In 1939, the most numerous Soviet tank models were the T-26 infantry tank and the BT series of fast tanks. The T-26 was slow-moving, designed to keep pace with infantry on the ground. The BT tanks were cavalry tanks: fast-moving and light, designed for manoeuvre warfare. Both were Soviet developments of foreign designs from the early 1930s; the T-26 was based on the British Vickers 6-Ton, and the BT tanks were based on a design from American engineer J. Walter Christie.
In 1937, the Red Army had assigned engineer Mikhail Koshkin to lead a new team to design a replacement for the BT tanks at the Kharkiv Komintern Locomotive Plant (KhPZ). The prototype tank, designated A-20, was specified with 20 mm (0.8 in) of armour, a 45 mm (1.77 in) gun, and the new Model V-2-34 engine, using less-flammable diesel fuel in a V12 configuration designed by Konstantin Chelpan. It also had an 8×6-wheel convertible drive similar to the BT tank's 8×2, which allowed it to run on wheels without caterpillar tracks. This feature had greatly saved on maintenance and repair of the unreliable tank tracks of the early 1930s, and allowed tanks to exceed 85 kilometres per hour (53 mph) on roads, but gave no advantage in combat and its complexity made it difficult to maintain. By 1937-38, track design had improved and the designers considered it a waste of space, weight, and maintenance resources, despite the road speed advantage. The A-20 also incorporated previous research (BT-IS and BT-SW-2 projects) into sloped armour: its all-round sloped armour plates were more likely to deflect rounds than perpendicular armour.
During the Battle of Lake Khasan in July 1938 and the Battles of Khalkhin Gol in 1939, an undeclared border war with Japan on the frontier with occupied Manchuria, the Soviets deployed numerous tanks against the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA). Although the IJA Type 95 Ha-Go light tanks had diesel engines, the Red Army's T-26 and BT tanks used petrol engines which, while common in tank designs of the time, often burst into flames when hit by IJA tank-killer teams using Molotov cocktails. Poor quality welds in the Soviet armour plates left small gaps between them, and flaming petrol from the Molotov cocktails easily seeped into the fighting and engine compartment; portions of the armour plating that had been assembled with rivets also proved to be vulnerable. The Soviet tanks were also easily destroyed by the Japanese Type 95 tank's 37 mm gunfire, despite the low velocity of that gun, or "at any other slightest provocation". The use of riveted armour led to a problem called "spalling", whereby the impact of enemy shells, even if they failed to disable the tank or kill the crew on their own, would cause the rivets to break off and become projectiles inside the tank.
After these battles, Koshkin convinced Soviet leader Joseph Stalin to let him develop a second prototype, a more heavily armed and armoured "universal tank" that reflected the lessons learned and could replace both the T-26 and the BT tanks. Koshkin named the second prototype A-32, after its 32 mm (1.3 in) of frontal armour. It had an L-10 76.2 mm (3 in) gun, and the same Model V-2-34 diesel. Both were tested in field trials at Kubinka in 1939, with the heavier A-32 proving to be as mobile as the A-20. A still heavier version of the A-32, with 45 mm (1.77 in) of front armour, wider tracks, and a newer L-11 76.2 mm gun, was approved for production as the T-34. Koshkin chose the name after the year 1934, when he began to formulate his ideas about the new tank, and to commemorate that year's decree expanding the armoured force and appointing Sergo Ordzhonikidze to head tank production.
Valuable lessons from Lake Khasan and Khalkhin Gol regarding armour protection, mobility, quality welding, and main guns were incorporated into the new T-34 tank, which represented a substantial improvement over the BT and T-26 tanks in all four areas. Koshkin's team completed two prototype T-34s in January 1940. In April and May, they underwent a grueling 2,000-kilometre (1,200 mi) drive from Kharkiv to Moscow for a demonstration for the Kremlin leaders, to the Mannerheim Line in Finland, and back to Kharkiv via Minsk and Kiev. Some drivetrain shortcomings were identified and corrected.
Political pressure came from conservative elements in the army to redirect resources into building the older T-26 and BT tanks, or to cancel T-34 production pending completion of the more advanced T-34M design. This pressure was brought to bear by the developer of the KV-1 tank which was in competition with the T-34.
Resistance from the military command and concerns about high production cost were finally overcome by anxieties about the poor performance of Soviet tanks in the Winter War in Finland, and the effectiveness of German tanks during the Battle of France. The first production T-34s were completed in September 1940, completely replacing the production of the T-26, the BT series, and the multi-turreted T-28 medium tank at the KhPZ plant. Koshkin died of pneumonia (exacerbated by the drive from Kharkiv to Moscow) at the end of that month, and the T-34's drivetrain developer, Alexander Morozov, was appointed Chief Designer.
The T-34 posed new challenges for Soviet industry. It had heavier armour than any medium tank produced to date, and there were problems with defective armour plates. Only company commanders' tanks could be fitted with radios (originally the 10-RT 26E radio set), due to their expense and short supply – the rest of the tank crews in each company signalled with flags. The L-11 gun did not live up to expectations, so the Grabin Design Bureau at Gorky Factory N.92 designed the superior F-34 76.2 mm gun (see Designations of Soviet artillery). No bureaucrat would approve production of the new gun, but Gorky and KhPZ started producing it anyway; official permission only came from the State Defense Committee after troops praised the weapon's performance in combat against the Germans.
Production of this first T-34 series – the Model 1940 – totalled only about 400, before production was switched to the Model 1941, with the F-34 gun, 9-RS radio set (also installed on the SU-100), and even thicker armour.
Subassemblies for the T-34 originated at several plants: Kharkiv Diesel Factory N.75 supplied the model V-2-34 engine, Leningrad Kirovsky Factory (formerly the Putilov works) made the original L-11 gun, and the Dinamo Factory in Moscow produced electrical components. Tanks were initially built at KhPZ N.183, in early 1941 at the Stalingrad Tractor Factory (STZ), and starting in July at Krasnoye Sormovo Factory N.112 in Gorky.
After Germany's surprise invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), the Wehrmacht's rapid advances forced the evacuation and relocation of Soviet tank factories eastwards of the Ural Mountains, an undertaking of immense scale and haste that presented enormous logistic difficulties and was extremely punishing to the workers involved. Alexander Morozov personally supervised the evacuation of all skilled engineers and labourers, machinery and stock from KhPZ to re-establish the factory at the site of the Dzherzhinski Ural Railcar Factory in Nizhny Tagil, renamed Stalin Ural Tank Factory N.183. The Kirovsky Factory, evacuated just weeks before the Germans surrounded Leningrad, moved with the Kharkiv Diesel Factory to the Stalin Tractor Factory in Chelyabinsk, soon to be nicknamed Tankograd ("Tank City"). The workers and machinery from Leningrad's Voroshilov Tank Factory N.174 were incorporated into the Ural Factory and the new Omsk Factory N.174. The Ordzhonikidze Ural Heavy Machine Tool Works (UZTM) in Sverdlovsk absorbed workers and machines from several small machine shops in the path of German forces.
While these factories were being rapidly moved, the industrial complex surrounding the Dzherzhinski Tractor Factory in Stalingrad continued to work double shifts throughout the period of withdrawal (September 1941 to September 1942) to make up for production lost, and produced 40% of all T-34s during the period. As the factory became surrounded by heavy fighting in the Battle of Stalingrad in 1942, the situation there grew desperate: manufacturing innovations were necessitated by material shortages, and stories persist of unpainted T-34 tanks driven out of the factory directly to the battlefields around it. Stalingrad kept up production until September 1942.
Soviet designers were aware of design deficiencies in the tank, but most of the desired remedies would have slowed tank production and so were not implemented: the only changes allowed on the production lines through to 1944 were those to make production simpler and cheaper. New methods were developed for automated welding and hardening the armour plate, including innovations by Prof. Evgeny Paton. The design of the 76.2 mm F-34 gun Model 1941 was reduced from an initial 861 parts to 614. The initial narrow, cramped turrets, both the cast one and the one welded of rolled armour plates bent to shape, were since 1942 gradually replaced with the somewhat less cramped hexagonal one; as it was mostly cast with only a few, simple flat armour plates welded in (roof etc.), this turret was actually faster to produce. Limited rubber supplies led to the adoption of all-steel, internally sprung road wheels, and a new clutch was added to an improved five-speed transmission and engine, improving reliability.
Over two years, the unit production cost of the T-34 was reduced from 269,500 rubles in 1941, to 193,000, and then to 135,000. Production time was cut in half by the end of 1942, even though most experienced factory workers had been sent to the battlefield and were replaced by a mixed workforce that included 50% women, 15% boys, and 15% invalids and old men. Originally "beautifully crafted machines with excellent exterior finish comparable or superior to those in Western Europe or America", later T-34s were much more roughly finished; however, this did not compromise mechanical reliability.
In 1943, T-34 production had reached an average of 1,300 per month; this was the equivalent of three full-strength Panzer divisions. By the end of 1945, over 57,300 T-34s had been built: 34,780 T-34 tanks in multiple variants with 76.2 mm guns in 1940–44, and another 22,609 of the revised T-34-85 model in 1944–45. The single largest producer was Factory N.183 (UTZ), building 28,952 T-34s and T-34-85s from 1941 to 1945. The second-largest was Krasnoye Sormovo Factory N.112 in Gorky, with 12,604 in the same period.
At the start of the war, T-34s comprised about four percent of the Soviet tank arsenal, but by the end it made up at least 55% of tank production (based on figures from; Zheltov 2001 lists even larger numbers).
Following the end of the war, a further 2,701 T-34s were built prior to the end of Soviet production. Under licence, production was restarted in Poland (1951–55) and Czechoslovakia (1951–58), where 1,380 and 3,185 T-34-85s were made, respectively, by 1956. Altogether, as many as 84,070 T-34s are thought to have been built, plus 13,170 self-propelled guns built on T-34 chassis. It was the most-produced tank of the Second World War, and the second most-produced tank of all time, after its successor, the T-54/55 series.
The T-34 had well-sloped armour, a relatively powerful engine and wide tracks. The initial T-34 version had a powerful 76.2 mm gun, and is often called the T-34/76 (originally a World War II German designation, never used by the Red Army). In 1944, a second major version began production, the T-34-85, with a larger 85 mm gun intended to deal with newer German tanks.
Comparisons can be drawn between the T-34 and the U.S. M4 Sherman tank. Both tanks were the backbone of the armoured units in their respective armies, both nations distributed these tanks to their allies, who also used them as the mainstay of their own armoured formations, and both were upgraded extensively and fitted with more powerful guns. Both were designed for mobility and ease of manufacture and maintenance, sacrificing some performance for these goals. Both chassis were used as the foundation for a variety of support vehicles, such as armour recovery vehicles, tank destroyers, and self-propelled artillery. Both were an approximately even match for the standard German medium tank, the Panzer IV, though each of these three tanks had particular advantages and weaknesses compared with the other two. Neither the T-34 nor the M4 were equals to Germany's heavier tanks, the Panther (technically a medium tank) or the Tiger I; the Soviets used the IS-2 heavy tank and the U.S. used the M26 Pershing as the heavy tanks of their forces instead.
Dimensions, road speed and engine horsepower of the various models did not vary significantly, except for the T-43, which was slower than the T-34.
The T-34 was one of the best-protected tanks in the world in 1941. The heavily sloped armour design made the tank better protected than the armour thickness alone would indicate. The shape also saved weight by reducing the surface area. A few tanks also had appliqué armour of varying thickness welded onto the hull and turret. Tanks thus modified were called s ekranami (Russian: с экранами, "with screens").
The USSR donated two combat-used Model 1941 T-34s to the United States for testing purposes in late 1942. The examinations, performed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, revealed problems with overall armour build quality, especially of the plate joins and welds, as well as the use of soft steel combined with shallow surface tempering. Leak issues were noted: "In a heavy rain lots of water flows through chinks/cracks, which leads to the disabling of the electrical equipment and even the ammunition". Earlier models of the T-34, until the Model 1942, had cast turrets whose armour was softer than that of the other parts of the tank, and offered poor resistance even to 37 mm anti-aircraft shells.
In addition, close examination of the T-34 at the Aberdeen Testing Ground showed that a variety of alloys were used in different portions of the armour on the T-34. "Mn-Si-Mo steels were employed for the thinner rolled armour sections, Cr-Mo steels for the thicker rolled armour sections, Mn-Si-Ni-Cr-Mo steels were employed for both rolled and cast steel components from 2" to 5" in thickness, and Ni-Cr-Mo steels were employed for some of the moderately thick cast armour sections". The armour was heat-treated in order to prevent penetration by armour-piercing shells, but this also caused it to be structurally weak, resulting in strikes by high explosive shells causing spalling.
Despite these deficiencies, the T-34's armour proved problematic for the Germans in the initial stages of the war on the Eastern Front. In one wartime account, a single T-34 came under heavy fire upon encountering one of the most common German anti-tank guns at that stage of the war: "Remarkably enough, one determined 37 mm gun crew reported firing 23 times against a single T-34 tank, only managing to jam the tank’s turret ring." Similarly, a German report of May 1942 noted the ineffectiveness of their 50 mm gun as well, noting that "Combating the T-34 with the 5 cm KwK tank gun is possible only at short ranges from the flank or rear, where it is important to achieve a hit as perpendicular to the surface as possible." However, a Military Commissariat Report of the 10th Tank Division, dated 2 August 1941 reported that within 300–400 m the 37 mm Pak 36's armour-piercing shot could defeat the frontal armour. According to an examination of damaged T-34 tanks in several repair workshops in August to September 1942, collected by the People's Commissariat for Tank Industry in January 1943, 54.3% of all T-34 losses were caused by the German long-barreled 50 mm KwK 39 gun.
As the war went on, the T-34 gradually lost some of its initial advantage. The Germans responded to the T-34 by fielding large numbers of improved anti-tank weapons such as the towed 75 mm gun, while hits from 88 mm-armed Tigers, anti-aircraft guns and PaK 43 anti-tank guns usually proved lethal. A Wa Pruef 1 report estimated that, with the target angled 30° sideward, a Panther tank could penetrate the turret of a T-34-85 from the front at ranges up to 2000 m, the mantlet at 1200 m, and the frontal hull armour at 300 m. According to the Pantherfibel, the T-34's glacis could be penetrated from 800 m and the mantlet from 1500 m at 30° sideward angle. Ground trials by employees of NIBT Poligon in May 1943 reported that the KwK 36 88mm gun could pierce the T-34 frontal hull from 1,500 metres at 90 degrees and cause a disastrous burst effect inside the tank. The examined hull showed cracks, spalling, and delamination due to the poor quality of the armour. It was recommended to increase and improve the quality of welds and armour.
The F-34 76.2 mm (3 in) gun, fitted on the vast majority of T-34s produced through to the beginning of 1944, was able to penetrate any early German tank's armour at normal combat ranges. When firing APCR shells, it could pierce 92 mm of armour at 500 m. The best German tanks of 1941, the Panzer III and Panzer IV, had no more than 50 or 60 mm frontal armour. The F-34 also fired an adequate high explosive round.
The gun sights and range finding for the F-34 main gun (either the TMFD-7 or the PT4-7) were rather crude, especially compared to those of their German adversaries, affecting accuracy and the ability to engage at long ranges. As a result of the T-34's two-man turret, weak optics and poor vision devices, the Germans noted:
The Germans also noted that the T-34 was very slow to find and engage targets, while their own tanks could typically get off three rounds for every one fired by the T-34.
When new German tanks types with thicker armour began appearing in mid-1942, the T-34's 76.2 mm cannon had to fire at their flanks to assure penetration. As a result, the T-34 was upgraded to the T-34-85 model. This model, with its 85 mm (3.35 in) ZiS gun, provided greatly increased firepower compared to the previous T-34's 76.2mm gun. The 85 mm gun could penetrate the turret front of a Tiger I tank from 500 m (550 yd) and the driver's front plate from 300 m (330 yd) at the side angle of 30 degrees, and the larger turret enabled the addition of another crew member, allowing the roles of commander and gunner to be separated and increasing the rate of fire and overall effectiveness. Against the frontal armour of the Panther at 30 degree sidewards, the T-34-85 could penetrate the non-mantlet of its turret at 500 m (550 yd), meaning that even upgraded models of the T-34 usually needed tungsten rounds or had to flank a Panther to destroy it.
The greater length of the 85 mm gun barrel (4.645 meters) made it necessary for crews to be careful not to plough it into the ground on bumpy roads or in combat. Tank commander A.K. Rodkin commented: "the tank could have dug the ground with it in the smallest ditch. If you fired it after that, the barrel would open up at the end like the petals of a flower." Standard practice when moving the T-34-85 cross-country in non-combat situations was to fully elevate the gun, or reverse the turret.
The T-34 was powered by a Model V-2-34 38.8 L V12 Diesel engine of 500 hp (370 kW), giving a top speed of 53 km/h (33 mph). It used the coil-spring Christie suspension of the earlier BT-series tanks, using a "slack track" tread system with a rear-mounted drive sprocket and no system of return rollers for the upper run of track, but dispensed with the heavy and ineffective convertible drive.
During the winters of 1941–42 and 1942–43, the T-34 had a marked advantage over German tanks through its ability to move over deep mud or snow — especially important in Russia's twice-annual rasputitsa mud seasons — without bogging down. The Panzer IV, its closest German equivalent at that time, used an inferior leaf-spring suspension and narrow track that tended to sink in such conditions.
The T-34 suffered from the unsatisfactory ergonomic layout of its crew compartment. The two-man turret crew arrangement required the commander to aim and fire the gun, an arrangement common to most Soviet tanks of the day. The two-man turret was cramped and inefficient and was inferior to the three-man (commander, gunner, and loader) turret crews of German Panzer III and Panzer IV tanks. The Germans noted the T-34 was very slow to find and engage targets while the Panzers could typically get off three rounds for every one fired by the T-34.
Early in the war, the commander fought at a further disadvantage; the forward-opening hatch and the lack of a turret cupola forced him to observe the battlefield through a single vision slit and traversable periscope. German commanders liked to fight "heads-up", with their seat raised and having a full field of view – in the T-34 this was impossible. Soviet veterans condemned the turret hatches of the early models. Nicknamed pirozhok (stuffed bun) because of its characteristic shape, it was heavy and hard to open. The complaints of the crews urged the design group led by Alexander Morozov to switch in August 1942 to using two hatches in the turret.
The loader also had a difficult job due to the lack of a turret basket (a rotating floor that moves as the turret turns); the same fault was present on all German tanks prior to the Panzer IV. The floor under the T-34's turret was made up of ammunition stored in small metal boxes, covered by a rubber mat. There were nine ready rounds of ammunition stowed in racks on the sides of the fighting compartment. Once these rounds had been used, the crew had to pull additional ammunition out of the floor boxes, leaving the floor littered with open bins and matting and reducing their performance.
The problems created by the cramped T-34/76 turret, known before the war, were fully corrected with the provision of a bigger cast three-man turret on the T-34-85 in 1944.
The T-34's wide track and good suspension gave it excellent cross-country performance. Early in the tank's life, however, this advantage was greatly reduced by the numerous teething troubles the design displayed: a long road trip could be a lethal exercise for a T-34 tank at the start of the war. When in June 1941, the 8th Mechanised Corps of D.I. Ryabyshev marched towards Dubno, the corps lost half of its vehicles. A.V. Bodnar, who was in combat in 1941-42, recalled:
The T-34 gearbox had four forward and one reverse gear, replaced by a five-speed box on the last of the Model 1943s. The earlier transmissions were troublesome, and some tanks went into battle with a spare transmission cabled onto the engine compartment deck.
The tracks of early models were the most frequently repaired part. A.V. Maryevski later remembered:
The USSR donated two combat-used Model 1941 T-34s to the United States for testing purposes in late 1942. The examinations, performed at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, highlighted these early faults, which were in turn acknowledged in a 1942 Soviet report on the results of the testing:
Testing at Aberdeen also revealed that engines could grind to a halt from dust and sand ingestion, as the original "Pomon" air filter was almost totally ineffective and had insufficient air-inflow capacity, starving the combustion chambers of oxygen, lowering compression, and thereby restricting the engine from operating at full capacity. The air filter issue was later remedied by the addition of "Cyclone" filters on the Model 1943, and even more efficient "Multi-Cyclone" filters on the T-34-85.
The testing at Aberdeen revealed other problems as well. The turret drive also suffered from poor reliability. The use of poorly machined, low quality steel side friction clutches and the T-34's outdated and poorly manufactured transmission meant frequent mechanical failure occurred and that they "create an inhuman harshness for the driver". A lack of properly installed and shielded radios – if they existed at all – restricted their operational range to under 16 km (9.9 mi).
Germany launched Operation Barbarossa, its invasion of the Soviet Union, on 22 June 1941. The existence of the T-34 proved a psychological shock to German soldiers, who had expected to face an inferior enemy. The T-34 was superior to any tank the Germans then had in service. Initially, the Wehrmacht had great difficulty destroying T-34s in combat, as standard German anti-tank weaponry proved ineffective against its heavy, sloped armour. The diary of Alfred Jodl seems to express surprise at the appearance of the T-34 in Riga.
At the start of hostilities, the Red Army had 967 T-34 tanks and 508 KV tanks concentrated in five of their twenty-nine mechanized corps. In one of the first known encounters, a T-34 crushed a 37 mm PaK 36, destroyed two Panzer IIs, and left a 14 kilometres (8.7 mi)-long swathe of destruction in its wake before a howitzer destroyed it at close range. The Germans' standard anti-tank gun, the 37 mm PaK 36, proved ineffective against the T-34; the Germans were forced to deploy 105 mm field guns and 88 mm anti-aircraft guns in a direct fire role to stop them.
Despite this, the Soviet corps equipped with these new tanks lost most of them within weeks. The combat statistics for 1941 show that the Soviets lost an average of over seven tanks for every German tank lost. The Soviets lost a total of 20,500 tanks in 1941 (approximately 2,300 of them T-34s, as well as over 900 heavy tanks, mostly KVs). The destruction of the Soviet tank force was accomplished not only by the glaring disparity in the tactical and operational skills of the opponents, but also by the mechanical defects that affected the Soviet armour pool. Beside the poor state of older tanks, the new T-34s and KVs suffered from teething problems, particularly with regard to clutches and transmissions. Mechanical breakdowns accounted for at least 50 percent of the tank losses in the summer fighting, and recovery or repair equipment was not to be found. The shortage of repair equipment and recovery vehicles led the early T-34 crews to enter combat carrying a spare transmission on the engine deck.
Other key factors diminishing the initial impact of T-34s on the battlefield were the poor state of leadership, tank tactics, and crew training; these factors were partially consequences of Stalin's purges of the Soviet officer corps in 1937, reducing the army's efficiency and morale. This was aggravated as the campaign progressed by the loss of many of the properly trained personnel during the Red Army's disastrous defeats early in the invasion. Typical crews went into combat with only their basic military training plus 72 hours of classroom instruction; according to armour historian Steven J. Zaloga:
As the invasion progressed, German infantry began receiving increasing numbers of the Pak 40 75 mm, which were capable of penetrating the T-34's armour. Larger numbers of the 88 mm Flak guns also arrived, which could easily defeat a T-34 even at long range, though their size and general unwieldiness meant that they were often difficult to move into position in the rough Russian terrain. The heavy German Tiger I tank appeared on the Eastern Front in late 1942, as a response to the T-34.
At the same time, the Soviets incrementally upgraded the T-34. The Model 1942 featured increased armour and many simplified components. The Model 1943 (confusingly also introduced in 1942) had yet more armour, as well as increased fuel capacity and more ammunition storage. Also added were an improved engine air filter and a new clutch mated to an improved and more reliable five-speed transmission. Finally, the Model 1943 also had a new, slightly roomier (but still two-man) turret of a distinctive hexagonal shape that was easier to manufacture, derived from the abandoned T-34M project.
The T-34 was essential in resisting the German summer offensive in 1942, and executing the double encirclement manoeuver that cut off the German Sixth Army at Stalingrad in December 1942. The Sixth Army was surrounded, and eventually surrendered in February 1943, a campaign widely regarded as the turning point of the war on the Eastern Front.
In 1943, the Soviets formed Polish and Czechoslovak armies-in-exile, and these started to receive the T-34 Model 1943 with a hexagonal turret. Like the Soviet forces themselves, the Polish and Czech tank crews were sent into action quickly with little training, and suffered high casualties. The Czechoslovak crews of T-34 saw their first action in the Battle of Kiev in November 1943. The battalion forces consisting of ten T-34, ten T-70 and ten BA-64 quickly captured the city center and destroyed 4 enemy tanks, 2 tank destroyers and 7 other armoured vehicles with the own losses of only three T-34s light damaged. For his performance the commander of the tank unit, Josef Buršík, received the golden star Hero of the USSR.
In July 1943, the Germans launched Operation Citadel, in the region around Kursk, their last major offensive on the Eastern Front in the Second World War. It was the debut of the German Panther tank, although the numbers employed at Kursk were small and the brunt of the burden was carried by the Panzer III, StuG III, and Panzer IV. The campaign featured the largest tank battles in history. The high-water mark of the battle was the massive armour engagement at Prokhorovka, which began on 12 July, though the vast majority of armour losses on both sides were caused by artillery and mines, rather than tanks. Over 6,000 fully tracked armoured vehicles, 4,000 combat aircraft, and 2 million men are believed to have participated in these battles.
The Soviet high command's decision to focus on one cost-effective design, cutting costs and simplifying production wherever possible while only allowing relatively minor improvements, had proven to be an astute choice for the first two years of the war. However, the battles in the summer of 1943 demonstrated that the 76.2 mm gun of the T-34 was no longer as effective as it was in 1941. Soviet tank crews were unable to penetrate the frontal armour of the new German Panther or Tiger I tanks at standard combat ranges without tungsten rounds, and had to rely on tactical skill through flanking maneuvers and combined arms.
After improved German Panzer IVs with the high-velocity 75 mm (2.95 in) gun were encountered in combat in 1942, a project to design an entirely new Soviet tank was begun, with the goals of increasing armour protection while adding modern features like a torsion-bar suspension and a three-man turret. This new tank, the T-43, was intended to be a universal tank to replace both the T-34 and the KV-1 heavy tank. However, the T-43 prototype's armour, though heavier, was still not proof against German 88 mm guns, while its mobility was found to be inferior to the T-34. Finally, although the T-43 shared over 70% of its components with the T-34, manufacturing it would still have required a significant slow-down in production. Consequently, the T-43 was cancelled.
Not only were the weapons of German tanks improving, so was their armour. Soviet firing tests against a captured Tiger I heavy tank in April 1943 showed that the T-34's 76 mm gun could not penetrate the front of the Tiger I at all, and the side only at very close range. A Soviet 85 mm antiaircraft gun, the 52-K, was found capable of doing the job, and so derivatives of it were developed for tanks. The resulting tank gun could penetrate the side armour of the Tiger I from a distance of 800 meters and the turret side from a distance of 600 meters. It was still not enough to match the Tiger, as a Tiger could destroy the T-34 from a distance of 1,500 to 2,000 meters, but it was a noticeable improvement.
With the T-43 cancelled, the Soviet command made the decision to retool the factories to produce an improved version of the T-34. Its turret ring was enlarged from 1,425 mm (56 in) to 1,600 mm (63 in), allowing a larger turret to be fitted and thus the larger 85 mm gun. The prototype T-43's turret design was hurriedly adapted by Vyacheslav Kerichev at the Krasnoye Sormovo Factory to fit the T-34. This was a larger three-man turret, with radio (previously in the hull) and observation cupola in the roof. Now the tank commander needed only to command (aided by cupola and radio systems), leaving the operation of the gun to the gunner and the loader. The turret armour was much thicker, 90 mm, even if bigger and less sloped than the original T-34 turret. This made the turret, overall, a bigger target (due to the three-man crew and bigger gun), but more resistant to enemy fire. The ammunition load shrank from around 90-100 to 55-60 shells, but the proiectiles were 50% heavier (9 kg) and were much better in anti-armour role, and reasonable in a general purpose role. The resulting new tank, the T-34-85, was seen as a compromise between advocates for the T-43 and others who wanted to continue to build as many 76 mm-armed T-34s as possible without interruption.
Production of the T-34-85 began in February 1944, first using the 85 mm S-53 gun and then in mid-1944 the 85 mm ZiS-S-53 (the ZiS-S-53 was a modified S-53 designed by the Grabin Design Bureau in order to simplify the gun and reduce its price; the ballistics of both were the same). The improved T-34-85 became the standard Soviet medium tank, with an uninterrupted production run until the end of the war. A T-34-85 initially cost about 30 percent more to produce than a Model 1943, at 164,000 rubles; by 1945 this had been reduced to 142,000 rubles. During the course of the World War II, the cost of a T-34 tank was reduced by almost half, from 270,000 rubles in 1941, while in the meantime its top speed remained about the same, and its main gun's armour penetration and turret frontal armour thickness both nearly doubled.
The T-34-85 gave the Red Army a tank with better armour and mobility than the German Panzer IV tank and StuG III assault gun, though it could not match the armour or weapons of the Panther or Tiger tanks. However, its improved firepower made it much more effective against Panthers and Tigers than earlier models. In comparison with the T-34-85 program, the Germans instead chose an upgrade path based on the introduction of completely new, expensive, heavier, and more complex tanks, greatly slowing the growth of their tank production and aiding the Soviets in maintaining a substantial numerical superiority in tanks. By May 1944, T-34-85 production had reached 1,200 tanks per month. In the entire war, production figures for all Panther types reached no more than 6,557, and for all Tiger types 2,027. Production figures for the T-34-85 alone reached 22,559.
The German army, always short of equipment, was always more than happy to employ as much captured materiel as possible and T-34s were not an exception. Fighting on the Eastern Front saw large numbers of T-34s captured, though few were T-34-85s. These were designated by the Germans as Panzerkampfwagen T-34 747(r). From late 1941, captured T-34s were transported to a German workshop for repairs and modification to German requirements. In 1943 a local tank factory in Kharkiv was used for this purpose. These were sometimes modified to German standards by the installation of a German commander’s cupola and radio equipment.
The first captured T-34s entered German service during the summer of 1941. In order to prevent recognition mistakes, large-dimension crosses or even swastikas were painted on the tanks, including on top of the turret, in order to prevent strikes from Axis aircraft. Modified T-34s were also used as artillery tractors, recovery vehicles, and ammunition carriers. Badly damaged tanks were either dug in as pillboxes or were used for testing and training purposes.
Just after midnight on 9 August 1945, under cover of a torrential downpour and through terrain believed by the Japanese to be impassable by armoured formations, the Soviet Union invaded Japanese-occupied Manchuria. Red Army combined-arms forces achieved complete surprise and used a powerful, deep-penetrating attack in a classic double encirclement pattern, spearheaded by the T-34-85. The opposing Japanese forces had been reduced as elite units had been drawn off to other fronts and the remaining forces were in the middle of redeployment to form a defence-in-depth. The Japanese tanks remaining to face them were all held in the rear and not used in combat; and the Japanese had weak support from IJAAF forces, engineering, and communications. Japanese forces were overwhelmed though some put up resistance. The Japanese emperor transmitted a surrender order on 14 August, but the Kwangtung Army was not given a formal cease fire until 17 August.
A full brigade equipped with about 120 North Korean T-34-85s spearheaded the invasion of South Korea in June 1950. The World War II-era 2.36-inch bazookas used by the Americans were useless against the T-34s, as were the 75 mm cannons of the M24 Chaffee.
By the time the North Koreans withdrew from the South, 239 T-34s and 74 SU-76s had been lost or abandoned. After November 1950, North Korean armour was rarely encountered. A 1954 survey concluded that there were 119 tank vs. tank actions involving U.S. Army and Marine units during the Korean War, with 97 T-34-85 tanks knocked out and another 18 probable.
One of the last modern conflicts which saw the extensive combat deployment of the T-34-85 was the Angolan Civil War. In 1975, the Soviet Union shipped eighty T-34-85s to Angola as part of its support for the ongoing Cuban military intervention there. Cuban crewmen instructed FAPLA personnel in their operation; other FAPLA drivers and gunners accompanied Cuban crews in an apprentice role.
FAPLA began deploying T-34-85s against the UNITA and FNLA forces on June 9, 1975. The appearance of FAPLA and Cuban tanks prompted South Africa to reinforce UNITA with a single squadron of Eland-90 armoured cars.
In early 1991, the Yugoslav People's Army possessed 250 T-34-85s, none of which were in active service. During the breakup of Yugoslavia, the T-34-85s were inherited by the national armies of Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Serbia and Montenegro and continued to see action during the Yugoslav Wars. Some were also acquired from Yugoslav reserve stocks by Serbian separatist armies, namely the Army of the Republic of Serb Krajina (SVK) and the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS). Most of these tanks were in poor condition at the beginning of the conflict and some were soon rendered unserviceable, likely through inadequate maintenance and lack of spares.
On 3 May 1995, a VRS T-34-85 attacked an UNPROFOR outpost manned by the 21st Regiment of the Royal Engineers in Maglaj, Bosnia, injuring six British peacekeepers, with at least one of them sustaining a permanent disability. A number of T-34s being stored by the VRS at a base in Zvornik were temporarily confiscated by UNPROFOR as part of a local disarmament programme the following year.
Czechoslovak-produced T-34-85s were used by Egypt in the Arab-Israeli Wars of 1956 and 1967 in the Sinai Peninsula. Egypt went on to build the T-34-100, a local and unique conversion that was made up of a Soviet BS-3 100 mm heavy field-artillery gun mounted within a modified turret of the T-34-85. In 1956, they were used as regular tanks to support Egyptian infantry, but by 1967, they were simply dug in to be used as defensive gun-emplacements. Israel captured many of Egypt's T-34-85s but it is unknown if they ever saw active service in the Israeli Army, but it is known that the captured Egyptian T-34-85s were re-painted by Israel and also displayed on parade after the Suez Crisis of 1956 with Israeli Army markings.
The Syrian Army also received T-34-85s from the Soviet Union and they took part in the many artillery duels with Israeli tanks in November 1964 and in the Six-Day War of 1967.
T-34-85s equipped many of the armies of Eastern European countries (later forming the Warsaw Pact) and the armies of other Soviet client-states elsewhere. East German, Hungarian and Soviet T-34-85s served in the suppression of the East German uprising of 17 June 1953 as well as the Hungarian Revolution of 1956.
T-34-85s were sporadically available in Afghanistan but it is not known if they were used against the Coalition military forces in the coalition troops.
After the formation of the People's Republic of China (the PRC) in 1949, the Soviet Union sent many T-34s and T-34-85s to the PRC's People's Liberation Army (the PLA). The T-34s were phased out by the end of 1960, while the T-34-85 was put into production locally by the PRC and was known as the Type 58 medium tank, although the production of the Type 58 was ended soon after once the PRC received T-54 main battle tanks from the Soviet Union and began to build the Type 59 tank, which was a direct copy of the T-54.
Cuba received 150 T-34-85 tanks as military aid from the Soviet Union in 1960. The T-34-85 was the first Soviet tank to enter service with the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces (FAR), along with the IS-2. In 1975, large quantities of T-34-85s were also donated to the FAR to support its lengthy intervention in the Angolan Civil War.
A platoon of five Cuban T-34-85s saw combat in Angola against South African troops during the Battle of Cassinga. The tanks were based at Chamutete, along with a company of Cuban mechanized infantry, equipped with BTR-152 armoured personnel carriers. In May 1978, South Africa launched a major airborne raid on Cassinga, a town approximately sixteen kilometres north of Chamutete, with the objective of destroying a South West African People's Organisation (SWAPO) base there. The Cuban forces were mobilised to stop them. As they approached Cassinga they were strafed by a South African Air Force Blackburn Buccaneer and two Dassault Mirage IIIs, which destroyed most of the BTR-152s and three of the T-34-85s; a fourth T-34-85 was disabled by an anti-tank mine buried in the road. The remaining tank continued to engage the withdrawing South African paratroops from a hull down position until the battle was over.
Over a hundred Cuban T-34-85s and their respective crews also remained in Angola as of the mid 1980s. In September 1986 Cuban president Fidel Castro complained to General Konstantin Kurochkin, head of the Soviet military delegation to Angola, that his men could no longer be expected to fight South African armour with T-34s of "World War II vintage"; Castro insisted that the Soviets furbish the Cuban forces with a larger quantity of T-55s. By 1987 Castro's request appeared to have been granted, as Cuban tank battalions were able to deploy substantial numbers of T-54Bs, T-55s, and T-62s; the T-34-85 was no longer in service.
Cypriot National Guard forces equipped with some 35 T-34-85 tanks helped to support a coup by the Greek junta against President Archbishop Makarios on 15 July 1974. They also saw extensive action against Turkish forces during the Turkish invasion in July and August 1974, with two major actions at Kioneli and at Kyrenia on 20 July 1974.
In 1984, the South West African People's Organisation made a concerted attempt to establish its own conventional armoured battalion through its armed wing, the People's Liberation Army of Namibia. As part of this effort, SWAPO diplomatic representatives in Europe approached the German Democratic Republic with a request for ten T-34 tanks. The tanks were delivered as part of a larger cargo of arms furbished either by the Soviet or East German governments to Dar es Salaam and Maputo, where they were presumably shipped overland to SWAPO. SWAPO T-34s were never deployed during offensive operations against the South African military, being confined to the role of protecting strategic bases inside northern Angola.
By 1988 most of them had been stationed near Luanda, where their crews received training from Cuban instructors. On 21 March 1989, SWAPO inexplicably moved all its armoured units south towards the Namibian border. The T-34s and some T-54/55s also crewed by SWAPO insurgents took up scattered positions along the border around March 30. South Africa accused SWAPO of planning a major offensive to influence Namibia's pending general elections, but the tank crews remained stationary and even refrained from intervening in a series of renewed clashes later that year. All SWAPO T-34s were finally repatriated to Namibia at the movement's expense, following Namibian independence in 1990. Four later entered service with the new Namibian Army.
The Soviet and Finnish armies used T-34s until the 1960s; the former included the 76.2 mm-armed versions until at least 1968, when they were used in filming the sequel to the movie The Alive and the Dead. The Finnish tanks were captured directly from the Soviets or purchased from Germany's captured stocks. Many of the Т-34-85s were enhanced with Finnish or Western equipment, such as improved optics.
In January 2015, video emerged of SU-100 and T-34 tanks being transferred by rail, reportedly to participate in the invasion of Ukraine. It was later confirmed that these tanks were being transported to Moscow for the 2015 May Day Parade.
During the Vietnam War, the North Vietnamese Army was equipped with many Chinese Type 58 tanks, a copy of T-34, but these were only used in the Tet Offensive and the 1972 Easter Offensive.
In 2015, both T-34-85 Model 1969 tanks and SU-100 self-propelled guns were photographed being used in Houthi takeover in Yemen. In 2016 actual shooting in battle.
As of 2015, the only countries confirmed to use the T-34 in active service are Somalia, Syria, Yemen, and North Korea.
In 1944, pre-war development of a more advanced T-34 tank was resumed, leading to the T-44. The new tank had a turret design based on the T-34-85's, but featured a new hull with torsion-bar suspension and transversely mounted engine; it had a lower profile than the T-34-85 and was simpler to manufacture. Between 150 and 200 of these tanks were built before the end of the war. With substantial drivetrain changes, a new turret, and 100 mm gun, it became the T-54, starting production in 1947.
The following countries have used the T-34. As of 1996, it remained in service in 27 of those countries, indicated by asterisks (*).
As of 2012, the T-34 is mostly in reserve, used in a light tank role, or treated as an infantry backup. In some Third World countries, it is also considered a secondary or even primary tank where more modern tank designs have not entered service yet.
A T-34-85 tank monument in the East German city of Karl-Marx-Stadt (Chemnitz) became the target of a 1980 bomb-attack that inflicted minor damage on the vehicle and blew out nearby windows. The bomber, Josef Kneifel, was sentenced to life imprisonment in Bautzen, but was released after a deal with the West German government in 1987. After German unification in 1990, the tank was transferred to a museum in Ingolstadt.
Another such tank, mounted atop the monument to Soviet tank crews in Prague, was the focus of significant controversy. The monument (known locally as 'Saint Tank') was intended to represent Lt I.G. Goncharenko's T-34-85 (the first Soviet tank to enter Prague in May 1945), but actually bore an IS-2m heavy tank. To many in Prague, the tank was also a reminder of the Soviet invasion which ended the Prague Spring of 1968. The tank was painted pink by artist David Černý in 1991. Following an official protest from the Russian government, the arrest of Černý, a coat of official green paint, public demonstrations, and a further coat of pink paint applied by fifteen parliamentary deputies, the tank was finally removed to a military museum.
Four Tankers and a Dog (Czterej pancerni i pies), a very successful war-themed Polish television series of the 1960s, adapted the novel of the same name by the Polish writer Janusz Przymanowski (1922–1998), himself a People's Army of Poland volunteer. The series made T-34 tank number 102 an icon of Polish popular culture. It was also shown in other Soviet-bloc countries where it was also well received, surprisingly even in the German Democratic Republic (East Germany). At the beginning of the 21st century reruns of the black and white series still manage to attract a large audience.
In Budapest on 23 October 2006, the 2006 protests in Hungary climaxed during the 50th anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. Protesters managed to start an unarmed T-34 tank which was part of a memorial exhibit, and used it in riots against police forces. The tank drove a few hundred metres, then stopped in front of the police, causing no personal injury.
There were two main production families of the T-34, each with subvariants. The identification of T-34 variants can be complicated. Turret castings, superficial details, and equipment differed between factories; new features were added in the middle of production runs, or retrofitted to older tanks; damaged tanks were rebuilt, sometimes with the addition of newer-model equipment and even new turrets.
The Red Army never had a consistent policy for naming the T-34. Since at least the 1980s, however, many academic sources (notably, AFV expert Steven Zaloga) have used Soviet-style nomenclature: T-34 for the models armed with 76.2 mm guns, and T-34-85 for models armed with 85 mm guns, with minor models distinguished by year, as T-34 Model 1940. Some Russian historians use different names: they refer to the first T-34 as the T-34 Model 1939 instead of 1940, all T-34s with the original turret and F-34 gun as Model 1941 instead of Models 1941 and 1942, and the hexagonal-turret T-34 as Model 1942 instead of 1943.
German military intelligence in World War II referred to the two main production families as T-34/76 and T-34/85, with subvariants receiving letter designations such as T-34/76A — this nomenclature has been widely used in the West, especially in popular literature. When the German Wehrmacht used captured T-34s, it designated them Panzerkampfwagen T-34(r), where the "r" stood for russisch ("Russian"). The Finns referred to the T-34 as the Sotka after the common goldeneye, because the side silhouette of the tank resembled a swimming waterfowl. The T-34-85 was called pitkäputkinen Sotka ("long-barreled Sotka").
The T-34 (German designation: T-34/76) was the original tank with a 76.2 mm gun in a two-man turret.Model 1940 (T-34/76A): Early, small production run (about 400 built) with the L-11 76.2 mm tank gun.
Model 1941 (T-34/76B): Main production with thicker armour and the superior F-34 76.2 mm gun.
Model 1942 (T-34/76C): Thicker armour, many minor manufacturing improvements.
Model 1943 (T-34/76D, E, and F): Introduced May 1942 (not 1943). More ammunition and fuel, very minor armour increase. New hexagonal turret, nicknamed "Mickey Mouse" by the Germans because of its appearance with the twin, round turret-roof hatches open. Later production had a new commander's cupola.
The T-34-85 (German designation: T-34/85) was a major improvement with an 85 mm gun in a three-man turret. All T-34-85 models are externally very similar.Model 1943: Short production run of February–March 1944 with D-5T 85 mm gun.
Model 1944: Produced from March 1944 through to the end of that year, with simpler ZiS-S-53 85 mm gun, radio moved from the hull into a turret with improved layout and new gunner's sight.
Model 1945: Produced from 1944 to 1945, with an electrically powered turret traverse motor, an enlarged commander's cupola with a one-piece hatch, and the TDP smoke system with electrically detonated MDSh canisters.
Model 1946: Production model with the improved V-2-34M engine, new wheels, and other minor details.
Model 1960: A refurbishing program introduced a new V-2-3411 engine and other modernizations.
Model 1969 (also called T-34-85M): Another refurbishing program introducing night driving equipment, additional fuel, and other modernizations.
Flame-thrower tanks: OT-34 and OT-34-85 had an internally mounted flamethrower ATO-41 (ATO-42 later) replacing the hull machine-gun.
PT-1 T-34/76: Protivominniy Tral (counter-mine trawl) Mine roller tank, mostly built on T-34 Model 1943 or T-34-85 chassis.
Self-propelled guns and tank destroyers:
SU-122, a self-propelled howitzer based on T-34 Model 1943 chassis.
SU-85, a tank destroyer based on T-34 Model 1943 chassis.
SU-100, a tank destroyer based on T-34-85 chassis.
T-34/57: Fewer than 324 T-34s in 1941 and 1943–44 were fitted with the ZiS-4 or the ZIS-4M high-velocity 57 mm gun to be used as tank hunters.
An enormous number of T-34's and T-34-85's were produced; the Soviets used them aggressively in campaigns in Europe and Asia, and they were distributed to the Soviets' allies all over the world. Due to all three factors, there are hundreds of surviving T-34s. Examples of this tank are in the collections of most significant military museums, and hundreds more serve as war memorials. Many are in private ownership, and demilitarised working tanks change hands for U.S. $20,000–40,000. Some still may serve in a second-line capacity in a number of Third World militaries, while others may find use in a civilian capacity, primarily in film-making. In many World War II films, such as Saving Private Ryan, The Battle of Neretva, and Kelly's Heroes, T-34-85 tanks were modified to resemble Tiger I tanks, due to the rarity of the latter. In Sydney Pollack's 1969 movie Castle Keep, barely modified T-34-85 tanks were used as German tanks.
In 2000, a T-34 Model 1943 was recovered that had spent 56 years at the bottom of a bog in Estonia. The tank had been captured and used by retreating German troops, who dumped it in the swamp when it ran out of fuel. The anaerobic environment of the bog preserved the tank and ensured there were no signs of oil leakage, rust, or other significant water damage. The engine was restored to full working order.
Other significant surviving T-34s include a Model 1941 at the U.S. Army Ordnance Museum in Aberdeen, Maryland—one of the oldest surviving vehicles. The French Musee des Blindes at Saumur holds two T-34s, including one in full working condition that is displayed in action at its summer "Carrousel" live tank exhibition. The Mandela Way T-34 Tank, a privately owned T-34-85 named after the street in which it is sited (near Bermondsey, London), is frequently repainted by artists and graffitists.