A mystery conversion
“SU-76 Gai” or “SU-76 Cast Superstructure” are unofficial names for a mysterious Chinese PLA (People’s Liberation Army) SU-76M conversion. According to photos, it appears to be an SU-76M with a new superstructure, similar to a Type 59’s or Type 62’s turret. There is only one dubious looking photo of the tank, leading to speculation as to what the tank is, or whether it is even real.
The most convincing theory about this vehicle is that it is merely a crew or infantry training vehicle – various convincing mockups are known to have been made for just such a purpose. However, other theories about the vehicle do exist.
Context: SU-76s in China
The USSR supplied the PRC (People’s Republic of China) with 704 SU-76Ms between 1951 and 1954 as part of the 3000+ vehicles supplied from 1950 to 1955. These SU-76Ms were, according to data supplied by Dr. Martin Andrew, split among 30 regiments.
By 1959, SU-76Ms were still in service with the PLA, owing largely to the relatively small number of tanks available to them. At this time, an army infantry group was typically comprised of 42 units – 11 of which were infantry battalions, the other 31 being different unit types. On average, the 31 other units fielded 271 artillery pieces (which includes mortars of 60mm or more in caliber), 114 aircraft, and a meager 22 AFVs – usually SU-76Ms or Type 58s (lightly upgraded T-34-85s).
By 1980, armored regiments usually comprised of 1 battalion of 31 Type 59 Main Battle Tanks (MBTs), a recon platoon of 3 vehicles, and a company of 10 assault guns (usually SU-76Ms, but elite front line divisions had SU-100s, ISU-122s, and ISU-152s, which were now in smaller numbers).
As the PRC developed its own assault guns by the late 1970s / early 1980s, it seems as though the SU-76M (and other Soviet-supplied tanks) were phased out.
The source of the image of the “SU-76 Gai”, suggests that there is no information on the vehicle, and this has led to a lot of speculation on what the vehicle is. The modification, if it actually existed as a real tank (see below), probably dates nowhere outside of the early 1950s to the late 1960s, as the uniforms of the soldiers are fairly generic for that period.
Essentially, the photograph shows a SU-76M with a new superstructure that resembles a Type 59 or Type 62 turret. The superstructure is not simply a Type 62 or Type 59 turret because it is too small to be either, and it also has a different type of cupola (which is just in shot).
There are three other details of some interest. Firstly, the tank has new fenders, probably locally made. Secondly, the vehicle has a slack track, probably indicating at least one missing roadwheel or idler. Thirdly, the gun is a 76mm ZiS-3, which unlike the SU-76M, does not have a protective casing, perhaps indicating that it was a field gun, and not taken off a SU-76M.
With little information provided in the photo, these are the most likely theories of what the “SU-76 Gai” is:
1. Fake vehicle
The tank itself may not even be a real tank as such.
It could be a crew or infantry training tank, although made from quite substantial military hardware. This actually appears to be the most convincing theory. The Chinese made various training tanks that resembled Soviet T-62 tanks using various parts of military hardware. Available photos show that these tanks were mostly made from scrap, but some parts such as wheels and tracks, appear to be taken from real tanks.
It does, however, seem somewhat odd for the vehicle to have hardware such as a real gun, as other mockups did not have these. The vehicle could have been made for propaganda photos, hence why it was made from more substantial military hardware than other infantry training tanks.
Self-propelled Gun Modernization
It is possible that the PLA was trying to modernize their SU-76Ms. Apparently being used even by 1980, such a modernization could extend their service life. There are no indications as to extension of service life (such as new suspension, new engine, etc) in the photo, but the modification appears to give some benefits of another sort:
Firstly, the new gun mount seems as though it might give a higher firing arc for the gun compared to the original SU-76M mount. Secondly, the new superstructure, if enclosed, may also be preferable to the crew during poor weather, and increase crew protection in combat from the danger or shrapnel and small arms fire – one of the many complaints of Soviet SU-76 crews.
Testbed for Type 62 turret
Dr. Martin Andrew has suggested that the tank might be a test bed in order to see if the Type 59 turret can be scaled down, with the suggestion that it was part of the development of the Type 62 (itself essentially a scaled down Type 59).
In his own words: “The Chinese never made any SU-76s*, but certainly received a lot from the Soviet Union. China had, and still has, a habit of looking at different turret/hull combinations. My suggestion is that it is a developmental project for the Type 62 project, to see whether a scaled down Type 59 turret can fit an 85mm tank gun… …They [SU-76s] were never produced in China, perhaps overhauled and rebuilt but the T-70 hull was only produced in the USSR.”
*There is some supposed evidence to indicate that the Chinese attempted to build their own SU-76s, but this hinges on one museum photo, the caption of which, once translated (as many sources neglect to do this), suggests it to be a crew training vehicle.
If this theory is correct, then it places the date of conversion closer to the late 1950s or early 1960s.
There are some issues with the image of the “SU-76 Gai” which may indicate that the entire image has been faked.
Upon close inspection, the man on the left’s shoulder and arm appear translucent. The gun barrel, too, appears to have a similar problem. The source material for the photo does not comment on this.
It is possible that the man and gun moved during the photo, or there was some kind of exposure problem with the film during development which has caused this illusion. Further analysis is difficult, as the image is printed on poor quality paper.
It seems unlikely that the photo is a modern fake. The superstructure is not a simple copy and paste of a Type 59 or Type 62 turret. Thus, the creator would have had to draw a new superstructure and edit it into the image. With the amount of effort that this would take, it seems strange that the creator might neglect to check for any transparency between their editing layers, which would lead to a man and gun barrel appearing translucent.
There is only speculation to be made on the “SU-76 Gai” without further photographs or further literary sources. This is compounded by fairly inexplicable indications that the image might have been faked. Whilst it is the author’s opinion that the vehicle is most likely a training vehicle, in any case, the vehicle’s true history is likely to never be known.
Artist’s rendition of the “SU-76 Gai.”
The only known photo of the “SU-76 Gai”.
SU-76s on parade at the Forbidden Palace, Beijing, probably 1954.
PLA SU-76 in the Beijing PLA Tank Museum. Credit: Beijingman.blogspot
Chinese infantry training tanks made to resemble T-62s. Without the knowledge that these are training tanks, it may be tempting to speculate that these are some strange prototype tanks.
Another training vehicle, likely on display for the public.
Surviving infantry training tank.
Discussion with Dr. Martin Andrew regarding Chinese SU-76s and tank prototypes.
“Tuo Mao: the Operational History of the People’s Liberation Army“, PhD dissertation by Martin Andrew, submitted to Bond University, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, 2008.
“The Tank Division of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army 1945-1949“, by Zhang Zhiwei.