I was thinking about writing this article for quite some time, but there was never enough information on this man, strangely enough. It’s odd, because Alexej Surin was Czechoslovakia’s best and most famous tank designer probably of all times, yet noone seems to know too much about him and the information was gathered mostly from I.Pejčoch’s and V.Francev’s books. I did not gather them myself either, they come mostly from one post on one certain forum in Czech.
It’s a damn shame really, because this is a person more people should know about. Since the post is about a Czechoslovak person, I will be using Czech versions of names.
Alexej Michajlovič Surin was actually not a native Czechoslovak – he was born in the Russian Empire (nowadays Ukraine) in a village called Polichkovka in the Kharkov district on 10.2.1897. His father was a farmer (not a poor one) and that allowed him to recieve higher education at Kiev Polytechnic Institute – military artillery school. He graduated there with the rank of 2ndLt in the army. He begun his career as a soldier and fought in the second half of WW1 as an officer in the Tsarist Russia army. After the bolshevik coup in 1918, he fought against them with White Russians and after their loss, he decided to leave Russia for good.
He drifted for a while, visiting Turkey and Yugoslavie, only to end up in Czechoslovakia years later. He decided to settle down in Prague and found a job as a worker at ČKD. His superiors quickly noticed his exceptional skills and from 1925, he was promoted to the design department, where he started designing weapons, something he did for the majority of his life.
His first “big” project was the development and modifications of the Kolohousenka project hull, on which he worked from 1925 to 1927. In 1930, he was tasked with modyfing a Carden-Loyd tankette and this is where his real career started. Despite speaking Czech, he still had his Russian citizenship, but that changed in 1932, when – after being pressured by ČKD – the authorities gave him Czechoslovak citizenship. His talent was recognized once again in 1933, when he was personally ordered by the ČKD leadership to build a tank design bureau, designation SPE. His improved Carden-Loyd tankette was in the meanwhile accepted into service (becoming the infamous “Tančík vz.33″ tankette – not his best moment). Despite the “warm” welcome the tankette recieved, Surin moved on to work on the LT-34 light tank (again, accepted in service – it was actually not a bad vehicle) and then he started working on LT-34′s successor, the P-IIa. P-IIa was a direct competitor to Škoda’s Š-IIa. Škoda eventually won the army contract (under suspicious circumstances – Škoda’s proposal was not superior, but Škoda had tight relationship with the “Agrární strana” party, a dominant pre-war political body of Czechoslovakia) and the Š-IIa became the famous LT-35. There was one more failure (the P-IIb project) in his life after this, but from that point on, his career only rose.
The smallest tank he designed was the AH-IV tankette, a very successful export model (especially to Sweden, Iran and Romania, but some of these vehicles actually fought in Ethiopia until the 70′s, being possible the last purely Czechoslovak design to be ever used in battle). His other successful project include the LTP/LTH for Peru and Switzerland and LTL for Lithuania. LTL never reached Lithuania because of the Russian invasion and the entire batch was sold to Slovakia under the designation of LT vz.40 (or LT-40).
But Surin’s greatest creation by far was the TNH and its derivate, the LT vz.38 (or LT-38, the WoT players probably it as Panzer 38(t)), which by the time it was introduced was (and still is) considered by many to be the best light tank in the world. Modern, agile and rugged, this vehicle (in German service) was superior to the Panzer II and appeared in the Polish, French and Russian campaigns. Its hull later served as a basis for several self-propelled guns projects, such as the Grille, or Jagdpanzer 38(t).
Surin also worked on medium tank design before the war. His most advanced pre-war design was Praga V-8-H, a decent medium tank, which was considered for Czechoslovak service until the Munich treason. Surin was also interested in the business side of the export and frequently visited the countries, interested in purchases of “his” tanks. He was held in high regard particularily in Sweden, where he recieved the highest award a non-citizen could recieve, the Order of Vasa.
When Czechoslovakia was occupied by Germans, Surin continued to work on various LT-38 based projects (such as the Grille and the Jagdpanzer 38t). He had no love for Germans, he tried to avoid them as much as possible and was practically blackmailed to work. Unfortunately for him, he was already famous at that point and Guderian personally asked him to evaluate German tank designs. Surin however refused. For his work on various projects, he was actually nominated for the nazi Imperial Eagle award in 1944, a “honor” he did not want, he in fact made it so he didn’t have recieve it – his cousin was a doctor and together, they faked an Angina Pectoris attack and he was listed as “sick” until the end of the war.
After Czechoslovakia was liberated by the Soviet army, NKVD arrested Surin and interrogated him for three days, but found no reason to hold him for nazi collaboration. The investigator noted that Surin never did anything beyond what he was forced to do. He was allowed to work at ČKD – his post-war project include the G-13 (Jagdpanzer 38t for Switzerland), AH-IV-Hb (export tankette for Ethiopia), TNH modification (TNH 57/900) and the ultimate (and last) Czechoslovak tank project, the TVP. After 1950 however, he was forced (this time by communists) to help implement the production of T-34/85 tanks in Czechoslovakia and he left the design department for good, after the production was moved to Slovakia for strategic reasons. Famous SPE department ceased to exist after Soviet pressure and Surin moved to designing piston compressors, where he worked until his retirement in 1960. Between 1961 and 1963, he returned to work, this time as a consultant for heavy armored vehicle production on Slovakia. According to some accounts, he worked until the end of his life on gas turbine engine and transmissions for a wheeled armored vehicle.
Alexej Surin died in 1974 in Prague and is buried here in Ďáblice cemetery.