Mythbuster: The T-34

Discussion on the tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles, which participated in World War 2.
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Mythbuster: The T-34

Postby Ricky » Wed Jan 30, 2008 9:24 am

Originally written by Roel - Link to original

A great deal of myth surrounds the standard Soviet medium tank of World War II, the T-34. The most important statement to debunk here is the common claim that the T-34 (or more specifically the late-war T34/85) was the best Allied tank of the war. In many areas this tank is being vastly overrated, a situation demanding correction.

As with the Tiger and M4 tanks, it is important to realize the situation into which the tank was first introduced. The T-34/76, the earliest version of this medium tank, was first encountered by the Germans during one of the last phases of Operation Barbarossa in late 1941. At the time, the thickness of its armour was unprecedented for medium tanks; more importantly, the slope of the tank’s armour made the real thickness encountered by incoming shells much greater than the sheet of metal actually was. Even though the T-34/76’s armour was not impressive at all by late-war standards, at first it made the tank almost impenetrable to contemporary German medium tanks, most importantly the PzKpfw III. Moreover, the T-34’s 76.2mm gun was quite a bit more powerful than most contemporary tank guns and made the T-34 fully capable of knocking out German tanks at great distances. Once again, as when faced with British Matilda II tanks and Russian KV-1 heavy tanks, the Germans had to fall back on their trusty 88mm anti-aircraft gun to knock out the T-34.

This great firepower and near invincibility of the T-34/76 naturally triggered many a myth about the new Russian tank. It must be remembered that even in 1941 it wasn’t the first Allied tank to be able to meet German tanks on equal terms; several French and British tank types had preceded it in this role, as had the Russian KV-1. The fact remains, however, that in 1941 and arguably in 1942, the T-34/76 was the best medium tank in service anywhere. Note that already in 1942 this claim is becoming debatable, with the introduction of new German and Western Allied tanks of comparable quality (new versions of the PzKpfw IV and the M4 Sherman). These tanks enjoyed superiority in such fields as sights, crew comfort, reliability and industrial finishing. The most important fact that decreased the continuing efficiency of the T-34, though, was its failure to keep up with enemy tank development through upgrades.

While both the Sherman and the PzKpfw IV went through substantial upgrades throughout the war to keep up with tank developments, the T-34 saw only one truly notable upgrade: the new T-34/85. This tank is widely claimed to be the best medium tank of World War II, but on several points that can be disputed.
  • The tank’s new 85mm gun was no better than the standard German anti-tank piece of the late-war period, the 75mm L/48, and neither was it superior to the American 76mm M1. Its only advantage was a more powerful high explosive shell, at the price of a decrease in ammo storage capacity.
  • The T-34/85’s hull armour was never upgraded throughout the war and remained 45mm thick, which by the end of the war had become quite unsatisfactory. Most German guns of the period could penetrate twice as much at ranges of up to 1000 yards. Another important point is the fact that the tank’s armour material was too hard, making it brittle; the crew was in serious danger from armour flakes flying around inside the tank when it was hit, even if it wasn’t penetrated.
  • The tank was notoriously unfriendly to its crew; it was cramped and uncomfortable, even though the new turret did solve the problematic sight-blocking turret hatch of the T-34/76.
  • The T-34, in all versions, was notoriously noisy – more so than other tanks. No stealth operations or surprise attacks were to be organized with this tank’s loud and distinctive engine and track sound.
  • This tank was a mass-produced vehicle in the most literal sense; no attention was paid to details in the design, so the welds were crude, paint often not applied at all, suspension a rag-tag of available wheel types, and the engine was unreliable.
So we see that the T-34/85, while without doubt a robust design for its purpose, was not at all as good a tank as is often claimed. Most importantly, the scorned American Sherman tank was a rough equal to it by the end of the war, although both tanks had advantages and disadvantages compared to each other. When we consider the T-34/85 as a contestant for the title of Best Tank of World War II, we must do so from a strategic perspective; the vehicle was cheap and easy to make – exactly what Russia needed. Tactically, however, it had to recognize many a tank as its superior on the battlefield.

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