T-34/76 and T-34/85 Part II

The front hull, looking forwards into the driver’s and bow gunner’s stations from low down in the loader’s station inside the turret ring. The driver’s steering levers, pedals and gear shift are quite evident; the machine gun has a canvas bag rigged to catch empties, and plentiful spare drums stowed around it – note also its telescopic “peep”. An escape hatch is let into the floor in front of the gunner’s seat.

Looking forward from the loader’s station right of the gun breech: note the floor made up of ammunition bins; drum magazine rack for co-axial machine gun on right of turret; below it, turret traverse lock. This turret has been called cramped; but it appears fairly roomy compared with the M4A1 Sherman, and positively luxurious after the badly designed two-man turret of the old T-34/76.

The T-34 was the most influential tank design of the Second World War. Its revolutionary design gave it a gun, armour and mobility superior to any known medium tank at that time, it had sloping armour 32mm thick, a compact powerful diesel engine less capricious than its petrol predecessors and a turret cast in one piece rather than cold rolled steel.

In January 1940 a prototype T-34, mounting a 76.2mm gun, drove all the way from Kharkov in the eastern Ukraine to Moscow for a demonstration to the leadership at the Kremlin. It then motored on to Finland to demonstrate its firepower against captured Finnish bunkers. Another punishing return drive to Kharkov via Minsk and Kiev underlined its impressive mechanical reliability. It was accepted.

One interesting consequence of the 1939 Russo-German Non-Aggression Pact was the presentation of a Panzer Mark III to the Russians. The German Liaison Officer in Moscow assured his hosts it represented the pinnacle of the German armoured inventory. It was immediately dispatched to the GABTU Russian tank-proving grounds at Kubinka for evaluation and found to be inferior in firepower, armour and mobility. The investigation report derided it as `a pretty toy, over-engineered and needlessly comfortable for the crew’.

Internal wrangling with the military resulted in production delays, and only 115 of 600 planned T-34 tanks were produced in 1940. During the following spring a torsion bar system was introduced to upgrade the Christie suspension, a longer and better 76.2mm gun was fitted and the frontal armour was strengthened to 60mm. Increased space in the turret and hull created better fighting conditions for the crew. By the time the Germans invaded, just under a thousand T-34s had been delivered.

The T-34’s sloping armour meant that only 75mm rounds could get through. It was easier for drivers to get out from beneath the massive hatch at the front of the hull. Powerful engines increased mobility, and the diesel fuel appeared less susceptible to flame when hit.

The problem with the T-34 was that until just days before the invasion few crews had even seen it. Most of the early fighting was not tank against tank but infantry anti-tank versus these inexperienced Russian crews. Tank gunners were especially poor, armoured units performed badly, tanks were not effectively recovered, and there were production defects and a lack of spare parts. Reconnaissance was also poor, and all too often tanks were caught and bombed on flat rail cars before they even got to the front. The 32nd Tank Division, fighting near Lvov in the first month of war, lost thirty-seven out of forty-nine KV-1s and 146 out of 173 T-34s, with 103 dead and 259 wounded.

When the German Panzers first encountered properly handled T-34s in any numbers – those of Col. Mikhail Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade, at Mtsensk, south of Moscow, on 4 October 1941 – the experience was profoundly shocking. Since the launching of Operation Barbarossa in June the German tankers had been massacring their Soviet opponents in enormous numbers. Although much of the huge Red Army tank fleet was technically obsolete or mechanically unserviceable, many hundreds of excellent new KV-1 and T- 34 tanks had in fact been delivered; Soviet weakness lay in the standard of command and control, communications and tactical training. Their repeated easy victories led some Panzer officers to express a puzzled contempt for their enemy that summer. Yet after Mtsensk, no less a leader than Gen. Heinz Guderian would admit the plain superiority of the T-34 over the German Panzer IV – and recommend that German designers should simply produce a direct copy of it, as the quickest solution.

Throughout the terribly costly years of 1941 and 1942, newly promoted young Russian tank officers learned and applied the hard-won lessons; and the factories – some safe far beyond the Urals, some a couple of miles from the front lines in besieged cities – kept on pouring out T-34s. The type was steadily improved; before the appearance in early 1943 of the Panther (inspired by German study of the T-34), the Panzer divisions had nothing which could challenge it head to head. From spring 1944 the up-gunned 85mm model could give Panthers and even Tigers a run for their money – and now the balance of sheer numbers had tipped back in Russia’s favour. Although newer, more powerful designs appeared by 1945, the T-34 remained by far the most numerous tank in Red Army service. It was the faithful tridsatchetverka (“little thirty-four”) which pushed back the ramparts of Hitler’s empire, all the way from Stalingrad to the streets of Berlin.

All the features incorporated in the T-34 were originally embodied in the T-32 experimental tank built in 1939, prototypes of the T-34 itself being built in 1940. Production followed quickly and in May 1941, on the eve of the German invasion, there were already 967 T-34s. Compared with 517 Pz. Kpfw. IV the T-34 was not only more numerous but was superior in terms of fire power and mobility. It also had superior protection, even though the thickness of the Pz. Kpfw. IV armour had increased to a maximum of 50 to 60mm. raising its weight to 21 tons against 26.3 tons of the T-34.

After most of the older tanks were lost in 1941, the T-34s became the basic Soviet tanks in 1941 and 1942, when they were usually assigned by battalions or brigades to infantry divisions. Subsequently they were used increasingly within the framework of tank and mechanised corps, which were recreated in 1942. To meet the demand for it, the T-34 was produced on a very large scale. In fact, throughout the whole of the war its annual rate of production exceeded that of all the German tanks taken together, attaining a peak of 15,812 in 1943, and by the end of June 1945 its production reached a total of 53,497 tanks.

Production of theT-34/85 continued after World War II, not only in the Soviet Union but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia; one source states that it may not finally have ceased until 1964. Exact figures are unknown, but authorities estimate wartime production of all T-34 models at around 40,000, with about the same number built post-war. The T- 34/85 was supplied to many foreign armies after 1945; it saw action with the North Korean, Egyptian, Syrian, Hungarian, North Vietnamese, Cuban and Angolan forces, and small numbers lingered on in Africa and Asia until the more modern T-54/T-55 series became cheaply available in the Third World. The T-34 shares with the M4 Sherman, and the British Centurion, the record for the longest service life of any AFV in history – so far… Crewing the T-34/85 Inside, the T-34 is noticeably roomy compared to the Sherman. There is no turret basket providing a separate floor for the fighting compartment, revolving with the gun; the gunner, loader and commander sit on seats attached to the turret ring or to the gun, or stand on the ammunition bins which form the floor of the hull – and when the turret traverses, you’d better be ready to traverse yourself along with it, or you can get snagged in the works.

As is common in Soviet tanks, the gunner (who on earlier models of the T- 34 had to double up as the tank commander) works from the left side of the gun. The controls for the superb D-5T 85mm gun are elegantly simple: hand wheels for elevation and traverse, a single periscope for a wide field view of the area in front of the gun, and a telescopic sight for alignment with the target. The gunner uses an electric drive to traverse the turret rapidly into rough alignment with the target, then shifts to the handwheels for precision gun laying.

The TC has a flip-down seat behind the gunner, and a cupola with all-round-vision optics and a large forward-opening hatch. He operates the radio, which is mounted on the turret wall to his left. The gunner shares his hatch for entry and escape.

The loader works from the right side of the turret; it must help if he’s left-handed, because serving the gun is awkward for a right-handed man. He feeds the gun initially from a ready rack holding nine rounds, stowed against the hull. Most of the ammunition – officially, another 51 rounds – is stowed in the protected bins which form the floor of the hull interior; getting it out and up to the gun, while the tank was rocking and rolling across country, must have been quite a challenge. He has his own hatch in the right side of the turret roof, but no cupola.

The driver and bow gunner sit side by side up front, with limited headroom; but because the final drive is at the rear of the tank they don’t have a big transmission tunnel filling up their space. The driver uses a conventional pair of track braking levers for steering control, just as in most other tanks of the period. These are notoriously stiff, and cross-country navigation requires considerable brute strength; it is a longstanding joke that T-34 drivers must have been recruited (or deliberately bred…) about five feet tall, with ape-like arms of roughly the same length. Stirrup-type pedals are provided for the clutch (left) and parking brake (right), and a pedal operates the foot throttle (far right); the hand throttle and gear shift lever are to the driver’s right. An extremely Spartan array of instruments to the driver’s left and front report on basic engine conditions. A high pressure compressed air tank is attached in front of or left of the driver, part of an ingenious and very efficient system for starting the engine in cold weather; the primary starter motor is electrical.

When out of battle the driver enjoys much better forward vision (and ventilation) than most of his contemporaries: a hatch large enough for him to enter and leave the tank is set in the glacis ahead of his station, and can be hinged up and fixed open when conditions allow. When it is locked down for combat forward vision is as mediocre as in other tanks of the time, through two periscopes set in the hatch.

In early model T-34s the bow gunner/radio operator often didn’t have much to do, since only the tanks of platoon commanders and above were even fitted with radios – the rest had to communicate by waving signal flags…. In the T-34/85, which saw the radio moved up into the new three-man turret, he was still not over-employed unless the driver got killed or wounded, when he was supposed to drag him out of the seat and take over.

His ball-mounted 7.62mm DT machine gun was aimed (in a rudimentary fashion) through a small x2 telescopic sight; it was useful against any infantry foolish enough to position themselves directly in front of the hull. The DT is fed by drum magazines, and a plentiful supply of spare drums are provided in racks to the bow gunner’s front and right. The gun has a telescoping shoulder stock and a separately stowed bipod mount; it was the bow gunner’s job to dismount it for ground combat if the crew abandoned the tank. He had plenty of time: unless by some miracle the floor hatch had enough ground clearance, he wasn’t going anywhere until either the driver or the loader had made it out of their own hatches.

T-34 Road Report:

“The T-34 is crude, basic, noisy, smoky, smelly – a very charming, very Russian tank! I like the T-34; it is simple, without frills, designed to fight and survive, without any consideration for crew comfort. Working in the turret could be dangerous. Visibility isn’t great, particularly for the bow gunner, who can’t see anything unless it’s directly in front of his little ‘scope. But it will take off and run really well – it is a fast, reliable tank.

“The driver has to be built like a horse to drive it, but once you’re out in open country it rides very well; the tracks are wide enough to give it good floatation. You are surrounded by fuel and ammunition, but the armor is thick and beautifully shaped – the shape of the vehicle was well ahead of its time.

“The V-12 engine is a great powerplant, very well designed and highly dependable. I’ve never had a problem with Soviet engines, anyway. They do burn oil, but the Russians planned for that, and you’ve got a big tank to keep the crankcase filled – if you aren’t burning oil in a T-34, it means there’s no oil in the engine. And the air start system works really well – the engine fires up every time.

“The gunner’s sight is pretty good for its time – good field of view and a pretty bright sight system. The turret traverse system is simple but effective. The real problem is communication between the commander and the gunner, which has to be good, because the gunner doesn’t have a wide field of view.

“You can’t really sneak up on somebody with them, but they weren’t designed for that – they were designed for the attack. And if they’d gone up against our American tanks of the time, we’d have lost: it’s a much better design than the M4 Sherman, with a lower silhouette, much better gun, better armor, better slope, a great suspension system, simpler, easier to maintain – a superior machine.

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