World War 1 History: The Russian Tsar Tank—the Largest, Weirdest Tank Ever Built

Updated on September 24, 2017
UnnamedHarald profile image

I try to make history readable and interesting, warts and all. We must look to the past to understand the present and confront the future.

Russia's Tsar Tank

WW1: The Tsar Tank with its 30-foot diameter wheels.
WW1: The Tsar Tank with its 30-foot diameter wheels. | Source

The Bat

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

WW1: The Tsar Tank with men circled in red for scale.
WW1: The Tsar Tank with men circled in red for scale. | Source

Some Statistics

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.

Model

Model of the Tsar Tank
Model of the Tsar Tank | Source

Nikolay Lebedenko

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

Official portrait of Nikolai II. 1914.
Official portrait of Nikolai II. 1914. | Source

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.

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.

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 (e.g. Toy Soldiers) are available, keeping The Tsar Tank alive and well in the virtual world, where it has finally come into its own.

Tsar Tank Appears at 2:00

Questions & Answers

    © 2012 David Hunt

    Comments

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      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        2 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, Ebuna. If the Germans saw a wave of these monsters coming across No Man's Land, they would have thought they were in the Twilight Zone.

      • profile image

        Ebuna 

        2 years ago

        Poor tsar tank it was great

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks for notifying, aethelthryth. The Tsar was certainly one of a kind. I spent quite a lot of time verifying it was real-- even went to snopes.com.

      • aethelthryth profile image

        aethelthryth 

        6 years ago from American Southwest

        Just notified a couple of the tank fanatics I know about this article.

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thank you, joanveronica, for your kind words. It is amazing at the resources on the Internet. One of my biggest frustrations, however, is finding bazillions of fantastic images, but not one available for commercial use. Oh, and thanks for the vote ups!

      • joanveronica profile image

        Joan Veronica Robertson 

        6 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

        Interesting information, I had no idea there were even videos on topics like this! Congratulations once again on your fascinating fact providing Hubs. Voted up, awesome and interesting

      • UnnamedHarald profile imageAUTHOR

        David Hunt 

        6 years ago from Cedar Rapids, Iowa

        Thanks, ata1515. When I first saw the image of it, I didn't know what I was looking at. Then I saw the men in the picture and the scale of the thing blew me away.

      • ata1515 profile image

        ata1515 

        6 years ago from Buffalo, New York.

        I had heard of the Tsar Tank before but never in such detail. Great hub, voted up!

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