T-26 Light Tank

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Introduction

The T-26 Light Tank was produced in greater numbers than any other pre-war Soviet Tank, and was the most numerous tank in Red Army service in June 1941. By then the T-26 was a ten-year old design, based on an even older British design, and the vast majority of the 11,000 T-26s in service were quickly destroyed.

The T-26 was based on the British Vickers 6 ton E Light Tank. This came in two versions – the model A, with two side-by-side machine gun turrets, or the model B with a single gun in a larger turret. The first T-26s were licence-built copies of the Vickers “E” model A, but the majority of T-26s would carry a single Soviet-designed turret on the Vickers chassis.

I. A. Khalepsky of the Directorate of the Mechanization of the Red Army purchased the first Vickers E Light Tanks on 28 May 1929, and they reached the Soviet Union during 1930.

Soviet tank designers were then given the chance to produce their own modified versions of the Vickers tank. Two prototypes – the TMM-1 and TMM-2 were built – but neither was as good as the Vickers design, and it was the Vickers E that was put into production.

On 13 February 1931 the Revolutionary War Council decided to put the T-27 tankette (itself based on a British design) and the T-26 into mass production. They were thus contemporaries for the German Panzer I and Panzer II. The T-27 was to carry out battlefield reconnaissance while the T-26 was to provide direct support for the infantry during the breakthrough stage of a battle. The Red Army’s “Deep Battle” plan was very similar to the German Blitzkrieg, and planned for the close support tanks to break the enemy line before the faster exploitation tanks (the BT series) broke out into the enemy’s rear area, causing chaos and confusion.

Responsibility for the production and development of the T-26 was given to a design team created specifically for the purpose at the Bolshevik Factory in Leningrad (renamed the Zavod Nr.185 (S. M. Kirov) in 1935). This team, the Opytniy konstruktorsko mekhanicheskiy otdel (OKMO) or Experimental Design Mechanical Section, was led by N. Barykov and S. Ginzburg, and had the job of modifying the Vickers design for Soviet production.

Variants

T-26 Model 1931

T-26 Model 1931
T-26 Model 1931

The first version of the T-26 to enter production was based on the twin-turreted Vickers E type “A”. This most unusual looking vehicle was armed with two DT 7.62mm machine guns carried in identical turrets mounted side by side. Each turret could traverse around 265 degrees, giving an overlap of 85 degrees to the front and rear in which both guns could fire, and larger 95 degree areas to either side where only one gun could be brought to bear.

The T-26 Model 1931 was produced in a variety of versions. All carried the 7.62mm gun in the left turret. Some replaced the right hand gun with either a larger machine gun or a 37mm gun, normally used in specific commander’s tanks.

T-26 Model 1933

T-26 Model 1933 Light Tank disabled in Finland
T-26 Model 1933 Light Tank disabled in Finland

The biggest change to the design of the T-26 came in 1933, when the twin turrets of the Model 1931 were replaced by a single larger turret, carrying a proper tank gun. At first attempts were made to mount a license-built Rheinmetall 37mm gun in the left hand turret, while the right hand turret was removed, but this arrangement was not a success.

Instead the gun was modified to produce the 45mm Model 1931 anti-tank gun, and the OKMO and KhPZ at Kharkov were ordered to create a turret that could carry the new gun. Their first effort was a straight sided cylindrical turret with a small square rear bustle to balance the gun, and a single hatch in the roof. On production vehicles the front half of the turret remained cylindrical and straight sided, while the rear was extended back and given straight edges. Two turrets were placed in the roof.

Early versions of the Model 1933 carried a single coaxial machine gun in the turret, and were made of largely welded construction. In combat the tank crews discovered that machine gun fire hitting the outside of the rivet could break off the inner half, which would then fly around the inside of the tank at high speed, and so later versions of the turret used all-welded construction. By the end of its production run the Model 1933 two more machine guns had been added to the turret – one in a ball mounting at the rear of the turret and an anti-aircraft gun carried on the turret roof.

T-26S Model 1937

After the failure of the T-46 project S. Ginzburg and his team at OKMO were ordered to modernise the T-26. The resulting T-26S Model 1937 was given 25mm frontal armour and a new turret with thicker sloping armour.  

The T-26S Model 1937 is normally said to have been armed with the Model 1938 45mm gun. Some sources refer to a T-26S Model 1938, which may suggest that this new gun was introduced after a number of Model 1937s had been produced.

T-26S Model 1939
T-26S Model 1939

T-26S Model 1939

The final version of the T-26S was given a redesigned wider superstructure with sloped sides. This increased the effectiveness of the side armour, and provided the space for extra fuel and ammunition. The turret was given a drop-forged or cast mantlet, which simplified the manufacturing process. As a result the T-26S Model 1939 looked a far more modern vehicle than the earlier Model 1931 or Model 1933, but in fact was still very vulnerable to anti-tank weapons. 

T-26E

During the Winter War with Finland it became clear that the 25mm frontal armour of the T-26S was vulnerable to modern anti-tank weapons. In an attempt to improve the usefulness of the T-26 extra 25mm armour plates were added to a number of tanks to produce the T-26E.

Flame Throwers

The T-26 was used as the basis of a series of flame thrower tanks. First was the OT-26, based on the twin turreted Model 1931. This was followed by the OT-130 and OT-133, based on the Model 1933, and finally by the OT-134, the only version to keep its 45mm gun. These flame thrower tanks were very vulnerable in combat, for they had to get within very close range of their target while carrying a heavy load of fuel for the flame thrower protected only by the thin armour of the T-26.

Combat Record

Spain

The combat debut and heyday of the T-26 came during the Spanish Civil War, where just over 300 T-26 Model 1933s fought on the Republican side. The 45mm gun of the T-26 gave it a distinct edge over the German and Italian tanks supporting Franco’s Nationalists, to such an extent that the Nationalists were willing to pay a bounty for any captured T-26s. Even during this relatively successful combat debut the thin armour of the T-26 proved to be vulnerable to the 37mm anti-tank guns in use in Spain. The T-26S Model 1937 was produced in response, but the chassis of the T-26 could not carry much more weight. 

Far East

The situation was not so encouraging during the fighting at Lake Khasan in 1938 or Khalkin Gol in 1939. The 45mm gun of the T-26 was more than capable of defeating the Japanese tanks encountered during these battles, but once against Japanese anti-tank weapons proved capable of inflicting heavy losses on the T-26 formations.

Finland

Worse was to come during the Winter War against Finland. Just before the start of the war in November 1939 the Soviet Armoured Corps had been abolished, and the new weaker Armoured Divisions suffer massive losses during the fighting. At least 1,600 tanks were lost, and given the preponderance of the T-26 in the tank divisions at the end of 1939 a large number of T-26s must have been lost in the fighting. In the aftermath of the Winter War the Armoured Corps were reformed, and lessons learnt in the fighting would have a big impact on future Russian tanks, but for the moment the T-26 had to fight on.  

1941

T-26 Light Tank, late 1941
T-26 Light Tank, late 1941

The T-26S is often compared unfavourably to the German tanks it was to face in 1941, and in two crucial aspects it did indeed fall down. All three of the main German tanks of 1941 – the Panzer II, Panzer III and short-gunned Panzer IV were much faster than the T-26, with top speeds of 24-25mph compared to the 17mph of the T-26. All three were also better armoured than the T-26, with 50mm frontal and 30mm side armour standard on the Panzer III and IV and 30-15mm armour on the Panzer II. However these comparisons are not entirely valid. Both the Panzer III and Panzer IV were twice the weight of the T-26. Only the Panzer II was in the same weight class as the T-26, while all three German tanks were newer designs than the T-26. The big strength of the T-26 was its 45mm main gun, which if used properly could have inflicted heavy losses on the invading Germans, who would soon discover that their own tanks were badly under-armoured. 

In June 1941 there may have been as many as 11,000 T-26s in service with the Red Army, but the vast majority were lost in the first few weeks of fighting. Mechanical faults probably accounted for half of these losses, with the tanks abandoned as the Red Army was forced back. Poorly trained and badly led Soviet tank crews had little chance against the expert German panzer troops during the fighting of 1941, and even less when forced to fight in the thin-skinned T-26.  

Different sources give slightly different production figures for the main variants of the T-26. Somewhere between 1,150 and 1,625 twin-turreted Model 1931s were produced in 1931-33. 5,000-5,500 of the Model 1933 were produced in 1933-1937, making it the most numerous of all versions. Figures for the total number produced vary between 11,000 and 12,000, which leaves room for 4,400-5,300 of the later Model 1937 and Model 1939.

Statistics

T-26 Model 1931
Length: 4.8m/ 15ft 9in
Width: 3.4m
Height: 2.08m
Weight: 8.6 tons
Armour: 6-15mm
Main Gun: 37mm Model 28
Secondary Armament:  DT 7.62mm machine gun

T-26 Model 1933
Length: 4.8m/ 15ft 9in
Width:  3.41m
Height: 2.41m
Weight: 9.4 tons
Armour:  15mm front, 6mm side
Main Gun: 45mm Model 32
Secondary Armament: DT 7.62mm machine gun

T-26 Model 1937
Length: 4.8m/ 15ft 9in
Width:  3.41m
Height: 2.41m
Weight: 10.5 tons
Armour:  25mm front, 6mm side
Main Gun: 45mm Model 38
Secondary Armament: DT 7.62mm machine gun

T-26S Model 1939
Length: 4.8m/ 15ft 9in
Width: 2.39m/ 7ft 10in
Height: 2.33m/ 7ft 8in
Weight: 10.3 tons
Armour 25mm (frontal)
Main Gun: 45mm Model 38
Secondary Armament: Two 7.62mm machine guns
Speed: 28 km/hr/ 17mph
Range: 125 miles

Books

Russian Tanks of World War II, Stalin's Armoured Might, Tim Bean and Will Fowler. A good overview of the development of Soviet Tanks from the early models based on British and American originals to the excellent Russian designed T-34 and the heavy IS tanks. Bean and Fowler also look at the development of Soviet tank doctrine, the impact of Stalin's purges on the tank forces, and their use in combat from the small-scale clashes in the Far East to the apocalyptic fighting on the Eastern Front between 1941-45. A little lacking on precise details of the sub-variants of some of the tanks, but otherwise very good. cover cover cover

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How to cite this article: Rickard, J (11 September 2008), T-26 Light Tank , http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_t-26_light_tank.html

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