This snapshot from my personal collection shows a knocked out tank somewhere on the Eastern Front during the Second World War. Unfortunately the context of this image has been lost and I don’t know exactly where it was taken, who took it or when. What I do know though is that is shows one of the most influential tanks of the twentieth century. A tank that was made in Russia – the T-34.
As a Westerner having grown up in the hangover of the Cold War means it’s sometimes difficult to not be biased against Russian technology. When I was a teenager in the 1990’s I had a good friend who’s family car was on the receiving end of a lot of ridicule. It performed well for them, didn’t seem to have any more problems than other vehicles of similar vintage and economically it was a brilliant choice. What was wrong with it then? It was a Lada.
The Lada Classic was a highly successful vehicle. Internationally only two other automobile platforms have sold in greater numbers – the Model T Ford and the VW Beetle. The Lada was affordable, easily produced in large numbers, cheap to fix and had a long life. Just last week I read the announcement that production of the Lada is finally coming to an end.
The Russians seem to have a knack for designing simple cheap machines that get the job done. This is even truer on the battlefield. The Russian designed AK-47 is arguably the most prolific weapon of the last fifty years – there are even rumors of some American forces favouring them over their own weapons in Vietnam. Even in the 21st century the AK-47 is often the weapon of choice for soldiers, criminals and terrorists. Its use is so widespread that it has jokingly been referred to as the Windows Operating System of guns – only much more reliable!
So to get back on track, why was the tank in the snapshot above so influential? I’m not very mechanically minded so would struggle to discuss the technical strengths and weaknesses of the T-34 compared to its adversaries. What I do know though is that the T-34 played a pivotal role during the Second World War.
When the Germans launched their invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 they were expecting another poorly equipped opponent and were shocked to come up against the Russian T-34; a tank that was a match for anything they had. It was these early engagements with the T-34 that motivated the development of a new generation of German tanks including the Panther and the infamous Tiger.
It is interesting to compare the differing wartime production strategies of the Russians and the Germans. The Germans were perfectionists – they liked to have the coolest toys. They had the first assault rifle, the first jet fighter and the first ballistic missile. But their toys were expensive, time-consuming to produce and struggled when in less than ideal conditions. The Russians had a knack for developing simple no-frills equipment that could be produced in large numbers, was reasonably reliable, easy to fix and could work equally well in snow, mud or sand.
After playing a key role throughout the Second World War (including in some of the largest tank battles of all time), the T-34 continued to see action for not just years but many decades. Like the AK-47 it was adopted by many armed forces. Mostly in countries that feature as ‘the baddies’ in James Bond films, but some others as well.
In the 1950’s T-34s dueled with American and ANZAC forces in Korea. They were used by the North Vietnamese during the Vietnam War and suppressed uprisings in Hungary and East Germany. To this day in some Eastern European countries the T-34 still represents the Cold War and Soviet oppression.
In 2006 the symbolism of the T-34 certainly wasn’t lost on these anti-government protestors in Hungary.
Pro-tip: Leaving unattended tanks next to angry mobs is a bad idea; even armoured antiques can do serious damage!
When did the T-34 last see action? Has this ‘armoured Lada’ been retired for good? Come visit again later in the week for answers to those questions and more.
In the meantime I’d love to hear the personal experiences of anyone who has either fired an AK-47 or been for a drive in a Lada. Post in the comment section below.
© Lemuel Lyes