Friday 17 February 2023

T-34 on Tour

A tank’s history does not end with the nation that created it. If possible, it is desirable to familiarize oneself with opinions from other nations, both allies and enemies. Much has been written about the history of T-34 and KV-1 tanks in the Red Army, but even though this a popular topic of discussion, relatively little is known about the evaluation of these tanks in Great Britain. Let us cut through the fog of war with Soviet and British primary sources that describe how the British learned about the legendary Soviet tank.

The next generation of tanks

Finland was the most trustworthy source of information on Soviet tanks available to the British before the start of the Great Patriotic War. Great Britain sent the Finns weapons and received information about their use in return. This information also included descriptions of enemy armament, not that the British were in much need of it. These reports noted that Soviet armoured vehicles were based on British ones: Carden-Loyd tankettes, amphibious Vickers light tanks, and the famous “6-tonner” Vickers Mk.E. The British also knew about the BT tanks. In their opinion, these were identical to the same M1931 Christie tank that inspired a new generation of British Cruiser tanks. Proponents of the theory that the T-35 was a copy of the A1E1 Independent would be disappointed by these reports, as the British saw the T-28 and T-35 as descendants of the Vickers 16-tonner, but larger and with more powerful armament.

The T-34 and KV-1 were shrouded in secrecy, and so the British knew nothing about these tanks until September of 1941. Surprisingly, the source of information about the tanks was German propaganda. Of all foreign nations, Germany perhaps had the best idea of what new Soviet armour looked like before the war. For instance, by June 1941 the Germans knew about a tank called T-35C. According to the attached drawing, it appears that the Germans received accurate information about the SMK tank from Finland, but decided that it was a variant of the known T-35 tank rather than a brand new design.

“T-35C heavy tank” depicted in German intelligence summaries

The appearance of the T-34 tank did not shock the British at all. They correctly identified it as a further development of Christie designs, comparing it to their own Cruiser Tank Mk.VI. Like the T-34, this tank had one more road wheel per side than its ancestor. Even with next to no information, it was decided that both the T-34 and KV-1 are superior to the Pz.Kpfw.IV, considered to be the best German tank at the time.

It turned out to be difficult to obtain information on these new tanks even as relations between Great Britain and the USSR warmed up. Members of the British Military Mission reported that the Soviets gladly share any information about British and German tanks and even show samples of vehicles knocked out in battle, but keep silent about their own machines. There were no trips to Soviet tank units, even those armed with British tanks, and Soviet officers refused to discuss tank tactics that could leak any information about the abilities of Soviet vehicles.

Lieutenant General MacFarlane, Lieutenant General Nigh, and Lieutenant Colonel Hugo finally met with the Chief of the Main Auto-Armour Directorate of the Red Army Lieutenant General Ya.N. Fedorenko to see these new tanks on December 20th, 1941. In addition to the KV-1 tank (which the British designated a medium) and the T-34 (which in their mind was a cruiser), the delegation was shown the T-60 tank, a Valentine and Matilda that had seen battle, and an APC of an unidentified type.

Diagram of a T-34 track made by the British commission.

The new Soviet tanks were impressive. The British commission noted the caliber of the guns, high power to weight ratio, and wide tracks. British specialists concluded that Soviet designers effectively simplified the shape and design of their tanks. The finish on the parts was of lower quality than on British tanks, but the armour, engine, transmission, and suspension were excellent. The British also liked that components from different types of tanks were interchangeable.

The British studied the tracks of the T-34 closely. According to the commission, the design of the track links was based on the old Vickers Mk.E tracks. The British liked the design of the running gear and track pins, specifically the fact that the tank could keep moving even if the pin was broken into pieces. According to them, this design was loud, but very robust. The tank starters were also rated highly, specifically due to the fact that Soviet tanks could be started at any angle, whereas British ones could only be started when parked level. Soviet tank engines, both gasoline and diesel ones, could start at -40 degrees, which British tanks were incapable of. The procedure of starting the engine in winter was thoroughly described in the report.

Diagram of T-34 running gear made by the British commission.

A little bit more information appeared by April of 1942. It was known that the USSR tried to arm the Matilda tank with the “long gun from the T-34”. Some characteristics of the T-34 and KV were also discovered. This time they were classified correctly, but there were still plenty of mistakes in the report, for instance it claimed that both the T-34 and KV-1 had the same 600 hp diesel engine. The description of crew responsibilities were also wrong. The British seemed to not have figured out who operated the radio in a T-34 tank, since none of the crewmen was designated as a radio operator. Perhaps it is because of this report that certain English language books still claim that the commander loaded the gun on the KV-1. This time, the British also noted that the T-34 was well protected from infantry attack, as there were no places where anti-tank grenades could get lodged and nowhere for enemy infantry to grab on to in order to climb up on the tank. The British also liked the robust tow hooks.

Confusion persisted in the May report on Soviet vehicles. The authors figured out what the KV-1’s crew looked like, but it was still said that the T-34’s commander was also a loader. The radio operator/hull gunner and main gunner were combined into one person. The armour thicknesses were provided for T-34 and KV-1 tanks with cast turrets, but the report does not make any distinction between cast and rolled armour types. There was also no difference made between the KV-1 and the KV-2, it was only mentioned that the KV could be armed with a 155 mm gun.

Eastern Gift

The British Military Mission directly requested samples of new Soviet materiel for evaluation in the spring of 1943. The shopping list included anti-tank rifles, PUAZO anti-aircraft director, rocket artillery, and tanks. The British got lucky: with the exception of the Katyusha, this request was approved.

The tanks arrived at the Bakaritsa port in Arkhangelsk on May 26th, 1943. On June 13th they were loaded onto a merchant steamship named Empire Portia. It is often claimed that these tanks were specially assembled in order to conceal the fact that Soviet tanks were poorly made from its allies. This claim is not confirmed by any evidence. These tanks were not given any special treatment or attention, although they could have benefitted from it. The delivery report states that both vehicles were missing machine gun magazines and the tarps included were torn and dirty. The tanks were accompanied by 73 crates of spare parts and a large amount of consumables: a barrel of gun oil, 70 kg of lubricant, etc. The T-34 shipped with 19 AP rounds, 53 HE rounds (translated incorrectly in the English manifest as AP shot), and 5 rounds with canister shot. Machine gun ammunition included 665 rounds with tracer bullets, 150 rounds with AP bullets, and 1103 with heavy bullets. The tank was also equipped with 20 F-1 grenades.

Drawing of the T-34 tank with measurements made by the British.

The transfer was made on June 16th. Acting authorized representative of the People’s Commissar of Foreign Trade B.N. Povalishin signed for the Soviet side, and acting commandant of base #126 Major A.J. Rieth signed for the British.

The road was long and difficult. The T-34 tank arrived at the School of Tank Technology in Chertsey only on November 22nd, 1943. The operation manuals arrived some time earlier and the British had time to translate them. British tankers studied the vehicle as closely as possible without disassembly of large components (aside from the engine) and composed a large report by February 1944. Meanwhile, incorrect information still circulated. For instance, in December of 1943 the intelligence department of the 8th Army received information that the T-34 tank has 55 mm of front armour installed at 70 degrees.

The Chertsey report states that the T-34 evolved from the Christie tank, but Soviet tank evolution went in a different direction than British ones. According to the British, the T-34’s design “aimed at mechanical simplicity, a large general purpose gun, stout armour, and above all a design facilitating quantity production with limited resources in specialized machine tools and skilled labour”. The British noted that certain components did not receive as much care as they would have in British practice, but Soviet engineers prioritized the most important qualities of a fighting vehicle.

Armour thickness and slope.

The British considered the welded hull and cast turret as excellent from the point of view of ballistics. It was also noted that the hull was made up of plates with only three different thicknesses: 15, 20, and 45 mm. No cause was found to suspect that the quality of the armour was poor, although it was noted that the hardness of the cast and rolled armour was higher than on comparable American and British vehicles. The surfaces of the cast parts were deemed to be excellent. The finish of the rolled parts was rough, but this was not an indicator of their quality. The weld seams were rough, just like the armour that they held together, but no cracks were found in the seams or the armour around them. The British rated the sloped front plate highly, but did not like the fact that the driver’s hatch was cut into it. The lack of splash protection or any place to put it was also considered a negative.

Diagram of the fighting and driver’s compartments.

The inside of the tank was not as well received as the outside. The turret was narrow and made working with the gun difficult, although British specialists would not say how that affected the crew’s performance until gunnery trials could be held. All components necessary for combat (gun sight, fuel pump, etc) were excellent, but anything not essential was roughly finished. The report author considered that the tank’s combat qualities did not decrease as a result, but more aesthetically pleasing components could be produced at British factories without additional effort.

Fighting compartment of the T-34 tank.

The situation with the gun was a bit muddled. The translated instruction manual mentioned model 1940, 1941, and 1942 76 mm tank guns. The manifest made in Bakaritsa indicates that the tank had a “76 mm F-34 gun model 1940”, but it seems that the manifest never reached Chertsey, where specialists decided that this was a model 1942 gun. The report author considered the semiautomatic mechanism to be similar to that of the American 75 mm M3 gun. The British liked the elevation angle of 30 degrees, but the depression of -3 degrees was deemed not high enough, although the testers remarked that the turret would have to be taller to accommodate greater gun depression. The counterweights on the gun cradle did not fully make up for the imbalance, and the gun was still a little bit muzzle heavy.

The testers did not like the manual turret traverse flywheel. It did not rotate around its center, so it was difficult to spin quickly. It took 390 turns to turn the turret completely. Backlash in the mechanism made it harder to aim. There was only one complaint about the elevation mechanism: the gunner’s hand hit his knee when he used it. It took almost 24 rotations of the flywheel to cover the full range of vertical motion. The electric motor turned the turret at the speed of 26 degrees per second. 13.6-13.8 seconds were needed to spin it all the way around.

British specialists did not find either PPSh submachine guns or racks for them in the tank, but the presence of pistol ports suggested that the crew had some kind of self defense weapons. The magazines of the DT machine guns were judged as simple and effective, but the machine gun itself, particularly light barrel and the inability to quickly swap it in battle, were not good. Unlike the main gun, the machine gun mount was well balanced.

Partially disassembled V-2 engine.

Study of the PT-4-7 periscopic sight showed light transmission of 26.3%. The telescopic sight was better at 39.2%. To give a frame of reference, the German TZF5b sight studied by the British had light transmission of 20.1%. The rubber padding on the sights did not fully block out external light, but the British liked the fact that they could be adjusted to fit either the left or right eye.

Another mix-up happened with the sights. The manual described a clinometer, but none was found inside the tank. The British concluded that indirect fire was possible if a portable clinometer was pressed up against the gun breech. The manual also described the PTK-5 periscope in the hatch, but it was also absent.

The visibility with the turret hatch closed was limited, but it was not much better with the hatch open. The large flap protected the crew from the front, but at the same time made observation more difficult. There were no complaints about vision from the driver’s position.

T-34 tank transmission.

The ammunition racks were simple and designed to fit as much ammunition as possible with no concern for ease of use. The British wanted to remove the rubber liners on the floor to be able to more easily access the rounds underneath, but were afraid to bend the bin lids and damage the ammunition without them. The design of Soviet HE ammunition was not new to the British, as the Germans used the same shells in 7.62 cm FK 295(r) guns.

Inspection of the engine correctly suggested that it had roots in aircraft. Various components had different quality of finish. The most important ones were no worse than equivalent parts in British production. The casting was rough, but British specialists wrote that there was no evidence of porosity or poor casting quality. Specialists also noticed a large quantity of proof marks, indicating a thorough quality assurance process.

Little was written about the air filter. The report notes that it was roughly assembled, like most items in the tank, but it is not criticized. It’s hard to say that the British were indifferent about this topic, as the air filters in the Tiger tank were judged very harshly.

Transmission and final drive diagram.

Access to the transmission was easy, but it was harder to reach the engine. The rear plate weighed 864 kg and the British deemed mechanical assistance necessary for opening it. The ability to access the transmission through a smaller port was considered an interesting innovation. Many pages were dedicated to the design of the transmission and gearbox. Aside from the same comments about rough finishes, the design was not criticized.

Cutaway view of the T-34 tank. The vehicle was not without faults, but the British were quite satisfied with the design and execution.

In general, the British liked the T-34. It was clearly built by people who clearly understood the realities of war, industrial capacity of the USSR, and abilities of the average Soviet soldier. The report author considered production of this tank “an engineering achievement of the first magnitude”, especially at a time when the war left the USSR without a large portion of its pre-war factories and manpower.

Welcome guests

The study of the tank raised a lot of questions. A group of Soviet engineers and employees of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Trade visited the British proving grounds to discuss the design of the T-34 and KV tanks. Fifteen highly ranking British officers attended this meeting. The topic of Soviet tanks was particularly interesting to the British. 41 questions were asked during the meeting, both about specifics of T-34 and KV tank design and about tank design in general. These questions were very pressing for British tankers, for instance the delegation was asked how Soviet tankers dealt with flashback after firing the 76 mm gun, a problem that plagued the Sherman Firefly.

Armour thicknesses marked on the gun mantlet and turret.

There were also a lot of questions about operating the tanks in winter time, especially how weld seams and armour hold up under fire at low temperatures, lifespans of various components, and jamming of the turret ring as a result of being hit or deformation of the hull. The report by Soviet representatives at this meeting said that the questions asked by the British suggested that they liked the tank, particularly its armament. Negative sides were also identified: the loader’s seat couldn’t fold, there was no clinometer for indirect fire, and the gap in speeds between the 3rd and 4th gear was large.

The Soviet commission noted signs that the British could be preparing to produce a copy of the T-34 with the F-34 gun replaced by the 17-pounder, an improved gearbox and turning mechanisms, and new air cleaners. The report stated that no attempt was made to conceal this, and British factory workers admit that production of the T-34 would begin shortly.

Production of such a tank never began, but the singular T-34 tank available in the UK was in high demand. The Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment (FVPE) ordered the T-34 in the summer of 1944 for comparative trials with the Panther tank, but never received it and had to conduct trials of the German tank on its own. The Soviet tank eventually arrived at the proving grounds and the opportunity was used to compare its mobility with that of British and foreign tanks.

The T-34 driver’s compartment.

The T-34 did not take part in all the trials, since it was quite worn out by then. The tank was used for hill climbing trials in muddy terrain beaten up by other tanks. The T-34 failed the ascent, but so did the M4, M4A1 with T54 tracks, T14 heavy tank, and the Tiger. The report stated that, despite the T-34’s failure, it performed better than the aforementioned tanks. The Shermans managed to climb the hill after the top layer of mud was cleared, but the T-34 was not given a second chance.

The order to perform gunnery trials at Lulworth was given on June 14th, 1943, a day after the tank was loaded on the Empire Portia. The T-34 had not yet arrived on March 31st, 1944, when foreign tanks were shown to visitors of the proving grounds. The tank was in high demand, and is listed as “awaited” in monthly reports. The T-34 had not yet arrived by January 1945, and in February it disappeared from the reports. Seems like the British were tired of waiting, and the proving grounds had plenty of other work.

All that’s left of the hero of this article, the T-34’s gun on display at the Bovington Tank Museum.

It’s possible that the tank was completely ruined during trials, but it’s just as likely that interest simply waned. It was already known that the USSR had the superior T-34-85 tank in service and the basic T-34 was obsolete. Characteristics of this new tank were not precisely known, but the British did not miss the appearance of an 85 mm gun and commander’s cupola. The British only encountered this tank five years later, this time in the hands of their enemies.

This T-34 tank did not survive for long. Like many armoured vehicles in the UK, it was scrapped shortly after the war. Today only the F-34 gun with serial number 11141 can be seen on display at the Bovington Tank Museum.

The author thanks Yuri Pasholok, Francis Pulham, and Ed Webster for the photographs and documents used in writing this article.

  • Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation
  • Canadian Military Headquarters, London (1939-1947) RG 24 C 2
  • Fighting Vehicles Proving Establishment Report №F.T.1553 Comparative Trials of Various A.F.V.s in Soft Ground Conditions
  • Preliminary Report №20 Russian T/34, Military College of Science, School of Tank Technology

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