By Michael Green
Published by Pen & Sword Military
ISBN: 978 1 78159 183 3

Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online

I’m reminded of hot dusty days at the Beltring Hop Farm when the clanking noise of tanks filled the air. There were some special times which stay with me and one of those was seeing a group of T34s rumbling around the arena and although there were always other things to admire, it was this sight which I consider a high point. I’ve allowed myself on occasion to fall into that amusing trap of trying to pick my favourite tank of the war and the T34 is always up there vying for top spot with the Sherman. What a boyish thing to do, but hey, that’s blokes for you. These questions always do the rounds on forums. What do you base it on? Is it the power, performance, significance or looks? I come into this debate at the shallow end much of the time. I know a lot of the stats and the history – but I end up treating my death dealing weapons like I do my favourite cars of the 1970s and it usually comes down to image and nostalgia. I am not an engineer.

So, the T34 stands out. As a kid I built the Airfix kits with the handy two turret option and then the Tamiya stuff and whoa! A lifetime later I was standing watching a mate restore the real thing. This was very impressive. After the Yugoslavian implosion this sort of old armour was up for grabs and there seemed to be loads of the things rumbling about. They are everywhere and there’s even a pink one left on a vacant lot in South London covered in graffiti. The T34 is photogenic and familiar in ways that so many other tanks are not. There is nothing awkward about it like some of the angular or boxy British stuff – not that I don’t like them. American tanks, much as I love them, are nowhere near as brutal. I hope I’ve never fallen into that trap of jaded ambivalence where you can see one rumble by and say it’s only a T34. They are all thoroughbreds. But they were not the only tank in the Soviet arsenal and this excellent guide by Michael Green will help you to discover a lot more of interest.

The book takes us from the October Revolution when the Russians began to develop their own tank designs based on French and British models right through to the beginnings of Barbarossa when pretty much everything in the Russian box of tricks were proving to be duff. Then we get the KV-1 and KV-2. I have to say I’d love to see both of them on the move. The KV-2, especially, is an amazing looking thing. I built a Tamiya kit of it forty odd years ago and it went west when my mates and I shot up all my tank models with a BB gun. Thinking about the KV-2 and so many of the early war examples of Russian armour – you mainly get to see them in German photos of the stuff they’ve knocked out, a phenomenon not dissimilar to all those equally interesting photos of French armour in 1940.  To see the real thing you’ll have to get yourself to the Kubinka or somewhere similar and I would love to do this myself one of these days.

The Russian fixation with the Christie suspension system is well detailed and there are some nice snaps of the BT-5 and BT-7. These are classed as light tanks and the real meat of the book comes in chapters on the mediums, heavies and SP guns. We come back to the T34 in all its variations. I’m afraid I look at it in simple terms of the 76mm or 85mm turrets. I have never seen an example of the former and feel remiss. We keep seeing the same one in that ever popular video of the tank pulled from a lake somewhere in the Baltic States or lord knows where. I once had an interesting hour in the newsroom of a British newspaper convincing a hack that this was not the Tiger tank they’d been duped into believing the story was about some years after the video first did the rounds. My eyes on experience is entirely with the classic 85mm gun tank and, as said, while I’ve never learned the finer points of the variants I always like to see one. But three or four is better!

The heavies give us the incongruous T-35, one of the outclassed leviathans of the early phase of Barbarossa but then we get to the IS-2 and IS-3 and these monsters cannot fail to impress. There is as much pleasure in reading about the SP guns and I suppose I have a liking for the types based on, yep, you guessed it – the T34.  The SU-85 tank destroyer is another reminder of my model building days from a lifetime ago. They have an SU-100 at Bovington and I remember seeing it last year on my first visit to the museum since the early 1990s. It is a great place to compare all the armour of the Allies and the Axis under one roof and you tend to walk round in a bit of a daze. It is great to be able to see the WW2 Soviet armour in the collection up close, especially in juxtaposition with all the German stuff which cannot fail to impact on you. Can you really pick a favourite out of that lot?

This excellent book is an education and being so reasonably priced at under fifteen quid it is well within reach of newbies to the tank obsession and the old hands who just enjoy looking at the things. I can’t fault it and will add it to the growing pile of Images of War series titles that stand out above many of the others I’ve seen. It is a solid reference tool and won’t take up too much space on your bookshelf and I commend it to the house.

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Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.