Battle of Kursk. Soviet tanks T-34 with machine-gunners' support.



The prophecies, that the Second World War would be a "war of motors" came true in the battlefields of East Europe - tanks played there a major role. German Panzer and Soviet tanki rivalled there since the first salvos on the Bug and Neman till the last ones on the Spree and Elbe. The Wehrmacht's large armoured groups, whose deep thrusts used to cut the defence and create "pockets" with substantial forces encircled inside, dominated the initial stages of the Germano-Soviet war. However, the first battles on the eastern front already demonstrated, that German tanks of old types hardly could make a match to Soviet light tanks at close quarters, and the newer medium tanks were not able to stand a direct confrontation with the Soviet medium and heavy tanks. The tables below present combat and technical data of the tanks used on the Eastern front in 1941-1942.

The tables include only the machines built in big series. Apart from them the Germans also produced small series of vehicles based on Pz.Kpfw.T-III and T-IV types, and the Russians also possessed a number of older or experimental light tanks T-37, T-38, T-40 and T-80, as well as heavy tanks T-28 and T-35. The Germans did not possess heavy tanks, and the Russians had produced a limited quantity of heavy tanks KV-1 and KV-2. About 2400 tanks KV-1 were build in the USSR in 1939-1942. With the weight of 43.5t and armour thickness 30-95 mm it was the biggest contemporary heavy tank in the world.

light
tanks
production
years
quantity weight
[t]
crew armour
[mm]
engine
[hp]
speed
[kmph]
range
[km]
gun
[mm]
machine
guns
Germany
T-I 1934-1939 2,500 6 2 6-13 110 37 145 -
2
T-II 1935-1943 1,835 9 2 5-35 140 60 150 20 1
USSR
BT-5
BT-7
1931-1941 10,000 11.5
14.6
3 6-22 50 52
72
150
600
45
76.2
2
4
T-26 1931-1941 12,000 8-10.5 3 6-25 90 30 140-230 37 or 45 1 or 2
T-60 1941-1942 5,500 5.8-6.8 2 7-20 70 44 450 20 1
T-70 1942-1943 8,000 9.2-9.8 2 10-60 140 45 360 45 1

medium
tanks
production
years
quantity weight
[t]
crew armour
[mm]
engine
[hp]
speed
[kmph]
range
[km]
gun
[mm]
machine
guns
Germany
T-III 1936-1941 4,363 21.5 5 10-60 320 55 180 37 2
T-IV 1940-1942 1,149 23 5 10-60 320 55 200 75 2
USSR
T-34 1940-1942 9,400 26.5 4 20-52 500 55 400 76.2 2

Tanks' combat capabilities were very soon verified in the battlefields. Older models did not stand the test: Soviet tanks BT-5, BT-7 and T-26, which could successfully fight in the Spanish civil war or against the Japanese, proved armed and armoured too lightly for the new German medium tanks. The same applies to the German tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-I and T-II: the former armed only with two machine-guns, and the latter having a 20mm light gun, were not a match to the Soviet medium and heavy tanks. Newer German tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-III and T-IV also were armed inadequately. So in the former the 37mm gun was replaced by a 50mm one, and the latter's 75mm short-barrelled gun was replaced by a long-barrelled gun of the same calibre and higher muzzle velocity. Yet those changes decreased the speed and agility of both vehicles. German tankers demanded new, heavier equipment. They feared of new Soviet tanks KV-1, and especially of T-34. Both tanks were developed in 1939-1941 and were completely different from whatever was built before. They had more powerful engines, thicker armour plating, better agility and bigger firepower. Older tanks, like BT-5 or T-26, were developed in the times, when no army possessed specialized anti-tank artillery; their armour was designed to protect the crewmen of bullets and shrapnel. The answer to the development of the anti-tank artillery in the second half of 1930s was the increase of the armour thickness. This would inevitably lead to the increase of the vehicles' mass and decrease of their speed. The Russians avoided this trap by installing in their tanks, first time in the world, aluminium Diesel engines. Those engines were powerful enough (500-600 hp) to provide a fair speed and range to the Soviet tanks, and simultaneously to decrease their vulnerability to the anti-tank fire. Wide caterpillar tracks secured minimal surface pressure (700-800 G/sq.cm), thanks to which those relatively heavy tanks retained an outstanding capability to surmount obstacles, especially water, sand and marshes. A German tank commander, General Friedrich Wilhelm von Mellenthin, wrote:

I come now to the tank arm, which began the war with the great advantage of possessing in the T.34 a model far superior to any tank on the German side. In 1942 their heavy Klim Voroshilov tanks were not to be despised; they then produced an improved model of the T.34 (...)

The Russian tank designers understand their job thoroughly: they cut out refinements and concentrated on essentials - gun power, armour and cross-country performance. During the war their system of suspension was well in advance of Germany and the West. (...)

A second factor was the very high quality of the Russian tanks. In 1941 we had nothing comparable with the T.34, with its 50-mm maximum armour, 76-mm high-velocity gun, and relatively high speed with splendid cross-country performance. [Mellenthin F. W. von (1956).]

The shape of the T-34's hull and turret was particularly felicitous: optimal sloping of the armour plates provided additional protection to all the vulnerable areas. It was highly estimated by one of the Wehrmacht's tank industry specialists, General Erich Schneider:

The T-34 tank had caused a real sensation. This 26-ton machine was fitted with the 76.2mm gun, whose shells used to pierce armour plates of the German tanks at 1.5-2 thousand metres' distance. Whereas our tanks' shells would simply bounce from the Russian tanks' armour plates. Our tanks could hit them from a distance no bigger than 500m, and only at side or rear quarters. [Caidin M. (1980).]

T-34
gained even more of highest appraisals from the German tank commanders. General Heinz Guderian described it as very worrying. Our defensive weapons, when available, were only effective against the T-34 when the situation was unusually advantageous. (...) Up to this time we enjoyed tank superiority, but from now on the situation was reversed. The prospect of fast, rapid victories was fading in consequence. [Guderian H. (2001).] A figure as important as Field Marshal Ewald von Kleist admitted, that T-34 was the finest tank in the world, and Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt called it the best in the world. This tank adversely affected the morale of the German infantry, added with bitterness General Günther Blumentritt. [Liddell Hart Sir B. H. (1968).] A veteran tank commander of the British army, and a respectable authority in tank warfare, Douglas Orgill, takes a careful note of the ultimate distinction in T-34's design, which

succeeded, in its day, in solving the basic equation which should be written in gold above every tank designer's desk: The effectiveness of the weapon is directly equal to its ability to get itself properly into position to deal decisive blows without being harmed by the blows it is itself receiving. (...)

The T-34 was the production not of inspirational genius but of robust common sense. It owed its existence to men who could envisage a mid-century battlefield more clearly than anyone in the West, except for a handful of theorists, had been able to do. The work which the Koshkin design team carried out at the Kharkov locomotive works in 1939 was to change the history of the war, and thus of Europe and the world. [Orgill D. (1970).]

The heavy tank KV-1 was less successful. A famous Soviet tank commander, Marshal Mikhail Katukov, noted in his memoirs the conversation with Joseph Stalin he had in summer 1942:

Stalin asked me:
- What do you think, do we have good tanks or not? Tell me the truth, without flattery.
I answered, that the T-34 tanks had stood the baptism of fire, and that we put a lot of hopes in them. Whereas the troops did not like either the heavy tanks KV or the light tanks T-60 and T-70.
Stalin frowned inquiringly.
- How come? - he asked after a pause.
- KV's, comrade Stalin, are very heavy, immobile, and that means - immanoeuverable. They surmount obstacles with difficulties, while to the T-34's all that is nothing. Moreover, KV's break bridges, and generally they cause a lot of unnecessary troubles. And they are fitted with the same 76mm gun as T-34's. Hence a question, what kind of combat superiority a heavy tank can bring us? If KV's gun were bigger, one could reconcile with its weight and other construction flaws. [Катуков М. Е. (1974).]

The valours of the new Soviet tanks could not, unfortunately, secure the superiority of the Soviet armoured troops over the German ones in the first year of the war, since the Red Army possessed way too few of them. By the outbreak of the war on 22 June 1941 only 634 KV's and 1225 T-34's left production facilities. Later some factories had to be moved to the Urals. Two large factories - the Kirov Works from Leningrad (Petersburg), and the Kharkov Tractor Works - together with the Chelabinsk Tractor Works made one gigantic tank production facility - so-called Tankograd or the Tank City. In 1942 the Soviet industry produced 24,668 tanks of all the types (in this 50% were T-34's), while the German one - only 9,300 tanks. This created a realistic chance to obliterate the German superiority in armoured forces on the eastern front yet before the battle of Stalingrad.

The obliteration of the German superiority in number of tanks was the more dramatic to the hitlerite tankers, because now they experienced the technical superiority of T-34's and KV's even more. German tanks constructors yet in 1941 were ordered to intensify their works on the German heavy tank conducted since 1937. Eventually, in the autumn 1942 during the fights near Leningrad first four German heavy tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-VI Tiger made their appearance. And in January 1943 Erich von Manstein's grouping, fighting to break through to the 6th Army encircled in Stalingrad, had a unit comprised of 11 Tiger tanks. Altogether in 1942 two companies - Henschel and Porsche - produced 83 Tigers, and by July 1943, it means before the commencement of the operation Citadel, they produced another 264 vehicles. Ninety Tigers produced by the Porsche factories, and attached to Walther Model's 9th Army, did not possess machine-guns, and proved helpless in fights with infantry. In the beginning of 1943 also started production of the medium tanks Pz.Kpfw.T-V Panther, which were expected to become the top model of the armoured vehicles. However, attempts to arm them with the same 88mm gun as in Tigers failed and eventually they were fitted with the 75mm long-barrelled gun with improved muzzle velocity.

Appearance of the new German tanks, especially Tigers, on the battlefields had created a new situation. Soviet constructors of the guns and ammunition intensified works on the equipment capable to pierce the 100mm armour plates. The 76mm anti-tank gun, since 1942 produced in big quantities, became the standard anti-tank divisional device. On regimental and battalion levels obsolete 37mm and 45mm anti-tank guns were gradually replaced by newer 57mm ones. In 1943 started production of two new types of anti-tank projectiles - the cumulative (hollow-charge) and capped (core) shells. The former were burning the armour through, while "glued" to it with their mantles made of soft-metal alloys; the latter were piercing the armour with their cores made of hardened steel alloys. Both of them were effective only when hit the armour at certain specific angles. Before the battle of Kursk only few of those shells per gun were delivered to the troops by air.

The 76mm anti-tank gun was also the first one used to produce self-propelled gun-carriers SU-76. Tankers originally did not like gun-carriers and used to call them "crippled tanks". Yet they possessed a significant advantage over tanks - heavy guns could be installed in them without major troubles. The battle of Kursk saw heavy Soviet gun-carriers built on the chassis of KV tanks - 122mm howitzer SU-122 and 152mm gun-howitzer SU-152. Shells of those calibres could pierce without trouble even the Tigers' front armour plates, and their own armour let them closely approach enemy vehicles. Experience in use of gun-carriers during the battle on the Kursk Salient proved their efficiency, their mass production followed, and soon battlefields saw more Soviet medium and heavy gun-carriers.

Still the most important task was to restore the Soviet tanks' superiority in armour and gun-fire. The Russians' answer to the Tigers and Panthers was the reconstruction of the medium tank T-34 and the heavy tank KV-1, which essentially fitted them with the bigger 85mm gun. The T-34/85 not only successfully past the construction modifications, but even had improved its thereto capabilities. Its mass had actually increased to 32 tons and the crew had increased to 5 men, but it did not affect either its speed or agility. Only its range decreased from 400 to 300 km. KV-85 failed to make significant improvements, however in 1943 the works on the new Soviet heavy tank Iosif Stalin were completed. This tank, marked IS-2, was produced in 5000 pieces. The massive Stalin tank, wrote General Mellenthin, gave our Tigers plenty of trouble. [Mellenthin F. W. von (1956).] Indeed, the new Soviet heavy tank with its 122mm gun was clearly superior to the Tigers. So were the gun-carriers built on its chassis - ISU-122 and ISU-152. For their capabilities to fight Tigers and Panthers Soviet tankers nicknamed them zvereboi (beast hunters), while the Germans nicknamed them Dosenöffner (can-openers) for the effects of their fire; one hit from 122 or 152 mm shell was able to knock the Tiger's turret off.

Further improvements in Tigers' construction brought its 68-ton version called Königstiger (King Tiger), whose front armour plates were 180mm-thick, and side plates - 100mm-thick. However, soon after King Tigers appeared on the battlefields in August 1944, the Russians developed their answers to it: the new heavy tank IS-3 with the front armour plates 230mm thick and the extraordinarily well designed, wedge-shaped hull, as well as the gun-carrier SU-100 fitted with the 100mm naval canon. The ultimate attempt to restore the superiority of the German armoured technics had to become the 160-ton heavy tank Maus, whose armoured plates ranged from 180 to 240 mm. It was fitted with 128mm canon, and 75mm registration gun. However the German industry managed to produce only three such tanks. Their speed did not exceed 12-15 km/h, and the colossal weight ruled out surmounting obstacles or riding across the bridges. One of them was used as an immobile bunker to reinforce the defence of the Reich's Chancellery in Berlin, another one was assigned to the same duty at the Wehrmacht's headquarters in Zossen, and the third one was captured in a tank range near Potsdam. The following table contains comparison of technical data for the German and Soviet tanks built in 1943-1945:

medium
tanks
production
years
quantity weight
[t]
crew armour
[mm]
engine
[hp]
speed
[kmph]
range
[km]
gun
[mm]
machine
guns
Germany
Panther 1943-1945 5,814 43-45.4 5 15-120 700 46 170-180 75 2
USSR
T-34/85 1943-1945 24,000 32 5 20-90 500 50 300 85 2

heavy
tanks
production
years
quantity weight
[t]
crew armour
[mm]
engine
[hp]
speed
[kmph]
range
[km]
gun
[mm]
machine
guns
Germany
Tiger 1942-1944 1,348 56-56.9 5 26-110 650-700 37 100 88 2
Königstiger 1944-1945 489 68 5 25-185 700 40 170 88 2
USSR
IS-2 1943-1945 5,000 46 4 20-160 520 37 240 122 2
IS-3 1944-1945 ? 48.5 4 30-230 520 40 185 122 3

gun-carriers production
years
quantity weight
[t]
crew armour
[mm]
engine
[hp]
speed
[kmph]
range
[km]
gun
[mm]
machine
guns
Germany
Elefant
(Ferdinand)
1942-1943 90 68
71
6 80-200 640 20 130 88
1
Jagdpanther 1944-1945 382 46 5 40-80 700 46 150-210 88 1
Jagdtiger 1944-1945 79 70-75.2 6 30-250 700 35-38 170 128 2
USSR
SU-85 1943-1944 2,100 29.6 4 20-75 500 50 300-400 85 1
SU-122 1942-1943 1,500 31 5 20-75 500 55 300 122 1
SU-152 1943 700 45.5 5 22-75 600 48 300-330 152 1
ISU-122
ISU-152
1943-1945 3,700 46 5 20-90 520 37
35
220 122
152
1

The quantity and quality of the armoured vehicles do not constitute the ultimate factor of success in the battlefields. It is a well-known fact, that the German armoured troops, less numerous and supplied with equipment of comparable quality, played the decisive role in the French campaign of 1940. The French and the British did not exploit their superiority in tanks (4,800 against 2,500 German tanks). In this case the ultimate success factor was the organization and tactics of the armoured troops of both sides. Organization and tactics of the armoured troops was one of the most critical strategic and operational questions of the Second World War. The basic German armoured unit was a division, which possessed in 1939 - 196 tanks, in 1940 - 258 tanks, and in 1941 - 324 tanks. Armoured and motorized divisions comprised corps, and corps comprised armoured groups. Four armoured groups were organized for the war against the Soviet Union; later they were transformed into tank armies.

In the Soviet Union in 1941 armoured divisions possessed 375 tanks, in this 63 KV's, 210 T-34's, and 102 T-26's and BT's. Motorized divisions had 275 light tanks only. Therefore each mechanized corps formed in 1940-1941 theoretically had 36,000 soldiers and 1031 tanks. However the heavy industry was not able to provide 29 mechanized corps with such a quantity of tanks within such a short period of time. The loss of most of the tanks in 1941 forced the Soviet command to revise the structure of their armoured forces. The corps-division structure was abandoned in favour of independent armoured brigades (43-46 tanks), regiments (39 tanks) and even battalions (29-36 tanks). In the spring 1942 newly created Soviet armoured corps (11 on the front and 14 in reserve) comprised three armoured brigades, one motorized infantry brigade, one rocket thrower squad, one reconnaissance battalion and supporting units - altogether 5,600 men and 168 tanks (T-34,T-60, T-70), as well as 32 anti-tank guns, 44 mortars, 8 rocket throwers M-13 or M-30 and 20 anti-aircraft 37mm guns. This structure stood the test, and with minor changes survived till the end of the war. On the other hand the idea of mixed tank regiments (heavy, medium and light), as well as mixed tank armies, did not prove efficient.

On 26 May 1942 started formation of two new tank armies (3rd and 5th), and in July further two (1st and 4th) armies were formed. Their task was independent breakthrough through the enemy defence and creation of the basis to develop the breakthrough in the enemy rear. First tank armies comprised two armoured corps, one independent armoured brigade, one infantry division, light artillery regiment, one rocket thrower regiment and one anti-aircraft artillery squad. Further development of this structure was planned, including reinforcement by aircraft units. Those tank armies did not achieve expected goals, and therefore in the spring 1943 the new tank armies' organization structure and tactics were adopted. Now each tank army comprised two armoured corps, one mechanized corps, eight artillery regiments and other units. They were kept at the disposal of the Supreme Command Reserve, and depending of the needs were attached to individual fronts to develop advance and pursuit into the enemy defence positions. The new tank armies' structure provided from 500 to 800 tanks, was positively verified in the battle on the Kursk Salient, and was retained without major changes till the end of the war.

Unlike the Soviet ones, the German tank armies, after the losses sustained on the Eastern front, remained "armoured" only by name. Thus in December 1943 the 3rd Armoured Army from the Army Group Centre, comprised three infantry corps and only one armoured group created of the remains of the 20th Armoured Division. Other units were an armoured grenadier division, infantry divisions, police divisions and field air divisions. The strongest yet armoured armies - the 1st and the 4th from the Army Group South - still had one or two armoured corps, very often "armoured" by name too. For example the XXIV Armoured Corps did not possess any armoured division. This was the price German armoured troops paid for the operation Citadel. General Mellenthin admitted it writing, that our panzer divisions - in such splendid shape at the beginning of the battle - had been bled white. [Mellenthin F. W. von (1956).] Experiences gained during the battle of Kursk in engagement of huge masses of tanks to break the German attack and counter-offensive, were later well utilised by the Soviet tank commanders in gigantic offensive operations of 1943-1945. The commanders of the six Soviet tank armies - 1st (Marshal Katukov), 2nd (General Alexei Rodin, Marshal Semyon Bogdanov), 3rd (Marshal Pavel Rybalko), 4th (General Vasiliy Badanov, General Dmitriy Lelushenko), 5th (Marshal Pavel Rotmistrov, General Vasiliy Volskiy), and 6th (General Andrei Kravchenko) - as well as many other commanders of armoured and mechanized corps contributed with distinction to the victory in the Second World War and became respected experts in the field of armoured warfare.