US Tanks in Soviet Russian Service in WW2

A while back I posted a pic of an American Sherman tank that had been upended by an explosion. A point of interest was that the tank was in the service of the Russians and part of the massive lend-lease program where the US and Britain supplied massive quantities of arms and armaments to Soviet Russia. Approximately 2000 M4 Shermans (75 mm gun) were supplied to the Russians. Frankly, that’s a lot of tanks. If memory serves me right an American Armored Division had roughly 200 medium and light tanks. This means, just counting the Shermans alone the US gave the Soviets enough tanks to initially equip the equivalent of ten divisions!

Not a lend lease Sherman as originally thought but found in the South Pacific.

Why so generous you may ask? Why be so generous to Soviet, Communist Russia under Stalin, a man whose crimes were rivalled only by Hitler.

Most folks do not know or remember that Soviet Russia fought a war of aggression against tiny Finland in 1940  and make a pact with Hitler to divide Poland in 1939. Britain and France declared war on Germany for the Polish invasion but not Soviet Russia who invaded that poor country almost at the same time the Germans did.

So, why help Soviet Russia in 1941 when it’s clear that Stalin is as bad as Hitler if not worse, if you can imagine what worse would look like.

As a student of the period I think it’s debatable who could have blinked first, Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany when it came to invading the other. On June 22nd the Germans did invade Russian occupied Poland and then Russia itself. It’s possible they simply beat the Russians to the first punch. Soviet Russia had concentrated massive armies in the Ukraine. They had many more men and tanks in that area than they had along the Minsk-Smolensk highway that led to Moscow. You’d think if they were thinking defensively that most of their armies would be along the more direct route to their capital. They were not.

Some historians believe the Soviet Armies were in the Ukraine because they had ambitions on Romania, a German ally, but also a nation that disputed Russia’s claim to Moldova  and Bessarabia, areas that contained many ethnic Romanians.

In any event, the Germans struck first and within two months of fighting, much of it along the Minsk-Smolensk highway , the Germans had inflicted millions of casualties on the Russians and destroyed a significant part of the Soviet tank force. By the end of November 1941 the Germans were in sight of Moscow and the Soviet government was near collapse.

The US did not enter the war until December, 1941 but had been giving Great Britain lend-lease aid almost from the beginning of the war in 1939. When Germany invaded Russia in June, 1941 the US also began lend-lease to Russia although still not formally in the war. In another way this was odd. Roosevelt was committed to Britain and it was only a matter of time before the US formally joined the war. The attack on Pearl Harbor just rushed the decision to join the war. Therefore, prior to the formal declaration of war the US was in the process of equipping its own divisions. So, when it came to lend-lease the US was sending Russia equipment at the expense of our own forming divisions.

Which brings me back to the initial question. Why help Stalin?

It was a pragmatic decision along the lines of the “enemy of my enemy is my friend.” War produces strange bed fellows that often get along well enough to defeat a common foe even though the reality is they hate their allies almost as much as their enemies.

Having said that there really was a better pragmatic reason to help Soviet Russia. The vast bulk of the German Army was in Russia. Should Russia surrender the bulk of the German Army could be transferred to the West. One American General remarked that if Russia failed it would debatable if the USA and GB could win. He didn’t think we’d lose. He just thought it would be difficult to win in a decisive way should Russia be taken out and the western allies had to face the bulk of the German Army. Fortress Europe just might have proven impossible to breach.

By December, 1941 it did look as if Russia just might collapse. It was around this time that Russia started to receive substantial numbers of American and British tanks.

Stuart in the foreground, Lee in the background.

Pictured left is an American light tank-the M3 Stuart and a medium tank-the M2 Lee in Russian service. The Stuart by all accounts was a great light tank. It was fast and it had a 37mm main gun which was not terrible in those early years of the war. The British loved their Stuarts and used them in North Africa against Rommel where they were called “Honeys.”

The M2 Lee was a different animal. It had the same 37mm gun the Stuart had but it was mounted on top of the turret. The Lee’s main weapon was a 75mm gun mounted in the hull which meant it had a limited traverse. At the time, it was the best the US had to offer since the Sherman had not yet produced in large numbers. The British used the Lee/Grant (M3) in North Africa too (as we did in late 1942 when we invaded N. Africa).

The Lee\Grant was not popular and inferior to the German Pz IVf2 and upgraded PZ IIIm’s the Germans fielded in N. Africa. One officer complaining about the Lee’s very high-profile remarked that it looked like a cathedral coming down the road.

The Russians did not think much of them either but they were comparing them to their own excellent T-34. However, in the fall/winter of 1941-42 the Russians were desperate and they gladly received the Lee’s, the Stuarts and the British Matilda’s that were sent to them.

The Russians launched a winter offensive in December 1941 than continued through February, 1942. For much of the time the weather was blizzard or the temperature dropped to below 25 degrees Fahrenheit (or worse). The Germans planned to knock Russia out by the winter and were woefully unprepared for the Russian offensive and the weather and were pushed back a significant distance from Moscow. Stalin got the reprieve he needed to survive.

The lend-lease American and British tanks did not win the war for Soviet Russia but they did contribute in keeping Russia in the war and that’s what lend-lease was ultimately all about.

12 comments on “US Tanks in Soviet Russian Service in WW2

  1. Bruce: I would like to copy, add some photos and post, with attribution, on my site, with your permission.

  2. Bruce, While your data is correct, and interesting, you need to re-check your photo sources. The Sherman at the top of the page is far from any “Baltic forest”, nor was it ever in use by the Soviet Union. It is in fact located still on the Pacific island of Pelelieu, in the Palau group, where it had been employed by the U.S. Marine Corps. It is a very famous, and oft photographed wreck.

  3. This is new info for me and very interesting. Thank you.

  4. I seem to recall reading once that Soviet histories didn’t even mention America’s aid via lend-lease. Ingratitude for our sacrifices seems to continue today.

    • True. The tanks and aircraft were helpful but the trucks, radios, and food more decisive. It was an unholy alliance born of a common enemy. It served Stalin to ignore Allied help if for no other reason than we were capitalists and to take aid from hated capitalists was an admission of the failure of communism. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Interesting but I knew very well this story! I’m a firm, but it’s not only my opinion, believer that it would have been a matter of time that Russia would have attacked Germany because among many reasons Russia had amassed enormous quantity of troops in Ukraina along with tanks airplanes trucks and it was almost exclusively trained for offensive use! Far too much for a “simple” annexing of Romania’s disputed borders! Hitler knew very well that Russia had far more human resources as well as material resources and fuel then Germany! Hitler was everything: criminal, lier and far more but he was not stupid and knew that he didn’t have much choices but to attack first but fortunately for us all he didn’t succeed!
    In my modest opinion America did extremely well to be so generous with Russia by supplying enormous amount of war materials because not only it helped, in no small order, Russia to survive but also to be the main reason why the allies could land in Normandy because of the terrible losses of human resources and war materials even if the the allies were fighting about 1/4 of the Germans there! Simply there was not enough resources to check the allies! Of course the war is always the sum of wrong and right decision so it’s safe to say that the USA was the country that did the best decision by simply seeing that they had the lowest casualties among the allies!

    • Thank you for stopping by and commenting. The Russian forces in the Ukraine were huge so your point is well taken. Ironically, the extra time it took the Germans to take Kiev and encircle those forces probably cost them Moscow rather than the winter.

  6. The Lee was a good tank when it first appeared. In fact it was better than any German tank in North Africa for a few months.

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