Wednesday 28 July 2021

Book Review: T-34 Shock

The T-34 is a quite interesting tank from a historiographical point of view. Despite being one of the most numerous tanks ever built with variants still in service in some remote parts of the world, surprisingly little has been written about this vehicle. While Hunnicutt's Sherman: A History of the American Medium Tank covers production of the equivalent American tank in exhaustive detail, no such work has ever been undertaken for the T-34. Many modern books on this tank continue to recycle the same myths and misconceptions born in the Cold War, even though primary documents on the topic have been available for decades.

T-34 Shock (originally T-34 Continuum) by Francis Pulham and Will Kerrs begins with an interesting assertion. The authors state that the complete history of the tank lies not in these documents, but in photographs. Despite not reading Russian, Pulham and Kerrs have assembled an impressive collection of photographs of all manner of Soviet tanks, including the T-34, T-34-85, and SPGs on the chassis of these vehicles. These are chiefly photographs taken by German troops depicting either knocked out or captured tanks, but the book contains plenty of photos of tanks in other contexts, including in the armies of Soviet allies and tanks in post-WWII usage. With these photographs, they aim to reconstruct the vehicle's history.

The book begins with a brief description of the authors' methodology. As mentioned above, the majority of conclusions are drawn from examination of photographs, hundreds of which are provided in the book. A brief introduction to the T-34's predecessors follows: the BT series of tanks, A-20, and A-32. Nearly 300 pages are then dedicated to describing various T-34 variants produced at factory #183 (before and after evacuation), STZ, factory #112, UZTM, factory #174, and ChKZ. In addition to splitting up the tanks by factory, T-34 Shock splits them up by major features (such as gun, turret, applique armour, etc). Time periods for when these features were used are given, making this book a valuable aid in establishing when a certain T-34 tank was produced or how a typical T-34 tank produced during a certain time at a certain factory would look. 

After a brief summary of the main T-34 features in 1940-1944 production and an appraisal of its failings and advantages, the book moves on to the T-34-85. Only some 100 pages are dedicated to this tank owing to fewer factories producing it and fewer major changes being made during production. Nevertheless, the book once again gives a full rundown of production changes seen in photographs. It's worth noting that, unlike others, T-34 Shock does not stop telling the T-34's story with May of 1945. Kerrs and Pulham tell of the tank's post-war production, modernizations, and service history spanning decades of the 20th century. Tanks used by the USSR, Poland, China, and Czechoslovakia earn a special focus. North Korean T-34-85 tanks can be found in photographs throughout the book, but also get their own chapter. Rather than modifications and modernizations, it covers General Dean's experience fighting T-34-85 tanks at Taejon. As with the T-34, a summary and appraisal of the T-34-85's fighting characteristics is made. 

In addition to T-34 and T-34-85 tanks, T-34 Shock covers multiple vehicles on their chassis, including the SU-122, SU-85, and SU-100 SPGs, German-operated Beutepanzers, and conversions of all of the above into ARVs or other specialized vehicles. A brief section on other vehicles with T-34 turrets (trains and gunboats) is also included. None of these receive as thorough of a treatment as the book's main focus, but there is still some good information found here. 

Coming back to battles. there are four battles described in the book: the Battle of Seseña in the Spanish Civil War, the assault of the 21st Tank Brigade on Kalinin in October of 1941, the duel between Soviet forces on the Sandomierz foothold and German King Tiger tanks, and finally the Battle of Taejon of the Korean War. I found these to be much weaker than the book's bread and butter: examination of the various design changes in its production history. As the descriptions of these battles are rather brief and based entirely on secondary sources (with the exception of the Battle of Taejon), they do not offer the same unique content that the rest of the book does. 

There are other sections of T-34 Shock that are lacking as well. A general rule of thumb is that parts of the book based on examining photographic evidence offer interesting and new information, parts that deviate from that (for instance, the history of the Christie tank or the story of how Soviet 85 mm guns came to be developed) often contain factual errors, in part due to much more new information coming to light between when the book was written and when it was published. The authors are aware of this fact and are keeping an updated list of errata to be incorporated into future editions.

While these errors make T-34 Shock hard to recommend for one's first T-34 or only book, T-34 Shock is a valuable resource to T-34 fans who can't get enough of their favourite vehicle. The photographs and technical drawings provided in the book allow one to get a glimpse at the T-34 tank that was not previously possible through any other publication.

Of special note is T-34 Shock's utility to scale modellers. The photos and technical drawings allow one to identify the type of vehicle a kit represents (or the closest one to it) and identify the necessary corrections or conversions that would have to be done in order to improve the historical accuracy of the vehicle. For example, I took the old and notoriously inaccurate Zvezda T-34 kit (ZVE3525) whose decals identify it as "Sergey Kirov" from the 1st Tank Brigade. While there are no photos of the real Sergey Kirov in T-34 Shock, I could use it to identify photos of this tank on the internet as a transitional model between what the book calls UTZ 183 Hard-Edge (the book's internal classification for tanks produced at factory #183 between September 1942 and August 1943 with hexagonal turrets with a well defined lower edge). Photos and technical drawings of these tanks show that the kit needs to be altered in order to satisfactorily represent this tank, chiefly the use of 500 mm wide "waffle" tracks and cast "spider" type road wheels in the 1st and 5th position on either side. The technical drawings included in the book allow one to check for less noticeable issues, such as improper positioning of the driver's hatch, bow machine gun, or a myriad of other components. 

The hardcover edition of the book comes in a smallish but very dense tome. The paper and printing quality are good. My only complaint about the physical copy is that the technical drawings are not printed in a consistent scale. While some conform to the common 1:35th scale, most will require the measurements to be converted if you wish to use them to build models.

While not without flaws, there are plenty of good parts in T-34 Shock to make it a worthwhile purchase for a dedicated scale modeller or Soviet tank enthusiast. 

T-34 Shock is available in hardcover and ebook editions. This review was based on an electronic copy of the book provided by Fonthill Media Limited and a physical copy purchased independently.

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