Back to the Drawing Board: Tsar Tank

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David Porter on military history’s doomed inventions

Although the Russian armies of 1914-1917 were never faced with the elaborate trench systems that created deadlock on the Western Front, it soon became apparent that contemporary armoured cars could not cross even narrow trenches or shell-torn ground. One of the earliest attempts to design an AFV that could cope with First World War battlefields was the bizarre Tsar Tank.

 A rare wartime photo of the failed Russian Tsar Tank.
A rare wartime photo of the failed Russian Tsar Tank.

In 1914, Nikolay Lebedenko, head of the War Ministry’s Experimental Laboratory, began work on the design of a ‘big wheel’ AFV.

A small-scale model, powered by a gramophone spring, was demonstrated to Tsar Nicholas early in 1915. The Tsar was intrigued by this demonstration and gave the project his backing.

The prototype was ready for trials by mid 1915 and was a huge ‘tricycle’ machine – two wheels 9 metres in diameter carried a hull containing two 250hp Sunbeam engines, whilst steering was controlled by a much smaller tail wheel.

No records of the armour layout seem to have survived, but it was intended to fit a total of four gun positions (dorsal and ventral turrets plus a sponson on each side) armed with Maxim machine guns and 57mm light cannon.

Flat-pack tank?

It was recognised that the type’s size and weight made it impractical to move long distances as a single unit, and it was designed to be transported in sections for reassembly just behind the front line.

When the unarmed prototype was assembled at a trials centre 60 kilometres from Moscow, it was found to be 50% over its designed weight. Despite this, testing got off to a good start in August 1915. The tank moved well across firm going, crushing trees as it went. But as soon as it encountered a soft patch of ground, the small tail wheel ‘bogged down’.

The problem was not just that the prototype was overweight, but that the centre of gravity was too far aft, increasing the already high ground pressure of the tail wheel. All attempts to free the vehicle failed, and the design team had to admit that more powerful engines were needed.

But the Russian Army believed that the design was too vulnerable to artillery fire and refused to fund further development. The prototype was simply abandoned and remained bogged down until 1923, when the rusting remains were finally broken up and scrapped.

Although this was the only ‘big-wheel’ AFV to actually reach the prototype stage, a British inventor also proposed similar vehicles. In early 1915, Flight-Commander T G Hetherington of the RNAS armoured car service designed a ‘land battleship’. This was intended to run on three wheels 12 metres in diameter and mount three turrets each armed with twin 100mm naval guns.

Although approval was given for the construction of six scaled-down prototypes with 4.5 metre diameter wheels, the first wooden mock-ups were judged to be impractical and the project was cancelled in June 1915.

This article was published in the December 2019 issue of Military History Matters. To find out more about subscribing to the magazine, click here.

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