Key point: The Germans may have initially had the advantage, but the T-34 proved to be a better tank. It was easily mass-produced, had decent weapons and armor, and rarely broke down.
December 1941 was a dark month and the end of a dark year for the Soviets as the Germans pressed ever onward toward Moscow, the lair where Stalin and his minions plotted what to do next against the Nazi juggernaut that had, in a few short months, rolled over everything before them.
Poland had been taken, and then Denmark and Norway, and then Belgium and France had fallen to the Germans, who now had advance units reportedly within eyeshot of the Kremlin.
The German commanders were confident. They had never tasted defeat at that point, and a December 4 intelligence report stated flatly that the Soviets were simply not capable of “conducting a counter-offensive without significant reserves.”
The ax fell the very next day as the Soviets launched a massive surprise assault that “caught the Germans almost literally frozen in their positions,” as historian Max Hastings aptly describes it. Winter played a hand, with the —30 degrees C temperature freezing the German lubricants while the Russian equipment performed fine, especially the T-34 tanks with their specially designed compressed air starters.
Initially, infantryman Albrecht Linsen could not believe his eyes with the rapid onrush of Soviet tanks and men. “Out of the snowstorm [German] soldiers were running back, scattering in all directions like a panic-stricken herd of animals. A lone officer stood against this desperate mass; he gesticulated, tried to pull out his pistol and then simply let it pass.”
Landser Linsen was momentarily befuddled as well. There was an explosion near him and he “felt a searing pain in my right thigh. I thought: ‘I am going to die here, 21 years old, in the snow before Moscow.’”
The unrelenting Russians—fortified with additional tanks and equipment and bolstered by freshly arrived Siberian troops—charged into the German salients north and south of Moscow and kept pressing forward.
For days the Germans staggered backward from the determined and unrelenting Soviet attacks. The invaders were pushed back between 60 and 150 miles before General Walther Model managed to rally his forces and stop the back peddling in the face of the T-34s.
The Germans had encountered the sturdy T-34s a few months earlier in their invasion of the Soviet Union. They had learned their Panzer III and IV medium tanks, which had successfully spearheaded the French and Polish campaigns, were simply no match for the powerful and new turret-forward, sloped-armored tanks sent against them.
“Each shot seems to be a direct hit,” one German antitank gunner said early in the June 1941 invasion. But “the shells bounce off. The fire doesn’t seem to bother the tanks in the least,” added the astonished gunner in describing the T-34 and Russia’s heavier, less nimble KV’s ability to ward off German firepower.
The T-34 was equipped with characteristics that the German tankers would come to envy: thicker armor that was sloped to further help deflect enemy fire, a robust V-12 diesel engine, a low profile, and wide tracks that made movement across snow and mud comparatively easy.
The wide tracks proved particularly crucial in traversing the vast stretches of the Motherland with its few, comparatively primitive roads that often became little more than “canals of mud” in the rasputitsa,or the weeks-long wet periods in the fall and spring.
The Germans in 1941 were initially taken aback by the power and effectiveness of the T-34, and they promptly realized the need to gear up and meet the challenges poised by the Soviet tank. In November 1941 a special German armor investigation committee visited Generaloberst Heinz Guderian’s 2nd Panzer Army and examined several captured T-34s.
The outspoken Guderian demanded a complete rethinking of German tanks and called for greatly improved mobility, greater armor protection, and a heavier main gun. This led to two different and competing design approaches by the Nazis. One, led by Daimler-Benz (designer of the Panzer III), envisioned a tank similar in appearance to the T-34 and powered by a 650-horsepower diesel engine and rear-wheel drive.
A second design by the MAN group, designer of the Panzer I and II tanks, called for a vehicle built around the new Maybach HL 210 gasoline engine that had just entered production. It featured a centered-turret design and front-wheel drive, both features not found on the T-34.
The MAN design won out and it became the Panther. That was largely because it could be put into production earlier than the Daimler-Benz model. Subsequent design changes resulted in a 45-ton tank that had grown in weight by a full 50 percent in less than three months of planning. The inherent advantages of a diesel engine and rear-wheel drive were passed over in the push toward prompt production.
Ironically, MAN lacked the ability to construct large numbers of Panthers itself and came to rely on a large number of sub-par subcontractors, including several French firms. As it turned out, the increased weight put too much strain on the untested engine as well as on its transmission and drive train.
Unlike the T-34, the Panther never underwent serious mobility or field trials but was rushed into service against the advice of Guderian and others. While the vehicle sported a superb L/70 70mm main gun and thick, sloped armor, it fell short in other important categories. Reliability and a fuel-efficient diesel engine had been given short-shift in favor of expediency.
Ironically, battlefield realities in 1941 had forced a rethinking and reworking of German tanks, “but German developers erred grievously by building a tank that essentially ignored” those very realities.
The Tridtsatchetverka, or T-34, came equipped in the early stage of the war with a 76.2mm high-velocity gun that could take out opposing German medium Panzer tanks with their lighter armor and shorter 75mm main guns.
The Soviet tank was based in good portion on a design from innovative American engineer J. Walter Christie who used a then-novel suspension system that enabled the tank to move quickly over uneven ground. The ability and ease of movement across the Russian steppes was critical throughout much of the war. That was very much the case, especially when skilled Soviet gunners learned to fire on the move.
The initial design of the T-34 certainly proved effective when deployed and used properly. It was based on lessons learned by the Soviets in the 1939 Mongolian-Manchurian border clashes with the Japanese and earlier in the Spanish Civil War. The thin-armored, gas-fueled light tanks were not up to the task, and Soviet officials quietly called for the development of a completely new tank.
A number of prototypes were secretly produced by the Soviets, some using the standard 45mm main gun and others equipped with a larger 76.2mm gun. Initial Soviet ventures into Finland in late 1939 proved disastrous, with the loss of 80 tanks in the first week alone to Finnish antitank guns.
This prodded Stalin’s bureaucracy to select a prototype built at a locomotive factory in Kharkov that became the T-34. That initial go-ahead came after a grueling road test and demonstrations that the tank’s maximum of 44mm of sloped armor could withstand fire from 45mm AT guns.
Secret mobility tests had been run at the Kubinka test area against a Panzer III purchased from then-ally Germany. The prototypes were then driven back to the factory in a 1,802-mile round trip and later successfully used in a demonstration blowing up captured Finnish bunkers.
The tests proved the ruggedness of the vehicle’s diesel engine and the strength of its main 76mm gun. The powerful diesel engine and the suspension system enabled the designers to emphasize mobility. It offered better range and a full 30 percent more power than any other contemporary tank engine. But the transmission, similar to that of the Soviets’ earlier light tanks, needed further improvement and refinement as did its steering system.
By March 1940 the Defense Ministry approved the full-scale production of the new tank at the Kharkov plant with the use of the main gun from the Kirovski Works facility and the diesel engines from Factory #75 in Kharkov. The initial T-34/76 1940 model weighed in at slightly more than 26 tons and featured the L-11 76.2mm gun. An improved 76.2 gun was planned for the following year along with a cast iron turret with thicker armor
By the time of the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, the Kharkov factory and the Stalingrad Tank Factory combined had produced some 1,226 T-34s, in a fairly even mix of the Models 1940 and 1941. Older, outdated light tanks comprised the vast majority of the tanks the Soviets had at the outbreak of war, with only five percent being T-34s.
Some 985 T-34s were stationed in western Russian when the fight began, according to U.S. military strategist Robert Forczyk. Those technically advanced machines were at the ready, but inadequate Soviet training and poor logistics led to debacles, despite their ability to ward off the German 37mm AT fire. The ill-prepared Soviets fought bravely but often had no armor-piercing rounds and only one topping of fuel per tank.