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The Radioactive ISU-152

The Radioactive ISU-152

The Red Army used the most powerful combination of weapon and armored vehicle to help win their war against Germany. Here is an iconic photo of a pair of ISU-152s wading a river during a summer offensive.

During the Cold War all sides pushed the envelope of their technical expertise to help them should another global conflict arise. New equipment was rolling into inventories every few years. Most people would think that the last remnants of World War II, except for warships, would have been scrapped or exported by the Superpowers in the 1960s at the latest. It’s true in almost every case but the old Soviet Union. There, concerns over their ability to replace destroyed equipment along with an emotional soft spot for an old veteran kept the ISU-152 in service until the mid-1980s. It would have the distinction of facing a foe on the same battlefield 40 years apart.

Radioactive ISU-152
This is a remaining example of the ISU-152K showcasing improvements that included the antiaircraft machine gun, commanders cupola and additional armor to the mantlet. Also clearly visible are the external fuel tanks to provide additional crew safety.

The ISU-152 is an iconic machine of the Great Patriotic War. Its sole mission was to lead the charge of the Red Army to total victory in Berlin. During the 1930s Nazi Germany and the Soviets secretly worked together to establish modern tank forces and doctrine. Out of this temporary mutual experience came the concept of the assault gun. These were turret-less tanks that mounted a heavier infantry support gun. In the days before laser-guided bombs or precision artillery these weapons provided the most pinpoint accuracy of the day. By 1943, as the necessity to cover an increasing anti-tank duty, there was a divergence in philosophy between the two countries. As covered in a previous article the Germans went with designs, like the Elefant, that would rely on high velocity guns to kill tanks, at the loss of high explosive performance. The Soviets on the other hand decided to mount an even bigger howitzer to fulfill all roles.

Radioactive ISU-152
Nothing in the German arsenal could withstand the massive shells fired by the ISU-152. Here the casement of an opposing German assault gun is completely fractured by the impact, especially along the welds.

The SU/ISU-152 was designed specifically to be a part of both the shock and breakthrough elements of the Soviet Deep Battle doctrine. The KV heavy tank chassis would provide the base for the massive ML-20S, a portable version of the standard 152mm howitzer in service. The gun had a range of 10km for indirect fire but was reduced to less than 4,000m when directly engaging targets. This wouldn’t be a problem for this 47 ton monster. It had 90mm of armor on the casement with an additional 120mm added to the gun mantlet. The crew of 5 whipped around the battlefield at 19 mph and could fire the gun at a maximum of 3 rounds per minute. The biggest drawback was the limited ammo capacity of just 20 of the huge rounds. It was usually a mix of the OF-540-Zh fragmentation and the 53-G-545 anti-masonry round, but a total of 5 types were available. The 123 pound anti-masonry round was extremely effective and could penetrate 3 feet of rebar reinforced concrete. At times extra ammo (AP rounds) was carried externally because the heavy armor could withstand those rounds “cooking off” if it was hit. The sheer brute power of the 152mm gun easily destroyed any German tank with a direct hit earning it the nickname of the “Beastslayer”. From the counterattack at Kursk and all the way to Berlin these machines leveled any resistance the Germans could mount. During that period the ISU-152 was used to recapture a village in a strategic area used to cross the Pripyat River,in northern Ukraine. Although the battle lasted for several days, Chernobyl was once again under the red banner.

Radioactive ISU-152
A pair of liquidators, as the clean-up crews were known, posing in front of the ISU they worked from. Sadly the radiation exposure was so high the thick armor only allowed these men to survive a few years after the accident.

After the war the dual pressures of technological advancements and cash flow saw most of the remaining ISU-152s exported to other nations. Many of the Iron Curtain satellite took them to be used mostly as propaganda displays of strength. Others did see action in the Middle East in the Arab-Israeli Wars. The Soviets did continue to manufacture ISUs for a few years after the war. Stalin had a fascination with heavy tanks, but unlike Hitler he never let them achieve absurd sizes. After his death cheaper options were explored but the rearguard elements of the Red Army kept a small inventory in case they were needed as a stopgap measure in a conflict.

Radioactive ISU-152
Here is a shot of an ISU being used to demolish a sold concrete building at the site of the Chernobyl reactor. It was believed the thick steel armor would protect the crews better than operating an open air bulldozer.

Well a conflict did come to the soil of the Motherland but not in the way that most had expected. In the years after the war the small village of Chernobyl was selected to become the site of a nuclear power plant. On 26 April 1986 a tragic series of events led to the unthinkable, a nuclear meltdown. The Soviet military was now tasked with the containment and cleanup of the facility. All modes of transportation and heavy equipment would be taxed beyond their limit and time was not an ally. So the army looked around to nearby motor pools for any heavy vehicles. The 22nd Guards & Red Banner Tank division in Novomoskovsk, Ukraine, some 293 miles away, activated their aging ISU-152S and drove the 10.5 hours to the site. Due to the Soviet inventory system it’s unclear as to how many ISU-152s were sent to the site.

Radioactive ISU-152
Another tank crew getting their picture taken on top of ISU-152 board #100 which is next to another, #130. The former is fairly intact while #130 has had its gun removed and the opening covered. Both vehicles have had their side skirts removed to help wash off the radioactive mud.

The ISUs returned once again to Chernobyl to help save the Soviets from radiation exposure instead of a foreign invader. The logic behind this was simple. The ISU had extremely thick armor that would afford some protection for inspectors and cleanup crews. It could also act as a makeshift battering ram to knock down buildings and help flatten debris piles so they could be buried. Some had the internals stripped and the crews now included 2-3 liquidators, the actual cleanup crew, driver, a commander to operate the radio and lastly one to monitor radiation exposure. External modifications were made that, for some even included removing the howitzer as it was an impediment for ramming buildings. Some kept their howitzers operational and the remaining stockpile of the famed 53-G rounds were fired to expedite the process. These machines were worked tirelessly until they broke down from wear or the job was completed. Those that failed during cleanup were just left in place while those lucky enough to make it to the end now rust away in a graveyard of radioactive vehicles unsuitable to go anywhere else.

Radioactive ISU-152
The ISUs of the 22nd Guards Tank Division were worked around the clock during the cleanup operations. Here #129 has broken down and sits lifelessly in front of the nuclear power plant.

One never knows what threats they may have to face now or the future. When Soviet designers first conceived of the ISU-152 to liberate their country from the Nazis they could never have dreamed of how the last examples of their work would be used to save the country later on. Some of the reasons why a few designs from the World War II era remained in use for so long were because they proved to be simple, and yet solidly built machines. Yes, you can look around the world and find some kit bashed vehicle from this era but the fact the ISU was still serving the Red Army until the 1980s is something very different. In a way, like the mythical Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders the ISU-152 carried Russia on its. 

Radioactive ISU-152
Here is a recent photo from the site, the massive concrete structure encasing the #4 reactor. ISU-152 #130 defiantly rusts with its gun and the massive muzzle brake poised to serve again.

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