(part 1 of a 2-part series)
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the Soviet Union conducted regular nuclear weapons tests. One of these was unique in that it was not just a test detonation of a weapon, but a full-scale military exercise which involved a blend of WWII-vintage systems and their Cold War-era replacements.
(One of the two Tu-4 “Bull” strategic bombers involved in the 1954 exercise. There was a primary and alternate Tu-4 staged, of which only one dropped a bomb. The “Bull” was an unlicensed copy of the WWII American B-29 Superfortress.)
(An ex-Wehrmacht PaK 40 anti-tank gun smashed and radioactive following the 1954 Soviet atomic test.)
(A WWII Il-10 “Beast” burns after the exercise atomic detonation.)
earlier Soviet nuclear tests
The Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb, the 22kT RDS-1, was tested on a tower at Semipalatinsk (today in Kazakhstan) on 22 August 1949. The next detonation, also at Semipalatinsk, was another tower test in 1951, followed by two air drops at Semipalatinsk in 1953 and 1954.
During some of these tests, a limited number of war articles – mostly WWII leftovers – were sited around the blast zones, but their placement was more to gauge effects of the bomb than to extrapolate how various systems would perform in real use.
(A melted La-9 fighter 500 yards from the Semipalatinsk bomb tower. The La-9 “Fritz” was designed during WWII and it was hoped to be ready in time for the USSR’s attack on Japan, but in fact did not enter service until after WWII ended. It saw combat in the Chinese Civil War and Korean War.)
Marshal Georgy K. Zhukov was a general during WWII and oversaw the largest operations against the Germans including “Bagration”. Now in the early 1950s Marshal Zhukov was frustrated with the USSR’s nuclear testing program, which he felt was ignoring the potential tactical battlefield uses of nuclear weapons.
(Generals Zhukov and Eisenhower during WWII.)
What Marshal Zhukov wanted was something similar to the USA’s “Desert Rock” series; nuclear detonations intertwined into combined arms tactics of conventional armored, infantry, and artillery units; and with large participation by active duty troops.
(“Desert Rock” in Nevada was a series of eight training cycles over a 6-year span in the 1950s, involving 68 nuclear weapons of various yields alongside thousands of soldiers. This photo is from Desert Rock V in 1953, and shows American infantry with WWII-era M1 Garand rifles.)
Zhukov’s concept was approved by the Soviet government in late 1953. Zhukov instructed a team led by General I.S. Glebov and civilian topographists to identify a site in the USSR with similar features to West Germany, where he expected the next world war to start. The location chosen was just north of Totskoye. Today in Russia’s Orenburg Oblast near the Kazakhstan border, in the 1950s it was deep inside the USSR. The natural features here were similar to that of West Germany and there was already pre-existing army infrastructure left over from WWII along with a small airstrip. The weather was fair from spring through autumn and there was a pre-existing railroad spur from WWII.
The exercise, code-named “Snezhok” (snowball in Russian) was a combined arms exercise whereby a nuclear weapon would be used by an “eastern” force against a “western” force; which at the start of the exercise was to be scripted as the aggressor. The atomic bomb would be the catalyst for the “eastern” force to switch into counterattack and push back the “western” force with using conventional aircraft bombs, artillery, and tanks followed by infantry. During this phase, two small blasts simulating (described further below) tactical nuclear weapons would replicate an atomic response by the “western” force prior to the exercise’s conclusion.
The bomb would be dropped by a Tu-4A “Bull”, the unlicensed Soviet copy of the American B-29 Superfortress of WWII.
(The actual Tu-4 “Bull” used in “Snezhok”, being serviced prior to the atomic bomb being loaded.)
The “western” group, the OPFOR in the exercise, was the 270th Rifle Division. This unit ended WWII fighting the encircled German Courland Pocket and after the war, had been reassigned to a post near Totskoye. So these men were already familiar with the test area.
The “eastern” force was the 50th Guards Rifle Division, which had ended WWII in Berlin. Afterwards it was garrisoned near Brest in the USSR. On its southern flank was the 12th Mechanized Division, which was normally stationed near Moscow.
The “western” OPFOR was sited straddling the Kizerik river. The “eastern” divisions were near a creek about 3 miles to the east. Roughly inbetween the two, about 2¾ – 3 miles from either, was the marked 100yds² target. This middle zone was dotted with unmanned equipment, and would serve as both the blast zone and then the “battlefield” which the “eastern” force would cross as its “counterattack”.
(Painted inside a clearing of a century-old oak forest, the target was a gigantic ◊ with a x in the center, and chevrons to help the bombardier with proper course and drop slope.)
(Radar reflectors were placed on the target so the “Bull” could use its radar to begin lining up the bombing pass from a distance.)
confusion over bomb type
This should be one of the easiest things to know about “Snezhok”, but it is not.
Some sources describe the bomb as a RDS-2. This was a plutonium impacting-mass (aka “gun technique”) weapon with a 38kT yield. Only eight of these were made. They were never issued to the Soviet military, as they were of questionable quality and also would require irreversibly modifying Tu-4 “Bull”s to drop it. This bomb, the RDS-2, was actually the type initially desired very early in the planning for the exercise, as it would wring some use out of one of the never-issued weapons without lowering the USSR’s then-relatively small inventory of actual usable a-bombs.
Early in the planning this was rejected, as the RDS-2 was considered too risky of a failure with so many careers on the line. Certainly, this was not the bomb dropped.
In all known footage of the exercise, the external appearance of the dropped bomb is a RDS-3 Marya. This was a 41kT improved composite plutonium / uranium implosion weapon.
(The actual bomb being wheeled out on the morning of the exercise. Clearly it is a RDS-3 Marya, at least the external casing.)
(For comparison, the weapon known to western intelligence as RDS-4 Tatiana.)
However some accounts of the test list the bomb as a RDS-4. The RDS-4 Tatiana was a 30kT plutonium implosion weapon and the first Soviet nuclear weapon that didn’t need to be paired with a specific bomb bay configuration, and could be mass produced. The Tatiana looks nothing like the exercise weapon.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, some former members of the USSR’s nuclear program stated that the design which had first been intended to be designated “RDS-4” was a 40kT plutonium implosion design intended as an intermediate step; using the existing RDS-3 Marya’s outer casing and fuzes. During development, since the original RDS-2 was never going to be issued anyways, the “RDS-2” designation was recycled for it, with the tactical weapon today known as RDS-4 Tatiana actually being called “RDS-4M” in classified documents.
In summary the most likely possibility is that the bomb dropped was a new fissile core package inside a RDS-3 casing, whatever it was called.
Marshal Zhukov wanted this test to be as realistic as possible, and to that end, the three divisions involved were equipped with a blend of WWII and early-Cold War era equipment, just as the Soviet Army as a whole was at the time.
The anti-aircraft gun above is a 52-K. This WWII weapon fired a 85x629mm(R) cartridge (2,598fps muzzle velocity). It had a ceiling of 34,448′ which was sufficient against WWII Luftwaffe types. However now in 1954 against the B-47 Stratojet this was below that plane’s bombing altitude. A bigger problem was that the Stratojet cruised around 500 kts (more than double the top speed of the bombers this gun faced during WWII); while the 52-K had a rate of fire of just 11rpm and could only traverse about 10° – 15º per second. The WWII Soviet gun would be lucky to get a few shots off before the new American jet bomber was in and out of range. During the late 1950s and 1960s “heavy AA artillery” like this was replaced by surface-to-air missiles.
In the above photo, crewmen are pushing a 52-K into a revetment several minutes before the bomb was dropped. Towed guns of all types were put into defilade and had their barrels depressed to minimum elevation for the nuclear burst.
The M1938 was a smaller towed AA gun of WWII firing a 76.2×558(R) cartridge (2,670fps muzzle velocity). It was mounted on the same ZU-8 trailer as its bigger cousin, the 52-K. This WWII gun had a lesser ceiling than the 52-K and was, by the 1950s, even less of a threat to American jets.
In the above photo, a M1938 is sited in a deep pit to protect it from the blast. The object to the left is the trail hitch which folded upwards.
During WWII the ZiS-2 anti-tank gun performed well and over 10,000 were made. It fired a 57×480(R) AP cartridge at a remarkable 3,300fps muzzle velocity. At ¾ of a mile it could penetrate 3″ of sloped hardened steel.
By the time of the “Snezhok” test, the Soviets considered the ZiS-2 still acceptable if not great. NATO’s first generation tank units were largely populated by WWII holdovers; the M4 Sherman, the Comet, and the light M24 Chaffee. The ZiS-2 could dispense with them but since the end of WWII, the M47 Patton and Centurion had entered service.
In any case, a lot of ZiS-2s were still in the Soviet army and it was desired to see how the guns and their crews performed on an atomic battlefield.
In the above photo from “Snezhok”, a ZiS-2 crew is manhandling their gun into a ramped fighting position. This particular crew had already transitioned from WWII small arms to the SKS rifle.
Above is a ZiS-3 anti-tank gun. This WWII weapon fired a 76x285mm(R) AP round (2,297fps muzzle velocity) with excellent penetration. It could also fire HE-Frag, smoke, and even chemical weapons rounds. The ZiS-3 was successful during WWII and over 103,000 were built. It remained in Soviet use well after the war.
The ZiS-3 was used by all the participating units and also as sacrificial targets. The one photographed above is clearly a doomed target as the bombing ◊ is right behind it.
The M-30 (aka M1938) was a towed 122mm howitzer with a 7 mile range. It was popular during WWII with 17,526 being built during the war plus 1,740 afterwards.
The above image is from a Soviet newsreel about “Snezhok” and shows the crew lowering the barrel to minimum elevation minutes before the nuclear detonation. The “tab” on the gunshield is a steel louver which moved up and down with the barrel’s elevation. For the test, M-30s were used by both sides of the simulated battle, and were also expended as targets in the middle zone.
Often classified as a tank destroyer – a job it could certainly accomplish – the SU-100 of WWII was typed as an “assault gun” by the USSR, filling a number of roles. It weighed 31½ tons and had a top speed of 30mph. The main armament was a then-powerful 100mm gun of limited (±8°) traverse, beyond that the vehicle itself had to move to aim.
Assault guns were successful in WWII. The USSR certainly intended to retain its WWII SU-100s for the Cold War, meanwhile in 1954 Soviet designers were still even working on new casemate-style vehicle concepts. The SU-100 benefited from sharing ammunition with the later T-54/55 tank, and engine and suspension parts with the WWII T-34 tank. SU-100s were also exported to post-WWII communist armies and to the middle east. So in 1954, the Soviets were eager to see how the SU-100 performed in an atomic setting.
Both the functional forces and sacrificial targets for “Snezhok” included SU-100s. The one photographed above was a target.
The SU-76 was an earlier WWII assault gun. Often forgotten today, it was actually the second-most produced Soviet tracked vehicle of WWII, after the T-34 tank. Weighing 11½ tons, it had a top speed of 27mph and was armed with a 76mm anti-tank gun.
The SU-76 left production almost immediately after Japan’s 1945 surrender and was only retained at all after WWII as it shared ammo with towed ZiS-3s. “Snezhok” was actually the last major wargame the SU-76 participated in; thereafter it was only used as a training vehicle. In allied communist armies, it served longer in an operational role.
SU-76s were used both as active participants and sacrificial targets for the atomic bomb. The photo above shows one in motion after the blast.
T-34 (early model)
Above is an “early” T-34, the T-34-76 to be precise, just prior to the test. These tanks, with smaller turret and 76mm gun, represented production from the start of WWII until late 1943. After the design was found wanting against newer German panzers, production switched to the famous T-34-85. A total of 32,668 were built of this “early” style (39% of the whole T-34 line) but it is much less remembered today, maybe because a much higher percentage of the “early” style were destroyed in combat during WWII.
After WWII thousands of these remained but their future was bleak. The Soviets reasoned that if they had problems with WWII German armor, they would fare even worse against future American tanks. Additionally many of the WWII survivors were simply worn out.
All of these “early” T-34s were used as unmanned targets only, such as the one above. Target vehicles had a cyrillic “G” and location number, followed by a hyphen and vehicle number as seen.
T-34 (later version)
The definitive model of the T-34, the T-34-85, entered production midway through WWII and is what most people simply call a “T-34”. It weighed 26½ tons and was armed with a 85mm main gun in a redesigned and larger turret. The grainy photo above is from an old Soviet newsreel about “Snezhok” and shows T-34s en route to the Totskoye area via railroad.
The T-34-85 was one of the best, and by many accounts the best, tank of WWII. It set a template for the “main battle tank” (MBT) concept which emerged after WWII and was followed for the remainder of the century. As many T-34-85s were built as the rest of Soviet tanks of all types combined during WWII, excluding the earlier T-34-76. In 1954, T-34-85s formed the overwhelming majority of Soviet tank strength; with the -54 version of the T-54/55 only starting to enter service in 1947 – 1948 and full production of the -55 version not even achieved yet. Obviously the Soviets had every interest in how this WWII tank would perform on an atomic battlefield.
This WWII transport plane was indispensable to “Snezhok”, being used as transports for the pre-test staging, as personnel shuttles, as targets, and as a scientific plane for the blast.
In 1936, the Soviet Union purchased a license for the DC-3 airliner (or, C-47 Skytrain in its WWII military role) from Douglas. The engineer Boris P. Lisunov set about to make the DC-3 design suitable for production in the USSR, which was much more difficult than it sounds. All weights and dimensions had to be converted from pounds and inches to kilograms and centimeters. The engine type was changed to Shvetsov M-62.
The end result obviously looked like a DC-3 / C-47, but with a few differences. The cabin doors are of a different size and configuration, and the windows a slightly different size. The Soviets added guns and a four-bomb belly rack, which the American original lacks. These were of marginal use and not included on all.
A total of around 5,000 were made, starting before WWII in 1939 and then pausing at the height of the German invasion, then restarting mid-war and continuing after WWII ended.
These WWII-veteran airplanes were a tremendously useful asset for the atomic exercise. Above is a doomed target “Cab”.
Ilyushin’s Il-2 Shturmovik ground attack plane, called the “Bark” in the post-WWII NATO naming system, was an indispensable and successful asset to the Soviets during WWII with 36,183 being made. A pre-WWII design, the Il-2 was already long in the tooth mid-war and work began on a successor.
(Comparison of a Il-2 and Il-10, the latter being an example captured intact during the Korean War.)
In late 1944 the Il-10 was approved for production. Quite similar in style and layout to the Il-2, the two-man Il-10 was 48 kts faster, more maneuverable, had an all-enclosed cockpit, and slightly longer range. In all, the Il-10 “Beast”s improvements were actually quite modest but the Soviets were probably aiming to avoid a block obsolescence issue down the road with so many Il-2s being built in such short of a timespan.
A small number of Il-10s participated in the last six weeks of the European part of WWII, including the Battle of Berlin. During the USSR’s brief conflict with Japan which closed out WWII in August-September 1945, an entire regiment of Il-10s operated over northern Korea. However the “Beast” is mostly remembered as an early post-WWII type, seeing heavy use in the Chinese Civil War and then the Korean War.
Soviet production of this type ended in 1949 but in 1954 there were still significant numbers of “Beast”s in service, and the type had been exported to allied air forces. During the “Snezhok” test these were widely used as targets.
(A destroyed Il-10 “Beast” after the test.)
other Soviet WWII gear used in the test
Smaller numbers of some WWII weaponry were used, mostly as sacrificial targets.
The D-44 was a 85mm field gun used in the final part of WWII. It remained in production through the Korean War. This gun had a range of 1,257yds in the direct-fire role and 9 miles in the bombardment role. D-44s served throughout the Cold War and at least one was still in use during the 2020 conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan. This D-44 above was a sacrificial target for “Snezhok”.
Somewhat of a rarity with only about 200 being made during WWII, the IS-1 heavy tank was vastly overshadowed by the IS-2 and post-WWII IS-3. This one, armed with a DShK anti-aircraft gun, was used as a sacrificial target along with the SU-100 alongside.
The PPSh-41 submachine gun of WWII was still in limited Soviet use in 1954; here by an artillery crewman taking cover shortly before the bomb was dropped. None of the three divisions involved in “Snezhok” still had WWII Mosin-Nagant rifles and in fact some units had already transitioned from the SKS to AK-47.
ex-German weapons at “Snezhok”
The Soviet Union made use of captured German equipment of all types during WWII. After the war, huge quantities remained in steadily declining use. By 1950 the decision to continue using it or not broke down on several lines: the quantities captured to begin with, what was easily maintainable using reverse-engineered spare parts and ammo, additional training required, how fast it wore out, and the usefulness of doling it off onto communist allies.
Generally motor vehicles were the first to go; followed by small arms which were easy to warehouse and also popular export “giveaways” in the years after WWII, and then finally artillery. Soviet tactics stressed artillery use, and any additional field guns or howitzers were always welcome. During WWII the USSR had reverse-engineered many German artillery ammunition types, and the guns did not take a lot of maintenance or extra training. For these reasons, artillery guns were mostly the last remaining ex-Wehrmacht gear in the Soviet army by the mid-1950s.
The leFH 18M was Germany’s standard 105mm howitzer during WWII. It fired a 32 lbs HE shell out to 7 miles. There were several modifications to both the gun and carriage during WWII, the latter being improvements to make it more suitable for motorized towing. The example above was far away from the “Snezhok” detonation to survive relatively intact with grass fires burning around it.
The PaK 40 was a German 75mm anti-tank gun with a 1 mile range. Its 75x714mm(R) PzGr.40 AP and PzGr.38 HEAT rounds were effective against most Allied WWII tanks, excepting the American M26 Pershing and Soviet IS-2. The USSR captured a decent number during WWII and already had the AP ammunition reverse-engineered by the war’s end.
The PaK 40 above was obviously destroyed during “Snezhok”, and may have been underneath the hypocenter of the bomb’s airburst, as Russian veterans recalled wreckage of target weapons in that area being “pushed downwards” into the dirt.
Nine years after WWII ended, there was not a lot of ex-German gear represented at “Snezhok” with the PaK 40 being the most numerous thing. All ex-German gear was used as sacrificial targets. Most likely the Soviets just considered it expendable junk by then.
absence of American gear
As far as is known, no Lend-Leased kit leftover from WWII was present at “Snezhok”. There was still a decent amount of it in Soviet storage and even active use in 1954, including M4 Sherman tanks, DUKW amphibious vehicles, and Studebaker trucks.
(A WWII M4 Sherman tank being used as a test target for a AT-1 “Snapper” anti-tank missile in 1959. This shows that even four years after “Snezhok”, there were still WWII Lend-Lease vehicles available for new Soviet weapons development, if desired.)
There is no clear answer why no American weapons were used as targets for “Snezhok” in 1954, as they were available and would have been represented in NATO in any 1950s European war. Perhaps the hassle of retrieving them and sending them to Totskoye was judged not worth it.
More or less outside the scope of this writing, this equipment is briefly shown here just to illustrate the “blend” of WWII and postwar gear, as operational equipment and sacrificial targets alike.
The T-54/55 would replace the WWII T-34 as the Soviet Union’s main tank type, and would eventually be the most-built tank ever. They were widely used by the three divisions taking part and were also expended as targets.
The Lavochkin La-15 “Fantail” came out of a late-1940s jet fighter competition which also included the famous MiG-15 “Fagot”. The Soviets judged the La-15 and MiG-15 equally excellent and placed orders for both. However MiG’s offering proved cheaper and easier to build. Therefore Lavochkin’s design faded away, with only 235 “Fantail”s being built. The La-15 was already being phased out when “Snezhok” happened.
Many La-15s were used as sacrificial targets, like the one above. None were flown in the operational part of the exercise.
Meanwhile MiG-15s were used also, both functionally in the post-blast conventional airstrikes and on the ground as seen above to evaluate a new HAS (hardened aircraft shelter) design.
The Ilyushin Il-28 “Beagle” jet bomber entered service in 1950 and replaced some WWII propeller bombers including Lend-Leased A-20 Havocs and B-25 Mitchells, Tu-2 “Bat”s, and Pe-2 “Buck”s. For “Snezhok”, Il-28s formed the main part of the post-detonation conventional airstrike, sacrificial targets like the burning “Beagle” above, and one which was the chase plane of the Tu-4 “Bull” which dropped the atomic bomb.
As a final look at some of the systems involved, the photo below is a good overview of the targets: a pair of Il-10 “Beast”s, a SU-100, a Li-2 “Cab” – all WWII items – with a Cold War-era La-15 “Fantail” in the distance.
Participating units were issued a very basic early-1950s Soviet NBC warfare kit, shown below being modeled for a civilians: a SChM-41 gas mask with a cape and booties.
Below is a photo of soldiers doing the “duck & cover” during the exercise with the ensemble on.
Only specialized “radiological reconnaissance” units had geiger counters. Some subunit commanders were issued a crude dosimeter which was a box with a pinhole punched open during the exercise; it would notify the user if a preset radiation level was exceeded but did not indicate the actual level.
Preparations at the site began more than three months before the event.
A maze of trenches was dug. These were for the most part no different than trenches of the World War One era, buttressed with locally-collected wood. In some instances, the top pieces of wood were slathered with mud or clay to diffuse the atomic bomb’s thermal pulse.
(The style of trench can be seen in the lower part of this photo taken before the exercise. The vehicle is a WWII-era SU-100.)
Most trenches had hardened dugout shelters, of which there were more than 500. These had entries facing away from the blast and roofs covered with dirt. Some of these were fairly elaborate, with viewing periscopes.
The most forward part, roughly the front few hundred yards of each side in the exercise, had prefabricated “buried pipe”-style shelters as shown below.
Two Tu-4 “Bull” aircrews were selected for the exercise; the decision on which one to use was not made until the day of the event. The crews logged over 100 flight-hours dropping ¼-ton shapes, achieving a grouping of 50 – 60 yards which was smaller than the target marking.
The two out-of-area divisions participating in the exercise were given no notice as to why they were being deployed, even en route. The most popular rumor was that the Korean War had restarted and that they were headed to combat there.
for the civilian population
Several zones were established around the target area, which was already an uninhabited area. One temporary evacuation zone was oblong, 5 miles by 11 miles, and extended the part of the Tu-4’s flight path where the bomb bay doors would be open.
The “inner” evacuation zone was roughly 5 miles; here civilians were given the option of a free furnished apartment elsewhere in Russia, or a cash payout with a possible option to return after the test. From there out to about 12 miles, civilian evacuation was not mandatory; for those who chose to remain a government property insurance policy was issued and fallout shelters built. From 13 miles outwards as far as 26 miles away, civilians were not evacuated and instructed to remain indoors or lie flat outdoors. The extreme limit was established at 31 miles.
Most mid- and lower-level commanders were not informed of the test’s nature until a few days before (for secrecy, none at all were told until they had already arrived in the area).
The day before the exercise, lower-level commanders were briefed inside an enclosed tent. Following this, the participating units were issued the NBC warfare cape ensemble if they didn’t already have it. Most already did, as some had been training in gas masks for several days. Basic enlistedmen were not informed of the specifics of the atomic weapon until the morning of the test.
The worst contingency which could have happened was the airburst altimeter fuzes on the a-bomb failing, resulting in a ground detonation. The first generation of Soviet atomic bombs had their impact fuze as a “hard” part of the design; there was no way to disable it and still have the weapon function. While either an air or a ground detonation will generate some fallout, a ground detonation is much worse as it throws up huge amounts of radioactive dirt which arrives back down much quicker and much more potent than the particulate fallout from an airburst. A ground detonation of the bomb would have been a catastrophe for the participating divisions and an elaborate protocol was planned to immediately abort the exercise and evacuate the area, should that have happened.
Contrary to a false rumor circulated today, there was no special vodka ration issued prior to the test. However some subunits had their rifles exchanged for AK-47s in the final days before the test, which in the Soviet army of that time was done in a popular ceremony format.
A huge number of VIPs were at “Snezhok”, starting with Zhukov himself. A dozen other Soviet generals were present. Foreign guests included China’s Marshal Zhu De and Gen. Peng Dehaui, and Poland’s Gen. Marian Spychalski. A special “general’s bunker” was built for them. So many senior officers were present for “Snezhok” that the honor guard had to operate in multiple watch sections.
course of events
Five days before the event, the immediate blast area around the target ◊ was declared off limits.
Three days before the event, the entire exercise region was closed to either incoming or outgoing road or foot traffic. This applied to both the military forces taking part, and the civilians in the region.
At 05:00 on the day of the event, reveille was sounded and personnel not already aware of what was going to happen were briefed on the exercise; while more senior commanders went through a final briefing after breakfast.
The atomic bomb was loaded into the Tu-4 “Bull”, the clone of the WWII B-29 Superfortress. For the flight to the exercise area, a Il-28 “Beagle” jet bomber acted as the chase plane and post-strike photography. A pair of MiG-17 “Fresco” jet fighters escorted the pair.
(The atomic bomb on its cart could not clear the “Bull”s fuselage. Similar to the Runway Able “pit” on Tinian by which the two American B-29s were loaded during WWII, the Tu-4 was loaded from this trench in the runway.)
(The atomic bomb was winched into the Tu-4 “Bull”s bomb bay with an internal chainfall. The normal bomb racks were removed an a shackle installed instead.)
(The “Bull” en route to the test site with the a-bomb inside, with the “Beagle” chase plane behind it.)
At 09:00 movement in the exercise area was completely halted; this was accomplished by 09:11 and irrevocable until 11:00 which was after the scheduled 09:30 drop time. This was in case the “Bull” had been delayed, units would not have started to meander around on their own when it arrived. This ban was in the form of a direct order issued by Zhukov himself.
(Taken from either one of the escorting MiG-17s or the Il-28, this photo shows the Tu-4 prior to the bomb bay doors being opened.)
At 09:20, after a consultation with military meteorologists, final approval was given to the Tu-4 “Bull” (already en route) to drop the bomb. At 09:25, the alert was sounded and personnel took cover. The alert was the word “molniya” (lightning, in Russian) on all radios along with a trio of flares.
the actual event
With the “Bull” at 26,240′ altitude, the bomb was dropped at 09:34; with the exact moment of detonation being recorded as 09:34:44.
(The bomb leaving the Tu-4.)
The free-falling bomb caught a crosswind and was physically about 283yds northwest of the marked ◊ target when it detonated in the air.
(The explosion as seen from the “Beagle” chase plane.)
The bomb detonated with a calculated 38kT yield at 1,149′ altitude. As it was an airburst detonation there was no “ground zero” in the strictest sense, rather the point directly below was called the hypocenter. Veteran recollections of the event recalled that there was no crater but rather the earth was pushed down, like a thumbprint. If true, this is no longer visible in the area in 2020. The Soviet army records of the test stated that a small area around the hypocenter had a paper-thin, ice-like coating of trinitite, a glassy substance of melted dirt.
(The blast as seen from ground level.)
(The same from a more distant location, 4 seconds after detonation.)
(This unmanned camera captured how low-altitude nuclear airbursts create a modified version of the mushroom cloud produced by ground detonations. The airborne fireball creates a low-pressure void; into this superheated air below rushes as a column upwards, carrying radioactive dust and smoke. This results in the “dirty stem, clean cap” appearance.)
(The mushroom cloud 42 seconds after the detonation. It rose to an altitude of about 3 miles before beginning to drift away in the wind.)
Besides the immediate blast wave, the thermal pulse started a large number of grass fires in the area. The target articles, both WWII vintage and Cold War era, were affected by both.
(Wreckage of a Il-10 “Beast” and a La-15 “Fantail”. Exposed warplanes of either generation fared poorly.)
(One of the early-model T-34s with a burning Il-28 bomber in front of it.)
(A flipped-over “Fantail” on fire.)
(Destroyed equipment and grass fires burning around a WWII anti-aircraft gun.)
(Further from the detonation, this “Fantail” suffered only light damage while the WWII-era SU-100 was not damaged at all.)
At 09:39, the conventional part of “Snezhok” began. A massive bombardment of the target area by gun and rocket artillery of all calibers commenced. A veteran of the event said that there was more artillery being deployed than he had observed during the final push into Berlin in 1945. This may or may not have been true but in any case, a massive amount of ordnance was fired.
At 09:56 the conventional air component of “Snezhok”, Il-28 bombers with MiG-15 and MiG-17 strike fighters, began.
As this was happening, the cooling mushroom cloud from the atomic blast began to drift westwards in the wind. It was shadowed by a WWII-vintage Li-2 “Cab” fitted with radiation monitoring gear.
(The dissipating mushroom cloud.)
At 10:10, about 36 minutes after the blast, the “eastern” force began its advance, simulating a counterattack to repulse the “western” force after the use of an atomic bomb.
(A WWII-vintage T-34-85 of the “eastern” force advancing across the radioactive test area.)
(A T-54/55 advancing. The Soviets were keenly interested in how this then-new tank would perform.)
(Infantry with AK-47s advance alongside WWII-vintage SU-76s.)
One of the more interesting, and strange, parts of “Snezhok” happened next. The script for the exercise called for the “eastern” force to conventionally counterattack the “western” force after the atomic bomb was dropped, with the “western” force then going into withdrawal covered by two smaller tactical atomic weapons of their own.
Since the Soviets obviously had no intention of actually dropping two additional nuclear weapons on their now-exposed men, these second and third blasts were simulated with contraptions of a TNT cache set under a bladder of diesel fuel.
These two simulated devices were in themselves probably dangerous to build and emplace, but none the less this was done successfully. They did not replicate an atomic blast as there was no thermal pulse, EMP, or radiation from them. But they did make a boom and a small mushroom cloud, and were more realistic than asking soldiers to use their imagination.
By noon, elements of the “eastern” force had passed the hypocenter of the atomic blast 2½ hours earlier. It should be remembered that not the entirety of the two “eastern” divisions completely crossed the radioactive area; naturally some communications, AA, and heavy artillery did not move at all while other forces who were further back only moved up a preset distance.
Units in motion did not blindly blunder across the exercise area. Beforehand, dirt trails had been marked to avoid the pre-forecast areas of heaviest immediate radioactivity. In a strict military sense this was “cheating” as far as the exercise was concerned, but was a common-sense peacetime safety step. Additionally special “radiological reconnaissance” teams started advancing as soon as the conventional airstrike was over, marking localized hot spots to avoid. They set off as the last part of the conventional air raid was finishing, and were generally always 15 – 40 minutes ahead of the tank and infantry units.
(In 1950 the BTR-152 APC entered service, replacing WWII half-tracks and lend-leased American trucks. Here a radiological reconnaissance team is marking a path ahead of the tank and infantry units advancing across the test area.)
The radiological reconnaissance teams marked areas 25 R/hr or more, 0.5 R/hr or more, and 0.1 R/hr or less. This was not a perfect system but the three signal flags had to be visible from a distance and easily understood.
Between 12:15 – 12:30 the “eastern” force was more or less at its final positions. At 16:00 a signal was sent to end the exercise, and shortly after 18:00 everybody except radiation monitoring teams was out of the simulated battlefield.
The biggest takeaway from the exercise was the severe difficulties an atomic battlefield itself presented. The exercise area was like rings of increasing destruction. The more distant areas had branches torn off trees, then a ring where only trunks remained surrounded by burning branches and grass fires, and finally an area of burning stumps surrounded by a blanket of smashed branches, burning wood, and heavy grass fires.
(A WWII-era SU-100 advancing across the exercise area.)
During WWII, foot infantry in loose order formation could reasonably expect to move cross-country at about 6,100yds per hour. During “Snezhok”, infantry moved at only half that or even less, encumbered by all the debris on the ground, potholes from the conventional bombardment, their NBC warfare kit, and the grass fires and smoke. The innermost area was impassible to anything but tracked vehicles.
Later during the Cold War, the Soviets developed a series of vehicles specifically to clear obstacles caused by tactical nuclear detonations. While the United States and other armies had kits for combat engineer vehicles that could do this to a degree, Soviet vehicles like the IMR and IMR-2 were designed for the purpose.
(Soldiers exit a wood-buttressed slit trench into a dugout just prior to the bomb detonating.)
The dugouts held up well but the wood-buttressed slit trenches fared very poorly. The shock wave hitting the ground caused some to partially or fully cave in, and a few were on fire when soldiers reemerged from their dugouts.
Conversely the prefabricated “buried pipe”-style shelters being tested were very successful and the Soviets designed and manufactured a whole series of them during the Cold War.
(The KVS-U prefabricated buried shelter was introduced later in the Cold War.)
The trenches had been dug over a period of many weeks prior to the exercise using hand labor, civilian machinery, and rotary shovels mounted onto a WWII Stalinets artillery tractor. This was unrealistic for actual war use, and the Soviets went on to design made-for-the-purpose trench digger vehicles.
Common sense combined with earlier use of discarded planes in previous tests, already had given the Soviets the notion that exposed warplanes would fare badly.
(A smashed target aircraft, a La-15, after the atomic blast.)
The only real surprise was just how terribly exposed aircraft were destroyed, be they either the WWII-era propeller planes or newer jets.
Nothing in the exercise was really intended to “compare” how one generation of equipment performed vs another; as naturally older gear would eventually leave service on its own anyways. None the less, there was actually little difference between WWII-era equipment and the first generation of Cold War systems. The T-34 and T-54/55 both did very well, while exposed artillery and warplanes of both generations did not.
During the planning phase, it was decided that any area measuring 25 R/hr of radiation would be flagged as off-limits by the reconnaissance teams.
For purposes of basic understanding, with an airburst atomic bomb, radiation tends to be briefly high in the very immediate area of the blast (500yds or so depending on the yield), then levels off before sharply climbing again to a final high in the same area plus further away. The first (brief) jump is due to what is called Free-Field ⌈, or ionizing gamma radiation not directly linked to any particular material. The second (more prolonged) jump, which begins 20 – 35 minutes later, is fallout. With an airburst this is airborne dust, smoke particulates, and the small amount of dirt sucked upwards into the mushroom cloud – all now made radioactive.
Again for purposes of understanding, a chest x-ray is 0.1 R/hr. A dose of 1 R/hr can, but not always will, cause radiation sickness symptoms. A dose of 20 R/hr or 100 R/24hrs will definitely cause it, while a dose of 114 R/hr introduces the possibility of death. Above 300 R/hr or 500 R/24hrs death is assured.
According to the very limited, and sometimes contradictory, records released by the Russian Federation after the Cold War ended, the hypocenter was hypothetically calculated at being 50 R/hr immediately after the detonation, very quickly declining to 25 R/hr in a 350yds radius by the time the radiological reconnaissance teams had reached there to take measurements. Past ¾ of a mile, it was 1 R/hr and declined from there out.
These measurements do not necessarily agree with what might be expected from American nuclear tests of similar yield. Additionally a Soviet military journalist covering the event happened to have a personal geiger counter which read 1 R/hr more than 2 miles away.
(Infantry advancing on foot through the burning test area. Smoke, fires, and craters from the conventional artillery and bombings slowed down infantry.)
Officially, all personnel involved were issued appropriate PPE. Recollections of veterans of the event vary in this regard, with some saying they received a gas mask but not the cape/booties, and others recall receiving nothing. Some photos of the test (which themselves are very limited) appear to show some troops without the NBC warfare kit on.
Due to the unseasonably warm late-summer day, latent heat from the atomic bomb, and heat from all the brush fires, areas of the exercise zone were over 111°F when troops crossed and some men removed their ensemble in violation of the orders, just to cool off. Another related story was that in the final days before the event, a popular junior officer had a heart attack while drilling in a gas mask during warm weather, perhaps further discouraging use in the heat.
The cape and booties were treated with a fabric preservative which had a foul smell, possibly further discouraging their wear.
During the conventional airstrike portion of the event, a group of attack fighters became disoriented from all the smoke below and were believed to fly through part of the dissipating mushroom cloud. The cockpits were later tested after the planes landed and measured 0.3 R/hr; it is unknown what dosage the pilots actually absorbed.
After the event soldiers were told to turn in their uniforms for a factory-fresh set, which in the 1950s Soviet army was always a welcome event. Presumably the worn uniforms were burned or buried. Other kit, such as helmets, firearms, etc was cleaned by hand and continued in use. Vehicles were washed and likewise continued in use.
After the event, some soldiers experienced nausea and headaches, which was chalked up to fatigue. This is one cause of these symptoms; another being low-level radiation sickness.
Despite the bomb having missed the target, the Tu-4 “Bull”s aircrew were awarded free GAZ-M20 cars, which was notable as the waiting list for private automobiles in the USSR was always long.
The exercise overall was judged a success. This was the first and last Soviet nuclear test where WWII equipment played any appreciable role. It was the only nuclear explosion of any type at Totskoye.
The Totskoye exercise area had originally been a camp for Polish POWs taken during the joint German/Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. During WWII it was a training area and had already seen heavy use before the nuclear test. After “Snezhok”, almost the whole area was again recycled for non-nuclear artillery, tank, and air support live-fire exercises. There is still significant numbers of shot-up tanks and aircraft in the “Snezhok” test area, but by now most of it is remnants of later non-nuclear exercises. As recently as the mid-2010s, the Russian Federation army still used part of the area for artillery training.
(Photographed in 2005, this WWII-era IS-2 tank was probably involved in a later non-nuclear exercise.)
A significant number of trenches, artillery pits, and shell craters from “Snezhok” still exist.
(Part of the former exercise area in early 2020. There are no longer any restrictions on crossing through much of the area, less that still in use by the Russian Federation army.)
The oak forest which was knocked down never regrew in the immediate area. Further out, there is a new-growth mixed oak and birch woodland. The trees have no genetic defects and by 2020 there is no longer any detectable radiation in the area.
(A satellite image of the area during the summer of 2020. The white speck left & slightly above of the cleared area’s center is where the hypocenter was. Today there are two monuments, a post-Soviet small belltower and a little older steel marker nearby, which is directly under where the bomb detonated. Both are accessible to civilians.) (image via Bing Maps)
Objectively the Soviets did not take risks at “Snezhok” any better or worse than what the Americans were doing in Nevada in the same time frame. This is not to imply that two wrongs make each other right; only that this was the contemporary thinking of the era.
All personnel involved were sworn to a 25-year secrecy oath and certain personnel were put under a lifetime secrecy order. In the 1990s the Russian Federation voided these and urged veterans with health problems to come forward, however little additional aid was actually given. By the year 2000 only 1,900 of the 46,000 men involved were still alive. Obviously the passage of 45 years affected this somewhat and it was by then largely impossible to determine how many of these veterans, then in their 60s and 70s, had cancer issues attributable to the test.
(part 1 of a 2-part series)