The Soviet Union’s T-34 was one of the most revolutionary tanks employed during World War II. It featured frontal armor that was sloped at a steep sixty degrees, which allowed it to more easily deflect enemy rounds. Unlike Germany’s hulking behemoths, such as the massive Tiger 1 tank, the T-34 hugged the ground, offering a lower profile for its enemies to target.
The greatest advantage of the T-34 was its sheer numbers—and while it didn’t quite reach the levels of the American M4 Sherman in the number produced—by the end of the war more than 57,300 had been built, making it the second most widely produced tank in history.
It had a lasting impact on tank design for decades to come, and many subsequent Soviet tank designs included features that had first been used with the T-34 including the side treads, steeply sloped armor and a squat, low profile silhouette.
The T-34 had also steadily evolved over the course of the war and remained in use in the Cold War and even post-Cold War era.
Battlegrounds in Korea and Beyond
The tank was widely employed throughout the Communist Bloc, and it saw use in the Korean War in the service of the Korean People’s Army (KPA). Around 120 T-34-85s had been supplied by the Soviet Union and were fielded during the war. A few of those T-34s even faced off against the American M4 Sherman, and by most accounts the T-34 was seen as the superior armored machine even if its crews weren’t as well trained as those manning the Shermans.
However, the World War II-era tank had met its match when it went up the likes of the American M-26 Pershing and the British Centurion.
During the Cold War, the T-34 was also deployed in Europe where it was used by the Soviet Union to put down the brief East German uprising in 1953 and then again during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The tank was also widely exported, and in the service of many nations it was locally modified well beyond its original configurations. Those included variants that modified the hull and turret for use as a self-propelled or anti-aircraft gun.
Egypt and Syria each modified the basic T-34 chassis by adding a Soviet 122mm D-30 Howitzer, and these T-34/122s (T-122s) were first used in the 1973 Yom Kippur War against Israel.
World Wide Use
As with other Soviet weaponry of the Cold War, notably the AK-47 rifle, the T-34 went around the world and nations such as Cuba, Vietnam, Namibia and Laos all employed it—with Laos only finally retiring it from service two years ago. In addition, upwards of 200 T-34s had been supplied by Cuba in the late 1970s, and a few remained in service into the early 1980s.
While antiquated by the 1970s, the T-34 was used in the Angolan Civil War where it was employed by the Marxist People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) alongside newer T-54/55s. It marked one of the last times the World War II-era T-34 was used in combat and abandoned ones can still be found outside the town of Missombo—almost serving as a de facto memorial to those who lost their lives in the civil war that has so-far claimed the lives of untold thousands.
The era of the T-34 hasn’t come to an end yet either. There are still a few in use with the Yemeni military, while Vietnam may have as many as forty five in working order. A few more of the T-34s also remain service with Cuba and North Korea.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He regularly writes about military small arms, and is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.