Beware the locusts! How Soviet light tanks swarmed the WWII battlefields

T-60. Source: RIA Novosti

T-60. Source: RIA Novosti

Despite being incapable of matching German tanks in open battle, the T-60 and T-70 tanks fought to the end of the Second World War, usually in large clusters, earning them a reputation among German forces as "ineradicable locusts.”

Mass production of Soviet light tanks in the early years of WWII was mainly a forced response to the Red Army’s crippling initial battle losses, and although tanks such as the T-60 sustained terrible losses in the early months of the war, they played a vital role in stemming the German advance in 1941 until evacuated and reassembled factories could mass produce more powerful fighting machines.

The T-60 was developed in the chaotic summer of 1941, after Hitler’s armies launched Operation Barbarossa to conquer the Soviet Union. Weighing just 6.4 tons, the scout tank was created by designer Nikolai Astrov using existing automobile production capacities. The vehicle could be built in the same plants as the T-34mediumbattle tank, but far more cheaply. Its downsides were significant, though: With just 3-cm-thick frontal armor and carrying only a 20mm canon and 7.62mm machine-gun, the tank was mainly effective against infantry.

Importantly, theT-60 could measure up to the German PzKpfw II Ausf Flight tank that was built in the same year and carried the same caliber armament. (The German designers had been unable to fit a 20mm cannon to the predecessor light tank PzKpfw I Ausf, which weighed around the same as the T-60.)

But the T-60’s unequal struggle against the superior enemy tank types that appeared took its toll on the tank’s reputation as well as its numbers. Later, however, military historians gave due credit to the contribution to the war effort made by the 6,000 units produced.


‘This one’s nothing but trouble, Comrade Stalin’

Since it wasclear to the Soviet engineers and the militarycommandthat the T-60 was suffering unacceptable losses on the battlefield, it was decided to upgrade the tank. Astrov led the work until the introduction of the T-70 in early 1942.

T-70. Source: TASS

Engine power was increased to 140 hp and the thickness of the frontal armor to 45mm. The tank had a 45mm canon, more than doubling its firepower, but at the cost of decreased accuracy and rate of fire. On the plus side, the heavier gun could inflict more short-range damage to the rear and front of enemy armored vehicles.

Work on the new tank took only three months, largely due to the streamlined unification of the country’s military production base. Altogether, some 6,300 T-70s had rolled off the line by the war’s close, a number exceeded only by the T-34 (35,000).

Light and nippy, the T-70was quieter than larger tanks, and its suddenappearance inclusters often hurt the enemy hard.

But when the T-70 first saw battle in the summer of 1942, the crews quickly recognized its low individual combat efficiency. It could not deal with the most commonly encountered German tanks, the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV, in head-on engagements, and was under-armored to serve as direct infantry support.

The German 7.5cm Pak 40 anti-tank gun could take out a T-70 with one round from a great distance and at almost any angle. “The T-70 light tank has only recently entered service and has so far made no distinction of itself,” the famous Soviet tank commander General Mikhail Katukov wrote in a 1942 report to the high command in Moscow:“This one’s nothing but trouble, Comrade Stalin," he added of progress in fixing the tank’s shortcomings.


The T-70 finds its role

However, time showed that by using well-trained crews, the T-70s could not only serve as “extras” but also perform a lead role in battles. The tank formed the basis of the armies that encircled the 300,000-strong German army group at Stalingrad in the winter of 1943, being well suited to launching rapid pincer movements on the enemy.

Although they were no direct match for the German heavy tanks, the low profile and maneuverabilityof the T-70 meant they could appear as if out of nowhere. In the Battle ofKursk, a commander named Onufriyeva deptly outflanked a 54-ton German Tiger tank and set it ablaze with two rapid hits to the side. The T-70 made up around 22 percent of the Soviet tanks in the key battle, and the light tanks gave good account of themselves. In one incident on July 6, 1943 near the village of Pokhrovka, a lone T-70 commanded by Lt. B.V. Pavlovich knocked out three medium German tanks and one Panther.

Video: Restored tank revives the history of World War II

In the fall of 1943, plants that had produced the tank moved to mass production of the SU-76M self-propelled gun that was based on the T-70M. The remaining T-70tanks were used in self-propelled artillery battalions, regiments and brigades as command vehicles, and took part in combat operations until the war’s end.

And while they became known as “locusts” to the enemy, Soviet crews knew the tank far more affectionately as “Baby.”

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