Staff Writer (Updated: 7/12/2016):
The T-34 is Born
Production of the T-34 was quickly ushered in particularly after the massive failings of Soviet armor in the Winter War against neighboring Finland (1939-1940). However, short supplies of the new engine and radio sets saw early T-34 forms fitted with inferior Mikulin M-17 powerplants of the BT tanks and radio sets were distributed solely to "command tanks". T-34 tankers were then trained to rely on rather primitive battlefield signals presented through specialized flag movements, requiring that accompanying tanks had to be within visual range of one another - reminiscent of ancient warfare to an extent.
The T-34 entry in to service in 1940 brought about immediate consideration as the most combat capable tank in the world. The vehicle was the perfect balance of speed, firepower and armor protection - three key assets of any successful tank design, even those being developed today. The vehicle weighed in at 26 tons and managed a running length of 22 feet with a width of 10 feet and height of 8 feet. The 76.2mm main armament was augmented by a coaxial 7.62mm DT machine gun and a bow-mounted 7.62mm machine gun in the hull - both to serve as anti-infantry defense. Once stocks of the intended engine were available, power was mainly derived from the Model V-2 diesel-fueled 12-cylinder engine developing 500 horsepower. This promoted a top speed of 33 miles per hour on ideal surfaces and an operational range of 250 miles before refueling. The chassis was suspended atop a coil-spring Christie-based suspension system which presented excellent cross-country performance. Key to the success of the T-34 would be its implementation of heavily sloped, thick armor facings - particularly at the glacis plate, turret and along the hull sides. The turret itself was purposely small in dimension to promote a squat target when viewed in profile. The five large road wheels and wide tracks would serve the type well when traversing the soft terrains of Central and Eastern Europe in the battles to follow. Crew accommodations amounted to four personnel made up of the driver, commander/loader, gunner and bow-machine gunner. Note that the commander doubled as his own loader in these early T-34 forms - this arrangement necessitated by the cramped conditions of the small turret. Conversely, Western tanks in Britain, America and Germany largely relied on a five-man crew for increased efficiency.
Germany Invades the Soviet Union
In June of 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union under "Operation Barbarossa" - Hitler's grand scheme to overtake the communists in the East. The campaign would be a short affair and a sweet victory for the German peoples in much the same way that Poland, France and Low Countries were in the year and months prior. While initial gains were deemed excellent, the Soviet winter delayed the inevitable take-over of Moscow proper. This allowed the Red Army time to regroup its remainder, reform its forces and establish new production facilities in the Urals to the East. While introduced in the fall of 1940, T-34 tanker training did not begin until the spring of 1941.
In the initial fighting, German tankers and anti-tank teams were horrified to find their 37mm "tank-killing" armor-piercing shells "bouncing off" the thick hull and turrets of the approaching T-34s. However, the Soviet response was made less effective through use of ill-trained tanker crews, outdated armored warfare doctrine and discombobulated responses. At the time of the invasion, the Soviet Army was still settling its new armored groups which added to the dismay. Training was being done without T-34 tanks which did not help matters. Additionally, T-34s suffered high rates of mechanical breakdowns in the field (mainly due to ill-experienced drivers) allowing fate to claim more of these tanks than any one German weapon. Only 1,000 to 1,200 (sources vary and Soviet records were non-existent) T-34s were available at the time of the German invasion and these were spread thin overall and concentrated along certain fronts - placing the odds squarely in the favor of the German Army as these numbers were too few to make an concerted impact. Perhaps as few as 150 tankers were actually properly trained in the use of their T-34s. Others saw experience in the completely unrelated T-26 light tank series. There were, however, few early instances when T-34s, if utilized properly and backed by KV-1 heavy tanks, saw success when employing "German-like" armored warfare doctrine.
To add insult to injury, working conditions for T-34 tankers were highly basic and the use of flag signals was cumbersome and downright deadly to the commander and tank alike. Early T-34 forms utilized a single heavy hatch on the turret roof which tankers loathed. Vision out of the tank was poor at best and gunnery sighting equipment was outmatched by the finesse tools used by the Germans on the other end. Disruption of key T-34 production facilities only added to poor expediencies being initiated when relocated manufacturing lines settled - resulting in less than perfect quality control levels.
When operated efficiently and effectively and under strong command and in numbers, there was no modern match for the new Soviet T-34 in the early phases of the war. Panzer light tanks I and II were wholly outclassed and Panzer III and Panzer IV series vehicles simply could not penetrate the T-34's thick frontal armor while their own protection was left wanting. On the other side, the inherently strong penetrative capabilities of the Soviet 76.2mm main gun (particularly after the switch to the F-34 gun) were proven and developments were forwarded on the part of the Germans to develop their own counter. For as crude as the T-34 was, it was an efficient weapon and, when available in number, would present a major obstacle for the invading Germans. By the end of 1941, 2,810 T-34s were available to fight.
T-34/76 Production Marks
Variants abounded along the T-34 production line. The initial mark was the T-34 Model 1934 (T-34/76A) which fired the 76.2mm L-11 main gun from a two-man cast or welded turret. These were given the inferior BT fast tank MT-17 gasoline fueled engines due to shortages of the intended powerpack. Then followed the T-34 Model 1941 (T-34/76B) and these featured the much improved 76.2mm F-34 tank guns in a cast or welded turret. The T-34 Model 1941 (T-34/76C) appeared in 1942 and saw its armor protection increased. New road wheels and tracks were introduced as was a revised driver's hatch. A large portion of these tanks sported cast turrets. The T-34 Model 1942 (T-34/76D) appeared in May of 1942 onwards and brought about the first use of the hexagonal turret with twin roof hatches. The T-34/76E was similar in scope and given a new commander's cupola. The T-34/76F then followed with a rounded turret design due to differences in production origination.
The T-34/57 was nothing more than the T-34/76 with the ZiS-4 57mm anti-tank gun fitted as ad hoc tank killers. Thought of larger caliber, the 57mm weapon held better penetration values against enemy tanks. These vehicles were primarily utilized for the defense of Moscow after substantial German gains in the offensive prior and appeared very much like the basic T-34 tanks. The ZiS-4 gun was based on the earlier ZiS-2 series system. Some 42 T-34/57 tanks are believed to have been produced and this out of STZ and Plant No. 183 factories beginning in September of 1941.
The OT-34 was a slightly modified T-34/76 with its bow-mounted machine gun removed. In its place was a flamethrower though these tanks differed little from the basic combat-oriented tanks.
The T-34M was an early short-lived T-34 prototype featuring torsion bar suspension (over that of the original's Christie). New road wheels, improved ranges and ammunition totals as well as a three-man turret of hexagonal design was introduced. Unfortunately, the design was abandoned after the German invasion of the Soviet Union.