The T-34 Won the War: The Greatest Myth of World War II

Artist's portrayal of the Soviet T-34 in combat during World War 2 | Courtesy of All Gamers' History of Tanks and Sam Chandler

As the Soviet Union swept across Europe and claimed everything it set its eyes upon, the Allies worst fears proved to be justified. The Soviet Union finally became the Bolshevik behemoth the Allies had dreaded. Nothing is more emblematic of the Soviet Union’s ascendancy as a global power during World War II than the T-34 tank, which owed its legendary status not to its prowess on the battlefield but to the ways the defeated Nazis and the victorious Soviets perceived the T-34 as the tank that won the war.

Image of T-34 Tank
A decommissioned T-34 on display in Poland | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet T-34 medium tank was evaluated by military officials as magnificent due to the praise and legendary treatment heaped upon it by the Soviets and Nazis alike. The shock and humiliation the Germans suffered in defeat led them to credit the T-34 with victory rather than the men and women who commanded them. The Soviets intentionally misled their own allies by shipping several T-34’s of abnormally high quality to Great Britain. In truth, it was the self-deception and conjecture employed by both the Soviets and the Nazis that veiled the T-34’s mediocrity.

As a consequence of the German determination to preserve their remaining national dignity and the Soviet need to mislead their own Allies for support, the T-34 became a symbol of Soviet victory and a flimsy justification of Nazi defeat. Commanders of the Nazi Wehrmacht attempted to reconcile their defeat with the notion that the Soviets possessed soldiers as capable of their own by attributing defeat to the T-34’s effectiveness and numerical superiority. Ultimately, their efforts supported Soviet endeavors to deceive the Allies into sending them more munitions and raw materials. After the tide of battle began to turn in favor of the Soviets with the proliferation of the T-34, an eventual Soviet victory was commonly attributed to the correlation between Soviet victory and the arrival of the T-34 on the battlefield.1

To understand the extent to which perceptions based on deception and conjecture manipulated the truth, it’s important to know the actual specifications of the T-34. A technical evaluation of the T-34 reveals the disconnect between the tank’s prestige and the bitter truth that the economical design of the T-34 rendered it mediocre at best. There are several important metrics for judging a tank’s performance including firepower, mobility and reliability. The T-34 was left wanting in many of these areas due to the lack of resources needed to produce a tank already deficient in armor and firepower.2

Directly related to these deficiencies was the Soviet loss in tanks, which mirrored their enormous loss in lives. Between mid 1941 and 1944, the Soviet Union suffered 22,721,900 casualties and 83,500 tanks—a number that dwarfs the losses suffered by any other great power during the war.3 How then can claims of the T-34’s greatness be supported as the tanks were being destroyed in record numbers?

The Soviets attempted to do just that. On the eve of Operation Barbarossa, the massive Nazi German invasion of the Soviet Union, Soviet materiel (military equipment, not to be confused with material) designers prepared a shipment of three T-34’s to be evaluated by British authorities. The Soviet high command viewed this action as an opportunity to secure further support from the Allies — the United States and Great Britain. These western democracies feared a potential Bolshevik super-state once the fascist threat had been dealt with. As a result, they were reluctant to extend aid to the besieged Soviet Union. Soviet officials understood at this point that their own allies wanted the Soviet Union to be weak, but not weak enough to succumb to the Nazi invasion forces. As the situation became increasingly dire in the Soviet theater, the Allies became progressively more sympathetic to the Soviet cause. The Soviets now needed a way to to gain the confidence of their allies without alarming them to their growing power.4

The recent mass production of T-34’s presented the Soviets with a fortuitous opportunity to deceive the Allied forces into granting them aid. Soviet Premier and autocrat Joseph Stalin sent the three most exceptional T-34’s to Aberdeen in Great Britain for them to evaluate. The Soviets produced these three T-34’s from factories that had since fallen under Nazi occupation, and their quality was superior to those being produced at the time of their shipment. Regardless, the materiel officers at Aberdeen were unimpressed. The highest praise heaped on the T-34 at the time was that the telescopic sight was “…relatively good for it’s time,” and that overall it was “appropriate” and “acceptable.” Despite this tepid response, displaying the adequacy of Soviet armor was enough to help garner the Allied support for the Soviet Union that was critical to later victories.5

It would not be until the Soviets drove the Nazis back to their homeland that German Wehrmacht officers would begin to express their terror of the T-34 and of the famed Soviet ‘General Frost,’ a euphemism for the brutal Russian winters that tore apart the invading Nazi forces.6 By that time, the T-34 had gained great prestige for its instrumental role in the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk, the battles credited for turning World War II in favor of the Allies.7 Despite their instrumental role in victory, the  T-34 did not gain its legendary status through merit, but by the sheer quantity of T-34’s that participated in the Soviet victory against the Nazis. The T-34’s association with an Allied victory caused public opinion to cast the T-34 in a favorable light thereafter. Moreover, the staggering losses sustained by the Soviets, even in victory, point to the inferiority of the T-34. When quantity becomes the metric for quality, one must determine the flaws that rendered the T-34 sub-par.

A tank’s armor provides a good starting point for comparing rival tank models. The hardness, or the quality and thickness of a tank’s armor, reflects its ability to withstand enemy fire while remaining operational. The T-34 possessed armor that averaged about 1.6 inches thick, with the thickest armor concentrated around the front of its hull. The thickness of the T-34’s armor is impressive when compared to the American-made M4 Sherman which had only 0.5 inches of armor plating. However, when compared to the German Tiger 1 tank, the T-34 pales in comparison.8

That the T-34 possessed as much armor as it did is remarkable given the desperate condition the Soviet Union was in. The Soviets produced over 52,000 T-34’s  and 6,000 T-34 alterations throughout the war and began to produce the tank en masse after 1941.9 The amount of material and skilled labor needed to temper and weld armor for such an army is staggering. When compared to the roughly 1,300 Tiger 1’s Germans built throughout the war, the Soviet mass of 52,000 T-34’s is even more impressive. However, sheer thickness of armor is not a good indicator of its strength. Quality must be considered, and in that regard the Tiger 1 had a distinct advantage.

Four models of the T-34, the most mass produced tank of World War 2.
Four models of the T-34, the most mass produced tank of World War II | 31 December 1940 | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The Soviet Union experienced massive shortages of resources throughout the war, which led to a decline in the quality of their military equipment. At the same time, the advance of German troops throughout the most developed parts of the Soviet Union forced factories to relocate and lose many of their skilled laborers and adopt new and often archaic production methods.10

As a result of constant relocation and a perpetual loss of resources and manpower, most T-34’s were outfitted with hastily constructed armor welded by unskilled laborers in insufficiently equipped facilities. Production supervisors became concerned more with the appearance of the T-34’s armor in an effort to appease leadership, and as a result the quality of T-34’s varied between factories. Overall, this lack of uniformity, good steel and skillful welding led the T-34’s armor being less effective than its specifications would suggest.11

Despite many key and critical design flaws, the T-34 did have an edge in its potential firepower. The T-34 was equipped with the 76.2mm F-34 tank gun, which could damage, if not destroy nearly any tank produced early in the war. However, conditions on the field and the poor design of the tank’s interior made this prospect unlikely. Most T-34’s were not outfitted with radio transmitters or receivers, which made communication among a tank division nearly impossible. The area of the interior where ammunition was stored and loaded on the T-34, known as the turret ring, was too small. As a result, the T-34 could only fire three rounds per minute. Moreover, the role of gunner often fell on the commander due to the small interior.12 This compounded the problem of divisional coordination with communication within the tank itself. As the T-34 commanders must preoccupy themselves with firing the main gun, they were less available to issue orders and organize those under their command, let alone communicate with other T-34 crews.

T-34 with winter livery coating used by the Soviet Red Guards after 1941 | Courtesy of Tanks Encyclopedia.

Compounding these communication problems, the troops operating a T-34 could barely even see the battlefield. The gunner-commander also had to contend with poor weapon sights that hampered its ability to mark targets and fire accurately. Despite this, tank specialists in Aberdeen that reviewed the T-34 considered the telescopic sights of the tank slightly above average. The sight provided firing accuracy of up to a distance of 600-800 meters, which was generally the maximum range that tanks would engage each other from. However, they only had the opportunity to review three T-34’s. Their review is an entirely inadequate indication of the quality of the other 52.13 Sadly, many of these sights suffered from poor quality lens-making techniques, making these specified conditions an ideal and not a reality. Lenses often had blemishes, imperfections, and even appeared foggy when looked through by T-34 gunners.14

These factors led to a disconnect between the potential firepower of the T-34 under ideal or testing conditions and its practical firepower under battlefield conditions of duress. T-34 gunners, while equipped with above average weapons, had to cope with tight quarters in which they could neither hear nor see the battlefield well. However, under testing conditions on flat terrain and with clear lines of sight, the T-34 performed well. This relationship between battlefield conditions and testing conditions would become a main proof that public opinion played a major role in determining the T-34’s quality.15

Of all the qualities attributed to the T-34, its speed and maneuverability are the most discussed historically. The T-34 could reach speeds of 33mph, which far surpassed the capabilities of its rivals. In comparison, the German Tiger 1 tank could attain speeds of only 25mph and only half that on rugged terrain. The M4 Sherman was a bit more competitive at 30mph. These numbers are quite deceptive though, as a number of design flaws hampered the T-34’s ability to maintain these speeds and operate at long ranges.16

Where the T-34 enjoyed an advantage was the power of its engine and its wide tracks, which enabled it to accelerate quickly and navigate difficult terrain better than its rivals. The T-34 diesel engine possessed enormous power, rapidity and torque. Moreover, it had a better fuel economy than other tanks produced at the time.17 The failures of the T-34’s transmission negated the sheer power and torque of the tank. The T-34 had only four forward gears, which prevented it from maximizing the power of its engine. Moreover, T-34 drivers needed to exert an enormous amount of energy and force to switch gears, as the T-34’s clutch used to switch gears was notoriously difficult to use.18

The short lifetime and vast quantity of T-34’s somewhat compensated for the low quality of each individual tank. Each T-34 was given a factory guarantee to work without fail for 1,000 kilometers of travel, yet the average T-34 did not exceed 200 kilometers before its destruction or critical failure.19 It wasn’t uncommon for the tanks of World War II to break down after so few miles. Yet the life expectancy of Soviet tanks was far lower than its contemporaries, at between 4-10 days or 1-3 attacks.20 In a way the Soviet stress on quantity, not quality worked to their advantage. The Soviets did not waste raw materials on a tank that wasn’t built to last.

The T-34 spearheaded the counter-attack against the Nazis and won them many victories despite the tank’s low quality. Despite the advantages gained through the sheer quantity of T-34’s, the crippling weakness of the tank often disabled or at least slowed the Soviet counter-offensive. After the collapse of the Nazi forces in southern Russia, Soviet forces routed the Nazi armies as they fled westward. During this series of assaults, the Soviets lost 701,474 casualties and 2,026 tanks – an astronomically high number for such a short term and regional offensive. Aside from the tanks destroyed, many were left nonoperational due to stripped tracks and engine failure. Within six days, the Soviet 5th Guards Tank Army went from an initial strength of 542 tanks to a mere 111.21 The unreliability and short lifespan of the T-34 disabled such tank divisions as they awaited reinforcements and performed tank maintenance throughout the latter stages of the war. The average Soviet military operation of 15-20 days saw an overall tank loss rate of 82 percent.22 This left the Soviet forces to remain idle and wait for reinforcements, or to soldier on and expect an even higher mortality and tank loss rate given their depleted forces.

It is difficult to justify the T-34’s high prestige in the eyes of Soviet, Nazi and Allied forces throughout the war. The Soviet Union suffered extraordinary and unprecedented losses. Critical flaws in the T-34’s design slowed the Soviet counter-offensive against the Nazis and resulted in higher casualty rates. Despite this, the T-34 was viewed as a major factor in Soviet victory over the Nazis by contemporary historians. As the praise and respect given the T-34 is clearly not due to its merits on the battlefield nor its exceptional quality, its legendary status must be attributed elsewhere. The T-34’s role in inflicting a humiliating and total defeat on the Nazi invading forces, regardless of its effectiveness or quality had, by the end of the war, placed the tank beyond reproach. The T-34 was a symbol of the sheer mass and willpower of the Soviet Union: a nation that bore greater losses than any in history, yet still overwhelmed its enemies with boundless manpower and resources. As the exemplar of Soviet might, the T-34 managed to capture the imagination of soldiers of all nations, even as thousands of them lay in smoldering heaps on the battlefield. All it took to immortalize the T-34 was a great deal of self-deception and sheer coincidence.

  1. Edward A. Shils and Morris Janowitz, “Cohesion and Disintegration in the Wehrmacht in World War II,” The Public Opinion Quarterly 12, no. 2 (1948): 280-315.
  2. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 197.
  3. Gary Dickson, “Tank Repair and the Red Army in World War II,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2012): 381-382.
  4. Michael Reiman, “The USSR and Western Allies.” About Russia, Its Revolutions, Its Development and Its Present (2016): 138.
  5. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 197.
  6. Allen F. Chew, “Fighting the Russians in Winter: Three Case Studies,” Leavenworth Papers (Combat Studies Institute: 2016), 31.
  7. Warren F. Kimball, “Stalingrad: A Chance for Choices,” The Journal of Military History 60, no. 1 (1996): 89-114.
  8. “Specifications for the T-34 model 41,” WWIIVehicles.com, (Accessed April 11, 2019), http://www.wwiivehicles.com/soviet-union/vehicle/medium-tank/t-34-76-1941-medium-tank.asp.
  9. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 187.
  10. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 195.
  11. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 194.
  12. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 196.
  13. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 197.
  14. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 197.
  15. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 197.
  16. “Specifications for the T-34 model 41,” WWIIVehicles.com, (Accessed April 11, 2019): http://www.wwiivehicles.com/soviet-union/vehicle/medium-tank/t-34-76-1941-medium-tank.asp.
  17. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 187.
  18. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015), 203.
  19. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 203.
  20. Boris Kavalerchik, “Once Again About the T-34” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2015): 191.
  21. Gregory Liedtke, “Furor Teutonicus: German Offensives and Counter-Attacks on the Eastern Front, August 1943 to March 1945” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2008): 566-567.
  22. Gary Dickson, “Tank Repair and the Red Army in World War II,” Journal of Slavic Military Studies (2012): 389.
Written By
More from Gabriel Cohen

On the Road Again: Charlotte Kahl’s Journey Along the Old Spanish Trail

Few of those who are passionate about history have dedicated as many...
Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.