Armored Champion: The Top Tanks of World War II (2015)
WHEN THE WEHRMACHT INVADED THE SOVIET UNION on 22 June 1941, it unleashed the largest land campaign of the Second World War. The Russian Front would dominate the European war from 1941 to 1945, encompassing the greatest number of troops and tanks. The human and material cost of this theater was equally staggering.
The Russian Front also set the pace for worldwide tank design. Innovative Soviet designs such as the T-34 established the new world standard. Germany raced to keep up with the Red Army in tank design, and so stayed ahead of contenders in other theaters such as Britain and the United States.
While it is not often recognized, the initial battles of Operation Barbarossa involved more tanks than at any other time of the war. The German panzer force in 1941 numbered over 5,000 tanks, although the actual invasion force used around 3,400 tanks. The Red Army had over 22,000 tanks, more than the rest of the world combined and the largest tank force of any army at any point during the war.
The German tank force at the outset of Operation Barbarossa was not particularly different from the Battle of France in 1940 in terms of equipment. The panzer divisions had been reorganized for a more balanced combined-arms mixture with fewer tanks but more infantry. This was done in part to create more divisions, with nearly double the divisional order of battle between 1940 and 1941. Obsolete tanks such as the PzKpfw I were far fewer in number, although there were still significant numbers of the light PzKpfw II in service.
In terms of technical quality, the panzer force had seen only modest improvements. Even before the start of the Battle of France, it was evident that the German army was falling behind in tank firepower. The PzKpfw III was woefully weak in its main gun in fighting with contemporary tanks. There had been schemes to up-arm it to a 50mm gun since the mid-1930s, but there was resistance over introducing another ammunition type. Efforts to increase both tank and antitank firepower were underway since 1939, but the new 50mm guns did not enter production until March–April 1940 and so did not take part in the French campaign. The panzer force received the 50mm KwK 38 L/42, and there were about 620 PzKpfw III with this gun with the divisions taking part in Barbarossa, or more than half of all PzKpfw III. This gun could penetrate 46mm of armor at 30 degrees at 500 meters, meaning that it was adequate to deal with French types such as the infantry tanks and the Somua S35 but only capable of defeating the Char B1 bis at closer ranges. The infantry adopted the 50mm PaK 38 with the longer L/60 barrel; there were about 850 in service by the time of invasion of Russia.
Although the 50mm gun represented an important step forward in German firepower, it would prove to be inadequate from the first days of the Russian campaign after facing the new generation of Soviet tanks such as the T-34 and KV; the 50mm gun could not penetrate these new Soviet types from the front when using the standard ammunition. Why didn’t the Germans go for a more powerful gun? There was a high level of complacency about the Soviet tank threat in the late 1930s when the 50mm gun was developed. The Germans had examined both the T-26 and BT-5 tanks in Spain in 1937–38 and did not anticipate a major leap forward in Soviet tank armor. The German army had good intelligence about heavier Soviet tanks of the 1930s such as the T-28 medium tank since examples of this tank were captured by the Finnish army during the 1939–40 Winter War. The basic version had 30mm frontal hull armor and 20mm frontal turret armor that was vulnerable to the older 37mm gun. Some T-28 in Finland had additional armor appliqués added, which brought protection to 50 or 80mm. However, it is not clear if the German army was aware of these. In the event, the T-28 was an archaic design that caused little anxiety among the German tank designers. The Finnish Winter War seemed to confirm this viewpoint, since there was little evidence of any major advance in Soviet tank armor. The bulk of the Soviet tank force in Finland consisted of the standard designs of the 1930s, notably the T-26 light tank and BT-7 cavalry tank, neither of which represented a problem to the new 50mm gun.
There was some recognition that the new gun was inadequate, and one means to improve its performance was to use a new generation of high-velocity armor-piercing projectile (HVAP), the Panzergranate 40. This type of ammunition used a hard, dense tungsten-carbide core contained within a mild steel body and a light ballistic cap. This permitted a substantial increase in velocity, from 685 m/s in the case of the normal 50mm Pz.Gr.39 projectile to 1,050 m/s for the tungsten-carbide Pz.Gr.40 when used from the standard 500mm L/42 KwK gun on the PzKpfw III. At short range (100 meters), this had a dramatic difference in armor penetration—55mm for the old ammunition compared to 97mm with the new tungsten-carbide projectile—meaning it could penetrate the frontal armor of the T-34. This advantage dissipated quickly at range; at 500 meters the old Pz.Gr.39 could penetrate 46mm while the Pz.Gr.40 could penetrate 58mm, giving it marginal performance frontally against the T-34.3 Similar tungsten-carbide ammunition was also developed for other guns such as the various 37mm tank guns. The main problem was that tungsten carbide was available in very limited amounts and reserved for use for machine tools in the defense industry. As a result, supplies were modest, with most German tanks receiving only about five rounds of this type in the summer of 1941.
In terms of armored protection, the French campaign emphasized the need for better protection on German medium tanks that were vulnerable to the better antitank guns of the day, such as the French 25mm and 47mm and the British 2-pounder guns. The Germans were well aware of the Soviet 45mm antitank gun, having examined examples in Spain in 1937–38. The immediate solution was to reinforce the frontal hull armor of the medium tanks. As a result, when the PzKpfw III Ausf. H went into production in October 1940, it sported an additional appliqué of 30mm on the hull front and side, bringing the total to 60mm. Starting in September 1940, the PzKpfw IV Ausf. E had an additional 30mm plate on the superstructure front and side, increasing it to 60mm, and a hull front plate increase from 30mm to 50mm. The PzKpfw IV Ausf. F, which entered production in April 1941, switched from the use of 30+30mm armor to a single plate of 50mm armor. This was viewed as an adequate response to the Soviet 45mm threat since the tank and antitank gun versions could penetrate 38mm of vertical armor at 500 meters.
German tank designs were more mature and durable than their Soviet counterparts, at least during the dry summer months. Even after two months of long road marches and intense fighting, the panzer divisions still managed to keep more than half their tanks operational, as is evident from the chart above. As will be detailed below, Soviet tank units were incapable of such sustained operations in the summer of 1941.
THE RUSSIAN SURPRISE
Unknown to the Wehrmacht, the Red Army had begun a major new tank program in response to the lessons of the Spanish Civil War. The intention was to replace the T-26 infantry tank with the new T-50, the BT cavalry tank with the new T-34, and the T-28 and T-35 medium/heavy tanks with the new KV. Of these three designs, the new T-34 was by far the best and can be traced back to the prototype A-20. The main intention of this design was to increase the armor protection sufficiently to protect it against the German 37mm gun. The Soviet designers had seen photos of the new French FCM36 infantry tank and were impressed with its sharply angled hull and turret armor. Angling the armor promised to increase its protection without a major increase in weight. For example, in the case of 30mm armor plate, if angled 30 degrees from the vertical it had an effective thickness of 35mm, and if angled 60 degrees from the vertical, its effective thickness doubled to 60mm.
Aside from the redesigned hull and turret armor, the A-20 was essentially similar to the late production batch of the BT-7 cavalry tank with the same 45mm gun and M-17 engine. Despite the Red Army requirements, the designers at Plant No. 183 in Kharkov became convinced that the A-20 design was insufficiently advanced. Archaic features such as the Christie wheel-and-track feature were abandoned in favor of an all-track configuration, and a better tank gun in the 76mm range was recommended. Furthermore, they anticipated that by the time the new tank entered service, more armor would be needed since armies were likely to go from the 37–45mm guns of the late 1930s to 50–76mm guns in the early 1940s. The proposed A-32 increased the frontal armor from 20mm to 32mm, and a short 76mm gun was offered as an option to the usual 45mm gun. Trials of both types in the summer of 1939 were promising, and the A-32 proved more attractive due to its stronger armor. The T-32 tank was accepted for service in December 1939, but the state decree recognized that certain improvements were desirable before serial production began.
The next step was the A-34 design, which shifted to the 76mm L-11 gun, adopted thicker 45mm glacis armor, and switched to the new V-2 diesel engine. The new frontal armor layout with its steep angle gave protection equivalent to 90mm. Trials of this tank took place in February–April 1940, and this version was accepted for production as the T-34 tank with plans to build 200 in 1940 and 1,600 in 1941.4
The T-34 represented a revolutionary step forward in medium tank design. Its armor was unusually effective for a medium tank. Although about the same thickness as the latest PzKpfw IV Ausf. F, the severe sloping of the armor doubled its protective effectiveness without a corresponding increase in vehicle weight. The mobility of the T-34 also was exceptionally good. The Christie spring suspension offered a very good cross-country ride, and the wide track made the T-34 especially well-suited to operations in mud and snow. In terms of firepower, the L-11 76mm gun offered a good balance between antitank and high-explosive firepower. The new and longer F-34 gun entered production in the spring of 1941 and had even better antitank performance.
Although it has been widely written that the Germans were unaware of the existence of the T-34 before the 1941 invasion, a number of German intelligence reports mentioned it.5 The problem was two-fold: the traditional issue of the intelligence community keeping its secrets to itself and not informing the tactical commanders, and the generally dismissive attitude of German leaders toward the Russians, especially after their own incredible victories in France in 1940 and the embarrassing performance of the Red Army in Finland in 1939–40. During the 1940 campaign, German tanks had been outmatched in armor and firepower by types such as the French Char B1 bis but managed to overcome them using superior training and tactics. Panzer leaders were confident they could do so again in Russia in 1941.
The initial production version of the T-34 had the shorter 76mm L-11 gun as seen here. It was replaced in 1941 with the longer and more powerful 76mm F-34.
The T-34 Model 1940 had a four-man crew, with the commander doubling as the gunner.
The prewar T-34 tanks had a much higher level of workmanship than the wartime production batches. This T-34 Model 1941 with the new F-34 gun was captured in Karelia by the Finnish army and put into their service. SA-KUVA
The T-34 had its share of teething problems. This T-34 with the initial L-11 gun had a spare transmission lashed to its rear deck when abandoned in Lvov in western Ukraine in June 1941.
Despite its many impressive features, the T-34 had its share of flaws. One of the worst was the poor turret layout, which permitted only a two-man crew. Besides the tank commander being expected to serve as gunner or loader, vision devices were inadequate and the large hatch made it impossible for the commander to peer outside in combat. SA-KUVA
A clear example of the limitations of the T-34 turret design. The commander could operate with the hatch open while traveling, but the awkward location made it impractical to remain open in combat. This is a T-34 of the 116th Tank Brigade in the Volga Military District.
The Big Klim
Not all of the new Soviet tanks were equally successful. The new heavy tank, the KV, was very impressive in many respects but proved to be a disappointment. This project began as an antitank gun destroyer to help the infantry break through enemy defenses. Protective levels were able to withstand the fire of 37–45mm antitank guns at point-blank range or the fire of 75mm field guns at 1,200 meters. The new program was so important that the two premier design bureaus in Leningrad, the Bolshevik Factory and the Kirov Plant, were both assigned to develop competitive prototypes. The original requirement called for the same layout as the T-35 heavy tank with five turrets. The engineers quickly convinced the army to eliminate the “decorative” MG turrets. The Bolshevik plant called their design the T-100, or Sotka—Russian slang for “100.” The Kirov team followed the fad for naming everything after the murdered communist party boss Sergei M. Kirov, hence SMK.
On 4 May 1938, wooden models of the designs were shown to a special meeting of the State Defense Council in Moscow. The designers questioned the utility of three turrets, which prompted Stalin to go up to one of the wooden models, break off one of the turrets, and quip: “Why make a tank into a department store!” As a result, the designs switched to a twin-turret design: a small turret with a 45mm gun up front and a large turret with a 76mm gun on a pedestal in the center of the hull. The pedestal added considerable weight to the design and a large surface area vulnerable to enemy fire. The Kirov team suggested a single-turret version of their SMK, named KV after Stalin’s crony Marshal Klimenti Voroshilov, the People’s Defense Commissar.
Trials of all three designs began in September 1939 and soon found that the T-100 was very sluggish and difficult to drive. The commanders in both the multi-turret tanks had difficulty coordinating the actions of both gun turrets, a not altogether surprising result since the old T-35 heavy tank was notorious for the same shortcoming. The KV emerged as the best of the three heavy tank designs.
While the tank trials were going on, the Red Army was involved in its botched invasion of Finland. The performance of the Red Army’s tank force was particularly embarrassing.6 As had been the case in Spain, the Soviet tanks could not resist 37mm antitank guns. As a result, a special experimental company of the 20th Armoured Brigade was created with new heavy tank prototypes. Manned in part by factory crews, they were used in the assault on the Finnish Velikan bunker complex around Summa. The SMK drove over a large mine, which blew off one of its tracks and buckled the belly armor. The remaining KV and T-100 tanks attempted to guard the SMK while recovery attempts were made, but this proved fruitless. The Finns managed to obtain photos of the wreck, which alerted the Germans that some new monster tank was in the works.
German intelligence might have had their suspicions piqued by the appearance of a few photos of this monster tank knocked out by the Finnish army in 1940. This was one of the prototype T-100 Sotka heavy tanks, a competitor to the KV design, that ran over a mine while attacking the Finnish Velikan bunker complex near Summa.
The KV started out as a multi-turret monster called the SMK. This archaic configuration was rejected and replaced by a more conventional layout.
The prototype of the KV series differed in many details from the production series. It was armed with the L-11 76mm gun, which was replaced in 1941 with the longer ZIS-5.
A KV-1 with the patriotic slogan “Za Stalina!” (For Stalin) on the outskirts of Leningrad in 1941. This is from the intermediate 1941 production series with the second type of 76mm gun, the F-32.
An interior view of a KV-1 Model 1942 on the gunner’s side. The ZIS-5 gun could be aimed using either the co-axial telescopic sight or the periscopic sight seen in the upper left.
A detailed technical illustration of the interior layout of a KV-1 done by Allied intelligence in 1943, based on the two KV-1 provided to Britain and the United States.
The combat in Finland confirmed the state trials, and on 19 December 1939 the KV was accepted for service as the Red Army’s new heavy tank. Problems fighting the Finnish bunkers led to a requirement for a bunker-busting version, so the first batch of KV tanks included a “small turret” KV and a “large turret” KV with a 152mm howitzer; these were later renamed as the KV-1 and KV-2. The KV tanks were the most thickly armored tanks of their day. The basic frontal armor was 75mm, but this was soon upgraded with 25mm appliqué. Unlike the T-34, this armor was not steeply angled. Nevertheless, it was more than adequate against contemporary German tank guns. In terms of firepower, the KV-1 was much the same as the T-34. It started with a short 76mm gun but by 1941 had switched to the ZiS-5, a version of the F-34 gun on the T-34 using a different gun mount. The KV was powered by the same engine as the T-34 but was less mobile because of its heavier weight. The main technical problem facing the KV was its very poor transmission design, which relied on 1930s American tractor technology. A German training course at Wunsdorf in early 1942 summarized the Wehrmacht’s assessment of captured KVs, which largely concurred with the view of Russian commanders: “Mechanically, this tank is a poor job. Gears can only be shifted and engaged at the halt, so the maximum speed of 35 km per hour is an illusion. The clutch is too lightly constructed. Almost all abandoned tanks had clutch problems.”
The most powerful version of the KV fielded in 1941 was the KV-2, an artillery fire-support variant fitted with a 152mm howitzer in a massive turret. This particular example was shipped back to Germany for further inspection, and in April 1945 it was hastily put back into service for defense of the Krupp plant in Essen against the U.S. Army’s 79th Division.
Of the trio of new Soviet tanks, the T-50 infantry tank was the greatest disappointment. It was developed by the design bureau at Plant No. 174 that had previously designed the T-26 light tank and employed a hull design patterned after the T-34 with a steeply sloped glacis plate. Its suspension was the new torsion bar type. Armor was good, with a 37mm glacis plate and turret front. Armament was the same 45mm gun as in previous light tanks. The T-50 was nicknamed “Little Klim” due to its resemblance to a smaller KV-1. The prototypes entered trials in early 1940, but production did not begin until July 1941. Due to the chaos following the German invasion, only sixty were manufactured in 1941 and fifteen more in 1942. Although it was a very good design, T-50 production was halted since it was a complicated and expensive tank. It was inferior in combat value to the T-34, and as a result the Red Army decided in late 1941 to standardize the T-34 for both the infantry and cavalry tank roles.
One of the most obscure new Soviet tanks was the T-50 infantry tank, intended to replace the ubiquitous T-26. It proved too expensive to manufacture, so the T-34 performed both the cavalry and infantry tank roles. This particular example was knocked out by the Finnish army in Karelia and later put into Finnish army service. SA-KUVA
The T-40 was a new amphibious tank, but like the T-50 its production ended after the start of war to concentrate on a smaller variety of tanks.
The Wehrmacht launched Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941. The Red Army was unprepared for the attack, as Stalin adamantly refused to believe the growing intelligence data that suggested a German attack was imminent. It was one of the greatest military disasters of all times.
In terms of tank fighting, the new T-34 and KV tanks represented only about a tenth of Soviet tank strength. The vast bulk of the Red Army tank force was made up of older T-26 light tanks and BT cavalry tanks. They were vulnerable to the German 37mm tank guns, and even more so to the new 50mm tank gun. The readiness of the older tanks varied and was their principal Achilles heel; the situation was worsened by inadequate training of the inexperienced tank crews.
The Red Army attempted to monitor the readiness of its tank force by keeping track of “motor hours,” the number of hours the tank had been used. At specified times, the tanks were supposed to be sent back to military district workshops for “medium maintenance,” and at another point they were to be sent back to special factories for “capital rebuilding.”7 The number of motor hours varied by tank type, as the chart below shows.
The Red Army categorized tank readiness in five categories, from 1 to 5, with 1 being new and 5 being retired for scrapping. In the western military districts that bore the brunt of the 1941 fighting, there were 12,782 tanks, of which 2,157 (17 percent) were new (Category 1), 8,383 (66 percent) were operational with minor maintenance issues (Category 2), and the rest (18 percent) in need medium maintenance or capital rebuilding.8 The most problematic of these was Category 2. Even though the bulk of the older tanks in this category were nominally ready for action, in fact many were mechanically exhausted with excessive engine hours. Furthermore, spare parts were often lacking, meaning that even minor shortcomings such as damaged tracks left the tanks inoperable or prone to rapid breakdown. On average, Soviet tanks had already accumulated about half their engine time on the eve of the war, making them very susceptible to breakdown after typical long road marches to the battle zone.
After the fall of France in June 1940, the Red Army had reorganized its tank forces into thirty massive mechanized corps, trying to emulate the successful German Panzer Korps. The reorganization was only partly complete when the Wehrmacht struck. The new mechanized corps were too large and cumbersome in view of the available means of command and control and the poor state of senior army leadership. Stalin had purged the Soviet officer corps in 1937, leading to a profound gap in trained combat leaders. Less than a quarter of Soviet corps commanders and less than a third of Soviet division commanders had been in their positions for more than a year.9
The combat debut for the PzKpfw III with the 50mm gun was in Yugoslavia in April 1941, a prelude to the Russian campaign. This is a column from 11.Panzer-Division; the second tank is a Panzerbefehlswagen command tank.
The Czech-built PzKpfw 38(t) was an essential ingredient in the mechanization of the German cavalry divisions. This is a column of Panzer-Regiment.25, 7.Panzer-Division, near Kalvarija, Lithuania, at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa on 22 June 1941.
A PzKpfw III with the new long 50mm gun in action with Panzer-Abteilung 40 in Finland on 1 July 1941.
The 1940 Battle of France made clear the need for thicker frontal armor on German tanks. The PzKpfw III Ausf. H introduced additional 30mm plates on the hull front, which was proof against the Soviet 45mm tank and antitank guns. This tank served with Panzer-Abteilung 40 on the Finnish Front in the summer of 1941. SA-KUVA
In regard to the rank-and-file Soviet tank crews, small unit training in 1940–41 was perfunctory and there was a tendency to limit small unit tank exercises and live-fire exercises for economic reasons and to reduce the wear and tear on the vehicles. Even though the Red Army had a tank force more than six times larger than the German panzer force, it was a paper tiger. It was built around mechanically fragile tanks operated by poorly trained and inexperienced crews and led by partially trained commanders whose battlefield initiative was crippled by a corrosive and brutal political system.
The border battles in June–July 1941 were an unmitigated disaster for the Red Army tank forces. Massive tank battles broke out in the Baltic region and in Ukraine, leading to the decimation of the Soviet mechanized corps by their much more experienced panzer opponents. Nevertheless, the new Soviet T-34 and KV tanks came as a nasty surprise to the Wehrmacht, most especially to the infantrymen who were still depending on the old 37mm gun for antitank defense.
A typical encounter occurred along the Stir River in Ukraine in the first days of the war during the advance of Schützen-Brigade.16 of the 16.Panzer-Division. A single T-34 emerged and drove toward the position of the German 37mm antitank guns. A German account of the incident recalled the event:
Range 100 meters. The Russian tank continued to advance. Fire! A hit. And another hit. And more hits. The men counted them: 21, 22, 23 times the 37mm rounds smacked against the steel colossus. But the projectiles simply bounced off. The gunners screamed with fury. The battery commander was pale with tension. The range was down to 20 meters. Aim at the turret ring! the lieutenant ordered. They finally had him. The tank scurried around and retreated. The turret ring was damaged and the turret immobilized but it was otherwise unscathed . . . hereafter the 37mm gun was contemptuously nicknamed “the army’s door-knocker.”11
At the same time, the T-34’s impressive technical qualities were undermined by serious shortcomings in Red Army training and tactics. The T-34 also had some significant, if underappreciated flaws. As the encounter above suggests, the T-34 tank crew had very poor situational awareness on the battlefield. The tank had a two-man crew of gunner and loader. The commander could serve in either role, though often as gunner since it required a greater level of training. When serving as gunner, the commander had to concentrate on firing the gun, often limited in vision to the telescopic sight, which gave him a narrow soda-straw view of the battlefield. The optical quality of Soviet tank sights was inferior to their German counterparts after key optics factories were evacuated in 1941. A Soviet tank commander recalled, “We always recognized the high quality of the Zeiss gunsights . . . We had nothing like that.”12 The vision devices on Soviet tanks tended to be of poor quality. The German assessment from captured tanks was that “Facilities for observation are worse than in our tanks. The driver’s vision is incredibly bad.” The hatch on the early versions of the T-34 was supposed to be fitted with a special panoramic periscope that could be turned 360 degrees. In fact, most tanks lacked this feature. Unlike German tanks, the T-34 commander could not observe from an open hatch. The one piece “pirozhok” hatch opened forward and was so large that it exposed both turret crewmen. To operate the T-34 with the turret hatch open was to invite disaster.
The T-34 transmission and clutch, while much better than the KV, was still difficult for a poorly trained crewman to operate. A Soviet report candidly noted that:
To avoid difficulties in shifting gears during combat, inexperienced driver-mechanics would select 2nd (starter) gear and take off the engine governor. Then the diesel would rev up to 2,300 RPM, which was good for up to 25 km/h, and maneuver the tank by means of decreasing or increasing RPM. This was done without any consideration of the engine life: of course they quickly failed as a result of this bad habit.”13
The German panzer force had its share of one-sided encounters with the new Soviet tanks, and had to use superior tactics and training to overcome the technical shortcomings of their Panzers. One tactic that would become a hallmark of German tank fighting in the early years of the war was using combined-arms tactics when confronting heavily armored enemy tanks that could not be knocked out by the inadequate German tank guns. These tactics were first developed in France against the French Char B1 bis and British Matilda tanks. The German tanks would feign retreat but radio to German 105mm field gun batteries or 88mm Flak batteries about their withdrawal. The Soviet tanks would follow in hot pursuit, only to run into an alert gun battery that would pummel them with direct fire.
Due to mistaken intelligence about German antitank guns, there was a program in 1941 before the start of the war to reinforce the KV-1’s already formidable armor with an additional 35mm plate. This example was knocked out on the Finnish Front on 1 September 1941. Several gouges from antitank rounds can be seen on the turret front.
The KV-1 underwent three changes in its main gun in 1941. Following the original short L-11 76mm gun, the intermediate version was this F-32 76mm gun. Later in the year, it was supplanted by the ZIS-5, a version of the same F-34 gun used on the T-34. This particular tank was knocked out on the Finnish Front on 19 September 1941. A very thick piece of appliqué armor has been added to the front of the turret. SA-KUVA
A pair of T-28 medium tanks in a counterattack during the summer 1941 campaign.
The KVs and T-34s also played a significant role in the fighting for “the Bloody Triangle” during the titanic tank battles around Brody-Dubno in Ukraine in the final week of June 1941.14 The KV tanks, though prone to mechanical problems, were nearly invulnerable in tank-versus-tank combat. General Major Morgunov, the armored force commander in Ukraine in 1941, wrote in a secret report: “Special mention should be made of the good work of the 4th, 8th and 15th Mechanized Corps who showed that a single KV tank was worth 10 to 14 enemy tanks in battle.”15
Army commanders, appreciating the near invulnerability of the KV, pleaded for more. Lt. Gen. A. Yeremenko reported that:
Handled by brave men, the KV tanks can do wonders. In the sector of the 107th Motorized Infantry Division we sent a KV to silence an enemy anti-tank battery. It squashed the artillery, rolled up and down the enemy’s gun emplacements, was hit more than 200 times, but the armor was not penetrated even though it had been the target of guns of all types. Often our tanks went out of action due to the hesitant and unsure conduct of their crews rather than direct hits. For this reason we subsequently manned the KV tanks with hand-picked crews.
In spite of the exceptional performance of the T-34 and KV tanks on many individual occasions, the overall impact of the new tanks on the 1941 campaign was disappointing. Their technical superiority could not overcome the profound tactical and operational shortcomings of the Red Army in the summer of 1941. Red Army commanders singled out several reasons for the problems with the new tanks. Most serious was the general lack of training of the crews. A report from Ukraine on 8 July 1941 noted:
There were exceptionally great losses of KV-2 tanks in the 41st Tank Division. Of the 31 tanks available to the division, by 6 July 1941 only 9 remain. The enemy knocked out five, twelve were blown up by their own crews, and five were sent for major repairs. The heavy losses of the KV tanks are attributable primarily to the poor technical training of the crews, by their poor knowledge of the tank systems, as well as by an absence of spare parts. When the crews were unable to eliminate malfunctions on stalled KV tanks, there were many occasions when they had to blow them up.
The commander of the well-equipped 8th Mechanized Corps, Gen. Lt. D. I. Ryabyshev, echoed these views:
From 22 to 26 June 1941, we carried out movements much beyond normal forced marches without being able to observe the elementary prescribed requirements for maintaining equipment and resting personnel. The equipment arrived at the battlefield after having covered distances of 500 km. As a result of this, 40 to 50% of the tanks were broken down for technical reasons . . . and abandoned on the routes of march of the division. As the consequence of such rapid marches, the remaining tanks were technically unprepared for combat.
The lack of durability of the older Soviet tanks was evident even away from the main battle front. One of the more obscure campaigns from the summer of 1941 was Operation Compassion (Operatsiya Sochuvstvie), the Soviet element of the Anglo-Russian invasion of Iran in August–September 1941. The aim was to depose the pro-German Shah in order to provide a route for shipping supplies to the Red Army. The largest tank element of the Red Army contingent was the 28th Mechanized Corps, which contained two tank divisions, both equipped with the T-26 tank and totaling 869 light tanks and 131 flamethrower tanks. There were additional tank sub-units attached to various rifle and cavalry units. The Soviet advance was not strongly opposed, but the Red Army was plagued by repair problems. After an advance of about 700 kilometers in less than a week, about 35 percent of the tanks had broken down and required depot or factory rebuilding. In some units, for example the 24th Tank Regiment, half of the tanks were nonoperational after four days of road marches.
A T-34 Model 1941 on the Western Front moves into action under the watchful eye of a 45mm Model 1932 antitank gun crew.
ASSESSING THE SUMMER CAMPAIGN
In spite of overwhelming numerical and staggering qualitative superiority, the Soviet tank force was decisively defeated by the much smaller and more modestly equipped German tank force in the summer of 1941. The roots of this defeat are connected mainly in the Red Army’s lack of preparedness for war, exacerbated by the corrosive influences of the purges of the officer ranks in the late 1930s. From a technological standpoint, the defeat highlighted shortcomings in Soviet tank design philosophy, which stressed the holy trinity of tank design—armor, firepower, and mobility—to the exclusion of other key tank-fighting features. Crew layout was poor; the turret layouts prevented the commander from executing his command functions due to the distractions of serving as gunner. The commander was not provided with adequate vision devices, and the hatch designs made it impossible for him to ride with his head outside the tank, the German practice to gain situational awareness.
Soviet tank commanders, already hampered by inadequate training, were overwhelmed with the simple mechanics of operating the tank. They were unable to exploit terrain or determine the location and status of friend or foe around them. This meant that Soviet tank crews were hindered in carrying out cooperative battlefield tactics, making them vulnerable to the better-coordinated German tank units. The Soviets did not fully appreciate the revolutionary implications of radio technology on the command and control of tank units. This was in part due to a Soviet mistrust of radio communications stemming from the disastrous results of poor Russian radio security in the 1905 war with Japan and the 1914 battles with Germany. More Soviet tanks were fitted with radios than is generally appreciated. For example, of the 7,485 T-26 gun tanks in service in 1941, 3,440 (46 percent) had radios. However, they were often in poor repair, had fragile antennas, and depended on telegraphic communication at longer ranges in an army chronically short of skilled crews. The radio shortcomings had a synergistic effect with the poor command-and-control features of the tank, leading to abysmal tank tactics.
OPERATION TYPHOON: A SHIFTING BALANCE
By late summer, the Soviet armored force had suffered staggering losses and there were few T-34s and KVs still operational. On 15 July, STAVKA (Soviet High Command) was obliged to recognize the obvious and disband the cumbersome mechanized corps. Total Soviet tank losses during 1941 were about 20,500, of which around 15,000 had been lost in the catastrophic summer fighting. In place of the mechanized corps, the STAVKA created tank brigades as the largest tactical armored formation. These new brigades were organized around a tank regiment and a motor rifle battalion with a nominal strength of 93 tanks. The tank regiment included a company of 7 KV tanks and a company of 22 T-34 tanks; the remainder of the unit was filled out with whatever light tanks were available. For the Red Army, it was back to the basics of mechanized warfare.
By the autumn of 1941, the German panzer force had become badly worn out. From its starting strength of 3,400 tanks in June 1941, the panzer force on the Russian Front had been reduced to about 2,300 on 10 September 1941, of which only about half were actually operational and the rest in repair. Facing them on the Red Army’s Western and Bryansk Fronts were only about 720 tanks, of which only 134 were T-34 tanks. In a panic, Moscow was mobilizing its reserves for the defense of the capital.17
The next major objective was Moscow itself, but the long summer road marches and the lack of replacement tanks and spare parts left most of the panzer divisions at only a shadow of their original strength. Exacerbating their problems was the onset of the rainy autumn weather, dubbed rasputitsa in Russia, the season of bad roads. Russian roads and fields turned into a morass of mud, making tank maneuver difficult and sometimes impossible. The T-34 and KV, designed to operate in Russian conditions by the use of wide tracks, were far less vulnerable to becoming bogged down in the mud. The first signs of Soviet recovery began to appear on the approaches to Moscow. New tank brigades were seen with alarming frequency. By the middle of October 1941, the Soviet tank forces on the approaches to Moscow numbered fewer than 600 tanks, but about 260 were the new T-34s and KVs. On 6 October 1941, the 4.Panzer-Division engaged in a violent skirmish with the newly arrived 4th Tank Brigade near the town of Mtsensk on the southern approaches to Moscow. The T-34 tanks took advantage of their mobility in the mud and after a day’s fighting claimed to have knocked out 43 German tanks. Gen. Heinz Guderian later recalled about the battle that:
The enemy sent in a large number of T-34 tanks which inflicted significant losses on our tanks. The superiority of the material units with our tank forces which were in place at that time were also lost and taken by the enemy. This shattered the idea that we would be able to achieve quick and continuous victories.
During the summer fighting, the T-34 had been a nuisance, but the shortcomings in crew training and Soviet tactics diluted its combat effectiveness. The fighting for Mtsensk gave the clearest evidence that in the hands of better crews and unit commanders, the T-34 had become a major threat. The success of Col. Mikhail Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade led to its redesignation with the honorific title the 1st Guards Tank Brigade. Katukov would later go on to lead Soviet tank corps and tank armies and become one of the most famous Soviet tank commanders of the war.
During the Moscow Defensive Operation (30 September–5 December 1941), the Red Army lost 2,785 tanks but managed to stop the German advance on the outskirts of the city. It was the first major defeat for the Wehrmacht in Russia. The German army had demonstrated its Russian Front tactical and operational excellence against the Red Army in 1941, but by the end of 1941 Barbarossa had proven to be a strategic failure. The Red Army had not been knocked out, and the Wehrmacht now faced a prolonged war for which it was ill-prepared.
A column of T-34 tanks of Col. Mikhail Katukov’s 4th Tank Brigade in action around Moscow. In November 1941, it was redesignated as the 1st Guards Tank Brigade due to its outstanding performance in stopping the German advance on Moscow.
1941 CAMPAIGN TALLY
Of the 22,000 Soviet tanks that had existed at the outset of Barbarossa, there were only 2,200 in front-line service at the beginning of 1942.18 Total Soviet tank losses in 1941 were about 20,500. In contrast, German tank losses on the Russian Front in 1941 were about 3,000, a seven-fold difference. While there has been a tendency to attribute the high Soviet tank losses to the proficiency of German panzer divisions, this is not supported by Soviet records. Although there are no comprehensive records on the causes of Soviet tank losses in 1941, the evidence presented by the after-action reports of the Soviet mechanized corps suggests that more than half of Soviet tank losses were due to mechanical breakdowns and the abandonment of damaged or bogged-down tanks. The percentage of tanks lost to mechanical failure may have been even higher.
TOP TANK OF 1941
The laurels for Tanker’s Choice and Commander’s Choice on the Russian Front in 1941 undoubtedly go to the T-34 Model 1941 tank. It was such a revolutionary step forward in tank technology that it merits both awards. The battles in Russia demonstrated that the locus of tank technology had shifted from its traditional centers in England and France eastward toward Germany and the Soviet Union. The emergence of the T-34 ignited a technological arms race between Germany and the Soviet Union that set the pace for worldwide tank development throughout World War II.
While the performance of the T-34 in the summer 1941 fighting had been unimpressive, its inherent combat capabilities helped to provide the backbone for the renaissance of the Soviet tank force that started in the autumn of 1941. Without a superior tank in 1941, the Red Army would have had a difficult time reaching tactical parity with the German panzer forces on the approaches to Moscow.
Another reason that the T-34 was a clear winner in 1941 was because of the lingering mediocrity of German tank designs of this period. The German battlefield advantages were largely in crew experience and superior tactical performance despite the quality of their tanks. The best tank for tank-versus-tank fighting, the PzKpfw III, still had a gun that was barely capable of dealing with the new Soviet tanks, while at the same time its high-explosive firepower was modest. The PzKpfw IV, although having good high-explosive firepower, had poor antitank performance since that was not its role. The armor of the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV was adequate but unexceptional. German tank durability was better than that of Soviet tanks, but the shortage of spare parts and an overstretched logistical infrastructure left a large portion of German tanks immobile at any given time during the autumn 1941 campaign. As the hard winter weather enveloped central Russia in the winter of 1941–42, the panzer force became an icebound ghost, seldom present on the battlefield. A German report put tank strength in January 1942 at only 1,015, a third of the force starting Operation Barbarossa. Its operational strength was close to 0 due to mechanical problems.21 Six panzer divisions reporting on operational strength in January 1942 counted barely 60 functional tanks in total.
The T-34 tanks fielded in the summer of 1941 had a far higher manufacturing quality than those a year later. As casting facilities became available, some of the T-34 Model 41 tanks had a cast turret in place of the more common welded turret, as seen on this example.