In comparison with the Panther, the 85mm gun of the T-34-85 could fire a 21.5 lb shot at a 2,600-foot-per-second muzzle velocity, while the Panther 75mm gun could fire a 15 lb shot, but at a much higher muzzle velocity of 3,068 feet-per-second. The overall weight of the T-34-85 rose from the twenty-seven tons of the T-34, to thirty-two tons, reducing its operating flexibility somewhat and its range from 280 miles to about 190. The top operating speed of both the T-34-85 and the Panther was virtually the same at about thirty mph. When full production of the T-34-85 began during the winter of 1943, it was generally believed that, while it was probably the best and most formidable tank then being produced and fielded by any Allied army, the Panther was, in fact, marginally better. Russian tank crews operating the T- 34-85 on the front lines, however, when given the opportunity to evaluate and compare captured Panthers, preferred the Soviet tank, seeing it as an effective adversary for the newer German tanks, and it achieved that capability without its makers having to reduce the numbers or production rate of the tank. The Panther, by contrast, was rapidly gaining a reputation for its tendency to catch fire easily.
German tank production was much less numerous. With roughly 5,400 Panthers built by the end of 1944, and only 1,347 Tigers by the end of August that year, the Russians had a substantial production lead. With more than 9,000 Mark IVs alone built by war’s end, clearly, the Mark IV, in its many upgunned variants remained the basis of German armoured forces throughout the war. The German tank manufacturing industry was never able to keep pace with the Russians.
In a new-found confidence and their pride of accomplishment in creating and fielding the Tiger and Panther tanks, the German High Command requested in early 1943 that all tank production be halted, except for that of the Tiger and Panther, in order for the industry to focus entirely on those two machines. Guderian: “This new plan contained only one major weakness: with the abandonment of the Mark IV, Germany would until further notice be limited to the production of twenty-five Tigers a month. This would certainly have led to the defeat of the German Army in the very near future … the Russians would have won the war even without the help of their Western allies. No power on earth could have stopped them.” As it happened, Hitler then appointed Guderian to be Inspector General of Armoured Troops, giving him the responsibility for organizing and training the panzer forces, and Guderian immediately set out to build up the quality and quantity of the panzers.
The T-34-76 had proven a tremendous challenge to destroy on the battlefield in 1941. The conventional anti-tank equipment of the Germans was simply not up to the task. The Soviets deployed a considerable number of the medium T-34s in five of their twenty-nine mechanized divisions at that time, along with the heavy KV tanks.
It must be recognized too, that the T-34 in those early days of the war was a very considerable challenge for its crews, who, when deployed on a lengthy road march, tended to lose many of their number to mechanical breakdown, an early problem that plagued the Soviets to a greater extent than it did the Germans. And the upside of the T-34 was diluted to some extent for the crews by its internal layout, poor crew comfort and vision devices.
Testing of the T-34 at the Aberdeen, Maryland, proving ground by the Americans resulted in their unconditional rejection of the Christie suspension system for tanks. The Russian tank utilized this coil-spring system, designed by the American engineer Walter Christie, which enabled considerably longer movement than conventional leaf springs systems and greater cross-country speed. The Christie system employed large, rubber-rimmed road wheels which, when less rubber was available due to wartime shortages, meant a reduced amount of rubber on the wheels. The contact with the tracks at high speeds set up noisy, unpleasant harmonics for the crews. The harmonics could also damage the tank by loosening parts. Certain deficiencies in the tracks resulted from the lightness of their construction. They were subject to damage by small-calibre weapons and mortar rounds. Basically, the pins used were made of poor quality steel and were poorly tempered, causing them to wear out quickly and the tracks to break. Russian crews often brought spare parts and tracks with them into combat situations. One Russian tanker recalled: “The caterpillars used to break apart even without bullet or shell hits. When earth got stuck between the road wheels, the caterpillar, especially during a turn—strained to such an extent that the pins themselves couldn’t hold out.”
Other conclusions from the Aberdeen evaluation were: In their tank production, the Russians were apparently not very interested in careful machining or finishing, or the technology of small parts and components, a negative aspect of what is otherwise a well-designed tank. In comparison to the then-current American tanks, it was found that the Russian tank had many good features, good contours in the design, diesel power, good and reliable armament, thick armour, wide tracks and more. But it was thought inferior to the American tank in manoeuvring, speed, ease of driving, firing muzzle velocity, mechanical reliability, and ease of maintenance. The Aberdeen technicians found many problems with improper radio installations and shielding in the 1941 T-34. Commenting on the turret design: “The main weakness of the two-man turret of the T-34 of 1941 is that it is very tight. The electrical mechanism for rotating the turret is very bad. The motor is weak, very overloaded and sparks horribly, as a result of which the device regulating the speed of the rotation burns out, and the teeth of the cogwheels break into pieces. We recommend replacing it with a hydraulic or a simple manual system.”
The uneven build-quality is called into question when considering the armour of the T-34, in particular on the plating joins and welds. The use of too-soft steel and the shallow surface tempering was also noted by the Aberdeen technical personnel. They noted too, that the various chinks and cracks resulting from relatively careless build-quality tends to admit a lot of water when it rains, which can disable the electrical system and negatively affect the ammunition.
What was operating the T-34 like for the crewmen? The driver sat either on a hard bench seat or on shell storage containers, an arrangement that adversely affected his operation of the tank due to the frequently severe vibration and shocks in combat situations over rough terrain for extended periods. Other negative aspects included poorly made transmissions that were prone to mechanical failure and whose operation could be nightmarishly difficult. The Russians’ use of low-quality, poorly finished steel side clutches further contributed to the breakdown rate of the tank. But the main complaint of those who had to take the T-34 into battle was the low-set, very cramped two-man turret. It could only accommodate the commander and the loader, thus making the job of the commander far more labour-intensive and distracting him from his primary role. A further restriction imposed by the design meant that the turret gun could not be depressed more than three degrees, creating a shooting problem at close range or on a reverse slope.
Another somewhat disfunctional arrangement in the T-34 was that of the ammunition storage for the main gun, making the job of the loader more difficult and less efficient than it should have been. The turret lacked a rotating floor that would move as a part of the turret when the turret was rotated. The small spare ammunition boxes were stowed on the floor under the turret and covered with a rubber mat. Nine rounds of ammunition were stowed on the sides of the fighting compartment and when these rounds had been used, the loader and / or commander had to pull up more ammunition from the floor boxes. The floor was then left littered with open boxes and and rubber matting, impairing the crew performance.
For the tank commander of the T-34, his vision of the field and his situational awareness was disadvantaged by the forward-opening hatch and the lack of a turret cupola, requiring him to view the field of battle through a small vision slit and a traversable periscope. This method was inferior to the German tank method where the commander fought in a heads-up position with his seat raised, giving him a full field of view, something not possible in the T-34. Russian crews took a dim view of the turret design with its heavy hatch that was difficult to open and, should it jam, would trap the crew inside. Their objections to this situation led to the manufacturer changing to a two-hatch turret in August 1942. In the matter of gun-sighting and ranging, the system of the T-34 was comparatively crude in relation to that of the Germans, which was particularly disadvantageous to the Russian crews when operating at longer ranges. One German commented on the combination of T-34 fighting characteristics, including the two-man turret, poor vision devices and weak optics: “T-34s operated in a disorganized fashion with little coordination, or else tended to clump together like a hen with its chicks. Individual tank commanders lacked situational awareness due to the poor provision of vision devices and the preoccupation with gunnery duties. A tank platoon would seldom be capable of engaging three separate targets, but would tend to focus on a single target selected by the platoon leader. As a result T-34 platoons lost the greater firepower of three independently operating tanks.” German tankers generally felt that T-34 crews were slower in locating and engaging their targets, while Panzers normally were able to shoot about three rounds for every round fired by the T-34.
Another impression of the early T-34s in a battlefield environment was that of the difficulties involved in arranging for repairs due to a crippling shortage of recovery vehicles and repair equipment. The impact of the Soviet tank on the enemy forces initially was one of poor Russian leadership, tactics, and crew training, which many attributed to the effects of Stalin’s purges of his officer corps in the 1930s, together with heavy losses by the Red Army in 1941 that took the lives of some of their best armoured personnel.
In the combat arena, by 1942 the T-34-76 was the Soviet main battle tank in the field. The key German tanks to that point were the Panzer III and the Panzer IV. By mid-year, the improving German tank armament had evolved to the extent of making the T-34 vulnerable to it and T-34 losses in that year were substantial, much worse than in the previous year. Of a total of 15,100 armoured fighting vehicles in the Red Army front line, 6,600 T-34s were lost to combat or mechanical problems. But through the difficult winter of 1941-42, the wide-tracked T-34 proved superior to the German tanks in being able to manoeuvre over deep mud and snow without bogging down; conditions in which the German tanks frequently were halted.
Into 1943, armoured battlefield momentum was with the Soviets. Soviet AFV losses were higher than ever, including those of 14,700 T-34s, but so was their tank production. And strategically, the Germans were mainly on the defensive and in retreat. Throughout 1943 and well into 1944, for the most part the T-34 with its 76mm gun was outclassed by the guns of both the Tiger and Panther, and even with the upgrade of the 85mm gun, the T-34-85 was really not the equal of those two German tanks, though the Soviet 85mm gun could penetrate the armour of both German tanks at distances up to 550 yards; the Tiger and Panther could still destroy the T-34-85 at 1,600 yards or more.
In the beginning of Barbarossa, the T-34 made up only about four percent of the Soviet armoured forces, but at war’s end it made up at least fifty-five percent. With the gradual progression of the Eastern Front campaign, the original design advantages the T-34 held over the German tanks were gradually overcome and the Russian tank became an ever easier target for the German tankers. Still, over the course of the war, and the greatly increasing manufacture of the T-34 (even with the increasing weight resulting from the many improvements made to it), its top speed held up, while both its turret frontal armour thickness and its main gun armour penetration nearly doubled.
While it cannot reasonably be claimed that the T-34 was the equal of the Panther or Tiger tanks of the Germans, its design simplicity, wide tracks, low silhouette, innovative armour layout, its ease and quantity of production— despite its faults and heavy losses—made it a strategic war winner. In all, 55,550 T-34s were produced during the war years. Of the 96,500 fully-tracked armoured fighting vehicles produced during the war by the Soviets, 44,900 T-34s were lost to combat and other causes.
Following the end of the Second World War, various client-states of the Soviets operated the T-34-85 in their armoured arsenals. When the North Koreans invaded South Korea in June 1950, the spearhead of their assault force was comprised of 120 T-34-85s and were joined later in the incursion by additional T-34s. In the early going, the American M24 Chaffee light tanks in opposition were hopelessly outclassed by the Soviet tank. By August, however, the United Nations forces opposing the North Koreans there were equipped with the M26 Pershing medium / heavy tank, the M4 Sherman, and the British Centurion, Churchill and Cromwell tanks, all of which inflicted major losses on the North Koreans. In September, the American landings at Inchon led to the U.S. troops cutting off North Korea’s supply lines, leading to the end of fuel, ammunition and other supplies and the retreat of the North Koreans who had to abandon many of their T-34s. The Chinese entered the conflict on the North Korean side in February 1951 bringing four tank regiments, mostly equipped with T-34-85s, but relatively few tank-to-tank battles occurred throughout the war. In such actions as did occur, ninety-seven T-34-85s were knocked out in engagements with American M26s and M46 Patton tanks. The Patton was a definite overmatch with the T-34, its 90mm high-velocity armour-piercing round able to penetrate all the way through the T-34 from front to rear.