If you add up all the light, medium and heavy tanks constructed in Soviet factories during the Second World War you get a total number built of 76,827 vehicles. By way of comparison, German industry only managed to build approximately 24,000 tanks during the same time period – not counting self-propelled guns – which needed to be dispersed over multiple theatres of war. The most numerous German tank built was the Panzer IV series of medium tanks with about 9,000 units being assembled; in comparison the most numerous Soviet tank design was the T-34 series with nearly 58,000 built. It was this Russian policy of outbuilding their enemies in the Second World War that is exemplified by the maxim (attributed to a great many authors) that ‘Quantity has a quality all its own.’ No matter what technical deficiencies they won!
The T-34 series formed the bulk of the Red Army tank inventory from 1943 through to 1945. While the workmanship on the vehicle may not have been up to German standards and many who had a chance to study the vehicle considered some of the tank’s construction shoddy, it was ‘good enough’ for the battlefields of the Eastern Front. On the positive side, the T-34 series mounted versatile cannons, were relatively easy to build in large numbers, simple to maintain in the field, and had enough reliability to make it to the battlefield in large enough numbers to overwhelm its opponents.
The ability of Soviet industry to churn out thousands upon thousands of the T-34 series during the Second World War made up for their high battlefield losses. In 1942 the Red Army lost about 15,000 tanks, followed by approximately 22,400 more in 1943.
Unlike other armies before and during the Second World War, the Red Army did not have a consistent policy of assigning designations to the various subvariants of their tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles. Post-war historians and authors have in response developed a practice of assigning model numbers to Red Army tanks and armoured fighting vehicles based on the year they were introduced into service in order to distinguish between subvariants. This practice has been adopted by the author to assist the reader in identifying the often many different versions of vehicles produced. However, rebuilt vehicles or field modifications may result in a mixture of subvariant features that do not fit into any classification.
By the summer of 1938 it was determined that the proposed A-20 might be insufficiently armed and armoured for the medium tank role. The Red Army therefore decided it would need another proposed medium tank design that would be designated the A-32 and have a maximum armour thickness on the front of the turret of 32mm. It would be armed with a short-barrelled 76.2mm main gun.
By May 1939 it was decided to thicken the maximum armour on the front of the A-32 turret to 45mm. This up-armoured version of the vehicle was designated the A-34 in the summer of 1939. In August 1939 the Red Army decided to adopt the A-34; a decision concurred with by Joseph Stalin, the leader of the Soviet Union, in December 1939. The first A-34 prototype appeared in January 1940, with the second prototype rolling off the factory floor the following month.
To prove the reliability of the A-34 prototype tanks before submitting them for the final approval of the Red Army, a demonstration run that would encompass a distance of 1,800 miles (2,897km) during the winter months of February and March 1940 was arranged. On 17 March 1940, the two A-34 prototypes arrived in Moscow for a personal inspection by Stalin and other high-ranking members of the government and military élite. Despite the misgivings by some that the A-34 was not yet suitable for production, Stalin gave his blessing to the production of the vehicle once any design faults uncovered during testing by the Red Army were addressed.
Additional testing of the A-34 prototypes led to the conclusion that the vehicle was superior to any other tank then in Red Army service, and by the end of March 1940 the tank was approved for production as the T-34. Besides a short-barrelled 76.2mm main gun, the T-34 would also be armed with a coaxial 7.62mm machine gun and another 7.62mm machine gun in the front hull. The first 150 units of the T-34 also featured a 7.62mm machine gun in a ball mount in the rear of the turret.
Despite production of the four-man T-34 being approved, there were still some hurdles that had to be overcome. One of the original requirements called for the vehicle to operate over 1,864 miles (3,000km) without a major breakdown. A mileage test done in April 1940 showed that the tank could not meet this requirement. However, this was soon dropped to 621 miles (1,000km). The Red Army went ahead and placed an order with two factories for 600 T-34s to be built starting in June 1940. They also placed a production order for 2,800 units of the T-34 for 1941.
Some within the Red Army who opposed the production of the T-34 proposed an upgraded version, designated the T-34M. Among its many features it would have a larger three-man turret, allowing the vehicle commander to concentrate on directing his crew rather than doing double duty as the tank’s gunner as was the arrangement in the T-34. In addition, the Christie suspension system would be replaced on the T-34M with a torsion bar version. With these improvements, plans were put forward to replace the T-34 on the production lines with the T-34M in the autumn of 1941. The German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 quickly resulted in this project being terminated as the Red Army could ill afford any disruption in the production of the T-34 for fear it could not replace its battlefield losses.
The first production unit of the Red Army’s new 58,912-lb (29mt) medium tank rolled off the production line in September 1940. This vehicle is now commonly referred to as the T-34 Model 1940. By the time the German army invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, 1,225 units of the T-34 Model 1940 were in service, of which 967 had been delivered to field units. Maximum armour thickness on the front of the vehicle’s turret was 45mm.
Initial German army encounters with the T-34 Model 1940 raised a great deal of alarm among both their infantry and armour branches. Their existing anti-tank weapons proved unable to penetrate the thick, well-sloped armour on the T-34, and the vehicle’s 76.2mm main gun easily penetrated the armour on the German Panzer III and Panzer IV medium tanks it encountered. This would eventually lead to the up-gunning and up-armouring of the existing German medium tanks, and the development of the German Panther medium tank series and Tiger E heavy tank as a counter to the T-34.
The Red Army early war battlefield technical superiority in medium tanks was offset by the fact that the T-34 Model 1940 was just entering service and their crews often had little training in the use of their new tanks. Compounding the problem was the fact that most of the tanks did not have radios. There were also shortages of everything from main gun ammunition to fuel and spare parts for the T-34-equipped units confronting the Germans, and these factors allowed their army to easily prevail over the Red Army during the early phase of their invasion of the Soviet Union.
The 76.2mm main gun initially selected for use by the Red Army on the T-34 Model 1940 was designated the L-11. It was not the desired weapon in the opinion of the vehicle’s designers due to its relatively low muzzle velocity and hence poor armour penetration ability. Due to almost everybody’s unhappiness with the L-11, other weapons were considered for the T-34 Model 1940, including the ZiS-4 57mm anti-tank gun. A few of these were actually mounted in the vehicle to test their effectiveness.
As there was a new 76.2mm main gun with a longer barrel, and hence better armour penetration abilities, being developed for the KV-1 heavy tank designated the F-32, work was begun in early 1940 to modify it for mounting in the T-34 Model 1940. The new tank gun was designated the F-34 and had a slightly longer barrel than the F-32. It first appeared on some T-34 Model 1940 tanks in February 1941. Vehicles so equipped were designated the T-34 Model 1941. Due to temporary shortages, some T-34 Model 1941 tanks would be armed with the F-32 76.2mm tank gun in place of the F-34. Maximum armour thickness on the turret front of the T-34 Model 1941 was 52mm.
Additional improvements to the T-34 series resulted in the redesign of some components to increase the vehicle’s combat effectiveness. Vehicles so modified were designated the T-34 Model 1942. The maximum armour thickness on the turret front of the vehicle was now 65mm. An internal change was an increase in armour protection on the sides of the T-34 Model 1942 hull from 40mm to 45mm.
The most noticeable external changes to the T-34 Model 1942 were the replacement of the original rectangular transmission access hatch with a new oval hatch, as well as a new driver’s hatch with two periscopes instead of the single periscope on earlier vehicles. Some factories building the T-34 series tank would incorporate features of the T-34 Model 1941 and the T-34 Model 1942 on the same vehicle, resulting in the designation T-34 Model 1941/42.
Following the T-34 Model 1942 into production was the T-34 Model 1943. It can be readily identified by its new hexagonal-shaped turret that was borrowed from the never-built T-34M. Maximum armour protection on the turret front of the T-34 Model 1943 was 70mm. Besides the new turret design, the T-34 Model 1943 featured a number of drivetrain improvements.
Despite the new turret on the T-34 Model 1943 being larger and having more room than the turrets seen on earlier versions of the T-34 series, the two-man turret crew was retained on this latest model. To improve visibility, the turret was eventually fitted with an overhead cupola for the vehicle commander, which could only have been used when he was not engaged in aiming and firing the tank’s main gun.
To improve the operational range of the T-34 Model 1943, a pair of large boxlike external fuel tanks were devised that attached to the rear of the vehicle’s hull. These first appeared during the summer of 1942. They were later replaced by three large cylindrical external fuel canisters in early 1943, with two located on the right side of the upper rear hull and the other one being located on the left side of the upper hull. The external fuel tanks did not connect to the vehicle’s interior fuel tanks. To move fuel from the external tanks to the vehicle’s internal tanks required a fuel pump.
By the time production of the T-34 Model 1943 ended in 1944, approximately 35,000 units had been built of the T-34 series armed with the 76.2mm main gun.
In January 1943 the Red Army began looking at the concept of a universal tank that could replace the existing T-34 series and the KV-1 series heavy tanks. One of the prototype vehicles was designated the T-43; another one was KV-13, a smaller lighter version of the KV-1S heavy tank. It would be similar to the cancelled T-34M project as it was envisioned that it would have a new three-man turret (retaining the F-34 76.2mm main gun) and run on a torsion bar suspension system. It differed from the proposed T-34M due to its increased emphasis on armour protection, with a maximum armour on the turret front of 90mm compared to 70mm on the turret front of the T-34M.
Testing in March 1943 of the T-43 showed that the extra weight of the increased armour protection greatly reduced its battlefield mobility compared to the T-34 series. The summer battles of 1943 highlighted the fact that it was not the armour protection levels of the T-34 series they needed to worry about as much as having a tank that mounted a main gun able to penetrate the armour of the German Panther medium tank and the Tiger E heavy tank. This realization pushed the Red Army to look for a larger, more powerful main gun for the T-34 series and cancel work on the T-43, whose introduction would have disrupted T-34 production.
The first appearance of the Tiger E heavy tank on the Eastern Front in August 1942 had made the Red Army aware of the fact that it needed to up-gun the T-34 series. In response it had tasked several design bureaus with the development of a suitable 85mm tank gun. However, as the number of German heavy tanks being encountered was low, the development of the 85mm gun languished. The many large tank battles of the summer of 1943 that saw the fielding and increasing number of German heavy tanks and the new Panther medium tank had quickly added a renewed sense of urgency to the development and fielding of an 85mm tank gun by the Red Army.
In spite of the fact that the design for the final version of a suitable 85mm tank gun and the vehicle itself were not yet finalized, Red Army testing of two 85mm gun-armed prototypes went so well that the vehicle was approved by Stalin and the Red Army for production as the T-34-85. Stalin wanted the tank in production by February 1944. The 85mm main gun finally selected for mounting in the T-34-85 was designated the ZiS-S-53. The tanks that were fitted with this new 85mm gun are now commonly referred to as the T-34-85 Model 1944. Due to delays in production of the ZiS-S-53 gun, the first 800 or so units were fitted with another 85mm main gun designated the D-5T and are sometimes called the T-34-85 Model 1943.
Maximum armour thickness on the front of the T-34-85 turret was 90mm. The thicker armour on the T-34-85 series and the larger turret brought the weight of the vehicle up to 70,547lb (32mt). This weight gain resulted in some minor loss in battlefield mobility for the T-34-85 compared to the original T-34 tank armed with the 76.2mm main gun.
The first T-34-85s began arriving in field units in March 1944, with élite armoured units getting priority on delivery. The arrival of the vehicle was a great morale-booster to Red Army tankers who had been fighting at a great disadvantage when dealing with late-war German tanks with the 76.2mm main gun on the T-34. The 85mm main gun on the T-34-85 imparted a degree of parity in fighting effectiveness between the two opponents’ tank units.
Total T-34-85 production between 1943 and 1945 was in the order of 23,000 units. Production of the vehicle would be continued in the Soviet Union after the Second World War with both the wartime production and post-war production vehicles going through two modernization programmes, one in 1960 and the second in 1969. Both Poland and Czechoslovakia received permission to build licence-produced versions of the T-34-85 beginning in the early 1950s, many of which were exported around the world to serve in a large number of foreign armies.