Despite its formidable appearance by 1930 standards, the T-35 Heavy Tank ultimately proved an ill-fated endeavor of Soviet tank design leading up to World War 2, perhaps better positioned to showcase Soviet prowess on parade than actual combat. The type proved too slow, cumbersome and mechanically unreliable throughout the whole of her career and was never considered a serious threat on the modern battlefield. Its design utilized a mix of post-World War 1 and pre-World War 2 philosophies to create what ended up becoming a mostly forgettable end-product.
Before the arrival of the T-35 was the inception of the T-28 Medium Tank, a design appearing in 1922 and sporting a top speed of 22 miles per hour, weight nearing 29 tons and featuring a multi-turret design (this approach also proving somewhat popular with other nations in the 1920s). A plodding vehicle she was, the type was adequately armored and projected good firepower for the time. Some were fielded by Soviet forces during the Spanish Civil War and in the upcoming Russo-Finnish War though their tactical limitations ultimately began to show through. Her inherent deficiencies copled with poor Soviet battlefield deployment negated any tactical usefulness in combat. Regardless, the type served as a design direction for a subsequent heavy tank design - the new T-35.
At its core, the T-35 was intended to work in conjunction with existing T-28 tanks. The basic idea - building upon accepted armored warfare doctrine emerging in the 1920s - was to utilize the heavier T-35 as an offensive frontline "breakthrough" vehicle that could breach fortified enemy positions and defenses for which then the T-28 could move in to exploit these created gaps. The heavy tank's main gun could help tackle enemy armor while smaller caliber cannons could deal with light-armored vehicles and troop concentrations, leaving machine guns to counter aggressive infantry attempting to storm the tank from vulnerable angles at short range. However, warfare has changed by the 1930s and this type of armored warfare was, in many ways, made obsolete by new technology and doctrine - the German invasion of the Soviet Union through Operation Barbarossa in the summer of 1941 would certainly drive the point home for Soviet tank engineers.
Design work for a new heavy-class tank began in 1930, brought about by a series of design studies and apparently stemming from a Soviet interest in the 1925 British Vickers A1E1 "Independent" tank project - a "one-off" heavy tank prototype fitting multiple turrets. The resulting initiative produced the "T-32 Heavy Assault Tank" of 1932, a similar multi-turret creation weighing 45 tons with a 17 mile per hour road speed. Mechanical issues with its hydraulic transmission system ultimately doomed the T-32 and forced work on a simpler concept - the "T-35". The T-35 borrowed some of the T-32 design elements including its multiple turret layout. The new vehicle was then evaluated and formally accepted into serial production for Red Army service in August of 1933. Initial production was out of the Kharkov Locomotive Factory to which some 20 first batch vehicles were delivered. Production proved a timely affair for each T-35 system was an inherently complex machine to piece together and proved quite costly in the long run to the point that only 61 total vehicles - each production batch with slight differences - were completed. Production ended in 1939. The final six machines featured sloped armor, revised skirts and new track idlers.
The T-35 was initially delivered to only a single tank brigade - the 5th Independent Heavy Tank Brigade - outside of Moscow and did little more than serve as a parade showpiece than a full-fledged combat tank. In that respect, the T-35s really were nothing more than centerpieces of the proposed Soviet tank strength but provided something of a false symbol for their capabilities were lacking when compared to the German tanks they would ultimately be facing.
In 1941, the Soviets were reeling from the German invasion to open up the East Front and any war-making instrument of value was sent to fight. However, many T-35s were subject to mechanical failure (transmission, engine, brakes clutch or otherwise) and fuel shortages while even en route to combat and were seemingly out of action before they arrived to the fight - crews simply abandoning their mounts in the streets. German crews then either took these examples over or destroyed them where they stood while a few small numbers were actually lost in direct confrontations. Most available T-35s were stationed in and around Moscow for security duties and defense of the capital, limiting their combat reach.
Imposing as the T-35 may have appeared in person or on paper, the type was obsolete for the day. For her classification, T-35s were considerably well-armed though inadequately armored. Her weight worked against the available transmission and engine mating and running gear components were stressed, making for one high-profile, slow-moving battlefield target. The design consisted of a stepped forward hull with a fixed superstructure that mounted no fewer than five individual turrets. Her crew constituted 10 to 11 specialists including the vehicle commander - charged with managing their efficiency in the heat of battle - a driver, dedicated gunners and machine gunners. The T-35 layout included a set of long-running track systems to each hull side, dotted with eight road wheels to a track, each sprung (coil spring suspension) from paired bogies (two wheels to a bogey). The upper track portions were covered in "skirt" armor for some point ballistics defense. The turrets were collectively set along the forward portion of the hull and superstructure, dominated by the main gun turret on the hull roof. A smaller gun turret was set aft of the glacis plate, offset to the right side of the vehicle while a still-smaller machine gun turret was set to the left side. At the rear, this similar arrangement was repeated and saw a small gun turret offset to the left side of the tank with a smaller machine gun turret to the right. With this arrangement, it was believed, every conceivable battlefield threat could be countered for the breakthrough role. What it did, however, was complicate battlefield efficiency where seconds would spell victory or complete disaster - the commander was charged with coordinating the fire of five turrets while considering orders for the driver. The crew was further segregated into separate compartments within the tank's cramped conditions which did little to improve ergonomic, creature comfort or communications among the crew. Armor protection was 10mm to 30mm in thickness across her various facings.
The T-35 weighed in completely at 50 tons and sported a running length of nearly 32 feet, a width of over 10 feet and a height of 11 feet, 3 inches - a large imposing tank yet a larger target still. Power was derived from a single Mikulin M-17M series 12-cylinder gasoline-fueled engine of 500 horsepower operating at 2,200rpm. Speed was a respectable 18.6 miles per hour, though this could only be accomplished in ideal conditions and on paved roads. Cross-country driving was drastically limited and firing on the move with any accuracy was highly optimistic. Operational range was limited to 93 miles which, itself, limited the inherent tactical usefulness of the tank.
Primary armament originally consisted of a 76.2mm Model 27/32 main gun (based on an Army field gun) in a traversing main turret though this eventually gave way to a 76.2mm KT-28 model gun - essentially the same as that used in the T-28 Medium Tank. This armament was further backed by 2 x 45mm 20K series cannons in smaller hull turrets. Anti-infantry defense was held by up to 3 x 7.62mm DT general purpose machine guns - one in a small forward turret, one in a rear turret and one in a coaxial fitting next to the main gun. 96 x 76.2mm projectiles for the main gun were carried aboard as were 226 x 45mm projectiles for the smaller turret cannons and 10,000 rounds of 76.2mm ammunition for the machine guns.
As the war progressed, T-35s were painfully obsolete beasts and last saw operational service in the Battle of Moscow during the winter of 1941, slowing Hitler's advance against the Soviet capital. Some 90% of active T-35s were lost during the German invasion alone (most to transmission deficiencies). The lethal Soviet winter ultimately supplied enough time for a calculated Soviet response which brought about many new problems for the German Army - eventually to be committed along two bloody Euro-Asian fronts for the duration of the war. Improved Soviet tank designs - such as the T-34, KV and IS series (with single turrets mind you) ultimately thrust Soviet tank designs into all-new directions, paving the way for many successes in the Cold War years.
If the T-35 held any claim to fame for its time and ours, it was in that she became the only production-quality tank to feature five independent turrets in her design. A single museum-quality T-35 exists today, this at the Kubinka Tank Museum outside of Moscow.