World War 1 History: The Russian Tsar Tank—the Largest, Weirdest Tank Ever Built
Russia's Tsar Tank
The Tsar Tank, built by the Russians during World War 1, was the largest-- and probably the weirdest-- tank ever to reach full-scale testing. It was also called the Lebedenko after its main developer, Nikolay Lebedenko, while others called it the Netopyr, Russian for “bat”, because its tiny model resembled a sleeping bat when carried by its rear wheel.
The Scale of the Tsar Tank
Its unique and improbable design resembled both a gigantic gun carriage and a monstrous backwards-facing tricycle. Its large front wheels measured nine meters in diameter (nearly 30 feet), while its smaller back wheel, used for steering, had a diameter of only one-and-a-half meters (about 5 feet). It was nine meters wide (nearly 30 feet) and 18 meters long (nearly 60 feet). It was designed to carry cannons and/or machine guns in two turrets, one on top of the carriage and a smaller one slung underneath. Additional machine guns were placed inside the sponsons (armored pods on each side behind the wheels). Its crew of ten had to climb along its “spine” to get to their stations. The Tsar Tank was designed to have a top speed of of 17 km/h (11 mph), but in reality it only achieved 8 km/h (5 mph), though this was still faster than any other heavy tanks in use. And heavy it was-- designed to weigh 40 tons, it actually ended up weighing 60 tons.
The Tsar Tank was the brainchild of Nikolay Lebedenko, a military engineer working for a private firm under contract with the Russian War Department. He enlisted the help of engineers Boris Stechkin and Alexander Mikulin. The Russians were looking for a way to break through the Eastern Front trench system the same as the British and French were on the Western Front, but, instead of using tracked vehicles to cross the trenches, Lebedenko decided the answer was giant, spoked wheels.
Each wheel was powered by its own 150-hp engine and, reportedly, each engine turned an automobile wheel which, when pressed against the outside edge of the big wheel, caused it to move.
Tsar Nicholas II, Emperor of All Russia
Backed By the Tsar
It is reported that Tsar Nicholas II, upon watching a model of the tank climb over a stack of books placed on the floor, agreed to fund its development. There are conflicting dates given regarding the start of development and when it went to trials in front of the high commission, but it is likely that work started in 1915 and the tests occurred in August of 1917. Many in the military thought that even if it worked, the sheer size and especially the wheels would make the Tsar Tank an easy target for enemy artillery.
The Tsar Tank Lives on in the Virtual World
Because of its outrageous design and size, the Tsar Tank has captured the hearts and minds of Steampunkers and Gamers. Model kits and mods are available, keeping The Tsar Tank alive and well in the virtual world, where it has finally come into its own.
Trials and Tribulations
Initially, the trials went well. It moved and broke an old birch tree by driving over it, but then its Achilles Heel was exposed. The small rear wheel (actually a roller) bore too much of the machine's 60 tons and, after encountering broken ground, the sort found on the battlefield, it got hopelessly stuck. With all that weight, it couldn't even be dug out and there it stayed throughout the rest of the war, rusting in the woods, until it was dismantled for scrap metal in 1923. There are additional reports that as many as three Tsar Tanks were made and another trial was attempted in 1918, but nothing came of this and there is no information regarding the fate of the other two, if indeed they ever existed.
Nikolay Lebedenko disappeared in the turmoil of Revolutionary Russia. Tsar Nicholas II and his entire family were executed by the Bolsheviks. The engineers Boris Stechkin (1891 – 1969) and Alexander Mikulin (1895 - 1985) survived and went on to become famous Russian academicians.