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The Myth of the Disposable T-34

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This is a claim that I'm sure many of my readers have seen. It's usually worded something like "the lifespan of a T-34 tank on the battlefield was X hours, so the Soviets saw no reason to produce a tank that lasted X+1 hours". The number varies, but the sentiment is generally the same slight rewording of the "human waves" myth, pushing a narrative of disposable soldiers with disposable weapons sent to die in incredible numbers. However, one would consider it strange that an army whose main breakthrough exploitation tank was so short-lived would not only survive in a war characterized by long and deep armoured thrusts measuring hundreds of kilometers, but excel in it. Even a brief glance at contemporary documents demonstrates that reliability was always an important component of Soviet tank manufacturing.

Let us begin at the beginning, before there was even such a thing as a T-34. When it was discovered that the A-32 chassis was capable of carrying additional weight, the first trials were performed were reliability trials. The A-32 with the additional weight was subjected to a 1230 km march in addition to off-road mobility trials specifically to determine how the extra armour that was planned would impact the function of the tank's mechanisms. 1230 km already sounds like a lot for a "disposable" tank, but this was much less than 3000 km covered by the first A-32 in prior trials. The A-20 was also no slouch, having travelled 4200 km.

As the T-34 evolved into the tank we know today through 1940, reliability of new components was constantly being tested. The V-2 engine, its warranty period set at 150 hours, was tested in a BT-7M tank over a 2050 km march in May. Meanwhile, the T-34 was breaking in its new Hadfield steel tracks links on a variety of surfaces, including the toughest challenge a tank's tracks can face: cobblestones highways. After the 417 km mark was reached, the track links were examined carefully, wear was measured and found that the track lifespan could be improved. Findings were sent to scientists, and the trials continued, since the tracks were still in usable condition. If the tank was simply expected to drive a short into battle and die, there would be no point in putting in any of this work.

When trials of three production T-34 tanks were held at the end of 1940, the engines had finally met their warranty period requirement, but this was no longer enough for the army. A new 250 hour warranty period was now required. Increasing the tank's reliability to new heights was one of the dominant themes of the entire report.

Work continued throughout 1940. Towards the end of the year, the Committee of Defense gave their requirements for reliability in the new generation of tanks: 7000 km of driving or 600 engine-hours in between major repairs. Considering that this kind of reliability was not reached until long after the war, the technical know-how of the committee members may have been lacking, but it was quite clear that the government wanted a reliable tank, not a disposable one.

Unfortunately, as the tanks were prioritized for the army, it was harder and harder to get one's hands on a tank that could be driven to death so that a post-mortem may reveal why it broke down. A plea from factory #75 director Kochetkov shortly before the outbreak of hostilities is rather illuminating about two things: the factory's desire to increase reliability and the expected lifespan for the V-2 engine (150-200 hours) by the summer of 1941.

With the start of the war, the situation naturally worsened. As production was affected by the departure of skilled workers and evacuation of factories, the lifespan of components, specifically the engine, decreased to 100 hours. 100 hours is not that bad of a warranty period, especially considering that's how much Americans were getting out of their R-975 engines in training conditions, but what is made even more clear from the document is that the tanks are clearly lasting longer than their engines. 

As the war went on, the amount of service expected out of every vehicle was not reduced, but increased. For instance, a new gearbox developed in 1942 was put through 3700 km trials, tires made in 1943 were put through 2000+ km trials. When reliability issues cropped up, such as with experimental tracks, these issues were quickly addressed. By 1945 the requirement for the lifespan of track links, an expendable and rather easily replaceable component of the tank, was increased to 1500 km. Similarly, the warranty period of the engine was increased to 250 hours. Recall that this is the warranty period, not the maximum or even average lifespan. The average lifespan by this point in the war was 250-300 engine hours with individual tanks lasting for even longer. Starshina Kharitonov's tank, for instance, surpassed his warranty period by at least 400 km. Senior Sergeant Russkih's tank fought for over 305 hours. Guards Senior Lieutenant Skvortsov's tank gave out at 308 hours. Guards Starshina Perederiy drove one tank for an impressive 370 hours and then 310 hours with no breakdowns in a different tank. These are just a handful of stories.

Being able to drive for thousands of kilometers and hundreds of hours is certainly not the sign of an expendable tank. The government's demand for reliable tanks, the industry's ability to provide them, and the army's ability to put them to good use is evident in contemporary documents.


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