Panzer III vs. T-34 (featuring Chieftain)

Panzer III vs. T-34 (featuring Chieftain)

September 21, 2019 0 By Peter Engel


Let’s compare two of the most important tanks of 1941,
the German Panzerkampfwagen III Ausführung H and the Soviet T-34 Model ’41. Now usually people look mainly at the raw data, aka the stats. This will be done here as well, yet very briefly, because I
think the more important aspect is to actually qualify or disqualify the stats based on a more thorough
and holistic look at the overall situation, while staying in the technical and tactical domain. So let’s look at the chosen criteria, namely firepower,
ergonomics and visibility, armour protection, mobility and communications.
These are influenced by various factors, for instance manufacturing quality
and the quality of production materials. Yet, unlike Zaloga, I don’t consider crew training
a factor, nor availability like Kavalerchik does, since I focus on the technical-tactical level.
As such, we look at the finished tank, additionally assuming that the tank is properly
maintained and has a standard ammunition load out. So no Panzergranate 40 …
As such let’s start with firepower. The Panzer III came with the short barreled
50mm gun, 5cm Kampfwagenkanone L/42, whereas the T-34 had the 76mm gun, F-34. We are looking at the penetration values
against armour plates at a 30 degree angle. And as you can see here, the F-34
has clearly better penetration values. Even at 1,500 metres the 76mm armour-piercing
shell has a higher penetration value than the Panzergranate 39 of the Panzer III at 100 metres. It is rather apparent that the Soviet gun
is far better in terms of penetration. Yet it also had a far better high explosive power than
the German 50mm gun, after all the 50mm shell was significantly smaller and lighter with around 2 kg,
whereas the 76mm shell had around 6 kg. Note this was the total weight,
not the high explosive charge. Of course, it should be added that the
Germans also had the Panzergranate 40, which was a high-velocity armour-piercing
projectile with a tungsten core. At 100 metres distance it had a higher penetration
than both the regular shell and that of the T-34, namely 94mm. Yet this was a
specialised shell that was rather rare: “As a result, supplies were modest, with most German tanks
receiving only about 5 rounds of this type in the summer of 1941.” As such I don’t considered it as a standard ammunition load out. Furthermore its penetration capabilities drop
sharply over distance. At a range of 500 metres they were down to 55mm. As such it has little influence
on our assessment. Yet firepower is not just about penetration values and high explosive
power in your shell, as Kavalerchik points out: “The firepower of tanks is determined by the ability
of the armament to destroy the designated targets. However, to start with, it needs to get a hit on the target,
and there much depends on the capabilities of the sights.” Here is one major issue. The optics of Soviet tanks
were of lower quality than the German ones, as such the probability to hit was lower. The German
tanks were equipped with telescopic sights with a magnification factor similar to that of the
Soviets. Yet the field of vision was 23.5 to 25 degrees with the Panzer III, where the T-34 had
only a field of vision of 14.5 degrees. “… which means that at the same range the
Soviet gunner saw through his sight about a
third of the area the German gunner could see.” This problem was further hampered by the fact that
the Soviet sight let only about 39% of the light through. As a result in good light conditions the
Soviets could engage at around 800 metres, whereas the Germans could engage at about
1,500 metres, although this was negligible [?], due to the limited penetration values and
common engagement ranges in summer 1941. Yet in low-light conditions, like fog, rain or snow,
the Germans had a distinctive advantage. This is also pointed out by Zaloga: “The optical quality of Soviet tank sights
was inferior to their German counterparts after key optics factories were evacuated
in 1941. A Soviet tank commander recalled, ‘We always recognised the high quality of the
Zeiss gun sights … We had nothing like that’.” Kavalerchik also notes that there were
issues with the brittleness of Soviet shells, but he only offers evidence
against the armour of the Tiger. Additionally reports from tankarchives
[tankarchives.blogspot.com] for firing against various Panzers was conducted did not show any issues. As
such I don’t think this was an issue in summer 1941. One factor that definitely decreased the T-34’s
firepower was that its actual rate of fire, accuracy, and aiming time was sub-optimal, as pointed out by a
letter to the People’s Commissar of the Armour Industry in March 1943, at which point
the T-34 was already mature: “One of the main design flaws of the T-34 tank,
which significantly reduces its combat power, is the low rate of fire, low speed of aiming,
and low accuracy of the tank’s fire.” So taking these aspects into account, the T-34 is the winner
in the firepower category, although not by a wide margin. It’s also important to point out that Kavalerchik
comes actually to a different assessment. “In short, the armament of the Soviet tanks
seemed impressive only on paper. In reality, its effectiveness left much to be desired.” This is due to the fact that he uses different criteria. And since one of these criteria is very
crucial for understanding Operation Barbarossa, I covered it in a separate video on my second
channel. So be sure to check it out there. Yet for now let’s move on to the next factor, namely
ergonomics, and thus it is time to let the man speak that actually has been inside both tanks and also a ton
of others. namely Nicholas Moran, aka The Chieftain. The Panzer III was a very good tank with its
flaws. I’m not gonna say it’s a perfect tank, I mean if you had to change your
transmission on it, God help you. But, I, in my 1.98 metre self, fit very nicely
in the Panzer III. I can operate a Panzer III no problem, any position, it’s very good for me. And
so of course the average German crewman of the time would have been very comfortable and very effective. Not so much for the T-34s. … The testing of the T-34, the optics came in
for a fair bit of slagging from the testing staff. They were not satisfied with the visibility that
came from the T-34 – from any position, from the driver, from the commander, from the gunner. The all-around sight had a 120 degree field of vision, which
is fantastic, if it wasn’t obstructed by a few other things. It did have the advantage that … there was a periscopic
sight, that you could ambush from hull down positions, but again, you have a couple of problems with
the crew overload and a lack of training. So the T-34 crews couldn’t properly use it. The Germans at least, well, they had a
cupola, so the TC could find the targets. although curiously the assault guns
did not have this problem. And they had pretty reasonable optics, good clarity and a
relatively wide field of vision from the optics that they had. So they could find the targets much faster,
they could … lay on the target much faster, and they could pump more rounds at the target. Ergonomics of the T-34 So there you have it now, your space has
been taken up by the suspension, your armour has taken up space, your optics aren’t what
they should be, your crew are completely overloaded. There are issues, of course, simply with operating the
vehicle as a driver, and the gearshift is famously bad. Especially the first few hundred vehicles
(although they started to fix that a little bit). God help the bow gunner who can’t see a thing, and has
no hatch of his own, so God help him if he has to bail out. Um, I think you can see where I’m starting to go here. The T-34 on paper was a fantastic vehicle and it
would eventually develop into a very good vehicle. 1940-41 though, it was nowhere near capable of
living up to what the paper statistics said it could. The German vehicle, well that was designed and
was as capable of what it was designed to do. Many of the issues mentioned by Chieftain were due to the
fact that the T-34 did not have a 3 man turret, unlike the Panzer III. As such the T-34 commander was occupied with duties
that did not involve spotting and commanding the tank, which further reduced the chances of spotting an enemy,
coordination effectiveness with the crew and other tanks. Additionally a lack of proper vision
devices was hard to circumvent, since: “… the T-34 tanks poor hatch design prevented tank commanders
from riding with their heads outside of the tanks.” As such the Germans soon adapted: “In the summer
of 1941 a German instruction pamphlet on ways to counter Soviet tanks recommended firing at them
with ordinary machine guns, starting at a range of 800 metres, in order ‘to force the tank to close hatches’.”
Well so much for taking a glance out of a T-34. And so in terms of ergonomics and
visibility the Panzer III is the clear winner, which means the overall combat effectiveness of
the T-34 was severely reduced in many other aspects. As Chieftain pointed out, one of the reasons for the
limited crew comfort was the sloped armour of the T-34. So let’s look at the armour protection next. This means looking at the armour plates and the angle,
since the angle determines the effective thickness. Note that sloped armour also increases the
chances of the shot to bounce [deflect] as well. If you want to learn more about armour protection
in general, be sure to check out my video on it. And for now let’s hop back to our tanks. And
here you can see the armour plate strength and the effective thickness of the Panzerkampfwagen
III Ausführung H and the T-34 Model for 1941. As you can clearly see, the T-34’s armour was
in many aspects superior to the Panzer III. Zaloga notes: “The T-34 represented a revolutionary
step forward in medium tank design. Its armour was unusually effective for a medium tank,
although about the same thickness as the latest Panzerkampfwagen IV Ausf F, the
severe sloping of the armour doubled its protective effectiveness without the
corresponding increase in vehicle weight.” Although Chieftain makes the very good point that
sloped armour was actually not that revolutionary. The armour, I’ve mentioned the sloped armour on the
T-34, and this is universally hailed as a revolutionary, or a good thing. But there’s nothing revolutionary
about it. Sloped armour goes back to World War One, you look at an FT, it’s sloped, you look at a
German A7V from World War One, it’s sloped. It’s not as if the Germans didn’t understand sloped
armour, and then the Soviets had this epiphany of sloped armour. Your problem is volumetric.
When you slope the armour inwards, you are stealing room from inside the tank. Room that
can be used for stowing ammunition, room that can be used for stowing crewmen, room that can be used for
giving crewmen a little bit of elbow room to operate efficiently. And even the Soviets realised eventually it was just a
stupid idea, look the successor to the T-34 is the T-44. Yet this is not the full part of the story, the quality of
steel, the welding, and other manufacturing aspects affected the strength of the armour plates. For instance,
Germany used mainly rolled armour for hulls and turrets. “In general, rolled armor is about 15% better in resistance
to shock and penetration than cast armour. However, this advantage is offset to some extent by varying angles
of obliquity and irregular shapes possible in castings.” The problem was that the Soviets for quite some time used
steel that was not ideal for casting the turrets of the T-34. Another aspect was that the armour plates and the
manufacturing quality of the T-34 was often lacklustre. The full strength penetration welding used was different from the
German approach, and could severely [reduce] the quality of the armour. “In the process, because of overheating the
armour around the weld joints and burning-out of the carbon and alloy elements in it, the
strength of the armour fell by two to four times. As a result, 37mm armour-piercing shells
could penetrate the frontal hull of the early T-34 in the vicinity of the nose crossbeam and in
other places where welded parts came together.” Sometimes the welding could also
lead to cracks within the armour. “However, perhaps the main reason for the cracks was
the low quality of the armour. The point is that the USSR at the time did not have enough precise instruments
to control the temperature and chemical composition of the metal in the furnaces, and thus
the smelting was frequently a matter of guesswork.” Although generally the T-34 could
not be penetrated by [37]mm shell, it was clearly not immune to
those shells, as often claimed. This is validated by Soviet statistics from June 1941
to September 1942 on the losses of the T-34s: “4.7% of them were knocked out by
20mm shells, 10% by 37mm shells, 61.8% by 50mm shells, 10.1% by 75mm shells,
3.4% by 88mm shells, and 2.9% by 105mm shells. The calibre of the shells that knocked out the
remaining 7.1% of these tanks could not be identified.” As always statistics can be a bit tricky. Note that the 20mm
shells were actually 50mm shots with a tungsten core that had a diameter of 20mm, as
Peter from tankarchives informed me. Additionally it is quite interesting that the famous
88mm flak only counted for less than 4% of the losses. Anyway, let’s conclude on this information. In terms of armour protection the T-34 was superior
to the Panzer III, although effectiveness of the T-34’s armour was negatively affected by
manufacturing techniques and material quality. In all this seemed to have only have a limited impact. Still, around 10% were knocked out by [37]mm
guns, yet likely under special circumstances. This becomes more apparent if we consider
that the German army in June 1941 has a total of 15,700 pieces of 37mm guns, and only 2,100 pieces of 50mm guns as
anti-tank guns or mounted in tanks. This also illustrates the effectiveness
of the 50mm guns at killing the T-34s. Especially since around 50% of the 50mm
guns in 1941 were mounted in Panzer IIIs. Well, but don’t let’s get too far off
track here since Heinz Guderian, who is seen by some as the father of
the Panzerwaffe, famously noted: “The engine of the Panzer is his weapon just as the main gun.” As such, let’s look at the mobility
ratings of our two beauties next. Although the Panzer III had only a weight of 21.5
tons, it had weaker numbers in all other regards. Its max speed was just 40 km/hour
in comparison to 55 of the T-34. Also it had a higher ground pressure by 0.2 kg/cm2, and the horsepower per ton ratio was
around 14 against the almost 18 by the T-34. Yet again, there are other elements that reduce
the gap between the two. The T-34 had issues with air filter and cooling systems which
limited its capabilities in summer time: “For example in 1941 to 1943, when the air
temperature was above 25 degrees Celsius, the T-34’s engine would overheat after 12 minutes running
at 400 horsepower. In these conditions it could continually generate only 315 horsepower,
which limited the tank’s speed to 30 km/hour.” Although the same author noted earlier that experience had
shown that a tank in combat rarely reached its top speed, it still effects the overall performance of the T-34. What was more of an issue for
the T-34 was its Christie suspension. Although it offered many benefits like additional
protection due to the large wheels, increased service life, and reduced the resistance, it
took up more space inside the tank. And one of the main problems
was the lack of shock absorbers. This was in stark contrast to the Panzer III
which had one of the best suspensions at the time (based on a torsion bar system – which is still
used today, unlike the Christie suspension). Yet the overall effect of this was limited since the cross-country performance, especially in mud and snow, of the T-34 was clearly superior, although the
Panzer III clearly offered a more convenient ride, overall it had weaker values than T-34 here. Yet the determining factor that makes the T-34 a
clear winner here is its cross-country performance. Because so far even communists were unable
to make Soviet Russia run out of mud and snow. So let’s move to the last factor, namely communications.
This is a crucial element since war is a team effort, especially with tanks, since tank crew members are very
dependent on each other. As noted in a German Field Manual: “Every man of the crew must have the clear
awareness that mistakes and omissions by the individual may result in the loss
of the tank and the entire crew.” Additionally tanks need to support each other as well,
as explained in a previous video on German Panzer tactics. As such on-board communications and communication
with other tanks is paramount for combat effectiveness of the individual tank and tank units.
So let’s take a look at the basic data. For communications between tanks the
Red Army used the 71-TK-3 radio set. The theoretical range stationary was
around 25km, and 15 to 18km in motion, depending on the source. The intercom system of
the T-34 was limited to the commander and driver. Meanwhile the Panzer III had the Fu 2 and Fu 5,
with a range in motion of around 2 to 3km with voice. The Panzer’s intercom system connected
the commander, driver and radio man. In 1941 the system was improved
to include the gunner as well, but I found no information if this conversion
was completed before Barbarossa. But in theory the Soviet radio system clearly
seems better, yet there were many problems with it. One of [them] was that it was only available in
limited numbers. Only 1 in 4 T-34s had a radio installed, the other tanks had to use flags
and flares to communicate. This was in contrast to the German Panzers that usually
had at least a receiver, thus be able to receive orders, whereas platoon commanders and upwards
were equipped with two-way communications. Furthermore the Soviet radio sets had various
shortcomings and did not perform to specifications: “For example the 71-TK-3 radio set … although
theoretically having a range on the move of ‘up to 15 km’ in practice at a range on the move of ‘about
6 km’, and was according to one tanker ‘a complex, unreliable radio set. Very often it failed,
and it was very difficult to get it working again’.” One issue was that the frequency
drifted and needed regular tuning. In October 1941 the Soviets conducted tests
of the German radio set and concluded: “Judging by all basic characteristics, the radio set of the
German tank is superior to that installed in the domestic tank. I consider it useful to conduct the design and development
of a new type of tank radio on the basis of the available German models.” The issue with the intercom system of the
Soviet tanks was similar, it barely worked. As such the commander and driver used to run
a personal way to communicate with each other, which sounds a bit more
romantic than it actually was: “According to the recollections of a
driver-mechanic who served in one: ‘Communications were handled by feet, which
is to say I had the boots of the tank commander resting on my shoulders; he would
push my left or right shoulder, which let me know whether to turn left or right
and if he wanted to stop, he’d tap my head.” As such in the communications department
the Panzer III is the clear winner. So let’s conclude. Taking the pure stats of the
T-34 it was clearly the superior tank on paper. But one doesn’t fight on a piece of
paper, one fights on the battlefield. Taking into account the various deviations
from the design characteristics in minor, yet crucial, details like the performance
of optics, the effect of ergonomics, the often stated major gap between the
Panzer III and T-34 gets smaller in many aspects. This also explains to a certain degree
why the impact of the T-34 was limited, even though the number of T-34s in
summer 1941 was not particularly low. After all, the Soviet Union had around 1,337
T-34s in mechanised corps, and in total almost 1,400 T-34s were present during the time of the
invasion, although almost 400 of these were in factories. Whereas the Wehrmacht committed
976 Panzer IIIs to the Ostfront, of which some were still equipped
with the far weaker 37mm gun. The limited impact of the T-34 during this time goes
beyond the technical-tactical aspect covered in this video. Many of these factors were like differences in crew
training, doctrine, tactics, and close air support. And many other aspects in which the
Wehrmacht had a clear edge in summer 1941. Yet from the various reports it is also apparent
that the T-34 could deliver tactical shock to the Panzerwaffe several times,
which are often cited for dramatic effect. Yet in overall the T-34 could be defeated quite regularly,
and thus had a limited impact on the operational level. This was also due to the lack of spare
parts, ammunition, and other elements that reduced the effectiveness
and operational status of the T-34. [On] the strategic side it should be added that
the T-34 was optimised for mass production, which sometimes resulted in less favourable
technical solutions and reduced manufacturing quality. Additionally many improvements to its design
were harder to do at the start of the war since the Soviet Union opted for
producing the T-34 with its known flaws instead of switching to the T-34M
design as originally planned. The loss of important factories and machinery
likely affected this decision as well. Anyway, let me know in the comment
section or on Patreon what you think. Big thank you here to Chieftain, be sure to check
out Chieftain’s video and his channel as well. Additional thanks to Peter from tankarchives
and Max Ravenclaw for helping me with data. Special thanks to Wolfgang, Jack, Malte and Matthew
for sending me books that made this video possible. And of course, thank you to all my Patreons for keeping
this channel going, remember every single dollar helps. Sources are in the description.
Thank you for watching and see you next time.