Soviet BT tanks in combat – Part 2

Author: Ing. Radek Panchartek

Translated by Silentstalker

Part 1:

The Occupation

The biggest deployment of the BT tanks abroad was the assault on Poland, when the Soviets did set out to meet their ally, Nazi Germany. Units, that took part in the aggression against Poland were mostly mobilized in the western military districts: Belarus and Kiev special military districts to be exact. Altogether, the Soviets had about 2000 BT tanks at their disposal, 1617 of which were the BT-7 tanks.

The Belarussian Front was attacking from the north under the command of comandarm (“commander of the army”) Mikhail Kovalyov. His 15th Tank Corps of the 11th Army was equipped with 461 BT tanks, the 6th Tank Brigade had another 248 tanks, mostly BT-7. Timoshenko’s Ukraine Front had the largest amount of fast tanks, its 25th Mechanized Corps had 435 BT tanks, 23rd Tank Brigade had another 209 BT’s, 24th Brigade had 205 and the 10th Brigade had 30.

Here, Soviet tankers meet German soldiers as friends in Poland:


By the time they were attacked by the Germans, the Polish had roughly 880 tanks, 125 of which were the 7TP. Most were committed to fighting the Germans so when the Soviets stabbed the Polish cowardly in the back, the Polish defense definitively crumbled. Furthermore, no Polish tank was an equal match for the BT tanks. The 7TP tanks could match only the Soviet T-26′s – both tanks evolved from the same tank: the British Vickers 6-ton.

Despite their overwhelming superiority, the Soviets did not avoid losses, but compared to the defenders they weren’t high. Most of the BT tanks were – just like before – lost in city fighting, knocked out by Molotov cocktails and by AT grenades. Polish 40mm Bofors also proved to be effective, being able to penetrate the BT frontal armor.

Winter Debacle

The Polish campaign was barely over when the Soviet Union attacked Finland. The war was supposed to be swift. The Soviet estimate was 14 days – in fact, the Soviets were so sure by their victory they already printed invitations for the military parade in Helsinki, that was supposed to take place on 21.12. as a gift for Stalin’s 60th birthday. In armor, the aggressor outnumbered the defender 75-80 to 1. And those were only the units mobilized in the Leningrad district. The Finnish had only 32 tanks, most of which were leftovers from WW1, so the Soviet optimism was seemingly justified.

However, unlike in the Polish campaign, where the deployed units were mostly active ones, in Finland the Soviets deployed mostly the units activated in rear area districts, armed with mothballed tech from army reserves. The reason for this decision is not exactly known, because the Soviet army did not suffer from the lack of vehicles or armies. Most historians agree that it was supposed to be a mobilization test, with the combat experience gained against seemingly weak enemy being a bonus.

Finland however differed from other Soviet opponents apart from the spirit of the defenders with one more thing the Soviets underestimated: the climate. Transfers over frozen Karelia alone were quite requiring, but the Finnish built a whole bunch of anti-tank obstacles, usually heavily mined and covered by artillery fire. Forest notches proved to be a huge problem, as they were usually used by small anti-tank units for ambushes, retreating after the first strike to sometimes appear on the Soviet flank.

Rear part of the BT-7


In order to realize the extent of engineering works the defenders managed to set up we can show an example of the Soviet 13th Tank Brigade advancing towards Kiviniemi, that had to in one day overcome five anti-tank trenches and one of its companies lost 8 out of 10 tanks in minefields. This experience has exposed the fact that the units lack the means of tank recovery, so even lightly damaged tanks had to be left on the battlefield and destroyed in order not to fall in enemy hands. For example the 1st Light Tank Brigade only had one Komitern tractor, one Voroshilovets tractor and two STZ tracked tractors.

The assault on the Mannerheim Line also exposed the issue of tanks not communicating properly with the infantry. According to the logs of 91st Mixed Division chief of staff, the infantry, riding on tanks, dismounted at the first signs of enemy fire and scattered. The solution was the sugar and whip method, with generous rewards to those who held on and with penal batallions for those with weak will.

The experience from earlier fights was confirmed: the fast BT tanks – when not using their speed – were vulnerable both to AT gun fire and to improvised AT weapons because of their thin armor. In Finland, mines also took a heavy toll amongst the tank crews. Terrible cold and layers of ice also caused problems to the BT tanks. The fuel was freezing (especially the BT-7 tank diesel), metal parts were cracking and the tracks because of bad (or rather none whatsoever) grousers lost grip easily. The producers were bombarded with demands to rectify this. Another huge issue was the supply. A lot of tanks were not combat capable because they lacked fuel and many wounded froze to death, because noone took care of them. Again, just as an example, here’s a list of the total losses of the 13th Tank brigade (12.3.1940):

Artillery fire: 124 tanks
Mines: 64 tanks
Fires: 54 tanks
Stuck in snow (later recovered): 29 tanks
Technical reasons: 337 tanks

All in all, the “winter adventure” did cost the Soviet army the lives of 100 thousand men and the loss of 3500 tanks of all types.

To the Death

It’s an interesting parallel that just like the Soviets imagined they would win in Finland in 14 days, after the Soviet debacle in the Winter War, the Germans came to the conclusion that the Soviet Union would crumble within a few months. And that’s not all: same was the underestimation of the weather and the defenders’ resolution.

When the Wehrmacht crossed the Soviet border on 22.6.1941, it was vastly outnumbered. Only in tanks did the Soviet 5th Army outnumber them 5 to 1. Just like in the German army, the most common tanks of the Red Army were the light tanks. Of the 18290 tanks, 5083 were T-26′s, 2000 were the T-27 tankettes and 2500 were the amphibious T-37, T-38 and T-40. The most modern variants of the BT-7 fast tanks and its BT-7A and BT-7M versions were present near the western border in 3903 pieces. This amount was further increased by 1150 BT-5 tanks and 572 aging BT-2 tanks. Only 1067 T-34 tanks were available, supplemented by 442 three-turret T-28′s. The strongest opponents by far were the 579 KV heavy tanks. The rest of the tanks were flame, recovery and other special tank variants.

If we are to compare only the comparable tanks, when the assault occured, the Wehrmacht only had 965 Panzer III tanks in 16 tank divisions (mostly Ausf.E and F, partially G and H). German PzIII’s had the advantage of thicker armor, they were also wider, so there was more space inside, where 5 crewmembers could be placed with well distributed functions. The Karl Zeiss German optics were of traditionally good quality and the radios allowed to communicate both with headquarters and with single tanks. BT-7 tanks were more agile and faster, thanks to better power-to-weight ratio 23kw/t (compared to the Panzer III’s 10,5kw/t).

Despite all this, the conflict ended up as a tragedy for the Soviets. Apart from the initial element of surprise, that cannot be underestimated and apart from the well trained cooperation between Wehrmacht and Luftwaffe, there were other factors causing such a failure. First and foremost it was finally revealed that the entire concept of fast tanks is flawed. In usual combat conditions, the tankers almost never had the chance to use their vehicles’ high speed. On the other hand, the lack of armor was felt painfully. The Germans had the same experience with their Panzer III’s in France and Africa. The BT tanks were threatened not only by Panzer III’s and IV’s, but even by Panzer II’s, equipped with a 20mm gun, that could – while using AP ammo – penetrate the frontal armor of the older BT-2 and BT-5 tanks.

But the biggest problem by far was the tactics. Soviet units only rarely trained for defensive combat and the Soviet manuals never even mentioned such things as delaying actions. The worst was the order “never retreat” – it was because of this order that the Germans could take entire armies prisoners. The Winter War lesson about the importance of supply chains was unheard – the proof of that are the reports from the front-line units. For example the 16th Tank Regiment, that was practically wiped out, lost only 12 BT tanks to the enemy, all the others either had technical problems or ran out of fuel.

But despite all the failures, BT tanks laid down the foundation for modern Soviet tanks. Developing the concept gradually via the A-20, A-32 and A-34 prototypes, Soviet engineers reached the balanced T-34 tank concept, that later became the symbol of the Red Army victory. But the price for that, paid by Soviet tank crews, was enormous.

104 thoughts on “Soviet BT tanks in combat – Part 2

  1. In terms of the defenders’ attitudes, I would certainly depict the Soviets as “resolute”. But I’ve always described the Finns as “absolutely batshit insane”. I mean that in a good way, of course.

  2. Damn.
    Really can be said that the success of the Soviet Union was built on the bodies of it’s men.
    (not that most empires weren’t)

  3. “Polish border defence forces in the east—known as the Korpus Ochrony Pogranicza—consisted of about 25 battalions. Edward Rydz-Śmigły ordered them to fall back and not engage the Soviets” (с) wiki.

    Why such juicy order is not mentioned in article?

    >Most were committed to fighting the Germans so when the Soviets stabbed the Polish cowardly in the back, the Polish defense definitively crumbled.

    “By 17 September, the Polish defence was already broken and the only hope was to retreat and reorganize along the Romanian Bridgehead” (с) wiki again.

    And passages like “Soviets stabbed the Polish cowardly in the back” and “Despite their overwhelming superiority, the Soviets did not avoid losses” had good ole propaganda-style vibe. Soviet heritage at its best.

    • I am not a person to mistake ‘realpolitik’ for justice, so in my view, //politically speaking//, Stalin’s conquest of Poland was a well played move (post factum war crimes not included in that ‘well done’). However, one who would bitch about bias in this blog probably has historic justice in mind, and in that respect, what Stalin did was pure backstabbing, no amount of ‘juicy orders’ can help you there.
      In my opinion, one would have to be a very cold bastard indeed to absolve the Soviets from the shit they did in Poland only because “the nazis did worse”….

      • > no amount of ‘juicy orders’ can help you there.

        Order is”juicy” because polish supreme commander was ordered ordered not to resist the advance of the soviet forces. It is not a justification to soviet actions or something. It is just a historical fact.

            • Yes, order to preserve manpower because it is possible to evacuate and continue the fight from other country is quite smart. But how would you know that, with your alternative history books…

            • That was something like in Dunkirk. Save soldiers for future battles. No need to die in pointless, heroic defence.

            • it’s probably similar to how the french surrendered after their slow defensive forces ended up surrounded by the faster German divisions.

              ie: ‘we’re fucked anyway, no need to lose more men.’

            • Nope, they were not to surrender, but fall back. And eventually flee via Romania to west.
              And, funny thing, Poland never signed capitulation.

      • Backstabbing like polish annexation of western Ukraine or like polish annexation of Zaolzie?

        • First – western Ukraine was Polish land before partitions of Poland. Second – Zaolzie was captured by Czechs, when Poles were busy fighting with Russia in 1920, so in 1938 Poland just recaptured it.

          • And it was Lithuanian, or Ruthenian, or Rus, or whatever land before *that* depending on how far back you go. Could probably throw in any of the successive and long gone Iranic nomad empires of Antiquity while you’re at it…

  4. >Soviet tankers meet German soldiers as friends in Poland
    There were actual firefights between germans and soviets over Lvov. Germans gave up in the end. Friends my ass. Bear and wolf killed a white eagle and ate it, end of story.

  5. No. the article is total shit.

    >But the biggest problem by far was the tactics. Soviet units only rarely trained for defensive combat and the Soviet manuals never even mentioned such things as delaying actions

    Quote from PU-39 (Field Manual for ground forces, 1939 edition), chapter 10 – Defense, article 8 – Mobile Defense:

    ” The mobile defense is used in cases when the overwhelming superiority of the enemy eliminates a possibility of stubborn defense both at narrow and broad fronts. The mobile defense tries to win the time required to organize the defense on the new front, to concentrate forces in required area or to ensure freedom of action on another areas of operations”

    Delaying action straight from most basic and widely known soviet manual.

    >The worst was the order “never retreat” – it was because of this order that the Germans could take entire armies prisoners

    There was no such orders in effect ever. Even infamous order #223 only punished retreat WITHOUT superior commander authorization and this order was issued only in 1942 when almost no BT tanks were in service of the Red Army.

    • Perhaps the wording was wrong but the Soviet planners were firmly in the “cult of the offensive ” mind set they had too many offensive oriented units .Read zaloga’s paper on the evolution of soviet defensive tactics. At the start of the war the Soviets had stuff like 1 at gun per km of front .By 1943 it was 8 guns per km of front.. To give an example

      • > offensive oriented units

        What is “offensive oriented unit”? Armored formation is equally suitable for defense as it suitable for offense.

          • And you know – nation that fielded second largest number of specialized tank destroyers (USA) used them primary during offensive operations.

          • NOBODY had dedicated TDs at the time. Assault guns as cheaper infantry tanks or de facto direct-fire armoured artillery, OTOH… now those were in either active service (Germans) or on the drawing boards (French, maybe others).

  6. I see that in the part of the “Winter Debacle”, the source used in the article is shifting a portion of the blame to outside factors.
    The failure of getting to Helsinki in 14 days had NOTHING to do with weather. Mind you that the weather in the Karelian Isthmus doesn’t magically change after crossing the border, and the main fighting was still fought in pretty much identical weather area that e.g. Germans near St. Petersburg.
    See temperatures and rainfall data in:

    Also the segment:
    “However, unlike in the Polish campaign, where the deployed units were mostly active ones, in Finland the Soviets deployed mostly the units activated in rear area districts, armed with mothballed tech from army reserves. The reason for this decision is not exactly known, because the Soviet army did not suffer from the lack of vehicles or armies. Most historians agree that it was supposed to be a mobilization test, with the combat experience gained against seemingly weak enemy being a bonus.”

    The above statements are quite curious since the armor sent to Finland were same level equipment as went to Poland. For example the Finns captured more than 3000 SVT-38 Tokarjev semiautomatic rifles, which raises the question what mothballed equipment is that if mass-production had started in 1939?!?

    Also, the Finnish delegation was invited to Moscow to hear Stalin’s demands on 5 October 1939.
    The archival findings have shown that the Soviet forces who crossed the border in 30 Novemeber received their mobilization orders BEFORE 5 October. The attack began 30 Novemeber.

    • In my experience it’s actually colder around St. Petersburg than in southern Finland. Anyways, AFAIK the winter of ’39/40 was among the coldest of the period and more importantly the first-wave Soviet forces had insufficient winter kit.

      In practice the salient thing was, besides the truly appalling shambles the Red Army was in at the time, the blunt fact that the invader was an army whose doctrine, equipement and training were all oriented for mobile warfare in more or less open country trying to invade what amounted to dense trackless forests defended by an army geared from the ground up for fighting in such obstructive terrain.
      On which note, the similarly maneuver-oriented Germans tended to kinda flounder in the boreal forests too. Besides their comparatively slow going in the northern forest belt during Barbarossa there were recorded instances in Finland where the Finns had to rescue German units trapped in textbook “motti” encirclements by more wood-savvy local Soviet troops.

  7. SS and his propaganda as always, USSR and Nazi Germany weren’t “friends” They had several engagements when they meet in Poland “accidents” if you like.

    USSR was last to sign the deal with the Nazis.

        • It’s SS’s blog and it’s comment section. He can censor as much as he wants without it being against free speech. Do you think newspapers publish all the random shit they get into their mailboxes?

          “Serb” is free to express his opinions without fear of prosecution , it doesn’t mean his retardness couldn’t be moderated away.

      • Why you dont stop writing garbage then first? He pointed out obvious lies stated in the article. After all poland was one of the happy nations which partitioned you beloved motherland.

        • Obviously he didn’t, or else he would have provided evidence, Poland was a shithole to bad we obviously superior race didn’t get all of Poland but if we did that the ruskies would have gotten butthurt so fuck you subhuman.

          Poland deserved it, they refused to give back our German land so we fucked their arse in just 2 weeks.

      • If you really dig deep you would know that Russia despite being an ass while doing it and having their own ideas about “playing nice” did make some attempt at trying to maintain the treaty. It would be the Germans who refused to respond to Russian attempts at communications in the end. But then neither side really trusted the other and it becomes technical chess of offers and counter offers and blatant ignoring. Its in the details to say the least.

  8. That article is full of shit.
    75-80 Russians for every Finn?
    Russia making an aggresion against Poland? (What actually happened was that they liberated western Belarussia and Ukraine, at that time occupied by the Poles, which were an absolute minority in that area…)

    • I wonder how you learned to write, mate, since you obviously can’t read. It was 75-80 to 1 in armor. Also, according to your logic, Germany was “liberating” parts of Czechoslovakia after Munich treason, since in some of the regions the majority of inhabitants was German?

    • God! For example Polish “minority” in Lwow was around 80%. Also don’t forget, that Ukrainians or Belarusians didn’t want to be “liberated” by Soviets. They even welcomed Nazis with flowers in 1941.

      • Yep, that’s what soviet propaganda taught them: “minority”, which in fact had been majority…

        • Annexed? That was Polish land for around 500 years or so. Ever heard about partitions of Poland?
          It is very Russian style – steal something, and later cry, when owner wants it back.

          • So remind me again, how did it originally come to be “Polish land” in the first place? The last I checked around those times ownership was negotiated at the point of the sword, and “aquiris quodocum rapis” makes for a pretty poor foundation for a moral argument against someone else grabbing you shit by superior force…

            • It became “polish” (or polish-lithuanian, if somebody’s counting) by the grace of being a part of the lithuanian principality before the union, not by conquest. But I guess I shouldn’t really expect you to actualy know anything past some nationalistic drivel…

            • That’s like saying Hungary became “Austrian” due to the 16th-century de facto union with the Habsburg lands… ie. smells of tendentious bullshit to high heavens. BTW I went and looked up the history of the territory in question:
              Whaddya know, territory changed hands quite a bit back in the day and the city itself was founded by a Ruthenian (in modern terms Ukranian or Belarusian) principality and got eventually inherited by the Lithuanian monarchy.

              Somebody seems to be having a funny confusion of cencepts here.

              Because by that token Finland should be Swedish as fuck given that they owned the place for, oh, over half a millenia until the Russians kicked them across the Baltic…

    • lol soviets, liberating? hahahahahahahaha

      ask the Poles (or Ukrainians, for that matter) if the Soviets were liberators.

          • Yeah, why ELSE would they have fought against the Poles for independence on several occasions or loathe an invader who wanted (and insofar practicalities allowed tried to) to exterminate all Slavs up to the Urals?

    • Belarus was part of Poland (later Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth) for around 500 years and Belarusians were treated as Poles. So it is almost 100% sure, that SerB has Polish origins.

        • No, there were generaly no religion-based problems in Poland. Why there were so many Jews in pre-war Poland? Couse they were never persecuted! The same with calvinists, mennonits, arians, estern church and so on. There were even some muslins. Poland, in general was a tolerant country (ofcourse, it doesn’t mean there were no internal conflicts and antagonisms at all).

        • And you are pretty wrong. Poland was quite tolerant to other religions up till (post) 2nd world war

        • No. Poland was very tollerant country, with unbeliveable freedom of religion. Christians, Orthodox, Jews, Muslims, Protestants – they could live there in peace. That is why more than 50% of whole Jewish population in XVII century was living in Poland. For example Muslims were treated like aristocrats in Poland (Lipka Tatars) and they were very sespected knights. Jews were treated with respect and the main banker of Polish King Casimirus the Great was a Jew – Lewko. Main admiral of Polish fleet during the biggest battle of Polish navy (Oliwa 1627) was a Protestant – Arend Dickman, who even received state funeral, after his death during that battle.
          That ended, when Russia crushed this country.

          • Don’t be a fuckling wimp when your neighbours are the Muscovite Tsardom, the Austrian Empire and the freakin’ Prussia in their bellicose phases.

  9. I kind of miss numbers about amounts of BT-7 lost during invasion of Poland.
    Lost in fights and also lost during marches.

    • More like the period Soviet peculiarity of tossing the old officer ranks for reasons that IIRC amounted to distrust of the Army and bullshit Party infighting. Still had to call the officers *something*… You still run into “kombrigs” (brigade commanders) and the like when reading about Barbarossa.

      Having to try and roll back all this wanking around which had deliberately seberely eroded the authority of the officers right in the middle of a major life-or-death war then produced all manner of oddities, the least of which wasn’t a newfound obsession with rank-insignia regalia. The Allies were apparently a bit puzzled when the Soviet L-L wishlist included *gold braid* IIRC under “startegic resources”….

  10. Q: Why do you not make a post about the Nazi German – Polish non aggression pact that was especially crucial for when the Nazi’s annexed Czechoslovakia?

    Link about German – Polish pact :

    hint: replace Polish with Soviet and all of a sudden you have the Molotov Rivbentrop pact. Sadly . . .

    Also, it would seem the Poles didn’t fight the Soviets at all especially when you compare combat losses of the Germans and the Polish. This doesn’t mean Soviet policy was good. There is the Katyn massacre and many other Stalinist bullshit that they had to undergo, but in the end it was the Poles and Soviet troops that died to fight fascism. Armija Krajowa fought alongside the Red Army. . . All the way to Berlin. I take pride in this and I am of Polish ancestry, grandfather who fought in a T-34/85. I grew up watching czterej pancerni i pies, and now my country calls it communist propaganda because it shows scenes of RA and AK working together.

    So really, blame the soviet government for it’s horrid mistakes. But I don’t blame the brave men and women who died by the millions along mine to fight fascism. Don’t conflate the two please.

  11. Jentz & Doyles Panzer Tract volume about Beute Panzer contains some interesting information about the German opinion of the BT tanks. IIRC the BT’s were described as practically falling apart after reaching their top speed only once.

  12. Dear Sir. Before talking about “Stabbing Poland in the back” please learn history. I can send you the information if you choose so. Poland itself was VERY aggressive and, in fact was, for a while on VERY good terms with Hitler’s Germany, until Poland SUDDENLY, reversed their course. Number 2 – Stalin had NO choice but to occupy Poland, which, IS a Part of Russian Empire, if you remember. such ridiculous country as Poland was quietly divided between Prussia, Austro Hungary and Russia long ago. There WAS NO POLAND for 200+ years until LENIN permitted them (and Finns) to separate. In similar manner that there is no more independent state of Texas. Number 3. The “only attack” was NOT the main tactics of Soviets. The tanks do not fight one on one – the organizational structures do. Germans had definite advantage in such things as communications and cooperations. Soviet Mech Corpse, overloaded with tanks had very little infantry and artillery to support the tanks. Organizational problems. Later in War, Soviet Tank and infantry division gained organizational structure very much like wehrmacht divisions. The Germans had ENTIRE EUROPE making trucks for them, making the supplies MUCH easier, Russians had very few 2 ton and larger trucks. Kiev encirclement was made possible by Khruchev who promised Stalin that he will not “Permit Kiev to be taken”. As far as “broken down and abandoned tanks” the Wehrmacht will suffer same fate in 1943 and on. It is USUAL fate of a damaged tank when army retreats. You, Sir, may know a lot about the game, however, your knowledge of history is rather biased, due to american cold war propaganda. I can give you some literature to read and look up some info for you. Dear Sir, at risk of being rude, I suggest that you study the issue before commenting on it. Yes?

    • SS prefer to lie and talk about american propaganda history, he does not like real history, he’s obviously a czech loser who’s butthurt over our improvements of his country. we even removed the jews from his place and his all mad over it so fucking sad, to bad his family wasn’t gassed in our concentration camp.

    • … Facepalm…

      your post is just “beyond believe”. I hope you are a troll… otherwise I feel sorry for your parents to have such an imbecile in the family.

      After reading reading your post I came to the 2 conclusions:
      1) you are stupid as a bucket of nails
      2) you are a living proof how the brainwashing works (considering you had a brain before)

    • Don’t bring shame to your country, with your stupidity.
      Poland was captured by Russia for 123 years (not 200), but was still fighting for indendendence (Kosciuszko’s uprising, Napoleonic wars, 1831 uprising, 1861 uprising, 1846 uprising, 1848 uprising, 1905 riots). So in 1918 Poland regained indenpendece and fought bolsheviks, who were trying to capture that country again.It wasn’t given country. It was won country (battle of Warsaw 1920 – chceck wiki).
      Also Poland wasn’t aggresive country towards Soviet Russia. It was Soviet Russia, which was sending saboteurs to Poland – for example attack on Polish train at Luninec in 1924 or attack on Stolpce in 1924.
      So go back to school kid and learn about history of your criminal country. And do us a favour and never leave Russia.

  13. “18290 tanks, 5083 were T-26′s, 2000 were the T-27 tankettes and 2500 were the amphibious T-37, T-38 and T-40″
    Where do these numbers come from? A spreadsheet adding all tanks shows there would be over 20,000 tanks at the start of the war.