German encounter of Soviet T-34 and KV tanks

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T-34-76 (Model 1941) (26 tonnes) at Aberdeen Proving Grounds, USA, in 1987
KV-1 (45 tonnes) on display in Kirovsk

Prior to the invasion of the Soviet Union during World War II, the German armed forces were not aware of two newly developed Soviet tanks, the T-34 and the KV. As a result, they were surprised when they met them in combat for the first time in June 1941. The Germans' standard anti-tank weapons were found to be ineffective against these new Soviet vehicles. This experience prompted a notable leap in tank development in Nazi Germany, mainly in an effort to counter these new threats.

By 22 June 1941, the Red Army deployed almost 1,000 T-34 and over 500 KV tanks,[1] concentrated in five[2] of their twenty-nine mechanized corps. By the end of December 1941, they had lost 2,300 T-34 and over 900 KV tanks, accounting for 15% of the 20,500 tanks lost that year.[3]

Initial encounters[edit]

At the beginning of Operation Barbarossa, the Germans were expecting little from their opponent's tank forces, which were composed of the old T-26 and BTs. While most of the Soviet Union's armoured forces were composed of such tanks, the T-34 and the KV designs, which were previously unknown, took the Germans by surprise.[4] Both types were encountered on the second day of the invasion – 23 June 1941.[5]

Half a dozen anti-tank guns fire shells at him [a T-34], which sound like a drumroll. But he drives staunchly through our line like an impregnable prehistoric monster... It is remarkable that lieutenant Steup's tank made hits on a T-34, once at about 20 meters and four times at 50 meters, with Panzergranate 40 (caliber 5 cm), without any noticeable effect.

— German battle report, Finkel[6]
The much smaller German 11 tonne Panzer 35(t)

The KV tanks were usually assigned to the same units as the more numerous T-34 and, although they were much larger in size, their overall performance was quite similar; many sources discuss the impact of both types. The most common model of KV was the KV-1. It was in the Battle of Raseiniai where German forces encountered the Soviet KV for the first time. The Soviet 2nd Tank Division from the 3rd Mechanized Corps attacked and overran elements of the German 6th Panzer Division near Skaudvilė on 23 June.[7] German Panzer 35(t) light tanks and anti-tank weapons were practically ineffective against the Soviet armoured giants, which closed with and, even though some of them were out of ammunition, destroyed some German anti-tank guns by simply driving over them.[5][8]

An account by the Thuringian 1st Panzer Division describes this battle:

The KV-1 and KV-2, which we first met here, were really something! Our companies opened fire at about 800 yards, but [they] remained ineffective. We moved closer and closer to the enemy, who for his part continued to approach us unconcerned. Very soon we were facing each other at 50 to 100 yards. A fantastic exchange of fire took place without any visible German success. The Russian tanks continued to advance, and all armour-piercing shells simply bounced off them. Thus we were presently faced with the alarming situation of the Russian tanks driving through the ranks of 1st Panzer Regiment towards our own infantry and our hinterland. Our Panzer Regiment therefore about turned and rumbled back with the KV-1s and KV-2s roughly in line with them. In the course of that operation we succeeded in immobilizing some of them with special purpose shells at very close range - 30 to 60 yards. A counter attack was launched and the Russians were thrown back. A protective front established and defensive fighting continued.

— Paul Carrell, Hitler Moves East [9]

The next day, at a crossroads near Raseiniai, a single KV heavy tank managed to block the advance of elements of the 6th Panzer Division, which had established bridgeheads on the Dubysa. It stalled the German advance for a full day while being attacked by a variety of anti-tank weapons before being overrun after it finally ran out of ammunition.[10][11]

Tank versus tank engagements[edit]

Historians initially believed that the new tanks were "scattered" among the army in small numbers,[12] but recent research shows the exact opposite.[13] The new tanks were concentrated into dedicated types of formations, such as the mechanized corps.

While the re-creating of the mechanised corps had been organised as proposed by Georgy Zhukov, this had not been completed when Nazi Germany attacked in 1941. Originally done under Marshal Tukhachevsky, the mechanised corps had been broken up by Stalin’s crony and Commissar for Defence Marshal Voroshilov in a misreading of the lessons of the Spanish Civil War and the Winter War with Finland. Voroshilov had been replaced by Marshal Timoshenko as Commissar in May 1940. Zhukov had drawn a different conclusion about armoured warfare from the success of the panzers in France and from his own experience in the Battles of Khalkhin Gol against Japan.[14]

Selected Soviet mechanized corps on 22 June 1941[13]
Soviet corps Soviet divisions Total Soviet tanks T-34 and KV
6th Mechanized Corps 4th, 7th, 29th 1,131 452[nb 1]
4th Mechanized Corps 8th, 32nd, 81st 979 414
8th Mechanized Corps 12th, 34th, 7th 899 171
15th Mechanized Corps 10th, 37th, 212th 749 136
3rd Mechanized Corps 2nd, 5th, 84th 672 110
7th Mechanized Corps 14th, 18th, 1st 959 103
16th Mechanized Corps 15th, 39th, 240th 478 76
2nd Mechanized Corps 11th, 16th, 15th 527 60
22nd Mechanized Corps 19th, 41st, 215th 712 31
11th Mechanized Corps 29th, 33rd, 204th 414 20
5th Mechanized Corps 13th, 17th, 109th 1,070 17
Total   8,590 1,590
German disposition of tanks on 22 June 1941[13]
German corps German divisions Total German tanks[nb 2] Tanks with 37 mm gun
(incl. Panzer 38(t) and Panzer III)
Tanks with 50 mm or larger gun
(incl. Panzer III and Panzer IV)
XXXXI Panzer Corps 1st, 6th 390 155 121
LVI Panzer Corps 8th 212 118 30
XXXIX. Armeekorps mot 7th, 20th 494 288 61
LVII Panzer Corps 12th, 19th 448 219 60
XXXXVII Panzer Corps 17th, 18th 420 99 187
XXXXVI Panzer Corps 10th 182 0 125
XXIV Panzer Corps 3rd, 4th 392 60 207
III Panzer Corps 13th, 14th 296 42 140
XXXXVIII Panzer Corps 11th, 16th 289 47 135
XIV Panzer Corps 9th 143 11 80
Any other unit of Army Group North, Centre, or South[13] 0 0 0
Total   3,266 1,039 1,146[13]

Among the mechanized corps (MC), four formations were especially well equipped. On the day of German invasion, about 70% of the total T-34 and KV tanks produced at that time were deployed in the 4th, 6th, 8th, and 15th MC. The 6th MC operated in the Białystok area, and all of the others in the Soviet Ukraine. All of their engagements with German tanks happened during or just before the Battle of Brody:[17]

  • The 15th MC destroyed 43 German tanks for the loss of 13 KVs, six T-34s and 32 BTs from 22 to 26 June 1941;[18]
  • The 8th MC lost up to 95% of its tanks in fierce fighting in the Dubno area between 26 June and 1 July 1941.[nb 3][19]

Tank-to-tank battles were rare at the beginning of Operation Barbarossa as the Germans did not seek them; they preferred to bypass the Soviet armour whenever possible. The two stand-out formations, the 4th and 6th MCs, lost almost all of their T-34 and KVs during movement, not from any German attack.[20][21] Both corps tried to assemble counterattacks against German infantry (not against panzers), but the counterattacks had no impact and were barely noticeable.[20][21] The same pertained to the 15th MC after 26 June.[17]

In the first two weeks of the invasion, the Soviet Union suffered the loss of most of its T-34s and KVs, as well as the loss of most of the older tanks:

  • By 12 July 1941, the 4th MC had 45 new vehicles out of the original 414.[20]
  • By 27 June, the 6th MC had ceased to exist, having lost all 450 new tanks.[21]
  • By 7 July, the 8th MC had 43 tanks (both old and new) out of an original 899.[19]
  • By 7 July, the 15th MC had 66 tanks (both old and new) out of an original 749.[19]

On one hand, these corps had, within weeks, lost most of their T-34s and KVs,[22] but on the other hand, German reports did not note such a massive elimination in combat.[citation needed] The number of non-combat losses was unprecedented.

German anti-tank capability[edit]

Sloped armor of T-34 model 1940

In the first weeks of the invasion, the main German anti-tank and tank weapon was the 3.7 cm Pak 36, the 5 cm KwK 38 and 5 cm KwK 39, as well as the short-barreled, howitzer-like German 7.5 cm KwK 37 gun. The new 5 cm Pak 38 had just begun to enter service in small numbers, with a maximum of two weapons per infantry regiment.[23]

German tank guns proved to be somewhat ineffective at greater range and within the lethal envelop of the F-34 tank gun, used by the T-34 and KV-1. Generally, the T-34 outclassed the existing Panzer III and short-barreled Panzer IV medium tanks.[24]

Attempts to destroy the T-34s and KVs concentrated on first immobilising them by firing at their tracks and then by tackling them with field artillery, anti-aircraft guns, or by blowing them up at close range by shaped charge grenades.

Sources of T-34 Losses to German Guns by Caliber (%)
June 1941-September 1942 [25]
2 cm KwK 30 3.7 cm KwK 36 5 cm KwK 38 5 cm KwK 39 7.5 cm KwK 37 8.8 cm Flak 18 10.5 cm Unknown
4.7 10 7.5 54.3 10.1 3.4 2.9 7.1

Impact on tank design worldwide[edit]

On 4th October 1941, the 4th Panzer Division, part of General Heinz Guderian's Panzer Group 2 suffered a severe setback at Mtsensk near Orel. Hence Guderain demanded an inquiry into the realities of tank warfare on the Eastern Front, suggesting that the quickest solution was to produce a direct copy of the T-34.[26]

A special Panzerkommision arrived on the Eastern Front on 20 November 1941[27] to assess the T-34.[28] The Weapons Department held that Germany would have difficulty copying the T-34 as Guderian had suggested, because of the quantity of steel alloy and diesel engines required. Hence a new German medium tank was proposed, incorporating three features of the T-34: a long overhanging gun, good off-road mobility from large tracks, and sloped glacis armour to give greater protection with a modest thickness of armour.[26]

Daimler-Benz and MAN were asked to develop a 30-tonne tank, the VK30.02 incorporating a new Rheinmetall turret. Hitler preferred the Daimler-Benz, but the Weapons Department preferred the MAN, which was more like earlier German tanks. Originally in 1938 a new 20-tonne tank VK20 had been proposed as the next German tank, but this now was clearly inadequate. In May 1942 MAN was contracted to produce pre-production prototypes, although the Panther tank did not enter production until 1943 and the Model D Panther with increased thickness of armour now weighed 44.8 tonnes. Their combat deployment in June 1943 for Operation Citadel was a debacle [29] The larger Tiger I heavy tank was also in use by this time.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ On June 1 there were 114 KVs, 238 T-34s, but another 100 T-34s were received by June 22, 1941.[15] The number is confirmed by the American author David M. Glantz.[16]
  2. ^ Total German tanks includes non-combat "commander tanks" as well as outdated Panzer I and Panzer IIs
  3. ^ The exact proportion of combat to non-combat losses is not known. See Battle of Brody (1941) for description. Solonin, pp. 261–262.

References[edit]

  1. ^ There were 967 T-34s and 508 KVs deployed: Erickson 1962/2001, p. 567.
  2. ^ Zaloga 1995, p. 9.
  3. ^ G.F. Krivosheev , et al, Soviet Casualties and Combat Losses in the Twentieth Century, Edited by Colonel General G.F. Krivosheev, Greenhill Books, London, 1997. p. 252, table 95.
  4. ^ Handel 1989, p. 137
  5. ^ a b Zaloga 1995, pp. 17–21
  6. ^ Finkel 2011, 138-150
  7. ^ Newton 2003, p. 13
  8. ^ Newton, 2003, pp. 21-25
  9. ^ Carrell 1964, pp. 23-24
  10. ^ Zaloga 1995, pp 18–19.
  11. ^ Newton, 2003, p. 33
  12. ^ Stolfi 1993, p. 165
  13. ^ a b c d e Solonin 2007, p. 528–529
  14. ^ Cross 1993, p. 66.
  15. ^ Solonin 2007, pp. 99–100
  16. ^ Glantz, David M (2010-12-30). Barbarossa Derailed: The Battle for Smolensk, 10 July-10 September 1941. p. 37. ISBN 9781906033729. 
  17. ^ a b Solonin, p. 379.
  18. ^ Solonin, pp. 310–315.
  19. ^ a b c Solonin, pp. 261–262.
  20. ^ a b c Solonin, p. 321.
  21. ^ a b c Solonin, p. 145.
  22. ^ Solonin, pp. 145, 261–262, 321.
  23. ^ Buell et al 2002, pp. 120,147–149
  24. ^ Forczyk 2007, p. 4
  25. ^ Zaloga, Armored Champion, The Top Tanks of World War II p. 123
  26. ^ a b Hart 2003, pp. 3,4.
  27. ^ Finkel, p. 147.
  28. ^ Doyle & Jentz 1997, p. 4
  29. ^ Hart 2003, pp. 6-13.
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  • Carrell, Paul (1964). Hitler Moves East. Boston: Little, Brown. OCLC 405998. 
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