The BA-64 armored scout car was a good example of a WWII fighting vehicle which was completely obsolete by the time that war ended, but still saw postwar use, including combat in the Korean War.
This armored reconnaissance car came about due to the failures of other Soviet armored cars during the war against Finland and then the first stage of the 1941 German invasion during WWII. The prototype was tested in January 1942 and placed into production in March 1942. Production ran throughout the rest of WWII, and into early 1946. In total 9,110 BA-64s were built of which most were the improved BA-64B version.
The BA-64 measured 12′ long by 5’7″ wide by 6’3″ tall, and had a two-man crew (commander and driver). Fully loaded and fueled, it weighed about 2½ tons. The maximum speed on smooth roads was 50mph; much less off-road.
(A Tupolev TB-3 bomber airlifting a BA-64 as belly cargo. It could not be para-dropped this way, just moved as cargo. The few TB-3s which survived the fighting were withdrawn from service shortly after the end of WWII in 1945.)
The armor of the BA-64 was not very thick, but by clever use of faceting (angling plates in different directions, causing ricochets) a fairly good degree of protection was achieved.
The BA-64′ s small turret was armed with a DT 7.62mm machine gun with 1,260 rounds of ammunition in 20 drum magazines. The gun had a simple sight that could be adjusted from 400 to 1,000 yards, with 1,500 yards being the DT’s maximum range. The DT machine gun had limited (+54°) elevation, and for AA use a handwheel cranked the gun up clear of the turret. A collapsible bipod was carried so that if needed, the DT could be removed from the BA-64 and used separately. Finally there was stowage for six F1 hand grenades, and both the driver and crewman usually had a submachine gun in case they had to fight outside the vehicle.
The driver had a simple armored flap covering his vision area, when closed the visibility was poor. The commander had to look through the machine gun opening or use vision ports in the hull. On the BA-64B version, both the driver and commander had crude periscopic optics for use with the vehicle buttoned up. To speed up production during WWII, most were delivered with only one headlight.
Early-built examples had a RB-64 radio, while the BA-64B had a 12-RPB which was later retrofitted to some of the earlier vehicles. This radio had a range of 8-12 miles with the vehicle stopped and with no interference, however if the vehicle was in motion the range fell to 2-3 miles.
The engine was a GAZ-MM liquid-cooled 4-cylinder gasoline type giving 50hp. The GAZ-MM could burn very poor, low-octane gasoline (or even home heating oil in an emergency). The five-speed transmission was manual. As designed the BA-64’s suspension on the front wheels were leaf springs and a basic shock absorber, while the rear wheels had just springs.
There was only one main subvariant, the BA-64B, which accounted for a majority of the production and almost all post-WWII use. The main differences were a slightly more powerful engine giving 54hp, better optics, the newer radio, and most importantly changes to the undercarriage. One of the basic design’s shortcomings was that it could tip over sideways on uneven terrain. On the BA-64B, the wheelbase was widened, and a second pair of shock absorbers were added to the front, while the rear wheels received one each as well. Because so many of the BA-64 vehicles seen after WWII were this improved version, the “B” is usually omitted.
There were two railroad versions tried during WWII, both designated BA-64ZhD. The first had railcar wheels in place of the regular wheels and tires. Four of these were built, and quickly withdrawn from service as the oversize railroad wheels stressed the axles and wore out the bearings. The second version, which is sometimes called BA-64G, had four “lifters” (similar to modern railroad service trucks) but with the regular road tires providing propulsion along the tracks. These also had railway signals on the rear.
These were moderately more successful but by the time they were approved for production, the USSR was on the offensive and the rear-area threat to the Soviet rail network had faded. They also had their own problems, as the increased resistance taxed the engine and often overheated it. As with any rail vehicle, they drove in reverse much more often than a road vehicle which can turn around, wearing out the transmission. Only 15 were built. After WWII, these were used for a brief time on the Trans-Siberian Railway and then scrapped.
There was also a snowmobile version, the BA-64Z. It was intended to use this armored snowmobile to tow ZiS-3 anti-tank guns on skis.
The end of WWII eliminated any urgency for this type of vehicle and they were discarded.
Attempts to modify the design during and after WWII
Other than the rollover problem, the biggest complaint BA-64 crews had was the relatively puny gun. A small number of BA-64Ds were built, these had a 12.7mm DShK heavy machine gun with K-8T scope in the turret.
The heavy recoil of the DShK stressed out the turret ring and rear suspension. A more obvious problem was that since the internal ammunition stowage of the cramped vehicle was tailored to the drums of the 7.62mm DT, it was impossible to carry much 12.7mm ammunition, and only 30 rounds were carried. The small amount of ammunition made the vehicle almost useless and only 10 examples of the BA-64D were “officially” built, however “unofficial” makeshift modifications substituting the DShK for the DT were done in the field in the mid-to-late 1940s.
A second attempt to up-gun the BA-64 used the Goryunov SG-43 machine gun, which had greater stopping power and about 20% better range than the DT, but being of similar size. The SG-43 was hard to aim in the turret, effectively cancelling out the range increase, and also it was extremely awkward to reload. A few “official” conversions were done before the project was dropped, with some “unofficial” conversions done in the field. BA-64s with the SG-43 were encountered in combat during the Korean War.
A third attempt involved the Simonov PTRS, a semi-automatic 14.5mm anti-material rifle. This failed for the same reasons as the BA-64D, but the idea itself was popular and near the end of WWII, and after the war, it was not uncommon for crews to remove the whole turret and instead carry a PTRD-41 (the bolt-action version of the PTRS) fired from the roof.
The other end of the spectrum was to, instead of improving the firepower, eliminate it altogether. During WWII, a rear-door APC version was developed. Designated BA-64E, the listed capacity was six passengers but in reality only four could squeeze in, and even this was uncomfortable.
POST-WWII USAGE OF THE BA-64
Despite it’s obsolescence and shortcomings, the BA-64 was very much still in large Soviet use at the end of WWII in 1945.
The first big post-WWII withdrawal came in late 1945-early 1946, when all of the narrow-wheelbase models which survived the war were pulled from service. At the same time, units in the Far East began making transfers to Mao’s communists. The second big withdrawal came in early 1950, when as many units as possible converted to other types. Thereafter, small numbers remained in use, mostly in niche roles or in Category D (low-readiness) divisions.
(A BA-64 assigned to the GHQ unit of Northern Group of Forces, the umbrella organization of Soviet units based in Poland during the Cold War, in 1954. This was at the very tail end of the BA-64’s Soviet use. The white stripe was a common Warsaw Pact recognition device.)
By the early 1950s, remaining BA-64s in active use were mostly used for training or rear-area duties. The last was withdrawn from Soviet army use in 1954. Some lingered on in warehouse storage until the late 1960s.
Most of the BA-64s built naturally went to the Soviet army but about 900 had been given to the NKVD, a Stalin-era national internal security force separate from the army. The NKVD had various departments (including the KGB, and the counterintelligence force Smersh) and also had it’s own military units, some of which had BA-64s. During WWII there existed the Soviet 10th (NKVD) Infantry Division, comprised entirely of agents of the force, which fought as a battlefield unit; and the 22nd (NKVD) Motor Rifle Division which was annihilated during the war and never reformed.
The NKVD was abolished in 1953, with it’s departments being redistributed elsewhere. At the time, there were still a decent number of WWII-veteran BA-64s in it’s inventory. These became property of the MVD (Internal Troops), a “second army” of the USSR, which guarded important assets and strategic locations. During any war against NATO, the MVD would have followed the front lines, securing the rear areas. The MVD was probably the last Soviet user of the BA-64, with some still in use during the late 1950s.
The post-WWII Czechoslovak army received a tiny number of BA-64s in 1945-1946, only ten vehicles total, forming one independent scout company. They were not liked in service and were withdrawn at the end of the 1940s. Despite the minimal use by Czechoslovakia itself, Skoda license-made spare parts for BA-64s used by other Warsaw Pact allies after WWII.
In 1950, SVAG, the USSR’s occupation authority in it’s zone of Germany began to issue small numbers of WWII-veteran BA-64s to the Volkspolizei (“People’s Police”). This force was ostensibly to maintain civil order in the Soviet zone but was also a way for the USSR to lay the groundwork for a future remilitarization of Germany, which was supposed to have been prohibited by agreement of the four wartime allies. The Volkspolizei was organized along military lines, wore military-style uniforms, and was equipped with decidedly non-police weaponry including anti-tank cannons and AA guns.
In August-September 1952, the USSR donated 115 WWII-veteran BA-64 armored cars to East Germany; these were delivered at the same time as a shipment of 361 T-34 tanks, 32,000 firearms, and 1,300 mortars. Some of the donated BA-64s had been in active use with the Soviet occupation garrison; others were pulled from warehouse storage. The BA-64s were delivered to a Volkspolizei unit known as TV Pasewalk (TV being Territorialeverwaltung, or territory administration, and Pasewalk the location of it’s GHQ) which was an army unit in everything but name. The following year, this unit was enlarged and renamed TV Nord (north).
The peak usage of the BA-64 in East Germany came in 1953, when there were 264 vehicles in use.
On 1 March 1956, the East German government announced the formation of a formal army called the National Volksarmee (National People’s Army). The creation of this new army was not difficult, as many Volkspolizei units simply shifted over en masse. For example, TV Nord with it’s BA-64 armored cars simply became the Volksarmee’s 5th Military District, literally overnight.
By this time the BA-64 was clearly obsolete in any sort of formal combat role, and was largely shunned by the Volksarmee in favor of more modern Soviet-made APCs and scout vehicles. The BA-64s themselves were a decade or more old, and some had seen rough use during WWII. Most were transferred back to the Volkspolizei, which had continued on in truncated form after the creation of the National Volksarmee.
The BA-64 transfer-backs were joined by examples being discarded by Soviet army units based in East Germany, as the USSR had now phased out the BA-64. In 1958, the Volksarmee officially retired the BA-64 from combat use and a few remaining driveable vehicles were added to the Volkspolizei inventory.
In 1959, the Volkspolizei still had about 200 BA-64 armored cars in service. Although it was now a de jure “police” force, the Vopo (as East Germans referred to it) did not undertake crime-fighting duties, but was instead intended to maintain the communist regime’s grip on power. That year, the Volkspolizei began to transfer a small amount of BA-64s to the Kasernierte Volkspolizei (People’s Barracked Police), yet another tentacle in the communist regime’s apparatus to subdue the East German population. As it’s name implies, the KVP was an organization of civilian territorial police who lived in military-style barracks.
In 1960, the Volkspolizei began to retire it’s now well-worn BA-64s and by the mid-1960s, both it and the KVP had withdrawn it from use. Some were scrapped but, in true east bloc fashion, others were warehoused as the Warsaw Pact countries hated to part with any military hardware, no matter how old.
There is an interesting postscript to the story of the BA-64 in East Germany. In 1961, a vehicle called the SK-1 entered service with the Volkspolizei. This armored car was intended purely for riot control duties and had little or no combat function. The SK-1 looks very much like a BA-64, and initially NATO considered that it might be some sort of new development of the BA-64. In fact, the SK-1 was a purely East German design. It was an armored shell laid over the chassis of a Garant 30K truck, with a turret that could house a machine gun, water cannon, or tear gas launcher. Despite having nothing at all in common with the BA-64 mechanically, the slightly larger SK-1 was clearly influenced by the BA-64 design.
The small number of SK-1s built continued in use the rest of East Germany’s existence. When the two Germanys reunited in October 1990, law enforcement authorities in Berlin were astonished that these relics were still garaged, having been driven very little over the decades, usually just in parades. They were immediately discarded.
As part of the (now largely-forgotten) Soviet offensive against Japan in the closing days of WWII, the USSR’s 85th Rifle Corps launched an offensive into far western Manchukuo and the furthest northwestern fringes of Japanese-occupied China. This part of the operation is now even more forgotten than the whole brief conflict itself, and involved joint operations between Soviet units and four Mongol cavalry divisions and some smaller Mongol infantry and tank units (essentially the entire Mongol army of the time). At the conclusion of the brief fighting, the Soviets re-equipped certain scout companies of the Mongol army with BA-64 armored cars, in lieu of the expense of shipping them back to the USSR.
Mongolia was one of the last countries outside of North Korea to retain the BA-64. A handful were still in use at the end of the 1960s. The tiny Mongol army, which was for all intents and purposes simply an extension of Soviet forces based inside Mongolia facing off with China, used them as reconnaissance vehicles and later base security vehicles.
(This disarmed WWII-veteran BA-64 in storage with the Mongol army was photographed in the early 2000s. Quite unusually, the wheels and tires have been replaced by the wheels of the WWII-era ZiS-3 towed anti-tank gun’s carriage. The reason for this is unknown. Behind the BA-64 is a Cold War-era BRDM-1 armored car, and in the background is a WWII-veteran T-34 tank. Notable is the size difference between the BA-64 and BRDM-1; these vehicles performed the exact same role in Soviet tactics, but, separated of course by two decades.)
Landlocked in the middle of Asia between two communist superpowers, little is known about the specific makeup of the Mongol army between the 1950s-1980s. The Soviet army considered the Mongol army’s “best” units as Warsaw Pact Category B (50-75% strength, mixture of modern and older equipment) and some of it’s subunits were Category D (obsolete equipment, 1+ months needed to mobilize). Needless to say, it was not exactly a fearsome fighting force and it’s not surprising that WWII vehicles like the BA-64 endured as long as they did.
Romania used the BA-64 on “three sides”: when it was aligned with Germany, the Romanian army received some captured BA-64s which it then used against the Soviets; then in 1944 when Romania joined the Allies, it was provided with some BA-64s by the Soviets; and finally a third batch delivered during the Cold War. None of the first two batches survived the war, as an inventory of the Romanian army at the conflict’s end showed zero in use. The number provided in 1946 is uncertain but probably small, as little was said about the vehicle in the Warsaw Pact-era Romanian army. There were still 25 BA-64s listed in Romanian service in 1951. The last was withdrawn in 1958.
The Polish army began to receive BA-64s in the spring of 1945, as WWII in Europe was ending. A few saw use in April and May 1945, during the conflict’s final days. Additional units followed, with the USSR refurbishing them in Moscow before re-issue to Poland.
(A pair of Polish BA-64s in late 1945. These are the basic (narrow wheelbase) version which was already being phased out in the Soviet army by the end of WWII. The vehicle in the foreground looks to have a PTRD-41 substituted for the turret as described earlier; possibly an “unofficial” field modification.)
At it’s peak strength in post-WWII Polish use, there were 81 Polish army BA-64s in operation. They were used both as tactical reconnaissance vehicles and commander’s cars. Poland also license-manufactured spare parts for it’s BA-64 fleet.
Poland used the BA-64 into the early 1950s. By that time, Polish troops generally recognized it as obsolete. Beginning in 1949, the Polish army began a switch to the BTR-40 and the last BA-64 was withdrawn in 1954.
Yugoslavia began to receive BA-64s while WWII was still in progress. By the middle of 1944, Tito’s partisans controlled wide swathes of Yugoslavia, enough that traditional-style military units could be formed. Several armored units were formed in late 1944 with equipment left behind by retreating German forces, and vehicles supplies by advancing Soviet troops including BA-64s.
Yugoslavia lost one BA-64 in combat during WWII’s final weeks in Europe, as Yugoslav troops pushed into the Adriatic city of Trieste. The total transferred is uncertain but was not more than a few dozen. The vehicle was not really popular in post-WWII Yugoslav use.
In 1946, the JNA’s 2nd Tank Brigade had on strength three BA-64s, scouting for it’s sixty-five T-34 tanks. This was a typical set-up in the postwar Yugoslav army, with the BA-64s (often operating alongside American-made vehicles) forming an independent reconnaissance platoon for each brigade, plus others scattered around the army. Yugoslavia retired the BA-64 to storage in 1953. None were used during the violent 1990s collapse of the country.
China, North Korea, and the Korean War
China and North Korea both obtained their BA-64s as a result of the brief August/September 1945 Soviet conflict with Japan which closed out WWII. Specifically, Soviet units involved were the 1st and 2nd Far Eastern Fronts, which were the highest-level organizations in the Soviet army, each containing two or three Army-level units of which each had three or four full divisions. Each of these divisions had BA-64s in their inventory, of which very few were lost during the fighting.
Between March – May 1946 the USSR withdrew it’s WWII forces from Manchuria (except for part of the Liaodong peninsula which it held until 1955) and the northern half of Korea. As they departed from areas under control of Mao’s communists, a few BA-64s were turned over to them. These were joined in 1949 by direct shipments to the new Chinese People’s Liberation Army, now the sole force on the mainland after the defeat of the nationalists.
North Korea started the war with 54 BA-64s, of which several were lost during the initial invasion of South Korea. These were quickly replaced by donations from China and the USSR. In late December 1950, the North Korean army still had 60 BA-64s on hand. This does not necessarily reflect the vehicle’s battlefield performance, as both the USSR and China were providing replacements.
(Page from a US Army “Enemy Forces Handbook” during the Korean War. This drawing shows the machine gun cranked up clear of the turret for AA use.)
However the autumn of 1950 had already marked the high point of the BA-64 during the conflict. After General MacArthur’s amphibious landing at Inchon in late September, the North Korean logistical situation south of occupied Seoul became untenable and numerous BA-64s were abandoned either due to minor mechanical damage or fuel exhaustion, as supply lines began to be cut. Very few North Korean BA-64s were encountered after early 1951.
(This is a captured M-72 Dnepr which was the standard motorcycle of the Soviet army during WWII, and was used for scouting along with the BA-64 behind it by North Korea during the Korean War.) (photo via Life magazine)
While North Korean use of the BA-64 generally dwindled after the Inchon landings, the vehicle made a second appearance when China entered the ground war. Chinese forces used the BA-64 in the same role as the North Koreans, generally with the same mediocre results.
The BA-64’s disappointing performance during the Korean War compared to WWII, can be partially attributed to the kinds of opposition reconnaissance vehicles faced. In WWII and before, a probing scout vehicle was likely to encounter forward observation teams of the enemy, usually armed with nothing better than rifles or a machine gun. By the time of the Korean War, forward squads of the US Army had the M9 bazooka and M20 recoilless rifle, both weapons never envisioned when the BA-64 was designed in the early 1940s, and both capable of “one shotting” a light armored car. In particular, American recoilless rifles were especially lethal as they could score a first round kill outside of the BA-64’s weapons range. In the relatively rare instances when two scouting units bumped into one another, the BA-64 would have been at a supreme disadvantage vs the American M8 Greyhound armored car and M24 Chaffee tank.
At least a half dozen BA-64s were captured intact during the Korean War. One was shipped to Aberdeen Proving Grounds in the USA for evaluation.
One of the more famous individual BA-64s was a North Korean example captured by the US Army’s 24th Infantry Division in September 1950. It was disarmed and used as a general-purpose “armored jeep” by the 24th Division’s 21st Infantry Regiment until spare parts ran out.
The Korean War was the last combat usage of the BA-64. It had certainly given excellent use during WWII and at least a decent showing in Korea, but by the 1950s was simply too obsolete for any further duties. China discarded it’s surviving BA-64s in the late 1950s, meanwhile the North Korean army still had a few on strength into the late 1980s.