“If I had known about the T-34, I would have delayed invading Russia” –Adolf Hitler[i]
There is a broad consensus among historians that the most influential tank in WWII, is not a member of the famed German panzer division nor one of the American tanks that liberated Western Europe, but, instead, it is a Russian tank: the T-34.[ii] The T-34 both fundamentally reshaped the model of the medium tank, and reshaped the war, turning the tide against the Nazi’s in the east.[iii] At its inception, the T-34 was the fastest and most powerful tank in its class. While other tanks eventual bridged the engineering gap, the T-34’s relative simplicity and economy of production allowed it to be the most produced tank of the war. The T-34’s heyday in the Red Army was relatively short (from 1941-44, at which point it began to be phased out), yet it played an outsize role in the Russians’ victory in WWII. Additionally, the tank had a much longer life among Soviet allies around the globe. The tank was the primary tank of the North Korean army in the Korean War and was the primary armor unit for many east European nations for the subsequent decades. From its service to Russian during her era of dire need and its eventual dissemination to the Soviet bloc and other Soviet allies, the T-34 is an everlasting part of the Russian national memory and a symbol of Russia in the world.
The first T-34 rolled of the assembly line in 1940. Created in response to the lessons of the Spanish Civil War, where WWI model Soviet tanks were easily bested by their more modern German counterparts, the T-34 had superior firepower, armor, and mobility to German tanks of the time. Additionally, the T-34 had sloped armor. This seemingly minor design detail drastically reshaped the way future tanks were built, and gave the T-34 a distinct advantage on the battlefield. The sloped armor deflected projectiles that struck in a perpendicular plane (as most rounds from other tanks and anti-tank rockets would). [iv] Despite the engineering successes of the T-34, internal divisions within the Soviet leadership almost caused the tank to be scrapped. The once tenuous fate of the T-34 tank drastically changed on June 22, 1941, when Hitler’s forces broke the non-aggression pack and launched “Operation Barbarossa,” the invasion of the Soviet Union.
At the time of the German invasion, only 967 T-34 tanks were actually in Soviet operational units.[v] Despite the initially limited numbers, the T-34 made a sizable impact. On a sociological level, the German command was shocked that the “lesser” Slavs could create an equal, let alone, superior weapon. On a practical level, German troops who fought against T-34’s were dismayed to see their anti-tank rockets simply bounce off the sloped sides.[vi] The German first-hand accounts are striking: “Half a dozen anti-tank guns fire at the T-34, which sound like a drum-roll. But he drives staunchly through our lines like an impregnable prehistoric monster.”[vii] Similar sentiments were echoed by the high command. German field commanders reported “tank terror” among the troops, and Major General Mellenthin, Chief of Staff of the Panzer Corps, simply stated, “we had nothing comparable.”[viii]
Despite the technical superiority of the T-34, improper implementation rendered the T-34 only marginally effective in the early fighting in Ukraine. The problem was the typical Soviet story. The tank crews were undertrained: often drivers had fewer than five hours of driving experience; gunners had never fired a tank gun before; and, some crews had not even seen the T-34 before the war broke out. This lack of crew training was exacerbating by the lingering effects of the Stalinist purges, which had wiped out half of the armor divisions’ officer corps. Additionally, Soviet armor divisions were drastically undersupplied: units had only a fraction of the necessary radios, spare parts, ammunition, and general supplies. These problems were compounded by the lack of accurate information on German positions and the absence of meaningful artillery support.[ix] As military technology historian Steven Zaloga notes, “The enormous shortcoming in training and tactics demonstrated by Red Army tank units rendered the T-34 a very blunt sword during Operation ‘Barbarossa.’”[x]
The fast moving German invasion created problems for the T-34 beyond the battlefield. Within two months of launching “Operation Barbarossa”, the Germans had advanced into eastern Ukraine, the location of Soviet T-34 production. In response, the main T-34 plant in Kharkov, Ukraine had to be evacuated and relocated to the Russian interior. T-34 production moved to Nizhni Tagil in the Urals and the Stalingrad Tractor Factory, which itself would have to be evacuated less than a year later. (There are reports of T-34’s rolling out of the Stalingrad factory unpainted and driving directly to the front lines as the Germans closed in on the city).[xi] The transfer of production created a variety of design changes as Soviet factories tried to simultaneously ramp up production while grappling with shortages. Some of the modifications included all metal treads from the Stalingrad factory where rubber was in short supply, cast steel turrets instead of rolled steel turrets from the Nizhni Tagil plant where a piece of equipment was lost during the evacuation of the Ukrainian plant, and squared edge turrets instead of rounded ones to save time on the factory floor. [xii] The T-34 became more and more basic and utilitarian, yet still performed effectively on the battlefield. It is in these modifications that the T-34 exemplifies the Russian tradition of adapting to scarcity.
The factory relocation did little to hamper the massive increase of T-34 production to counter the German invasion. It is estimated that 1,800 T-34’s were produced in 1940, 2,800 in 1941, and over 30,000 T-34’s were produced between 1942-44.[xiii] Manufacturing efficiencies enabled these production increases. Between 1941 and 1943, both the cost and time it took to create a T-34 were cut in half. Due in part to its production efficiency (and in part to its basic, workman-like character) the T-34 is sometimes called the Russian Model-T.
As the war wore on, the T-34 found greater success on the battlefield, particularly in the summer campaign of 1943. Interestingly, by this time the Germans had closed much of the technological gulf between the T-34 and their Tiger and Panther tanks. Yet, Soviet tactics had improved. Soviet commanders realized that “mechanized combat was not determined by individual tank battles, but by the titanic clash of massive armed forces combinations.”[xiv] The relatively cheap and easy production of the T-34 allowed the Red Army to develop a substantial numerical advantage in armor, which facilitated their new tactic: swarming the German Panzer divisions with huge numbers of T-34s. This strategy proved to be particularly effective against the overextended German troops. The seemingly inexhaustible supply of T-34’s pushed back the German forces and started the push towards Berlin.
While the Red Army started phasing out the T-34 in favor of the T-57 (the tank that became synonymous with the Soviet Union during the Cold war and was the most produced tank in history) towards the end of the war, the T-34 continued to be used by Soviet Allies and members of the Eastern Block. During the Korean War, the North Korean army used Soviet supplied T-34 tanks.[xv] Also, the T-34 was the primary armored unit for Eastern Bloc nations. It was used to suppress the East German uprising in 1953 and the Hungarian Revolution of 1956’s.[xvi] Through these uses, the T-34 became a symbol for global Soviet power and, at times, repression. Interestingly, the T-34’s have been used in many conflicts since the 1950’s including the Angolan civil war and Iran-Iraq War in the 80’s, Bosnia in the 90’s, and even the Libyan civil war as recently as 2011.[xvii] The broad proliferation of these old, Soviet-era weapons of war serves as a reminder of the one time military might of the Soviet Union and speaks to the massive production of war materiel in general and the T-34 in particular.
The T-34 continues to have important significance in Russian and abroad. For the West, the use of the T-34’s in Korean and the Easter Bloc makes the tank an eternal symbol of Soviet power. This symbolism is particularly strong in the former Soviet Republics. In 2007, Hungarian protestors seized a T-34 tank that was used being used in an exhibit to commemorate the Hungarian uprising and drove it towards the police in a protest of the government. It is not a coincidence that on the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian uprising the same type of Soviet tank that was used to repress the uprising was used to protest what the protesters saw as a Soviet style repressive government. [xviii] In Russia, monuments to the T-34 are ubiquitous. The tank represents the best of the Soviet Union. It is an example of technological achievement, cheap and durable design, and mass production. The production of the T-34 also is a reminder of the Russian ability to persevere in the face of scarcity and adversity. Finally, the fact that the T-34 (in combination with the Russian winter) saved the nation at its most dire hour cemented the tank as crucial part of the national memory. In the old, production city of Nizhni Tagil a particularly grand T-34 monument rests in a main square.[xix] There is little doubt that this tank is worth more to the people there than the 40,000 dollars the old tank would fetch on the open market. [xx]
[i] “Axis History Forum • A Quote from Hitler..” Accessed April 1, 2014. http://forum.axishistory.com/viewtopic.php?f=79&t=2589.
[ii] “HowStuffWorks ‘Top Ten Tanks: The T-34.’” Accessed April 1, 2014. http://science.howstuffworks.com/7051-top-ten-tanks-the-t-34-video.htm.
[iv] Steven Zaloga, T-34/76 Medium Tank 1941-45 (Osprey Publishing: 2013), 19.
[vii] Ibid., 22.
[viii] Robert Forczyk, Panther vs. T-34: Ukrane, (Great Britain, Osprey Publishing: 2007), 4.
[ix] Steven Zaloga, T-34/76 Medium Tank 1941-45 (Osprey Publishing: 2013), 30.
[xii] Ibid., 25, 29.
[xiii] “T-34 Medium Tank Production.” Accessed March 31, 2014. http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/weapons_t-34_production.html.
[xiv] Steven Zaloga, T-34/76 Medium Tank 1941-45 (Osprey Publishing: 2013), 60.
[xv] Steven Zaloga, T-34-85 vs M26 Pershing Korea 1950 (Duel), (Osprey Publishing, 2010).
[xvi] John Forge, Designed to Kill: The Case Against Weapons Research (Springer, 2013), 296.
[xvii] “From Russia with Love – Last of the T-34s | History Geek.” Accessed April 1, 2014. http://historygeek.co.nz/2012/05/19/last-of-the-t-34s/.
[xviii] “Hungarian Protesters Seize Tank - The Scotsman.” Accessed April 1, 2014. http://www.scotsman.com/news/world/hungarian-protesters-seize-tank-1-722471.
[xix] “Preserved Tanks .Com | Locations.” Accessed April 1, 2014. http://preservedtanks.com/Locations.aspx?LocationCategoryId=2340.
[xx] “T-34 - Tanks - Mortarinvestments.eu - Mortar Investments.” Accessed April 1, 2014. http://www.mortarinvestments.eu/products/tanks-2/t-34-35.