Second World War

From Russia with Love: The T-34

Russian T-34 tank

© Lemuel Lyes collection

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

3 replies »

  1. Haven’t fired an AK, sad to say, though I have ridden as a passenger in a Lada in Russia.

    About the T 34: there were actually considerable differences between models, and the T34 of 1944 was a completely different beast from the models made in early 1941. The early T34s – produced in peacetime, without experience of war – were well-finished but not particularly good vehicles. The two-man turret was a serious error, since the commander had to do the shooting as well as guide the driver, communicate with other tanks (the early models didn’t have radios except command vehicles, so this was by signal flag) and order the loader what ammunition to load. Teething problems inherent in new equipment was another problem, as was the *very* inadequate crew training. The USSR knew all this but the exigencies of war meant that major changes could not be made – just minor improvements – until the situation stabilised. It was not until early 1944 that the vastly superior T 34/85 (virtually a new vehicle) was manufactured, because by that time the German threat has been decisively defeated.

    What made the (early) T 34s with the 76 mm gun successful, despite all their deficiencies? I’d put it under these headings:

    1. The “shock value”. In 1941 the Nazis were wholly unaware of the existence of the T 34. They invaded the USSR with armour largely comprising PzKw I and II, with a limited number of IV. The former two were utterly incapable of fighting the T 34 or the KV, and the latter was at best only as good. By the time the Germans had adjusted themselves to – for the first time – being confronted by an enemy which fought as well as they did, their tanks were floundering up to their bellies in the winter snow. As for the T 34? Their broad tracks carried them over the snow cover. No problems.

    2. The T 34 armour. Actually, in the early T 34s this wasn’t very good. It was too soft in places like the turret, and too hard and brittle in the hull, making it prone to spalling in case of a hit. But even then it was proof against the standard German 37mm and 50mm anti-tank guns.

    3. The ease of manufacture of the T 34. Huge numbers meant that they could overwhelm German defences, even if with heavy losses. And until the advent of the T 34/85 losses were very heavy.

    4. The attitude of the crew. Westerners couldn’t comprehend how T 34 crew could fight in those cramped conditions. They could for the exact same reasons as they fought the Nazis to a standstill while the French and other Western Europeans surrendered. Because unlike the West Europeans, they were fighting a war for national and social survival, and they knew it.

    I’d like to also point out that as early as 1940 the USSR was *already* planning a replacement for the T 34. This became the T 44, which was possibly the single best tank actually built during the course of the war, but it was never produced in enough numbers to be put into combat. Reason: the USSR could not afford the loss of production that converting assembly lines would have cost. The T 44 was only produced in limited numbers after the war and was soon superseded by the T 54.

    • Thanks for this – fascinating stuff. I agree, I think that the ease of manufacture was a key reason behind the overall success of the original T-34.

      Incredible to think of the conditions that those brave crews put up with.

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