In 1942, careworn Nazi Führer Adolf Hitler lamented to his military intimates at his Wolf’s Lair headquarters near Rastenburg in East Prussia, “If I had known that there were so many of them, I would have had second thoughts about invading!”
The “them” he was referring to were the famed Soviet Red Army T-34 battle tanks that had come as such a nasty surprise to the Nazis in the summer of 1941 and then went on to become a major reason for the panzers being halted at the gates of Moscow.
Drs. Matthew Hughes and Chris Mann in their 2002 work The T-34 Russian Battle Tank note, “The presence of the T-34/76 in 1941 proved to be a rude shock for the Germans. Compared to other Soviet tanks, the T-34 was able to take on and destroy the best of the German panzers. In various modifications, and despite some setbacks, the T-34 held its own until the war’s end in the ruins of Berlin in 1945.”
There were also the shocking production numbers to consider. Hitler lamented his decision to invade the vast Soviet Union, but it was too late to reverse his course. During 1939-1945, the Third Reich had produced 19,938 tanks. Even with the best of Minister of Armaments and War Production Albert Speer’s most streamlined methods, the Soviets still outnumbered them, with 53,552 T-34 tanks alone sent from factories to the battlefields of Eastern Europe.
In addition, the Germans had an obsession with more and more unique models, while the Soviets relied mainly on the T-34. Thus, if one of their mobile units broke down, the Nazis might have difficulty in finding spare parts, while the tankers of the Red Army could literally scour any battlefield and find parts for their damaged T-34s. In the end, this was a clear advantage over their “more mechanized” foes.
In Speer’s 1970 memoirs, Inside the Third Reich , there appears this interesting passage: “Very often, directly after one of these conferences, Hitler would lecture his military advisers on the technical knowledge he had just acquired. He loved to present such pieces of information with a casual air, as if the knowledge were his own.
“When the Russian T-34 appeared, Hitler was triumphant, for he could then point out that he had earlier demanded the kind of long-barreled gun it had. Even before my appointment as Minister of Armaments, I had heard Hitler in the Chancellery garden, after a demonstration of the Panzer IV, inveighing against the obstinacy of the Army Ordnance Office which had turned down his idea for increasing the velocity of the missile by lengthening the barrel.
“The Ordnance Office at the time presented counterarguments: The long barrel would overload the tank in front, since it was not built with such a gun in view. If so major a change were introduced, the whole design would be thrown out of balance.
“Hitler would always bring up this incident whenever his ideas encountered opposition. ‘I was right at the time, and no one wanted to believe me. Now I am right again!’ When the Army felt the need for a tank which could outmaneuver the comparatively fast T-34 by greater speed, Hitler insisted that more would be gained by increasing the range of the guns and the weight of the armor. In this field, too, he had mastered the necessary figures by heart.”
The T-34: Something Special
In July 1941, the Germans first encountered the T-34 and discovered to their horror that its gun could knock out their own armored fighting vehicles at longer ranges than their own guns could effectively reply. The T-34 combined punch with mobility in a single superb package. Note Hughes and Mann, “The T-34 had firepower, armor protection and mobility far superior to other tanks then in service. In particular, its broad tracks and low ground-bearing pressure meant it could keep going on soft ground where German tanks often became bogged down—crucial for warfare on the Eastern Front….
“The T-34 was something special. Widely regarded as the most influential tank design of World War II, it was probably the best also.… Tank design has always been a complex compromise between firepower, protection and mobility. Most tanks have had to sacrifice one or more of these factors in favor of the other, yet in the T-34 the Soviet designers achieved a perfect balance—no compromises had been made.”
The 76.2mm gun on the T-34 had a real hitting power to it by the armament standards of the day, and its radical new sloping armor gave it unusual protection. Its superior diesel engine and Christie suspension system provided superb cross-country performance as well. Later, an 85mm gun and even heavier armor were added to the same basic chassis, which was in itself a remarkable engineering feat.