The Second World War was the decisive period in tank design. At the outbreak of war, each belligerent nation fielded a variety of tank designs; success or failure on the battlefield propelled some tanks to prominence and consigned others to oblivion. No single tank enjoyed greater success in that war than the Soviet T-34. By nearly every measure, from the traditional tank standards of armor, firepower and mobility to strategic considerations such as ease of assembly, the T-34 contributed more to victory than any other tool in the Soviet arsenal. The T-34 is not merely one of the great tanks of World War II; it is one of the most influential tanks in history.
By 1935, the Soviets had already built a massive tank force. These tanks were intended to assist infantry attacks in much the same way that the tanks of World War I had done. Most of these tanks were light and mobile, but the Soviets also had medium and heavy tanks with multiple turrets. They even had a substantial number of amphibious tanks. Their military usefulness, however, remained untested.
The Spanish Civil War offered practical lessons for tank design. Antitank guns had become a greater threat since the Great War, and the use of tanks on both sides raised the prospect of tank battles. The leading engineer at the Kharkov tank facility, Mikhail I Koshkin, experimented with ways to resolve all of the outstanding issues. Diesel engines would improve performance, while bigger guns would give the tanks the firepower they would need to fight other tanks. Perhaps most significantly, he increased protection without adding weight by employing sloped armor, or armor fitted at oblique angles. If a projectile strikes armor at the proper angle, 30 mm of armor plate can provide as much protection as 40 mm would have provided against a projectile striking head-on, and it can do so with only 75% of the weight.
In 1937, the Kharkov plant was assigned the task of developing a medium tank. Significantly, the Soviet Armed Forces Directorate called for a medium tank reflecting an expansion of the light tank configuration into a heavier weight class, rather than the next step in the development of the existing multi-turreted medium tank, the T-28. Even so, the Directorate’s expectations were moderate, with only 20 mm of armor plating in a tank that would weigh about 20 tons. Its main gun was to be 45 mm, and it was still meant to have both tracked and wheeled capability, much like the BT tanks.
At the same time, Koshkin worked to exceed his mandate, appealing to Stalin directly to support his preoccupation with a substantially heavier tank. Stalin liked Koshkin’s ideas, keeping the program afloat despite the disapproval of Defense Commissar Klimenti Voroshilov, who had a pet project of his own in the tank design that would become the KV series. Koshkin dispensed with the dual suspension system, concentrating on tracks alone, while increasing the armor to 30 mm and mounting a 76.2 mm gun. The result, the first T-34, barely exceeded weight requirements at 21 tons.
In March 1940, Koshkin avoided Voroshilov’s hostility by taking two prototypes on a cross-country drive from Kharkov to Moscow and demonstrating their capabilities, including the strength of their armor against 45 mm antitank guns (which were stronger than the standard German 37 mm guns). This effort saved the T-34, even though it killed Koshkin: he developed pneumonia from the early March drive and died in September. More immediately, the T-34 was given authorization on March 31.
By the time production truly began late in 1940, the T-34/76 Model 1940 had grown to 29 tons, with 45 mm of armor (half again the thickness of the original T-34). Initial deliveries were unimpressive: 600 were promised, but only 115 were delivered by the end of the year. Production was ramped up in the first half of 1941, but with little more than 1200 available when Germany invaded, the T-34s were still only a very small part of the Soviet arsenal. Early performance was also inauspicious: many were captured in the initial waves of the invasion, while inexperienced crews fought poorly when they were able to attempt resistance. Still, the heavy armor of the T-34 challenged the Germans; most antitank guns were ineffective, and once again, the Germans had to call upon the 88 mm antiaircraft cannons to stop tanks.
For the next two years, the Soviets concentrated their efforts on building as many T-34s as possible, hoping to overwhelm the Germans with raw numbers. With that in mind, shortcuts were created to lower production costs and time, although some improvements were also implemented. For example, in 1942 the armor plating was thickened to 65 mm. Even with all of its virtues, however, the T-34 held its own only through attrition: 12,553 tanks rolled off the assembly line in 1942, and just over half of them were destroyed or captured.
Still, the T-34/76 was a threat that the Germans could not ignore. General Guderian responded to this challenge by filling out a requirement for a new German tank to incorporate some of the virtues of the T-34. Its sloped armor was expected to be thick enough to resist the T-34’s 76.2 mm gun, while its own gun would be powerful enough to penetrate the T-34’s armor at distance. When in proper functioning order, the German Panther could outfight the T-34/76, but it could not be made as quickly or in corresponding numbers, and its strategic mobility was substantially less. The potential for breakdowns meant that Panthers needed to be delivered to the front by rail, while T-34s were able to drive 300 km to the battle while retaining 90% combat effectiveness.
The new Panthers, as well as the upgunned Panzer IVs (with a long-barreled 75 mm gun) and the heavy Tiger tanks (boasting 88 mm guns), demonstrated that the T-34/76 was no longer sufficiently armed and armored. In the middle of 1943, the Soviets produced an upgraded model, the T-34/85. This version was armed with an 85 mm gun, which was comparable to the Panther’s main gun. Its armor had increased to 90 mm of thickness. But perhaps the most important characteristic was that the T-34/85 could still be manufactured on the same assembly lines that had produced the T-34/76. The Soviets could continue to build in quantities that would overwhelm German resistance: more than 64,000 T-34s of all varieties were built by the end of the war.
The success of the T-34 was founded upon both tactical and strategic factors. The tactical factors are the three familiar categories of armor, firepower and mobility. All of the T-34s enjoyed a very useful balance among these three elements. The T-34/76 began the war with superiority in armor and armament, and when both had receded into inadequacy, the T-34/85 was built, establishing at least rough parity with the best of the German tanks in these categories. In mobility, the T-34 was never excelled. As for the strategic factors, the T-34s could be built cheaply and quickly, resulting in staggering numbers. Their dependability ensured that most of them would reach the battle in good working order, further enhancing the numerical advantage. They could travel far under their own power, allowing for flexible deployment. No other tank in World War II could match the T-34’s performance.
Dougherty, Martin J. Tanks: From World War I to the Present Day. Sterling, 2008
Forczyk, Robert. Panther vs T-34: Ukraine 1943. Osprey, 2007
Forty, George. Illustrated Guide to Tanks of the World. Bookmart, 2007
Jackson, Robert. Tanks and Armored Fighting Vehicles. Book Sales, Inc., 2012
Winchester, Jim. The World War II Tank Guide. Bookmart, 2000
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