World War II Would Not Have Been Won Without Russia's Awesome T-34 Tank

January 16, 2020 Topic: History Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Soviet UnionRussiaT-34 TankMilitaryArmored Warfare

World War II Would Not Have Been Won Without Russia's Awesome T-34 Tank

The Soviet T-34 tank played a crucial role in defense and later spearheaded the drive toward Berlin in the final months of World War II.

“The best-designed tank in the world is merely scrap iron if it doesn’t have ammunition, fuel, or a trained crew,” observed Forczyk, and that was the condition of the T-34s all that summer as the Germans pushed ever eastward into the interior of the nation that Hitler had predicted would fall like a house of cards.

The onslaught was unrelenting, and by early July fully half of the available T-34s had been lost as the poorly prepared and poorly led Soviet border armies were ground under. Many of the remaining T-34s were lost shortly thereafter when the Kiev pocket collapsed.

The Soviet pushback at Moscow gave the Russians breathing room and, in a Herculean effort, they managed to relocate the crucial Kharkov tank factory and other crucial production facilities eastward to the Urals, well away from the fighting. The resulting Model 1942 had an improved frontal armor of 65mm (from 45mm) and a simplified design to speed production.

The Soviets managed to produce 12,553 T-34s in 1942 but fully 51 percent of those were lost in the fierce fighting that followed as the Germans learned to use the 88mm gun to their advantage against the still poorly trained and undersupplied Soviet tankers.

By the middle of that year plans were underway for a Model 1943 that would feature an improved hexagonal turret with two hatches for increased crew safety and slightly thicker turret armor of 70mm. Visibility remained a problem for the tank commander and that was not resolved until mid-1943 when a small cupola was designed for the turret top.

More important, the Model 1943 replaced the 76mm gun with what had been the M1939 85mm antiaircraft gun to form the T-34/85. The 85 had a heavier projectile than the 75mm gun on the new German Panther, but the German tank was able to penetrate thicker armor at a longer range, thanks to the use of more propellant and a longer barrel.

By that stage of the war, the Soviets had learned some hard-won lessons from their opponents on how to stage and fight a quick-moving, armor-thrusting war. Both their training and their tanks had improved, and the Soviets did not religiously subscribe to the theory that the best antitank weapon was solely another tank. They used easier to produce—but highly effective—artillery and self-propelled antitank guns to a full measure.

They also came to have faith in the distinctive long-barreled Degtyarev antitank high-velocity rifle that could hurl a deadly 14.5mm projectile at more than 1,000 meters per second to knock out Panzer IIs, or perhaps even disable the tracks of the heavier German tanks.

The Soviets also used their 85mm gun, a close relative of the German 88, in an anti-aircraft role, a move that helped protect its advancing tank and infantry units from what in the past had been truly punishing and deadly air attacks

Soviet depth and sophistication had grown by that point so that tank repair and service battalions traveled right behind the advancing units, ready to retrieve and repair damaged Russian tanks. The Soviets even had one special unit for the evacuation of captured German tanks that were then repaired, reequipped and repainted, and sent into action against their makers.

The T-34/85 became the mainstay going forward, but the Soviets continued to employ their light tanks and Lend-Lease tanks in independent brigades, most often as infantry support. The T-34s also saw some modified use in clearing minefields, a task most often handled by “tramplers”—men in penal battalions who cleared areas on foot.

The struggle on the Eastern Front had taken on gigantic proportions by the time the German 6th Army surrendered on February 2, 1943, at Stalingrad. A brilliant and bold counteract in the Ukraine by General Erich von Manstein shortly thereafter destroyed the overextended Soviet 3rd Tank Army and led to the Nazis retaking Kharkov. The Germans quickly set about planning Operation Citadel, using components of two large army groups, in an effort to encircle and destroy Soviet forces in the Kursk salient.

The Germans felt the newly designed Panthers along with heavier Tigers and the Ferdinand tanks with their larger guns could deal a decisive blow to their foes. Serious technical problems with the MAN-designed Panthers delayed the operation several times, providing additional time for the Soviets to reinforce, dig in their guns, lay additional mines, and construct more tank traps.

The Panthers, dogged by design and production problems, did not arrive by rail until early July, providing little if any time for those tanker crews to be properly briefed. The Soviets had some 3,350 tanks, including about 2,300 T-34s, and thousands of AT guns laying in wait. For one of the few times at that point, they would be able to face their opponent properly prepared and fully armed with the best in Soviet armor and about 50 percent of their available tanks.

The Soviets, in short, still had another half of their T-34 tanks available for use elsewhere on the Eastern Front while the Germans had virtually stripped other sections of the front to mount Citadel.

The Soviet supply system had improved to the point that the T-34 gunners now often consumed their full allotment of ammo in a single outing, while their German counterparts were forced to be more conservative because of an uncertain, intermittent supply system that had been disrupted by Soviet partisan activity and Allied bombing at home.

The Soviet gunners had learned that their tank could not only move faster, but its turret could turn five times faster than the turret on the heavier, underpowered Panther D and some 50 percent faster than the Panther A. This gave the Soviets even more reason to close fast, helping to cancel their opponent’s advantage of a larger, more powerful main gun, while taking advantage of the T-34’s speed and maneuvering abilities. 

“To stop is to die,” is a paraphrase of Tanker Georgi Nikolaevich Krivov’s comment. That was especially true later in the war with the arrival of the Panther with its 75mm gun, larger German tank killers armed with the deadly 88, and the improved use of existing field guns. The panzerfaust, the shoulder-fired antitank weapon developed late in the war, was yet another reason not to stop or slow in the advance toward the enemy.

Mobility is a key to tank warfare and, as noted earlier, the more nimble T-34 with its wide treads and exceptionally dependable diesel engine proved its worth in the Eastern Front’s exceptionally poor field conditions. The German engineers had also discounted the T-34’s Christie suspension system and developed a complex running gear that tended to clog up.

More Panthers were often lost due to mechanical breakdowns than enemy fire in 1943. The Germans discovered that some 90 percent of the tanks suffered transmission failures after less than 1,500-kilometers of combat, and the Panther D endured continued fuel pump problems.

Fuel for German vehicles became an issue from that point on, and the Panther’s rapacious thirst for gasoline did not help matters. The Panther, in fact, required almost twice as much fuel to go the same distance as a T-34, yet the Soviet tank consumed easier to produce diesel fuel.

The T-34/76 was further “up-gunned” toward the end of the war with the Soviet’s proven 85mm gun. The T-34/85 began rolling off the assembly lines in January 1944. Those enabled the Soviets to take on the lumbering tank killers that the Germans had fielded. “Prior to that, we had to run like rabbits and look for an opportunity to turn and get at the flanks” of those huge, slow-moving tanks, admitted tanker Nikolai Yakovlevich Zheleznov.

The Soviets were able to produce nearly 87,500 tanks of all kinds during the war, including some 64,550 T-34s, along with another 22,300 self-propelled guns and countless thousands of artillery pieces.

From 1943 onward the Soviets proved they had truly come into their own, having learned hard-fought lessons from the very best then in the world. By studying the enemy’s tactics they had gauged how to put their growing array of tanks, self-propelled guns, improved artillery, and even antiaircraft weapons to good use.

They had learned how to use their smaller tank to its fullest advantage in tangling with the Panthers and other larger tanks. By that time, they even had the depth in trained and experience manpower to create an additional 27 tank destroyer brigades and 36 antiaircraft divisions to provide further protection for their field armies.

The degree of increased Soviet sophistication can be gauged by its 1944 Field
Regulations of the Red Army or Ustav. It stressed a systematic approach, using artillery and air offensives to provide continuous support for attacking Soviet infantry and tank-thrusting units. Ustav emphasized maneuver, surprise, and initiative (MSI) that was a far cry from the largely ham-handed Soviet actions early in the war.

It was the combination of hard-earned experience, knowledge and improved weapons—spearheaded by the T-34—that made the difference as the Soviets pushed ever westward toward Berlin and victory over the invaders of the Motherland.