Tanks - T55

Remembering The T-55 Tank
by Frank Chadwick

Tom Clancy once described the T-55 as “the last good tank the Soviets made.” There is something to that. I think the phrase “revolutionized warfare” is grossly overused, but the Soviet T-55 certainly represented a turning point in tank design.
The model for tank design, and tactics, which matured during World War II, called for three classes of tanks, based on armament and protection: light, medium, and heavy.

Light tanks initially were used for most of the traditional cavalry roles, but by the end of the war had been relegated to reconnaissance. That was a job better handled by dedicated reconnaissance vehicles, and so the light tank, as a class of combat vehicles, faded away.
Medium tanks were the workhorse vehicles of armored formations. Designed to be easy to mass-produce, medium tanks were reasonably well-armed and protected, but their protection definitely took a back seat to mobility and reliability, while their armament was emphatically a dual-purpose gun with as much attention paid to fighting infantry as enemy armor.
Heavy tanks occupied the high end of the tank park – heavily armed and armored (as their name suggests), they were able to engage and destroy any vehicle they would encounter, including enemy heavy tanks, while their armor rendered them relatively safe from anything but the largest enemy anti-tank weapons. They also placed a heavy burden on maintenance, logistics, and infrastructure resources of the forward troop commands, and were difficult to build and expensive, which generally limited the number actually deployed.
The post-war generation of tanks followed this trend, at least at first, although the categories experienced some fairly rapid weight-creep.
The U.S. developed its World War II-era heavy tank, the M26 Pershing, into a family of post-war medium tanks (not surprising, considering the Pershing weighed about the same as the German Panther), armed with a 90mm gun. The Pershing itself spawned the M46 (a 1948 version which was only a slight improvement over the original), the M47 (entering service in 1952), and the M48 Patton (1953). The heavy end of the equation was filled by the M-103, a 65-ton mother of a tank, mounting a 120mm gun (requiring two loaders instead of one), which was reasonably-well protected but slow and with an overloaded (and hence temperamental) drive train. It entered service in 1957.

The British post-war medium was the Centurion, another development of a tank fielded in the closing days of World War II and equipped with an 83.4mm (20-pounder) gun. The heavy counterpart was the 120mm-armed Conqueror, which tipped the scales at 66 metric tons. The British built about 180 Conquerors between 1955 and 1959, but they suffered from the same problems as the U.S.M103: poor reliability, poor mobility, and a big logistical footprint.
The Soviets started out with the same conceptual mix, using the wartime T-34/85 as their medium tank and the IS (Iosef Stalin)-3 as their heavy, replaced by the slightly improved IS-10 in1952 (and almost immediately renamed T-10 upon the death of Stalin).
The Soviet IS-series heavies mounted a 122mm gun and weighed in at about 46 metric tons, so were quite a bit lighter than the western heavy tanks. That is significant, because it indicated where the Soviets went next with their tank design thinking.
The World War II-era German Panzer V Panther had good protection, mobility, and firepower. It virtually formed a class all its own — not quite up to facing the heavy tanks, but outclassing every other “medium” tank on the battlefield. Of course, it was a medium in name only. At 44.8 metric tons, it was virtually the same weight as the Soviet IS-2 and heavier than the U.S. Pershing (which came in at a bit under 42 metric tons). But it was designed to be mass-produced, and became the largest-production German tank of the war.
The western allies essentially followed the German lead, fielding a mass-produced medium tanks in the 40-45 ton range and a high-end heavy tank ten to twenty tons heavier – the force structure equivalent of the German Panther and the German Tiger. The Soviets took a different path.
In 1953 the Soviets began fielding the first mass-produced version of the T-54, which was soon replaced on the assembly lines by the T-55. The design merged the T-34 and IS design streams into a single all-purpose modern battle tank. It weighed 40 metric tons, had between 100 and 200mm of armor in front, and mounted a high velocity 100mm gun (which had slightly better armor-piercing performance than the IS-series’ 122mm gun). In other words it was the same weight or lighter than the Western medium tanks (42 metric tons for the Pershing and 52 for the Centurion), had as good or better frontal armor, and a better gun. It wasn’t going to set any world land speed records, but it was much more reliable than contemporary heavy tanks,  had the logistical and infrastructure footprint of a medium tank, and was designed to be mass produced.
In a stroke, T-55 rendered most of NATO’s tank park conceptually obsolete and changed the dynamics of tank production industrial strategy. Instead of a high-low mix of mediums and heavies, the future battlefield would be dominated by a single all-purpose vehicle, the Main Battle Tank.
Britain and the United States both responded by declaring the cumbersome heavy tanks obsolete and scrambling to up-gun their medium tanks to MBT status. The weapon of choice was the British-designed L-7 105mm gun, maybe the best all-around tank gun ever fielded. The British mounted it directly on the Centurion while the US re-designed the turret of the M48 to accept the new gun and dubbed the resulting vehicle the M60. (Later we would manage to fit the 105 in the M48 turret, and the M48A5 version is virtually identical in performance to the M60.)
As good a tank as the M60 was, and it was a fine all-around combat vehicle, it was always an expedient. Later the British would field the Chieftain, we the M1 Abrams, the Germans the Leopard, and the French the AMX-30. But all of these tanks are inspired by, or reactions to, that first glimpse of the T-54/55.
It is easy to forget today the sensation that T-55 caused at the time. Eventually we would find out that the 100mm gun had accuracy problems, the loader station was very awkward and slowed the rate of fire, the suspension tended to shed tracks unless the driver knew what he was doing (and a lot of T-55 drivers didn’t), but all of that came later. For a while, the Soviets had the best all-around combat tank in the world. By comparison, all the Soviet tank designs which followed were junk.

source: http://greathistory.com/remembering-the-t-55-tank.htm


Γιάννης Μαθιουλάκης said...

nice article john! I think is still in service at the middle East..!

Vaggelis said...

main Soviet battletank in huge numbers for the 60's!


Επιτέλους και μια παρουσίαση για ένα σοβαρό άρμα μάχης............... Και μήν ξεχνάτε, καλός καπιταλιστής είναι μόνο όποιος έχει εκτοπιστεί στη Σιβηρία (για καλοκαιρινές διακοπές φυσικά)!!!

john fasoulas said...

A good Tank. Used by many today