T-55 in the Tropics

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This series of articles about combat in the T-55 main battle tank with the Sri Lanka Army, takes place as a conversation between the author and a retired officer of the Armored Corps who prefers to remain unidentified. The narrator’s recollections are part of an oral history project aimed at preserving the memories of the combatants without regard to political considerations.

Some history of the T-55 Main Battle Tank

The Soviet T-54 & 55 family has the distinction of being the most produced main battle tank (MBT) in history. Designed after the Second World War (WW2) by the OKB-520 design bureau of the Stalin Ural Tank Factory №183 (Uralvagonzavod) under the direction of Leonid N. Kartsev, it was the offspring of the tank battles fought by the Red Army against Nazi forces during the long battle that raged from Moscow to Berlin.

Incorporating lessons learned in that savage campaign, the T-55 formed the backbone of the Warsaw Pact nations’ armies for several decades. In the event of another war, armored columns with these behemoths in the vanguard would have poured through the Fulda Gap (in Germany) through to Western Europe

Service in other parts of the world

Thankfully that terrible conflict, which would have probablystarted a third World War and ended in a nuclear confrontation, never took place. Close to 100,000 T-55s were manufactured for Warsaw Pact armies, though the vast majority stayed idle. Many thousands did see service all over the world; in Vietnam, the Middle East, Africa, South Asia (both the Indian and Pakistani armies used the type),  Kosovo (former Yugoslavia) and Georgia among other places. T-55s were used by both sides in the epic Battle of Afabet between Ethiopia and Eritrea in 1988, which is regarded as the largest tank battle in Africa since the days of Rommel and the Afrika Korps in WW2.

The T-55As obtained by the Sri Lanka Army (SLA) in the early 1990s had never seen action. They had been manufactured in what was then Czechoslovakia, and stored for many years complete with all the equipment to operate and service them — original 1960s vintage Soviet gear

My first impression of the T-55 was its enormous, intimidating bulk. The top of the gun turret was at 2.4m off the ground, and the main body stood at 1.6m — taller than most of the crew selected to fight in them. To put it in perspective, think of two pairs of Toyota Land Cruiser 200s parked back to back in a square facing in both directions. That’s the main body of the T-55. Now add a turret with a 4 meter main gun protruding from it, all covered in thick knobby armor. It looked like a monster from a nightmare, purpose built to inflict maximum damage on the enemy. To paraphrase Lord Chesterfield, ‘I do not know what effect these will have on the enemy but, by God, they frighten me.’

The T-55s had been shipped to Trincomalee harbor (in the northeast of Sri Lanka) and we were to learn to use these giants in Clappenburg Bay, next to the azure waters of the Indian Ocean. A beautiful location to learn how to use this monster in battle. The  Czech instructors who were there to train us enjoyed a stay in a tropical paradise. We learned to operate a MBT that was designed for the cold of northern European theater, in the hot, humid, tropical jungles of South Asia.

Despite the machine’s bulk, the interior of a T-55 is very cramped. The crew of four (Commander, gunner, loader and driver) must remain seated for hours (only the loader can stand up) in a vehicle that was designed with scant regard for human ergonomics. The interior is mostly metal with little cushioning. Steel blocks, columns and plates protrude everywhere, and the crew gets slammed into them as the giant beast lumbers on its multiple axles. The noise from the crude 12-cylinder diesel engine and the rattle of the tank tracks are deafeningly amplified when the main gun is fired.

Combined with the stench of fuel and explosive, the heat and  claustrophobia conspire to make a closed T-55 fighting in the tropics something that many brave men could not deal with.

Selecting the team

As a designated Troop Leader, I got to hand-pick crew for my own tank. The first task was to find a competent driver. Driving the beast needs both muscle and a delicate touch, to be able to ‘play the piano with a five kilogram hammer’ as our instructors put it.

Driving the beast

Soviet tank transmissions were not the most sophisticated, and a ‘synchromesh’ gearbox was not something that the designers were very good at building. When changing from first gear to second the correct engine speed must be attained, or the gears would refuse to shift; the driver can ram all his strength into the lever and accomplish nothing. Shifting down was even more demanding; it almost always required pushing the heavy clutch in twice; once to get into neutral and a second time to get from neutral to the lower gear.

Another challenge was to shift up when the tank was climbing. Unless the shifting was precise and fast, the engine would stall. The beast would begin to roll back due to its weight, the engine rotating in the opposite direction through the gear train. The cylinders would fire in the wrong direction with air drawn through the exhaust pipe and vented through the air- filters, which was bad for the engine. I had my eye on a particular driver, Jayantha, a chatty, quick-witted soldier who had impressed me with his skills on the smaller Alvis Saladin armored cars.

The driver of a T-55 needs to use both hands and both feet constantly, steering through two levers that control a heavy and cumbersome system which transfers the driving torque to the sprocket wheels that drive the track. Unlike the steering wheel of a car, which are incremental, a tank can change direction only abruptly; a first position partial turn or a second position skid turn. Understanding this and achieving precise directional control is a skill that requires not only the use of the levers but also mastering the throttle controls of the engine. A skillful driver can even make the huge vehicle do ‘donuts’. Jayantha proved himself to be adept at this, and I knew he was also an excellent cook.

The driver’s eyes are positioned about one meter above ground in the T-55, through a hatch or viewing scope. Apart from being a limited field of view through the glass, the scrub and bushes we operated in meant that the driver was steering blind much of the time. There is great dependence on the tank Commander’s instructions as to the direction, speed, when to stop and where to take cover. Driving the beast is an exhausting job and dehydration is often a bigger danger than enemy fire. Drivers would often pass out three to four hours into a battle due to exhaustion.

The Loader

The tank loader was always the junior member of the crew, often a young soldier. I picked Ranathunga, a tall, strong, agile individual with huge amounts of endurance due to his many hours of playing pro volleyball. In battle, ‘Rane’ (as we named him) would have to retrieve shells, each a meter long and weighing over 30kg, from the interior shelves and ram them into the gun chamber hard enough to snap the heavy breechblock shut. Imagine crouching on your knees and pulling out a 30kg weight from a ‘ready bin’ that is just above floor level while the tank is bucking like a mechanical bull. Then lifting it up to the chamber of the gun and ramming it in with both hands. Maintaining one’s balance in the limited space of the turret while carrying the heavy shell requires great skill. Once it is loaded, the loader must swiftly move and hang onto grips on the right of the turret. In the heat of the battle, speed in firing the next round becomes a matter of life and death. The moment the tank commander hears the breechblock slam shut he will shout “Fire!” to the gunner.

When the main gun is fired with the hatches closed, the noise is unbelievably loud and is accompanied by a compression ‘shock wave’ which reverberates around the interior. The recoil of the main gun is enough to demolish a concrete wall; the heavy gun, chamber and the entire cradle moves back about 30cm at lightning speed. If the loader has not moved away from the path of recoil, he will be badly injured. Despite the shocking sound and compression of the discharge, Rane would then have to spring up, toss the used casing out of the turret and retrieve the next shell, while the gunner moves the cradle to the optimum loading angle. He will then ram the shell in and scurry away for the shot to be fired. A skilled loader like Rane can do it in a few seconds, despite the heat, noise and smoke.

The Gunner

The tank Gunner is the least-seen player in a T-55 crew. My Gunner, Nihaljayantha, was a pocket-sized soldier, quick-thinking and clear-minded. The gun sight of the T-55 is as basic as the tank itself; it allows for aiming both the co-axial machine gun on the turret and the 100 mm cannon. The main gun is technically capable of hitting a target 6,900 m away on a ‘direct’ line-of-sight mode, and 14,600 m on indirect mode. The gunner has the capability to see the farthest by means of the gunner’s sight, but is the most constrained crew member as either the commander or driver has to leave their seats for the gunner to get out. The gunner’s sight allows for long-range, but has a restricted field of vision; like using a monocular device to scan the universe.

As our use of the T-55 evolved, Nihaljayantha became the ‘first mate’ for the crew; keeping track of ammunition levels, maintaining radio watch, and acting as a record keeper. He was also the most sworn at, by me, for missing targets or delays in firing. He would give me a wry smile when he was at fault, or one full of sarcasm when I was culpable. Nihal would go on to be an accomplished tank commander himself.

Commander

A Commander may lead only his tank, or, if he is a Troop Leader, he will control the other two tanks in the troop through their respective Tank Commanders; a Squadron Commander would control three Troops (nine tanks) through their Troop Leaders and the CO (Commanding Officer of the Regiment) would control all his Squadrons through their respective Squadron Commanders.

The key for the Squadron Commander in keeping control is, of course, communications. The T-55 had 1950s valve-radio sets known as the R-123 Magnolia (Р-123 «Магнолия») for both internal (among the crew) and external communications. Every crew member had a headset, a soft leather-and-wool helmet with integrated headphones designed decades ago for use in freezing temperatures. In the tropics they were cumbersome and infernally hot. The headset is connected to control boxes through a cord that had a two-way press-to-talk switch. The microphone is worn at the throat, and is also very uncomfortable in the heat. The throat-mic had an additional hazard, for when it rained and the headset got soaked, the microphone would spark, which was irritating to say the least.

Despite the obsolete gear, the T-55A proved to be a fearsome weapon that adapted well to tropical conditions, albeit with some crew discomfort. Though rather crude and unsophisticated, the beast was simple enough to maintain so that we could operate in tough conditions with minimal tools and equipment.

An account of action in the T-55 will follow shortly

 

 

 

 

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