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A landmark in tank history
The T-34 was and remains a legend. It is not only the most produced tank of the WWII-era, with 84,000 built (compared to the 48,966 Shermans of all versions) but also one of the longest-serving tanks ever built. Many are still stored in depots in Asia and Africa, and some served actively during the 90’s (such as during the 1991-99 Yugoslavian war). They formed the backbone 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, in turn partially derived from the BT-7M, a late evolution of the US-born Christie tank.
The first version of the 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. 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, 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. While the T-34 did have a number of deficiencies, the T-34’s influence on the future designs and the concept of the main battle tank is unquestionable.
Early precursor: The A-32
From the BT-IS, A-20, the BT-SV’s sloped armor (1936) to the five-roadwheel A-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”. The bureau designed a sloped armored box encasing a powerful diesel V12 engine which was less sensitive than the high-octane petrol engines used in previous Soviet tanks. This was done both to increase the range and to avoid bursting into 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 A-32 with thicker armor, which successfully completed field trials at Kubinka and was simplified for mass production. It was ready as early as the beginning of 1939, as USSR was undergoing a major rearmament plan. The first two pre-series vehicles rolled out of the KhPZ factory in Kharkov (Ukraine) during the very first month of 1940, under the patronage of Sergey Ordzhonikidze. From April to May they underwent a large array of difficult trials, rolling through 2000 km (1242 mi) from Kharkov to the Mannerheim line in Finland and back to the factory via Moscow (sadly, Mikhail Koshkin, the lead designer who took part in the grueling march, became ill and passed away soon after).
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 dropped from production 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, while the final assembly was performed at the Stalingrad tractor factory. After July 1941, all these vulnerable production centers saw a huge relocation effort to the east.
Only Stalingrad production remained in place until the very end of the battle, when Von Paulus’ army capitulated in early 1943. 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 the 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-34 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 (to differentiate it from the later T-34/85). A new and improved coil-spring Christie suspension was fitted, as well as the intended V12 diesel 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 not relying on excessive thickness. First encounters in July 1941 proved that no German tank was able to reliably score a penetration. To the disappointment of the enemy 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 were ever equipped with an anti-aircraft mount and there were losses due to the new Stuka dive bomber antitank conversions (Ju-87G).
The T-34/76 was the mainstay of the Red Army from 1941 to the end of 1944, when sufficient numbers of T-34/85, 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 extreme weather conditions, their wide tracks were perfectly shaped to cope with the “rasputitsa” (a sea of mud) in autumn and the snow in winter. It was much easier to produce than any Panzer model before it and, for many frontline German units, the T-34 seemed like a difficult foe. Of course, that was not always true. 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 had no issues dealing with them.
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. They were sometimes paired with the slower but heavily armored KV-1 tanks. 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 (and troops) 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. Additionally, bad weather interfered with the 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.
V12 Diesel engine at Parola
The T-34 was not the “perfect” tank that history and the internet sometimes make it seem. Poor quality assembly, roughly welded joints, combined with overall very harsh running conditions as well as low training quality, 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 diesel engines were particularly sensitive to dust and sand. The first filters proved ineffective. The transmission and clutches often caused a serious amount of vibrations and occasionally failed. The T-34/76 was also often criticized for its cramped fighting compartment. Regardless of its quality, large numbers of T-34’s were lost due to lack of communications and poor doctrine.
Sometimes entire spare transmissions and other mechanical parts were stowed on the tank, between the extra fuel tanks, next to the tarpaulin, shovel, pickaxe, iron cable and spare track links. At times, the lack of support vehicles forced the T-34’s to become their own support vehicles. In a major relocation effort due to the rapidly advancing German forces, the assembly lines were moved to the Dzerzhinski Ural Railcar Factory in Nizhny Tagil and Stalin Tractor Factory in Chelyabinsk (“Tankograd”), undoubtfully a difficult task for the thousands of people involved. But until the fall of 1942, the biggest part of the production came from eastern Stalingrad. There, the T-34s were thrown into combat right at the factory door.
The T-34/76 model 1941
This model was similar to the previous 1940 model. The most important improvement of Model 1941 was the more efficient, longer-barrelled F-34 76.2 mm gun. Many components were 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 (who suffered due to the poor comfort and poor ergonomics), being quickly dubbed the “pirozhok” (stuffed bun). The very large rear exhaust covers were another feature which did not last long. The turret lacked sufficient protection for the commander, with no special-purpose hatch or traversable periscope.
The T-34 model 1942 (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 the Kursk Battle the project was canceled, as both mobility and armor thickness were insufficient facing the Tiger’s 88 mm (3.46 in) gun.
The single heavy, forward opening hatch had a single vision slit. 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-man turret with the T-34/85. Later on, many models had additional armor plating like the T-34E (“ehkranami” – screened) to answer the latest German gun development. The armor was largely improved compared to the 1940 model. Some 324 T-34’s 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, changes were rarely introduced into the production process. Many features of the T-34 remained unchanged until 1942, despite the complaints of the crews and their commanders. The process was made simpler and the parts cheaper. For example, the commonly used 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. The poor optics prevented the crews from using their guns at long range like the Germans often did. This led to aggressive tactics based on constant maneuvering, while the German tanks could stand in place and fire at approaching targets from a distance.
The lack of rubber often prevented the use of the standard rubberized wheels, and many bare-metal wheels of various designs were used. This can be seen on photographs as a strange mix of wheels. Early 1942 saw the introduction of a new, much better hexagonal 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, due to the way it looked from the front with the hatches open).
In the fall of 1943, the turret received a new specially-designed all-around vision commander cupola. Production cost was halved and production time reduced by 50% despite the fact that most of the male workers left for the battlefield by that point, and were replaced by women, children, disabled, or the 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 model 1944, with the simplified ZiS S-53 gun, turret radio and improved commander sights. However, production was gradually decreased to make way for the significantly 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, such as 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 T-43 project was abandoned while its turret was used to improve the T-34, in what will become known as the T-34/85. This brought two major improvements, the first being the new, more effective gun, and the brand new turret itself with more internal space for the five crew members. With the new dedicated gunner position, the commander could concentrate on commanding the tank. This new version proved far superior and gradually replaced earlier versions.
Eventually, the overall T-34 production rate significantly increased. By 1944, the Red Army had a large number of both T-34/76 and the T-34/85, in various versions. The T-34/85 was not immune to the Tiger, the 88 mm (3.46 in) gun and the PaK 40. While the new turret was better sloped, it also made the tank taller and thus an easier target. Production of the T-34/85 reached 22,559, outnumbering the superior Panthers and Tigers.
As the war had the Soviets at a disadvantage until December 1942, many T-34’s were captured during the Blitzkrieg. Abandoned tanks were often found in somewhat good condition. Mechanical problems were likely the cause, due to the still relatively new design, hasty production with poor quality standards, lack of maintenance and fuel, and overall rough service conditions. Entire units were also captured or even depots which had not been evacuated on time. Additionally, some tanks were disabled in combat, but not beyond repair. During this 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 these valuable trophies. Most of the time, few changes were made except for the proper German camouflage and very large Balkenkreuz’ painted on the turret, hull and roof. Large swastikas were also used to make the tanks recognizable by the German tank and air crews. The Germans also added equipment and, eventually, additional armored plates.
The first Axis user of the T-34 was the regular Wehrmacht, which incorporated many model 1941s and far more model 1942s 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 minor equipment. Many badly damaged T-34s were kept for spare parts. Some turrets were removed and mounted on the many armored trains (Panzerzug) which roamed the Eastern front. Other served as training tanks, but the majority 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 Andrew 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 in Manchuria in August 1945. They proved far superior to any Japanese tanks or guns. By that point, it was quite cheap to produce, relatively easy to maintain and was overall superior to most Allied tanks at the time, except for the British Centurion, the American M26 Pershing and the later developments of the M4 Sherman. With huge stocks available and the new tank generation arriving on the scene (like the IS-3 and 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 1960s, seeing action during the Korean war, with North Korean and Chinese forces (which also used the locally built Type 58 version).
They also formed the core of many Arab countries’ armored forces in the Middle East (like Syria and Egypt), then opposing upgraded Shermans and the definitely better Israeli Centurions. They also formed an essential part (alongside the more recent T-54s and T-55s) of the North Vietnamese regular armored regiments. They were sold to many emerging countries, sometimes barely modernized with better optics and electronics, and remained in service until the end of the Cold War. Current or former operators include: Albania, Austria, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Finland, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, 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. 1940 Specifications
|Dimensions (l-w-h)||5.95 x 3 x 2.40 m
(19’6″ x 9’10” x 7’10”)
|Total weight, battle ready:||26.8 tonnes|
|Propulsion||V12, 500 hp @1800 rpm|
|Speed||54 km/h (33.5 mph)|
|Range, off road/on road||227 km (141 mi) / 292 km (181 mi)|
|Fuel capacity||455 liters (120 US gal)|
|Armament||L-11 76.2 mm (3 in) gun
3x DT 7.62 mm (0.3 in) machine-guns (1 stowed)
|Armor||Hull front and sides up to 45 mm (1.77 in)
Hull top/bottom 16 mm (0.63 in)
Turret 45 or 52 mm (1.77 or 2.03 in)
|Total production||35,467 total T-34/76 (84,070 with T-34/85)|
T-34/76 Mod. 1941 Specifications
|Dimensions (l-w-h)||5.92 x 3 x 2.40 m
(19’5″ x 9’10” x 7’10”)
|Total weight, battle ready:||28.12 tonnes|
|Propulsion||V12, 500 hp @1800 rpm|
|Speed||55 km/h (34 mph)|
|Range, off road/on road||250 km (155 mi) / 300 km (186 mi)|
|Fuel capacity||465 liters (123 US gal)|
|Armament||F-34 76.2 mm (3 in) gun
3x DT 7.62 mm (0.3 in) machine-guns (1 stowed)
|Armor||Hull front and sides up to 45 mm (1.77 in)
Hull top/bottom 20 mm / 16 mm (0.79 / 0.63 in)
Turret 45 or 52 mm (1.77 or 2.03 in)
“Domestic Armored Vehicles. 20th Century. Vol 1: 1905-1941” A.G. Solyankin, M.V. Pavlov, I.V. Pavlov, E.G. Zheltov / Отечественные бронированные машины. ХХ век. Том 1: 1905-1941. А.Г. Солянкин, М.В. Павлов, И.В. Павлов, Е. Г. Желтов.
T-34 video on Youtube
The T-34 on Wikipedia
The T-34 on Soviet-empire.com
Captured T-34 in German service (Achtungpanzer)
Other T-34s in German service
The T-34/76 model 1940 was the first production version, largely derived from the previous A-32 prototypes. Hundreds of them were about to be put in service in July 1941. Around 1066 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 one-on-one combat, but the poor doctrine and low numbers of T-34’s available made the new tank quite vulnerable, and many were lost.
A T-34 Model 1940 of the Moscow Rifles Guard Battalion, summer 1941 (with the L-11 76 mm gun). 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 (note the new F-34 76 mm gun). 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. By this point, most T-34’s were equipped with the new F-34 76 mm gun. 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-34’s were used as improvised transport 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.”
A T-34/76 model 1941. Unknown unit. The painted slogan: “Zoya Kosmodemyanskaya.”
Up-armored T-34/76E model 1941 “Ehkranami” (with extra bolted appliqué armor). Caucasus Region, spring 1942. Slogan: “For Russia”.
T-34 Model 1941, unknown unit, Northern sector, early 1942. Slogan: “For the Fatherland”.
T-34/76 model 1941, 5th Guards Army, November 1942.
A late model 1941 with all-metal wheels. The two-tone camouflage is attested through photographic evidence, but it was quite rare. Central front, spring 1943.
T-34/76 model 1941/42, transition production from the STZ factory, Stalingrad, January 1942.
Early production T-34/76 model 1941, with a makeshift sand painted camouflage, unknown unit, southern front, summer 1942.
T-34/76 model 1941, Finnish sector, lake Ladoga, winter 1942/43. Notice the camouflage made of crossed white paint bands. This created a pattern when seen from far away.
A T-34/76 model 1942 in winter livery, Stalingrad, January-February 1943 offensive.
The T-34/76 model 1942 had some improvements over the 1941 model. It received the new twin hatches, earning it the “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, often without any kind of markings.
T-34/76 model 1943, Belgorod-Kharkov Offensive, August 1943. Notice the makeshift extra protection, comprising of a wooden crate filled with sand and a pruned tree trunk.
T-34/76 model 1942 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 turret with twin hatches and better optics, which 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)
Panzerkampfwagen T-34(r), with the dunkelgrau livery. Ukraine, Panzergruppe South, spring 1942.
Panzerkampfwagen T-34b(r) 1942, Kursk salient, summer 1943.
Beute Panzerkampfwagen T-34c(r) in autumn camouflage, Poland, fall 1944.
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 formed the basis 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).
A-32 tank prototype
T-34 model 1940
The hull ball mounted machine gun of a T-34
Burning T-34 in Russia – Credits: Bundesarchiv
T-34 on train wagons en route to the front – Credits: Archives RIAN
Two T-34 tanks going off-road
The gun of a T-34/76
T-34/85 at the Saumur Museum