Russia Tried to Conquer Finland with Flamethrower Robot Tanks

Russia Tried to Conquer Finland with Flamethrower Robot Tanks

And it didn't work.

A report by Gen. Kombrig Yermakov of the 100th Rifle Division is a bit more equivocal about teletank performance, claiming they performed “quite well” but could not always be employed because terrain had a “large number of depression and potholes.” Nonetheless, he claimed, they had “proved” themselves in the “destruction of pillboxes No. 39 and No.35”, which were blown up despite being of the “strongest construction.” Indeed, a renewed Red Army offensive in February 1940 finally broke through the Mannerheim line, forcing the Finns to sue for peace.

The Red Army also deployed the new turretless TT-26-Sh Podryvnik (“Blaster”) model to the Winter War, which had a reinforced suspension system, bolt-on applique armor and an improved control system. In place of a turret, the T-26’s glacis mounted a 30mm armored bin which carried an explosive charge weighing between 660 to 1,500 pounds. A remote signal deployed the bomb with a fuse set for up to fifteen minutes. The Blaster was supposed to scoot up to enemy bunkers, drop the bomb next to them, then roll back to enemy lines before it detonated. According to Zaloga, they may not have been used in action.

Fate of the Teletanks

After the Winter War, a report shows the Red Army came close to a breakthrough on the teletank. An early 1941 report notes that it was testing a “remote television apparatus: a transmitter and a receiver with a 9 by 12 cm screen. This device transmits images over radio (television) of terrain surrounding the tank and objects in its field of view over 100-150 meters.” A video feed, the report notes, “may be a solution to the issue of aiming flamethrowers.”

However, development of the system was interrupted by the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22. A report from July 7 recommends refurbishing teletank command systems and using them as expendable scouts to ferret out enemy minefields and anti-tank weapons, and for assaulting machine gun nests and pillboxes.

However, in the half-year of desperate and highly fluid warfare that ensued, it proved impossible to orchestrate the very specific siege or trench-warfare like circumstances in which the teletanks were at all effective. The teletanks did see combat, but with manned crews and the remote-equipment removed. The 152nd Battalion was wiped out near Rovno in the Battle of Brody, an initially promising but unsuccessful Soviet counterattack launched in the first week of fighting. The 217th remained deployed near Moscow, and was finally thrown into combat at Ryazan as German Panzers closed on the Soviet capital late in 1941—without using the remote control system.

The last reported combat employment of a teletank came in the spring of 1942. Soviet engineering officer Aleksandr Kantsev apparently rigged six diminutive T-27 tankettes full of explosives to serve as armored torpedos. Six of these robot TT-27s were deployed in the Battle of Sevastopol—two successfully hit their targets, another two had their lines cut by machine-gun fire and self-destructed, and two were blown up by anti-tank fire.

An intercepted German intelligence report of the 339th Infantry Division describes their employment:

Connected by three cables to a dug in BT tank, which is its source of energy. Each BT can release two bombs, remotely controlled, and moving in a zig-zag patterns. The Cable is 5 km long. The bomb explodes when it reaches its target using a detonator. If the cables are hit and torn, the bomb will explode in 7.5 minutes. The prisoners mention that these bombs are unsatisfactory, and there were losses when cleaning up stuck or dud bombs.

While kamikaze tankettes saw little success, Kantsev would go on to become a celebrated science fiction writer.

Several other nations also deployed robot vehicles during World War II. Germany deployed over 8,000 Goliath remote-controlled demolition vehicles, as well as a few hundred heavier models. The United States deployed drone kamikaze planes—indeed, Joseph Kennedy Jr. would tragically perish in accident involving an explosive laden QB-17 intended to strike a Nazi V-3 . (The drone aircraft had to be taken off by a human pilot.)

Despite being at the cutting edge of technology, World War II–era drones were only effective in highly specialized circumstances, not ideal for the fast-paced ground warfare of the conflict. The Soviet teletanks were an ambitious attempt to practice the sort of remote-control drone warfare that is rapidly becoming a reality today.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring .

Image: Wikimedia Commons