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Opening Salvo: KV-1
by Michael J. Canavan, Sr
Command Sergeant Major
US Army (retired)


The Russian Army was practically the only armed force in the world equipped with heavy tanks at the outbreak of World War II. The first of these was the KV-1, named after Klim Voroshilov, the Soviet Defense Minister. It was designed by a group of engineers at the Kirov factory in Lenningrad under the direction of Zh. Kotin. Work was begun in February 1939 and the mock up approved in April. A completed tank was demonstrated to the Red Army staff in September and accepted as the standard, along with the T-34, on 19 December 1939. Production began in February 1940. In that year 234 tanks were produced. The KV-1 was a conventional European design and was instrumental in ending Russian efforts to create a multiple turreted tanks.

KV-1 Heavy Tank

The KV-1 was powered by a V2K V-12 diesel engine, the same engine used in the T-34. It generated 550 horsepower at 2150 rpm. The tank theoretically had a speed of 21.7 miles per hour but this speed was seldom attained in the field. Its armament was one 76.2 mm L/41 ZiS-5 gun, three or four 7.62 mm DT machineguns in the bow, coaxial, turret rear, and, on some models, the commander’s cupola. Some model 1940 KV-1s were equipped with either the L-11 or F32 as a main gun. It had a range of 156 miles and weighed just over 42 tons. The KV-1 used a torsion bar suspension system with six road wheels, a front idler, and rear drive sprocket. This suspension gave a better ride than the Christie system found on the T-34. The wide tracks gave the tank better cross country performance than its German counterparts and also resulted in a ground pressure of just over 10.6 psi. The KV-1 could surmount vertical obstacles of 3 feet 8 inches, cross a trench 8 feet 6 inches wide, and climb a 70 percent gradient. The KV-1 carried a crew of 5. Fuel was housed in three cells in the fighting compartment.

The transmission often broke down and, on early versions. It was nearly impossible to change gears without the liberal use of a hammer. The tank was difficult to steer and required a great deal of physical effort. The radio operator also manned the hull machine-gun to the left of the driver. All KV-1s were radio equipped. The turret itself opened directly into the fighting compartment. The gunner sat to the left of the commander, who sat to the right of the breech. The assistant driver/mechanic sat to the rear of the turret and manned the rear mounted, close-defense machine-gun.

The tank was virtually invulnerable, which came as a big surprise to German armored units. It was vulnerable to hits to the track or from large artillery or antiaircraft pieces such as the 88 mm. At least one KV-1 took 70 hits from German units in the fighting near Lenningrad in 1941. Unfortunately for the Soviets, there were not enough KV-1s or well-trained crews to halt the German advance.

The KV-1 was rife with problems. Attempts were made to lighten the tank (KV-1S) and a redesign was accepted in August of 1942. The resulting tank quickly grew outdated and was virtually obsolete by the Battle of Kursk in the summer of 1943. It was no match for the German Tigers and Panthers. The main gun was not powerful enough to penetrate those tanks except at dangerously close ranges. The KV-1S, with its 85 mm (KV-85) gun filled the gap between the original KV-1 and the new IS tank that appeared in early 1944. The KV-1’s difficulties were eventually overcome but it retained its poor maneuverability. When the Soviets moved to the offense in 1942 and 1943, the KV-1 was gradually withdrawn from service. KV production was halted completely in 1943. Most of the 1364 KVs built by the time of the Battle of Moscow were captured or destroyed.

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