The Russian Lebedenko or "Tsar Tank", is without doubt the most strange Armoured Fighting vehicle ever constructed. It should, however, not be dismissed purely as another hare-brained scheme, but must be seen against the backdrop of the early tank development that was taking place at this time, and that in all countries was very experimental, and leading to many curious and non-functional designs.
The history of the Lebedenko starts in 1914 with the engineer N. Lebedenko, who was at that point employed in a private firm that worked for the Russian War Department, designing artillery devices. Lebedenko, with the aid of N. Zhukovskiy and his nephews, B. Stechkin and A. Mikulin, came up with the idea (originally thought as a sort of enlarged gun carriage) of a motor driven battle machine, weighing some 40 tons, running on one small double-wheel, and two very large spoked wheels, almost 9 metres in diameter, in a tricycle arrangement. The big wheels were attached to the hull, shaped like a tuning-fork, which tapered down to the double wheel, mounted in the rear, which provided the means for steering the vehicle. The designers hoped that this original configuration would make it possible for the vehicle to cross practically all obstacles. They initially called the vehicle "Nepotir", but it came to be known as the Lebedenko, after the designer. (Sometimes it was nicknamed "The Tsar", after the financier.)
But who would finance this project? A small working wooden model of the Nepotir was made, driven by a spring motor taken from a gramophone. Then the model was demonstrated to Tsar Nicholas II, who was much impressed when the toy made it across some scale obstacles, i.e. a number of thick books! He promptly ordered the designers to go ahead with the project, and allocated the needed funds himself. Construction of the full-scale Lebedenko started.
The drive assembly consisted of two 240hp Maybach engines, salvaged from German Zeppelins, one for each big wheel. The wheels (designed by Zhukovskiy) had a T-shaped metal mid-section. A wooden overlay was then fastened to the shelf of the T-beam. The drive itself was very simple. Each engine drove an automobile wheel, which was in turn pressed down (by means of a railway carriage spring) until it touched the wooden overlay of the big wheel, and by counterrotating, the automobile wheel transferred the energy from the engine to the big running wheel. (In case of over-heating, the driving wheels disengaged and protected the engine from seizing.) It was thought that the Nepotir should be able to reach a top speed of some 17 km/h – which would have been impressive compared to other WW1 AFVs. The hull of the vehicle would have one top-mounted centrally placed turret, equipped with MGs and/or light cannons, giving the Lebedenko a total height of some 12 metres. In addition to this, at the outer flanks of the hull, small MG sponsons were to be placed. There was also a small weapons turret placed underneath the belly of the beast.
The construction progressed quickly, and at the end of July 1915 the Nepotir was ready for its first trials. Because of its weight and size, it was designed to be transported in sub-assemblies, to be assembled again before action at the front (like it was later envisioned for the huge German K-Wagen). This procedure was followed, and the sub-assemblies were transported to the testing ground, some 60km from Moscow. At the reassembly it was found out that the weight of the machine exceeded calculations by some 50%, due to the use of thicker metal. In August the test began in front of a high commission. It started well. The vehicle moved well over some firm ground, crushed a tree, but then went into a soft patch where the small rear double-wheel got stuck in a ditch. Soon it was obvious that the engines were too small, as they were unable to free the beast.
After this fiasco two of the designers, Mikulin and Stechkin, worked on equipping the vehicle with more powerful engines, but this plan was never fulfilled. The military had decided against the project. It was simply too expensive, it had thus far cost some 250,000 roubles. Also the vehicle (and then primarily its wheels) was deemed to be too vulnerable to artillery fire, which probably was quite true. (And by this time both France and Britain were near to completing new types of all-terrain armoured fighting vehicles, running on caterpillar tracks.)
The Lebedenko stood there, bogged down, for the rest of the war and was finally scrapped in 1923.
WWI reanimated an idea of the Middle Ages. The idea was based on a simple fact: it is easier to hold the line than to attack. An attacking side needs protection. There were armored vehicles invented for that purpose, but they were useless on bad roads. The passability of a wheel directly depends on its diameter, so engineers decided to make huge wheels for armored vehicles. This idea first occurred to Captain Nikolay Lebedenko, the head of the Moscow military and technical laboratory. Nikolay Lebedenko suggested the project of a very unusual military vehicle in May of 1915. It was an armored vehicle with huge wheels, which looked like a gun-carriage. Engineers Boris Stechkin and Alexander Mikulin (they later became famous Russian academicians) started working on the project.
Mikulin remembers: "Nikolay Lebedenko invited me to come to his office, he locked the door and whispered to my ear: 'Professor Nikolay Zhukovsky referred you as a skilful engineer. Do you agree to work on the project of the machine that I invented? Such machines will help to break through the whole German front just within one night, and Russia will win the war.'"
It is worth mentioning that Lebedenko was not the only person, who suggested a project of an armored vehicle with huge wheels. However, it was Nikolay Lebedenko, who managed to realize his project in real life. The wheels of his vehicle were nine meters in diameter. The machine weighed about 40 tons, it was nine meters high, 17 meters long and 12 meters wide. Yet, the machine was not equipped with guns, for the Central Artillery Department provided guns only for the projects, that were considered ready for practical usage.
The machine was tested in August of 1917. It moved, broke an old, large, birch tree on its way and got stuck in the ground with its rear roller. Another test took place in 1918, but it was not a success either. Nikolay Lebedenko’s further fate is not known. Like a lot of other people, he vanished in the turmoil of post-revolutionary events in Russia. Academician Boris Stechkin thinks that Lebedenko probably died. Lebedenko’s machine was called the Tsar Tank. It did not take an honorable place next to the Tsar Bell or the Tsar Cannon. The Tsar Tank rusted in the woods, until it was dismantled in 1923. That was the end of the inglorious history of the first Russian self-propelled armored vehicle.
Such unlucky inventors as Nikolay Lebedenko became a real disaster for the Russian military in the beginning of the 20th century. There were too many projects of wonder arms. For example, an engineer offered to use boiler metal for producing rolls of six meters in diameter, which would be tens of meters long. As an inventor thought, soldiers could roll those rollers in front of them. Rollers were also supposed to be outfitted with machine-guns at its ends. The inventor wrote all that in a letter, which was completed with a touchy request – "Please, let me know, if there anything else that I can invent to fight the enemy." However, the engineer did not specify the way, how soldiers were supposed to turn those huge rollers or roll them up hills.
Those so-called inventors could not boast of their engineering knowledge, although experienced engineers suggested unreal monsters sometimes too. For instance, there was an interesting project of an "upgraded tortoise", which was suggested by engineer Navrotsky. The machine was supposed to weigh 192 tons, to move with the help of three rolls and to have an unimaginable complex of ordnance – 16 guns and ten machine-guns.
European engineers also dreamed of designing such movable fortresses. Major of the Royal Naval Aviation Service Hetterington projected a "land cruiser" in the beginning of 1915. The British defense monster was supposed to have three wheels of 12 meters in diameter, six guns and 12 machine-guns. The project was considered at the committee for land cruisers: the mass of the giant cruiser made up one thousand tons. The director of the ship-building department refused to build such a monster.
A certain time later, British designers liked the caterpillar ordnance idea, which pushed the "huge wheels" idea into the background, and resulted in the invention of a caterpillar tank. Winston Churchill was one of proponents of the novelty. A new model of an English tank was named after him during WWII. However, the invention of caterpillar tanks did not stop Russian engineers from designing something new and extraordinary. In 1928, a Russian engineer recommended the Russian military command to subdue the enemy with the help of a self-propelled two-wheeled vehicle. The diameter of its wheels was 12 meters. Yet, the whole project was briefly described on several sheets of paper, which did not allow to get to essence of it.
The success of caterpillar tanks reduced the interest to big-wheeled armored vehicles. Yet, the idea of a big wheel still excited engineers’ minds even in WWII. The German company Krupp got back to the old idea in 1944 and constructed a 40-ton armored self-propelled vehicle. Its wheels were 2,5 meters in diameter. There was only one vehicle like that built, though. It is currently exhibited in a defense technology museum (Kubinka) in the Moscow region.
Click here to find a downloadable 1/48 scale paper/card model of this remarkable AFV. Also KORA, the Czech company, has an excellent 1/72 resin kit of the Lebedenko.