T-34 - Flaws
The T-34 was an outstanding design, combining the attributes of speed, protection, and firepower in a vehicle that was simple for the Soviet arms industry to produce in quantity, and was not beyond the functional and maintenance capabilities of the average Russian soldier. Until late 1942, the T-34 was capable of defeating all German tanks, including the Panzer IVF, which mounted 50 millimeter frontal armor. Conversely, very few German weapons were able to pierce the T-34’s sloped armor. Sloping armor was a relatively new concept that allowed for increased protection by presenting a surface that induced deflection of horizontal shot and presented an increased cross section compared to the same thickness of armor.
High maneuverability and relatively spacious interior arrangement have made this tank a favorite of Soviet tank crews. The Germans themselves have expressed the opinion that the T-34 was the most effective tank they encountered.
The T-34/76 had some fundamental flaws as a weapon system. The T-34 suffered from few problems, though key among these was a four-man crew, which required the commander to serve as gunner as well. Combined with a deficiency in optics when compared to their German opponents, these hampered the T-34 in long-range engagements.
First, it had a two-man, manually traversed turret. This meant that the commander was also the gunner, and perhaps also a platoon leader. This placed an unrealistically high workload on the commander and was made worse by the fact that the turret lacked a basket, a floor which moves as the turret traverses. Without this, it was all too easy to trip over spent shells or other items as the turret moved.
Most peculiar-if the Soviets intended to rely on tank fires for armor action - was the lack of appreciation of fire efficiency shown in the T-34 layout. As in the T-26 and BT's, the turrets held only two men. The tank commander doubled as gunner, and was aided by a loader. His ability to pick up targets and observe fire was greatly restricted. The Soviets introduced and kept this turret, although by the end of 1938 (when the T-34 was being finalized) the German Panzer III's and IV's were out, with their three-man turrets with commander's cupola. Only after war experience did the Soviets change. They ended up with the cupolaed 3-man 85mm gun turret, which came into service in 1944.
The appreciation of practical gunnery problems was just plain poor. The degree of the Soviets' lack of appreciation of the Soviets' problems can be understood only when it is realized that the T-34s (like the T-26's and BT's before them) were supposed to attack at maximum speed consistent with terrain-and meanwhile take targets under fire without halting!
Visibility from inside the T-34/76 was so dreadful that commanders often entered battle with the main turret hatch open, sheltering behind it as they tried to see what was happening. It wasn’t until the Model 1943 that the T-34 was finally provided with a cupola which incorporated periscopes similar to those seen on German tanks.
Improvements in German tank and anti-tank guns meant that the T-34 rapidly became vulnerable even to frontal hits. The armor used on the T-34 was very hard, which meant that even a round which did not penetrate could cause lethal steel splinters to spall off the inside.
The steeply sloped frontal armor also meant that the interior of the T-34 was very cramped indeed. When a T-34 was tested by US Army engineers in 1942, they were amazed that it was possible to fit four men wearing winter gear inside.
The lack of interior space meant that the sides of the hull incorporated fuel cells which could be breached if hit by armor piercing rounds.
Most early T-34s were not provided with radios. Only the platoon leader’s tank had a radio (approximately one tank in five). Communication during combat was intended to be by flag. In the ferocity and speed of an armored engagement, T-34 crews were supposed to wave flags at each other to communicate, though the lack of visibility meant that the chances of any other tank seeing those flags were slim indeed. As a result, attacks by T-34s usually lacked cohesion. Even by 1943, many T-34s did not have radios.
The transmission was so crude that it self-destructed regularly and the loader often kept a sledgehammer handy with which to whack the transmission if the driver was unable to change gear.
However, the main problem with the T-34 was the unreliability of its engine, drive gear, and suspension. According to the Armored Directorate of the Red Army, the average T-34 in World War Two lasted less than 200 kilometers (125 miles) before requiring major repair or overhaul. This means that a T-34 generally needed significant repairs before it had even used its first full tank of diesel.
The counter-attack following the German failure to take the city of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942/1943 was the first time that the Germans had faced massed groups of T-34s and this has become part of the T-34 myth. From documents released after the fall of the Soviet Union, we now know that these T-34s performed very badly indeed. In just six days of fighting, the Russian tank brigades lost 326 out of their 400 T-34s. But just 66 of these were combat losses – the rest were due to breakdowns.
The T-34/85, which began production in March 1944, finally addressed many of the shortcomings of the previous version – for example, it had a three man turret. But the majority of T-34s used during the Great Patriotic War were T-34/76s.
While the T-34 series had performed exceptionally in the war against Nazi Germany, the Soviets considered its leaf spring suspension and 85 millimeter gun to be out-of-date. The T-34 was followed by the improved T-44 and then by the T-54.
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