First Tank Made in Riga? The Myth of the Russian Vezdekhod

One of the few real photographs of the Russian Vezdekhod

One of the few real photographs of the Russian Vezdekhod

For years in various publications and Internet sites it was claimed that worlds first tank was made in Riga during World War I. In reality it was just a prototype never used in real life nor in battlefield. Many details of its look and functions were exaggerated by the Soviet historians. However, this less known heavy war vehicle,  its unique look and story of its design is worth to be discussed here.

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The man behind this vehicle was Alexandr Porokhovschikov (1893-1941), a 21-year-old technician who came to Riga to present his idea of building caterpillar track all terrain vehicle that would serve the army in off-road conditions. It would also cross the water obstacles as inventor described to Russian Imperial army. It was 1914 when despite many modern inventions the army generals and strategists still thought in Napoleonic war terms where horse cavalry was still played main role. So such idea was original for Russian army officers.

However, the head of the Special Committee for Charity for War Fleet Alexander von Kaulbarss regarded this project as interesting and support worthy. The vehicle could serve army in maneuver war that would transport ammunition and take away wounded in fast pace. Nobody predicted a positional trench war then. After many months of work in the Main War Technical Authority on December 24 1914 the blueprints and calculations for the vehicle was laying on the desk of the North-western front chief of support general Nikolai Danilov.  On January 13 1915 general issued order Nr. 8101 to start the project of the all terrain vehicle Vezdekhod  (Вездекход – all terrain vehicle) and gave 9660 rubles and 72 kopieks to realize it. The project was overseen by the head of the Riga chamber of the troop deployment Vladislav Poklevski – Kozello.

There were two variants of the Vezdekhod. One with single caterpillar track   and other one with two caterpillar track. Second was turned down due to the  financial difficulties. However, the blueprints were never found. Maybe they lay in closed to public Russian State History Archive in Moscow.  Only evidence about the look and functions of this vehicle were preserved in the memoirs of the factory worker V Rabinovitch where he published his cross cut scheme of the Vezdekhod and few photographs in Riga during testing rounds. On February 1  the Nizny-Novgorod infantry regimental  auto repair service begun to construction of the Vezdekhod. The service was located near the Riga Train Factory or “Russo-Balt” as it was called then.

Vezdekhod was futuristic looking machine, weighting three tons, 3,5 meter long, 1,5 meter high and 2 meter wide. However in photographs it looked in the same height as in the width. It had one  all corpus wide rubbered tarpaulin caterpillar track  on four pipeline axis with the frontal axis rosed above to effectively cross obstacles. No guns and armor were included however  Porokhovschikov had presented the idea of multi-level armor but they were rejected because of high cost. However, this was a separate armor project not for the Vezdekhod.

On May 18 1915 the prototype was tested in Riga. Vezdekhod managed to reach the speed of 25 km/h a great speed for those times while French Renault FT-17 could only achieve 7,7 km/h. On June 20 Vezdekhod was publicly shown to the generals of the Russian army. Vehicle suffered from many errors caused by lack of wheel differential, limited road adhesion. On high pressure caterpillar tuned around and maneuvering   was limited. The commission report concluded that Vezdekhod managed to serve its purpose as all terrain vehicle  despite its technical flaws. Porokhovschikov blamed the technical glitches on forced changes in the project.

German army entered the territory of Latvia and forced to move the factory to Petersburg. The work continued there until December 29 1915 when the upgraded variant was tested.Despite achieving speed of 42,6 km/h the January 8 1916 report concluded that vehicle does not serve the purposes demanded in order 8101. The machine was unable to move above 30 cm deep snow and the water crossing testing was never made. Project was halted and Porokhovschikov was asked to repay the spent 18 090 rubles. The prototype was ordered to be sent to  Chief Technical Authority. Until October 1916 a discussion continued on  continuing the project. Meanwhile in Great Britain in deep secrecy a prototype called Little Willie was designed. It was not just meant for all- terrain crossing and support but also for combat.

How Vezdekhod would look

How Vezdekhod would look

On September 15 1916 British unleashed the first tank attack in history. The “land fleet” of armed vehicles who could easily break the enemy lines that would change the combat scene made Russians concerned about their own tanks.  Porokhovschikov was interested to start the project again – after all the main foundations were made only thing to do was to remake Vezdekhod in to combat tank. He published an article in the newspaper “Новове Время” (The New Age) called “Land Fleet was made by Russians” where he boasted his achievements in making the caterpillar transport vehicle and could be developed in to tank. Vezdekhod was now for the first time regarded as useful for combat not just support.

However, in the trench war a vehicle with rubbered caterpillar was useless for it could not cross the barbed wire fortifications. Support was done by horses and automobiles. An armored tank was needed and France and UK sent to  Russia its own Renault FT-17 and Mark tanks. Russia had no time and money to experiment on its own tanks.

On 1917 after failed attempt in Petersburg to create a real tank Porokhovschikov abandoned the land vehicles and turned to aviation. He produced a plane called P-IV airplane. After revolution he joined the Red Army as war pilot. He made more models of P-IV and after Civil War moved to Moscow and founded his private construction office. His most project proposals were turned down by the Soviet air forces. He was repressed and sent to Gulag and worked on hydro technical objects for the Belamorkanal. Before the WW2 he was sent to Autotank authority of the Red Army. On August 20 1940 he was arrested as foreign spy and the anti-soviet agitator. On July 20 he was executed.

Soviets propaganda taking pride in their tanks soon exploited the story of the Vezdekhod to claim that first tanks were made in Russia. On 1942 in a book “Land Ships!” Oleg Drozhin (Nikolai Kodratenko) claimed that already on 1914 the first all terrain vehicle project was made in Russia. On 1946 book “Tank” it was mentioned again together with the name of the inventor.  On 1949 it was now claimed that Vezdekhod was a “combat machine prototype” “first tank in the world”. On 1952 a fake schematics were published boosting the myth of Vezdekhod as the first ever tank.

Russian propaganda fantasies about Vezdekhod

Russian propaganda fantasies about Vezdekhod

Soviet propaganda added movable turret to Vezdekhod although it was never meant to be there in the first place. The WWI type machine gun was technically unable to install on the Vezdekhod. Many details of the “tank” became even more fantastic over the years and made the legend of the first tank in Riga. Could it least called a first all terrain caterpillar vehicle?    Similar projects were made in other countries. And this machine was only used in tests. It was never meant as tank vehicle, it could move supplies to front. We can only speculate if the prototype would not have said technical problems and it would leave better impression on the Russian generals. Maybe it would enter the production and after British demonstrated their Mark tanks it would developed further into combat tank. But, the defeat of Russia was close and there was no time and will to make the Vezdekhod as full combat vehicle. Vezdekhod was a failed prototype for support caterpillar vehicle that could potentially turn into tank if its fate would be different. Vezdekhod did turn into tank in the fantasies of the soviet propaganda and serves as one of the myths of the Latvian and Soviet history.

Selected Sources:

Buks, Artis. Mīts un Patiesība par Rīgas tanku. Ilustrētā Vēsture. 2012. Septembris.

http://www.landships.info/landships/tank_articles/Vezdekhod.html

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