Soviet T-10: Q&A with Stephen “Cookie” Sewell

Stephen Sewell croppedTank and AFV News corresponded recently with Stephen “Cookie” Sewell, co-author of the new book Soviet T-10 Heavy Tank and Variants published by Osprey.  Mr. Sewell was born in New York and is a retired US Army chief warrant officer and Department of the Army intelligence analyst.  Trained in both the Vietnamese and Russian languages, Mr. Sewell has written numerous intelligence articles as well as many pieces on American and Russian armor.  He is an enthusiastic scale model builder and the founder of the Armor Model Preservation Society in 1992.  He is also a prolific reviewer of model kits and books.

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Can you give us a description of your career in the US Army and US government?

I entered the Army in September 1968 and was trained as a Vietnamese linguist. After a short tour in Vietnam and then at NSA was retrained as a Russian linguist in 1973. Spent a total of nine years on strategic intelligence assignments and nine years tactical ones. Retired in 1990 as a Chief Warrant officer. Due to expertise hired back three months later into same job I retired from and arrived two weeks before Desert Shield/Desert Storm started. Changed to the National Ground Intelligence Center predecessor in 1991 and then to that organization when created in 1994. Retired from there in 2011

How did you get the nickname Cookie?

I came back from Vietnam in 1971 and my brother wanted me to see a new kids’ show on PBS called “Sesame Street”. First Muppet I saw was the Cookie Monster, who in the space of two minutes ate an entire box of cookies, the box, and a telephone. My kind of guy! When I got to NSA I started drawing him doing stuff like eating MiG-21s and people in my office started referring to me as “Cookie Monster”. Stuffed my desk with chocolate chip cookies to boot. Eventually shortened to Cookie as we then had four Steve’s in the office so they could get my attention faster that way. Name stuck.

What started your interest in AFV history and when did you first start writing on the topic?

Started building armor on a regular basis in 1966 when I first got a subscription to “AFV News” done by George Bradford. Did it from then on to include building in Vietnam. Switched over to 1/35 scale in 1973 and stayed with it ever since. Started writing about it in 1974 first on describing model building and later to reviews and finally articles on armor.

How did this new book on the T-10 come about? What were the biggest challenges in putting this book together? 

I had known Jim Kinnear through correspondence for a number of years and he used two of my translations of Russian books (T-28 and T-35) when he did books on them for Barbarossa Books. He contacted me as he had an offer from Osprey for a book and wanted to know if I would be willing to coauthor it with him. Agreed and we settled on T-10 as it was the most ill-covered and little known Soviet tank. Just serendipitous that all of the T-10 kits came out when the book did!

Looking through the literature that has been published in English, very little addresses the T-10. There have been a few titles on the IS series that shoehorn the T-10 into the end of the book, but as far as we can tell, this is the first book exclusively on the T-10.  Why do you think it has received so little attention up to now?

The T-10 was a very mysterious Soviet tank and for years many “experts” could not tell it apart from the IS-3. Even Tamiya  – when they released the first plastic kit of one in the late 1960s – split the difference and called it a JS-III/T-10. They rarely showed up in parades and even US intelligence had a bad view of them. (I actually had one photographic interpreter identify one in Germany as a “T-62K” which needed extra wheels to carry the command radio sets…)

Given how poorly understood the T-10 (and to some degree the entire IS line) has been in the West, what in this book do you think will surprise readers the most?

The fact that the tank was basically obsolete when built, but due to the pressure from the chief designer (Kotin) on the government they bought it anyway. The Red Army apparently did not really want the tank and slowed down its production and procurement. US intelligence estimates were as high as 8,000 built but in reality it was less than 1,500. Also nobody knew what a complete dog the IS-3 was and that many of them rolled off the production lines into modification centers and then storage depots.

The T-10 book has a nice collection of photos in it, including quite a few from Kubinka and other Russian museum sites. Have you had the opportunity to go to Russia and examine these vehicles first hand?

Alas, no. I was cleared for most of my life (43 years) and as such unless posted to the Embassy in Moscow would never have had a chance to go. Thankfully many Russian armor buffs and historians were able to get things from their national archives when the getting was good so to speak!

Speaking of Soviet Heavy tanks, one question I have to ask regarding the IS-7 is what’s the deal with all those machine guns? Where those included in the design to meet some requirement put out by the Soviet military or was it a bit of creative license on the part of the design bureau? 

The IS-7 was again Kotin’s idea of the ultimate heavy tank and he envisaged it as being the only one needed to suppress or destroy all things on the battlefield. It was overwrought and overweight and as such while he was proud of it the Red Army did not want one that much outside their requirements or limits.

Steven Zaloga makes a special note in his Osprey New Vanguard title on the T-64 thanking you for your extensive help on that title. Is the T-64 a particular item of interest for you?  How long have you been collecting material on the T-64?

There was a real mystery when I was in Germany in the late 1980s as to why we were looking at three nearly identical tanks – T-64, T-72, T-80 – and what was the difference. We actually had very little other than the knowledge that the T-64 was from Kharkov and had an opposed piston diesel, the T-72 was from Nizhniy Tagil and had a V-2 type engine, and the T-80 was from Leningrad/Omsk and had a turbine. All of them were thought to be quite similar. But it was only after 1991 and histories began to come out that the differences were found to be quite profound. The designer of the T-64, Aleksandr Morozov, had worked on that tank since 1953 and never did quite get the problems out of the design in his service career. (It was only later when a new engine was used that the tank even could be trusted to start reliably under 10 C/50 F.) But two Russians wrote a very detailed history of the tank and also items such as Morozov’s diary came out which described all of his problems with it.

I have known Steve for more than 40 years and we have been good friends for over 30. I supply him with all translations I do and he had all of the materials I had collected on the T-64 when he wrote that book.

During the cold war, it seemed that Western sources often depicted Soviet armor development and a very organized and orderly process. However, some of the articles you have written on Soviet armor show that the process was often anything but, and that politics and political connections played a very big role in development decisions.  How did the political savvy of Zhosef Kotin affect, and possibly even distort, Soviet armor development?

The Soviets DID have a very logical approach to armor development – but they also had a very erratic science chief (later Minister of Defense) in Dmitriy F. Ustimov. He loved “new toys” and the T-64 was the newest and fanciest. As a result he tried to put all of their eggs in one basket but neither Nizhniy Tagil (Kartsev) nor Leningrad (Kotin/Popov) wanted to build somebody else’s tank. As a result they both worked out excuses to build their own designs – Kartsev’s T-72 and Popov’s T-80. Once they were accepted the fight was over which “clan” – the political factions in the government – could get “their” tank to be the main design. As a result they had three tanks built to the same specifications but sharing little more than fuel and ammunition.

The big news regarding Russian tank design over the past two years has been the unveiling of the T-14 Armata. There has been a lot of hype around this vehicle and it certainly seems like a departure from the general template shared by the T-64/T-72/T-80/T-90.  Your thoughts on the T-14 and what it signifies?

Armata sounds great on paper with all of the tricks it can do but it is a very complex, computer driven tank and as such will require highly skilled crews to operate. But right now the bigger impact is the fact that the US has redone the global petroleum products market with the result that Russia has taken a pounding in its global income. The effect here is that they have gone from ordering 2,200 Armata class vehicles (T-14 tank, T-15 BMPT, T-16 BREhm) in 2015 to maybe 200 in 2018 to now the T-90M being the future tank. Time will tell.

You wrote an article for Finescale modeler about a M8 HMC you modeled based on one that successfully engaged and destroyed a German Panther tank during WWII. Can you tell us a bit about this encounter and how you discovered it?

02My wife and I spent a pleasant afternoon at the National Archives (NARA II in College Park MD) researching the 32nd Armored Regiment 3AD in WWII when I came across the citation to their Recon Company for actions taken on 3-4 September 1944. The citation described the action (albeit called the tank a “Tiger”) and I thought when I got the chance that would be the one to build. Finally did some kitbashing as AFV Club dragged its feet too long on the promised kit.

Let’s talk about German tanks. Back in 1993 you wrote a piece for Museum Ordnance Magazine titled Exploding a Few Myths about World War II Armor. In the article, you point out how the reputation of the German big cats (Panther, Tiger, Kingtiger) does not match reality, and that all three of these vehicles had significant deficiencies which offset some of their good features.  Since you have written that piece, has the myth surrounding these vehicles become more entrenched, less entrenched or about the same?

The myths will never go away even when noted German armor historians like the late Tom Jentz tried to punch large holes in them. Tom showed that Panthers were literally handmade and often parts from one could not be used on another as they would not fit, preventing field repairs to get one or two working tanks from three or four damaged ones. Tiger II armor was so thick not due to wanting an invincible (and very overweight) tank but they did not have enough alloy elements to harden it to sufficient levels so lightening the design. Also engines were over-strained and often the main reason the tanks were abandoned.

In that article you also do a comparison of Michael Wittman and Lafayette Pool. Is it strange that in the US, a SS officer such as Wittman is better known and more widely admired than the American Tank Commander Pool?

Not really – most Americans were not lauded to the level of Wittman by the press. Pool was highlighted in one hyped-up “Yanks” magazine article but other than that not much was known. The assessment I did after going through the NARA II material shows that there was very little actually written up about Pool as he was the “tip of the spear”. Rear echelon elements had neatly typed combat reports but said little; most of the stuff from Pool’s battalion was in pencil and hastily written. I got more information from his bow gunner, the late Bert Close, which gave me a really good picture of Pool and also permitted Steve Zaloga and myself to find two photos of Pool’s tank in action.

Tom Jentz found a wealth of materials there as well on Wittman and found him to be a real “yahoo” who probably would have been relieved and court-martialed if he was not a good party member from the beginning of his career.

You are the founder of the Armor Model and Preservation Society. How long have you been a scale modeler and how did the AMPS get started?

AMPS logoI started building models at age 5 – first one was a Lindberg F-94C but when I spilled the Testors Liquid all over my mother’s breakfast table and destroyed two placemats it wound up being assembled with Scotch tape. I did get better…

In the mid 1980s a group of modelers from the northwestern US coalesced around Mike Rogers, a modeler from Oregon, and started an armor-only modeling organization. This became the Association of Military Modelers with Mike as its head. After a few years, it began to build up momentum and soon grew to several hundred members. Modelers should realize at this time IPMS USA was having some serious problems (and was snidely referred to as the “International Plane Modeling Society” as most of its efforts were focused on aircraft modelers) so it was a good time for an armor-only group to begin.

After a couple of relatively small shows on the West Coast, in May 1991 the show moved to Aberdeen, Maryland, home of the US Army Ordnance Museum and one of the largest collections of armor and artillery open to the general public. This attracted a very large number of armor modelers from all over the US, and was felt to be just what armor modelers needed. After a highly successful show, the next show was set for the end of April 1992 in Louisville, Kentucky, near the famous Patton Museum at Fort Knox, Kentucky.

But what nobody realized is that the AMM was NOT a modeling society – Rogers had set it up as a business and while it published a bi-monthly journal (The AMM Review) it was not a society like IPMS. Rogers also was not a good businessman – he sold “grey market” kits from Europe to his “members” and was not careful about monies tendered and products provided. In late 1991 the manufacturers and their authorized importers figured out what was happening and locked him out of shipments. As Mike had spent the incoming money for orders, he could not make good on either refunds or orders, and also could not make good on the costs of the show in Louisville. However, he did not tell anyone what was going on.

Needless to say, about 200 armor modelers showed up at the venue in Louisville to discover there was no show staff, no prepaid items such as rental computers, and other problems which left the show in jeopardy. Rogers had no money to go, the chief judge could not attend due to business activities, and none of the personnel who had worked the West Coast shows were present.

However, a number of members of the Canadian Armour Modellers Society (CAMS) and seasoned IPMS and other model society members were there and took charge. John Wiseman of CAMS took overall charge, Paul Roberts and I took over registration and data logging, and Steve Andreano took the job of head judge. With some solid volunteers like Don Crawford, Dana Nield and the rest of the CAMS gang the show did come to fruition, but soured everyone present on the AMM.

Sometime later, in August 1992 Mike Rogers called me and said he could no longer continue with the AMM (but did not explain the reasons why he could not). I said I would take up the mantle of armor society leader and would resort things, but would need the membership list to start getting things resorted. Mike promised to send it – but as it was his proprietary customer list he never did.

In the meantime I contacted some highly interested friends. Jeff McKaughan, publisher of the “Ordnance Review” which was the APG Ordnance Museum Foundation publication, Steve Andreano, Vern Goodrich, Jim Forbus, Ralph Martin, Frank De Sisto, John Bendel and Don Wardlaw Jr. were contacted and asked if they thought we could reform the AMM but get on a solid footing. Along the way while discussing things we found out the AMM was a business and not a society. As a result, we decided to first write a proper constitution and structure for a society along the lines of IPMS USA and put restrictions in place to prevent such a disaster happening again. Vern suggested the name “Armor Modeling and Preservation Society” or AMPS as a handy acronym.

Over the next several months I painstakingly reestablished as much of the AMM structure as we could find; due to the somewhat solitary nature of modelers, Rogers had at least published the names and address of the members of AMM as they joined in the “Review”. When we had a list of about 600 names, Jeff and I sent out postcards to these people explaining AMPS and inviting them to join. We set 300 members as our starting goal before going “hot” and announcing our formal embodiment.

Reactions were highly mixed. For every two modelers who said “great!” and sent in their dues I received a letter calling me every name in the book and threatening legal action for fraud; apparently these people had been taken by Mike Rogers and thought we were assuming his business debts. I spent a lot of time trying to explain we were extracting the good things about the AMM but jettisoning the bad, and would try to position ourselves as a 501c(3) tax exempt society in the future.

After several months of struggle, we finally achieved our goal and the Society was formally started on 1 July 1993 with the publication of the first issue of the BORESIGHT, the Society’s journal. The first issue ran 20 pages and covered a few models with the first cover article being my build of the Lone Star Models Ram Mk. II Conversion kit. We were then able to maintain a very good 60 day cycle with six issues of the BORESIGHT published every year, many of the early one with articles by Steve Zaloga, Dan Tisoncik, and other “leading lights” in armor modeling.

After 25 years AMPS is stable and has around 700 members of the international group plus dozens of chapters worldwide to include the UK, Bulgaria, Israel and the Netherlands.

What do you see in the future for model building as a hobby? Are young people interested in building model tanks or are they gravitating more to tank themed video games?

Modeling still attracts people – most are older people who built as kids getting back into the hobby but we do have “young blood” as well. At least with a model you have something YOU made and not some software creation.

Do you have any more books planned for the future?

Yes we do – but more on that when things firm up a bit.

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Links to Cookie’s writings

For reviews on model kits and books, be sure to check out Cookie Sewell’s Armory at the webpage for Delaware Valley Scale Modelers and also at missing-lynx.com

Here are links for some of his articles on AFV history that are available online:

Exploding a Few Myths About World War II Armor  (Museum Ordnance Magazine, Sept 1993)

Why Three Tanks? (ARMOR, July – August 1998 page 21)

Red Star – White Elephant (ARMOR, July – August 2002 page 26)

And here is an amusing anecdote from his early days in the US Army:

“Cookie’s Funiest Military Paint Job”

 

 

 

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