The T-34 was the most produced tank of WWII, with over 84,000 rolling out of factory floors. It was also the best tank of WWII because of its superbly simple, powerful, and robust design. It was the most influential tank of the war because its presence in the battlefield in 1941 effectively made all German tanks produced up to then obsolete, and compelled the Germans to respond with new and heavier tank designs such as the Tiger and Panther, and to up-gun and up-armor the backbone of their tank fleet, the Panzer IV. That, in turn, forced changes and upgrades to the Soviet, American, and British tank fleets. Additionally, adoption of the heavier, highly engineered, and expensive Tigers and Panthers, overwhelmed Germany’s strained tank industry and severely limited the number of tanks available to the Wehrmacht. By war’s end, Germany had produced 16,300 Tigers, Panthers, and Panzer IVs – the tanks capable of taking on T-34s and Shermans. The US and USSR built 50,000 Shermans and 84,000 T-34s.
A German commission assessing captured T-34s in 1941 described it as the perfect medium tank because of its near-perfect blend of effective sloped armor that outmatched that of German tanks, firepower that greatly exceeded that of available panzers, wide tracks that readily traversed snow and mud that narrow tracked German tanks could not, and excellent power to weight ratio. The Germans designed the Panzer V Panther in response, emulating most of the T-34’s best characteristics such as sloped armor, wide tracks, and powerful gun, but failed to emulate its simplicity, with the result that only 6000 Panthers were manufactured, or one Panther for every fourteen T-34s.
When the Germans first encountered T-34s in 1941, the Soviet tanks proved superior in both armor and firepower to all German tanks. The only saving grace was that the Red Army in 1941, still reeling from Stalin’s military purges and in the midst of a major restructuring, was inept and riddled with incompetence, and so was unable to take advantage of its technical superiority in tanks. That changed after the Soviets learned from the Germans and bitter experience.
Soviet engineers had designed the T-34 with sloped armor because it afforded extra protection without adding extra weight. They gave it a simple engine that was easy to maintain, and because weight was kept to a minimum, it was able to propel the T-34 at 34 m.p.h. – impressive for a medium tank of the era. That speed allowed T-34s to rapidly exploit breakthroughs, and also gave them a tactical advantage, allowing them to quickly close the standoff distance with better gunned and heavier armored panzers such as the Tiger, and maneuver to fire at their vulnerable rears and flanks and from close enough to inflict damage.
T-34s were initially equipped with 76.2mm guns that could destroy any German tank when the Soviet Union entered the war. When newer panzers with thicker armor arrived at the front, the improved T-34/85 version was introduced, with an 85mm gun that could penetrate any German tank’s side and rear armor from a respectable distance, and even thick front armor from up close. And because they were simple to manufacture, T-34s could be produced in prodigious numbers: the Germans built approximately 1800 Tigers I and II, 6000 Panthers, and 8500 Panzer IVs during the war, or about 16,300 main battle tanks. The Soviets built over 84,000 T-34s.