No one tank affected the outcome of World War 2 as much as the Soviet T-34 Medium Tank series with over 80,000 produced.
Authored By: Staff Writer | Last Edited:
To Red Army authorities, it was becoming painfully clear that the BT series of "fast tanks" was not the long term answer for Soviet armored forces. The tank was lightly armored and lightly armed while still intended to tackle enemy armor at range. These vehicles all but lacked the facilities from which to accomplish the role effectively, particularly on the modernizing battlefield of the late 1930s. The BT marks featured a rather novel track design which allowed them to run on bare wheels as needed, a quality that added little to their war-making prowess but was admired by Soviet authorities for its multi-faceted nature. In 1937, the Soviet Army officially requested its official replacement and this began development of a new type of frontline combat tank based on the BT-IS "proof-of-concept" vehicles. Engineers put forth several pilot vehicles, each with progressively thicker and sloped armor protection and greater armament and based on a further evolved form of the BT fast tank series. A new diesel-fueled engine - the Model V-2 12-cylinder - was developed and this particular addition proved a departure from the gasoline-fueled powerpacks utilized in the BT series which held a propensity to explode into flames when hit. The ultimate revision - the A-34 - was accepted for service as the T-34 Medium Tank. Early production forms of 1940 were armed with the 76.2mm L-11 series main gun which eventually gave way to the F-32 and, ultimately, the excellent F-34 series of 76.2mm guns. The use of heavily sloped armor for ballistics protection was rather forward-thinking for the time.
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.
Command and Control tanks were the T-34K and T-34G models. The T-34K was fitted with the RSB radio set which decreased the 76mm projectile count to 39 rounds. The T-34G included radio sets that increased transmittal ranges to 120 kilometers.
The German Response
German commanders relayed their operational findings of the T-34 back to Germany to which a pair of completed examples were finally captured for formal review by engineers. The Germans were impressed by the key qualities of the Soviet design - wide tracks surrounding large road wheels, sloped thick armor and a large caliber gun. The large road wheels were of particular mention here for they countered the build-up of mud and snow - something the Germans never learned in their habit of using overlapping road wheels. The wide tracks also allowed the Soviet design to carry heavier armor loads and armament across soft terrains.
While the T-34 outperformed her early German counterparts, German engineers were hard at work as developing a counter to the Soviet menace. While this would eventually take the form of the excellent Panzer V "Panther" medium tank, the "Tiger I" heavy tank would serve for the interim. This massive tank was armed with the fabled 88mm main gun based on the proven anti-tank gun system, itself based on an earlier anti-aircraft design. The gun could help the Tiger outrange the T-34's 76.2mm main armament and was itself very well protected tank thanks to thick frontal armor. Both the Tiger I and Panther tanks came online beginning in late 1942 and the Germans also found their PaK 40 75mm anti-tank field guns capable of penetrating Soviet armor. The German 75mm would also serve as primary armament in upgunned Panzer IV tanks as well as the StuG III/StuG IV/Jagdpanzer IV tank destroyers. The German 75mm tank gun outpaced the Soviet 76.2mm despite the caliber difference. As the war went on, a greater number of T-34s were lost to the German 75mm and 88mm guns. Some 40% of losses in the Orel Operation of 1943 alone were to 75mm guns and a further 26% to the 88's.
Like the Germans, Soviet engineers went to work to develop a new combat tank under the designation of "T-43" (mainly due to the increased use of the long-barreled 75mm gun by the Germans). However, this advanced designed failed to exceed the performance capabilities of the T-34 it was meant to replace and its new armor configuration was in no way a guarantee against the mighty German "88" nor even the 75mm. It was, therefore, agreed upon to simply manufacture a modified T-34 variant with a more powerful, long-barreled 85mm main gun fitted to a turret based on the KV-85 heavy tank family. The turret now allowed a dedicated loader for the main gun, thusly relieving the commander of that duty and to concentrate on directing his crew. A new five-speed transmission system rounded out the changes of what was, essentially, an "upgunned" T-34-76. The new tank emerged under the designation of "T-34-85" that clearly indicated its new armament fitting and this version entered service in 1944 with 12,000 in circulation by the end of the war. The T-34-85 ultimately existed in several notable production forms during the war and in the post-war years (see variants listing).
Despite the changes, the T-34-85 was not the final answer to the Panther tank threat but the type did serve to level the playing field to an extent. The Panther was clearly the superior vehicle both armor- and armament-wise with the T-34 clearly having seen her best days behind her. However, availability in numbers certainly played well for the Soviets as T-34s could swarm enemy positions seemingly at will. T-34 production vastly outnumbered Panther production with hundreds of T-34s available per month. Of course Soviet losses were comparatively high but this was deemed negligible by Soviet warplanners. In practice a collection of several T-34-85 tanks would be used to attack a single Panther tank from all angles other than the lethal front with generally good results when targeting the weaker side and rear panels. The Soviet Army also began to add the IS "Josef Stalin" heavy tank to the mix beginning in 1943 for a truly potent "one-two" punch. IS tanks were fitted with the massive 122mm main gun and were covered over in thick all-around armor, its variants seeing service well into the Cold War years.
NOTE: See the dedicated T-34-85 entry on this website for full history and production mark notes.
Fallout and Summary
Production of the T-34 went uninterrupted until the end of the European campaign in 1945 to which 57,000 T-34s were in circulation by that time - in fact the T-34 replaced production of all other Soviet combat tank types during peak usage with 42 factories participating - this made the T-34 the most numerous of all Soviet armored vehicles used in the war. Factories included No. 183(Kharkov), No. 183(Nizhny Tagil), the STZ plant, No.112 (Kr.Sormovo), ChKZ, Uralmash and plant No. 174 - each presenting slightly varying end-products due to differences in manufacture. In 1940, only 97 T-34s were produced with 3,000 following in 1941. In 1942, 12,500 were delivered but this was out shown by the 15,700 built during 1943. Production eventually lessened in the final years as "only" 4,000 were added in 1944. The T-34 managed use primarily of the L-11, F-34 and ZiS-4 series guns throughout her career and this existed in 746 L-11 examples, 38,580 F-34 examples and 212 ZiS-4 examples. In terms of powerplants, some 96,182 Model V-2 diesel engines were produced during the war in factories that included women workers.
The tank went on to become the symbol of the Soviet struggle against Germany in the post war years. Though far from the perfect combat tank, it was nonetheless seen as a centerpiece of many monuments to the war. While the T-34-76 largely fell out of favor after the war, the T-34 continued service in its T-34-85 guise as many were delivered to Soviet allies and satellite states. Overall production spanned from 1940 to 1958 to which a total of 84,000 examples were delivered. The chassis also formed the basis for a bridgelayer, self-propelled gun platform and armored recovery vehicle among other types. It was even used as an ad hoc "fast personnel carrier" to the horror of German troops now being swarmed by T-34s laden with Soviet infantry. Other notable variants included a flame tank, mine clearance vehicle and 100mm- and 122mm-armed tank destroyers (see variants listing for full descriptions of marks). As many as 20,000 T-34s were claimed by the Germans in combat - either captured or destroyed.
T-34 Global Operators
Operators of the T-34 eventually proved numerous and her use went well beyond Russian borders. The crop of users ultimately included Afghanistan, Albania, Algeria, Angola, Austria, Bulgaria, China, Congo, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Finland, East Germany, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Hungary, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Libya, Mali, Mongolia, Mozambique, Namibia, North Korea, Palestine, Poland, Romania, Somalia, South Yemen, Sudan, Syria, Togo, Vietnam, Yugoslavia and Zimbabwe. Production of T-34s was also undertaken in Czechoslovakia, Poland and China while some lesser militaries still operate T-34-85 tanks as of 2012.
T-34/85s in the Korean War
The North Korean Army managed approximately 120 T-34-85 tanks during its invasion of South Korea to begin the Korean War (1950-1953). The tanks proved highly effective in early-round action but less so in the NATO counter-offensive which saw them either destroyed or in retreat. Nearly 100 of these tanks were lost in subsequent fighting against upgraded American M4 Sherman, M46 Patton and M26 Pershing tanks. The T-34-85 particularly failed to best the M26 which had arrived in the Europe Theator during the closing weeks of World War 2.
The T-34 Legacy
For the Soviets, the T-34 laid down the ground work for other successful tanks of the cold war. The famous T-54/T-55 series became direct descendants of the T-34 and went on to become the most-produced tank line in history numbering over 85,000 (perhaps as many as 100,000). With that said, the T-34 remains the second most-produced combat tank in history. A related T-34 development, the short-lived "T-44", was intended as a direct T-34 successor and also fitted with the 85mm ZiS-S-53 series gun though only a few hundred were completed and these arrived too late to see war in Europe - and consistently dogged by mechanical issues until the line was wholly retired from service.