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Driving the T-34

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Vadim Elistratov is a renowned restorer of armoured vehicles, and has extensive experience in driving the tanks he and his group restores. In a recent interview with TacticMedia he recounts the experience of driving a T-34 tank.

"When I first sat behind the levers of a T-34 tank I was on pins and needles. It so happened that first first tanks I drove were light tanks. They're closer to cars. Trucks, of course, but still easier to drive. Here you sit, start the engine, everything roars. The levers are heavy, the pedals are large, it's a beast, the feeling is completely different. You start to move and to turn, the levers are heavy to operate especially when turning in mud. If you try to drive it like a German tank, it won't work. You need to get used to this tank. The T-34 loves speed, unlike German tanks, not Tigers or Panthers, but ones at the start of the war. Few of them allow for maneuvers. Sure, they can do a sprint from one point to another, but they needed to get a running start. The T-34's engine and correctly chosen transmission and weight distribution allowed it to get up to speed from standstill in second gear without any problems, it just jumps and accelerates, a very dynamic vehicle that allows you to make rapid maneuvers such as turns. A tactic like driving in a zig-zag is a very normal technique. No other tank of the period in the whole world could do this. The planetary turning mechanism is a nice thing, it lets you turn in mud and at high speed more confidently, but the T-34 was a descendant of the BT. The BT's smooth tracks and powerful engine let you perform these maneuvers, but you need to be a skilled driver. Some time later when I understood the tank I could easily do this too. On concrete you can spin and turn 90 degrees on a T-34 without problems. On dirt or in mud it's harder to do this, but on concrete it's really easy.  I think this was a training exercise. You need to feel the tank, to understand it.

Again, if you talk about the T-34's mobility, let's take soldiers' nicknames. They don't happen for no reason. The T-34 was called "swallow", "ballerina", the Finns nicknamed it "sotkat", it's a kind of bird they have. It's a very mobile vehicle, especially the early type that I drove. Its mobility is incomparable to other tanks of the period. Sure, the suspension is simpler, the controls are simpler, nothing special. Our designers of course tried their best to reduce the force on the levers and pedals, there are springs and servos that help with it, but the vehicle is heavy to turn. When you turn in mud you can get into a position where you have to turn the tank by grasping the lever with both hands. Pull the lever and also push on the gas, it's a full body motion. You need to get used to it. When you got used to it, it works well, it's a very mobile, very maneuverable vehicle, the Germans noted this in 1941. However, there is the nuance I mentioned. The T-34 can drive in a zigzag but it has weak grousing action. It's a little better on later tracks when ground pressure increased and they sank into the ground more so they hold on more confidently. On early ones the wide tracks work very well in snow, incredibly well. It packs the snow down and drives through snow banks like on a road. Not so much with the later tanks, they fall through."


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