TIGER vs T-34
Two of World War II’S iconic tanks face off at the Battle of Kursk
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
“TACTICS, POOR TRAINING AND MAINTENANCE AND A LACK OF LOGISTICAL SUPPORT, PARTICULARLY FUEL, COST THE RED ARMY ITS ADVANTAGE”
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.
“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”
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