A landmark in tank history
The T-34 was and remains a legend. It is not only the most produced tank of WWII, with 84,000 in built (compared to the 48,966 Shermans of all versions) but also one of the longest-serving tanks ever built. Many are still extent in depots in Asia and Africa, some served actively during the 90’s (like during the 1991-99 Yugoslavian war). They were part of countless armored forces around the globe from the fifties to the eighties. The basic design was drawn for the first time in 1938 with the A-32, derived from the BT-7M, a late evolution of the US-borne Christie tank. The first version T-34/76 came as a nasty surprise for the overconfident German troops in the fall of 1941, when it was first committed en masse. The Germans had nothing comparable. Not only were they able to cope with the mud and snow with their large tracks, but they came with a perfect combination of thick and highly sloped armor, efficient gun, good speed and autonomy and, above all, extreme sturdiness, reliability, ease of manufacturing and maintenance. A perfect winner for an industrial war and a significant leap in tank design.
Early precursor: The T-32
From the BT-IS, A-20, the BT-SV’s sloped armor (1936) to the five roadwheel T-32, the blueprint of the T-34 was set up far before the war. The team lead by engineer Mikhail Koshkin promised Stalin to replace the BT series with a better “universal tank”. It designed a sloped armored box encasing a powerful diesel V12 engine, less sensitive than high octane petrol engines, both to increase range and to avoid bursting in flames too easily, as the BT-5 and BT-7 did during the war against Japan in Manchuria.
The first prototype of the T-34 was an improved T-32 with thickened armor, which successfully completed field trials at Kubinka and was simplified for mass production. It was ready as early as the beginning of 1939. The USSR was rearming at the time. The first two pre-series rolled out of the KhPZ factory in Kharkov (Ukraine) during the very first month of 1940, under the patronage of Serguei Ordzhonikidze. From April to May they underwent a large array of hard trials, rolling through 2000 km (1242 mi) from Kharkov to the Mannerheim line in Finland and back to the factory via Moscow.
T-34 model 1940
The T-34 was largely improved during trials and mass production was set up in September by Koshkin’s successor, chief designer Alexander Morozov. All previous models, the T-26, the BT-7 and the heavy multi-turreted T-28 were all dropped to make room for the new medium tank. Production was also separated, Leningrad furnishing the L-11 gun, Kharkov the diesel V12, Moscow the electrical components and the armored hull and final assembly were performed at the Stalingrad tractor factory. After July 1941, all the vulnerable production centers saw a huge relocation effort to the east.
Only Stalingrad remained in place until the very end of the battle, at the beginning of 1943 and Von Paulus’ capitulation. But the model 1940 was hampered by various deficiencies. The complex hull front armor piece was difficult to manufacture, there was a shortage of V12 diesels, so most of the model 1940 series tanks were equipped with the BT tank’s Mikulin M-17 engine at Gorky factory, as well as provisional transmission and clutch. The initial L-11 76 mm (2.99 in) gun was criticized for having a low muzzle velocity and the F-34 was designed instead at Gorky. It was later put into production, equipping the first units in July 1941.
When all designed components were brought together, the new T-34s series was equipped with the final 76.2 mm (3 in) gun, and was the basis for all versions until 1944. It was known as the T-34/76, as opposed to the later T-34/85. A new improved coil-spring Christie suspension was fitted, as well as the intended V12 diesels and adapted clutch and transmission. The 10-RT 26E radio set was replaced by the 9-RS model and the tracks were slightly enlarged. The frontal armor was simplified for mass production, as well as many other elements. When out in business, the T-34 had no equivalent in the world. It was able to combine almost to perfection the magic triangle of speed, armor and armament.
The sloped armor was a good solution to deflect most hits while retaining some thickness. First encounters in July 1941 proved that no German tank was able to reliably score a penetration. To the disappointment of the officers, their shots simply bounced off these well-armored machines. The need for a more powerful gun, with very high velocity was the origin of the Panther design (Panzer V). The T-34 was equipped with a variety of hatches and turrets during its lifespan, but almost all had their upper hull equipped with railings to allow Soviet troops to travel on the tank, supplementing the lack of transports. None was ever equipped with an anti-aircraft mount and many were lost because of this in 1944 due to the new Stuka antitank conversions (Ju-87G).
The T-34/76 was the mainstay of the Red Army from 1941 to the end of 1944, when sufficient T-34/85’s, a new tank in some aspects, gradually replaced them. The T-34 was a real shock for the Germans, as they had nothing like it. The sloped armor proved highly effective, despite their relatively low muzzle velocity gun, which was favorably compared to the guns of Panzer III and IV of the time. Their diesel was sturdy and able to cope with almost all extreme weather conditions, their wide tracks were perfectly shaped to cope with the “raspoutista” (a sea of mud) in autumn and the snow in winter. It was way easier to produce than all Panzer models so far, such that for many frontline German units the T-34 seemed invincible. It was not true of course. A well placed hit between the tracks and wheels could still disable them. And on the defensive the German 88 mm (3.46 in) guns butchered them mercilessly.
At the end of 1942 came a new version, the model 1942, limited to minor improvements to crew comfort and vision systems. The 76 mm (2.99 in) gun could fire high explosive rounds as well as armor-piercing ones. These were fatal to all Panzers except the late, heavily protected versions of the Panzer IV. In association with the slower, but impregnable KV-1, they paired in hundreds of “kill teams”. But German tactics, like in France, proved superior, and both well coordinated Stuka attacks as well as the 88 mm (3.46 in) guns prevented the Russian T-34s from overwhelming the enemy. During the Moscow winter campaign and later at Stalingrad, the T-34s were massively engaged for the first time and overwhelmed German defenses. German tanks were crippled by the icy weather.
The rubber from the wheels peeled off, the engines were slow to start and had to be slowly warmed up, machine-guns often jammed and mobility was almost impossible as the narrow tracks of the Panzer III and IV caused them to literally sink in the snow. Plus, bad weather prevented any aerial support, preventing any help from the Luftwaffe. However, the new Panther proved lethal at long range against the T-34, which still had to catch its prey in close combat in order to penetrate the German tank. These tactics proved decisive at Kursk, when hundred of Panthers and Tigers, while being efficient at long range, were overwhelmed by thousands of T-34s striking from all sides. Just like Sherman tanks, two or more T-34s were sacrificed in order to allow others to flank their foe, hitting their vulnerable rear.
The T-34 was not the “perfect” tank the Germans had thought. Poor quality assembly, uncaring molting components and many other deficiencies, combined with overall very harsh running conditions as well as low training skills, sometimes inept commanders, took their toll on every division equipped with the T-34. In some occurrences, more than half of the tanks engaged in combat were lost due to mechanical breakdowns and other teething problems. The diesels were particularly sensitive to dust and sand. The first filters were proven ineffective. Final assembly of the transmission and clutches often caused a serious amount of vibrations and sometimes collapses.
It was not unusual to see entire spare transmissions and other mechanical parts stowed everywhere possible, between extra fuel tanks, tarpaulin, shovel, pick axe, iron cable and, of course, spare tracks sections. The usual picture of a T-34 advancing quickly with entire platoons installed on their hull, was rarely more than a rare occurrence, for short range tactics, or even pure propaganda. In fact poor logistics made the T-34 resembling, at least at the beginning, supply armored trucks. Assembly lines, due to the German fast advance, were relocated and painfully put to work in harsh conditions (sometimes machine tools were operational before any roof was installed) at the Dzherzhinski Ural Railcar Factory in Nizhny Tagil and Stalin Tractor Factory in Chelyabinsk (“tankograd”). But until the fall of 1942, the biggest production was on the eastern part of Stalingrad. T-34s were thrown into combat right at the factory door.
The T-34/76 model 1941
This model was a departure from the previous 1940 model. Almost everything was put under scrutiny for mass production, like the new gun mount, the welded turret with a new, single, wide hatch, and many other parts. The single hatch was added for ease of production, but it was heavy and easily jammed, trapping everybody inside. In fact it was hated by the crews (which suffered from poor comfort and poor ergonomics), being quickly dubbed the “pirozhok” (stuffed bun). The very large rear exhaust covers were another feature, which did not stand for long however. The turret lacked sufficient protection for the commander, with no special-purpose hatch, traversable periscope.
The T-34 (left) and T-43 (right) side to side. The T-43 was a heavier derivative of the T-34, with the aim to replace both the KV-1 and the T-34. It had a much thicker armor, torsion-bar suspension and a three-man turret. After Kursk the project was canceled, as both mobility and armor thickness were insufficient facing the Tiger’s 88 mm (3.46 in).
The single heavy hatch, forward-opening, had a single vision slit, often blurred or dirty. Moreover, the commander was also responsible for loading the gun, due to the four men crew. This was not corrected until the introduction of the three men turret with the T-34/85. Later on, many models had additional armor plating like the model 1942 ekranami (“with plates”) to answer the latest German gun development. The amour was largely improved compared to the 1940 model (or “model A”). Some 324 T-34 model Bs were rearmed with a special high-velocity 57 mm (2.24 in) gun ZiS-4 or ZiS-4M, under the name of T-34/57, and used as tank-hunters, notably during the battle of Moscow.
The T-34/76 models 1942 to 1944
As the standardized machine tools used for the T-34 were not easily adaptable, production specifics were limited. Many features of the T-34 remained unchanged until 1943, despite the complaints of the crews and their commanders. Even simpler and cheaper parts and methods were applied, like automated welding and plate hardening. For example, the common F-34 gun was simplified to the point that nearly 200 pieces less were needed (from 861 to 614). The gun sights and range finder remained crude, despite the fact that several gun mounts were alternatively used. These were the most common F-34 L/42.5, the TMFD-7 and the PT4-7, which prevented the crews from using their guns at long range like the Germans. This led to aggressive tactics based on constant maneuvering, while the German tanks could stand for long and fire at approaching targets from a distance.
The lack of rubber usually prevented the use of normal wheels, many bare-metal wheels of a different design were used and sometimes the tracks looked as a strange mix. But in early 1942 came the better model D turret, a sub-product of the abandoned T-34M project, which was a great improvement over previous models. Notably, the big hatch was removed and replaced by separated hatches (dubbed “Mickey mouse” by the Germans) with, at the fall of 1943, a new specially-designed all-round vision commander cupola. Despite of this, production cost was halved and production time reduced by 50% despite the fact that most of the workers, now gone to the battlefield, were replaced by women, children and half-invalids or elderly. In 1943 T-34 production rate was about 1300 per month. Quality standards were poor and they were roughly finished, even by US mass production standards. The last model was the T-34/76 G or model 1944, with the simplified ZiS S-53 gun, turret radio and improved commander sights. However, production was gradually decreased to the profit of the largely better T-34/85.
As the war went on, German Panzers greatly improved, mostly to deal with the T-34. Not only did many tank-hunters appear, but also the later generations of the Panzer IV with additional armor plates, the Panther and, of course, the Tiger. The Morozov design bureau was well aware of the limitations of their 76 mm (2.99 in) gun, especially after the battle of Kursk, like its insufficient range and armor-piercing capabilities. A new high velocity model was needed, which was derived from a successful anti-aircraft gun, the ZiS 85 mm (3.35 in), mimicking the legendary German Flak 88 mm (3.46 in). The project targeting to replace both the KV-1 and the T-34 was the T-43.
After the battle of Kursk the -T43 was abandoned and the turret used to improve the T-34, in what will become known as the T-34/85. There were mostly two major improvements, the first being the new gun, much more effective, and a brand new turret and more internal space for five crew members. The commander was discharged of every task but command only. This new version proved far superior and gradually replaced earlier versions. However, the overall T-34 production rate significantly increased. In 1944, this was not a problem, since there was a large inventory available to supply the T-34. The T-34/85 was not immune to the Tiger, the 88 mm (3.46 in) and the Pak 40. The higher turret was also an easier target. Production of the T-34/85 reached 22,559, largely superior to any German figures for the superior Panther and Tiger.
Since the war went terribly wrong for the Soviets until December 1942 at least, many T-34s were captured during the Blitzkrieg. Abandoned tanks were often found in somewhat good condition. Mechanical problems were likely the cause due hasty production with poor quality standards, no maintenance and brutal handling, or lack of orders and fuel. Entire units were also captured or even depots, not evacuated on time. And of course, all the tanks which were disabled in combat, but not beyond repair. In the process, the Wehrmacht incorporated an estimated 400 tanks, of nearly all models from the model 1940 to the 1943, under the name of Panzerkampfwagen T-34(r) or T-34 747(r) for the T-34/76. Since the Germans were impressed by these tanks (Guderian, Von Kleist and Blumentritt among others), they took all possible means to restore and return to battle those valuable prizes. Most of the time, they changed almost nothing but a German-specific camouflage and very large Balkankreuz’ were painted on the turret, hull and roof. Large swastikas were also used in order to be unmistakable by German attack planes and tank crews which usually preferred to rely on silhouettes. They also added more equipment and, as the events went, added extra armored plates on the sides and later, on the T-34/85, turret armor plates.
The first Axis user of the T-34 was the regular Wehrmacht, which incorporated many models 1941 and far more models 1942 in the 1st, 8th and 11th Panzer Divisions during the summer of 1941. All captured units were sent to a Riga workshop, but also Marienfeld and Goerlitz, receiving new radios, fitted with a German-style commander cupola, new hatches and other small equipment. Many badly damaged T-34s were kept as spare part reserves or turrets were removed and mounted on the many armored trains (Panzerzug) which roamed the Eastern front. Other served as training tanks, but the biggest part were used in regular units and some by the SS units, like the 3rd SS Panzer Division “Totenkopf” and “Das Reich”. They added Schürzen (armor skirts), Notek lights, storage boxes, tools, radios and commander cupolas removed from damaged Panzer IIIs and IVs. These units also incorporated a handful of supply T-34 conversions (Munitionspanzer T-34(r)) and a few AA conversions (Flakpanzer T-34(r)). The Ukrainian “Liberation Force” of Vlasov also used many captured T-34s, which showed a blazon with the traditional St Andre cross and “ROA” (for Russian Volunteer Army). The Finns also captured many T-34s and painted them with a three-tone camouflage and large swastikas.
The Cold War & exports
The T-34/85 was still produced after the end of the war in September 1945. They formed the bulk of the Soviet summer offensive of August 1945 in Manchuria. They proved far superior to any Japanese tanks or guns. It was still cheap to produce, relatively easy to maintain and was overall superior to many Allied tanks at the time, but inferior to the British Centurion, the American M26 Pershing and the last developments of the M4 Sherman. With huge stocks available and new tank generations derived from the IS-3 (like the mass-production T-54/55), many T-34s were sent to the USSR allies and satellite states behind the iron curtain. They ultimately formed the bulk of their armored force until the early 60s, seeing action during the Korean war, with North Korean and Chinese forces (which used the local built Type 58).
They also formed the core of many Arab countries’ armored forces in the Middle East (like Syria and Egypt), then opposing souped-up Shermans and the definitely better Israeli Centurions. They also formed an essential part (with more recent T-54s and T-55s) of North Vietnamese regular armored regiments. They were sold to many emergent countries, sometimes barely modernized with better optics and electronics, and remain in service until the end of the Cold War. Users are or were: Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Finland, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Laos, Mongolia, North Korea, Palestine, Pakistan, People’s Republic of China, Syria, Vietnam, South Yemen, North Yemen, Africa, Algeria, Angola, Republic of Congo, Egypt, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Mali, Mozambique, Namibia, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, and Zimbabwe.
T-34/76 mod.41 specifications
|Dimensions (l-w-h)||6.68 x3 x2.45 m (21.92 x9.84 x8.04 ft)|
|Total weight, battle read:||26.5 tons|
|Propulsion||V12, 500 bhp @2200 rpm|
|Speed||53 km/h (33 mph)|
|Range/consumption||400 km (250 mi)/900 liters|
|Armament||Main: L11 76.2 mm (3 in) gun
Secondary: 2x DT 7.62 mm (0.3 in) machine-guns
|Armor||Front and sides upper hull up to 47 mm (1.85 in)
Hull top/bottom 20/15 mm (0.79-0.59 in)
Turret 16 to 60 mm (0.63-2.36 in)
|Total production||35,120 (84,070 with T-34/85)|
The T-34/76 model 1940 was the first production version, largely derived from the previous A-20 and T-32 pre-series. Hundreds of them were about to be put in service in July 1941. Around 150 were ready when Operation Barbarossa was launched. They performed well despite the lack of training of their crews and inept command, just like the KV-1. The Panzers couldn\’t match them in single combat, but there were a only handful of them, largely spread on a gigantic front.
A T-34 of the Moscow Rifles Guard Battalion, summer 1941. This three-tone camouflage pattern was quite rare and only appears in a handful of photographs.
A T-34/76 model 1941 with a very unusual two tone winter livery of the Soviet Red Guards, in the fall of 1941. This scheme was perhaps obtained through chemical treatment of the washable white paint over the factory olive green.
The T-34/76 model 1941 was a cheaper and simpler production version of the 1940 model, with many improvements. These included welded elements and a new two-piece cast turret, with a new wide hatch which became one of the striking characteristics of the T-34. Railings were added on the hull, sometimes a standard piece with two folds or a simpler version with a simple tube running all along the upper part of the sloped hull. T-34s were used as improvised transportation devices in the heart of battle, mostly due to their impressive off-road capabilities, that few trucks could match at that time. Here is a model 1941 from the Moscow sector, January 1942. Slogan : “For Stalin, for the USSR.”
T-34/76 model 1942, 5th Guards Army, November 1942.
T-34/76 model 1941/42, transition production from the STZ factory, Stalingrad, January 1942.
T-34/76 model 1942, Finnish sector, lake Ladoga, winter 1942/43. Notice the camouflage made of crossed white paint bands. This created a medium pattern when seen from far away.
The T-34/76 model 1942 didn\’t show major improvements over the 1941 model. A handful of them received the new twin hatches , earning it he “Mickey Mouse” nickname from the Germans. The addition of a better turret and mass production were the main goals of the model 1943 version, with many simplified parts to lower the cost and increase the rate of delivery. At Stalingrad these models, famously built at the “Red October” and “Barricade” factories, were literally thrown into battle at the end of the production line, in bare metal finish, without any kind of markings.
T-34/76 model 1943, Belgorod-Kharkov Offensive, August 1943. Notice the makeshift extra protection, comprising a wooden crate filled with sand and a pruned trunk.
T-34/76 model 1943 at Kharkov, spring 1943. Notice the rare two-tone camouflage, probably applied using sand and some adhesive, and the mixed metal and rubberized road wheels. The T-34/76 model 1943 received the new three-man turret with twin hatches and better optics, which greatly improved the efficiency of the commander.
During the fall of 1943, all vehicles received a new commander cupola, which greatly improved his visibility on the battlefield. However, production standards were poor and many tanks were lost due to mechanical breakdowns. The model 1944 was systematically equipped with the new turret, with a wider commander cupola and some extra armor. External equipment included spare tracks, tools boxes, fuel tanks and improvised protection of all kinds. Of these, for example, were entire pruned trunks, rails, scrap metal and, during the battle of Germany and especially in Berlin, an improvised Panzerfaust defense made of spring beds or various metal frames.
Captured vehicles (Beutepanzer)
Variants & derivatives
T-34/85: the main evolution of the T-34/76. They were basically late production T-34s rearmed with the high-high velocity, long barrel ZiS-S-53 85 mm (33) gun, a derivative of an AA gun, and a brand-new, three-man turret to house it. This version far outlived the war, as the last left the factory in 1958, after a staggering 48,950 had been delivered. It was the blueprint for all Russian MBTs to come during the Cold War.
SU-85: this was the most proficient derivative of the T-34. It used the same chassis, but was equipped with the high velocity 85 mm (3.35 in) ZiS-S-53. Around 3000 were built, but the production was stopped as the first T-34/85s rolled of the production line.
SU-122: a 122 mm (4.8 in) howitzer SPG (1150 built in 1943-44).