The T-35 Was Russia's Deadly Land Battleship (And a Total Disaster)

The T-35 Was Russia's Deadly Land Battleship (And a Total Disaster)

A tank you may not know—and for a very specific reason.

Turret gunner Vasiliy Sazanov provided a first-hand account of the Verba engagement:

Our last fight was stupid. First we fired across the river from the main turret on a hamlet called Sitna and then attacked with the remaining infantry. Participating were fifty infantry, three others T-35s and four BTs and T-26s [and a KV-1]. The infantry, of course, fell behind as the German bullets zipped overhead…

We advanced on the farm, when to our left German guns opened fire. I rotated the turret there -but couldn’t see anything! Suddenly the turret went BOOM! Bullets spattered against our armor like peas. Peering through my periscope, I could not see anything... And again: "Boom! Boom !! German shells struck us every five seconds, both the hull and turret. I saw a flash, and fired ten shells…

We never reached the hamlet, as our tracks were knocked out. Should we abandon the tank? It seemed useless. We began shooting in all directions at everything we could see—which was almost nothing. I tried to aim for the muzzles flashes, while our infantry retreated…The engine broke down, the gun jammed, the main turret couldn’t turn.

Then German soldiers closed in on us. I realized that it was time to beat it. I climbed out of the turret and jumped down the ground. Fortunately, they didn’t open fire. I dragged my loader to the road junction. The driver followed us. We began to crawl away, then our tank erupted in flames…

Three to five more T-35s were apparently destroyed by enemy fire in other scattered engagements. German troops smugly delivered a captured T-35 to their tank museum at Kummersdorf, while others were used for anti-tank practice shooting. The fate of each individual T-35 has been meticulously photo-documented in the book Fallen Giants by Frances Pulham, who also offers interesting commentary in this podcast.

After Brody, only a small number of T-35s remained in Soviet service, largely in a training capacity (one remains today in the Kubinka tank museum.) There are reports of a T-35 knocked out defending Kharkov, and there are disputed claims that two fought in defense of Moscow as well.

However, the land battleship’s last major engagement may have occurred under stranger circumstances. As Soviet troops closed on Berlin in April 1945, the Wehrmacht formed the adhoc Kampfgruppe Ritter to defend the capital’s suburbs. They raided the tank museum at Kummersdorf for everything they could use.

According to a German unit history, one Lt. Teriete of Panzerjaeger Battalion 653, attached to KG Ritter, recalled that “we never had any Jagdtigers. We only a received a 5-turret tank. The crew abandoned the vehicle during the final battle for the Zossen training area near Berlin.” This T-35 was later recaptured by Soviet forces on April 22. Thus the iconic land battleship was present for both the first and very last act of the terrible war on the Eastern Front.

The multi-turret land battleship proved to be a blind alley in tank development—there was nothing one oversized and over-gunned tank could do that several, much cheaper armored vehicles couldn’t do better. Still, the T-35 amounted to an impressive icon of Soviet might—just not a successful war machine.

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