Author: Victor Markovsky
Photo: Oleg Pokladkov
Arms World Magazine, vol. 9/2005
Translated by Allanea Courtesy of Otvaga
The topic of armored trains is naturally associated with the Russian Civil War, where they were the main weapons. They were also used in the Great Patriotic War at a lesser rate, and eventually forgotten and replaced with more modern armaments. But history eventually brought to the restoration of armored trains.
An armored train on a Zabaikalsk Military District storage base
After the trains were disbanded, only their armored locomotives remained. The TG-16 locomotives is first in the link.
The TGM-14 armored maneuver locomotive was the propulsion method for the light strike groups.
The maneuver locomotive machinists’ seat.
HQ armored railcar with its CP and communications equipment. Platforms on both ends of the railcar are armed with AA guns.
The commander’s seat aboard the locomotive is equipped with observation equipment.
T62s on armored platforms are the key weapons of the mobile strike group. Next to it, in an armored room, sits an infantry detachment.
The T-62 deploys off the platform.
A PT-76 on its plafrom.
The PT-76 uses ramps to disembark from its platform.
AA platform with ZU-23-4 and ZU-23. The central armored box houses the ammunition.
Full-traverse ZU-23 mount.
Ballast plaform protects the train in the case of track damage and houses repair equipment.
This was the state of the trains in summer 2005. Only the locomotives remained functional. The armored platforms and railcars were cut up for scrap.
In the 1960′s our relations with China began to degrade, resulting eventually in the events on Damansky Island in March 1968. The two weeks of combat put our nations at the brink of war, costing our country a lot of blood, and five armored vehicles (including a T-62 captured by the Chinese, see also The Myth of the Tank). Only the use of heavy force, including tanks, artillery, and rocket launchers of the 135th Pacific Ocean Red Banner Mechanized Infantry Division, resolved the situation.
Clearly this was only the beginning. On the other side of the border, the PLA was beginning to accumulate for – 44 divisions, 4,300 tanks and 10,000 artillery guns and MLRS. Reserves included up to 30 well-trained militia divisions, almost equaling the regular army in their skills, not to mention the immense personnel reserves of China. In short the PLA was capable of covering the entire border with troops at the levels of up to a company per 200-300 meters of front.
The opposing Soviet forces were not even comparable – up until recently China was a well-supported ally. Especially disconcerting was the fact that the opposing PLA forces were armed almost exclusively with Soviet weapons – while the Trans-Baikal area had been armed with second-rate weaponry. Even the defensive lines and fortifications on the border were planned in the pre-war years, when Karbyshev was in charge there as an Engineer-Colonel. Further, the area had been struck heavily by Khruschev’s military cuts. Obvious also was the fact that the Chinese military was well-aware of our force structure and infrastructure capacity. GRU and General Staff Operational Office experts expected that in full-scale combat the advancing Chinese forces could advance at a speed of 15-20 km/h and up to 200-250 kilometers per day. The steppe was on the opponent’s side – the rare rarity of forests, rivers, and other natural obstacles made it possible for the enemy to develop his offensive in every direction after breaching the border.
Rapid measures were needed to fix the situation. Without much ado (Damansky was yet to happen), the Cabinet and MoD took a range of measures to improve the defensive capacity of border areas. Starting in Summer 1967, troops began to move from the central districts to the Far East and Trans-Baikal region, starting with tank and mechanized infantry units. From the Baltic, the Far East District received the 21st Guards Tank Division, while the Leningrad District sent the 2nd Tank Division to the Trans-Baikal. The 5th Guards TD, 32nd, 66th, 49th and 111th Tank Division arrived in the same area. By the early 1970′s the Trans Baikal District’s army corps became the 39th Combined Arms Army, which also deployed a forward group in Mongolia. The total number of tank units on the Chinese border reached 7 (including a training division,
In the Trans-Baikal area, the MoD also deployed two dozen air regiments, forming the 23rd Air Army. The domination of strike bombers and fighter-bombers allowed to compensate for the opponent’s numerical superiority, as they would become relatively easy prey for aviation in the wild stepps of the Trans-Baikal.
However, the low development of the area tied almost all units to the Trans-Siberian and Trans-Baikal railroads. Resupply and redeployment of the forces, as well as any regroupings in the event of an invasion of opponent forces outnumbering them by a great factor would depend on these “roads of life” A motorized division required 18-20 trains to relocate, the roads could allow for shifting 3-5 divisions a day. This was compounded by the lack of proper automobile roads (proper highways do not link Russia to the Far East to this day) [Translator’s note: this has changed since the writing of the article). As the Trans-Siberian lay only within 70-100 kilometers from the border, it would be directly threatened in case of a conflict. Every day, 60-70 trains moved cargo along the road to the Far East. Later on the BAM was constructed directly to be a safe backup to the Trans-Siberian. It was not intended to be an alternative – every day it could shift only 6-8 trains.
Thus the creation of the Trans-Baikal defenses was tied to the rail network. Already in March 1966 the 97th and 114th Fortified Areas were formed, garrisoned around the stations of the Trans-Baikal Railroad. They were intended to fortify the border area. Some of them were even formed in front of the border posts and fortifications, covering them with their equipment and firepower. Their officers and men were to act as a front-line barrier, holding off the enemy in his area of responsibility for several days needed to deploy the forces of the military district and mobilize their reserves.
The headquarters and command of the 97th Fortified Area was at Biltut Station, south-east of Chita, while the 114th was headquartered near Sherlovaya Gora station, 50 kilometers off the border. These fortified areas were similar in personnel numbers to a regiment, but were armed like a mechanized infantry division. Given the low resources, equipment for the area was pulled in from central-district units and and the reserve division stockpiles
The 97th Fortified Area was armed with 3 mechanized infantry battalions deployed near Bi-Liyutuy station (four companies each), a sapper battalion, a signals and repair battalion. There were also four tank battalions of four companies each, equipped with various tanks – T-34/85, IS-2, IS-3, IS-4, T-54, T-55, and OT-55. The vehicles arrived from every part of the country, and 80 IS-4s were received in 1968 from Belarus, where they had been stored. Despite the tanks being rather old and varied, they were still rather effective – all they needed to do was deploy and take up a position.
At Dauria Station, near lake Shakhali, the 255th Machinegun-Artillery Battalion was deployed with six companies, including two tank companies, each armed with a dozen OG-55 and T-35/85 tanks (the latter were later replaced with IS-4 tanks, while the T-34s went for Bilbut). Near the border, at Zaibaikalsk station (up until 1960 it was named “Repulse” in memory of the war for the Far East railroad, and was clearly renamed too early) the 256th Machinegun-Artillery Battalion stood. In total the Fortified Area had about 230 tanks, a separate AT battalion with 85mm guns and a battery of BM-13 MLRS.
The 114th Fortified Area had a similar make-up and approximately similar forces. Apart from the fortified areas, the Trans-Baikal military district had a unique unit – the Machinegun-Artillery Divisions, supposed to hold off Chinese personnel (the famed human-wave attacks). It is notable that one of the division commanders was Lt. Colonel Alsan Mashadov, who received the most flattering references from his superiors.
Defending the rail lines was a hard task. The sparse steppe, with its rare stations and isolated villages, not only the rail itself, but the various rail junctions, tunnels, and rail bridges were vulnerable – and capture or destruction of these objectives would isolate not merely the garrisons, but the entire area. Turning every object into a defensive line would have separated the forces – there were over 1200 such points. Ordinary means of guarding the rail were also not a solution – anybody who has ever seen a pair of guards by a rail service buildin knows what we’re talking about. A mobile, effective weapon was needed. Thus appeared the armored trains.
“Where there is a road – we can help.” This motto of the rail forces suggested the solution. Reanimating the concept of armored trains was entrusted to the Kharkov Transport Factory. After the Damansky conflict it was tasked with building an armored trains. Though it had a civilian name, starting with 1964 it was given over to the Ministry of Defensive Production and almost entirely specialized in military equipment. That said, it had great experience producing rail transport in the post-war era, especially heavy diesel engines and main-line locomotives (let us remember it started building tanks when it was known as the Kharkov Steam Locomotive Plant). In the 1950′s and 1960′s it developed a gas-turbine locomotive, gas-diesels, TE-7 and TE-15 locomotives with a top speed of 160 kph, and even a project for a superpowered atomic locomotive, entirely autonomous for months without refueling. In the post-war years it produced 1852 locomotives – and, ironically, some of its locomotives and tanks had gone to China.
As the factory moved to war production, its locomotive lines were folded and given over to other factories, while the production facilities where they stood moved on to production of the T-64. However the factory still maintained Locomotive Design Department #65, which took a major role in creating the armored train. Given that the general director of the plant was a talented, capable man – O.V. Soich, the factory had experience and great production capacity, it was clear why it got the task.
A.D. Mondrus was put in charge of the project. To speed up work, the design widely utilized off-the-shelf, standard products – the locomotive, platforms, wheel sets and car elements, tank guns and turrets (as used during the Great Patriotic War). Neighboring design units assisted in creating the armor, armament, fire control and signals element. The turrets, guns, and sights came off the T-55, and the AA armament was to include two Shilka turrets with their four linked AA guns and RADAR.
A high-power diesel locomotive was chosen. Electric locomotives were rejected immediately – only a small part of the railroads behind the Urals were electrified, and furthmore electric lines became extremely vulnerable during a war – any rip in the cables, much less of airstrikes on the power plants and substations would end train movements.
The end of its rail production made the Kharkov factory cooperate with other plants. Department 65 took up development, the armored locomotive was manufacture in the Lyudinov plant, the Kalinin machinery factory made the armored railcars, and the Mariupol Metallurgical Factory made the armored railcars, armor, and tank turrets. The train was complete by 1970.
By this time the experimental “land cruiser” was tested in success – but never fielded. The situation with the PRC calmed down, so did the borders. In December 1970, Department 65 was shut down and its documents archived and transferred to other, relevant organizations.
Along the armored train, other inventions were also decomissioned. Among them was “Chertopolokh” (Thistle): a network of one- or two-man underground DOTs, featuring retractable grenade launcher and machinegun mounts, invisible and virtually invulnerable, which would rise to the surface to fire. In the border area it was planned to build more powerful, rapid-assembly concrete DOTS, composed of a large underground fighting compartment, living area, ammunition storage and signals equipment. The roof of the DOT would be flush with the ground, equipped with a tank turret. Prototypes had been built, but mass production did not commence due to costs.
Partial normalization with China did not mean it was a friend to the USSR. In February 1979, when relations worsened again, the Central Far Eastern command was formed, commanding Far Eastern and Trans-Baikal forces, the Pacific Fleet, and several Air Armies and AA armies. Thus, the issue of maneuvering cover with armored trains rose again.
Given the Tenth Five-Year plan already kept the military factories loaded to nearly 100% of capacity, working three shifts a day, the design was simplified and used as many off-the-shelf parts as possible.
The main task remained the protection of dispersed objects. Thus the train was modular, consisting of several autonomous “armored flying groups”. These carried tanks, increasing their flexibility and reducing their dependency on the rail itself. Already in the Great Patriotic War this was practiced by the Germans, who used light tanks on rail platforms to fight partisans.
The armored train now had as its main unit of armored flying groups, each composed of two open-topped 55-ton railcars carrying a T-62 tank (or any other tank, even if it could not move, as long as it could shoot) and a TGM-14 armored maneuver locomotive. The wheels and brakes of the platforms were covered with armored skirts, while the platforms housed not only the tank, but also an armored box for an infantry detachment and its weapons. The boxes had firing ports, a commander’s turret with a periscope, and radios. They could also be removed if needed. Each mobile group had 25 troops, and the train could carry up to five such groups, depending on its task. They could be used both as part of the train and separately.
The tactics for the train assumed deploying in the target area, with the armored groups deploying to protect the target objectives. It was believed two tanks and two detachments of infantry could protect a typical railroad item like a bridge or crossing. If needed more than one armored group would deploy. The platforms had ramps for the tanks to deploy, or the tanks could fight directly from the platforms. The trains could be used as a mobile reserve and fire support, while the tanks counterattacked. It was believed each armored group could protect an AOR of up to 100 km, therefore an armored train could cover 500 km of ground – the distance from Ulan-Ude to Irkutsk.
If the train operated in its full complement, it was even more formidable. It was controlled from an armored railcar with communications equipment and work stations for the commander and staff. For working in contaminated area it was hermetically sealed and equipped with filters and ventilation gear. Open platforms the train carried 23mm AA guns similar to those seen on Shilkas, but without RADARs and turrets. The train’s AA weapons were complemented by a special armored railcar based on an ordinary platform. In its central section it had a command point, while the open platforms at the ends carried a ZU-23-4 gun and ZU-23 twin-link gun on each. The central box also provided shelter for crew and ammunition. Further, MANPAD teams could fire from the open platforms. The TG-16 locomotive was also armored, with the steel plates covering the machinist’s cabin, the power room, and even the massive fuel tanks under the floor, covered with lowered steel skirts. The armor had access hatches and venting blinds, while the control cabin had two levels, with the machinist’s room below and a fighting compartment with a commander’s seat above. The locomotive’s bridge was also equipped with small arms firing ports.
As any proper infantry or tank unit, the train also had a recon unit made out of two PT-76 amphibious tanks. Their platform was armored with more armor – two-meter-tall armor sheets that could be opened from the front or rear to function as onramps.
A fully kitted-out train was supposed to work as follows: In front there was a cover platform to protect in case of someone blowing up the rails (it carried rails and other parts for its repair, and the train had a repair team on board), a locomotive, two tank armored teams, followed by an HQ railcar in the middle, an AA platform and two PT-76 platforms. Three more armored teams and a cover railcar completed the train. It could also include personnel railcars (boxcars or passenger) and rail field kitchens.
The train also included on its ORBAT a recon company of 8 BTR-40 (ZhD) vehicles. These were equipped from the rear and the front with folding mounts with leafsprings and steel train wheels with internal reboards, could move on rails at a speed of 80 kph (propelled by the main wheels). The vehicles took 3-5 minutes to switch from conventional to rail drive. For long-range transport of these vehicles the train could be given 4 more regular platforms to carry two BTR-40 (ZhD) vehicles each.
Despite the complexities of big politics, the armored trains served quietly. They were mostly stored at a minor rail station near Chita, their readiness tested by locomotive engine starting, maneuvering and tank exercises. The ammunition was stored separately. In 1986 one of the trains was used at the site of a rail accident, the tanks used to tow derailed railcars.
In January 1990 these trains were ordered for deployment to suppress the anti-government uprising in Baku and the Nationalist uprising in Sumgait. The trains were intended for use to protect the rails in the difficult conditions of the Transcaucasus area. The strategically-important area was only linked to the central areas of the country with two rail lines. The trains were not adopted to making a long-range journey. It took them weeks to cross the entire country. By the time they arrived, Baku was under control of Soviet forces, a decisive role played by VDV troops of the 103rd Guards Division, transported by air. The trains’ orders were not however canceled and they arrived fully armed. As they prepared their arms the crews got a rare opportunity to fire live rounds. From their platforms, on the move, tankers fired at abandoned buildings in the steppe and other targets – an event not seen on our rails for nearly half a century.
After they arrived at the destination the trains protected key stations, force echelons and cargo trains, protecting the latter from looters. Often they were shot at but ordered not to open fire.
After their return home, the trains were placed at a rocket and artillery storage base 40 kilometers away from Chita. After the military districts were united they were transferred to the Siberian Military District, with two of the trains put in long-term storage. It is notable that even in the difficult years of the 1990s, when tanks and jets were scrapped by the hundreds, the four trains were kept in a propoer state, fully equipped and armed. True, the entrenching gear had to be welded in place to avoid theft, and the autocannon warehoused. Still, the metal thieves nearly got their way – two trains left the station and went in the direction of the Chinese border, but were intercepted and returned.
Military cuts eventually reached the trains in the early 21st centuries. With the fortified areas long in disrepair, the train platforms and railcars were gradually, one after another, scrapped. Only the armored locomotives of the trains and armored groups remain now in storage, standing orphaned in a dead end in the taiga.