In Russia, the blockbuster film “T34” is crushing box-office records under its whirling treads, while in a unique purchase, Moscow has acquired 34 of the iconic, World War II-era tanks from the Laotian Army to boost parade forces and film studios’ prop departments.
Both moves look set to reaffirm the T34’s status as a weapon that was as iconic to World War II-era Soviets as the ubiquitous Kalashnikov assault rifle is to today’s Russians.
With President Vladimir Putin’s government spending big on new weapons systems and engaging in military adventures in the Ukraine and Syria, while instilling a spirit of patriotism nationwide, the Kremlin’s 21st-century reverence for a 1940s tank is understandable.
Why so? Because the T34 was, arguably, the most critical land weapon in the greatest war ever fought by mankind.
Battle blockbuster, vintage purchase
A state-funded film set in the darkest hours of what Russians call “The Great Patriotic War,” “T34” did record business on its opening weekend in the Russian market in December, earning 713 million rubles ($10.6 million). The movie has reportedly been sold to countries worldwide, including France, South Korea and the UK.
“T34” features a group of Red Army POWs who are compelled by the SS to crew a captured Russian tank for German target practice. Naturally, they not only outwit their captors, but also battle their way out of Nazi captivity.
While the plot may appear to be hokum, it could, feasibly, have been inspired by one of the most extraordinary true stories of World War II: That of Soviet POW Mikhail Devyataev, who escaped German captivity by flying east in a captured German aircraft.
And though the movie’s characters are clearly fictitious, its central star – the T34 – was very real. Its centrality to modern Russian history is reflected in a highly unusual purchase Moscow has just made.
Deal with Laos
It was reported last week that Russia had acquired 34 working T34s from the Laotian Army, with the Russian Defense Ministry stating that they will be used in both parades and movies. Pictures have emerged online of the venerable vehicles being loaded onto a ship in a port in Vietnam, and the Russian Defense Ministry’s TV channel said the tanks had arrived in Vladivostok on January 9.
Reports suggest that the deal may include Russia supplying cash-strapped Laos with more modern and advanced T72 tanks as part of a bilateral swap deal which could also involve other items.
Laos may be the last army in the world fielding the veteran tank that first appeared in 1940. During World War II, Soviet-crewed T34s saw action from as far west as Berlin to as far east as Manchuria.
Sub-titled trailer for Russian blockbuster “T34.” Film: YouTube
Greatest weapon of WWII?
While Hollywood never got the message, it is widely acknowledged among military historians that the Eastern Front was the deadliest theater of World War II.
In his controversial, prize-winning novel “The Kindly Ones” – praised by mainstream historians such as Anthony Beevor for its veracity – author Jonathon Littel does the grisly arithmetic. The fighting in the east consumed, “…783 dead per hour, 13.04 dead per minute, every minute of every hour of every day of every month of every year of the given period, which is…3 years, 10 months, 16 days, 20 hours and 1 minute.”
While the Western Allies dominated the air and the sea, it was the Red Army that crushed Germany – a continental power – on land. Casualty figures are telling. Military historian Max Hastings, in his Foreword to Willy Reese’s “A Stranger to Myself,” notes that while the Western allies killed some 200,000 German troops, the Soviets killed almost 4 million. The blood price was colossal: Some 26 million Soviet citizens perished.
Arguably the most important weapon the Soviets deployed in this titanic struggle was the T34 – for if World War I was the war of the trench, World War II was the war of the tank.
Only in Normandy and the Battle of the Bulge, both in 1944, did the Western Allies face Hitler’s main armored force. Throughout most of World War II, the bulk of Hitler’s Panzers were deployed against the USSR in battles like Kiev, Kharkov, Kursk, Operation Bagration (“the destruction of Army Group Center”) and Lake Balaton (the Wehrmacht’s last offensive of the war).
Combined arms maneuver warfare, with the tank as its centerpiece, was pioneered by Nazi Germany. Germany’s Panzer arm was designed to generate fast victories, obviating the manpower-centric war of attrition it had lost in 1914-18. However, once the early “Blitzkrieg” victories had passed and Germany’s enemies realized the centrality of armored combat, the war changed to a struggle of tank attrition.
Tanks were particularly critical for Germany, which used its Panzer divisions to spearhead its offensives, then as “fire brigades” on the defensive. Given the short lifespan of tanks in combat, victory, to a large part, would go to the nation that could produce and crew the most tanks.
That winner was the USSR. Germany produced less than 2,000 of its famed Tiger and King Tiger heavy tanks, and approximately 6,000 Panther medium tanks. (A Panther is manned by the villains in “T34.”) Russia produced a staggering 58,000 medium T34s – seen as equal to or superior to all German models, bar the Panthers and Tigers.
German tanks were over-priced and over-engineered; simplicity of design (however crude) enabled ease of production for the T34.
“Does this make it the critical tank to the Soviet victory on the Eastern Front? Yes. No other tank was fielded by the Red Army in greater numbers,” Will Kerrs, co-author of the upcoming “The T-34 Continuum” told Asia Times by email.
But that was just one of the T34’s winning qualities. As Kerr notes, the T34 was a “sweet spot” between speed of production and design.
It scores well on the holy trinity of tank metrics: protection, firepower and mobility. The T34’s sloping armor helped deflect hits. Its US-designed Christie suspension system offered cross-country agility. Its wide tracks enabled mobility in snow and mud. The high-velocity 85mm gun of mid-war T34’s was a killer. And its engine was easy to maintain.
Naturally, it was not perfect. Early models were unreliable; its gearbox was hellish to operate, it was uncomfortable to crew, and its gun and optics were never as good as German equivalents.
Even so, it is demonstrative of the T34’s excellence that Germany’s Panther, and later, King Tiger, copied its sloping armor and broad treads. But in terms of numbers, the Germans never had a prayer of catching up with Russia’s T34 fleet.
Given all this, it seems unreasonable to single out the T34’s Christie suspension system as the signal issue in its success, as my Asia Times colleague Stephen Bryen did in a recent feature. (Kerrs’ co-author, Francis Pulham, in fact, suggests that the T34’s suspension reduced internal crew space – a significant drawback.)
And given that World War II potboilers like “Fury,” “Pearl Harbor” and “Battle of the Bulge,” are examples of neither historical nor engineering accuracy, it seems odd to suggest – as Bryen does – that “T34” should acknowledge the American engineer of its suspension.
The T34 boasted true longevity: its combat duties did not end with World War II. T34 tanks spearheaded North Korea’s 1950 invasion of South Korea; Cuban troops deployed them to counter the Bay of Pigs invasion and in various Africa interventions; Chinese copies of the T34 were used during the Vietnam War; and a T34 has reportedly been seen in recent fighting in Yemen.
In its birthplace – as noted by the Laotian deal and the “T34” movie – the veteran beast remains central to Russia’s view of World War II.
This writer had the opportunity to view the parade that wound through the Russian city of Chelyabinsk in 2015 on the 60thanniversary of the conclusion of WWII. The formerly secret city, once dubbed “Tankograd” lies between the Urals and Siberia. During the war, it was the USSR’s key weapons production location.
While rocket launchers, artillery pieces and trucks rolled through the streets, the biggest applause was reserved for the T34.
– AT’s Northeast Asia editor Andrew Salmon is also an award-winning military historian, author of “To the Last Round,” and “Scorched Earth, Black Snow.”