When the Red Army entered the Second World War the Soviet Union did not have any mass-produced self-propelled guns that could be used both for close support of the infantry and for an anti-tank role. In the late 1930's a very limited number of SU-5 self-propelled guns was built based on the chassis of the T-26 Light Tank, but they only had limited use during the occupation of Poland in 1939.
By summer 1941 this lack of a suitable self-propelled gun appeared so serious that in September a ZIS-30 self-propelled gun was developed as a temporary measure. Being based on the chassis of the "Komsomolets" armored tracktor this vehiclehad limited fuel capacity, also it was overweighted, and had poor stability during gunfire/ On the other hand it could defeat anything Panzerwaffe disposed and that ewas the most importand at that time. In this way the Red Army was provided with inexpensive self-propelled antitank weapon.
In the 1930's, there were some successful attempts at developing self-propelled assault and anti-aircraft guns on the chassis of the mass-produced T-26 light tank, which led to the manufacture of several experimental vehicles.
With the arrival of new tank models, the T-26s could theoretically be converted to self-propelled guns, but in reality, conversion was impossible due to great T-26 losses during the first months of the Great Patriotic War. It was also impossible to replace the T-26s with new tanks due to the fact that the tank factories were being evacuated to the Urals and to Siberia. However, in besieged Leningrad in 1941 to 1942, several small batches of SU-76P were manufactured. The SU-76P consisted of a 76 mm regimental field gun installed on a T-26 chassis with a circular field of fire, and it had no protection for the crew other than the gun's shield. But this vehicle was merely another stop-gap measure, as the besieged city had to make do with whatever equipment it had remaining inside the encirclement.
In autumn 1941, all tanks armed with 45 mm guns which fought on the Leningrad Front become useless against "soft" targets like infantry due to the lack of fragmentation and high-explosive ammunition. That's why the General Staff of the Leningrad Front asked the NKTP to rearm existing BT and T-26 light tanks with the 76 mm KT Gun.
A new vehicle was developed and tested, and after successful testing, the General Staff of the Leningrad Frond ordered Factory #174 to start manufacturing the new self-propelled guns. This vehicle received the SU-76 designation, and from 1943, it was renamed the SU-76P (P - "polkovaya" - "regimental") to avoid confusion with the new self-propelled gun which had the same designation (see below).
The SU-76P alone could not solve the Red Army's lack of self-propelled guns, and there were attempts to utilise the chassis of T-60 tanks, which were mass-produced in 1941 to 1943. In autumn 1941 the GAZ Factory began on its own initiative the development of a light self-propelled gun designated the SU-71. However, it never entered full-scale production. By July 1942, another self-propelled gun was developed: the OSA-76, which was based on the chassis of the T-60 tank.
That project was developed by an initiative of GAU, which involved the idea of installing all field artillery on self-propelled chassis. An "OSA" designation means "Obshevoiskovaya Samokhodhaya Artilleriya" (All-Purpose Self-Propelled Artillery). In fact, OSA does not belong to the SU-76 series, as it was rather an independent class of self-propelled guns. The whole OSA project resulted in the development of the following partially-armored vehicles: - OSA-76 - a partially armored vehicle with a 76 mm self-propelled gun; - OSA-57 - a partially armored vehicle with a 57 mm self-propelled antitank gun; - OSA-23 - a partially armored vehicle with a 23 mm self-propelled antiaircraft gun; - OSA-12 - a partially armored vehicle with a 12.7 mm self-propelled antiaircraft gun.
The OSA-76 was armed with the 76.2 mm Assault Gun ZIS-3Sh based on the 76.2 mm Divisional Gun ZIS-3. The vehicle had a very low weight - less than 3,500 kg. The GAZ-MM gasoline engine powered it. The chassis of the OSA-76 was the same as on the T-60/T-70 light tanks. It had a crew of three men, and the armor protection was 6 mm. The OSA-76 successfully passed all tests and was recommended for mass production, although it was ultimately never produced.
An attempt by Rumanian engineers to install a captured 76.2 mm F-22 gun on the chassis of a captured T-60 tank was more successful. Until the arrival of the German Pzkw IV Ausf G, they were the only means to reliably defeat Soviet medium and heavy tanks.
Self-Propelled Gun of Factory No.37
This was a self-propelled gun of the SU-76 series. The development of this vehicle followed the NKAP order of March 3, 1942. By May 1942, the first experimental prototype was manufactured and sent to the proving grounds. However, neither the chassis nor the armament passed the trials. The construction of this vehicle was based on the chassis of T-60 light tank.
On October 19, 1942, the GKO issued Document #2429ss ordered the GAZ Factory and Factory #38 to develop, to test, and to put into full-scale production a light SP gun, armed with the 76.2 mm Gun ZIS-3. The new vehicle was based on the chassis and engine of the T-70 tank, but with increased length, and an additional road wheel.
In November 1942, both factories showed their prototypes. Both vehicles were armed with the ZIS-3Sh ("Sh" means "shturmovaya" or "assault") gun. The GAZ project was named the GAZ-71, and Factory #38's project was named the SU-12. On December 9, 1942, after comparative trials, the GAZ-71 was recognized as "not conforming to existing battle requirements", and was "very unreliable"; and thus, further work was cancelled. The SU-12, however, was accepted for service under the name "SU-76 Self-Propelled Assault Gun." From January 1, 1943, mass production began.
The designers put the two GAZ-202 engines parallel to one another instead of in-line as on the T-70 tank. Its fully-enclosed shielding was welded from 10 to 35 mm armor plates, the driver's compartment was located in the front of the vehicle in between the engines, while the superstructure housing the ZIS-3Sh gun was located in the rear.
The crew of three also had a DT machine-gun and personal firearms at its disposal. By the end of January 1943, it formed the first two self-propelled artillery regiments sent to the Volkhov front.
The shortcoming of the parallel engine placement in the SU-76 (SU-12) became apparent when it resulted in transmission malfunctions. The malfunctions were due to torsional vibrations which led to rapid breakdowns. The vibration peaked in second gear, which was the most overloaded gear. It was impossible to properly synchronize the two engines.
As a result of the experiences in the field, the production of SU-76 was halted on March 21st, 1943, after only 350 were produced. Due to the planned summer offensive, the GKO put a very strict time-frame to correct the defects. Already by May 17th, 1943, an updated SU-76M (SU-12M; M means "modernised") entered testing and by June of that year it entered production.
These vehicles had updated engines and transmissions, and used the old SU-76 hulls that were left over. Improvements included the introduction of spring clutches between the engines and the main gear, of a slipping clutch on the general shaft, and of engine shock absorbers. These items reduced, but did not eliminate, the likelihood of a malfunction. In May 1943, the production of the SU-76M began. All of those vehicles took part in the Battle of Kursk.
SU-15, SU-16, and SU-38
By summer 1943, the design bureaus of the GAZ factory and Factory #38 offered several independent projects on how to modernise the SU-76. GAZ offered the GAZ-74A project, which was to use the Soviet ZIS-16F or ZIS-80 diesel engines, or the American "Giberson" engine (of 110 hp). It was to be rearmed with the more modern 76.2 mm gun S-1, but the project was abandoned, and only one experimental vehicle was built.
Factory #38 simultaneously offered three different projects: SU-15, SU-16, and SU-38. All these vehicles were to be armed with the 76.2 mm Gun S-15, and they were powered by the GAZ-203 engine (like the T-70 light tank).
The SU-15 was based on the chassis and hull of the SU-12, and was powered by two GAZ-203 engines, and with the slightly improved air-filtering system. The compartment (superstructure) was slightly widened.
The engine, the transmission, and the chassis of the SU-16 was originally taken from the T-70 light tank. However, the protection was increased with 45 mm armor on the front. The compartment was armor-protected from the top and rear as well.
Like the SU-16, the SU-38 self-propelled guns had the chassis and engine taken from the T-70. However, this vehicle was much lighter than the SU-16. It had an all-around protected compartment at the front of the tank (like the SU-152, etc). It was engineered to distribute the load evenly along the chassis.
Comparative trials were performed during the summer of 1943. They showed that the SU-16 was the most successful, but had a poor crew layout. The chassis of both the SU-15 and the SU-38 were overloaded, which led to rapid breakdowns. Nevertheless, the SU-15 was chosen and recommended for mass production after a weight decrease.
While producing the SU-76, the GAZ factory started a modernisation program for the SU-15, as all the critical parts of that vehicle (engine, chassis, transmission, etc) were produced there. The modernised self-propelled gun (factory designation SU-15M) was distinguished from its predecessor by the unprotected compartment from the top and rear. It was powered by two GAZ-202 engines with a common cooling system and transmission.
In August 1943, that SPG successfully passed all trials, and was accepted for service under the SU-76 designation. From October 1, 1943, the mass production of this vehicle began.
By June 1945, the total production of the SU-76 reached 14,292 - approximately 60% of the total volume of all self-propelled guns produced during the war. It was manufactured in the following factories: Factory #30 in Kirov, Factory #40 in Mytishchi, and the GAZ Factory in Gorkij.
The updated version was delivered to the Army on time, but it left a questionable impression on its crews, and received nicknames such as "Suka" (Bitch) or "Golozhopij Ferdinant" (Naked Ass Ferdinand). Tankers who never fought in the SU-76, but who had judged it from the outside gave such unpleasant nicknames. Tankers who fought in the SU-76 called it "Colombina," which was a somewhat affectionate name. The first negative impressions of the vehicle were formed when these light SP-guns were pressed into service as common tanks.
The first SU-76s were sent to mixed self-propelled artillery regiments and in the summer of 1943, each unit was supposed to have 21 vehicles (four batteries of five vehicles each and one commander's SU-76). Only with time came the realization that the main task of the SU-76 should be close support of the infantry. The task of fighting enemy tanks was left to more powerful artillery systems based on the chassis of the T-34 and the JS-2 tanks. As a result, by the end of 1944, SU-76s were placed into light self-propelled artillery batteries of sixteen vehicles each, which were then part of regular infantry divisions.
Naturally, among the sixty shots that a SU-76 carried, some were armor-piercing. However, its main advantages were its low profile, high mobility, and low ground pressure (0.545 kg/cm2) which allowed it to operate in the marshy and forested areas which had poor ground conditions, in close cooperation with the attacking infantry, and in firing directly at pillboxes and fortified buildings.
Further use of the vehicle in street battles at the end of the war uncovered another disadvantage of the system - the semi-open superstructure of the vehicle, which was roomy and excellent for crew movement, became a mass grave for its crew in case of an infantry grenade explosion. On the other hand, the opened compartment made all types of high-explosive anti-tank (HEAT) ammunition (including weapons such as the "Panzerfaust," the "Faustpatron," and the "Panzerschreck") totally ineffective.
The first batch of SU-76s (25 vehicles) was delivered by January 1st, 1943, and was sent to the self-propelled artillery training school. At the end of January, the first two mixed self-propelled artillery regiments (the 1433rd and the 1434th) were sent to the Volkhov front to assist in the relief of Leningrad, and in March 1943, two more regiments (the 1485th and the 1487th) were formed, and fought on the Western front.
In 1943, a light self-propelled artillery regiment had a full complement of 21 SU-76M. At the end of 1944 to the beginning of 1945, seventy batteries of self-propelled artillery (consisting of sixteen vehicles in each battery) were formed and attached to rifle divisions. In the first half of 1944, light self-propelled artillery brigades of the RGK were formed, and consisted of sixty SU-76M and five T-70s each.
By the end of the war, the Red Army had 119 light self-propelled artillery regiments and seven self-propelled artillery brigades. The Polish army received 130 SU-76M. The SU-76M was used in the design of the ZSU-37 self-propelled anti-aircraft gun, which was armed with a 37 mm automatic anti-aircraft gun. It was manufactured at Factory #40 in Mytishchi (in Moscow suburbs), but it did not see action in World War Two. A total of 75 units were manufactured in 1945 to 1946.
The active service of the SU-76M did not end with the Second World War. The Soviet Army continued to use it through the early 1950's. The 130 vehicles given to the Polish Army were also taken out of service in the mid 1950's. A few dozen SU-76M that North Korea received saw action in the Korean war from which almost none survived.
The story of SU-76 would not be complete without an account of further attempts to modernise it. In December 1943, a SU-74B tank destroyer with a ZIS-2 anti-tank gun was tested, as was a GAZ-75 with an 85 mm D-5-S85A gun in 1944. It had the same 85 mm gun as the SU-85, but it had half its weight and its frontal armor was twice as thick (the SU-85 had 45 mm, and the GAZ-75 had 90 mm of frontal armor). None of those designs ever entered mass production, the main reason being a reluctance to disrupt the production of existing designs for the benefit of only minor improvements, as in the case of new engines, or to completely rework the manufacturing process for a new model.