Towards the First Tanks I

F.R. Simms‘ 1902 Motor War Car, the first armoured car to be built

Hornsby developed a caterpillar artillery tractor before the war based on agricultural machines. It meant heavier machinery could be carried than traditional horse-drawn artillery

When the legate, later Emperor, T. Flavius Vespasianus led the IInd Legion Augusta across Hardy’s Egdon Heath to its assault upon the great Iron Age fortress of Maiden Castle he did not require his foot soldiers to advance unprotected against expert slingers. On the command being given Augusta carried out a well-practised drill movement. Each shield was raised above the head of its bearer, interlocking with those of his neighbours and the defenders looked helplessly down as the testudo, the great tortoise, advanced upon them. Iron-hard pellets rained down, bounced off and the legionaries arrived at the East Gate practically unscathed. Once there the swords of Rome made a swift and bloody end to the business. To Augusta it was second nature, an exercise that had been carried out times without number by them and their predecessors. Their lesson was not wasted upon posterity. Only a few miles across the heath lies Bovington Camp, home since 1916 to the British armoured forces.

The Roman Army had always been an infantry army; its artillery, in the form of catapults of all shapes and sizes, was efficient for siege work but horses had never been important on the battlefield. Auxiliary cavalry were always useful for scouting and for the pursuit of a broken enemy but had never been the queen of battles. The edged weapon was master and everything else existed only to help the swordsmen get to hand strokes with their adversaries. The next of the really mighty armies to arrive worked on the opposite principle. Mongols were horsemen, excellent horsemen, but they were not cavalry as the West knew it. Their sovereign weapon was not edged but missile, the short bow, and they used it from the saddle with devastating effect. No armour was needed. For a Mongol, as for ‘Jacky’ Fisher, speed was armour enough, speed coupled with overwhelming numbers. None of their opponents stood a chance. From a professional point of view it would have been of the greatest interest if time and space problems could have been overcome in order to have allowed them to meet in open field the armies of the English longbowmen. It would take some hardihood to pontificate on which side would have come off best. The same may be said of the Swiss phalanx. Though it was the terror of Europe it had the good fortune never to have to take on a missile weapon of such power and precision.

In Western Europe armour had a long and probably undeserved run of success. The mailed knight upon his barbed horse was irresistible, again until he came face to face with the same simple weapon in very skilled hands. In the Near East, however, he had a less easy time of it. From Manzikert in 1071 to Dorylaeum fifteen years later and finally to the disaster of the Horns of Hattin in 1187 the Frankish-style charge proved ineffective against an enemy who would not stand still to receive it. The Turkish bow was a feeble thing compared to the English but it was good enough to puncture horses, and camel-loads of arrows furnished generous supplies of missiles. The truth was that cavalry ought to have been obsolete hundreds of years before it finally vanished from the field. It continued to exist, as a battering force, only for sentimental reasons and because regular armies had not come into existence. Great numbers of animals were always needed for draught and pack purposes; hunting was the traditional sport of the richer strata of society and it would have been unthinkable that, in the midst of so much horseflesh, a man of high degree should walk into battle.

The old problem remained until our own day. Very possibly it remains still. In essence it is obvious. How do you break a body of armed and determined men if you cannot shoot them down from a distance? Something must hit them with great force, but, before it can do that, it must reach them without being itself destroyed. Many devices were invented over the centuries, most of them never getting further than the drawing board. The majority can be of no more than antiquarian interest, for there are no records of them having achieved anything worth while. Froissart tells of a device called a ‘ribaudequin’; it was, so he says ‘a high wheelbarrow reinforced with iron and long pointed spikes in front’. In his famous paper of 3 December, 1915, Major The Rt Hon Winston S. Churchill suggested something of the same kind, along with other variants on the offensive. Leonardo da Vinci, inevitably, produced complicated drawings; a great mural at Cowdray, copied before the place was destroyed by fire, depicts a battle-car used at the siege of Boulogne in 1544; as it appears to have been a farm cart pulled by a single horse and carrying one hackbutman plus a bowman it was unlikely to have greatly influenced events. The Germans, ever inventive, produced a number of cognate machines but all suffered from a fatal, if obvious defect. Livy, Silius Italicus and Quintus Curtius told of war-carts or chariots. Later came Nicholas Glockendon of Nurnburg, various Scotchmen of whom the most notable was John Stewart, Duke of Albany, and the inventors of devices pictured by Valturius and Ludwig von Eyb. All foundered on the same snag. Horses can no more push carts than sailors can push rope. It was necessary to be patient and await the discovery of something better than animal-power.

The longbow dropped out before its time, probably because it needed a long training period for the archer, which men became unwilling to take up. Any weakling could be taught to loose off a musket. Thus the cavalries of the world continued in existence, for want of better shock machines and because the aristocracy could not bear to be parted from their horses. They beat each other up relentlessly but their successes against stout infantry were few and far between. Le Marchant’s heavy horse wrought famously at Salamanca and von Bock’s Germans broke a square at Garcia Hernandez. The next troops to do this, or something like it, were Osman Digna’s Hadendowa, alias ‘Fuzzy Wuzzies’. And Fuzzy Wuzzies fought on foot.

With the coming of steam it seemed that a battle car might be at last within the realms of the possible. One such was reportedly built for service in the Crimea, but it never left England and was soon broken up. Anyone who has seen a traction engine will not need further explanation. Steam locomotives are powerful but only on rails have they any turn of speed. And, at the risk of repetition, Jacky Fisher propounded a great truth. Speed is armour; armour without speed merely produces a target.

The ingredients of the tank all came into existence during the eighties of the last century and were produced by several different men working far away from each other. In 1886 Gottlieb Daimler, who had served an apprenticeship with the Manchester firm of Whitworth, came up with the petrol-driven internal combustion engine. It very soon powered a wheeled horseless carriage. Wheels, whether solid-tyred or fitted as they soon would be with Mr Dunlop’s inflatable variety, were good enough for metalled roads but of no use off them. Nor did there seem any likelihood of their being needed to go across country. The ploughman and his team still had a long future ahead of them. There were, however, some experiments going on with a view to bringing some degree of mechanical power to the farm additional to the steam traction-engine and reaping machines.

The obvious difficulty was to prevent the machinery from becoming bogged down by sheer weight. The footed wheel, one fitted with pivoted shoes or plates around its circumference so contrived that a flat surface was always presented to the ground, had been known for a long time. The German Army used it in conjunction with its heavy guns. The arrangement was not without its uses but it was hard work for the horses and slowed things up considerably when on any sort of road. With the coming of an engine so much lighter than the steam affair men cast around for something better than the footed wheel; the pressure for results was felt mostly in America whose enormous fields urgently needed something in the way of serviceable tractors.

As long ago as 1770 Richard Lovell Edgeworth had been granted, in London, a Patent for an endless track running over wheels. Once the Patent was granted, Mr Edgeworth seems to have let the matter drop, probably because no financier could be made to take it up. It may well be that the steam engine running on fixed rails seemed a better proposition than a machine that laid its own. Dust gathered on the plans until 1880 when Mr Batter, an American citizen, made a steam-tractor running on endless caterpillar tracks of the same kind. This suited prairie farmers well and soon became established. As time went on other manufacturers appeared and by the beginning of the present century the first name amongst caterpillar-tractor makers was Benjamin Holt. The farmers of Europe were not greatly interested.

The last essential of an armoured fighting vehicle arrived in 1883 when the Patent Office issued its No 3178 for an automatic gun to Hiram Maxim of ‘57D Hatton Garden, corner of Clerkenwell Road’. Maxim, one of the few American inventors to become a naturalized British subject, was as prolific as Leonardo had been, his discoveries ranging from guns to electric light bulbs. His machine-gun was a masterpiece of ingenuity, working on a different principle from the gas-and-spring affairs that superceded it and are still in service with a number of armies. The recoil forces back the barrel on to the lock which, driven back in its turn, extracts the spent case, feeds in another from a canvas belt, fires it and returns to keep up the process as long as the ammunition lasts. The barrel is encased in a water-jacket and continues operating for a very long time. The drawback is that the gun is heavy, weighing nearly half a hundredweight without its tripod.

As the component parts of the armoured fighting vehicle arrived so did the reason for its existence. Wire had been commonly used in England since the first factory was set up at Mortlake in 1663. Lucien Smith of Ohio is not a name as familiar as Daimler, Holt or Maxim but it deserves to be. In 1867, just after the Civil War, he produced for the farmers of America ‘twisted wire studded with points’. Under the name of ‘barbed wire’ it was patented in this country in 1876 by a Mr Hunt. It became widely used and so unpopular that the Barbed Wire Act 1893 had to be passed in order to limit its use. The first military use of it was in its home country. The Spanish-American war of 1898 taught few lessons apart from some of the ‘how not to’ kind. It did, however, bring barbed wire into service, though only for the protection of camps. Lord Kitchener used vast quantities of it in South Africa to maintain his lines of blockhouses and in 1905 the Russian General Tretyakov complained that the defence of Port Arthur was made exceedingly difficult by the shortage of a commodity worth its weight in gold. Before 1914 it was an established ordnance store with most armies. When the inventions of Mr Maxim and Mr Smith came to dominate the battlefields it was necessary to take stock of all the means available of overcoming them. At the end of the nineteenth century nothing was further from the military mind. There was then a curious spirit abroad in the British Army.

Everybody will remember the Punch cartoon headed MILITARY EDUCATION:—

General. ‘Mr de Bridoon, what is the general use of cavalry in modern warfare?’ Mr de Bridoon. ‘Well, I suppose to give tone to what would otherwise be a mere vulgar brawl’.

It was meant as a joke, but it was only half one. Newspaper correspondents fresh from the Sudan who visited the Aldershot Manoeuvres of 1898 were horrified at what they saw. Troops advanced in review order over open country and the very idea of taking cover was regarded as cowardice. The only Maxim guns, until very recently, had been those privately bought by wealthy London Volunteer regiments. The usual orders given to machine-gun officers were to ‘get those bloody things out of the way’. The cavalry was still the pride of the service, fresh from its not very difficult success against Arabi at Tel-el-Kebir. Then came South Africa, a war against ‘the most formidable mounted warriors since the Mongols’ as Mr Churchill called them. Here were lessons in plenty, but few of the senior men seem to have grasped them. Sir John French, at the great house of 94 Lancaster Gate which he shared with his American friend the engineer George Moore, had a visit from Valentine Williams, one of Northcliffe’s young men and, later, author of the ‘Clubfoot’ novels. ‘He (French) made a fine portrait of an English gentleman of the old school, in his dinner-coat and white waistcoat, with his silvery hair and healthy pink cheeks, as he sat at the dinner table over the nuts and port, under a large and rather indifferent painting of the “Dash to Kimberley”, in the South African War, showing him on horseback, with Haig at his side, sweeping along at the head of the cavalry’, Williams wrote in his autobiography The World of Action.

In retrospect the Dash to Kimberley was the worst thing that could have happened both to Sir John and to the Army. The Daily Mail quoted what it claimed as a letter from one present that the relief of the town was due to the commander’s ‘masterly decision’ to charge through what was believed to be a solid wall of defenders: To do Sir John justice, he would have charged just the same had this been true; in fact the Boers, being sensible men, fired a few rounds from their Mausers and removed themselves from his path. It was claimed that some forty or fifty of them moved too slowly and were either speared or sabred as against losses to the cavalry of less than a dozen. The charge must have been enormous fun for those participating in it, but it was no Gravelotte. Kimberley was certainly relieved, but at a cost. The cavalry had ruined themselves and their horses by overenthusiasm. When Lord Kitchener needed them to support the attack on Cronje’s laager a few days later they were not there. The attack went in without them and Kitchener observed to an American correspondent that had he known yesterday what he knew then he would not have tried it at all. Frontal attacks were impossible against the magazine rifle. This lesson Lord K never forgot. Sir John, and to a lesser extent his Chief of Staff Colonel Haig, never quite learned it.

The newspapers went wild over the Dash. It seems sad that television had not arrived for here was the perfect subject. There was, however, another point of view. Doctor Conan Doyle, always an admirer of the regular army, put it this way: ‘In the larger operations of the war it is difficult to say that cavalry, as cavalry, have justified their existence. In the opinion of many the tendency of the future will be to convert the whole force into mounted infantry … a little training in taking cover, leggings instead of boots and a rifle instead of a carbine would give us a formidable force of twenty thousand men who could do all that our cavalry does and more besides.’ Which is exactly what happened as the war went on. It was all very well for a civilian to say things like that and even to point to the fact that Lord Airlie had started it all by using his XIIth Lancers dismounted at Magersfontein. A soldier who openly announced the same heresy would have been reckoned not only a professional incompetent but, and worse, a traitor to his class. ‘Chevalier’, in both the literal and figurative meanings, was still the word of power.

The war ended at last and with it the army’s re-education. It had been a horseman’s affair for obvious reasons of topography and it had been very expensive; a Commission opened up some interesting scandals over the manner in which the horses had been found. All the same, it was not likely to recur. If the army ever had to fight anybody again it would probably be the Russians and the business would be done by horse, foot and guns as grandfather had done it in the Crimea. Mr Balfour’s Conservative government remained in office just long enough to place orders for better weapons of the old kind. The 18-pdr gun, the 4.5 howitzer, the short Lee Enfield rifle and some more Maxims. All were excellent in their way but all were in truth weapons of the late nineteenth century.

T-34 Model 1943 (1942)

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)

Crew 4

Tanks Encyclopedia T-34/76

Russian/Soviet Wheeled APCs I

The Object 19 is a Russian prototype wheel-cum-track IFV. The Object 19, Object 764, Object 911, Object 914, and Object 1200, were all tested for the position for BMP-1. Object 19 did not surpass the competition, whereas the Object 764 was selected and improved upon, to become the Object 765 – the BMP-1.

Russian APC/IFV Design Overview

Armored Personnel Carriers became common during World War II, originally introduced by the German army to rapidly transport troops along the battlefield front. Capable of transport under conditions that regular trucks could not traverse, this provided tactical mobility to support the Blitzkrieg (lighting war) form of war. The Infantry Fighting Vehicle, essentially an APC styled vehicle with enhanced armor and armaments, was introduced during the 1960s by the Soviet Union. Its role was to provide fire support to dismounts and to engage lighted armored vehicles.

A weakness of APCs and IFVs is that they could not be armored sufficiently to protect against RPGs and ATGMs. Therefore modern warfare techniques rely heavily upon mobility, with tanks, IFVs and APCs advancing quickly upon enemy units. Supported by artillery and infantry to suppress the deployment of shaped-charged warhead equipped weapons, the armored vehicle are expected to overwhelm the enemy before they can effectively deploy their RPGs and ATGMs. This method of rapid mobile combat, known as maneuver warfare, was designed to engage in a successful full-scale conventional confrontation, as combat in Europe might unfold.

Modern warfare however has tended toward descending into asymmetric warfare and urban combat, with Armored Fighting Vehicles (AFVs) often operating from isolated or stationary positions. This once again left them vulnerable to attack by infantry armed with RPGs and man-portable ATGMs. As Russians incurred heavy losses in the insurgent warfare experienced in their Afghanistan War and in Grozny during the 1st and 2nd Chechen Wars, they painfully came to recognize these vulnerabilities. Many Russian IFVs and APCs were destroyed by poorly trained but well-motivated infantry armed with relatively simple and inexpensive RPGs, ironically typically of Russian origin.

Multiple approaches were devised to overcome these vulnerabilities. These included having infantry outside the vehicle as it moved through cities to provide it protection, positioning troops at the vehicle front to operate defensive weapons, increasing the firepower available to the vehicle crew to destroy hostile enemy before they could deploy their weapons, installing lighter versions of ERA on these vehicles (the heavy tank versions of ERA damage the thin skinned IFVs and APCs) and to develop softkill and hardkill APS systems. The other approach is simply to provide APCs and IFVs with the same level of protection provided to MBTs (i.e., use tank chassis as APC/IFV chassis). Though the light-weight aspect of these vehicles is sacrificed by this approach, their survivability in insurgent and urban warfare is significantly improved. This has resulted for example in the development of the T-15 from the T-14. The Israelis are also taking this approach, developing the heavily armored Namer from the Merkava (discussed in detail later).

Soviet and Russian IFVs and APCs share regularities in their design approach, reflective of their military encounters, with designs evolving to meet the challenges presented by emerging technologies and tactics. Much like their Western counterparts, the Soviets field both wheeled and tracked APCs and IFVs that can be produced as a ‘Family of Vehicles’. Similar to the West, Soviet/Russian IFVs tend to be more heavily armored than their APCs. The IFVs ALSO tend to be tracked, permitting them the ability to maintain pace with MBTs, which their principal role is to support. For APCs however the Russians has long shown a preference for wheeled vehicles, with the West only absorbing the long established Russian approach in the 1990s. The Russians also have a strong preference for building APCs and IFVs that can ‘swim’, able to traverse rivers they encounter during an advance. While Western vehicles tend to stress higher armor levels, and therefore greater weight, the Russians keep their vehicle light enough to permit swim capabilities.

Until recently the Soviets in general have shown less interest in protecting their crews and providing for their comfort than their Western counterparts, focusing more on keeping their vehicles small, mobile and fast. Where Western vehicles tend to be taller and larger, providing more space for the occupants, Russian APCs and IFVs tend to be very low and flat by comparison, minimizing both the silhouette and vehicle weight. They also tend to be wider, and have wider tracks or wheels. Combining these features provides for optimized vehicle mobility, making them fast, able to traverse steep banks (low Center of Gravity) and able to navigate mud and snow.

The disadvantage of this approach is that the vehicle crew and dismounts (transported troops) have to operate is very cramped conditions. Therefore crews become exhausted more quickly, have more difficulty operating equipment and suffer higher casualties when the vehicle armor is breached due to slow and difficult vehicle egress. To counter these restrictions the Soviets have actually devised some rather novel innovations to improve the conditions for the crew and dismounts, and to improve overall vehicle performance.

Where older models of Russian APCs and IFVs have the transported troops enter and exit the vehicle from highly constrictive side doors, newer designs provide troops access through large doors and folding roofs at the vehicle rear. And where the loading rate of the main weapon was often only a quarter of that achievable on the more open spaced Western vehicles, integrated autoloaders has provided Soviets vehicles reload rates equal to or better than those achieved by their Western counterparts.

Another novel feature devised by the Soviets was to place the engine of their IFVs in the rear of the vehicle, providing it greater protection, similar to MBTs (IFVs and APCs more often place the engine at the vehicle front, to the right of the driver). By placing the engine low in the vehicle, troops are able to enter the vehicle over the rear mounted engine. This also permits the driver to be positioned in the center of the front of the vehicle, also similar to typical MBT design. The Soviets then place a soldier on either side of the driver, each operating as a machine gunner or grenade launcher operator. Similar to some WWII tanks, in which a weapons operator sat alongside the vehicle driver, this approach provides substantially greater firepower that can be directed at infantry to protect the vehicle from attack by RPGs and ATGMs.

Much like Western vehicles the Soviets fabricate their vehicle hulls from welded ballistic aluminum and/or ballistic steel, providing all around 360 degree protection to lower calibre threats. The vehicles possess highly sloped frontal glacis plates as well as sloped sidewalls, the oblique surfaces more effectively deflecting incoming rounds. While this reduces space availability for crew and troops, it does enhance vehicle overall survivability. With their low vehicle profile, Soviet APCs and IFVs are also more challenging to hit than their higher standing Western counterparts.

The Soviet approach to increasing the protection on their vehicles beyond the inherent capabilities of the hull have historically been more progressive than Western thinking. In many ways the Soviets have led the way in innovative armor developments, with the West later duplicating their advancements. Having led the way in developing ATGMs, the Soviets foresaw a need to counter such weapons, and so were first to develop ceramic armor solutions. As well the Soviets led the way in the development of ERA, electronic countermeasures (soft kill dazzlers and jammers) and hardkill Active Protection Systems. They also remain the only military to have integrated ERA directly into hull designs, and have APS as a standard system on their AFVs.

The Soviets also tend to more heavily arm their IFVs than equivalent Western vehicles. This includes deployment of multiple guns installed on a single turret, such as the dual 100 mm gun / 30 mm autocannon on the BMP-3 and BMD-4. Their main weapons also tend to be more multi-functional in terms of ammunition that can be fired than Western vehicles, often able to fire ATGMs as well as the standard KE and/or HE-I rounds. This provides them greater firepower and an extended maximum effective combat range. Additionally most modern Russian IFVs can be armed with various turret mounted ATGM systems. Vehicle protection is enhanced by offering firing ports to troops and positioning soldiers at the front of the vehicle to operate machine guns and grenade launchers. This set-up is particularly effective in suppressing infantry units trying to engage the vehicle.

Perhaps the most defining aspect of Soviet/Russian APC and IFV design, similar to their MBTs, is low cost and simple design. Soviet experiences in World War II convinced them that to defend their nation and to overwhelm and invader, they must be able to produce huge numbers of armored vehicles. This necessitates that the vehicles be inexpensive and fast to build. Where Western vehicles are built to a high quality standard and utilizes expensive components and advanced technologies, Soviet experience recognizes that armed forces are expended rapidly once conflicts erupt and must be able to be rapidly replaced. Therefore the fabrication quality of Soviet armored vehicles tends to be poor compared to Western vehicles and the use of sophisticated technologies is generally restricted.

A negative result of this approach has been that the Soviets fell behind significantly in the advancement of integrated computerised systems and sensor technologies. While this lack of sophistication was not disadvantageous is the early cold-war period, computerised capabilities and advanced sensors have become critical in modern AFVs, as they are essential for operating the Fire Control Systems that permit cannon to accurate fire on the move, for providing night fighting capabilities through use of thermal imaging, and for the guidance of advanced munitions.

Recognizing that in a modern ultra high-tech environment that an overly simplified AFV will not survive for long, and that replacing lost vehicle with more low quality units won’t suffice to win a battle anymore, the most recent generation of Russian designed vehicles, the T-14 and T-15, are making a clean break with traditional Soviet design. A new emphasis is being placed on crew and troop survivability, and inclusion of high tech equipment and capabilities. However, due to the relative distance that the Soviets have fallen behind in these aspects, they are actually reliant on Chinese and French computers and sensors to equip their latest generation of vehicles until they are able to catch up and develop these components within Russia.


The BTR-80 is a Russian 8×8 wheeled armored personnel carrier (APC) that is a continued development of the BTR legacy vehicles, the BTR-60 and the BTR-70. Introduced into Soviet inventories in 1986 and with over 5000 built the vehicle has become the backbone of Soviet rapid tactical mobility efforts and has been involved in extensive combat situations, with the Soviet war in Afghanistan being its initial baptism by fire. The vehicle is used by almost 40 countries including Afghanistan, Colombia, Hungary, India, Indonesia, Iraq, Kazakhstan, North Korea, Pakistan, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine.

The BTR-80 is a 30,000 pound (13.6 tonne) 8×8 wheeled APC which is approximately 25 feet (7.7 meters) long, 9.5 feet (2.9 meters) wide and 8 feet (2.4 meters) high. Operated by a crew of three with a driver, commander and gunner the vehicle also transport 7 infantry troops. The driver and commander are situated to the forward of the vehicle while the gunner is positioned in a roof mounted seat beneath the main weapon. Two of the troops are located forward of the driver and commander, while the other five sit on bench style seats in the back of the vehicle. The troops are provided with firing ports. The rear positioned troops enter and exit the vehicle through side doors that are split. The upper door swings to the side and the lower half descends downward, thereby acting as a stepping surface. This approach is supposed to let troops exit the vehicle while it is in motion, with the side of the vehicle having the doorway oriented away from enemy fire.

The BTR-80 is powered by a 260 hp V-8 turbocharged diesel engine which provides a power-to-weight ratio of 17 hp/ton. This is a significant improvement over the dual gasoline engines that powered the earlier BTR-60 and BTR-70. Able to attain road speeds of up to 55 mph (90 km/hr) and having an operational range of 370 miles (600 kms) with on-board fuel the vehicle is also fully amphibious with a water speed of 6.2 mph (10 km/hr). The vehicle is powered through the water through hydrojets. The vehicle is able to navigate a gradient of 60% and climb a vertical step of 1.6 feet (0.5 meters).

A large number of variants of the BTR-80 have been produced to meet various operational needs and customer requirements. The more common of these are noted below:

• BTR-80 – standard Armored Personnel Carrier (APC) produced in 1986.

• BTR-80M – enhanced version available in 1993 with improved engine and tires.

• BTR-82 – further enhanced version available in 2009 with increased armor, addition of spall liner, improved night vision equipment and a 300 hp engine.

• 2S23 – a fire support version of the vehicle, mounting a 120 mm mortar rifled gun.

• BTR-80A – An Infantry Fighting Vehicle version introduced in 1994 and equipped with the remotely operated 2A72 30 mm auto-cannon in the turret and provided with 300 rounds of ammunition.

• BTR-82AM – A Naval Infantry (Marines) version of the BTR-82A.

• BTR-82A – Further enhanced IFV introduced in 2009 that has been well received by Russian troops battling in Ukraine. Weapon system has a FCS and improved night vision optics. Includes increased armor, addition of spall liner to the vehicle interior, GLONASS navigation system and a 300 hp engine. The vehicle is also able to accommodate 8 dismounts.

The basic APC version of the BTR-80 is fitted with a turret that accommodates a 14.5 mm KPVT heavy machine gun and a 7.62 mm PKT co-axial machine gun. It is also equipped with a number of firing ports located along the front and sides of the vehicle that permit the dismounts to fire their personal weapons from inside the vehicle. The BTR-80 main weapon system is of a relatively simple design, in many ways antiquated for a current front-line vehicles. The main weapon is not stabilized and therefore can only be fired accurately while the vehicle is stationary. And the mechanism for rotating the turret is manually operated. The gunner sits under the turret in a roof mounted chair that provides reasonable space claim, which is not typical for Russian vehicles. The gunner is provided a daytime optical sight and an infrared night sight. The weapon can be elevated up to 60 degrees, providing the ability to engage low flying aircraft and targets situated on top of hills or located in high buildings (i.e., urban warfare).

The BTR-80 is of a welded ballistic steel construction which provides 14.5 mm ballistic protection along the front arc and small arms fire along the vehicle sides, rear and roofline. The dismounts sit in simple bench style seats which do not provide any Energy Attenuation in the event of a mine blast. The vehicle is equipped with six 81 mm smoke grenade launchers.

The BTR-80 has seen extensive combat in a number of theatres of war. These include the Soviet War in Afghanistan, the Nagorno-Karabakh War, the Georgian Civil War, the Turkish-Kurdish conflict, the Transnistria War, the Tajikistan Civil War, the First and Second Chechen Wars, the War of Dagestan, the 2008 South Ossetian War, the Iraqi insurgency and the War in Donbass.

During these conflicts the BTR-80 performed reasonably well considering its relatively light protection levels and lack of armor specific to protecting the vehicle from IEDs, RPGs, EFPs, heavy calibre ammunition, and underbelly blast events.

Russian/Soviet Wheeled APCs II


The BTR-90 is a Russian 8×8 wheeled armored personnel carrier (APC). Based on its predecessor, the BTR-80, the vehicle dimensions were enlarged, it was fitted with the turret from the BMP-2 to increase firepower and the vehicle was in general equipped with upgraded equipment as compared to the BTR-80. Likes it predecessor the BTR-90 is fully amphibious. The vehicle was unveiled in 1994 and saw limited production between 2004 and 2011.

The BTR-90 is an 8×8 wheeled APC that weighs 46,000 pounds (21 tonnes), is approximately 25 feet (7.6 meters) long, 10.5 feet (3.2 meters) wide and 10 feet (3 meters) in height. The vehicle is operated by a crew of 3 and can transport up to 7 troops. The crew consists of a driver who is located at the front of the vehicle and a gunner and commander who are located in the turret. The crew ingress and egress the vehicle through a side mounted door, typical of the Russian BTR series of APCs. The vehicle is powered by a turbocharged 510 hp diesel engine which is located at the rear of the vehicle. This provides a power to weight ratio of 22 hp per tonne. The 8×8 wheeled vehicle can attain 60 mph (100 km/h) on roads and has an operational range of 500 miles (800 kms) with internal fuel. The BTR-90 is also fully amphibious. Powered by water jets the vehicle can attain speeds up to 5 miles (9 km/hr) in water. The vehicle is able to cross 7.5 feet (2 meter) wide trenches, climb 3 foot (0.8 meter) high vertical steps and traverse 60% gradients and 30% side slopes.

While designed as a chassis that could be configured to fulfill a wide range of roles within the Russian Army and Russian Navy (Marines) by offering the superior tactical mobility implicit to wheeled vehicles, the BTR-90 has only seen low volume production runs, with Russian Ministry of Defense only incorporating limited numbers of the vehicles into its forces. This decision is in-line with current Russian procurement philosophy, which is to not incorporate any further vehicles into the Russian military forces which are based on older Soviet designs. New procurements are being based solely upon platforms based on new Russian vehicles designs such as the T-14 and T-15.

This procurement strategy has halted development and procurement of the BTR-90 as well as other Russian vehicle programs including the 2S25 Self-propelled Amphibious Tank Destroyer, the BMD-4 and the BMPT “Terminator”. The 2S25 and BMD-4 are reviewed in this volume as a number of these vehicle are in service with the Russian military, while the BMPT is not. Based on the T-72 platform and tailored specifically for asymmetric urban combat to meet needs identified during the Soviet/Russian experiences from the Soviet War in Afghanistan and the First Chechen War, the Terminator was never manufactured beyond the proto-type stage.

The BTR-90 is equipped with the BMP-2 turret which fits the 30 mm Shipunov 2A42 autocannon. 500 rounds of ammunition are carried on-board for the weapon. Secondary armaments consist of a 7.62 mm coaxial PKT machine gun with 2000 rounds of ammo and a 30 mm grenade launcher with 400 rounds of ammo. Firing ports are also provided for the crew. The vehicle can also be configured with an AT-5 Spandrel (Konkurs) ATGM launching system. The missiles appear to be able to be attached to the vehicle singularly, in dual pairs, or as a set of four. Supposedly the missiles can also be detached from the vehicle and launched by dismounts.

The turret comes equipped standard with a gunner’s day/night sight and a commander’s optical sight. A thermal imaging sight can also be installed as an option. A Fire Control System (FCS) is used to aim the main weapon and the ATGM unit when installed. The 30 mm autocannon is able to be elevated to 75 degrees, permitting it to be used against low flying aircraft. The autocannon can engage targets to a range of 2500 meters, while the ATGM can engage targets out to 4000 meters.

The BTR-90 is fabricated from welded ballistic plate. The baseline armor offers frontal arc protection against 14.5 mm rounds and all-around protection against small arms fire. The baseline vehicle armor can be upgraded with add-on armored plating and/or ERA, though this would adversely affect the swim capability of the vehicle. The vehicle has an automated fire suppression system (AFSS) and a smoke grenade system. The vehicle can be fit with a Nuclear-Biological-Chemical (NBC) detection and filter system.

BTR Wheeled Armoured Personnel Carriers


The BTR-152 6×6 was developed after the Second World War as the Soviet Union’s very first purpose-built APC. It was manufactured in large numbers from 1950 and saw service with African and Asian armies. The all-welded steel hull showed close similarities with American and German wartime designs. Notably, significant numbers of the M3A1 4×4 scout car and M2 and M5 series of American half-tracks were supplied to the Red Army under Lend-Lease arrangements. Likewise the Soviets captured large numbers of the Hanomag-built range of German half-tracks.

As with these earlier vehicles, the BTR had a front-mounted engine and an open top crew compartment for the driver and troop compartment for up to seventeen soldiers. The driver and commander had separate glass windscreens that could be protected by steel hatches with vision blocks. The infantry entered and exited the vehicle either via the open roof or through a single door in the rear plate of the hull. For defensive purposes the vehicle had six firing ports, three either side and two in the rear plate either side of the door.

Initially the ZIS-1512½-ton 6×6 chassis was used as the basis for the BTR-152, though later models utilised the ZIS-157. The six-cylinder, inline model ZIS-123 was a water-cooled petrol engine generating 110hp at 2,900rpm. The BTR-152’s transmission layout was that of a conventional 6×6 commercial truck with the drive shafts leading to differentials on ‘solid’ axles. The gearbox had five forward speeds and there was a two-speed transfer box. The tyres had a pressure system regulated by the driver to suit the ground conditions. Some BTR-152s also featured a front-mounted winch.

Some versions were fully enclosed, such as the BTR-152U command variant, which has much higher sides to allow staff officers to stand up inside. The normal armament comprised the standard 7.62mm machine gun or the heavier 12.7mm or 14.5mm mounted on the hull top. The BTR-152A-ZPU was an anti-aircraft variant armed with twin 14.5mm KPV machine guns in a rotating turret. Against aerial targets, these were only effective to 1,400m. They also carried AP rounds for use against light armoured vehicles, which could penetrate 32mm of armour at 500m, though the guns had a range of 2,000m against ground targets. Other anti-aircraft variants included the BTR-152D and the BTR-152E.

Some of those supplied to the Egyptian Army were armed with the Czech quad 12.7mm M53 anti-aircraft system. This comprised four Soviet 12.7mm DShKM machine guns on a Czech-designed two-wheel mount. A number of these ended up in service with the Afghan Army. Likewise, in 1982 the Israeli Army encountered BTR-152s being operated by the Syrian-backed Palestinian Liberation Army that were fitted with a twin 23mm automatic anti-aircraft gun in the rear of the troop compartment.


The BTR-152’s smaller cousin was the BTR-40, introduced in 1951. This was essentially a redesigned version of the American-supplied M3A scout car. It was based on the GAZ-63 truck chassis, but with a shorter wheelbase and was a conventional four-wheel drive armoured truck with a frontal engine layout. In the event of chemical warfare one variant of this vehicle was designed for a chemical decontamination role, which included placing flag markers to warn of contaminated areas. A more conventional version was the BTR-40A/ZPU; this had an anti-aircraft role mounting twin 14.5mm KPV heavy machine guns. These were mounted in a manually-operated open turret with a 360-degree traverse and an effective rate of fire of 150 rounds per minute.


The requirement to replace the non-amphibious BTR-152 was issued in the late 1950s, and the heavy eight-wheeled amphibious BTR-60P entered service with the Soviet Army in 1961. Since then it has been supplied to armies throughout the world and was built in Romania as the TAB-72. The BTR-60P was powered by two GAZ-49B six-cylinder, water-cooled, in-line petrol engines, developing a total of 180hp. These were mounted in the rear of the welded steel hull and drove all eight wheels, the front four of which were steerable. The BTR-60 series was fully amphibious, propelled through the water by a hydrojet system with a single controllable outlet at the rear. This gave a calm-water speed of 10km/h compared to 80km/h on land. During deployment in water a bilge pump was available, together with a trim vane that was normally carried flat on the nose plate.

The troop compartment (initially for fourteen men but reduced in later models) occupied the centre of the vehicle with the driver on the left and the commander on the right at the front. The troop compartment had no overhead protection but this was remedied with the BTR-60PA or BTR-60PK, which was fully-enclosed with roof hatches, installed to supplement access through two small hatches on each side.

The final model, the BTR-60PB, was fitted with a small turret on the hull roof near the front, mounting a 14.5mm machine gun and a 7.62mm machine gun. It is identical to that fitted to the Soviet BRDM-2 reconnaissance vehicle and the Czech OT-64 APC. While the BTR-60PB was built under licence in Romania as the TAB-71, the lack of easy access resulted in the Czech and Polish governments developing the SKOT (OT-64) series for their armies. Production of the BTR-60 series ended in 1976, resulting in around 25,000 vehicles.


The follow-on BTR-70 first appeared during the November 1980 military parade in Moscow. The hull was of all-welded steel armour with improved protection over its front arc compared to the BTR-60. In addition the nose was wider and the front gave added protection to the front wheels. While the BTR-70 was fitted with the same turret as its predecessor, some were fitted with the BTR-80 turret. Initial models of the BTR-70 were fitted with the same wheels and tyres as the BTR-60.

The two GAZ-49B engines were replaced by two ZMZ-4905 petrol engines, which developed 120hp each compared to just 90hp each in the BTR-60. Both engines had their own transmission with the right engine supplying power to the first and third axles, while the left powered the second and fourth axles. This meant if one engine was out of action the vehicle could still move, albeit at a slower speed. The exhausts were less boxy than on the BTR-60. Whereas the BTR-60 could carry up to sixteen men, the BTR-70’s capacity was two crew and nine passengers. Again Romania produced its own version, dubbed the TAB-77.

Although the BTR-70 was an improvement over the earlier BTR-60, it still had its problems, not least the inadequate means of entry and exit for the troops and the two petrol engines which were inefficient and could catch fire. The Soviet Army first took delivery of the improved BTR-80 in 1984.

Armored Forces of Barbarossa II

Before the officially sanctioned date of July 3, Hoth and Guderian sent their tanks toward the next geographic objective: the Dvina-Dnieper line—more than 300 miles distant. By this time it was clear to everyone involved that the gaps between panzer groups and infantry armies could only grow wider. The Soviet forces still active behind the panzers’ axes of advance could only grow larger. In a sense Panzer Groups 2 and 3 were replicating Rommel’s behavior in the desert. Just as logistics was a rear-echelon problem, so was cleaning up whatever the armor left behind.

From the beginning of this phase the panzers encountered resistance stronger than expected. Stalin had assigned Marshal Semyon Timoshenko to organize the defense, concentrate reserves, and, above all, counterattack at every opportunity. Timoshenko was no master of mobility but he was a hard man even by Soviet standards. His tanks and riflemen made the Germans pay for their tactical victories. A battalion of the 35th Panzer Regiment occupied the town of Staryi Bychoff on the Dnieper, only to be pinned down by a defense that cost 33 men and nine tanks—the regiment’s heaviest losses in a single day since the start of the war. Its report describes the Russians as “hard-fighting, very brave soldiers.” The Red Air Force reappeared in strength, and with new material. Nine Il-2 Sturmoviks, a formidably armored ground attack plane, gave Rommel’s old division a taste of its French medicine on July 5, delaying the advance most of a day. One Il-2 took more than 200 ground-fire hits and made it home. Rain and terrain slowed the Germans as well. On one 50-mile stretch of road in Hoth’s sector, 100 bridges in succession failed to take the strain of tanks and trucks. The often-overlooked pioneers were correspondingly vital for both panzer groups: bridging flooded rivers, repeating the job when the bridges collapsed, and all the time keeping watch for die-hard Soviet stragglers.

The Germans were winning on an increasingly frayed shoestring. Third Panzer Division was down to a third of its authorized tank strength. Fourth Panzer Division sent a staff officer all the way back to Germany in search of spare parts. A single tank battalion of 7th Panzer Division reported no fewer than five lieutenants killed in a few days—shot through the head by snipers who had a free hand because the riflemen’s trucks could not keep up with the tanks. The motorized artillery as well was having increasing difficulty keeping pace, especially the heavy corps and army battalions so valuable for taking out Soviet prepared defenses. The result was increasing reliance on the Luftwaffe, and the air crews gave their best. Richthofen’s VIII Air Corps, its Stukas using an early version of the cluster bomb, climaxed three weeks of constant effort by taking two of Hoth’s divisions across the Dvina on July 8. The medium bombers of Air Fleet 2 hammered roads and rail junctions and interdicted troop movements—but against increasing fighter opposition that drew more and more German fighters into the air battle.

The tank and the airplane might be the Wehrmacht’s concept of an ideal couple. But like most couples, stress brought out the worst sides of both partners. The ground units’ war diaries contain an increasing litany of complaints about Russian aircraft being “masters of the skies,” about the damage to tankers’ morale from repeated attacks by low-flying Soviet aircraft, about Stuka strikes promised but never delivered. The Luftwaffe responded by describing the soldiers as “outrageously spoiled” by direct air support, and too quick to halt or even retreat in the face of opposition if German planes were not overhead. Richthofen himself upbraided his ground-pounding opposite numbers for refusing to recognize that in order to be effective, air power must be concentrated and could not be distributed piecemeal.

These arguments have been common in the air-ground relations of all armed forces, from North Africa through Korea and Vietnam, down to Desert Storm. Nevertheless they highlight the growing erosion of the German mobile forces, to the point where maneuver would become their only viable option.

And yet the panzers kept advancing—as far as 100 miles a day for some units. When movement stalled, group, corps, and division commanders probed for weak spots. When none existed, the colonels, captains, and sergeants created them. As Hoth smashed the Russian right, Guderian crossed the Dnieper south of Mogilev, and the panzers sought once more to create a giant pocket by meeting at Smolensk. With Soviet defenses in shreds and Soviet mobile formations scattered, the first German troops entered Smolensk late on July 15.

Eleven days later the German High Command declared the Smolensk pocket closed. The call was premature, but German skills showed to particular advantage against the major counterattacks mounted beginning in late July. German tank companies took advantage of Soviet inexperience to knock out two or three dozen T-34s at a time. On August 5, Bock announced the end of the fighting, the capture of another 300,000 prisoners, and the destruction of more than 3,000 tanks and almost as many guns.

It was the climax of a series of virtuoso performances that combine to make a case that the relative tactical and operational superiority of the panzers over their opponents was never greater than in the first half of July 1941, on the high road to Moscow. Guderian spoke of attacks going in like training exercises. Guderian’s senior subordinates in turn praised his common sense and goodwill, the Fingerspitzengefühl, and not least the unflagging energy that marked him a master of mechanized war at the operational level. If Hoth lacked his stablemate’s flair (and his gift for securing headlines), his handling of Panzer Group 3 produced results at the same level.

These successes were, however, the point of the spear—or better said, the tip of an iceberg. Army Group Center’s mobile forces had by now outrun their logistics to a degree impossible for even the most operationally minded generals to overlook. Losses in tanks continued to mount. Rifle companies were shrinking to the strength of platoons. As a result, for the first time in the campaign, the panzers lacked the strength to force the pace of engagements. Instead they were increasingly constrained to wear down Soviet attacks and throw them off balance before counterattacking themselves. That pattern would become characteristic of German tactics and operations in the second half of the Russo-German War. Its systematic appearance at this early stage was another of Barbarossa’s many warning signs.

Like the giant Antaeus of classical mythology or the Green Knight of medieval English lore, the Red Army seemed to derive strength from being knocked down. Initial estimates had allowed for around 200 Soviet divisions. By the end of the Smolensk operation, more than 300 had appeared on German charts. The USSR outproduced Germany in tanks during 1941. But in six weeks, the best Soviet commanders had been discredited, the best Soviet formations had been eviscerated, thousands of tanks, guns, and aircraft had been destroyed, and tens of thousands of square miles overrun. Was it entirely wishful thinking that sustained the German belief that one more strike would finish the job? And was that viewpoint underpinned by an unacknowledged but growing sense of the panzers as an ultimately wasting asset, best employed to their limits while they could still shape the campaign?

As early as July 8, Hitler had informed the Chief of Staff of his intention to divert mobile forces north and south with open options: to reinforce the attack on Leningrad, to cooperate with Army Group South in capturing Kiev, and to regroup for a drive on Moscow. Depending on the operational situation, this represented a flat denial of the concept of the decisive point. It also represented the downplaying of the moral importance of Moscow. The city’s loss would be a prestige victory and an ideological triumph for National Socialism—a double body blow to the Soviet Union.

A fable with many versions in many languages describes a donkey starving to death because he is unable to choose among a half dozen full mangers. Franz Halder was no folklorist, but on July 23 he informed Hitler that the Russians had been decisively weakened—not decisively defeated. Every new operation had to begin by breaking enemy resistance, but overall infantry strength was down by 20 percent, and the panzer divisions averaged 50 percent short of establishment.

On the other hand, Kiev was the transportation and communications hub for the great industrial centers of southwest Russia. Leningrad, Lenin’s city, was arguably more the USSR’s moral center than was the official capital. Its capture would give Germany control of the Baltic Sea, create a united political and military front with Finland, and free Panzer Group 4 for employment against Moscow.

And if the enemy’s army was considered the primary objective, as opposed to resources and territory, the pickings were likely to be easier on the wings than by continuing headlong into a sector the Soviets must defend at all costs, and where their counterattacks indicated they were doing just that. The pace of Army Group Center’s advance was slowing perceptively enough to cause concern. At the same time, that advance was creating an increasingly exposed salient. Securing its flanks, especially the southern one, was a defensible response, especially in the context of those suddenly emerging reserves Wehrmacht intelligence had asserted the Red Army did not possess.

Rundstedt, whose army group could expect to benefit massively from a southern option, argued in public for the importance of continuing the drive on Moscow. He and Leeb, however, also had a particular sense of what they were on the verge of accomplishing with just a few of the right kinds of resources. Reduced to its essentials, the revised plan projected sending elements of Panzer Group 2 south with the mission of enveloping and destroying the Soviet forces engaging Rundstedt’s left. Hoth’s Group would turn north to assist in capturing Leningrad, then swing toward the Volga in cooperation with Panzer Group 4. Army Group Center would continue advancing on Moscow with infantry and sort out its rear areas and logistics until the mobile divisions returned.

When the Army High Command asked whether the campaign now sought economic objectives or destruction of Soviet military forces, the answer was “both.” It would be oversimplified hindsight to describe Hitler as playing his senior generals against each other. It would be an equal oversimplification to describe the generals as blindly obsessed with their respective places in the history of war. Both factors were undeniably present—and it must be particularly emphasized that generals without high levels of alpha ambition are likely to be liabilities in senior command. What is significant about the decisions made as the Smolensk pocket closed is the underlying consensus that affirmed them: a conviction that the panzers could still move fast enough and strike hard enough to make ultimate choices unnecessary. Barbarossa’s second stage would be predicated on what might be called a postmod ern construction: a “flexible Schwerpunkt.”

Depending on perspective, that placed the panzers in the role of either a chameleon placed on a plaid shirt, or a cartoon character running through a china shop shattering one glass after another by flicking his finger. In a month, XLI Panzer Corps had fought its way across 650 miles of forest and swamp to within 100 miles of Leningrad. Air supply sustained the final stage of an advance that by July 14 had thrown two bridges across the Luga River, the last major natural barrier before a city that was only two days’ march away—on the maps. But Leeb was a cautious general; the Soviet defense was desperate; and Reinhardt’s depleted divisions lacked the fighting power to overrun a city with two and a half million inhabitants. For armored forces, getting into a city was far less a problem than getting out of it—especially given the constrained time frame in which the attack on Leningrad was conceptualized.

Had Manstein’s corps been directly involved, the story might have played out differently. Instead Leeb and Hoepner had turned Manstein southeast toward Novgorod and the Moscow-Leningrad railroad. It was the kind of maneuver operation basic to panzer doctrine, in which Manstein possessed unusual skill—and which the Soviets were determined to frustrate. A well-executed counterattack cut off 8th Panzer Division and took out half of its 150 tanks in the four days Manstein required to break the 8th free. Pushing slowly forward, the corps eventually also bogged down along the Luga River.

As for the projected reinforcement by Panzer Group 3, not until August 16 was Army Group Center formally ordered to transfer four of its mobile divisions to Army Group North—a consequence of increasingly forceful debates between and among Hitler and the relevant generals. The new arrivals proved just enough to encourage Leeb and Hoepner and not enough to turn the tide in their sector. With both of Hoepner’s corps immobilized on the Luga, when Hoth’s divisions finally arrived, Leeb committed them to strengthen his thinly manned front as opposed to reinforcing one of Hoepner’s corps as a striking force. On September 8, Hoepner nevertheless renewed his group’s attack.

Schlisselburg, widely regarded as a keystone of the defense, fell after heavy and expensive fighting. The Russians threw in everything they had. First Panzer Division engaged tanks literally fresh from factory assembly lines. But the city held—and the Army High Command grew increasingly insistent on transferring Panzer Group 4 south for the drive against Moscow. Sixth Panzer Division was ordered south on August 18. By the twenty-fifth the front had “stabilized” in a blockade that plunged Leningrad into three years of horror as Hitler ordered the starving of the city his tanks failed to conquer.

Army Group North’s series of tactical victories between June and September neither camouflage nor compensate for unhandiness at the operational level. Leeb has come under especially heavy criticism for repeatedly halting or slowing the armored spearheads to allow the infantry to close up: a fits-and-starts process that gave the Soviets time to improvise Leningrad’s defense. The dispersion of Hoepner’s panzers in the first half of July further diminished blitzkrieg’s prospects in the northern sector. Wilhelm Ritter von Leeb, in short, will never go down as a master, or even an apprentice, of mobile war.

In Leeb’s defense, arguably even more than in Barbarossa’s other sectors, logistics and rear security controlled the pace and nature of operations in the north. The first phase of the German advance had been through the relatively developed territory of the Baltic states: Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania, which had been occupied by the Red Army in 1940 and were as yet relatively spared the blessings of Marxism-Leninism. The Germans benefited from overrunning large amounts of stockpiled Red Army supplies, and from capturing a number of major bridges and rail connections undamaged. Crossing into the USSR proper meant entering a literal wilderness, historically left undeveloped to provide a glacis for Russia’s northern capital. The near-literal absence of infrastructure made exploiting local resources nearly impossible: there were no surpluses, however meager, to requisition, confiscate, or steal.

That put a rapid, unexpected burden on a supply system stretched to move its own bases forward into the northern wasteland. It was not mere reflex caution that led Leeb to insist repeatedly on the necessity for bringing the infantry forward as the price of the next advance. Guerilla activity in Army Group North’s rear grew so serious that beginning on August 5, the entire 8th Panzer Division was withdrawn from the front and assigned to anti-partisan duties on the line of communications.

Developments in Army Group South followed a different pattern. Kleist shook off the initial Russian counterattacks, broke through an improvised “Stalin Line” on July 5, and started his tanks toward Kiev. In their wake marched the infantry of 6th Army, who were intended to do the heavy work of actually capturing the city. Fighting through strong resistance, especially by units officially overrun and reported as scattered, Panzer Group 1 had its first sight of Kiev’s skyline on July 10.

With the infantry and heavy artillery a hundred miles to the rear, III Panzer Corps commander Eberhard von Mackensen nevertheless considered storming the city with the two panzer divisions and one motorized division coming on line. Sixth Army CO Walther von Reichenau, anything but battle-shy, compared the prospect of fighting house-to-house in Kiev to Verdun—not least because of the constant losses his infantry were already taking from persistent air and ground attack. It was Hitler, however, who pulled the plug, forbidding a direct attack on Kiev for the present and freeing Mackensen’s corps for what seemed a far more promising mission.

The other two mobile corps of Panzer Group 1 had turned south of Kiev toward Uman. Red Army counterattacks, heavy air strikes, and poor weather slowed and disrupted the operation. Mutual envelopment operations at times left troops uncertain who was encircling whom. Nevertheless between July 16 and August 3, Kleist’s group created and sustained a pocket that, when cleared, yielded more than 100,000 prisoners—no mean bag even by the standards of Minsk and Smolensk. Large numbers of Russians managed to escape a trap that, like the others in Barbarossa, never fully closed. They did so at the expense of their organization and much of their equipment as the Red Army began a full-scale retreat from Bessarabia and the western Ukraine, abandoning the Dnieper River line. An enraged Stalin ordered the dismissal of some generals, and the execution of others.

Uman was no more than second prize in the blitzkrieg lottery. Halder and Rundstedt originally projected an even bigger encirclement in the area of Kirovograd, one cutting off the entire Soviet force west of the Dnieper. That had exceeded the panzers’ capacity. But with most of the Soviet front in apparent disintegration, with the Romanians advancing on Odessa and the Black Sea coast, the military prospects of a “southern strategy” began to match Hitler’s original economic visions—particularly when the major alternative involved a direct assault on Moscow in the best traditions of the Great War. Blitzkrieg was about creating opportunities and seizing them. Panzer Group 1 had begun Barbarossa with the lowest force-to-space ratio of the four. The increasing development of the southern front had increased the distances among possible objectives. But Rundstedt, Kleist, and the mobile corps commanders had done well—better than well—playing cape-and-sword with the Red Army. Suitably reinforced, they could finish the job.

Orders might be given, but mobile war German style depended on informed consent. The pivotal figure in the developing shift of operational focus was Heinz Guderian. He was considered firmly in the Moscow camp—so firmly that on August 23 he flew to Hitler’s Rastenburg headquarters with the intention of protesting in person against the projected reassignment of his group. By his own account at least he made a compelling presentation. Hitler then responded with his reasons for the Kiev option. Guderian’s self-described reluctance to make a scene in the face of a firm decision need not be taken at face value. But nor should his critics’ descriptions of careerism overriding principle be accepted without modification.

Guderian was at best a medium-sized fish in what had suddenly become a very big pond. His focus since June 21 had been to his front: operational and tactical. During the discussion Hitler had asked him a question: Did Guderian’s men have one more great effort in them? Guderian answered yes—if given an objective whose importance was self-evident. Kiev was not Moscow. But keep Panzer Group 2 together, give its commander a free hand, and there was a solid chance of completing the operation before the autumn rains shut down southern Russia entirely. Hitler conceded the point, and Halder flew into an enduring rage at what he called Guderian’s capitulation.

In Guderian’s terms, that was just another sign that the Chief of Staff might talk the talk of mobile war, but could never walk the walk. When matters grew dark, it was time to step on the gas. It is always ill-advised to throw spitballs at an adversary armed with rocks. Guderian began his move south minus one of his corps, transferred at Halder’s orders. But with massive Luftwaffe support, Panzer Group 2 broke the Soviet front within days. Third Panzer Division’s commander Walther Model was one of a rising new breed of hard-charging risk-takers willing to make bricks without straw and mobile war with only a few tanks. In a tactical tour de force, a battle group of the 3rd Panzer Divsion captured a key bridge over the Desna River on August 26, motorcyclists and half-tracks shooting their way across as German and Soviet pioneers dueled under the roadbed for control of the demolition apparatus.

The panzers drove south, shrugging off poorly coordinated flank attacks. As he had done in France, Guderian chivied subordinates mercilessly. Soviet commanders at all levels were bewildered by the speed of the German advance and the ability of the Germans to be where they were not expected. By September 7, Panzer Group 2 had opened a twenty-mile operational gap between the Southwestern Front and its right-flank neighbor the Bryansk Front.

Meanwhile, Panzer Group 1 struck for the Dnieper. The first permanent bridgehead came at Kremenchug. Then, on August 25, the 13th Panzer Division captured an intact bridge at Dnepropetrovsk, opening a way into the Soviet rear. Semyon Budenny, commanding the Southwestern Front, was an old-line horse cavalryman, an anachronism in the internal- combustion era. But he knew well enough what mobile troops could achieve in empty space. He requested permission to retreat—and was promptly replaced. Stalin’s determination to hold the line in part reflected the ongoing battle for Kiev, which fully justified Reichenau’s grim prediction. It was street by street and house by house, with the Germans making little progress. Stalin ordered Kiev held and threw in reinforcements, as the Germans began turning two breakthroughs into one envelopment.

Facing massive counterattacks around Dnepropetrovsk, Kleist feinted north and drove through Kremenchug. The starring role went to one of the new formations: 16th Panzer Division, under another newcomer, Hans Hube. Crossing the Dnieper on September 11, by the thirteenth the division was 20 miles into the Soviet rear with two more divisions in close support. Again Stalin ordered Kiev held: no retreat without his authorization. Panzer Group 1 was down to half strength and less in tanks, but on the cusp of the kind of objective Guderian had described to Hitler. Hube led from the front as his tanks overran an army headquarters whose commander was constrained to escape through a window. The Luftwaffe, with V Air Corps supporting Kleist and II Air Corps supporting Guderian, pounced on every Soviet effort to establish blocking points and scoured the sky clean of Soviet aircraft. On the evening of September 16—at 1820, to be exact—3rd and 16th Panzer Divisions met to close the Kiev pocket at Lokhvitsa, more than 120 miles behind the city itself.

Kiev was the third of Barbarossa’s major pocket battles, and the greatest. Serious resistance ended around September 24; mopping up took ten days longer. German official figures give more than 800 tanks and almost 3,500 guns captured, along with more than 650,000 prisoners. Salvaging the equipment and transferring the men took weeks. Kiev was also the smoothest of the envelopments. Leakage was minimal—only around 15,000 Soviet soldiers managed to escape across the steppe. Panzer Group 1 was worn thin, like a long-used knife blade. Winter was close enough for Rundstedt to recommend suspending operations. On October 1, Kleist’s men, renamed the 1st Panzer Army, instead turned south first to the Sea of Azov, then toward Rostov and the oil fields of the Caucasus, 180 degrees away from the revitalized attack on Moscow the High Command was calling Operation Typhoon.

The upgrading of Panzer Group 1, and eventually all the rest, to army status was more than cosmetic retitling. On one hand it was positive: a recognition that the mobile forces’ effectiveness depended heavily on the kind of autonomy denied when they were subordinated to army commanders rather than reporting directly to the army groups. In particular the tension between Guderian and Hoth and their nominal superior von Kluge had contributed significantly to a level of friction and delay clearly unaffordable in the circumstances of the Russo-German War. On the other side of the coin, establishing the higher panzer headquarters as armies downgraded their specialist function. Increasingly they would be used in the same way as other armies, commanding mixed bags of mobile and marching divisions, occupying sectors as often as conducting mobile operations—in short, following the patterns developing in Army Group North but on a larger scale.

Kiev remains a subject of controversy among scholars and soldiers. One school argues that the operation was a digression. It did not end the war; the USSR did not collapse. Instead, Kiev (and Leningrad) further strained an already overextended panzer force. Kiev arguably delayed the attack on Moscow by a month, giving the Red Army and General Winter time that could not have been bought in battle. But Kiev also destroyed or neutralized massive Soviet forces that would have been available against the right flank of the Moscow offensive. Nor could Stalin and his generals overlook the near-free strategic hand Kiev gave Rundstedt in southern Ukraine: diversion of strength and attention is usually a two-way process. And as Robert M. Citino dryly puts it, “Can any battle that nets 665,000 prisoners be considered a mistake?” Even the USSR’s deployable resources, human and material, were not infinitely renewable.

Kiev was a crucial benchmark in another, no less decisive way. On September 24, a series of explosions shook the city. Preset, remote-controlled demolitions started fires that destroyed much of what remained intact after the fighting. Hitler ordered retribution. The army enthusiastically cooperated not for the first time in such exercises, but in a visible, spectacular way that made its position on the Jewish question unmistakable. Its culmination was the shooting of more than 30,000 Jews at Babi Yar—an operation that would have been impossible without army-supplied transport, administration, and area security.

Events in Kiev reinforced the growing awareness among Russians who had worked and sacrificed to build a Soviet future that the Germans were no less committed to destroying that future. The Soviet people did not become overnight the united and determined force of Communist myth. Panic, looting, wildcat strikes—a general breakdown of law and order prevailed in Moscow during the fighting. Well before then, however, it was increasingly obvious that whatever might be wrong with the USSR, it was nothing the Germans could fix—or wanted to.

Stalin’s obscene treatment of his own people had created a significant opportunity the Germans failed to utilize. Stalin himself acknowledged the possibility in a speech of May 1945. Prospects for extending individual and local cooperation with occupation into a call for a joint war against Soviet tyranny nevertheless foundered from the beginning on Nazi-structured racism. Hitler forbade any consideration of Slavs as allies. Independently of Hitler, atrocities became a rear-area norm. Soldiers took snapshots of mass hangings and mass shootings, often sending them home to their families. Such messages as “1,153 Jewish looters shot,” or “2,200 Jews shot,” grew into boasts of 20,000, 30,000 shootings and more.

These body counts had little to do with actually fighting partisans. The vast, consistent discrepancy between the numbers of weapons seized and people executed make that point eloquently. The perpetrators submitted detailed reports to Berlin in codes so simple that British intelligence had been reading them since 1939. The information went unpublicized because the British government believed its release would jeopardize other code-breaking operations deemed vital to the war effort—especially the decryption of German raidio messages by the ULTRA operation.

Nor was the work confined to Nazi organizations. Einsatzgruppen, Waffen SS, and army “ field-grays” came together in a common cause across occupied Russia. While generals like Leeb and Bock offered token protests, Reichenau called for “severe and just retribution against subhuman Jewry” and for a campaign of terror against all Russians. Hoth issued a more extreme version. Guderian declared he “made the order his own.” Manstein, promoted to army command in the Crimea, took up his new post by demanding the eradication of partisans and “Jewish Bolsheviks.”

Arguably more crucial to the war’s metastasizing brutalization were the junior officers. In 1939 about half still came from more or less traditional sources: the educated middle classes broadly defined. With the outbreak of war, combat experience became the dominant criterion. There was less and less time to provide more than basic instruction to officer candidates who saw their survival to date as prima facie proof of skill and luck, and who tended to regard training courses in the Fatherland as an opportunity for unauthorized rest and recreation. After the fall of 1942, any German over sixteen could become an army officer if he served acceptably at the front, demonstrated the proper character, believed in the Nazi cause, and was racially pure. The Waffen SS was more overtly egalitarian, but its basic criteria were essentially the same.

This relative democratization in good part reflected the growing synergy between National Socialist ideology and the demands of the front. Hitler wanted young men “as tough as leather, as fleet as grey-hounds, and as hard as Krupp steel,” correspondingly unburdened by reflection or imagination. The Red Army at its best did not offer sophisticated tactical opposition. What division and regimental commanders wanted in subordinates was tough men physically and morally, those willing to lead from the front and publicly confident in even the most desperate situations. One might speculate, indeed, that a steady supply of twentysomething lieutenants with wound badges and attitudes helped older, wiser, and more tired majors and colonels to suppress their own doubts about Hitler and his war. And men with such conditioning were more likely to encourage than restrain aggressive behavior against “others” and “outsiders.”

FIRST T-34 (Model 40) Part I

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. The heavy tank design bureau In Leningrad had reversed many years of Soviet practice by naming their new tank the Klimenti Voroshilov, or KV after the egregious Defence Commissar. With some courage, Koshkin told Voroshilov that the new tank should not be named after another hero of the Soviet Union; rather they should return to using the traditional designations. Koshkin suggested the designation T-34 to commemorate the 1934 state decree which ordered a massive expansion of the Soviet armoured forces. It was also the year that Koshkin had had his first ideas about the new tank. Accordingly, Koshkin’s proposal was accepted.

Once the team received official sanction to build a purely tracked medium tank, they had returned to their original design for the A-32. The T-34 required thicker armour, but it also needed to be equipped with more firepower as well as a reliable transmission. Morozov and the transmission group devoted considerable time and effort to finding a solution to these problems.

The two prototypes were ready by January 1940, and Koshkin took them on a gruelling trial march to prove the hardiness of the design. He drove them from Kharkov to Moscow, and here the tank was presented to the Red Army. Following this presentation, they were sent on to Finland for combat tests against the Mannerheim Line, but unfortunately they arrived too late to see any action. However, Koshkin and his team were able to demonstrate the power of the T-34’s armament against captured Finnish bunkers. There were further firing trials in Minsk, and then it was on to Kiev, and finally back to Kharkov. This round trip had covered a distance of 2880km (1800 miles) in the bitter weather of February and March.

During June the drawings were completed and mass production began. The first production T-34 Model 1940 rolled out of Kharkov in September 1940. During the gruelling winter test-drive, Koshkin had contracted pneumonia, and he died on 26 September 1940. Morozov, now head of conceptual design, took over the T-34 project.


As the T-34 was produced from different factories, models and types varied. In August 1939, the Soviet Main Military Council accepted the T-34 as the Red Army’s medium battle tank. The new design was completed during December 1939 and became known as the T-34 (Model 1940). On 19 December 1939, the drawings and models of the new T-34 were submitted to the High Command, which accepted them for production, even though the prototype had not yet been completed.


The chassis, based on the Christie system, had five pairs of large road wheels with a gap between the second and third. Each wheel’s suspension was independently mounted, and transversely swung on a vertical coil spring inside the hull. The drive sprocket was mounted at the rear to reduce vulnerability. It was the same roller type used on the BTs. The drive sprockets drove wide, 483mm (19in) skeleton-type cast-manganese steel tracks with centre guide horns positioned on alternate track links.

The system had an interesting and ingenious method of retaining its track pins. The roundhead pins were inserted from the inside; there was no retaining device used on the track itself. Instead, a curved wiper plate was welded to each side of the hull at the rear, level with the top run of the track. Therefore, any loose track pin passing the wiper plate in motion was immediately knocked back into place. The method also allowed the rapid removal and replacement of track blocks, considerably easing and speeding up maintenance and repairs in the field. The wide tracks provided a small specific ground pressure not exceeding 0.7-0.75kg per cm (10-10.6Ib per in), while that of British, German and American medium and heavy tanks was 0.95-lkg per cm (13.1-13.9Ib per in). Track guards covered the top of the suspension system and extended 25cm(9.8in) beyond the hull at the front and 10cm (3. 9in) at the rear. The suspension permitted the T-34 to retain high speeds even when moving over rough terrain, while the wide tracks on the tank, weighing only 28.3 tonnes (28 tons), meant that it could traverse muddy terrain, as well as snow-covered ground.


The first production-line models were fitted with V-2 diesel engines, but shortages meant that some of these early models were equipped with the older M-17 petrol engine. Problems with transmissions were such that the T-34/76 (Model 40) often went into battle with spare transmission units secured to the engine compartment deck by steel cables.

The Model 40 had a rolled plate turret and a short 76.2mm (3in) L/30.3 (L-11) Model 1938 tank gun mounted in a distinctive cast cradle welded to a flush outside mantle. The Model 40 established a standardization pattern among the T-34 variants of having a great number of interchangeable parts, such as engine, armament, transmission and periscopes. Mechanical simplicity was a prime concern. The hull was of a welded construction throughout, with only three different thickness of rolled plate armour.

The Christie suspension had five large, double road wheels on each side, with a noticeably larger gap between the second and third wheels. The drive sprocket, located for safety to the rear, was of the roller type used on the BT series and powered a cast manganese-steel track with centre guide horns on alternative track links. This first model of the T-34 had a distinctive turret overhang and a clumsy turret hatch occupying the entire rear part of the turret. The Model 40 had one periscope fitted on the front lefthand side. In late 1941, a small number were fitted with the long-barrelled, high velocity 57mm (2.24in) ZiS-4 gun, to engage light armoured vehicles at greater ranges than the 76.2mm (0.303in) L-ll.

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.

FIRST T-34 (Model 40) Part II


The early T-34 Model 1940 was armed with the short 76.2mm (3in) L-11 Model 1938 rifled gun with a length of 30.5 calibres. During 1941 a very small number of T-34s were fitted with the 57mm (2.24in) ZiS-4 long-barrelled high-velocity weapon, which was intended for engaging lightly armed vehicles at longer ranges. The high velocity of this weapon compensated for the loss of calibre, and the L-11 remained the standard gun on the Model 1940 production run, although it was not exactly up to the standard that the Soviets were seeking for a gun, and the T-34 designers were not totally satisfied with the weapon.

Fortunately there was a better gun available, although Soviet bureaucracy and the interference of Kulik, the head of the GAO, did much to hamper its introduction. Grabin and his team at Zavod Nr 92 already had a new 76.2mm (3in) gun in production. The F-32 was being fitted to the new KV heavy tank and was achieving much better antiarmour performance than the T-34 Model 1940s L-11, due to its longer barrel.

By the end of 1940 a member of Grabin’s team, P. Muraviev, had adapted Grabin’s F-32 gun for the T-34 and produced a weapon (the longer F-34 with 42 calibres) considerably superior to the L-11. In a move showing considerable initiative and courage, Grabin and the director of Zavod Nr 92, A. Elyan, began producing the F-34 alongside the L-11 and shipped them to the Kharkov plant which was building the T-34. The initial F-34 guns were completed in January 1941 and the first T-34s, usually classified as the T-34 Model 1941, armed with the F-34, rolled out in February 1941.

They were mainly used as platoon and company commander tanks, and proved very popular in combat after the German invasion, due to their increased hitting power. Stalin became aware of the new version through front-line correspondence. So as units involved in the fighting demanded more tanks equipped with the F-34, rather than the less effective L-11, the Main Defence Committee finally authorized the F-34 in the summer of 1941.The 76.2mm (3in) F-34 Model 1940 (42-calibre length) gun equipped all subsequent models of T-34 until increases in German armour protection led to the adoption of an 85mm (3.34in) gun in late 1943, though tanks armed with the F-34 remained in service until the end of the war.


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.


By the time of the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, the KhPZ and the Stalingrad Tank Factory had built about 1,226 T-34/76 tanks for the Red Army, which was roughly an equal mix of Model 1940 and Model 1941. However, at the start of Operation Barbarossa, only 5 percent of the Red Army’s tanks were T-34s and 2 percent were KV heavy tanks, meaning that the bulk of Soviet armored forces were still composed of obsolescent light tanks. Approximately 982 T-34/76 and 466 KV-1 tanks were deployed in the Western military districts at the start of the invasion. Yet despite all its technical promise, the initial combat debut of the T-34/76 in 1941 was a disaster due to inadequate training and skimpy logistics. The T-34’s baptism of fire occurred m Lithuania near Rassinye, when about 50 T-34s from the 3rd Tank Regiment/2nd Tank Division mounted a clumsy counterattack against the spearheads of the 1st and 6th Panzer Divisions between June 24 and 25. Although the T-34s caused a brief panic when 37mm AT guns failed to penetrate their armor, the Soviet attack was stopped by a few 88mm flak guns.

General Pavlov had left GABTU to command the Western Front just before the start of the war. Pavlov’s command included the 6th Mechanized Corps, one of the Red Army’s strongest armored formations with 238 T-34 tanks. Unfortunately for Pavlov, the 6th Mechanized Corps had no armor-piercing (AP) rounds for the T-34s and only one load of fuel per tank. Due to security concerns, few T-34 crewmen had actually been trained. The best-designed tank in the world is merely scrap iron if it does not have ammunition, fuel, or a trained crew, and that was the condition of virtually all the T-34 units in the summer of 1941. The 6th Mechanized Corps and all its vital T-34s were annihilated in the first two weeks of the war without accomplishing anything of consequence. By early July, about half the available T-34 and KV-1 tanks had been lost as the Soviet border armies were destroyed, and most of the remaining pre-war T-34s were lost in the Kiev Pocket. When Pavlov’s command was wiped out in the Minsk Pocket, he was recalled to Moscow and executed.

The T-34’s Overall Combat Results in 1941

The combat results for 1941 show the Soviets lost an average of over seven tanks for every German tank lost. If all German fully tracked AFVs (assault guns, tank destroyers, SP artillery, etc) and losses from Germany’s allies are included in the German figures, then the ratio drops to 6.6 to 1 in the German favour.

Of the total of 20,500 Soviet tanks lost in 1941, approximately 2,300 were T-34s and over 900 were mostly KV heavy tanks. Even if the T-34’s loss ratio was better than seven for every German tank, it was still most likely in the region of four or five to one. Frankly, if 2,300 of any new Wehrmacht tank type had been lost within six months of its first deployment, even with a loss ratio of one to one (let alone 0.2-0.3 to one), then most WWII historians would have described the tank’s combat record as an unmitigated disaster.

More informed commentaries relating to the T-34’s combat performance in 1941 consider factors such as: the T-34 tank crews had little time to train on their machines, they had major ammunition supply problems, and the support infrastructures were not in place to recover damaged machines. These arguments have a lot more merit than the ‘only small numbers available’ or the ‘committed in small packets’ arguments. There is no doubt that a large proportion of T-34s in 1941 fell victim to operational type losses, especially in the situations the Red Army found itself in during the summer of 1941. Many T-34s had little or no armour piercing ammunition in June 1941, although they did in the months that followed. Many T-34s were abandoned and lost due to breakdown, being bogged down or simply out of fuel. The Red Army’s tank divisions, already short of tractors, had little to no recovery vehicles or even time to recover these tanks. However, even if we assume a staggering 40-50% of T-34s were operational losses (which is probably too high an estimate), then the T-34’s loss ratio in tactical combat is still around two-three to one in the German favour.

The T-34’s Design Weaknesses

When one considers the apparent superiority of the T-34, the question has to be asked: why did the T-34 consistently suffer at least a two-three to one loss ratio against ‘inferior and obsolescent’ enemy tanks in tactical combat, i.e. when actually shooting at each other? Either the German’s combat proficiency was supernatural, the Soviet’s combat proficiency was unbelievably incompetent, or there were design flaws inherent in the T-34 as a complete weapon system which are not apparent in a cursory analysis of combat power based on armour and gun penetration. I believe the latter to be the case. The T-34/76’s one great weakness was its fire control efficiency. It suffered from the same two-man turret syndrome as other Soviet tanks in this period, namely that the tank’s commander, gun aimer, gunner and platoon commander (if a platoon leader), were all the same person. Exacerbating this was the fact that the T-34/76 had relatively poor main gun optics quality, no turret basket, a very cramped and low turret (the gun could not depress more than three degrees severely restricting use on a reverse slope or at close range), poor turret drive reliability, no radios, and generally poor target observation and indicator devices (including no turret cupola and only one vision periscope for the tank’s commander). All these factors are considered in detail in calculating a tank’s Fire Control Effect (FCE). The T-34 is discussed here as a case history. In summary, the T-34/76’s inherent fire control efficiency was so bad that even well trained and experienced tank crews were put at a severe disadvantage. For inexperienced tank crews, with no radios and probably no organised combined arms support, it was a disaster.

So what was the result of the T-34/76’s two man turret, weak optics and poor vision devices (that is a poor overall FCE factor)? German tankers noted “T-34s operated in a disorganised 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 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”. The Germans noted the T-34 was very slow to find and engage targets while the Panzers could typically get off three rounds for every one fired by the T-34.

A combat account from Operation Barbarossa highlights the problem with the T-34/76’s fire control systems and also why its overall combat power is so overrated. “Remarkably enough, one determined 37mm gun crew reported firing 23 times against a single T-34 tank, only managing to jam the tank’s turret ring”. In this engagement T-34 proponents will highlight the impunity of the T-34 to the 37mm Pak 36 AT gun. However this is hardly surprising against a gun that can only penetrate 29mm of 30 degree sloped armour at 500metres with ordinary AP ammunition. What is really important in this story is that the AT gun managed to get 23 shots off, and it turns out that the T-34 in this report didn’t even manage to hit the AT gun. Once better AT guns appeared, which they rapidly did, T-34s would be lucky to survive 2-3 rounds. Contemporary German tank crews would have been be appalled if they let enemy AT guns get more than two rounds off before they took defensive action. This example highlights the difference between tanks designed to optimise all their fire control related systems and hence maximise their firepower, and those that weren’t.

WWII Myths – T-34 Best Tank of the war


Soviet Aviadezantnaya Samochodnaya Ustankova or airborne self-propelled gun. The ASU equipments of the Soviet army are specialized self-propelled antitank and direct support guns, developed for airborne delivery. There are two types, the ASU-57 and the ASU-85.

The ASU-85 is a heavier vehicle, based on the chassis of the PT-76 tank, though the ASU version is not amphibious. The gun is an 85-mm/53-cal weapon and is fitted with a fume extractor and a muzzle brake. It can achieve a muzzle velocity of about 800 m/sec (2600 ft/sec) firing armour-piercing shell. The vehicle is air-transportable by fixed-wing aircraft only, due to its weight, and has an armour basis of 40 mm. Night vision equipment and an NBC system are fitted as standard. First seen in Soviet service in 1962. it appeared in the Polish army in 1964 and later in the East German army. The 85mm gun is effective against light armour and its own thicker armour provides more effective protection for paratroop units, which because of their airborne weight restrictions are woefully short of effective artillery support weapons. The increased weight of 14 tonnes means that the ASU-85 cannot be para-dropped but nevertheless is air-transportable. Each Soviet air- borne division fields 18 ASU-85s and since their introduction in 1961 they have seen service in Prague in 1968 and more recently in Afghanistan.

The Soviet Airborne Forces used the ASU-85 in airborne operations. Its primary role was light infantry support or assault, with limited anti-tank capability. Each Airborne Division had one assault gun battalion with 31 ASU-85. The Polish 6th Pomeranian Airborne Division (Polish: 6 Pomorska Dywizja Powietrzno-Desantowa) had an equal number.

The ASU-85 became possible with the introduction of the Mi-6 and Mi-10 helicopters and high-capacity multi-chute and retro-rocket systems for fixed wing-drops. It was first observed by NATO in 1962, and was widely used by Soviet and Polish airborne units.

During the Soviet–Afghan War, Soviet Airborne troops used ASU-85s in combat.

In early 2016, Vietnam expressed interest in an upgrade package for the ASU-85 that includes more powerful powerpack that increases road speed from 45 to 60 km/h (28 to 37 mph) and cruising range from 400 to 450 km (250 to 280 mi).

TypeAssault gun
Place of originSoviet Union
Service history
In service1959–1993
Used bySoviet Union
WarsWarsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia
Soviet–Afghan War
Production history
DesignerAstrov Design Bureau
Mass15.5 tonnes (34,171 lb)
Length8.49 m (27 ft 10 in)
Width2.80 m (9 ft 2 in)
Height2.10 m (6 ft 11 in)
Armor40–45 mm
85 mm main gun D-70 (2A15)
1× 7.62 mm PKT or SGMT coaxial machine gun
EngineYaMZ-206V 6 cylinder inline water-cooled diesel engine
210 hp (154 kW)
Power/weight13.5 hp/tonne
Suspensiontorsion bar
Fuel capacity400 l
230 km (161 mi)
Speed45 km/h (28 mph)