fleets, as well as for the hulls of nuclear reactors with a service life of 100 years.