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The T34 Myth
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The T34 Myth

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The T34 Myth: Why Russia's Battle Tank Wasn't...

If you are at all active on fan site chat boards you won't have to play World of Tanks very long before you run into the T34 fanboys who will tell you that Russia's super tank was, well, a super tank. Actually what they will say is that it was the best tank in WW2 with the finest engineering and design.

The fact that none of that happens to be true notwithstanding, we thought you should know a little about that model tank just you know, so you don't get sucked into that mass-illusion.

Well known by pretty much anyone intersted in either tanks, World War II, or tanks AND World War II, the Soviet T-34 tank is held up to be superior to everything the Germans had.;

According to the history books it sported revolutionary sloped armor, incredible mobility, and is often said to be the reasons the Soviet side won the War for the Eastern Front against a better-armed and supplied enemy.

How realistic are these statements? Was the T34 really a super-tank? Was it really better than what Fritz had in the east?

The answers are actually pretty easy to find - when we look at the actual empirical data. Unfortunately the matter becomes cloudy to downright muddy if we allow ourselves to include the largely opinion-based if not quite scholarly articles that tend to dominate the subject.

When you look at the actual performance records - and repair and service records - what we find is a tank with lots of mechanical problems, and a poorly designed combat system, parts of which were actually more dangerous to the Crew than enemy fire!

We are not going to list all of the issues one by one - instead we are going to cover the matter in summary and leave you with a suggested reading list so that if you actually are truly interested in the subject, you can learn more, and if you are just looking for an entertaining take on the matter, this article has you covered.

The Basic Facts
The official propaganda claims that the T34 was superior to all of the different enemy tanks - and was proof against their cannon - but according to the records the T34 suffered horrific losses against those ‘inferior’ German tanks.

Its so called revolutionary design was actually little more than a collection of borrowed tech for which the Russians basically took credit for inventing.

They didn't invent it - that is how borrowing tech works you know - someone ELSE invents it, you borrow it, then say it was your idea.

Basically that is the working business model for the entire international auto industry - the Russians did not even invent the system that they used to “invent” the T34!

Let's look at this logically - we will start with the armor of that super tank.

A big deal is made of the “sloped armor” that the Russians “invented” for the T34. Unfortunately sloped armor was first put into use by the French - their S35 and R35 models used it years before the T34 was designed.
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What the Russians did was to utilize 360 degrees of sloped armor - and that WAS new - but not for the reason you are probably thinking. See the reason no other nation used sloped armor on all of the sides of their tanks was because doing so basically made the inside of the tank very small and very cramped.

The inside of the T34 was very small, and very cramped. In fact space was so limited that the Soviets decided not to install radios in the T34 because there just wasn't room!

It had one of the lowest hit-survival rates for crews for modern tank of its era largely because the inside compartment was so small and cramped that the Crew simply could not evacuate the tank after a primary hit and so ended up burning to death. Tanks with more open design generally allowed some if not all of the crew to get out before the inside was converted into a broiling oven by burning fuel.

And it was not just the main body that was cramped - the turret was problematic in its confinement to the extent that in the winter Crew had to get out of the tank to take off or put on their jackets.

As far as its superior tech well, it did not really have it. Take the turret for example - there were specific features in modern tanks of the era considered to be technically superior, the most important being the turret basket - which was a floor structure attached to the turret that rotated with it.

Basically this permitted the loaded to rotate WITH the gun, so all that they needed to do was pull shot from one of the lockers and load the gun. With the T34 the loaded had to move around with the gun in order to load it.

The T34 did not include floor ejection ports so the spent shells piled up inside the turret floor until one of the Crew opened a hatch and tossed them out. This made the loaders job twice as hard because they had walk over the spent shells while trying to keep the gun loaded and firing!

The T34 was designed to be very fast on roads and hard surfaces, the idea being that mobility and speed equal survival and strategic value. The problem is the suspension used on the T34 did not perform well in rough terrain.

Stability while in motion on rough terrain was so bad in fact that the accuracy of the gun was fully compromised. In order to actually have a chance of hitting a target while moving through rough terrain the T34 had to come to a complete stop before the gun was aimed and fired.

The reason for this? The Russians didn't include shock absorbers in the design of their super tank.

The T34 was plagued by mechanical problems, the most frequent and resented being the gear box on the transmission and its habit of locking up. To clear it the Crew had to stop the tank and shut down the engine, then bang on the gearbox with a rubber mallet to disengage the clutch!

The T34 was designed for as small a Crew as possible - a choice that ended up having severe impact on its performance. The biggest issue was the tank commander playing the role of commander AND gunner - so instead of maintaining situational awareness at all times he was tracking a target and firing the gun.
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The T34s armor was designed to protect it from infantry-fired anti-tank weapons - the single greatest threat to Soviet armor at the time.

Basically they used hardened armor to make it safe from the Panzerfaust, which worked great. But the problem was whenever the T34 was attacked by a 8.8 cm Raketenwerfer 43 anti-tank rocket even though the rounds failed to penetrate the armor they would generate shrapnel inside the tank when internal layers of the armor broke under the pressure.

The Tank's Raison D'être
The gun in the turret of a tank is its reason for existing. The T34 was equipped with a large caliber gun -- at first they were made with an L-11 76mm of 30.5 caliber but due to performance issues that was soon replaced with the F-34 76mm 42 caliber while the T34/85 had the ZiS S-53 85mm 54.6 caliber gun.

That may look impressive but when you consider that the German tanks during 1941 thru 43 had 50 mm guns and from 1943 thru 45 were using 75mm it is not really as impressive as it sounds. When you factor in the performance issues that plagued the Soviet guns - specifically their low penetration rates and poor long-range accuracy, the two issues offer clarity of a sort the Russians were not interested in advertising then or now.

Further Reading
To get a sense of the historical view of the T34 and its wonder-status, read the book
T-34 Russian Battle Tank by Roger Ford and Matthew Hughes (ISBN-10: 0760307016
ISBN-13: 978-0760307014).

Then check out T-34 Medium Tank (1939-1943), Volume 4 of Russian Armour by Mikhail Baryatinskiy (ISBN 0711032653, 9780711032651) for a rather eye-opening honest view of its design, engineering and construction.


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