The interwar period between the First and Second World Wars saw a number of experiments that tried to increase the firepower and capabilities of the tank. Among these efforts was the Soviet Red Army’s T-28, a multi-turreted “medium tank” that despite the “medium” designation was still was a lumbering battlefield behemoth.
While largely not a successful tank, it proved to be more important as it gave Soviet engineers a starting point as the T-28 was the first true indigenous Soviet design, and was also among the first medium tanks to be employed in combat. It was conceived as a platform to provide infantry support and to break through static defenses and heavy fortifications. Development in the early 1930s by engineers of the tank-tractor VOAA design bureau; and it was likely influenced by the British Vickers Medium Mark III tank, which also featured three turrets and was massive for its time.
The British Influence
The story of the T-28’s origins is a little more complicated. In fact, the Soviet Union had sought to purchase a number of British Mark III tanks but the deal never went through—in part out of fears by engineers at Vickers who thought the design would be copied. At the same time Moscow was unhappy with the overall terms of the deal, which would have required the Soviet Union to buy a large number of the Vickers light tanks.
When the deal failed to go forward, the Soviet Union began to develop a tank on its own and the T-28 was born of those results.
It was far from a “modern” design even by the standards of the early 1930s, and while a “medium” tank in name, it still required a crew of six to man the various systems, which included the main 76.2mm armament in the 360-degree traversing rounded turret as well as 7.62mm machine guns in the pair of rounded turrets that flanked the main gun. That main turret also featured a rear-facing machine gun that could protect the tank from infantry attacks. The idea behind the multiple turrets and weapons was that the tank could target enemies from nearly all directions as well as at a variety of angles, but it could still concentrate firepower at a single target when necessary.
Between 1933 and 1940, the Soviets produced just over 500 of the tanks at the Kirov plant in Leningrad.
Good First Start
Despite its overall archaic design, the T-28 featured some notable advancements for the era and those included having a radio as well as anti-aircraft mounts. Where the tank came up short was that it featured armor ranging from just 20 to 40mm, with the thickest armor concentrated near the main gun.
The T-28 was powered by a single Mikulin M-17 series twelve-cylinder engine, which generated 500 horsepower, and allowed the tank to reach a top speed of twenty-three miles per hour while it had a range of some 140 miles. It wasn’t the fastest tank, but it wasn’t the slowest.
However, even in the Winter War with Finland (1939-40), it was apparent that T-28 was already outdated. Efforts were made to increase the armor, but these efforts were in vain as the majority of the Soviet’s T-28s were destroyed or abandoned in the opening months of the German invasion in 1941. Afterward only a few remained in use with the Red Army, while a few captured tanks were employed by Germany, Finnish, Hungarian and Romanian armies during the war. Today, only three T-28s are known to still exist including one at the Moscow’s Central Armed Forces Museum.
Perhaps the best thing to be said about the T-28 is that the Germans had known about it, and likely under anticipated what the Soviets were capable of building—as they had little idea that the far more advanced T-34 even existed. Had the Soviets purchased the British tanks instead of launching their own tank program, the T-34 might have never come to be. While it took a few tries to get there, it all started with the T-28.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.