Stalin’s secret weapon?
In the first six months of Operation Barbarossa, the brutal Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, Panzer tanks overran hundreds of miles of Soviet territory and reached the outskirts of Moscow before winter weather and reinforcements from Siberia brought a halt to their advance. In a period when the Red Army seemed on the verge of collapse, a lumbering forty-eight-ton heavy tank that could absorb German tank shells like so many spitballs was one factor that bought it badly needed time.
The Red Army was an early practitioner of mechanized warfare, with thousands of light T-26 and BT tanks in its operational units when Germany invaded. It also also developed huge T-28 and T-35 multiturret heavy tanks to punch through enemy defenses. However, these hulking “land battleships” proved ill conceived: they had great difficulty negotiating rough terrain, and their large hulls were surprisingly poorly armored.
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Therefore, in the late 1930s, designer Josef Kotin rushed into production the simpler, more densely armored Kliment Voroshilov, named after the Soviet defense minister. The early-model KV-1s boasted an extraordinary seventy to ninety millimeters of armor, rendering them impenetrable to the standard thirty-seven- or forty-five-millimeter antitank guns of the day. By contrast, early war German Panzers ranged in armor from ten to thirty-five millimeters and weighed less than half that.
For armament, the KV-1 had a single short-barrel seventy-six-millimeter L11 gun in the turret, as well as 7.62-millimeter machine guns in the hull and turret. There was even a third machine gun in the rear of the turret to fend off ambushing infantry.