The German armoured and infantry forces had entered Russia believing that they would simply fight a brief, efficient summer campaign to victory. They were utterly unprepared and ill-equipped for fighting and surviving in the extremes of winter in the region. They had brought summer-weight uniforms. Their tanks and other vehicles were not properly winterized and were soon suffering frozen engine blocks. The men were suffering frostbite, trench foot, shock, exposure, and exhaustion on a nearly unimaginable scale. Each day the German units were achieving less; the initial successes virtually forgotten in their dismay. Worse, their commanders were quickly losing confidence in and respect for the directions coming to them from Berlin.
In spite of the suffering and problems they had to endure, the Germans somehow were able to regroup and recover to the extent of effecting a partial re-supply, repair, and re-organization. They had not recovered their initial momentum, but were now able to repel most of the Russian penetrations they were receiving, and to promptly hit back with short, rapid tank and infantry assaults which, though they failed to gain them much, enabled them to retain their positions. This reaction—action approach was to become their operating policy for most of the remaining campaign on the Russian Front.
As the offensive ground on, by early 1943 the German tank force in Russia was in very bad shape. Their deteriorating morale, operational inefficiencies, confusion, and indecision at the command, supply and manufacturing levels were rampant. For both the Russians and Germans, the efficient, effective use of tanks was key to success in the offensive. Tanks provided the ability to penetrate the enemy front line and bring vital support to one’s overextended infantry, and they could powerfully defend against penetrations by the enemy forces. The Germans were losing the battle to field, fight and maintain tanks in this unrelenting, unforgiving situation. They were forced to continue their reliance on the PzKpfw III and IV tanks, of which the III was utterly outclassed by the Soviet T-34, a fact not lost on the panzer commanders in the field. When the commanders then prevailed upon the German Ordnance Office to quickly design produce a copy of the T-34 for their use, the designers instead went to work on an entirely new general purpose tank, the forty-five ton Panther.
From its introduction in 1940, the T-34 was a tank with exceptionally well-balanced attributes: mobility, protection, firepower, and ruggedness. On the downside, it lacked good crew habitability characteristics, had a scarcity of radios in the early production runs, and was limited by a two-man turret capability, requiring the commander to aim and fire the gun (an arrangement inferior to that of most German panzer tanks of the day). Still, when the technicians at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland evaluated a T-34 that had been sent over by the Russians, they found it to have, among other very positive aspects, the best optics of any tank they had analysed there to date in 1942.
Over the course of its production, 84,070 T-34s were built between 1940 and 1958. Operated by a crew of four, the 26.5-ton tank mounted a 76mm main gun and two 7.62mm machine-guns. Its twelve-cylinder diesel 500hp engine powered it to a high speed of 33 mph and it had an operating range of 250 miles.
Through the war years, the T-34 was gradually and continously refined to improve its capability and effectiveness and lower its manufacturing cost, which enabled the Russians to build it in greater numbers and deploy ever more on the battlefield. Its versatility, capability, and cost-effectiveness meant that it could replace many light and heavy tanks then in service. The tank was initially produced by the KhPZ factory of Kharkov, Ukraine, and was the standard tank of the Soviet armoured forces throughout the war. It was, by any measure, the most-produced tank of the Second World War and the second most-produced tank ever, after its successor, the T-54.
When the T-34 first came out, it was considered by many to be one of the best tank designs ever achieved. It boasted a range of impressive characteristics, from the greatly increased protection of its sloping armour, to its new V-2 diesel engine (much safer than previous and highly flammable petrol engine), to the Walter Christie suspension allowing it to roll fast over rough ground, and its wide tracks and low ground pressure for excellent mobility in snow and mud. True, it did have some reliability and manufacturing issues that would take a long time to resolve. But, overall, it certainly proved to be the right tank at the right time for the Russians.
The design of the T-34 began in 1937 when an assistant engineer, Mikhail Koshkin, was assigned by the Red Army to head a design team working on a replacement tank for the old BT model. In the course of the project, Koshkin was able to convince Joseph Stalin to leapfrog to the development of a newer tank design he had in mind, which would become the T-34. He called it T-34 after the year in which he first started planning the revolutionary design.
In the beginning, T-34s were produced at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory and, immediately after the German invasion started, production began at the Krasnoye Sormovo Factory in Gorky where major problems soon plagued the assembly process. Defective armour plating was discovered and a shortage of the new V-2 diesel engine was slowing the assembly line there. A critical shortage of the costly radios for the T-34 required that the sets be allocated to the tanks built for the company commanders only, thus all other tank commanders were required to signal to one another using flags. Problems with the main gun led to a new 76mm gun originating from the Grabin design bureau at Gorky, but no official production order was actually issued until after Russian troops used the weapon on the battlefield and praised it, after which the Stalin State Defense Committee gave official permission for its manufacture.
With the German invasion in June 1941, the Soviets froze further development of the T-34 and dedicated its assembly lines to full production of the tank at its current stage of evolution. As the German armies rapidly advanced into Soviet territory, their presence forced the evacuation of the major Russian tank factories to relocation sites in the Ural Mountains, a huge undertaking that had to be achieved in great haste. Main manufacturing facilites were quickly set up at Dzherzhinski Ural Railcar Factory in Nizhny Tagil, which was renamed the Stalin Ural Tank Factory. The Kirovsky Tank Factory and the Kharkov Diesel Factory were relocated to Chelyabinsk which was soon nicknamed ‘Tankograd’ and the Voroshilov Tank Factory of Leningrad was incorporated into a new Ural factory at Omsk. A number of small ancillary supply factories were absorbed into the Ordzhonikidze Ural Heavy Machine Tool Works in Sverdlovsk. By the end of this whirlwind set of relocations, some forty percent of all the T-34 production was occurring at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory, and during the heavy fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad of 1942, material and spares shortages developed causing critical manufacturing problems and resulting in some quality-control difficulties and in some tanks being rolled out and delivered to the battlefields unpainted. Even through the turmoil of battle in and around Stalingrad, however, full production was maintained through September 1942.
Throughout the inevitable shortages, disruptions, and difficulties of the lengthy combat periods of the German offensive in the east, the Soviets maintained a policy of no significant product changes on the assembly lines apart from measures to reduce and simplify production and the associated costs. Certain innovations did figure in the manufacturing process, including a plate-hardening procedure and the introduction of automated welding. The design of the 76mm main gun for the tank was refined to produce the weapon from 614 parts instead of the 861 previously required. And over the course of two years’ manufacturing, the unit cost of the tank was reduced from 269,500 rubles to 135,000, and the actual production assembly time was reduced fifty percent by the end of 1942; this in spite of major changes to the workforce building the tanks. Roughly half the workers had been sent to fight on the battle front and they had been replaced by a mix of women, boys, older men, and invalids. The manufacturing fit-and-finish standard dropped some from what had previously been “beautifully crafted machines with excellent exterior finish, comparable or superior to those of Western Europe or America.” Now the T-34 was more roughly finished, but its quality and reliability was not compromised in the process.
In addition to building up the Red Army’s inventory of the tank and replacing battlefield losses, a prime goal was the improvement of tactical efficiency of the weapon. The main emphasis was put on quickly increasing the rate of production. A new, larger, more user-friendly turret was designed and added to the production line in 1942, along with the addition of a commander’s cupola for 360 degree visibility. At the same time, the desirable rubber rims for the road wheels had to be sacrificed in favour of steelrimmed road wheels due to rubber shortages in the Soviet Union. The engine and five-speed transmission were improved and a new clutch was added. By 1943, production of the T-34 had reached 1,300 a month and, like the Spitfire fighter to Britons, the T-34 had become iconic for the Russians, symbolizing the power and effectiveness of the Soviet counterattack against the Germans.
In its manufacture, particularly in the war years of 1942-1944, various innovations were gradually introduced to the design and the assembly process of the T-34. By 1944, the tank had evolved into the T-34-85 version, with a larger turret that mounted an 85mm gun. The new turret overcame the twoman limitation problem of the earlier T-34. Many of these tanks were also fitted with appliqué armour made from scrap steel of differing thicknesses and welded onto the hull and turret.
The soldiers of the German Army by this time had come full circle in their peception of the Russian tank. In the T-34-85 especially, they came to a collective recognition that they were dealing with technical superiority and a genuinely formidable weapon that they respected and feared. That respect was shared at a higher level in the person of Germany’s most renowned tank leader, Heinz Guderian. So impressed was he by the qualities he saw in the T-34 that he ordered a special commission with representatives of the army ordnance office, the armaments ministry, the tank designers and manufacturers, to visit the front lines in Russia to examine, evaluate and study captured T-34s. Part of his reason was to determine what would be required in the high-priority design and manufacture of a new anti-tank gun capable of destroying the state-of-the-art Soviet tanks.
The then-planned improvements to the design / manufacture of the existing Mark III Panzer tank would, Guderian knew, achieve little towards making it comparable to the T-34, and the German tank designers and builders were greatly concerned about the challenge. The only possible quick solution was the Mark IV, which was also not equal to the Russian tank, but would be improved with a better gun over the course of the war. The aim of the Germans was, clearly, not just equality with the T-34, but a tank which would be reliably capable of destroying the Russian tank. The pressure on the German tank industry was significant and it responded by rushing a new design into production, the Mark VI, which had been tested with promising results. The big Mark VI weighing fifty-six tons, was armed with an 88mm gun. Its turret had 100mm armour on the front, which made it virtually invulnerable to the gun of the T-34 except when at close range. Its manufacture was hurriedly begun in July 1942. They called it the Tiger.
Basically, the Tiger was mainly a defensive weapon, an assault tank to be employed in support of infantry. In performance it did not compare particularly well with the T-34, having an open-country speed of just over twelve mph and a range of less than sixty-five miles. Its great size and weight would make it a handicap when it broke down—as it frequently did—for it would normally require another Tiger to tow it off for repairs. To the German commanders on the Eastern Front, and their tankers, the Tiger was not the anwer to the T-34. To the irritation of the German tank designers, the field commanders wanted them to essentially copy the T-34 and give the result better armour protection and a better gun. When their proposal reached those in authority for German tank production it was soon rejected, primarily because their industry was not then equipped for the rapid mass production of an aluminium tank engine like that of the Russian tank. That rejection led immediately to the start of design work on a new tank, the Mark V Panther, a weapon more like the T-34. The Panther weighed forty-five tons, had a road speed of twenty-eight mph and was designed with sloped and angled armour, like the Russian tank. It was armed with a high-velocity version of the 75mm L70 gun and had turret armour extended to 120mm in thickness. The Panther may well have been the best German tank of the war, but by spring 1943, when it was being introduced in German armoured units, like nearly all new weapon systems, it arrived with problems.
As good as the T-34 had proven itself to date, the Soviets were well aware that it had serious problems of its own which needed resolution. The chaos of having to relocate factory production of the entire Soviet tank industry to the Urals early in the Barbarossa campaign had meant the deferral of the more important changes planned for the T-34. The changes had to wait as they could not be allowed to interrupt the vital tempo of massive production. With the appearance of German tanks armed with a superior long 75mm gun on the battlefield in 1942, the Soviet Morozov design bureau started a priority project to develop an advanced T-43 tank, a weapon with greatly improved armour protection, a three-man turret, and torsion-bar suspension. Their goal was a relatively universal design intended to replace both the T-34 medium and the KV-1 heavy. It would be developed in direct competition with the KV-13 project, a Chelyabinsk heavy tank design.
By 1943 Soviet tank crews had gone up against the new German Tiger 1 and Panther tanks and believed that the 76.2mm gun of the T-34 was now inadequate. The Soviets had an existing 85mm anti-aircraft gun that could be adapted for tank use against the new German tanks. The armour of the new Soviet T-43, however, was found to be less effective than anticipated against the 88mm gun of the Tiger and, even before installation of the 85mm gun, the T-43’s mobility was less than that of the T-34. These factors, together with the slowed production that would have resulted from a commitment to manufacturing the T-43, led to its cancellation. That decision then caused the Soviets to retool the production lines of the T-34 to upgrade the tank. The primary changes for the new model were an enlarged turret ring to accommodate a three-man turret with radio (prior to the upgrade the radio had been located within the hull) and the 85mm gun, a truly significant improvement. A quick adaptation of the T-43 turret design for the T-34 was made at the Krasnoye Sormovo Factory. This enabled the tank commander to command, with operation of the gun left to the gunner and the loader. A further addition to the T-34-85 was the Mark 4 observation periscope mounted on the turret roof (a copy of a British design), giving the tank commander a 360- degree viewing field.