The Teletank - The Soviet Robot Tank
Now and then, life brings us together with persons who were witnesses of surprising historical facts. An old tank soldier, Viktor Dmitrievich Scherbitsky, began relating to me his military career with the unusual statement: “I served on the teletank at the beginning of 1939”. My reaction was not surprising: “Excuse me....you served on what!?” Viktor Dmitrievich smiled and continued his story.
Your are not the only one surprised by that statement. Many people do not believe that we had such equipment as the Teletank – a tank controlled by radio – and that we had it in 1930s, when the radio was a miracles among miracles. I happened to be in this battalion, probably because I had training in electrical engineering, having worked at a power station before entering the army. Our unit was classified and military secrets were kept under tight security. This, perhaps, partly explains the reason why few know about teletanks even today. If any information remains, it would be located somewhere deep in the archives and may possibly be found in Podol'sk.
Our battalion consisted of paired combat groups of T-26 tanks. Each pair consisted of a command and control tank, which was given the designation TU, and a teletank, designated TT. The crew of TU tank included an operator who would control the operation of the TT tank by radio. The TT tank could operate 1.5 kilometers ahead of the control tank and was armed with special weapons. It could lay down a smoke screen by means of cistern installed specially for this purpose. The designers of the TT also contemplated that this tank could deliver chemical weapons at a much closer distance to the enemy without subjecting crew members to danger. The tank had a flame thrower installed which was also controlled by radio. It was also equipped with a Degtyaryov machine gun. Finally, there was a specially modified turretless version of the teletank with reinforced armour and a specially designed running gear, which was considerably more reliable than the standard T-26.
This latter tank was able to convey a special box, protected by 30mm of armour, against an enemy pillbox. Inside the box was a 500kg explosive. The mechanism for lowering the box and placing the explosive in operation was controlled by radio. The explosive included a fifteen minute fuse set from the moment the explosive reached the ground, which would allow the tank the necessary time to back up and reach a safe distance. Such an explosive charge could destroy the most powerful reinforced concrete pillbox down to depth of four levels. In our battalion, there was only one group of such tanks, which had taken part in the Finnish campaign. The main task of these teletanks was to breakthrough reinforced defensive lines – such as the Mannerheim Line. The officers who trained us also had experience in the Finnish campaign.
How did the command and control mechanism work?
Tracks [Тяги] and levers were were pneumatically controlled: a compressor would blow air into a special balloon, and from there compressed air would set in motion the pistons which ran the controls. Now we would use hydraulics, but this was not known at that time. The process was controlled through electromechanical relays, being set in motion by radio commands. The receiving equipment allowed for control along sixteen parameters. The radio operator worked from a control panel which had around 20 buttons arranged on it in rows of four. I remember them to this day: the first button “Ready” - prepared the machine for receiving one of the combat commands; the second button “Fire” - engaged the flamethrower (or subjected an area to poisonous gas); the fourth button “Smoke” - laid down a smoke screen. The second, third and fourth rows of buttons involved command and control functions governing the general operation of the teletank. The first button started the engine, the second button engaged the first running gear, while buttons three through six governed higher gears and the seventh button engaged the reverse. Buttons eight and nine would turn the turret to the left or to the right, while buttons ten and eleven would turn the tank itself left or right respectively. There was a red light on the control panel, situated above and to the right of the buttons, which verified the panel circuit. Opposite it, in the corner on the left hand side, was a switch which allowed one to alternate between radio channels. This tank could also be operated by an ordinary driver-mechanic, as all the regular operational equipment of standard T-26 were maintained inside. Externally, the teletank differed from the standard model of tank by the installation on the roof of the turret of two pieces of armoured glass which protected the antenna rods from destruction of the electrical assembly as well as isolating them from suppressive small arms fire.
What served for the relaying of the radio signals? There were no transistors, of course – only vacuum tubes – and can you imagine the jolting that would take place within the tank!
It stands to reason that the radio set involved the use vacuum tubes. Some of the tubes had metal enclosures but most were still made of glass. As strange as it may sound, failures did not occur! The entire structure was fastened onto special spring-based shock absorbers. There were some differences. For example, the turning speed of the radio-controlled vehicle depended upon the voltage, which the generator issued to the lateral electrical circuits. At times, this even depended upon the weather. Lower than normal voltage would mean that the tank would respond more slowly to commands. Higher than normal voltage and the tank would make sharp and abrupt movements. Thus, it would be necessary to make adjustments. There was one instance in which the training vehicles ceased to obey commands. We were unable to determine the problem. We changed the receiver and replaced the transmitter, but it did not help. The problem turned out to be that an electrical transmission line ran through this location, and the signal quality had been affected by the electromagnetic field.
Does this mean then, that – theoretically speaking – enemy radio interference could put TT tanks out of commission?
This cannot be denied, although the radio sets operated on two channels – HF and UHF – and could be switched back and forth. This – however – was not a very serious defense for radio communications.
How would one stop a vehicle which failed to respond to commands?
As far as I remember, such occurrences never took place, but generally there was a special box on the rear of the tank. One could catch up to the tank, open the box and muffle the engine through the normal means of employing the choke. If the TT were to depart from the range of the TU tank, a mechanism in the TT tank would automatically employ the “Stop” command after 30 seconds. The tank would halt and await the next command from the TU while the engine would remain idling. By that time, the control tank would have regained operational radio contact with the TT.
What was the nature of training on the test vehicles?
We were given an assigned task: on a certain rise there was an enemy pillbox, and before it lay a ditch, a mine field and an anti-tank obstacle. We were all trained to surmount these obstructions. A lot of time was given over to driving. To conduct even a standard tank over ground pitted with craters was no easy task, but to do so from a distance of a kilometer – well, you can imagine. As an example of the tactics involved: the crew of the TT tank, having approached the enemy positions, would “bail out” - taking the machine gun with them. The problem was not to allow enemy infantry from getting close to the teletank, which was accomplished through the use of the flame thrower and by the TU tank, which was armed with a 45mm gun and a machine gun. Radio control was conducted by one of the tank commanders, but the crews were trained so that everyone was able to control the teletank. Crew members were completely interchangeable.
It is an historical fact that the Katyushas carried special cases filled with explosives. If the risk presented itself that the equipment would fall into the hands of the enemy, the crew was obliged to blow it up, and thus destroy the rocket systems. Was there something similar involved with the teletanks?
I am not aware of such things. The training manual specified that if the enemy were to attempt to capture a teletank, the crew of the command tank were obliged to open fire against the TT with their cannon.
What was the fate of the teletanks in the Great Fatherland War? Were they employed?
As teletanks – no. The tactics of military operations had changed considerably. War had ceased being positional in nature and had become mobile. There were only two battalions of teletanks in the Soviet Union. One of them was deployed near Rovno, and the Germans bombed it during the first months of the war. Our battalion was based outside of Yaroslavl' and the war found us on maneuvers near Gor'kiy'. For some time we were spared involvement, as the equipment was considered secret. But when the situation had become tense with enemy having approached the gates of Moscow, the equipment was removed and replaced by crews and our T-26s were sent into battle. A fire happened to break out in our tank, although we managed to put it out, and I was wounded.
From 1943, I served at the scientific research institute at Kubinka, testing tanks. I do not recall other models of radio-controlled tanks in the history of tank construction in our country, although modern tanks are stuffed full of electronic and automatic systems. But...perhaps I am also mistaken...
What do you mean?
The lunar rover? It is – indeed – the most genuine example of a teletank!
Victor Dmitrievich Scherbitsky had the opportunity to serve on a teletank T-26. The first experimental trials in our country involving the control of a tank from a distance commenced at the beginning of the 1930s. On 23 March 1930, the MOST-1 three-command system of radio control was tested on the T-18 tank. However, serial production of a teletank based on the T-18 chassis did not occur. The T-18 was too light, tall and possessed an extremely narrow silhouette. This made it very difficult to control as it would change direction upon encountering any potholes or ruts in the ground. The heavier T-26 proved better. History records several instances in which teletanks were employed in combat. This occurred during the Finnish campaign. As evidence of this, we may cite information from a meeting of the Central Committee of the All-Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) – TsK VKP(b):
MEETING of the TsK VKP(b)
From the Command Staff regarding the Experience Gained during Military Operations Against Finland
Morning of the Sixth session, 17 April 1940: Kombrig Yermakov, commander of the 100th Rifle Division:
“... Comrades, one should mention, that we made use of teletanks, but conditions did not allow for their mass employment. The teletanks provided us with assistance - especially in the destruction of pillboxes No. 39 and No. 35. These pillboxes were of the strongest construction, nevertheless they were blown up.... The tanks operated quite well, they proved themselves, but we were not always able to employ them as the terrain had a large number of depressions and potholes. Nevertheless, we made use of them. In any case, the tanks have proven themselves”.
There were similarly designed tanks also in the German army. There was the teletank V-4, there were small anti-tank “torpedoes” such as the radio-guided “Springer” and the “Goliath”, which would unwind an electrical control lead behind itself. A “Goliath” is found in the armoured vehicle museum at Kubinka. It is difficult to consider all of these designs as being successful. It was very difficult to direct a “Goliath” up to a tank even from a distance of 100 meters. The battery had a charge, which allowed for only eight minutes of movement, and the low clearance did not provide for sufficient mobility. Equipping these tankettes with a petrol engine did not save the situation. Nevertheless, they were able to carry out certain functions – including mine clearing and attacking fortifications.