Back to the Drawing Board: T-35 Heavy Tank

David Porter on Military History's doomed inventions.

The British multi-turret Vickers A1E1 ‘Independent’ heavy tank, which was extensively tested between 1926 and 1929, aroused intense worldwide interest. This interest was especially strong in Russia, where design studies of similar tanks began in 1930.

The most extreme proposal was for a 100-ton monster armed with a 107mm gun, two 45mm guns, and five machine-guns in a main turret and four sub-turrets. This was rejected as impractical and attention shifted to a smaller design, the T-35, which still required an 11-man crew. Prototypes were completed in 1932 and the tank entered production the following year.

Soviet Russia’s doomed super-heavy T-35 tank – lots of firepower and lots of breakdowns. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

It was certainly an impressive-looking vehicle. Most production models were armed with a short-barrelled 76.2mm gun and up to three machine-guns in a central turret. In addition, there were four sub-turrets, of which those at the front-right and rear-left each carried a 45mm gun and a coaxial machine-gun, while smaller sub-turrets at front-left and rear-right each mounted a single machine-gun.

In theory, this mass of weaponry allowed each T-35 to deal with any opposition – the HE rounds of the 76.2mm were effective against anti-tank guns, the high-velocity 45mm weapons could penetrate any contemporary tank at normal battle ranges, and the multiple machine-guns could bring devastating fire- power to bear against enemy infantry.


The reality, however, was very different. The T-35 was so unreliable that it was liable to break down well before reaching the battlefield. In part, this was due to its extreme length/width ratio – 9.72m long by 3.20m wide – which made steering very difficult and put immense strain on the transmission.

The large armoured skirts protecting the suspension also caused problems: debris frequently built up between the drive sprockets and the skirts, which eventually immobilised the tank by jamming the tracks.

The sheer size and complexity of the design meant that construction was very slow. Only 61 vehicles, including two prototypes, were completed by the time that production ended in 1938. The T-35s equipped a single battalion of the 5th Independent Heavy Tank Brigade between 1935 and 1940, primarily acting as propaganda weapons in Red Square parades.

Strengths: large-calibre main armament; multiple secondary armaments
Weaknesses: overweight, prone to transmission failures and jammed tracks

The T-35’s limitations were all too apparent on the rare occasions when they were deployed in the field – notably after the summer manoeuvres of 1936, which provoked a flurry of complaints from their crews about overheating engines and transmission failures. (The Red Army’s recovery vehicles were hard-pressed to cope when T-35s broke down, as – at 45 tons – they were far heavier than other contemporary Soviet AFVs.)

These problems were bad enough under peacetime conditions, but became critical in the immediate aftermath of the German invasion, when the remaining 48 operational T-35s were ordered into action in the Ukraine.

The majority never reached the frontline. Twenty-six had to be abandoned after breaking down, while four more crashed through rickety bridges or became bogged down in swamps. Just four actually saw combat, all of which were destroyed by air attacks or anti-tank fire. •