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Was the T-26 a match for the Panzer II,III, and IV in the early stages of Barbarossa?

The T-34 has been given a lot of credit as the tipping point where Soviet technology created a weapons platform that was as good as if not better than Wehrmacht armor, but how much of the hype is true?

I understand that you can approach this from a purely technical perspective (based on armor, armament, deflective armor, did it have radio communication, etc.) But I'm interested in considering armored doctrine a factor as well.

I want to compare unit for unit parity, let's say at the platoon or company level.

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4 Answers 4

You cannot consider quality without considering quantity. The both sides had very powerful designs, but such designs were produced in smaller numbers compared to the most produced models.

For example, a heavy tank will always beat a medium tank. The T-34 is a medium tank, so qualitatively it is inferior to the heavy tanks. On the other hand, it was produced in large numbers.

By the start of the war the USSR had three heavy tank designs: T-35, KV-1 and KV-2. At that point Germany had no heavy tanks at all. So, qualitatively, the USSR had superiority from the start.

There are multiple stories where one KV-2 could stop advance of whole German units for days until the tank had all their ammo spent. At one instance the Germans managed to destroy the tank only by putting an explosive under it at night when the crew was sleeping.

At the time no German tank could do anything to KV-2 and the only ways to combat them were either using anti-air guns or calling the bombers.

It is often claimed that KV-2 with its 152 mm gun was the most power tank of WW2. Its disadvantages were unreliable transmission, large crew of 6 people and the cost of production.

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At one instance the Germans managed to destroy the tank I know that story, I had a link to an excellent WWII website, but have lost it. Will try to dig it up. –  astabada Feb 14 at 8:34
    
The Char B2 was likewise unbeatable by German armor - but unlike the French, the Russians built a whole bunch of heavy and medium-heavy tanks, and knew how to deploy them for effect. –  RI Swamp Yankee Feb 14 at 20:13
    
Good answer but needs sources! –  DVK Feb 15 at 3:20

This is quite contentious due to the design aims of each tank and, more importantly, doctrine of each country. The T-34 was designed as a cheap, easy-to-make tank which can be mass produced quickly and cheaply. German tanks on the other hand have complex engineering which makes them qualitatively superior but also much harder to produce.

However, if there is any Soviet tank which can stand toe-to-toe against the Germans, it would be the IS-2, which was in many ways superior (and inferior) to the German Panther.

EDIT:: I have no authority on doctrine and a comparison unit-by-unit, but I hope this gives you an overview on the technicals.

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?superior and inferior? –  Mark C. Wallace Feb 13 at 16:13
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@MarkC.Wallace for example the Panther is faster, has a better suspension and its gun is easier to load. The IS-2's gun has better armor penetration, and a very effective HE shell, whilst the tank has more armor as well. –  BobTheBuilder Feb 13 at 16:18
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I think the question is asking about the armored units (divisions, regiments, etc.) in the field, not the individual pieces of equipment they theoretically had access to. –  T.E.D. Feb 13 at 18:16
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@T.E.D. that's impossible to measure. One unit can be at 100% readiness while another has all its machines stalled for lack of spare parts or fuel. Look at the Ardennes, German forces started with full combat readiness in their armoured columns, easily beating anything in their path. But after a few days that fuel ran out and they ground to a halt, sitting ducks for anyone with a bazooka or sticky mine. Same on the eastern front. Some Panzer units were very much active up to the bitter end, others were bogged down in mud, ill repair, and out of fuel early on. –  jwenting Feb 14 at 7:38

Your question has two parts.

Firstly, to address the issue from a purely equipment point of view.

The short answer is purely on "qualitative parity" the Russians had this in 1941 but once the Panther and then Tiger entered service, they lost it and never regained it. I will elaborate.

I will mainly concentrate on medium tanks as that is largely what decided the war from an armoured point of view.

At the start of the war, the German tanks weren't particularly strong, but the way they were organised was key to early victories. By having large numbers of tanks concentrated together, with support from the Ju 87 Stuka in particular, they were able to use Blitzkrieg tactics to great effect.

However, where they met enemy armour in any numbers they did struggle, the Battle for Arras is a good example.

http://www.tanks.net/tank-battles/world-war-ii-battle-of-arras.html

The Germans had to use Flak guns to counter the Matilda Mark II tanks of the British forces as the Panzer I and II could not penetrate their armour. The French Char I was also more than a match for the Germans in a one-on-one fight but the Germans usually had such a numerical advantage that they were able to quickly defeat France in 1940.

In the early stages of Barbarossa, the Russians had access to a few T-34s that were superior to anything Germany had. The Panzer IV (best available German tank at the time) was a fairly good tank but older in design than the T-34 which had sloped armour, better mobility, more powerful gun etc.

At the start of Barbarossa there were around 1,000 T-34s in service although a lot of these had fairly inexperienced crews as they were a new type and the 3,300 or so German tanks were able to deal with them although they did have some trouble. This is a quote from the 2nd day of Barbarossa from a German battle report:

Half a dozen anti-tank guns fire shells at him [a T-34], which sound like a drumroll. But he drives staunchly through our line like an impregnable prehistoric monster... It is remarkable that lieutenant Steup's tank made hits on a T-34, once at about 20 meters and four times at 50 meters, with Panzergranate 40 (caliber 5 cm),[nb 1] without any noticeable effect.

— German battle report, Finkel [5]

As the T-34 became more numerous and the crews more battle hardened, Germany realised they would need a new type to counter this opponent.

The Panther entered service in 1943 and was intended to counter the T-34. In many ways the Panther was superior to the T-34 but it was less reliable (largely due to being very complex) and also cost a lot more to build - figures vary but it is generally accepted that the Panther cost about 3 times as much as the T-34. For this reason only 6,000 Panthers entered service during the 1943-1945 period compared to 16,000 T-34s in 1943 alone!

On a one on one fight, the Panther was more than a match for the T-34 but the Russians usually outnumbered the German tanks by some margin.

Panther had better armour, up to 120mm compared to 60mm for the T-34, more effective main gun (both had around 75mm but the Germans had better systems), speed was similar but the Panther had better suspension so that made targeting easier. The Panther was also bigger at 44 tonnes compared to just 26 for the T-34 so it's almost a heavy tank versus a medium tank, no competition really especially when you consider the Panther was newer and designed primarily to be a T-34 beater.

The Germans also developed the Tiger (I) tank around the same time to counter the T-34 and the Russian heavy tank the KV I.

Only 1,300 or so were built in the entire war and so its effect was dubious as the quantities were simply nowhere near enough to counter the Russians with their tens of thousands of T-34s and 5,000 or so KV1s.

The Germans repeated the mistakes they made with the Panther and ended up with a very expensive, hard to maintain and comparatively unreliable tank.

The Tiger was more powerful even than the Panther but at 56 tonnes you are entering the realms of heavy tanks and the ground war was decided primarily by medium tanks.

The Battle of Kursk is generally regarded as key to the Eastern Front and the turning point where Russia took the initiative:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Battle_of_Kursk

Germany only had 200 or so Panther tanks available from a total of 3,000 tanks to the Russians 5,000 total, largely T-34s. The result was a loss of 1,500 tanks to the Germans and 1,800 for Russia. So, despite losing the battle the German tanks were able to inflict more casualties than they lost, perhaps proving they were stronger on a per tank basis, but superior enemy numbers was decisive.

On to the second part of my answer, organisation.

The Germans organised their tanks into large groups from the start of the war and used Blitzkrieg tactics, using airpower to support the tanks. This allowed for quick victories early in the war as the defenders tended to deploy their armour in more "piecemeal" fashion.

Russia didn't do this however, but the Russian army was in a bad state at the onset of Barbarossa for a variety of reasons including Stalin's purges that had killed off a lot of their best commanders, lack of training, poor supply etc.

It took Russia a while to reorganise themselves on the German model and once they had done this, couple with their plentiful armour, they were able to drive the Germans back, regardless of their inferior (in a one-on-one fight) armour.

To summarise, Russia won the armoured battle due to having more numerous, more reliable equipment, modelled into units along the lines of how the German's had deployed their own forces, ie in large groups with armour of prime importance.

Had Germany built something along the lines of a slimmed down Panther that was simpler, cheaper and more reliable, they may have been able to produce them in sufficient numbers to change the outcome. But that's a slim chance.

Finally, interesting point of view regards the T-34:

http://chris-intel-corner.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/wwii-myths-t-34-best-tank-of-war.html

Another interesting article:

https://elanaiba.wordpress.com/2012/08/05/tanks-mobility-t-34-vs-panther-or-the-failure-of-statistical-comparison/

I haven't referenced everything I've posted as it would be a mess of links to Wikipedia, but feel free to search yourself!

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"Finally, interesting point of view regards the T-34:" – amateurish point of view, a lot of factual errors –  spyder Feb 20 at 5:29

The T-34 tank was far superior to any tank the Germans had on line in 1941. Bigger gun, better armor by far, and so on. The T-26 was inferior, or on a par.

But your question asks about units. German armored units were able to often beat equivalently sized Soviet units even in 1945. Therefore the Soviets created more units, moved them to areas where German armor was missing, and pressed on over wide fronts so that local successes by a Panzer division would be compromised by units on the flanks moving on.

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This seems a good answer, but I'd rather see some references before upvoting :) –  astabada Feb 14 at 8:35
    
Any history of the East Front is full of references of isolated German armor attacks making headway against large forces, all the way to Budapest in 1945. The difference was that these attacks could no longer restore the initial state before the Soviet offensive, and then the Panzers had to rush off to address another attack elsewhere. –  Oldcat Feb 14 at 23:06

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