A comparison between the T-34 and the Panther.
Internally Assessed Work
Candidate number 0688-009
Vasa Övningsskola 0688
Session May 2001
Tanks appeared for the first time in the end of the First World War. However, they didn’t have any bigger effect on the result of the war. In the Second World War the tanks played a very essential role. Together with the infantry they formed the backbone of the armies. Among the various models and types of tanks there were two above others. Namely, the Soviet made T-34 and the German Panther. The names, T-34 and Panther represent all the different modifications. Of the T-34, more precisely T-34/76, there were at least the following types: 1940, 1941, 1941/1942, 1942, 1943 and T-34/85. The Panther had three used types: Ausf. D, Ausf. A and Ausf. G. These tanks were the most famous and, according to many specialists, also the best tank designs of the whole war. Thus, my research question is: “What was the best tank of the Second World War – the T-34 or the Panther?”. Answering this debated question might be very hard because it must be studied from many viewpoints. It isn’t enough to compare the tanks’ performance on the battle field but also their production and technical details are important. I have tried to use a great variety of source so that I have been able to check the presented facts from different sources. Besides the literal sources and the Internet, I have built a scale model of the both tanks. I have used Tamiya’s kits for the both tanks in the scale 1/35, as Tamiya is regarded as the best manufacturer in its price class. Building of the tanks took over two months. There are pictures of them in the Appendix section. The scale models were built to be able to picture the tanks as well as possible. For example, photographs do not show the clear difference in the sizes of these tanks. Of course this can be seen from the technical data, but the models show the difference much better. Also crew members were built for the tanks to show the magnificent size of the tanks by comparing them to a human. Both tanks are painted according to a model that was in use on the Eastern front. In this essay I will in every part first put the focus on the T-34 as it was designed earlier. Then I’ll continue with the Panther and make comparisons between the tanks.
1) By angling the armour the linear thickness of the armour plate was increased and thus it gave more protection.
2) The enemy fire bounced easily of the angled plates.
3) The armour plates didn’t have to be so thick.
By having thinner armour plates the weight of the tank, often a problem, could be kept smaller. Due to a lighter weight the mobility of the T-34 was very good. The relatively light weight proved to be very useful also due to the hard Russian climate. Russians had also found out that the petrol engines of the tanks caught easily fire from enemy’s firing. Thus a 500 hp diesel engine was designed for T-34. A powerful engine together with a light weight, 28 to 30,9 tons, resulted in having a power-to-weight ratio of 17,5 to 19 hp/ton. In the German PzKpw IV, the main opponent of the T-34, the ratio was 13,6 hp/ton and in the American M3A3 only 7,6 hp/ton. The T-34 was also the first tank having large road wheels. They enabled a steady ride and thus higher speeds could be achieved on rough terrains. The T-34 was first equipped with the L-11 gun and in a very early stage it was replaced with the powerful 76,2 mm F-34 gun which had a good anti-armour performance. During the war the T-34 was developed according to experiences at the front line. The armour protection, the turret, the engine were modified. The T-34 became eventually also a very reliable tank. In 1943 the T-34/76 was turned into T-34/85 to increase fire power. Some of the T-34 tanks were equipped with flame throwers. The design was also used in the SU-series’ tanks and widely after the war.
The Panther wasn’t an as revolutionary appearance in the history of tank design as the T-34. The design work for the Panther didn’t start until 1941 after the German forces met the T-34 during the operation “Barbarossa”. The T-34 was inferior against the German armoured forces so a new medium tank was needed in the German forces. By examining the captured T-34s the Germans found that their tanks lacked the following:
1) Angled armour plates.
2) Large road wheels
3) An overhanging and effective gun.
The design work proceeded fast and in 1942 the first Panther was ready. It differed in many ways from the T-34. This happened due to ideological and practical reasons. The weight of the Panther was 43 tons even if it was planned to be only 35 tons. During the development work the weight went up to 45,5 tons. Why was it so much heavier, over 13 tons, then the T-34 even if it was supposed to be more or less a copy of it? The Germans used a much thicker armour. The thickest plates could be 100 mm where as in the T-34 the Russians relied on 45 mm. Also the crew size differed. The T-34 had room for 4 crew members where as the Panther had, due to a German tradition in tank design, a 5 men crew. The Germans favoured 5 men crews because then the leader of the tank could solely concentrate on commanding where as in the T-34 the commander had to also work with the gun. This resulted in the Panther being of bigger size. This affected the mobility of the tank. The large road wheels and a good suspension system enabled a smooth ride on rough terrains but together with the big size the high weight resulted in problems. Through its whole history the Panther suffered of engine fires, as the high weight put a heavy load on the 700 hp Maybach engine and the Zahnfabrik AK-7-200 transmission. Various exhaust and cooling systems were designed to help with the heat problem. The Panther was of so big size and mass that even if it had 660 mm wide tracks, it sunk 20 cm into the ground! The expansion in size had also made the turret bigger and thus easier to hit. There were also some problems with the mantlet design, as it direct the enemy’s projectiles down wards straight through the thin armour to the radio compartment. The Panther was equipped with a 75 mm Kw.K 42 L/70 high-velocity gun. The high-velocity meant that the projectile could be fired with a flat trajectory and thus hitting, for example, the enemy’s tanks was easier. The gun was designed extremely effective to encounter the numerical superiority of the enemy.
Figure 1 shows the technical data of the T-34 and the Panther. I have used late versions of the tanks because their designs has been affected by the combat experiences and thus the values found in Figure 1 are the optimum figures for the tanks.
Figure 1: The technical details of the T-34/76 and Panther Ausf. G
The combat history of the T-34 starts from the beginning of the German operation “Barbarossa”, on 22 June 1941. At that time 1225 tanks were ready and 967 of them had been delivered to the units. The Germans began encountering T-34 tanks from the first day of the campaign. The tanks came as a great shock to them. A German anti-tank crew reported: “Half a dozen anti-tank guns fire at the T-34, which sounds like a drum-roll. But he drives staunchly through our lines like an impregnable prehistoric monster.” The projectiles of the German 37 mm anti-tank guns simply bounced off T-34’s thick and sloped armour. Anti-tank forces reported that they had hit a T-34 from 20 meters without any noticeable effect. The T-34 tanks could only stopped by Ju-87 Stuka dive-bombers or by the legendary 88 mm anti-aircraft gun. However, the backbone of the German anti-tank forces was the 37 mm anti-tank and it was useless at distances over 200 meters. The “tank-terror” spread also to the German armoured forces. A PzKpfw III crew reported that they had been constantly firing the T-34 but “the projectiles did not penetrate but sprayed off the side”. A German tank officer from Pz.Abt.4 wrote: “Time and time again our tanks have been split right open by frontal hits. The commander’s cupolas on the PzKpfw III and PzKpfw IV have been completely blown off… It is also proof of the great accuracy and penetration of the Russian T-34’s 76,2 mm gun…”9
Even if the T-34’s appearance was decisive in the beginning of the campaign, it was in the hard, cold fall and winter that the T-34 made its impression. Even the worst conditions didn’t stop the T-34. The German tank crews looked on in astonishment when the T-34 manoeuvred through snow and ice – the Germans could hardly start their engines. The T-34 was equipped with wide tracks and together with its light weight moving in snow became easier. For extreme conditions the tanks were equipped with track attachments that worked like spike tyres of a car on a frozen ground. If the tank was stalled in slough, the crews tied logs to the tracks so that the tank could get away. In the driver’s hatchet there were bottles of compressed air that were used to start the diesel engine in the cold weather.
A question rises: How is it possible that even if the Red Army had a tank like the T-34 the German invasion couldn’t be stopped? It is important to look at the overall war situation as well and not just the manoeuvres of single tanks groups. Stalin’s purges in the thirties had eliminated all the leaders of the army. Thus the leaders and commanders were at the beginning of the war young and inexperienced. Because of this huge amounts of tanks were lost and destroyed because of the poor strategies. Also the crews were badly trained – some didn’t have any training at all. Nobody had been training with the T-34 before the war and so all the training was given in the beginning at the front. Men went to battle with 3 to 5 hours experiences! Tanks were lost also due to technical problems and the frequent German air attacks, as the Russians didn’t have any air support. Also the co-operation with the artillery was in the beginning in bad state.
For the first time the Panther took a part in action during the operation “Zitadelle” in Kursk region on July 5th 1943. Even if the Panther was suffering of many technical problems, the soldiers were enthusiastic about the Panther’s gun. The majority of the enemy tanks were taken at a distance of 1500 to 2000 meters. A Soviet radio message from 8th July 1943: “Enemy introduced a new tank! Shape roughly to 'Tridsatchedverka' (T-34). Tank is heavily armoured, weight is est. 40-50 tons. Armament is probably 88mm AA gun. We had losses at combat ranges beyond 2,000m. ..." Like the Germans had planned, the Panther was equipped with a very effective gun. Also the armour of the Panther outmatched its enemies. Figure 2 presents the ranges from where the Panther could penetrate the armour of its main opponents, the T-34/85 and Sherman A4 and Figure 3 the ranges where Panther’s armour could be penetrated.
Figure 2: Panther’s penetration ranges Figure 3: T-34/85’s and Sherman A4’s penetration ranges
As it can be seen, the Panther was equipped with more powerful and thus more effective gun than its main enemies. This is also well described by the thumb rule that was used at the fronts: Destroying one Panther cost five Sherman tanks or 9 T-34 tanks.10 During the war the Panther was found to be a very reliable tank. When the tanks broke down there were recovery vehicles and spare parts available so the remaining technical problems were dealt with a well working repairing and supply system. The most famous panzer aces made their best records with the Panther. One of them, SS-Oberscharführer Ernst Barkmann, with his sole Panther knocked out nine American M4 Shermans before withdrawing. These actions quickly proved the success of the Panther design. Even if there were more powerful and better protected tanks at the fronts, Tiger for example, the Panther kept its place. Namely, it was almost an ideal balance between armour, speed, weight and firepower. Many modifications were done on the Panther during the war. Some special features were the extra equipment designed for the tank. Some of the tanks had a Zimmerit coating on themselves. The coating designed to prevent the use of magnetic mines. On the Western front some tanks used an infrared scope. With this equipment attacks during the night could be done.
Not was the Panther tank of the best quality but also its crew – at least when compared to their Russian colleagues. The first Panther came out in early 1943 but the tank didn’t take a part in action until July 1943. During this 6 months period the crew was given training with the tank. Besides the Panther training the crews had already fought in Poland and France and thus were used to tank combat. The commanders of the German tank armies were also very experienced. This was proven in the beginning of the operation “Barbarossa”. Even if the Germans were outmatched by the level Russian equipment, by using clever strategies and tactics the Russians could often be beaten. The well trained crew and commanders brought the efficiency of the Panther up to maximum where as the T-34’s combat history was made pathetic due to inexperienced crews.
My research question was: “What was the best tank of the Second World War – the T-34 or the Panther?” As I predicted, the answering of this question is very hard. Namely, the tanks weren’t the products of the same time. The Panther was actually made after the T-34. If the question is answered by solely looking at the effectiveness of the tanks the answer is definitely the Panther. It was far more advanced and had more firepower than the T-34. However, T-34 based Red Army defeated the German army due to a high number of T-34 tanks. It can be said that from the production’s view point the T-34 was better than Panther due to its simpler and cheaper design. If the design works of the two tanks are compared it can be seen that the Panther was developed much faster. However, the Russian engineers resulted in designing a tank that turned a new page in the history of tank design. The designs can also be compared by looking how they could be used in further development. The Panther was used in constructing the Jagd Panther and the King Tiger. Only sketches for Panther II were made. Then again, the T-34 design lives still today. Many nations base their armies on the Russian T-72 medium tank that origins in T-34. Also in the self-propelling guns, SU-series, was the design of the T-34 used. As a conclusion it can be said that the T-34 was the best tank of the whole war. During its own time it was superior against its enemies and even if the design got old the lack in quality could be replaced by the huge quantity and the new tanks models that had been inspired by the T-34 design.
Bruce Culver: ”Panther in Action”. Squadron / Signal Publications, 1975.
Hilary Doyle, Tom Jentz: “Panther Variants 1942-1945”. Osprey Publishing, 1997.
John Keegan: “World War II Visual Encyclopedia”. Parkgate Books Ltd, 1999.
Steven Zaloga, James Grandsen: “T-34 in Action”. Squadron / Signal Publications, 1983.
Steve Zaloga, Peter Sarson: “T/34-76 Medium Tank 1941-1945”. Osprey Publishing, 1994.
“Pienoismalli” magazine, issue 2/98. Hobby-Kustannus Oy, 1998.
“Pienoismalli” magazine, issue 3/98. Hobby-Kustannus Oy, 1998.
Tamiya 1/35 Military Miniature Series: T-34/76 Russian Tank, 1943 Production Model. Item 35059.
Tamiya 1/35 Military Miniature Series: Panzer Kampwagen V (sd.kfz171) Ausführun 9A. Item 35065.
 Steven Zaloga, James Grandsen
 Bruce Culver
 “Pienoismalli” 2/98
 John Keegan
 Tamiya 1/35 Military Miniature Series
5 Steven Zaloga, James Grandsen
Hilary Doyle, Tom Jentz
 Steve Zaloga, Peter Sarson
 Steve Zaloga, Peter Sarson
9 Steve Zaloga, Peter Sarson
 Steve Zaloga, Peter Sarson
 John Keegan
16 Steve Zaloga, Peter Sarson