In 1937 the Design Bureau of the KhPZ received the tasking to design a new heavy breakthrough tank on the base of the T-35. A requirements document of the GABTU, affirmed on 5 November 1937, suggested that a three-turreted vehicle be created, with a weight of 50-60 tons, armor thickness of 45-75mm, and armaments consisting of a single 76mm and two 45mm guns, and two DK and six DT machine-guns.
It was planned to use the transmission and drive train of the T-35 in the new tank. However, the Design Bureau KhPZ, which in normal circumstances lacked sufficient resources to carry out such complex work, had been subjected to mild repressions among its engineering staff working on the project. Therefore, despite countless demands of the GABTU, by the beginning of 1938 the KhPZ designers had managed only to complete preliminary designs of the six variants of the new tank, which differed only in the arrangement of the armaments. Therefore, in April 1938, in order to accelerate the design of the new heavy breakthrough tank, the GABTU brought into the effort the LKZ, with its powerful production base and the experience of serial production of the T-28, and also Kirov Factory #85, the cadre of which had experience in their own right in the development of new types of combat vehicles. The former plant (LKZ) designed the SMK (Sergey Mironovich Kirov) tank, under the leadership of engineer A. S. Ermolaev. Factory #85 designed "Project 100", which subsequently received the designation T-100, led by engineer E. Sh. Paley. Thus, contrary to some oral and written accounts, the SMK and T-100 tanks had different bases and were developed simultaneously.
Lacking agreements for the preparation of these new vehicles, the plants carried out preliminary design work until August 1938. Full work began only after promulgation of Resolution #198 of the Defense Committee of the SNK of the USSR on 7 August 1938, which established strict deadlines for preparation of the new tank models. The SMK was to be completed by 1 May 1939 and the T-100 by 1 June 1939. Just two months later, 10-11 October 1938, a commission chaired by the deputy chief of the GABTU, Military Engineer 1st Rank Korobkov, examined blueprints and full-scale wooden mockups of the SMK and T-100 tanks. Despite a number of deviations from the published tactical and technical requirements, in particular the substitution of torsion bars in place of the T-35's coil spring suspension, and on the T-100 idler wheels with leaf springs, the prototype commission gave approval for completion of test models of the tanks in accordance with the blueprints and mockups that had been presented.
The designs of the new heavy tanks were reviewed in a joint session of the Politburo of the TsK VKP(b) and Defense Committee on 9 December 1938. On the instructions of J. Stalin, the number of turrets on both tanks was reduced to two in order to reduce the weight of the vehicles. The production of the tanks in steel was begun in January 1938.
The first test runs of the SMK outside the production facility were conducted on 30 April 1939, and of the T-100 on 1 July of that year. After factory running in, both vehicles were handed over for range testing, which began on 31 July. The SMK and T-100 participated in a government demonstration of serially produced and experimental tanks conducted at Kubinka in the Moscow area on 20 September, 1939. Attending this showing were K. E. Voroshilov, A. A. Zhdanov, N. A. Voznesenskiy, A. F. Mikoyan, D. G. Pavlov, I. A. Likhachev, V. A. Malyshev, and others. By the end of 1939 the SMK had been run some 1700 km and the T-100 more than 1000 km. With the beginning of the Soviet-Finnish War, both tanks were withdrawn from range testing and sent to the front to undergo testing in a combat environment.
These tests were conducted through the efforts of factory drivers, for which special permission was received from Moscow. The workers selected for the tests underwent special abbreviated training in driving the vehicles, firing the cannons and machine guns, and as well other skills required for combat. The commander of the SMK crew was Senior Lieutenant Petin, the deputy commander was Sergeant Mogilchenko, and the gunner-radio operator and gunner were Red Army soldiers. In addition, three workers from the Kirov Works were added to the crew of the SMK: mechanic-driver V. I. Ignatev, engine mechanic A. P. Kunitsyn, and transmission specialist A. G. Tokarev. The crew of the T-100 consisted of military personnel of the 20th Heavy Tank Brigade: commander Lieutenant M. P. Astakhov, gunners Artamonov and Kozlov, radio operator Smirnov, and workers from Factory #85, driver A. D. Plyukhin, back-up driver V. A. Drozhzhin, and engine mechanic V. I. Kaplanov.
The SMK, T-100, and experimental KV tanks comprised a company of heavy tanks that was included in the 91st Tank Battalion of the 20th Heavy Tank Brigade. A Captain Kolotushkin was named commander of this company. The unit entered combat in the Khottinen area on December 17, 1939.
The history of the combat employment of the SMK and T-100 tanks has been described in sufficient detail in many Russian and western publications. The general tenor of these descriptions is consistent almost everywhere and can be summarized as follows:
"Moving at the head of a tank column, the SMK drove toward a pile of crates, under which were concealed high explosives. The detonation of these explosives damaged the idler wheel and track and the tank stopped. The T-100 and KV halted nearby, covering the damaged SMK. Taking advantage of this cover, the SMK crew worked for several hours to repair their tank. However, they were unsuccessful and had to abandon the SMK in the neutral zone".
From book to book what follows this description is a detective story about how brave Finnish scouts crept up to the tank and covertly removed the driver's hatch cover. This hatch cover, made from conventional (not hardened) steel because the constructors had not succeeded in sending it in for treatment, later fell into the hands of German engineers. These engineers decided that the SMK was made entirely from cast armor. And the decisions that followed from this conclusion played a large role in the Soviet victory over German fascist forces.
However, examinations of archival documents indicate that all that is recorded above does not correspond to reality. The first time the heavy tank company went into combat was on 17 December 1939, in the area of the Finns' Khottinen fortified region. After a failed first attack, the effort was repeated twice, unsuccessfully, on the next day. During the last attack, the barrel of the main gun of the KV was shot up. The vehicle was sent in for repair.
On December 19, the SMK and the T-100 were assigned the mission to support our units that were penetrating into the depths of Finnish fortifications in the Khottinen area. Both vehicles moved forward, accompanied by five T-28 tanks. These tanks were already deep into the enemy's defenses when a powerful explosion occurred under the leading SMK. The T-100 and one T-28 halted near the damaged tank and the remaining four vehicles, seeking cover, moved forward. The SMK crew attempted to recover their tank by rejoining its damaged tracks, but they were unable to restart the engine. Countless attempts to tow the damaged SMK with the T-100 did not bring success. Because of the icy conditions, the tracks of the T-100 could not get traction and the T-100 could not move the SMK. The tanks had fought in the depth of Finnish positions for approximately five hours. Sergeant Mogilchenko was seriously wounded and the driver Ignatev was lightly wounded. Having expended all of their ammunition, the crew of the SMK moved over to the T-100. The overloaded T-100 (with 15 crewmen!), accompanied by a T-28 tank, returned to the location of 20th Tank Brigade. The vehicles' crews were awarded orders and medals for this combat.
The loss of the experimental tank was cause for some distress for the GABTU chief, D. G. Pavlov, which is quite understandable. By his personal order, a company of 167th Motorized Rifle Battalion and 37th Sapper Company, reinforced with two guns and seven T-28 tanks, were dispatched to protect the secret combat vehicle. This detachment, commanded by a Captain Nikulenko, managed to penetrate some 100-150 metres into the Finnish obstacle belt, where heavy artillery and machine-gun fires met it. Having lost 47 men killed and wounded, the detachment withdrew to its start position without having accomplished the mission.
The damaged SMK remained in the depth of Finnish positions until the end of February, 1940. Our forces caught sight of it on 26 February, after breaking through the main belt of the Mannerheim line. In early March 1940, six T-28 tanks were used to tow the SMK to Perk-Yarvi railway station. Some disassembly was conducted there and the tank was moved by rail to the Kirov Factory. On instruction of the GABTU, the factory was to repair the tank and send it to Kubinka for storage. But for a number of reasons the repair was not carried out. The SMK remained in outdoor storage at the factory until the 1950s, when it was cut up for the smelter.
Regarding the history of the stolen hatch cover, this is just another myth. The hatch was made from hardened steel, as was the entire tank. Upon the liberation of the captured region the tank was inspected and the hatch was found to be present. Finnish scouts did not have to risk their lives to reach the SMK and clandestinely take something from it. The vehicle lay in the depth of Finnish positions and, if it had become necessary, they could have quietly disassembled the tank and hauled the pieces away. In fact, they did manage, with the assistance of captured Soviet tankers, to repair and tow away two T-28s, and for spare parts for these two intact vehicles to remove and haul away from many other tanks damaged in the same battle as the SMK not only optical instruments (sights), radios, and items of internal equipment but also turrets, engines, radiators, transmissions, and so on. Without doubt, as trophies the Finnish command was interested most of all in mass produced vehicles, which could be rebuilt and used, in lieu of some vehicle of an unknown type, standing alone some 50 metres from the Headquarters of Khottinen Fortified Region.
Sources: "Tankomaster" #2, 1997; I. Drogovoz "Zhelezniy Kulak RKKA", ID T-M, 1999; I. Pavlov, M. Pavlov "Sovetskie Tanki i Sau 1939-1945", Moscow 1996.