TIGER vs T-34

Two of World War II’S iconic tanks face off at the Bat­tle of Kursk

History of War - - ISSUE 57 - WORDS NIK COR­NISH

Ger­many’s Op­er­a­tion Ci­tadel aimed to squeeze off the salient around Kursk, but stand­ing be­fore their for­mi­da­ble ar­moured di­vi­sions stood a Soviet de­fence bristling with its own pow­er­ful tanks. The two had met briefly, ear­lier in the year, dur­ing the fight­ing around Ros­tov-on-don and Kharkov, but Kursk was the first oc­ca­sion in which they fought in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers. In July 1943 Army Group Cen­tre (AGC), faced Cen­tral Front, and Army Group South (AGS) pre­pared to do bat­tle with Voronezh Front and then Steppe Front for the Kursk salient.

Tigers were or­gan­ised into heavy panzer bat­tal­ions of three or four com­pa­nies. Four Tigers formed a zug (pla­toon) and three or four zugs formed a kom­panie (com­pany). Tanks in a zug of­ten moved and worked in pairs.

By the sum­mer of 1943 the var­i­ous mod­els of T-34/76 were very fa­mil­iar to the Wehrma­cht. The Ger­man eval­u­a­tion of the T-34 dur­ing the win­ter of 1941-42 in ef­fect ad­vised, ‘copy it’. The re­sult was the Pan­ther.

The Tiger was less known and un­der­stood by the Red Army, but an in­tact Tiger had been cap­tured near Len­ingrad in Jan­uary 1943 and thor­oughly an­a­lysed at the test­ing ground at Ku­binka. Among the con­clu­sions reached was that the T-34 would have to be up-gunned from the 76mm weapon that was its main ar­ma­ment. The re­sult, the T-34/85, was not avail­able in time for Kursk, so the Red Army would be re­liant on the T-34/76.

The Soviet ar­moured fist

When the Germans first en­coun­tered the T-34 they were hor­ri­fied as they had vir­tu­ally no anti-tank gun ca­pa­ble of de­stroy­ing it. How­ever, prim­i­tive tac­tics, poor train­ing and main­te­nance and a lack of lo­gis­ti­cal sup­port, par­tic­u­larly fuel, cost the Red Army its ad­van­tage. Grad­u­ally, ex­pe­ri­ence im­proved all th­ese short­com­ings. When the T-34 with an 85mm gun was in­tro­duced later in 1943 they once again re­gained su­pe­ri­or­ity, as it ad­dressed

many of the main prob­lems that ear­lier ex­pe­ri­ence had high­lighted.

The T-34 was de­vel­oped when the need for a medium tank be­came ap­par­ent in the late 1930s. One of the ma­jor spec­i­fi­ca­tions was ease of mass-pro­duc­tion. From the var­i­ous pro­to­types the A-32 was cho­sen, which be­came known as the T-34. Pro­duc­tion be­gan in the spring of 1940 and, when the 76 ver­sion was phased out in 1944, roughly 35,500 had been built. Stalin had, in late 1941, ve­toed any ma­jor al­ter­ations to the T-34 in or­der to sim­plify and in­crease pro­duc­tion. Nev­er­the­less, mod­i­fi­ca­tions were car­ried out as evac­u­ated fac­to­ries slowly came back into pro­duc­tion dur­ing 1942-43, and sup­plies of items such as ra­dios and op­tics were soon im­proved. Con­se­quently, at Kursk the T-34 was a tried and thor­oughly tested ma­chine with a wealth of spares that were easy to re­place.

Con­versely, if one of the Tiger’s in­ter­nal over­lapped wheels was dam­aged, the me­chan­ics had to re­move up to eight wheels and undo 45 bolts. Nat­u­rally, this was car­ried out after rais­ing the tank and loos­en­ing the track. Of course, all th­ese ac­tions were then per­formed in re­verse. This op­er­a­tion on a T-34 was con­sid­er­ably eas­ier.

T-34s were or­gan­ised into pla­toons of three, with three pla­toons mak­ing a com­pany and three or four com­pa­nies a bat­tal­ion. A tank brigade, com­pris­ing two or three bat­tal­ions, was usu­ally the smallest for­ma­tion that car­ried out in­de­pen­dent mis­sions. Crewed by four men (and some­times women), the task al­lo­ca­tion was: driver/me­chanic, ma­chine gun­ner/ra­dio op­er­a­tor (when fit­ted), loader and com­man­der. With the ra­dio lo­cated to the right of the hull ma­chine gun and with the com­man­der in the tur­ret, ex­ter­nal com­mu­ni­ca­tions de­pended on the ra­dio op­er­a­tor re­lay­ing in­for­ma­tion and or­ders via the poor qual­ity in­ter­com to the com­man­der. How­ever, the tank com­man­der was also the gun­ner, and this vi­tal task ob­vi­ously de­tracted from his abil­ity to com­mand.

Con­sid­er­able re­spon­si­bil­ity was placed on the driver to keep up with the unit, avoid


prob­lem­atic ter­rain and gen­er­ally be aware of the of­ten-chaotic sit­u­a­tion around them.

The loader sim­ply loaded, which in it­self was a phys­i­cally ex­haust­ing task, as the bulk of the tank’s 100 rounds of am­mu­ni­tion (each weigh­ing roughly nine kilo­grams, or 20 pounds) was stored in the floor of the tank. As one

T-34 com­man­der, hav­ing or­dered up a round, re­called, he looked around only to find, “the loader lay­ing, lights out, on the ammo boxes [be­low him]. He’d been poi­soned by the fumes and lost con­scious­ness.”

Be­ing over­come by the fumes from when the gun fired was a prob­lem caused by the poor po­si­tion­ing of the fan that was sup­posed to ven­ti­late the ve­hi­cle. Equally prob­lem­atic for the loader was the lack of room in the tur­ret, as the gun’s breech was long, and if the tur­ret were ro­tated it could eas­ily knock him out or cause other in­juries.

The com­man­der’s gun­nery tasks were also dif­fi­cult. First he would find his tar­get through the periscope, then use the sep­a­rate gun sight to aim – two ac­tions that used valu­able time.

If the loader were quick, the round went in and the gun was fired. Un­for­tu­nately, dur­ing train­ing tankers did not get much fir­ing prac­tice at any­thing other than sta­tion­ary tar­gets, and con­se­quently gun­nery was not an ex­act sci­ence for the crews. In­deed, at Prokhorovka the or­ders is­sued to the tankers were sim­ple: drive at the en­emy fast, in or­der to re­duce the range, fire upon ap­proach, and use the ter­rain to mask the ap­proach. Weigh­ing 28 tons when car­ry­ing fuel and am­mu­ni­tion, the T-34 was cer­tainly fast and ma­noeu­vrable. How­ever, it also suf­fered from abysmal op­tics and a lack of view­ing ports, leading the Germans to de­scribe its crew as ‘blind’, which, when com­bined with the com­man­der’s com­bined role as gun­ner, con­trib­uted to a dan­ger­ously low aware­ness of the com­bat en­vi­ron­ment.

‘Spar­tan’ would be the most com­pli­men­tary way to de­scribe the T-34’s in­te­rior from a crew­man’s point of view. The po­si­tion of the driver’s and ma­chine gun­ner’s seats was awk­ward and un­com­fort­able, mak­ing the driver’s job in par­tic­u­lar phys­i­cally ex­haust­ing. When Fifth Guards Tank Army (GTA) drove 400 kilo­me­tres (248 miles) to re­in­force Voronezh Front, drivers had to be lifted out of their po­si­tions by their com­rades and mas­saged back to some­thing near phys­i­cal nor­mal­ity.

Th­ese men and women had driven their tanks at night over the course of three days to re­tain the el­e­ment of sur­prise, as well as help­ing to avoid Luft­waffe at­tacks. Men­tally the ef­fort must have been shat­ter­ing. No records are avail­able for the num­ber of ve­hi­cles that broke down en route, but clearly the vast ma­jor­ity reached their ob­jec­tive. Given the poor re­li­a­bil­ity of the Tiger’s en­gines it seems rather un­likely that as many of the Ger­man tanks would have made it.


Two Tigers work as a pair dur­ing the cam­paign in the Soviet Union. The side guards, above the tracks, ap­pear to have been re­moved, prob­a­bly to avoid the wheels clog­ging with mud or slush

A line of T-34s ad­vance on Prokhorovka dur­ing the Bat­tle of Kursk T-34s were of­ten used to help move sold­ers for­ward rapidly over rough or ex­posed ter­rain

Tigers on a run­way in 1944. The Zim­merit paste, used to pre­vent mag­netic mines from at­tach­ing, can clearly be seen on the tanks

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