Wednesday 4 January 2023

Fading History: Türkiye’s Soviet Tanks

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans
It is not often that a tank is so uncommon that it has eluded correct identification by even the most seasoned military enthusiasts. Nevertheless, this appears to be the case with the Soviet T-37A amphibious light tank, one example of which was supplied to Türkiye in 1934. Incorrectly IDed as an indigenously-designed amphibious light tank supposedly designated as the MKE Kırıkkale M-1943, this innocent misinterpretation might have well been the result of the scarcity of information available on Soviet weapons shipments to the Turkish Army in the early to mid-1930s.

Eager to grow its share in the arms market and expand the USSR's influence beyond its vast borders, the Soviet Union donated two T-26 Mod. 1931s (armed with two 7.62mm machinegun turrets), four T-27 tankettes and several trucks and motorcycles to the Turkish Army in 1932. [1] The Soviet Union hoped that positive experiences gained with the donated AFVs would lead to a large order of Soviet weapons systems by the Turkish Army. This approach paid off tremendously, as in 1934 Türkiye ordered a total of 64 T-26 Mod. 1933s, one T-37A and 34 BA-3 armoured cars. [1]

The T-26s were the first true tanks in service with the Turkish Army, entering service with the newly-established 1st Tank Regiment of the 2nd Cavalry Division stationed in Lüleburgaz near the border with Greece. [1] Though quickly supplemented by a number of Vickers Mk VI light tanks from the United Kingdom and 100 French Renault R-35s that arrived to Türkiye in 1940, the relatively powerful penetration capabilities of the T-26's 45mm cannon ensured they remained the most capable tanks in Turkish service until the arrival of the first Valentine tanks from the UK in 1941.
At that time the 1st Tank Regiment consisted of the 102nd and 103rd Tank Divisions and a Reserve Division. The BA-3s were grouped into the 1st and 2nd Armoured Car Divisions. [1] The T-26 Mod. 1931s and T-27s were grouped as a Mixed Tank Company, and were primarily deployed to familiarise infantry with tanks (a single FT-17 was acquired from France in 1928 for the same reason) and demonstrating the effectiveness of tanks to other army units. [1] This structure is believed to have remained the same until the retirement of the last T-26s and BA-3s in 1943.

A Turkish T-26 Mod. 1933 and BA-3 of the 1st Tank Regiment in Lüleburgaz.

Due to Türkiye's neutrality during World War II until February 1945, the Soviet-delivered T-26s and BA-3s would never see action against a foreign adversary. All the same, these Soviet AFVs provided the very foundation for tank operations in the Turkish Army, a fact which is little known even today. This information arguably becomes even more peculiar when considering that 20 years after their delivery there was no trace of Soviet weapons systems left in Türkiye, with the country instead becoming the recipient of large numbers of U.S. tanks for possible use in a war against the USSR.

The sole T-37A received by the Turkish Army in 1934 is sometimes confused for a supposed indigenous tank design known as the Kırıkkale.

In contrast to the T-26, the amphibious light tank concept proved far less popular with the Turkish Army, and no follow-up order for any additional T-37As was ever placed. Armed with just a single 7.62mm DT machine gun and lightly armoured (3mm to 10mm at the front), the tank brought with it little noteworthy capabilities beyond its amphibious abilities. Nonetheless, the Soviet Army found the concept well-suited to its doctrine, procuring more than 2500 T-37As, another 1300+ of its successor the T-38 and 350+ more of the T-38's successor the T-40 in the 1930s.
The tankette concept similarly failed to convince the leadership of the Turkish Army, and apart from the four examples donated by the Soviets, Türkiye made no attempt to acquire further T-27s or contemporary designs from other sources. Of course, the tankette concept was largely abandoned after World War II (a notable exception being the German Wiesel) and their intended role of reconnaissance was instead filled by light tanks and armoured cars. Neither the Turkish T-37A nor any of the T-27s survive to this day, likely having all been scrapped by the late 1940s.

Soviet-produced T-27 tankettes on parade in 1933. The banner in the background reads: "How fortunate for our nation to bring forth a (man like) Mustafa Kemal".

The BA-3 armoured car proved only slightly more popular than the T-27 and T-37A, mainly due to its heavy armament of a single 45mm gun and one 7.62mm DT MG housed in the same turret as on the T-26 (a second DT was located in the hull). A major drawback was the type's limited mobility, and operations often had to be limited to hard surfaces as a result of its significant weight, though tracks could be fitted to the rear wheels for slightly improved mobility in rough terrain. With 9mm of hull armour, the BA-3 featured all-round protection against small arms fire and shrapnel.

A Turkish Army BA-3 armoured car. The BA-3 was equipped with the same turret as the T-26. Note the auxiliary tracks stored just above the rear wheels.

In contrast to the often decades long career of modern tanks, which for some Leopard 2 MBTs is already more than 40 years, Türkiye's T-26s lasted less than 10 years (which is still far above the average tank's lifespan of this era). By the early 1940s, the tanks began to wear out, and their poor condition was further exacerbated by a lack of spare parts which could no longer be acquired from the war-torn Soviet Union. [1] In 1943, all T-26s had already been retired from operational service. Two T-26 Mod. 1933s survive on display in the garden of the Harbiye Military Museum in Istanbul and in the Etimesgut Tank Müzesi near Ankara, unfortunately without their original camouflage pattern.

One of the two T-26 Mod. 1931s received from the Soviet Union in 1932.

Two Turkish T-26 Mod. 1933s passing a trench with infantry during an exercise.

For a nation that nowadays operates large quantities of German and U.S.-made tanks, the establishment of a tank arm (and in fact its first tank regiment) equipped with Soviet-made tanks can be rightly called a historical oddity. Türkiye is the only country in the world to have operated tanks from nearly all major players of the Second World War, including the Soviet Union, the UK, the U.S., Germany and France. Little evidence now remains of this history, safe for the efforts of historians and writers to retain and recover that what would otherwise be lost.

The T-26 on display at the Harbiye Military Museum in Istanbul, which as with most outdoor exhibits in Türkiye has been taken over by cats.

[1] T-26 B Seyyar Çelik Kale - Abdullah Turhal, Dstil Tasarım - FNSS Savunma Sistemleri, 2013