It is now difficult to write of the T-34 medium tank without using too many superlatives, for the T-34 has passed into the realms of legend. It was one of the mam war-winning weapons of World War II, and it was produced in such vast numbers and in so many versions that entire books have been written on the subject without exhausting the possibilities of the vehicle and its exploits.
In simple terms the T-34 had its origins in the shortcomings of the BT-7 and its forebears. The first result of the BT series' up-dating were the designs known as the A-20 and A-30, produced in 1938 as developments of the BT-IS, but passed over in favour of a heaviergunned tank with increased armour and known as the T-32. In the T-32 can be seen most of the features of the later T-34. It had a well-shaped hull with sloped armour, and a cast and sloped turret which mounted a 76.2-mm (3-in) high-velocity gun. The Christie suspension, suitably beefed up, was carried over from the BT series, but the ability to run on wheels without tracks was abandoned.
Good as the T-32 was, a selection panel requested yet more armour and so the T-34 was born. It went into production in 1940 and mass production of the T-34/76A soon followed. When the Germans attacked the Soviet Union in 1941 the type was already well established, and its apperance came as a nasty shock to the Germans. The T-34's well-sloped and thick armour (minimum of 18 mm/0.71 in and maximum of 60 mm/2.36 in) was proof against most of their anti-tank weapons and the IV30 76.2-mm (3-in) gun, soon replaced in service by an even more powerful IV40 gun of the same calibre, was effective against most German Panzers. The secondary armament was two 7.62-mm (0.3-in) machine-guns.
From 1941 onwards the T-34 was developed into a long string of models, many of them with few external differences. Production demands resulted in many expediences, the finish of most T-34s being rough to an extreme, but the vehicles were still very effective fighting machines. Despite the disruption of the production lines during 1941, ever-increasing numbers poured off the extemporized lines, and all manner of time-saving production methods (ranging from automatic welding to leaving whole sections of surface unpainted) were used. The second production model was the T34/76B with a rolled-plate turret.
In service the T-34 was used for every role, ranging from main battle tank to reconnaissance vehicle, and from engineering tank to recovery vehicle, It was converted into the simplest of armoured personnel carriers by simply carrying infantry on the hull over long distances; these 'tank descent' troops became the scourge of the Germans as they advanced westwards through the liberated Soviet Union and then Eastern Europe. Successively improved models of the T-34/76 were the T-34/76C with a larger turret containing twin roof hatches in place of the original single hatch; the T-34/76D with a hexagonal turret and wider mantlet, plus provision for jettisonable exterior fuel tanks; the T-34/76E with a cupola on the turret and of all-welded construction; and the T-34/76F identical to the T-34/76E apart from its cast rather than welded turret. (It should be noted that the designations are Western, designed to provide a means of identification in the absence of Soviet information.) In time the 76,2-mm (3-in) gun was replaced by an 85-mm (3.34in) gun using the turret taken from the KV-85 heavy tank. This variant became the T-34/85, which remains in service to this day in some parts of the world. Special assault gun versions using the 85-mm (3.34-in) gun and later the 100-mm(3.94-in)or 122-mm(4.8-in) artillery pieces were developed, and flame-throwing, tractor, engineer and mine-clearing versions were also produced.
But it was as a battle tank that the T-34 has its main claim to fame. Available in thousands, the T-34 assumed mastery of the battlefield, forcing the Germans back on the defensive and taking from them the tactical and strategic initiative thus winning the 'Great Patriotic War' for the Soviet Union. Post-war the T-34 and its successors went on to gain more laurels, but it was as a war-winner in World War II that the T-34 must best be remembered. It was a superb tank.
Specification T-34/76A Crew: 4 Weight: 26 tonnes Powerplant: one V-2-34 V-12 diesel developing 373 kW (500 hp) Dimensions: length 5.92 m (19 ft 5.1 in); width 3 m (9 ft 10 in); height 2.44 m (8ft) Performance: maximum road speed 55 km/h (34 mph); maximum road range 186 km (115 miles); fording 1.37 m (4 ft 6 in); gradient 35∞; vertical obstacle 0.71 m (2 ft 4 in); trench 2.95 m (9 ft 8 in)