My last post started telling the story of the T-34, a Soviet designed tank that gave the Germans a hell of a fright on the Eastern Front. Arguably one of the most influential tanks of the Second World War, it then went on to fight in Korea, Vietnam and many other Cold War conflicts.
Plenty of Soviet military technology such as the AK-47 has stood the test of time, but what about the T-34? When did it last see action? Could it really be possible that it is still being used for its original purpose? My quest was to answer those questions. Researching this story took me on a hell of a ride! So brace yourself for the story of the last of the T-34’s.
WHEN DID THE T-34 LAST SEE ACTION
The sharing of military technology between two countries is an action that is often stacked with symbolism. When I look at photographs or footage of past conflicts I always take note of the equipment the forces are using. It can tell all sorts of stories.
So strap on your Cold War helmets and try to remember back to when the Russians and Americans were vying for international supremacy. The two powers took differing sides of brutal civil wars, initiated uprisings, armed insurgents and courted potential allies. The threat of nuclear weapons may have contributed to the lack of direct confrontation but many a bloody war was still fought during these decades. Enter the T-34.
Soviet technology had advanced considerably by the time the last T-34 rolled off the production line in 1958 and it had already been superseded by the T-54/55 (which would go on to become the most-produced tank in history).
The T-34 had become an affordable Soviet bargaining chip and began appearing in the forces of dozens of countries and on battlefields in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. So exactly how recently did it see action? Here are examples of some of the most recent conflicts that the T-34 served in.
South African Border War/Angolan Civil War
African conflicts often get thrown into the too hard basket. Sadly they can be considered too difficult to understand, too difficult to report on and too difficult to do anything about. Well if anyone believes that the last half-century has been peaceful then I challenge them to look at Africa.
The South African Border War and Angolan Civil War had some of the most unlikely participants. One of them was Cuba, who sent over a bunch of crews with T-34 tanks. On at least one occasion they were in the sights of the South African Air Force.
The latest reference I can find for a confirmed action involving a T-34 in this conflict is 1981. If anyone can confirm a later use then let me know and I’ll update this.
ACTION CONFIRMED 1981 – COULD BE LATER
Eritrean War of Independence
There is footage of T-34’s fighting in Ethiopia, so this use is confirmed.
ACTION CONFIRMED 1985
It is sad to think that as I was growing up in the relative peace of small town New Zealand in another part of the world there was a full-scale conventional war raging. While I was watching Dino-Riders and eating coco pops cereal there were kids my age experiencing untold suffering.
For those who might not have heard of the Iran-Iraq War, it was the longest sustained conventional conflict of the twentieth century. It saw the use of chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and more than likely, T-34 tanks.
Saddam is known to have had a number of T-34’s in service up until the early 1990’s. Considering the duration of this conflict it is likely that T-34’s were used in some capacity. But at the moment I don’t have proof.
EXACT DATE OF ACTION UNCONFIRMED – 1980’s
Soviet War in Afghanistan
When the Soviets entered Afghanistan in the 1980’s they brought much more advanced weaponry to the conflict, but their Afghan Army allies took T-34’s into action against the U.S. supported Mujahedeen. During this conflict there are records of at least one T-34 falling into the hands of the Mujahedeen. You can see a T-34 on the battlefield in this clip on LiveLeak.
In April 1986 Soviet and Afghan forces drove the Mujahedeen out of caves in Zhawar, Paktia Province. They were shocked at what they found inside one of the caves.
“The demolition explosives of various types and detonators were stored in a separate cave. In the very furthest part of the base were repair and maintenance bays complete with grease pits. There was a T-34 tank in one of them. The tank was serviced, fueled and had new batteries. It started right up and drove out of the service bay.”
The Campaign for the Caves: The Battles for Zhawar in the Soviet-Afghan War
It is likely that the Northern Alliance or even the Taliban had access to some remaining T-34’s in the 1990’s – but it is unknown if either side used them in action. There is a rumor that Coalition forces encountered some in Taliban hands in the early stages of the War on Terror, but I suspect that rumor is due to the many rusting wrecks of T-34’s that are to this day still visible in the hills and deserts.
ACTION CONFIRMED – Mid 1980’s
In May 1995 a Serbian T-34 tank fired on a United Nations outpost – injuring six peacekeepers. Tragically a British Corporal from the 21st Engineer Regiment lost a leg in this incident.
There is plenty of video and photographic evidence of other T-34’s being involved in the Bosnian War and it is generally accepted that this was the last conflict in which the T-34 saw action.
ACTION CONFIRMED – MAY 1995
Libyan civil war 2011
Last year during Gaddafi’s forced exit from power an interesting report came out of the war zone. Reuters reported that rebels had taken control of Garyan (South of Tripoli) and had positioned a T-34 tank in the square.
Could this be true? Fifteen years after its confirmed use in the Bosnian War could this WW2 relic really have arrived to fight one last battle?
All other coverage of this incident uses the original Reuters report as their reference. With news sources giving me little further information I turned to trusty Wikipedia, but they too use the Reuters article as their confirmation. The journalists that wrote the report didn’t return my emails so it looked like I was running out of options. That was until I found some video. The footage is also in an online Reuters database that I often license content from during my day job – and the record with this video confirms that it is of the T-34 mentioned in the article.
But there is a problem. The tank the rebels are clambering over in the video isn’t a T-34. It looks like a much more recent Soviet tank, the T-55. So unfortunately until I see further evidence, involvement of T-34’s in the recent fighting in Libya remains unconfirmed.
So that is my summary of the last battles of the T-34. The last confirmed action by T-34’s was in the Bosnian War in 1995. But are any left in military forces today?
This fantastic map from Wikipedia shows how widespread the use of T-34’s has been – testament to both the original design and Cold War allegiances. The countries in red are former operators of the T-34 and those in black, allegedly, still use them. But is it possible to prove this?
Lets weigh up some of the factors. We know that the last T-34 came off the production line in 1958, so any remaining examples would be at least 54 years old. Even in the 1950’s the T-34 was out of date and since then an estimated 60 000 – 100 000 T-55 tanks have been produced and distributed to many of the same operators. Any T-34s still in service must be running low on spare parts and some would have to be cannibalized to repair others.
Most information of current T-34 operators dates back to the 1990’s and as my experience with the 2011 Libyan report shows, in the information age it is easy for misinformation to spread like the pox. Proving that T-34’s are still being used for their intended purpose will need better evidence than just old statistics. But accurate information on current military forces isn’t easy to find.
WHERE IN THE WORLD IS THE LAST ACTIVE T-34?
There are a number of countries that are suspected of still using T-34’s – so to make my search more effective I narrowed the list down to the operators that seemed the most likely. Outdated figures and rumors aren’t enough for me. I’m searching for proof.
We know the last confirmed action involving a T-34 was during the Bosnian War. There were still some there recently, however they had not been used for years, were only kept as targets for military exercises and were not used for their original purpose. In 2008 thieves liberated three of them to sell as scrap metal. So while there could still be some T-34’s in the hands of the military, they can hardly be described as active.
CURRENT USE UNLIKELY
The Cubans used T-34’s when they fought in Angola and there are rumors that they are still in use by Territorial Troop Militias – perhaps for training purposes. I’m open to the idea that right now a cigar smoking Cuban might be leaning against the barrel of a T-34 but I can’t find any evidence. However this website is too fantastic to not share.
CURRENT USE UNCONFIRMED
This is where the search gets exciting. The North Koreans have a reputation for hanging on to any bit of military hardware they can get their hands on.
The use of T-34’s in the Korean War is perhaps it’s most iconic use post-WW2. As late as the 1990’s it was thought that several hundred of them were still in North Korea. But to find proof without the benefit of classified reports seems all but impossible.
It is highly likely that T-34s might still be held in reserve, or perhaps used as field guns in dug in positions. Perhaps the best hope for evidence is Google Earth. Watch this space – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one is spotted in the near future.
UPDATE – Thanks to a comment left below by a reader below it appears that we can now confirm that T-34’s have been spotted recently in North Korea.
The author of this fantastic blog on North Korean armed forces spotted the T-34 in a video of North Korean forces conducting a training exercise. The video can be watched on YouTube (the tank drives past at about 30 seconds in) where someone has commented that T-34s are not part of the armored division but are still used by rear area militia groups.
CURRENT USE CONFIRMED
Even a geriatric tank can be used to incite fear among an unarmed populace or to boost morale among a lightly armed militia. Any tank beats no tank.
In the 1990’s a number of countries were listed as still operating the T-34 – places such as the Republic of Congo, Guinea, Mozambique, Namibia, Mali and Togo.
Once again the challenge is to find reliable evidence and not just recycled statistics. Researching contemporary military forces in Africa is excruciatingly difficult. Many of these regions still experience regular conflict and recent reports on military strength are scarce.
There is one exception though, an August 2011 article on the organization of the Somaliland military. Somaliland was born out of the Somali Civil War when it claimed independence but is not recognized internationally. About 30% of Somaliland’s annual budget goes towards maintaining its military forces.
Internationally Somaliland is considered part of Somalia and as such is under an arms embargo. There are very few chances to upgrade their military hardware so they have to make the most of what they have, and keep it in working condition for as long as possible. The Somalia Report article lists the military vehicles in use by the Somaliland tank brigades; BTR-50 armoured cars, a few T-55 main battle tanks and T-34 medium battle tanks.
This appears to be the most recent report of T-34’s in military service, but is it reliable? As I mentioned earlier, reports on current military forces are often inaccurate or based on recycled statistics from the 1990’s. The only way to verify this article is to get in touch with the Somaliland journalist who wrote it and find out where he got his information.
Somalia is a dangerous place for journalists – with five being murdered so far this year. It is a place where reporters are often on the move, using aliases or forced to go into hiding. Communications are also unreliable and my first efforts to make contact with the author of the 2011 report were all unsuccessful. Finally, through the help of another journalist I was put in touch with the reporter.
He tells me that the report was difficult to research and that the key source is an anonymous tank officer who accepted a bribe and allowed him access to one of their facilities. In among the T-55’s the journalist personally saw a number of T-34’s. Unlike the report from Libya, this one is credible. Seventy years after they were first designed – T-34’s are still in active service.
CURRENT USE CONFIRMED
Researching this post has taught me a lot about the conflicts of the latter part of the twentieth century – a time that is believed by some to be peaceful. I feel guilty for brushing over so many horrific wars so briefly, especially when they affected so many people and are rarely studied or mentioned in the media.
The T-34’s role in these recent conflicts was insignificant. But it is fascinating to think that a tank that was originally designed to defeat Hitler is still being used in the 21st century. That fact is testament to politics and alliances, to embargoes and economics, but also in part due to the T-34’s design as a simple, cheap yet highly effective tank.
© Lemuel Lyes
I’d like to thank the valuable contribution made by a brave journalist from Somaliland and the assistance of the friendly folks at the T-34 History Museum in Moscow.
Also I’d like to acknowledge the following sources:
The Campaign for the Caves: The Battles for Zhawar in the Soviet-Afghan War’ by Lester W. Grau amd Ali Ahmad Jalali. Foreign Military Studies Office, Fort Leabenworth, KS.
T-34-85 Medium Tank 1944 – 94 by Steven J Zaloga & Jim Kinnear
The Taliban Phenomenon Afghanistan 1994 – 1997 by Kamal Matinuddin