The high ground clearance and proven Christie suspension of the T-34 medium tank made it ideal for mobile warfare across the vast Russian steppes as the Red Army pursued the Germans westwards towards Berlin in 1944 and 1945.
An aerial view of a T-34 Model 1942, with its cast two-man turret. The main difference between the Model 1942 and Model 1943 was the the larger turret of the latter. The hull and chassis remained essentially the same for all models.
The T-34 medium tank is one of a few weapons that may, quite literally, be credited with winning World War II. The T-34 reached the battlefield in large numbers in 1941 and quickly evened the odds for the Red Army against German tanks.
Perhaps one of the most iconic images of World War II is that of a Red Army T-34 medium tank, soldiers aboard and on foot nearby, speeding westward toward the frontier of the Third Reich and the Nazi capital of Berlin. Indeed, the T-34 medium tank, which first entered production in 1940 and the service of the Red Army in the same year, changed the course of the war in the East.
Until the T-34 reached the battlefield in large numbers, German armour, particularly the PzKpfw III and IV, had reigned supreme. The appearance of the T-34 proved shocking to the German tankers who encountered it for the first time in November 1941 near the Russian village of Mzensk. However, the tank itself had been in the design and prototype phases of development since the mid-1930s. While it was intended to replace the outmoded T-26 and BT series tanks, the T-34 bore an unmistakable family resemblance. Its sleek profile with the turret forward and its low silhouette with sloped armour were true to the design perspective that would rule Soviet production for decades to come.
While it borrowed from earlier Soviet tank designs, the T-34 broke new ground with speed, mobility, firepower and armour in a lethal combination. Its V-2-34 V-12 38.8-litre (8.5-gallon) diesel engine generated 375 kilowatts (500hp) and enabled the 26.5-tonne (26-ton) tank to reach a top speed of 53km/h (33mph). It maintained the Christie suspension of the earlier BT series, which was already proven superior in cross-country operation over broken terrain. Armour protection ranged from 15mm (0.59in) on the bottom of the hull to 60mm (2.4in) on the turret front. The effectiveness of the hull armour was increased by its slope, reducing penetration and sometimes deflecting enemy shells.
The four-man crew included a commander, driver, loader and gunner. Early production T-34s were armed with the 76.2mm (3in) ZIS5 F 34 gun and the commander was still required to serve the weapon. Radios were in short supply and only command tanks received them – all other tanks still communicated with flags. The interior of the T-34 was painfully tight, restricting the combat efficiency of the crew. The driver, for example, was the lone occupant of the forward hull compartment and his visibility was quite restricted in early-production T-34s.
Model 1943 (T-34/76D, E, and F) – This production model was built from May 1942 to 1944, with a cast or pressed hexagonal turret. It was nicknamed “Mickey Mouse” by the Germans because of its appearance with the twin round turret roof hatches open. Official Soviet military designation was Model 1942. Turrets manufactured in different factories had minor variations, sometimes called “hard-edge”, “soft-edge”, and “laminate” turrets, but in military service these details did not warrant different designations.
Earlier production is sometimes called Model 1942/43, and was designated T-34/76D by German intelligence. Later production variants had a new commander’s cupola. This variant was referred to as T-34/76E by the Germans. Turrets produced at Uralmash in Sverdlovsk (Yekaterinburg) had a distinctive rounded appearance because they were made in a special forge. Tanks produced with these turrets there and at Chelyabinsk were called T-34/76F by the Germans.
By early 1944 the T-34/85 had incorporated several improvements, such as a more spacious three-man turret, relieving the commander of responsibility for laying and firing the main weapon. The newly-installed 85mm (3.35in) ZIS-S-53 provided the Soviet tank with greater range against the heavy German PzKpfw V Panther and PzKpfw VI Tiger, mounting high-velocity 75mm (2.95in) and 88mm (3.5in) guns. The ZISS-53 gun influenced Soviet tactics, allowing Red Army tank commanders to rely less on the need to rapidly close with the Germans in order to get within range for their main guns to fire effectively. The T-34/85 still lacked a rotating turret basket on which the gunner and loader could stand during combat, negatively impacting the tank’s rate of fire.
In total more than 57,000 T-34 medium tanks were produced in Soviet factories during World War II, which is a remarkable achievement considering the disruption of heavy industry after the Germans launched Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941, and many facilities were dismantled and moved to safety east of the Ural Mountains. During the war, over 22,500 T-34/85 tanks were produced and better efficiency cut production time in half and sharply reduced the overall cost per unit. During the pivotal battle for the city of Stalingrad on the Volga River, some tanks were said to have rolled directly off the factory floor and into active combat against the Germans. While Soviet tactics were refined slowly and many T-34s were lost during mass charges against German armour and anti-tank weapons, the Red Army could make good its combat losses with numbers the Germans could never hope to match. The over-engineered German Tiger and Panther tanks were plagued by mechanical failures, costly to build and never available in sufficient numbers to sustain a protracted war effort.
T-34 variants included self-propelled assault guns and flamethrower, bridging and recovery vehicles. The T-34 continued in production until 1958. Some upgrades continued into the 1960s and a few T-34s are said to continue in service today.
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 dysfunctional 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 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.
Length: 6.68m (21ft 11in)
Width: 3.0m (9ft 10in)
Height: 2.45m (8ft)
Weight 26.5 tonnes (26 tons)
Engine 1 × V-2-34 V-12 38.8-litre (8.5-gallon) diesel engine delivering 375kW (500hp)
Speed 53km/h (33mph)
Main: 1 × 76.2mm (3in) ZIS5 F 34 gun
Secondary: 2 × 7.62mm (0.3in) DT machine guns
Armour 15–60mm (0.59in–2.24in)
Range 400km (250 miles)